Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Amistad: At Last, Melody

And here we are, finally arriving at John Williams. For most people, if they know the name of one film composer, it's Mr. Williams. He's justly famous for the many, many indelible scores he's contributed to the genre, and for his general influence on popular culture.

In fact, his music is probably even more ubiquitous than you suspect. Beyond Jaws and Star Wars and Indiana Jones, he's contributed music to several Olympic games, as I've mentioned before and will again, and composed a new chamber piece for the inauguration of President Obama. He even wrote the theme music for NBC Nightly News that's been in use since 1985! It's called "The Mission" (not to be confused with Ennio Morricone's score to the 1986 film The Mission, or even a wonderful episode of Spielberg's unjustly forgotten TV series Amazing Stories called "The Mission."). Yeah, he can even make a TV news broadcast sound like an epic adventure.

I probably own more film music by Williams than by anyone else, though I haven't subjected that claim to serious scrutiny in several years. There was a time in the mid-90s when I just worshipped John Williams and figured he could do no wrong, so I bought a lot of his stuff. The only reason one of his scores hasn't appeared sooner in this blog is that I don't happen to own the scores to A.I. Artificial Intelligence (great music, but much of it is just too heartbreaking for repeat listening) or Always (remember this one? I didn't think so). Once, when I was a freshman in college (circa 1997), I even expressed to my friend Melanie that I thought he was the greatest composer of the 20th century. Melanie was already an accomplished violinist at age 18, starting a music major at Indiana University, and has likely forgotten more about music than I will ever know. She disagreed with me about as graciously as I imagine anyone could, given such a patently ignorant assertion to shoot down.

My musical palate is somewhat more sophisticated now, and I can place Mr. Williams in a much more realistic context of the whole universe of composers of both film and concert music. Nonetheless, Amistad came along roughly in the prime time of my musical idolatry (in fact, it was the very year I made that assertion) so I picked up this soundtrack.

Over the course of their collaboration, John Williams and Steven Spielberg have aged together like fine wines, and it's fascinating to track their progress as individuals and partners through those years. At any rate, some years of that collaboration created better vintages than others, and 1997 was an odd one.

The '90s were when Spielberg started deliberately making Very Important Films, but still kept one foot solidly in the blockbuster genre. In no year was this better demonstrated than in 1993, when the crushing, beautiful Schindler's List came hot on the heels of the jaw-dropping beasties of Jurassic Park. Between those two films' scores you get every kind of Williams you could hope for, from the gee-whiz grandeur and scary action of JP to the restrained and haunting solo violin of Schindler. Williams' score for Schindler's List won the Oscar, and if Jurassic Park had come along any other year but that, it probably would have been nominated as well. 1997 was a strange mirror image of that year, when Spielberg repeated with the duo of The Lost World and Amistad. Another summer blockbuster/Very Important Film one-two punch, with somewhat less success on both counts.

It is perhaps telling that both of these 1997 scores are currently out of print (or at least not currently in stock at amazon.com), while Schindler and Jurassic Park are readily available, and even though Amistad received (another) Oscar nomination for Best Original Score. For my own part, I haven't even tried to sit through all of the ill-conceived Lost World yet, and Amistad is pretty good, but not among Spielberg's best films, nor one that demands much repeat viewing.

So, what about the actual music, Brian? Well, like the film, it's a curious balancing act. Spielberg's film is really more about America than it is about the revolt and subsequent trial of the West African people on the titular slave ship, and their leader, Cinque. The story deliberately ties together figures that date from the nation's birth, i.e. John Quincy Adams, and those that would pave the road to the Civil War, like John C. Calhoun. Spielberg tries with varying success to frame the story in its larger American context, while delving into the horrors of the slave trade in Cinque's flashbacks. Likewise, Williams' score flips between exploring African themes and textures and reaching for a Copland-esque "American" sound with dignified horns and sonorous, but restrained strings.

The music actually does a much better job than the editing of the film in tying the whole enterprise together, since Williams has the freedom to interweave his musical themes and vary orchestration to bring together the foreign worlds of Cinque and America. There are extremes here, going from the dark, threatening chants of the brutal "Middle Passage" to the sober nobility of "Adams' Summation," and the "Liberation of Lomboko" cue feels as tacked-on in some ways as the unnecessary sequence in the film that it accompanies. Still, it's fair to say that Williams' music forms a kind of grout between the story components of the film.

I've read several reviews of both the film and the score to Amistad that are less than charitable in their judgment of Spielberg and Williams' tone here. More than a few of the Amistad reviews you can read at Rotten Tomatoes seem to feel that this score is over-the-top and emotionally manipulative. That's sometimes a fair criticism of Williams' work, but I just don't hear that in this score, besides perhaps the triumphant tone of the above-mentioned "Liberation of Lomboko" track -- in which Spielberg thought it fitting to include shots of a British naval vessel destroying a slavers' fortress, which is more or less totally unrelated to the main plot of the story. (Spielberg had an unfortunate habit for a while of tacking on totally unnecessary feel-good sequences to the end of every film.)

No, what I mainly recognize and appreciate about this score is Williams' traditionally grounded use of melody and rich symphonic sounds. After nearly a decade of film scores that drone and grate mostly in brooding minor keys, or provide little but rhythm and texture, hearing a John Williams score - of which there are fewer and fewer these days; he's pushing 80 after all - is a refreshing return to a symphonic tradition that actually makes for an enjoyable experience as music, apart from the film.

