Silence is golden

Is music on the silver screen being drowned out? Three composers behind pioneering scores of silent movies speak out.

French composer Ludovic Bource must have been nervous as he took his seat at this year’s Academy Awards, surrounded by tense Hollywood superstars. His soundtrack to The Artist was nominated for the Best Original Score Oscar. Plucked from the relative obscurity of French spoof cinema, he was up against movie music royalty: John Williams (Star Wars), Howard Shore (The Lord of the Rings) and Alberto Iglesias (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). Bource reassuringly touched his wrist to find the bracelet his five-year-old son had given to him. The lucky charm worked – he left the awards with an Oscar.

By that point in late February 2012, The Artist had already scooped a host of gongs, including a European Film Award for Best Actor for Jean Dujardin and a BAFTA for Bource’s music. The movie’s glut of five Oscars made it the most awarded French film in history.

‘By turns playful, teasing, dark, the memorable score mirrored the characters’ tales with wit and insight’

One of the most ingenious films in recent years, the story follows the silent movie star George Valentin as he struggles to hold on to his fame when the talkies and bright young actress, Peppy Miller, sweep through Hollywood. For director Michel Hazanavicius, the film was a passionate and almost entirely silent love letter to the cinema of old Hollywood. The Artist was a surprise hit with audiences the world over, and since its release in November 2011, the movie has taken over USD133m (€106m) at box offices worldwide.

The critics raved about its merits for months: The Artist wasn’t a gimmicky, hollow attempt to shake-up modern cinema, they agreed, but a beautifully shot picture with a heartfelt narrative.

And where a clever script can win over the crowds, the same proved true of Bource’s music. By turns playful, dark and teasing, the memorable score mirrored the story and the characters’ tales with wit and insight. The Artist was something different – and it offered Bource a chance to really showcase his ability as a music-maker.

In fact, composer and producer Andy Hill says a film like The Artist is a dream come true for composers. ‘If you polled film composers they would probably universally say that a film free of dialogue, at least of unnecessary dialogue, and free of explosions and various other sound effects is a shared dream, a very rarely realised dream,’ he adds. ‘Most of them would say they long for those few moments that exist in a feature film that allow them a blank musical canvas.’

Hill, who directs the Master’s course in scoring for film, TV and video games at Berklee College of Music’s Valencia campus, feels there has been a major shift in the industry. Where music was once pivotal in cinematic storytelling, it has now taken on a far less expressive role.

‘Often there’s very little opportunity for music to function on its own in the way that it might have in the days of, say, David Lean and Lawrence of Arabia,’ Hill says. ‘The current style of underscoring for films is much more understated and low key, and tends to be music woven in beneath dialogue.’

‘It’s a shame,’ he adds, ‘because it suggests an over reliance on dialogue as a means of informing the audience about what is happening on screen and off screen, and therefore a lack of trust in audience intuition, a lack of trust in the audience’s ability to read a gesture, an expression.’

‘A film free of unnecessary dialogue and sound effects is a composer’s dream – a rarely realised dream’

Hill says it also reflects a loss in the trust that once existed between filmmaker and composer. ‘As recently as 20 years ago,’ he says, ‘a director might sit down with a composer and say, “In this scene there’s a conflict between what’s being portrayed on screen and what’s really going on in the character’s mind. They’re just going to be pacing around, eyeing each other suspiciously, and the music has to tell the story”. Now I would say in general that sort of conflict is more likely to be spelled out in dialogue.’

‘The flip side of this diminishing of music’s expressive power has been that on the other hand, you have these big overblown action pictures where there’s music from end to end,’ Hill continues. ‘That’s a different kind of lack of trust – that’s the filmmakers not fully trusting in the power of the image and the performers to keep the audience in their seats. So they simply ask the composer to lay music across the entire picture. And that’s no more effective than the opposite extreme.’

For Hill, who was vice president of music production at Disney during its famed ‘renaissance’ in the 80s and 90s, this idea of trust is crucial. ‘Historically, in the early days of animation, Disney looked to music to provide the subtext and often dramatic thrust of story telling,’ he says. ‘There used to be entire scenes that were pre-scored, where the music actually pre-existed the process of animating. That doesn’t happen anymore, but a little of that trust, that creative marriage between music and image, carried through to what’s called the Disney Renaissance.’

That lingering philosophy, a respectful pairing of film and music, is what brought childhood masterpieces like The Little Mermaid and The Lion King to life. So why is this shift, this dwindling trust, now taking place? In Hill’s view, it’s at least partly down to how directors are being educated.

‘Filmmakers who are coming out of film schools and academies now are less educated about the function and role of music. If you scan the curriculum in most film schools around the world, you’ll be hard pressed to find a course dealing with music or music appreciation in film. For the young filmmakers, music is a little scary, it’s voodoo. It’s not that they mistrust the composer, it’s that they don’t understand what they’re doing well enough to give them proper direction.

