Musings About Music In Film

Op-Ed: The Dark Is Night And Full Of Amateurs

By Charlie Brigden Headlines are everything on the internet, especially on places like Twitter where you have to get your point across in as few words as possible. Such is the header of a new piece in The Guardian about Ennio Morricone, who has said a few words while doing press for a mass for Pope Francis he'll be conducting this month. The headline is a good attention grabber: "good film scores have been replaced by the bad and the ugly". Legendary composer slams modern film music! The maestro tells it how it is! It's a good story. But let's look at it in a bit more depth.

The article features multiple quotes from the composer, so we'll see what he actually said and look at it from there.

"The standard of composition for film has deteriorated. I have suffered a lot in watching many films because of that."

That's a pretty big blanket statement. Films in Italy? Hollywood? Is he talking everywhere? What has he been watching?

But he criticised film-makers who “do not understand fully” that music “needs time to convey its message” on screen.

“If you have a 20-second music piece, you cannot really express anything … It can just signal maybe a scene change … If you allow it to develop, the music can do its job in telling what is not said and showing what you cannot see.”

Not many scores are made up of 20-second cues. But beyond that, it's not just filmmakers but composers themselves that see economy as a plus, to try and get their ideas across in the shortest and most direct way, increasing the potency. But of course, it depends on the film. Some scores demand the smallest amounts of music, but others are happy to languish in big long lines. Development is a key word, cues help the development of the score as a whole but that doesn't mean that they have to be over a certain length.

He blames “the deterioration of standards” on cost-cutting: “The respect for a musical score must come from the director … If the director has no power and has to surrender to budgetary constraints, this is where we have the problem.”

Synthesised sounds are cheaper than live musicians, but he said: “Electronic instruments flatten everything. Maybe you can do everything with [them], but the result is quite similar – a kind of standardised music.

“The fact that people today tend to use too many electronic instruments or amateur composers is because they want to spend less money.”

I'll agree this is an issue. With how overblown many budgets are, the consideration for the score doesn't seem to be a top priority, but of course this really does depend on the director and producer. There are plenty of directors out there who have a great affinity for the score, especially in a traditional sense, and are happy to fight for it. Saying that, there is an issue with this, but it really boils down to Hollywood's use of homogenised score in large-scale films, which while admittedly problematic is still only a section, not even a huge one in terms of size but certainly larger in exposure.

And yeah, the "synth orchestra" is a problem, at least when the production can afford a live orchestra (I mean synthesised instruments, not scores created electronically in that medium). The irony is that the article mentions that Morricone has Hans Zimmer as an exception to all this, when he and his company Remote Control (formerly Media Ventures) have played a huge part in constructing the Hollywood film score landscape as it stands. Are many of these composers amateur? Maybe to Morricone, but we can't all be an incredible genius.

The thing is, this kind of thing comes out often. I have absolute respect for Morricone, and his heart is certainly in the right place with some relevant comments, but this whole doom and gloom viewpoint that many have about modern film scoring just doesn't fly anymore. People do this with everything; movies, music, sports teams. As far as I'm concerned, the film score realm as a whole right now is not only great, but wonderfully diverse. Rachel Portman, Mica Levi, Michael Giacchino, Clint Mansell, Cliff Martinez, Jonny Greenwood, Alex Ebert, Johann Johannson, Nuno Malo, Dario Marianelli, Nick Cave, Rob Simonsen, these are just a few not mentioning titans like Zimmer, Danny Elfman, John Williams, Alexandre Desplat.

So away from the sensationalist way this has been reported, I agree with some of what Morricone is saying, and some of the bigger-budget productions really need to put their money where their mouth is concerning film music. But for scores on the whole, well to me the future's pretty bright.

OP-EDCharlie Brigden