Thursday, February 6, 2014

More notes on the second edition

The second edition integrates the two halves of Hearing the Movies more closely while maintaining a design that permits flexibility in emphasis.

Part 1 has been updated and streamlined a bit but its focus on careful listening/viewing and analysis of the soundtrack is intact. The scene analyses and style generalizations about music usage in Part 2 have been moved into the current Part 3 (history), which has been divided into two Parts, the first covering early cinema through the end of the studio era, the second covering the period since. Another way to put it is that Part 2 is "pre-Star Wars" and Part 3 is "Star Wars and later." Still another way is "pre-Dolby" and "Dolby to digital."

Not all the material of Part 2 has gone into the second edition, but everything we've removed will either be posted to this blog or placed on the HtM website and thus will remain available for instructors' use.

Among new features, we've added time lines for reference at the head of all the historical chapters, but I am particularly excited about our revamped and expanded writing "interludes," each of which is now a full-fledged chapter embedded in Part 2 or 3, and about a set of close readings that continue to develop the strong audioviewing skills from Part 1 but in the context of the historical chapters. These "essays" within the chapters of Parts 2 & 3 are augmented by a new series of sidebars that augment the historical narrative with historical source material, in part keyed to Mervyn Cooke's The Hollywood Film Music Reader (Oxford).

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Oxford Handbook of Film Music Studies

The Oxford Handbook of Film Music Studies was published in November 2013. Two dozen experts in the field survey everything from opera and film to the early history of music in video games. The book is also available on Oxford Research Online (by subscription). Many of the chapters will certainly be difficult for typical undergraduates, especially those without musical background, but I would recommend the following as quite accessible and potentially useful in connection with Hearing the Movies:

Marcia Citron, “Opera and Film”
Daniel Goldmark, “Drawing a New Narrative for Cartoon Music”
Cari McDonnell, “Genre Theory and the Film Musical"
Neil Lerner, “The Origins of Musical Style in Video Games, 1977-1983"

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Second edition of Hearing the Movies

 David here: I am currently working on the second edition of our textbook. The main goals are two: (1) to integrate the material on types of film scenes and on style topics into the historical section; and (2) to update and to expand the repertorial range of some of the films discussed. In connection with (1) the number of parts will be reduced from 3 to 2, though the volume will still be laid out in 15 chapters. In connection with (2) we will expand the sections on writing—which we labeled "interludes"in the first edition—and integrate them also into the historical section as separate chapters. If all goes as planned, the second edition may (that's *may* of course) be available for spring 2015 adoption.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Frank Skinner at Universal, part 2

In a previous post I wrote: "Skinner worked to formula in a musical style that was the lingua franca for Hollywood in the 1930s but had begun to sound a bit old-fashioned when paired with high-quality widescreen image tracks in the 1950s. His music for action scenes (sword fights, battles, etc.), in particular, sounds dated, as if it were stock music taken from 1930s B-films."

Although the generalization stands -- one need only compare Skinner's scores with contemporaries such as Alex North (examples: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? or The Misfits) or late-career masters like Franz Waxman (Spirit of St. Louis) to get the point -- the specific statement about music for action scenes needs qualification. Under Joseph Gershenson, who had been a producer but became music department head in 1949, Universal maintained the practice of collaborative scoring much longer than did other studios. This was by no means always the case, especially later in the 1950s (except for the title song, for example, Skinner wrote all the underscore for Written on the Wind), but even when one composer wrote most of the music, action scenes were often scored by someone else -- or drawn from Universal's large music library, whose holdings stretched back to the mid-1930s.

Action scenes were particularly prone to being shunted off to someone other than the principal composer because they were almost always generic -- that is, they rarely involved thematic material from the film; they were there to increase excitement and tension. Furthermore, unless there was some reason for close synchronization, most any "hurry" would do -- then, pulling something out of the library often made sense and also saved time (hurries are note-heavy) and money (especially if a recording could be re-used).

You can get information about a film's music from Clifford McCarty's Film Composers in America: A Filmography, 1911-1970 (2d ed., 1999) -- he made a thorough study of studio cue sheets, conductor scores, and other archival sources. His results, however, don't always match those given on IMDb, whose information about music seems to be taken mostly from the databases of rights organizations like ASCAP and BMI.

A simple example: McCarty credits Skinner and Hans Salter for the music to The Rawhide Years (they do both receive screen credit), but IMDb adds Eric Zeisl as composer of "stock music, uncredited." Zeisl's name appears in the ASCAP records for the film.

