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Scoring Some More Respect

Film composers, looked down upon by some in the concert music crowd, are featured in their own New Music Festival.

June 14, 1998|Josef Woodard | Josef Woodard is an occasional contributor to Calendar

For its seventh annual edition, the UC Santa Barbara New Music Festival, which has previously concerned itself with such locales as Mexico, Asia and Britain, turns its attentions closer to home, focusing on the movies and the fine art of film scoring. More to the point, the festival, which includes screenings, concerts and seminars over five days, seeks to emphasize the fact that film scoring is a finer art than it is sometimes given credit for.

Festival director William Kraft, a composer, former Los Angeles Philharmonic percussionist and an occasional studio musician, knows all about the uneasy dialogue between concert music and film music. Kraft devised the festival, with the help of veteran film composer and teacher David Raksin, as a forum for composers who have made their mark in Hollywood, and who have also felt the sting of ostracism from art music circles.

"It's ridiculous," says Raksin, who composed the scores for "Laura" and "The Bad and the Beautiful," and is now a film professor at USC. "We've been condescended to over the years, and our only partisans have been people like Aaron Copland. As someone who wrote for film, he knew something about it, and Shostakovich did, too. I found out that Toru [Takemitsu], who wrote 90 film scores, knew a lot of my music."

Besides Raksin, the festival roster includes big-name veterans Elmer Bernstein, 76, ("The Ten Commandments," "Thoroughly Modern Millie," "The Age of Innocence"), Leonard Rosenman, 73, ("East of Eden," "Barry Lyndon," "Bound for Glory") and Laurence Rosenthal, 71, ("The Miracle Worker," "Requiem for a Heavyweight," "Raisin in the Sun"), as well as younger film composers Stephen Endelman and Cliff Eidelman.

The four "elder statesmen" will get together during the festival for a panel on the state of their art. In separate interviews, they previewed that colloquy for us.

Question: Conductors like Esa-Pekka Salonen are recording it, the record companies are hyping it: Is this a golden age for film music?

Raksin: Yes, and it's a big kick. Two or three of my scores have been issued on CD--one is the music from "The Bad and the Beautiful" and one is music from "Forever Amber." I did a thing about a month ago for the Society of Composers and Lyricists at the Director's Guild Theater. We expected 60 or 80 people, and the place was absolutely jammed to the doors.

Bernstein: It's a mixed bag. On the one hand, you get a tremendous interest in the reissuing of old scores. [But], teaching at USC, I have a lot of proteges out in the field trying to get themselves started. My observation is that the more classically oriented, better-trained composers have a much tougher time than, let's say, someone who comes from the rock and roll world or the synthesizer world. This goes side-by-side with a revival of interest in the old scores, with CD reissues, that nobody will let you write anymore.

Q: There will be both concert and movie music, written by you and other film composers, on display at the UCSB festival. How do you see the relationship between the two?

Rosenman: The main difference is the form--and I don't mean an academic form, like sonata form. Form in concert music is created and comes out of the material. I find that film people, some of whom are very gifted, learned how to write in film and then began to write concert work. Unfortunately, they don't have their own style; they don't have their own sense of form. They copy from the form of some 20th century composer like Stravinsky, but there's no real creative aspect to it.

Rosenthal: When you write for film, you're like an actor, you play different roles depending on what the material calls for. I find that I enjoy the idea of wearing different masks, [although] I know that certain essential compositional habits will follow me wherever I go. My own kids tell me that they can spot one of my scores a mile away. They say, "Oh, that's a real Larry-ism."

But when I was commissioned to write "Songs to the Beloved" [a setting of texts by the Sufi poet Rumi, which will be performed at the festival on Friday] in 1986, I grabbed the opportunity. I thought, "Oh my gosh, here someone is actually going to pay me--a very modest sum, but that didn't matter--to write something over which I have complete control. I don't have to please any producer or director. I don't have to accommodate myself to any actor's voice. It's totally my own ballgame.

Rosenman: I have found, from the very beginning, that film music can really teach you about the kind of thing you want to write. You write something quickly [in film], and then you immediately get a performance. That's important. I changed my Violin Concerto when I got my performance, but that was seven years after I wrote it.

You learn that way. There is where film music really helps. Also, I have tried out various things through film music. It has been terrific in that way.

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