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FSM Forum: Issue Two

Film music is all about relationships. There are the relationships between the composer and the producers, the composer and the director, the composer and the scoring team. Relationships exist between the performing musicians, their sections and their ensemble. The music itself relates to the film's dialogue, sound effects and mix; to an internal sense of musical cohesion and structure; and to the drama. And yet, the paramount relationship in the process is between the makers and their audience.

Film Score Monthly exists in order to foster that relationship. Creators are allowed an environment for explaining their efforts, and the audience gains a forum to tell them what they think. But FSM has it own identity as well, and a series of behind-the-scenes relationships that ultimately result in our relationship with readers. We're an audience with an audience. For years we've asked composers to be brave and reveal their thoughts with the promise that the audience will then better understand their efforts. To be fair, we're turning that spotlight back on ourselves in this running series that is little more than the FSM crew sitting around talking film music. Self-important? Self-indulgent? Probably. But it's honest. This is who we are and this is how we talk. And this is what we care about.

So consider yourselves warned: This is not breaking news. This is not critical analysis. This is us squabbling, laughing, preaching, and teasing. This is us exercising our belief that the audience is a significant part of the creative equation.

You can revisit FSM Forum Issue One Here...

Doug Adams: Let's start this by discussing what readers complain about us for. This'll be a good one. I'm too specific with musical things.

Jon Kaplan: Okay, do you think that Doug Adams is too musical in his written discussions of film music?

Al Kaplan: No, I think someone needs to be.

JK: I think perhaps Doug is not musical enough.

AK: Really?

DA: In real life or in print?

JK: No, in writing. I think you make a constant effort to avoid talking specifically.

AK: You mean in interviews?

JK: Yes.

AK: Did you read that Thomas Newman interview [FSM Vol. 9, No. 1]?

DA: I got in trouble for that one.

JK: I sense you holding back. Like you've been scolded. When we talk to you, just talking, you'll say anything.

DA: [Laughs] Well, musically.

JK: Yeah. But that's okay, because there needs to be some kind of balance.

DA: I'm just trying to be cognizant of the fact that I'm not writing purely to musicians. Although, I guess I'm not very good at that anyway, because some of the stuff, like the Thomas Newman interview…

JK: The Thomas Newman interview wasn't so much talking about musicianship as recording techniques.

DA: But that's so important to what he does that it's hard to not talk about that.

JK: Oh no, no. It was terrific. But that was the complaint. I don't think it was that they didn't understand it, they just didn't give a s---. It seemed extraneous to them, but it's like half of what he's doing.

DA: Wow, that's heartbreaking…

JK: Don't be heartbroken. I wrote to you just to tell you I liked it.

DA: That was a pity vote, wasn't it?

AK / JK: No!

DA: You know, I never thought anything about it being too musical until I saw it show up on the message board.

AK: "That Doug Adams, he doesn't know when to shut his mouth."

DA: Even when I go back and read it now, it doesn't appear to be oddly overly musical to me.

JK: It doesn't. We would have to go through it now and see what the problem is if you wanted to really get into this. When you were in London, what did you talk about for the Return of the King sessions? You were just detailing what was going on and relating stories.

DA: Well, that one was specific because I wanted to save material for the book. [The upcoming The Music of the Lord of the Rings Films.]

JK: Right. Well, go back one further. What was the last one, not Thomas Newman, not Return of the King?

DA: This is going to be a bizarre article just talking about why people don't like me.

AK: Yeah, let's change the subject. Heard any good scores this year?

DA: [Laughs] Let's go back to Spider-man 2 a little bit. Here's the ultimate proof that we're wrong about the score-hacking mattering: No one's listening anyway. They couldn't find the theme in the first film.

AK: Yeah, Ford Thaxton [said he] couldn't.

JK: Do you really think that people can't find the theme, or do you think that they just don't like the theme so they say there's no theme?

DA: I think they couldn't find it. Because now they're saying, "Hey I really like it! Did you notice that one sounds like West Side Story?"

AK: What!?

JK: Wait, which one sounds like West Side Story?

DA: [Singing badly]: "…a time and place for us…"

JK: [Buries his face in his hands and screams loudly] AAAARRRRRGGGGHHHH! I want to see how you write out that scream.

DA: It's going to have a lot of "A"s and "H"s.

JK: But you should describe the way I bury my face in my hands. It's kind of guttural…

AK: I heard some "G"s in there.

JK: …It's muted because I'm covering my mouth completely so I don't hurt your ears.

DA: It's the Garfield scream.

AK: That did sound like the Garfield scream.

DA: Lorenzo Music, eat your heart out.

JK: I don't know if there was an "R." I guess it was close.

DA: Well, obviously I'll transcribe it so carefully that…

JK: So they really didn't hear any theme?

DA: They also said, "Oh you notice the Doc Ock theme!?" But of course I've never seen anyone mention the fact that the Green Goblin theme was in there because it was a reference to something that no one got the first time. Why do people not get those themes?

JK: I don't know if this has anything to do with it, but I think the mix was much better in this one.

AK: I thought the mix was alright in the first one.

