Debate: When is film music ‘classical’?

Monday, February 20, 2017

Classical composers Philip Glass and John Corigliano have both had success scoring for the big screen. They debate that relationship with Jed Distler in New York

Philip Glass (left) and John Corigliano
Philip Glass (left) and John Corigliano

With film soundtracks promoted by recording companies’ classical divisions, and with the sweeping orchestral scores of the likes of John Williams, Hans Zimmer and from an earlier age Bernard Hermann and Elmer Bernstein, debate continues to rage as to whether – or when – film music counts as classical. Philip Glass and John Corigliano are both regarded as classical composers first and foremost despite their work for the cinema. But both, as Jed Distler found out, find that the lines between classical and film music are by no means clear-cut.

Jed Distler People often think about film and classical music as two different things. But isn’t there in fact a tenuous relationship between those two worlds? You have each, to different degrees, straddled both.

Philip Glass Well, in the 20th century many so-called classical composers made their livings writing film music. Take the Russians, people like Shostakovich, Prokofiev. There has always been an attraction in film music; it’s the only place in our world where there is some actual money.

John Corigliano And even in film music’s beginings, you’ve got people like Korngold and Rosza, who originally were symphonic composers. But even after they wrote for film, they still created symphonic repertoire.

PG Today film is what opera was formerly, it’s the popular art form of our time. Now John and I are both film composers and opera composers, and it may be easier for people who are experienced in theatre to work in films than for people who only work in concert music, because both theatre and films are about subject matter.

JC I think also you can see the difference between concert music, theatre and film if you work in all three genres. You relate to the projects differently; it’s like a balancing act. When I write a symphonic piece, the orchestra, the conductor, and the soloist, no matter how famous or important they are, all try to express my artistic vision. When you write an opera, it’s in the middle. They sort of want to honour your vision, but the diva wants this, the director has his or her ideas, the stage designer wants such and such. When you get to film…

PG (laughs) You’ve lost it completely and utterly!

JC It’s the director who’s in charge and you’re supposed to write music that makes that director happy and the studio happy.

JD I guess whomever pays the piper the most gets to call most of the tunes! But aside from who has more artistic control in a given situation, does it follow that the music is necessarily different?

JC When you see a film, the music reflects what’s happening on the screen. The music comes out and in, for one minute in one sequence, or maybe six minutes and 22 seconds somewhere else. When you’re sitting in a concert hall on a wooden chair watching a bunch of people saw away at instruments, your entire concentration is only on the sound and that’s the difference. For example, I took themes from The Red Violin and used them for my Violin Concerto. There’s also the Suite for Violin and Strings, and those are about 25 minutes of music cues for the film sequenced together. To me, the suite is not as satisfying, because a lot of them are short cues, and they don’t build a structure abstractly that one can sit and listen to in the concert hall in the same way that the concerto does.

PG You miss the expanse of time that you have in the concert hall.

JC When I’m writing for the concert hall I’m thinking about shaping long arches or sustaining a 15- or 20-minute movement. When we’re writing film cues, we don’t think that way, because we have to work within much shorter time limits that are given to us.

PG Six minutes would be considered a long cue. Although when I’m working on a film score that’s also going to be a commercial recording, I plan ahead to see which cues I can combine. And then I’ll write transition pieces specifically for the recording that never will be in the film.

JD Do you consciously adjust your style when you score films?

JC I don’t like the word ‘style’ so much as ‘techniques’, because generally I think that the style of a composer is the unconscious choices that he makes, not the conscious ones. A film composer who takes whatever job he can get has to master techniques that are very, very varied, from pop music and jazz to symphonic idioms. Yet if you listen closely to their scores, you find that the film composer’s personality eventually comes out, because their signatures are not in moments that are highly stylised, but the little things: the way you jump to a note, the way you gravitate to certain harmonic ideas, the way you do things instinctively. That’s style.

