`Music by Patrick Williams . . . (He only had two weeks)'
Patrick Williams, winner of Emmy and Grammy awards, has written scores for more than 50 films and many TV series, including those shown on this page. We're delighted he agreed to write a few words about film music when he dropped in from Hollywood to talk with students of film-scoring at the Berklee College of Music right down our street. THE story goes that the legendary film composer Alfred Newman was having a particularly heated discussion on whether or not to score a particular scene in a film. ``But the guy is all alone in the middle of the Pacific Ocean in a lifeboat!'' the director barked. ``Where does a 65-piece orchestra come from?'' Newman replied: ``You tell me where the camera came from, and I'll tell you where the orchestra comes from!''
Anecdotes of this type are legion among veteran film composers in Hollywood, and they all point to the frustration of trying to verbalize a nonverbal art; at best a difficult and precarious business. They also illustrate the pitfalls of overintellectualizing something that is most often intuitive and experiential.
A film composer is in the business of accompanying -- searching for musical ideas that will complement, enhance, embellish, and complete the emotional experience for the audience. A good screen composer is a ``film psychologist,'' looking for hidden emotional clues. I asked John Williams why he chose a conventional symphonic orchestra for ``Star Wars'' and why he avoided the obvious temptation to use synthesizers and electronics. ``I wanted to ground the audience in something familiar,'' he told me, ``so that they could better accept all the far-out things on the screen.''
This analysis represents a key to the process of the film musician-psychologist at his best -- concept before execution, and a good musical plan. Disaster looms for a composer who finds himself immersed in detail work before defining a sharp creative concept, as the results will seem directionless and lack conviction -- necessary qualities for effective film music.
One colleague has described the process of film composition as the art of ``cooling it.'' To another, it is ``mostly intuitive . . . no hard-and-fast rules.'' Both are absolutely right. Good scores are often shaped around subtle elements, and even if music cannot ``help'' a particular film it is a cardinal rule that it should never ``hurt'' it. Music that is too obtrusive, ostentatious, or self-conscious can destroy the dramatic credibility of the film as a whole, so the professional responsibility of the composer to his craft is a very substantial one.
The musical content of a particular film score is not nearly as important as its dramatic contribution to the film as a whole, and consequently the art of film music often becomes the art of musical ``stylistic manipulation.'' Although some film sound tracks become hits on their own, most film music sounds very low calorie when performed in a concert hall, and the best scores are often very understated, being ``felt'' more than ``heard'' by the audience. This is why judging film music by concert music standards simply does not hold up. This also helps to explain why so much of film music is derivative by definition, and why eclecticism is a desirable asset to a film composer's musical psyche.
In 1968, after six years of the New York studio scene, I moved to Los Angeles with the specific goal of composing for films. I admired the orchestral scores of Max Steiner, Alfred Newman, Erich Korngold, Victor Young, and David Raskin. But I also admired the songs of Mancini and Mercer, the jazz of Johnny Mandel in ``I Want to Live,'' and the power of Alex North in ``The Agony and the Ecstasy.'' I was filled with excitement as I fantasized finding some room for ``my style'' amid all my heroes.
I have learned through the years that styles can be imitated, but ``style'' cannot. ``Style'' is simply the ``you'' in your music. It cannot be forced, nor can it be bottled. Consciously trying to make a personal statement in film scoring leads to an overwritten, self-conscious, and less effective effort. Style, like technique, should simply be there for a composer, and not be used just for personal aggrandizement. Styles can be manipulated, but ``style'' cannot.
I once scored a scene in a western, with three cowboys sitting around the ever-present and handy campfire. ``Do we really need to hear another banjo or another harmonica? It's so clich'e,'' I complained to the director. ``If I don't hear a banjo or a harmonica under that score,'' he answered curtly, ``you had better come up with a [expletive deleted] good idea.'' I scored the scene with both a banjo and a harmonica. I may be a little impulsive sometimes but I'm not stupid. Composing scores that wind up as ``living-room tapes'' because they are no longer in the film is not a happy feeling.
Writing music for the movies means writing on demand and under pressure. Deadlines are always looming. A film composer had some colleagues over to his house for a social evening. He put Beethoven's Fifth on the turntable and, after a few bars, he mused to the group: ``If I only had the time. . . .''
One thing is for sure: He'll never have the time working in motion pictures. The time pressure can be enormous, but experienced composers learn to work effectively within the time constraints, coping with the strain of a necessary daily output of music. I was once thinking of changing my screen credit to read ``Music by Patrick Williams . . . (He only had two weeks).'' I abandoned this notion as being too obvious a plea for sympathy.
Why do I like to write film music? Why go through this pressure? Because it's challenging, and sometimes it's fun . . . and when it's really ``working'' it still gives me a thrill. Working within parameters does not have to mean bars on the windows, and within the bounds of being an effective ``accompanist'' there is plenty of room for some creativity and certainly room for musical integrity.