He may not be the greatest composer of the 20th century, but there's a good case to be made that Williams is indeed the greatest film composer of all time. We'll have plenty more chances to explore that, though.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Altered States: This is What Scary Music Sounds Like

At the end of my last post, I mentioned the curious Academy Award nomination for James Horner's Aliens. (As it turns out, Herbie Hancock won for best score that year.) Well, that ain't nothin' compared to the travesty that happened in 1981. More on that later.

For now, let's consider the marvelous piece of orchestral and cinematic insanity that is Altered States, delving deeply into the mind and primordial ur-being of a man relentlessly seeking a different experience of reality. It's one of those relatively rare instances of a composer who mostly works in the "classical" world of orchestral music coming over and scoring a film -- and it was an inspired choice in this case. I specifically waited to order this CD before going on with the blog, because I didn't want to leave out this masterpiece of (post?)modern, nerve-jangling, completely transformative music by John Corigliano. It's out of print, too, so it wasn't the usual two-day Amazon turnaround, either. I know you've just been on pins and needles waiting for this entry, too, haven't you?

My friend Richard introduced me to this film and music eight or nine years ago, and I haven't been quite the same since. If you're not famililar with the film, the first thing you need to know is that it's directed by Ken Russell. That goes a long way toward telling you what you're in for. Russell is a filmmaker who's totally unafraid to venture into risky, bizarre, outlandish territory, and happens to know quite a bit about music to boot. He's directed operas, music documentaries, and several biopics about famous composers, most notably about Mahler. According to the liner notes for Altered States album, Russell discovered John Corigliano at an LA Philharmonic performance of one of his pieces in 1979. Russell says:

Reading from my program that he was a contemporary composer I braced myself for thirty minutes of plinks and plunks that pass for music these days. I was in for a shock, a surprise, a revelation.
. . . .
If only he could compose the music for Altered States instead of some commercial Hollywood hack we directors are usually saddled with, I thought wistfully.

He got his wish. Altered States is one of just three film scores Corigliano has written. I have one of the others, The Red Violin, which in many ways could hardly be more different from what this disturbing score delivers. Richard knew I was interested in Corigliano because of his Red Violin score, and he had run into the composer himself at some point during his professional development - can't remember exactly how. (Yes, Richard, unlike myself, is a trained musician and composer, among his many other talents.)

Since I am assuredly not a trained musician, I can't hope to express in any useful way the structural and tonal sophistication of Corigliano's work for Altered States, except in very vague impressions. This is a score that perpetually keeps the listener off-balance but never loses its grip by delving too far into the atonal chaos that swirls around its melodic - dare I say, sometimes lyrical - core.

Those chaotic sounds have a lot in common with the kinds that audiences are used to hearing in many of the better thriller and horror scores: A throbbing, undulating miasma of dissonant strings, occasionally jarring electronic effects, harsh percussion intruments like ratchets. Many film composers will dip into this more modern, complex style of writing from time to time for dramatic effect, but seldom as the core of a score. John Williams, for example, excels at peppering his scores with these kinds of off-putting effects when he wants to punch up something scary, before returning to more familiar Romantic territory.

Corigliano's score, on the other hand, turns that model on its head. It lives in the unsettling, bizarre territory and hooks us in with occasional appeals to familiar melodic places we might rather go. Pretty appropriate for a film about a man venturing deep into the grip of mind-and-body-altering substances.

For example, in the first track, in the midst of swirling, menacing strings and low brass and oddly squawking woodwinds, a piano emerges playing a tune that could be derived directly from a Chopin nocturne. An especially rich, lyrical theme recurs throughout, a dramatic and romantic love theme that's featured most prominently in the tracks "Love Theme (natch, Track 2)" and "The Final Transformation (Track 9)."

Even in the grip of the chaos, though, Corigliano maintains a sense of melodic forward motion, even in the absence of anything a layman's ear (like mine) could pick out as a clear melody. It's not just a bloody mess, or deliberately ear-shattering noise. Within the swath of disturbing sonic soundscapes, Corigliano finds grandeur in deep, crashing chords and clear, lonely-sounding horns. It reminds me very much of the absolute apotheosis of rage he achieves in a non-film composition, the first movement of his Symphony #1 from 1990. Oddly enough - or perhaps perfectly naturally - that movement also features the eventual intrusion of a sentimental melody on a piano, played against the primal scream of the orchestra. I say "naturally," because Altered States itself seems like it would suit a contemporary concert hall just as well as a film. The only film composer I can think of who can spend as much time comfortably and competently exploring this dark territory is Howard Shore.

Despite the concert hall cred, Altered States clearly benefits from having this score specifically written for the film. When other contemporary non-film composers have their music used in films, for some reason, it seems simply to be appropriated and stuck in at moments that the director feels appropriate. Kubrick did this quite a lot, and other instances of it can be heard in works like There Will Be Blood, in which Arvo Pärt's "Fratres for Cello and Piano" makes a brief dramatic appearance in the midst of Jonny Greenwood's unconventional score. If you're going to use music by a living contemporary composer, why not try to get him to do something new for the film? Clearly it can work.

So, at the top I mentioned a travesty that happened at the Academy Awards in 1981. Travesties at the Oscars are nothing new or uncommon, but here's one that just boggles the mind. For the film scores of 1980, the nominations field included both Corigliano's Altered States and John Williams' score to The Empire Strikes Back -- which is perhaps the polar opposite of Altered States but still an indisputable masterpiece, a contender in my mind for the slot of Greatest Film Score of All Time. So, with two amazing powerhouse scores in contention, what score took home the Oscar?


That's all I have to say about that.