Differing interpretations

November 29, 2006

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I teach a seminar in electro-acoustic composition at UCLA. It is morphing into the first course of a three term seminar in film composition for our new MA degree. Jerry Goldsmith taught film music at UCLA some years back and when he gave assignments to his young film-composers-wannabes, he insisted that everyone work with the same scene. I’ve learned the wisdom of this decision because if you have everyone score a different scene, you’re comparing apples and oranges. When they all score the same scene, the music personalities, strengths, and weaknesses pop right out.

We have been blessed this quarter to have Professor Paul Chihara both taking and co-teaching the class with me. He wants to learn the software I’m teaching, and I’m happy to have him there, offering his perspectives when I ask for it.

For our final project, Chihara selected a five minute scene from a film that he scored called “Castle in the Sky” for Disney. The students did not hear the music from the film. They had time code, dialog, and most of the sound effects. The clip was converted into a Quicktime video which they imported into Apple’s LOGIC PRO 7, a piece of powerful audio software, where each student provided their own musical score to the film. Paul and I were both amazed at the results.

Mike provided a kind of Soft Metal punctuation to the scene that surprised everyone. Power chords decaying to nothing were especially effective. Andrea evoked Gliere if not a bit of Saint Saens’ “The Swan” for the opening for a stunning effect. Nick made me feel I had just taken some of Huxley’s Soma and digested the scene in a completely different vein: call it Charles Ives meets Bill Evans. Hitomi laid down an ostinato that propelled the opening scene metrically forward, exploding into a ravishing Shakuhachi solo — to be underscored with strings, Suby’s score was wall to wall 80 piece orchestra where everyone has something to do. His conception from square one was ORCHESTRAtional, and not so much electronic. Imagine Paul Hindemith and Miklos Rosza. Yeseung came up with a drop dead gorgeous tune and dropped it into the scene. Chihara then played his original version. It was pure Chihara, ranging from the noble, mystic Asian to the warm and fuzzy Disney head-bobbing musical language so-desired by Disney and their audience.

We all realized how much a composer imposes upon a movie. S/he tells the audience how to FEEL. We just saw eight perfectly viable musical accompaniments to a scene. Each, depending upon the vision of the director, spins the story in distinctively different ways.

[Photo from CalTech.]

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