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Monday, June 17, 2019

A musician's perspective on recording and performing film scores: from City Lights to Star Wars

David Creswell, professional violist
As part of my self-education about classic film, I've decided to do explore film music in some depth. For my first blog post on this subject I was delighted to speak to a seasoned musician about his extensive experience in recording and performing film scores.

David Creswell is a violist in New York City, has performed with the New York Philharmonic, Broadway shows, is principal violist of the Greenwich (CT) Symphony, and has recorded >100 film scores* since moving to NYC in 1997. He also happens to be my brother-in-law. 

JD: As a musician, what is the process to get a gig to record a film score? 

DC:  Composers typically have control over who they hire to record scores, although sometimes studios have a say also. Composers have relationships with various musicians and groups in town (NYC) whose sound and aesthetic they like. Composers have a distinctive voice, and producers and directors use different composers to fit their own voice. Some composers are really dramatic, others are more subtle and cerebral. Composers work with contractors who actually do the hiring – I have several contractors that I work for. Contractors also have different vibes and working styles and the music you get out of that is very different. Specific composers like specific vibes that work for their music and their process of recording the score.  

JD: Who are your film composer idols?
DC:  Erich Wolfgang Korngold, to name one, but really all from Korngold’s era, including Copland and Shostakovich. They were great because they were first and foremost serious concert composers. They had learned from earlier musical masters such as Mahler, Strauss, and Nadia Boulanger. Their goal was to be the next Beethoven, Strauss, etc, and their music is complex and rich. Korngold left Europe because of WWII, but he and many of his fellow emigres found a place in Hollywood where they poured their dense creative musical energy into film scoring. It’s a shame that we’ve lost that today to a degree.  I understand directors not wanting the music to distract from their story, but I really love when the music is more of a forward character in the film experience like it was then.

JD: What trends have you observed in film scoring during the 20+ years of your experience? 

DCFirst, the economics of recording film scores have changed a lot in the past 20 years. One of the biggest changes is that many scores are now recorded in Eastern Europe as opposed to NY and LA because orchestras there are less expensive and residuals aren't paid. (In NYC and LA musicians get residuals--shares from how much the movie sells afterwards). And today, there is only one big space left in NY for large orchestras to score: the Manhattan Center ballroom. When working with composers in Europe, producers and composers can fly over with equipment to record with less expensive orchestras. They can even work remotely with an orchestra in Europe, for example, live using web sharing technology!  

Another trend relates to the aesthetics of the music itself--what sound the filmmakers want. Tastes have changed since 1997. Today, scores have a less symphonic identity and are charged to create color and mood that is generated by symphonic instruments but with less motivic influences. It's less melodic, and the overall structures of the music are smaller. These sounds are mixed in with newer genres (e.g. hip hop). Sometimes the playing for these types of less melodic scores requires no vibrato, or is consistently mezzo-piano, and can be sleep-inducing for the musicians because of the often very slow, unexpressive takes. 

A refreshing contrast comes to mind--I performed on the recording of Rachel Portman's score for the 2004 version of The Manchurian Candidate (with Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep, and Liev Schreiber, directed by Jonathan Demme). The score was a mix of genres, but I recall when we recorded the beginning of the nominating convention; this scene had two minutes of incredibly loud, patriotic music--a great contrast to typical moody delicate music. We were told to blast the hell out of it – that was fun. 

And technology has advanced so much – now you can mix things together using computers, after recording groups of instruments in a more piecemeal manner. Leeway still exists in remixing and changing – that is why scores are often recorded with less vibrato playing--phrase shapes can be manipulated more easily in post-production. Today there are even people out there trying to invent ways of synthesizing an entire score without benefit of musicians!  But thankfully nothing matches the human feeling of live musicians playing.

JD: One of my favorite scores is that of Miklós Rózsa for The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946). It came to mind when you mentioned rich and complex film music. (proceeds to play a clip from the film's opening credits; the film music suite is linked in the YouTube clip below).
DC: Hmm... Rózsa was really great. Listening, I hear influences of Richard Strauss and Wagner. Rózsa and his contemporaries imitated music that they loved from their childhood. These composers often used motifs representing characters or themes throughout their movies, a technique that was developed and used extensively by Richard Wagner.

