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It Takes a Village - Part One

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 a forum 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.

RIP David Raksin (1912 – 2004)

***Spoiler Warning! Haven't seen The Village? Not particularly adept at predicting M. Night's tricky twist endings? Don't read any further!***

Jon Kaplan: Doug, you didn't even tell me before, did you like The Village?

Doug Adams: Fairly well. I always like the Shyamalan pictures because he does his Twilight Zone type of things, which are usually pretty straightforward, but he puts interesting subtexts in them. And the subtext overtakes it to become more the throughline than anything else.

JK: What was the subtext this time?

DA: The subtext was all over the map. It was going to be paranoia, or it was going to be loss, or it was going to be love…

JK: [Joking] I thought the subtext was blindness.

DA: [Accidentally taking it seriously] Yeah, that makes sense. They were either blind by choice or by birth.

JK: [Quietly chuckling] I didn't mean that to be real, but…

DA: Oh… [Laughs…] But they were turning their backs to their problems!

JK: Then did you think it was embarrassing and obvious that he made the heroine blind when everybody else was figuratively blind?

DA: Oh, that's okay.

JK: I love attractive blind heroines.

DA: She did a good job. Although the person next to me didn't get up or leave for the whole movie. They waited until the scene where the Joaquin Phoenix had been stabbed and Brice Howard is searching for him -- she comes in and stumbles into his body, and this person yells out in all seriousness, "What, is she blind!?"

JK: We loved the music on the album and we like it in the film, too.

DA: I agree. It was a great mix. In some spots it was incredible.

JK: It wasn't that loud where we saw it, but it didn't have much to compete with.

DA: There were large sections where there was nothing but music.

JK: It was used for a purpose.

Al Kaplan: If this is a movie about illusions, how did the score play into that?

DA: I had one thought on that, and it almost seems like an insult, but it's not really. The one thing that bothered me on the CD was the thriller material.

AK: Right, that snorting snarling stuff?

DA: Right. The drums annoyed me because they were so hollow and generic -- very devoid of musical content. But when I thought about it, it made sense to do it that way. It should have been without any significant musical content because the monsters were a hollow threat. In that way it plays into the whole idea of illusions. Also the Fear of the Woods theme was important. The bit that began with the little half step – the parallel thirds sifting downwards in the recorders.

JK: That's like the main theme of the first half of the movie.

DA: That's real because the fear is real even if they're not afraid of anything real. It's a genuine fear, so it was good to have actual musical content for that. And it was essentially derived from the love theme, anyway. So there are the picture's themes: fear and love. Now, that being said…

JK: …I don't know if any of that was actually considered.

DA: Yeah.

JK: The other thing that wasn't hollow was the love story. And that love theme is what took over in the second half. But, I just think it was, "Let's write a nice old-fashioned love theme for the fiddle and have some scary music for the monsters."

DA: Did you find the love theme to be old-fashioned?

AK: I thought it was heartfelt.

DA: I thought it was interestingly modern in parts.

JK: Modern?

DA: At times it felt very close to minimalist writing with those cascading arpeggios and repeating figures like that.

AK: Well that makes sense since the movie is really taking place in modern times.

JK: I'm talking about the sentiments more that the presentation. But no, you wouldn't hear something like that in Golden Age Hollywood, that's not what I meant.

DA: Right, the harmonies are clearly different.

JK: I don't even know what the time signature is for some of it.

AK: [Under his breath] 4/4.

JK: No, sometimes there's a little change in there that I like.

DA: Do you know The Moldau by Smetana?

JK: Probably, but not by name.

DA: It reminded me of that a little bit, though that's certainly older than anything minimalistic.

JK: I have a general idea in my head of a bunch of Smetana things. That cascading stuff is what comes to mind.

DA: Yes, that's exactly what I'm talking about. If you know any Smetana, that's probably the piece you know. Either that or The Bartered Bride.

JK: I liked the way that was different every time it came back, that cascading idea.

DA: This has definitely been James Newton Howard's most fruitful collaboration.

AK: I think he should only do M. Night Shyamalan movies from now on.
JK: Well done, James!

DA: Well done. Now, that being said, Al, give us your quote from that book. [The Score: Interviews with Film Composers by Michael Schelle]

AK: He said that [paraphrased], "I like an orchestrator who will not only double it up an octave, but write a counterline somewhere. I like other people in my music."

[The exact quote is: "I like other people in my music. When you are writing six or seven or eight hours of music a year, it's crazy if it is all going to be only you all the time -- it runs the risk of getting dull. I like an orchestrator coming in who, if I say, 'double this,' he'll double it, but he'll also write a counterline somewhere. We'll try it, and I'll like it or I won't like it, but it is nice to have those options."]

JK: But this was a long time ago. He may have changed his mind. I think that this is why Treasure Planet sounds like Treasure Planet

AK: …and why The Village sounds like The Village.

JK: I think that Shyamalan is forcing him to have clear ideas and keep everything on a really simple level. He doesn't have to have these guys come in and dress things up to make them busier. So he's at his best when he's simplest. That's why I think he's doing it himself. I can't prove that, but…

DA: I agree. There is something about those big things that feels slick and serviceable, but…

AK: …it's also insincere.

DA: Yes, very machine-like.

JK: Factory-driven.

DA: Those often feel like scores with a capital S. The Shyamalan scores feel like music.

JK: These feel like they were written by a person.

DA: Exactly.

JK: If these are all the same people and they're adding the same number of counterlines in The Village, then congratulations. They fooled me, good job.

DA: And the counterlines are some of the best material in this score, so whoever wrote those is a talented individual. But this feels like a fully conceived piece of music that's applied dramatically.

JK: I love the way that cascading material was saved for when Joaquin Phoenix grabs Brice Howard's hand and pulls her into the cellar midway through the movie.

DA: Yes, after hearing the CD I kept expecting that to be the main titles music.

JK: Right. Part of me feared that somehow Shyamalan hated that theme and James Newton Howard didn't care and put it on the album four times anyway. I thought that they had cut it out of the movie, but I like where it came in.

AK: I was very nervous.
DA: What did you think of the main title sequence in this one?

AK: Eh, not a big fan.

JK: It was boring. Wasn't it sound design, pretty much?

DA: It was the drum music, if I remember. The "false" scary music.

JK: It was a big waste of time. It was supposed to be establishing the scary woods, but it was just making me wait for the beginning of the movie whereas the beginning of Signs put a smile on my face.

AK: It sucks you right in.

DA: Yeah, I think I'm getting Jon Kaplan Syndrome because as the main titles started I thought, "Oh no, they cut all the good stuff out of this!"

JK: [Laughs] Well, sorry to have transferred that disease on to you.

AK: If M. Night Shyamalan ever makes a really good movie again, James Newton Howard might get his Oscar.

JK: I don't know.

AK: He hasn't been nominated yet for a Shyamalan movie.

JK: Right but, can you ever see one of Shyamalan's movies getting that kind of acclaim again?

DA: Yes. I think someplace down the line.

AK: He'll have to find a way to reinvent himself.

DA: If he ever finds something that is really an anti-Shyamalan movie, the way that Spielberg broke out of his mold with Schindler's List… well, even though he already had with Color Purple.

JK: It might be a while before he does that. I think this is what he wants to do.

DA: I think it is now.

JK: Yeah, it's early.

DA: He's young. He may come to some other things. And he's enough of a name brand that if he does do something that is significant, I think he'll get a lot of attention for it. Maybe Life of Pi will push him -- he didn't write that.

More Village verbosity next week! Join the fun:

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