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Mailbag Response to Doug Adams' Hulk CD Review

...Followed By Doug Adams' Reply

In writing about Danny Elfman's Hulk music, Doug Adams cleared up a mystery for me. As a long time fan of film scores, I've been wondering lately where the distinctive melodies have gone. Now I know the melodies have receded to background because "this lends the writing an air of sophistication and maturity and effectively ups the ante on dramatic complextiy." Ah, for the days when film scores were unsophisticated, immature and dramatically simple. At least then, when you asked a friend if he'd heard the theme from Ben-Hur, The Magnificent Seven or Touch of Evil, and he hadn't, you could hum or whistle it to him. Now maybe Mr. Adams can explain all those damn pop songs we now have in movies instead of underscore.

Charles Christesson

Doug Adams replies:

Just because you don't enjoy a certain approach doesn't invalidate that approach. Like it or not, much of the music of the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries has moved melody into the background. Blame it on late Schoenberg and his Second Viennese School pals. Blame it on (some) Bartok. Or very late Stravinsky. Or early Penderecki. Maybe it was those foreign devils like Stockhausen or Varese. Or more recent perpetrators like Conlon Nancarrow, George Crumb, John Adams, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Terry Riley, Elliot Carter, Derek Bermel. Blame it on those crazy jazz musicians who stretched melody far past its traditional boundaries. And I'm talking about your basic Parkers and Gillespies here, we don't even need to look at Ornette Coleman or Sun Ra or people like that.

Film music isn't without blame either. Some of Herrmann's most famous works rely on purely textural colors. Many listeners, including myself, love Goldsmith best when he's dealing in the dense, multi-layered sound worlds of Planet of the Apes or Alien. Likewise with Alex North, who was alternately tender and brutal in works like Spartacus, Cleopatra and 2001, but seldom outwardly melodic.

Let's blame John Williams who entered the field of film music writing pointillist semi-serial scores for Irwin Allen productions and has since embedded this klangfarbenmelodie flavor into more recent works like Minority Report and, to a lesser extent, Attack of the Clones.

But you are correct. In the Hulk piece I did phrase the statement badly. And I was certainly showing my own biases. You've got me there. Straying from simple melodic forms is not inherently more sophisticated. Plenty of wonderful of composers still present melodies front and center. Despite his recent modern leanings, Williams is primarily a melodicist, in my opinion. And a wildly talented one at that. And we can't forget the Golden Age composers who blended European harmonies with American structures. Korngold, Steiner, and their ilk. And it goes on in our century's concert world. Corigliano, Kernis, Grainger, Golijov, Maw, recent Torke.

However, with Elfman in particular, his move away from long tunes has gone hand-in-hand with his developing sophistication. As it so happens, I was listening to Batman Returns just last night, one of his most melodically oriented scores. It's a good, solid score. Quite good for the most part. But it does lack the maturity of a Simple Plan, or Sleepy Hollow or even the Hulk -- which are each more unified in their timbres and more worldly in their influences. That doesn't mean it's less effective. I'm sure plenty of people prefer the former style. Heck, I still prefer Nightmare Before Christmas to Hulk, and it clearly features Elfman at his most melodic ever! But the latter is more detailed and complex, and, using those concepts as standard bearers, more mature.

Ultimately composers are using less melodic voices because directors and producers are asking them to. I don't know if it's a result of today's quicker editing, or a peripheral understanding or art trends, or a simple case of catering to an intangible vogue. In any case, I'm sorry that you find something lacking. Melody is but a single aspect of a composition and I'm pretty happy to see composers being allowed (or forced) to explore their options. Ultimately you're just getting a room full of people with noisemakers together, so why limit yourself in what can happen? Rest assured, the pendulum will swing back and big tunes will come back into favor. And yes, I'll probably complain that "Hey, where are all those great textural ideas composers used to develop!" And someone will be right to call me out on it.

Oh, and I've been whistling the six-chord sequence from Hulk all week. Pretty good tune.

Doug Adams

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