PROVO The story is told of Alfred Hitchcock, who, when he was making "Lifeboat," told composer David Racksin that he was not going to use any music for the movie, because the story was about being in an open boat out on the ocean. "Where would the music come from?"
Racksin thought for a moment and said, "You tell me where the cameras come from, and I'll tell you where the music comes from."
We've come a long way from those days, says James D'Arc, curator of the Brigham Young University Film Music Archives. But, he said, the story demonstrates early attitudes toward film scores. Even though so-called "silent movies" were always accompanied by music, when built-in sound came along, the feeling was that music had to have an on-screen source a radio turned on, an orchestra, a nightclub.
"Max Steiner changed all that," D'Arc said. "He is the man most responsible for establishing the modern film score as we know it. D.W. Griffith is justly lionized as the man who taught us you can convey thought on film. Steiner was the one who taught us that music also conveys thought."
The BYU Film Archives recently held a symposium highlighting the role of music in film then and now and discussing the importance of preserving and protecting early film-music resources.
The archives were started 25 years ago and have as their flagship collection the works and papers of Max Steiner. It also has the complete collection (some 7,000 discs) from Republic Pictures, as well as collections from other 20th-century composers such as Jerry Fielding, Hugo Friedhofer, Kenneth Darby, Ernest Gold, John Addison and others. (In the non-music archives, the school also has the collections of Cecil B. DeMille, Jimmy Stewart and producer/director Merian C. Cooper.)
"As far as we know," said D'Arc, "we are the only so-named archive in the world dedicated to preservation of film music. And we're the only ones who are producing CDs from that music for distribution to the public." (The symposium coincided with the release of "Max Steiner: The RKO Years," a three-CD set that is the 10th release in the series.")
Steiner led the way in film scoring, said D'Arc. "He was creative and overworked. But he had a tremendous appetite for the work. It is almost incomprehensible that he could turn out such fresh, original music time after time."
Some people think film music is ephemera, said Brad Westwood, director of the L. Tom Perry Special Collections Library at BYU, which includes the Film Music Archives. "But I'm convinced that the history of the 20th century can't be documented without looking at commercial-movie production. And growing numbers of scholars are finding out they can't document the history of movies without the BYU archives."
When you are raised in Southern California, as D'Arc was, "I think you end up with movies in your DNA." But as he grew older, he also fell in love with archives. So when he came to BYU as a movie archivist, "one of the first collections I went after was Max Steiner's."
D'Arc had always been enthralled with his music from such films as "Gone With The Wind," "King Kong" and "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre." "He had died by that time, but his widow was still living. So, I went to see her."
That was in 1977. It took a few more visits and a few more years of convincing, but in 1981, Lee Steiner donated her husband's complete collection to BYU.
"Steiner was such a pioneer. And he was very prolific, scoring more than 350 movies throughout his career." He kept practically everything not only the written film scores but also discs and film that had original recordings of the music.
And that was a tremendous stroke of fate, said Ray Faiola, director of audience services for CBS Television in New York, who has been working with BYU as a movie and sound preservationist.
Preserving film is complex enough, Faiola said, but, at least, most studios have protected most of their film. "Unfortunately, preserving motion picture scores is much more of a catch-as-catch-can enterprise. With the exception of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and 20th Century Fox, and, to a lesser degree, Warner Bros., most studios long ago destroyed the isolated music elements that ultimately became part of the soundtracks."
Originally, said Faiola, music for films was recorded on optical film just as the images were. The studio dubbing rooms sometimes had as many as 20 or 30 simultaneous reels of film containing music, out of which they created the soundtrack. Once the films were released, there seemed to be no reason to hang on to that material, which some saw as simply taking up space.
So, said Faiola, "for much of the music history of Hollywood, we have to look toward the personal collections of what the composers themselves might have been able to keep. It is a grand happenstance that the screen's most prolific composer was also the most prodigious archivist of his own output. Max Steiner kept studio acetate recordings of fully half the films for which he provided music."
Faiola's job is to "at all costs keep the original source material." But he also creates duplicates that preserve the individual raw recordings in a way that is always accessible for study without further deterioration.
In addition, he is assembling the scores into "sequential symphonic form so that they may be studied as comprehensive music works."
And what is often exciting about that, he said, is "that you often discover music that did not wind up in the final cut of the film." Some directors, including GWTW's David O. Selznick, were notorious for toying with musical scores.
For example, Franz Waxman was nominated for an Academy Award for his score to "Rebecca," "even though it was filled with innumerable crude insertions of music from previous Selznick productions," said Faiola.
By tracing the development of film scores, you get a broader appreciation of the role and function of movie music, said D'Arc. "Music is a form of shorthand." It immediately taps into the emotion or feeling the director is trying to convey. "All you have to do is watch a movie without the music, to see how powerful and important it is."
That's not to say that every film score is a masterpiece. There are some that are "nothing more that extraneous fluff, nothing more than wallpaper," said D'Arc. "But there are also those great ones that have enduring value."
Nor, even today, are all film scores original. "There are two ways of creating a musical soundtrack for a film, writing new music or recycling old music," said Luke Howard, associate professor of music at BYU. "Often they overlap."
What often happens, he explained, is that after an initial editing of a film, a director may put together a "temp track," a music accompaniment to various scenes by using familiar works. He then instructs the film's composer to write a new score that sounds like, or gives the same effect as the temp track.
"This is why some contemporary film composers are criticized as being derivative." But, he said, you get someone like John Williams or James Horner, and "they do it very, very well. Their scores are renowned for being elegantly crafted, powerful, nuanced and, yes, they often sound just like other pieces of music that may be familiar to us."
But, said Howard, there are times when a newly composed score whether based on familiar music or not is not the best option. "A piece of music may be so perfect for a scene that even a close imitation would diminish the total effectiveness. Or, sometimes the original work has connotations and associations already established in the popular consciousness."
Case in point: Carl Orff's "O Fortuna" chorus, which has been used in more movie trailers than any other piece of music and has been used in the actual soundtracks to major motion pictures at least a dozen times, said Howard. It's even in commercials for the U.S. Marines.
"This is one of the most potent pop-culture associations that it is music of power, especially military power," Howard said. "And this association can be traced back directly to the works used in John Boorman's 1981 medieval epic, 'Excalibur.' "
Another favorite piece of movie music is Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings." For many listeners, said Howard, this is the quintessential "mournful" music, in part because it was played at the funerals of both FDR and JFK.
The most notable cinematic appropriation of Barber's "Adagio" was in Oliver Stone's 1984 war drama, "Platoon," he said, and Stone came under intense criticism for using it because of the associations to Kennedy's funeral. However, a whole new generation tends to think of it as the music from "Platoon."
Movie music has taken up a more prominent place in people's lives in recent years, said D'Arc. Consider this: the soundtrack from the movie "Titanic" sold more than 10 million units. And consider this: Before 1947-48, there was no such thing as a movie-soundtrack album. "That's quite a dramatic change in a relatively short time. And that's very exciting," he said. In fact, D'Arc says that almost everyone probably has the tunes from some movie or another swirling in their heads.
And that ties in very nicely with the whole mission of the archives. Documenting movie music helps people understand its evolving function. "We hope they will learn to be critics, to be able to recognize what works and what doesn't, how it helps the pacing, the character development and how it complements the action on the screen."
He hopes people will become more aware of movie music and how it is beautiful just to listen to on its own, but he knows that as they pay more attention to the music, it will enhance their appreciation and enjoyment of the movie experience.
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