One of the most thoughtful books about film music is called "Unheard Melodies." That title highlights the common idea that a good score contributes to the overall movie without calling attention to itself, particularly in the case of dramatic films.
According to this popular wisdom, the audience may watch an entire film without even noticing the music, except during the credits when there's little else going on. That may be true in many cases, but it has two unfortunate effects.
For one, music sets the story's emotional tone. Ignoring it means being less alert to how the filmmakers manipulate our responses from one moment to the next.
For the other, good movie music is good music, period. To let it pass through one ear and out the other is to overlook - or underhear - some of the most interesting and engaging modern compositions.
All of which makes it a pleasure to salute the Nonesuch Film Music Series, a new project launched by one of the most adventurous record companies in the business. The first four CDs in this enterprise make an exciting package, recalling fond memories of classic films.
Soundtrack recordings are nothing new, of course, but the producers of this series have taken several steps to raise it above the crowd. Instead of spinning out all the music from a single movie or weaving selected fragments ("cues") into stand-alone compositions, these discs present carefully chosen cues as they were written and originally played.
In addition, the CDs include music previously unreleased in stereo. Nonesuch worked directly with the composers (or their estates) to ensure the authenticity of the finished products.
Following are brief descriptions of the debut discs:
* Alex North pioneered Hollywood's use of symphonic jazz in his score for "A Streetcar Named Desire," enhancing the movie with pieces he thought of as "mental statements" based on the evolving psychology of the characters. Mental states were also central to "The Bad Seed," about a demented little girl, while "Spartacus" took him to more epic-sized territory. Music from "The Misfits" and "Viva Zapata!" round out the disc.
* Leonard Rosenman helped bridge the gap between the romantic-style composers of old Hollywood and the pop-inflected musicians who gained influence in the swinging '60s. "Rebel Without a Cause" and "East of Eden" are both remembered largely for James Dean's historymaking performances, but Rosenman's music for the two movies is quite varied - taking on a jazzified edge in "Rebel" and echoing traditional American atmospheres in "Eden," albeit with a modernistic tinge. Something for everyone.
* "If love is such a central theme in Truffaut's cinema," writes Annette Insdorf in her liner notes for the Georges Delerue disc, "Delerue found an impressive number of musical ways to explore it." He and French director Franois Truffaut had one of the most enduring creative partnerships in the history of European film; this exquisite CD ranges from "Shoot the Piano Player" and "Jules and Jim" to "The Last Metro" and "Day for Night."
* Of all these composers, Japanese giant Toru Takemitsu was the most celebrated for work outside the movie world, but his hugely inventive film scores (sometimes bordering on the avant-garde) are justly renowned. "Woman in the Dunes" and "Dodes'ka-den" are among the international hits represented here, along with a wonderful suite derived from "Black Rain" and two other films.
As the current label for Philip Glass and Steve Reich, today's bestselling classical composers, Nonesuch has done a lot to break down barriers between "serious" and "popular" music. The new Film Music Series is another step in this direction.