An example of collaborative work and re-use: Herman Stein received screen credit for The Unguarded Moment. McCarty lists Henry Mancini under "additional composition." ASCAP has an entry for Mancini but also one for Skinner. Stein's theme for the film was re-used in Imitation of Life (Skinner) and two of Mancini's cues were re-used in The Tattered Dress (also Skinner). In both cases, I took the information from the studio cue sheets.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Frank Skinner at Universal

Frank Skinner's career at Universal spanned nearly thirty years, from 1938 to 1966. The composer did yeoman's work, as did others ranging from Hans Salter in the '30s to Henry Mancini in the '50s, under the music department's head, Joseph Gershenson. Like Paramount, but unlike Warner Bros., orchestral underscore for a film was often a group job, for which Gershenson alone received screen credit for music supervision.

I am currently finishing up a project to digitize more than 60 films for which Skinner himself composed an orchestral underscore. The films are mostly from the late 1940s through about 1960, VHS dubs from television a decade or so back, when the American Movie Channel (AMC) was still showing a large number of Universal-International films without commercial breaks. A majority, unfortunately, are in widescreen format that has been reduced by pan-and-scan, but AMC clearly had access to excellent prints and, apart from the formatting changes, image and sound track quality are quite acceptable, even when passed through television and VHS to mpg files.

Skinner worked to formula in a musical style that was the lingua franca for Hollywood in the 1930s but had begun to sound a bit old-fashioned when paired with high-quality widescreen image tracks in the 1950s. His music for action scenes (sword fights, battles, etc.), in particular, sounds dated, as if it were stock music taken from 1930s B-films. On the other hand, his main title cues stand out as remarkably tuneful: Skinner often gives a perfunctory nod to the clichéd opening maestoso, then quickly drops into a soaring melody whose style may or may not be directly related to the film's setting or story. These tunes are generally too intense ("heavy") to be associated with the female lead--they typically recur in dramatic emotional situations between the principal male and female characters. In that sense, one might say, they mark an advance on the 1930s-era two-part main title cue. (See HtM, chapter 6, for discussion of the design of establishing sequences.)

Monday, August 27, 2012

Week 1 lectures (2010)

This post was ported from the defunct blog Hearing the Movies II. These are Jim's description of class lectures and activities for the beginning of spring semester 2010. Later entries can be found under the "pedagogy" tag.

I used the following examples for my first week of lectures, which were keyed to Ch. 1 of Hearing the Movies:

I started with the scene from Catch Me If You Can (2002), discussed in the introduction to Part 1 (pp. 1-3) and again in Ch. 1 (pp. 7-8). I played the scene twice, with class discussion after each viewing. We then did a masking exercise, using the Second Botched Meeting sequence from Sleepless in Seattle, discussed on pp. 20-25. We first watched the sequence with no sound, and I had the students talk about what sort of sound they expected and why. We then watched the sequence with sound.

The second class—my class meets twice a week, 75 minutes for each class—we started with a masking exercise using the same scene from Sleepless, this time reversing the procedure, beginning by masking the image and then watching the sequence with image and sound. I led the class in discussion after each.

We then worked with part of the Waterloo Station sequence from The Bourne Ultimatum (2007), starting again with a masking exercise: first, no image (we did this twice); then, no sound track; then both together. In this case I divided the students into three groups and had the first group concentrate on the dialogue, the second group on the music, and the third on the effects. I instructed the first group to note the number and type of voices as well as tempo and dynamic of delivery; the second group to note the basic mood, tempo, dynamic and instrumentation for major points of change; and the third group to identify sound source or to describe sound as best as they could. I thought this example worked exceptionally well, and I would recommend the example.

The third example came from The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), discussed on pp. 11-12. Here, I had the students discuss the five types of music in the sequence and how they differed in narrative function: 1. the atmospheric music as Frodo awakens (this music also appears at the very beginning of the film over the New Line Cinema logo); 2. the "mythic" music accompanying Gandalf's flashback; 3. pastoral music accompanying the appearance of Sam; 4. enchanted vocal music for Rivendell; 5. pastoral music accompanying appearance of Bilbo.

The final example was simply a viewing of Boston Common Scene from Good Will Hunting (1997), pp. 25-30. 

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Masking Exercise

Here is a quotation from Dimitri Tiomkin that could serve to introduce the masking exercise:
To comprehend fully what music does for movies, one should see a picture before the music is added, and again after it has been scored. Not only are all the dramatic effects heightened, but in many instances the faces, voices, and even the personalities of the players are altered by the music.
Source: Dimitri Tiomkin, "Composing for Films," Films in Review 2.9 (1951): 21. (The full article runs pp. 17-22.)