JD: It seems that there is an increasing trend to play scores live with film screenings for an audience, in a concert venue.

DC: Yes. About 15-20 years ago we did some concerts that presented parts or scenes of a film, but not the entire film. I remember doing a concert showcasing the great age of Korngold, which included scenes from The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). This format worked because composers then tended to write “a piece” for a scene – one segment that could stand on its own. 

David Creswell's viola, in close-up
It's gotten very popular over the last 10 years to screen entire films with live orchestra. This is sort of a cottage industry now and these concerts sell very well. I've done several with the NY Philharmonic and some with other local orchestras. One year with the Philharmonic we played all of the Star Wars movies in a two-week period. That was really fun. Once I played for screenings of Manhattan—that one was kind of boring for the orchestra because there wasn’t a lot of music in it. The trick was to stay awake and not fall over asleep on stage and miss a musical cue! Babe was a complicated score (by Nigel Westlake) because it was based on an organ symphony by Edward Elgar – real music!  Another very fun one was playing for a program of Warner Brothers cartoons!

One of the most significant experiences I had doing this was when the NY Philharmonic played live to West Side StoryIn fact, it was the NY Phil that had recorded the film score in 1961, with composer Leonard Bernstein at the helm; there were friends of mine playing with me for this recent performance who were there in the orchestra when the score was recorded originally!

JD: What do you think makes these screenings with live music so popular?
DC: First, I think the sound is better with live instruments--the richness and complexity of the sound come out more when you’re in the room with the performer – and also, art is being created in the moment. Your experience of the movie is richer due to your emotions being heightened with the experience of live music. And, the audience loves it.  People showed up in costume to the NY Philharmonic's performance of the Star Wars films. When they did Babe, people brought their kids.

JD: What are some challenges for a musician performing a score live to film?

 It's a challenge to get the sound balance right--you're in a concert hall but you're playing with a film that already has certain sound balances, and the sound and actors' voices reflect the rooms that the actors are in. In movie theaters, the acoustic space is usually dead. They compensate by playing it really loud through speakers in the theatre to create the needed ambiance. But you can’t do that in the concert hall.

JD: I especially love attending screenings of silent films with newly-composed scores performed live. Have you had experience playing for any silent films?
The Outlaw and His Wife - Victor Sjöström & Edith Erastoff
DC: I once had a project with composer Stephen Endelman -- he wrote a new score for a Swedish silent film from 1918: The Outlaw and His Wife (directed by and starring legendary Victor SjöströmBerg-Ejvind och hans hustru in the original Swedish). Endelman wrote a chamber ensemble score, and we performed it in small, intimate venues in NYC like The Knitting Factory, with small groups of about 50 people attending screenings. I also got to perform Chaplin's City Lights in concert with the NY Philharmonic in Shanghai as well as New York City--it was very interesting to perform it for a Chinese audience, because different parts of the film, as well as the music, resonate with audiences from different cultures.

JD: What is different when playing for silent films vs. sound films?

DC: Playing live to silent films is freeing because you don't worry about drowning out dialogue or sound effects. Playing for a silent film you're free to use the entire range of your creativity with the sound that you’re making. 

JC: Thank you, I learned so much!

You're very welcome!

*An abbreviated list of film scores David has recorded: Across the Universe 2007, The Alamo 2003, The Brave One 2007, The Departed 2006, Failure to Launch 2006, The Good Shepherd 2006, The Heffalump Movie 2005, Hitch 2005, Intolerable Cruelty 2003, Julie & Julia 2009, Keeping up with the Jonses 2016, The Ladykillers 2004, The Last Mimzy 2007, Maggie’s Plan 2015, Manchurian Candidate 2004, Meet the Robinsons 2007, Noah 2014, Perfect Stranger 2007, The Rookie 2001, Striptease 1996, A Time to Kill 1996, Tower Heist 2011, True Grit 2010, The Truth About Charlie 2002, Two Weeks Notice 2002, You Don’t Know Jack 2010.