JK: It was alright, but this was an excellent, excellent mix, with the exception of some of the action stuff -- which I was glad for -- like the train. But a lot of the dialogue scenes where it's totally muted in a lot of movies, like it's a radio in the background, it was really present for almost the whole movie in Spider-man 2. And I saw it in two different theaters, both the same.

DA: There were at least four themes that I can think of off the top of my head in Spider-man 1. Do you credit the mix for people missing the themes in Spider-man 1?

JK: It could be a factor. I would say it would be more likely if Spider-man had a bad mix, but it had a fairly normal mix. I don't know, maybe it's because they've seen it again. Now they've seen Spider-man 2 and there's that familiarity.

DA: But he used the theme 40 times in the first film, there should be some familiarity by act three.

JK: Some people it takes four times. One, for some people. Some people maybe it's really 80. Is that possible?

DA: Yes, it's possible, it's just depressing.

AK: There are people who can't pull the themes out of Lord of the Rings.

JK: That's true.

DA: There are people that can't find the almost 70 themes in Lord of the Rings. That's fine if you can't get the Diminishment of the Elves theme, or whatever, but if you can't figure out the Fellowship theme by this point…

AK: …there's a problem.

JK: That can take us to another topic: The idea of having themes that are never codified in one exact form, themes that change a little bit each time they come around.

DA: The anti-John Williams approach?

JK: John Williams develops.

DA: No, no, I don't mean that. I mean Williams always gives you "The Version" of a theme, usually in a concert track.

JK: Right, you know which one is The Version.

DA: His CDs are often like a primer to the material. Here's the material and now hear me apply it.

JK: Yes. It's close to that with some of the themes in Lord of the Rings, but on many of them you don't have The Version. The Shire theme you don't have The Version.

DA: The prime version.

JK: Prime, that's the word. Is that a bad idea to have themes that change a little bit each time around? Does that make it harder for the ear to pick up on them, or does that make it more interesting for people who know what's happening and want it to be a little different each time?

AK: Personally, I like to have a change each time.

DA: I'll take it a step further. I think that's what film music is. It's supposed to be the development of these things. Either in specific themes or in the larger atmospheres. If you have a character that doesn't change throughout the course of the film...

JK: Exactly! That's the main point that everybody makes about a film. "What's your character arc?" So if the theme is the same all along, why?

DA: That's one of the things that are beautiful about film music: its application as a drama. It can have that architecture to it, where it's a progression of an idea. It's storytelling in a very abstract form. And you're not telling a story if you just go "da-da-daaa" every time you see the hero.

JK: A teacher at USC at the film scoring program said that it's absolutely wrong to develop a theme. You have to hit the audience over the head with the same theme over and over again. If you change it, even sometimes by one note, there's no way it's going to register with them. If you were to start on beat two instead of beat one and change the pick-up a little bit… I did that in a short example of something and he didn't even hear that it was the same theme. I said, "I changed one note." And he said, "That does it, you have to stay to the same thing."

AK: I know, he said the same thing to me.

DA: There's a very famous film composer that said that you should write a film score with the idea that the audience is only going to hear it once.

JK: Interesting. Does that mean you stick to it [The Version of a theme] more?

DA: Does that mean you play to the lowest common denominator?

JK: Part of it does mean that, I think.

DA: That's an awfully depressing way to approach things, though.

JK: It is. I don't like that comment, to tell you the truth.

DA: I agree.

JK: It has to function so that if you hear it once it at least makes sense. You can't have things interlocking, or things that you can't possibly understand the first time around. It has to work once. But that doesn't mean that there can't be things embedded in there.

AK: You have to be able to peel back the layers and find other things.

JK: You have to be discovering things as you go. If you watch a movie one time -- forget the score -- and you've gotten everything from that movie, that's it, you never need to see that movie again, f--- that movie! That's what I say. It's not a good movie.

DA: That's fair. Do you listen to Beethoven's Seventh Symphony one time and you've got it all?

JK: That's what I'm saying. You have to be able to come back to something.

DA: Yes. If art has a resonance, it should be a repetitive resonance. Every time you revisit it, either you find something new included in there, or it has a new relation to your life.

JK: Yes, absolutely! There's a big difference between something being good once and something being good forever.

DA: Obviously not every film aspires to that. Some films are probably made to be seen once. If you're scoring something like that, do you just go ahead and go for the lowest common denominator so your audience gets it the first time?

JK: I don't know. It's like, is it okay to make something bad just because everything around it is bad? So why not let the rest be bad? If it's good will it stick out while everything else is bad?

DA: Well, that's the argument with [Yared's] Troy.

JK: With music it might be a little bit different. Because if you have a horrendous movie, but there's one great performance in it, why not? I don't hate the guy for giving the good performance. I say, that's a great performance in the midst of a piece of s---.

AK: Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean.

JK: Jerry Goldsmith has been that great performance in many a terrible film.

DA: Probably the majority of his career.

JK: And is that a bad thing? Would you rather Jerry Goldsmith had scored Damnation Alley like the movie it was…?

AK: …or the best possible version of that movie?

DA: Or The Swarm?

JK: Does it hurt a terrible, awful piece of s--- like Damnation Alley?

DA: From a commercial level, it probably helped a lot.

JK: Does it stick out?

AK: Does it get in the way? It makes things more interesting.

JK: It is the tie that binds.

More next week!

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