JD related the story of being asked by some film-makers to compose the score to an airline video. Having heard him give a piano recital which included some of his own compositions, they gave him a VHS cassette with ‘images of trees and flowers, all underscored by the sappiest new age music.’ Assuming he was to follow that model, he wrote a trio of bland tunes and one that was more harmonically complex for his own enjoyment. They wanted the complex piece, saying it was more true to his own voice. Personal style, suggested JD, was clearly not dead in the visual world. PG expanded.

PG What I learnt from studying with Nadia Boulanger was that personal style was a special case of technique, the predilection one has to voice chords or manipulate instrumentation in certain ways. But this predilection lies within a larger framework of technique, and I tell young composers that without learning technique, they’ll never have a style. So one of the interesting things about being a concert composer working in film is that we can get into larger areas of technique that we generally don’t work in.

JD So it stands to reason that your film scoring experiences might inform how you write for the concert hall.

JC Oh, sure. For example, when I was working on the Ken Russell film Altered States, I had these nine- and 10-minute scenes with no words, and I had to write a lot of busy music, but didn’t want to use millions of notes. So I took simple symbols that you use for what I call ‘motion sonorities’ like trills and tremolos, and, for about a week, developed my own versions of them…I’d give a symbol, say, to a section of cellos, to make them play agitatedly, between certain notes as fast as possible. And eventually I brought these techniques into my concert music.

JD A friend of mine was listening to the original soundtrack to a James Bond film, and was swept away by the big crescendos and percussion effects, all happening so fast, which is the nature of short cues. Does this follow that composers who mainly write for film would find it a challenge to deal with symphonic forms and larger scales of time?

PG Not that many of them have the opportunity. People who are exclusively film composers usually don’t get concert hall commissions.

JC I think there’s a prejudice that creeps into this matter. When someone primarily is a film composer, and then composes for the concert hall, certain critics will point out how that composer is limited in what he or she can do. But when a classical composer comes into a film, we tend to be treated very well.

PG It’s a lot easier to make your reputation in the straight music world first, and then walk into the entertainment business if you can. But there’s another side to that. It took years before people in the film world (I’m talking about mainstream, commercial films) were convinced that I could actually write film scores, long after I had been writing them. For example, a couple of composers who had been hired to do The Hours were fired for some reason. The producer was going around Hollywood asking, ‘can anyone around write music like Philip Glass?’ And someone said, ‘well why don’t you call him up?’ Which he did, eventually. But it doesn’t occur to these people to go to the source!

JD That just proves how elements of your style have permeated the ‘Hollywood’ sound today, just as Rachmaninov did in movies of the ’30s and ’40s.

PG Actually, my harmonic language usually is more adventurous in my film scores than in my concert music. It’s much more dissonant. I’m more liable to sound like other people who write modern music.

JD Is that because most people accept dissonance more readily in a cinematic context? Listeners who couldn’t sit through Schoenberg’s Second Chamber Symphony in concert wouldn’t have trouble if it was the soundtrack to Attack of the Killer Tone Rows?

PG Absolutely. After all, wasn’t it John Williams who made Stravinsky a popular idiom?

JD In fact, many people nowadays first experience orchestral music not through Beethoven, not through Mozart, but John Williams…

JC …who uses more French horns than any symphony orchestra can ever afford…

PG …more than Wagner!

JD Will audiences who respond to John Williams use that as a stepping-stone into starting to appreciate concert music?

JC Well, the sounds of an orchestra might provide this kind of bridge. But there’s a very great difference between listening to something without any words, story or picture, and a piece of music that’s basically accompaniment to words and pictures.

PG But John, in The Red Violin, you used music to articulate the film’s structure, and I tried to do that too in The Hours. This is something not generally done. And I’m sure you’ve heard some people in Hollywood say that this is not ‘real’ film music, that it violates some unwritten law that film music must be decorative. Yet we’ve seen how music has the potential to articulate and formulate the structural emotional point of view of the film. That’s a great contribution that we, and I mean the larger ‘we’ of concert, opera and ballet composers, have brought to the film world, and it’s an important one. 

This article originally appeared in the January 2007 issue of Gramophone. To find out more about subscribing to Gramophone, visit:

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