FSFT5: Avant-Garde Film Scores

So in what will hopefully be one of many guest bloggers, Herr Vogler has given us this wonderful Film Score Friday List!

Dictionary.com defines “avant-garde” as: 


2. of or pertaining to the experimental treatment of artistic, musical, or literary material.

Beyond that, one’s definition of “avant-garde” is extremely subjective; my “normal” might be another’s “extreme”. For the purposes of this particular entry I want to set certain parameters that more-or-less define avant-garde scoring in narrative filmmaking in the following way (without trying to be overly rigorous):

 1. A score that utilizes experimental techniques in conjunction with traditional techniques throughout.

2. The use of avant-garde techniques is not self-conscious. It is a means toward the end of enhancing the narrative.

3. The reasons for using advanced or experimental techniques are because it could be no other way. The final film would almost be unimaginable with a different score. (Really an extension of #2).

With that in mind, I submit for your approval the following Top 5 avant-garde film score nominees:

 #5.) The Cobweb (Leonard Rosenman, 1955). More often written about than listened to, this score opened the door for avant-garde scoring in narrative films. The Cobweb was the first notable use in narrative film of the 12-tone technique as a unifying compositional device for an entire score. Rosenman has said in interview that the Piano Concerto, Op. 42 of Arnold Schoenberg (one of his teachers) was a major influence in writing the score.

 #4.) The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 (David Shire, 1974). You’re probably thinking to yourself Seriously? Yep. Shire brings together big band-style writing centered around 12-tone organizational techniques. The score is jazzy, gritty, percussion-oriented and a snapshot of the composer’s idea of the “sound” of New York in the mid 1970s. The CD release from several years back was one of Film Score Monthly’s earliest releases. I believe it was Doug Adams who wrote up a terrific little companion essay in that month’s issue giving a basic explanation of 12-tone technique and how Shire used it in the film. For me the great thing about this score is that, beyond the grittiness of it, it has atmosphere to burn. This was well before atmosphere meant “keyboard drones” (which is another post).

 #3.) Altered States (John Corigliano, 1980). John Corigliano probably wouldn’t have developed certain aspects of his compositional technique had it not been for this film. He invented a number of techniques (many of which seem to be derived from the Polish avant-garde) including certain improvisatory/aleatoric techniques for creating a lot of orchestral activity. One of these techniques Corigliano refers to as “motion sonority”. In this technique two pitches (a fifth apart for example) are placed inside a box and the performers are told to improvise between those two pitches for a predetermined period of time (incidentally, many of his techniques were absorbed by his former student Elliot Goldenthal who has, over time, deployed them in his own creative ways. But that’s also another post. The music is highly theatrical (though quite lyrical at times, too) and measures up to the theatricality of the film itself and it’s difficult to imagine anything else with the film.

 #2.) The Matrix (Don Davis, 1999). There are plenty of examples of narrative film from the last 20 or so years with isolated cues that utilize minimalist techniques but The Matrix is the only example I can come up with (by a composer who makes their living primarily in film that is) that utilizes minimalist techniques to unify a score. But it’s much more than that, too. On the surface it seems to be a battle between post-1945 modernist writing (representing the Agents and the Matrix itself) and a postminimalist aesthetic (associated more with the protagonists) that the composer himself refers to as a postmodern aesthetic.

 #1.) Planet of the Apes (Jerry Goldsmith, 1968). Few composers wrote so many interesting scores in so many different genres as Jerry Goldsmith, but science-fiction is where his talent was truly allowed to shine. This is the crème-de-la-crème. Honestly I could have chosen any one of at least a dozen scores to fit the bill but this is the high-water mark for Goldsmith and the avant-garde. For Planet of the Apes Goldsmith combines together a quasi-serial-to-freely-atonal harmonic language and Bartókian percussiveness with (for its time) inventive orchestration techniques; wind players are instructed to blow air through their instruments while depressing keys without making traditional sounds; horn players are instructed to reverse their mouthpieces and play; strings and harp are all echoplexed from time to time and the percussion section is heavily augmented (no more famously than the metal mixing bowls utilized in “The Searchers” or the addition of the Brazilian cuica).

 Posted by Herr Vogler http://musicinventor.blogspot.com

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