‘My hope is that once filmmakers realise that there are composers who are truly educated in understanding drama and story and using music to reinforce those things, that some of that trust that once existed in what they call the golden age, will be rediscovered.’

But this enduring lack of genuine trust, combined with the unavoidable fact that filmmaking is a risky business both creatively and financially, has already led to an environment where music is obscured, hidden away under layers of noise. Howard Blake tired of the system early on. The British composer studied piano and composition at the Royal Academy of Music,and went on to score Ridley Scott’s 1977 The Duellists and Flash Gordon in 1980, among many others.

‘It’s a very stressful thing, writing scores for films,’ Blake says frankly. ‘When you work it’s always done under pressure and at high speed: you have to deliver the goods really. In a way it puts enormous restrictions on you as a composer. It’s very much an art of compromise – sadly so.

‘That’s why it had such a tremendous feeling to it. Everything appears to come to life by magic’

‘I got fed up writing scores where the music was lost or mangled or under dialogue, or disappeared,’ he continues. ‘This is one of the downsides of being a film composer. You are very much a part of what Bernard Herrmann used to call a mosaic; film is a mosaic art.’

But in 1982 Blake saw a sketch for The Snowman, Raymond Briggs’ dreamlike children’s tale of a Christmas snowman that comes to life. ‘I thought, this is it, you don’t need any words, you don’t need any sound effects,’ he says. ‘I put the idea to a producer, saying I’d love to do this, where the music is an equal partner with the images.’

After creating a demo, Blake and his producer then pitched the idea to the newly launched broadcaster, Channel 4, which agreed to make the short. ‘I wrote the complete score, then recorded the complete soundtrack. So the animators were drawing the film to the score. That’s why it had such a tremendous feeling to it. Everything appears to come to life by magic. It’s the exact opposite to how films are usually written.’

But as cinema moved on, the silent genius of The Snowman was left behind, and Blake gradually turned to creating scores for ballet and stage productions. There were fewer and fewer films that truly put music in the spotlight – until The Artist.

Remarkably, Bource doesn’t have any formal higher educational training in music or composition. His professional career began with jingles for commercials, before moving on to short films. In 1999, he teamed up with director Hazanavicius on the short film Mes Amis, and through the 2000s they partnered on several projects, including a series of Bond spoofs, much loved in France.

Crucially, they built up their own creative relationship and trust over a number of years before deciding to collaborate on The Artist, an alltogether different challenge. ‘The film is a love story,’ Bource says in a heavy French accent, ‘meaning passion, and, for me – for the music – romanticism. I had many role models from this period, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, then later Ravel and Debussy. Wagner, too, he’s a controversial composer but his music is very important.’

The expressive lyricism of these classical greats is certainly evident in the film, but so much of how it captures the old-time glitz of 1920s Los Angeles is thanks to Bource’s dedication to the musical echoes of this era. ‘I composed six principle themes, just with the help of the screenplay and storyboard,’ he explains.‘I created the main themes in the Hollywood style, looking to the wonderful composers of the golden age: Max Steiner, Alfred Newman and Bernard Herrmann. They were all part of my inspiration.’

For Bource, it was a carefully studied tribute to the era, as well as to the characters themselves. ‘It’s important to follow the characters in their expressions,’ he says. ‘At the beginning George Valentin is a beloved star of silent movies so he’s very happy. We used foxtrot-style music, which was very popular at that time. It worked for Valentin; the foxtrot expresses joy and happiness. For me it was the best way to express George’s character.’

In the story, as the excitement of sound rapidly takes over Hollywood, and silent movies play to dusty theatres, Valentin looses his wife, house and career. Here Bource turned to the solemn resonance of Citizen Kane. Meanwhile Peppy Miller has her own sparky, mischievous soundtrack, often mellowed by her poignant love for the movie star who was sadly falling from grace.

Practically however, it seems the process of creating a score for The Artist was much the same as any other film. ‘It was important for me to start the process of composing at the same time as Michel was editing,’ Bource says. ‘I followed him each day, each week. We’ve been working like that together for 15 years. Michel needed the music to find the broader atmosphere of the scene.’

Once finalised, the music was recorded by the Brussels Philharmonic, led by Ernst van Tiel, with several members of the Brussels Jazz Orchestra. Did Bource feel pressure working on this film,where the music is arguably more important than in other projects? ‘Nothing is easy in life,’ he answers vaguely. ‘I didn’t analyse each stage of the work each night. I need more time to analyse my work, so that’s a difficult question to answer.’

There is the sense that Bource is overwhelmed by his rise to fame. To date he’s received 11 prizes and was awarded for Breakout Composer of the Year in 2011 by the International Film Music Critics Association. ‘I want to have time to return to my piano and compose another project,’ he says, and suggests he’s had several offers of work. But it’s likely that Bource’s career would have followed a rather different path had it not been for the innovation of The Artist.