Monday, August 30, 2010

The Film Composer's Bookshelf

(Updated below)

In a recent discussion the question of what books would be of use to the budding film composer came up and I needed some time to think about it and gather some information together. The following is by no means exhaustive. I also think that having a well-rounded library is important. To that end, I've included not just books about the technical aspects of film scoring, but also selections dealing with aesthetics, case studies and anecdotal evidence.

Karlin, Fred and Wright, Rayburn. On The Track: A Guide To Contemporary Film Scoring: This text is invaluable. The music examples alone are worth the price of the book but there's so much more than that. Every aspect of scoring a film is discussed from sending out demos to getting a gig to meeting with the director and producer to knowing what the hierarchy is on the mixing stage. The second edition (which is what I have) has a lot of updated musical examples with a special emphasis on James Newton Howard. There are a lot of Jerry Goldsmith examples, too. The first edition of the book had a click book as an appendix. This would've been pretty invaluable at the time, but as computers have taken a much larger role in laying out timings, it has become somewhat antiquated. That being said, I still think having a click book - or at the very least understanding how click timings work, which is still covered in the book - is a pretty valuable tool. If you only get one book about film scoring technique, this is the one to have.

Burt, George, The Art of Film Music: George Burt is a composer who attempts to take a deeper look into film/music interaction with a special emphasis on the music of David Raksin, Hugo Friedhofer, Alex North and Leonard Rosenman (somewhat offputtingly, he also uses examples of his own scores alongside these guys). This is the sort of text that, as much as the author tries, is largely accessible only to those who are musically literate.

Prendergast, Roy M. Film Music: A Neglected Art: This was the first book I ever owned about film music. It was pretty out-of-date then (in the late '90s) and to my knowledge has never really been revised. It provides a pretty good overview of the history of film music, but there are a lot of places where he gets into specific cases of how film music functions in a given context. A fair number of musical examples but almost nothing contemporary. Prendergast has strong opinions and isn't afraid to share them. Some of which he's taken to task by...

Brown, Royal S., Overtones and Undertones: Reading Film Music: I picked this up several years back. It largely deals with aesthetics and can occasionally be dense and can get bogged down in film and music theory, but it can be insightful, too. There are several scores that are considered somewhat more in depth (among others, The Sea Hawk, Laura, and Double Indemnity. A significant portion is also given over to Hitchcock/Herrmann).

Adorno, Theodor and Eislier, Hanns. Composing for the Films. I'm still working through this for the first time myself, but it seems to come up - along with Claudia Gorbman's maddeningly out-of-print Unheard Melodies - in damned near every bibliography of every film music study I come across (not a small number anymore). It's an interesting - though occasionally dense - read and is the first attempt (in 1947!) of a codification of the aesthetics of music in film. Many of its ideas are wrapped up in the socialism vs. capitalism debate so consider yourself warned.

Davis, Richard. Complete Guide to Film Scoring. This book was given to me and is really just an overview of the business side of scoring. There's very little in it that deals with technique and craft. Basically, "Get it done. Get it done one time." Duh. But there are some really great interviews in the book as well.

Halfyard, Janet. Danny Elfman's Batman: A Film Score Guide: This is a terrific little read and is a more-or-less exhaustive case study of Elfman's momentous and far-reaching score.

Henderson, Sanya Shoilevska. Alex North, Film Composer: This was pretty clearly Ms. Henderson's doctoral dissertation. It's valuable for its inclusion of scores that cut a wide swath across North's career in Hollywood including A Streetcar Named Desire, Spartacus, and The Misfits (with a few others). She discusses in detail the interactions of North's music with the films he scored and how he "got inside" the character of those films.

Morgan, David. Knowing the Score: Film Composers Talk About the Art, Craft, Blood, Sweat, and Tears of Writing for Cinema: This little tome is basically a series of interviews. Jerry Goldsmith, Michael Kamen, Elliot Goldenthal, John Corigliano and others offer up surprisingly frank anecdotes and the ups and downs of their lives in the film business. It's an interesting insight into their ideas about writing music for films. Anyone who has never scored a film, reads this and still wants to score films may have the temperament needed for the occupation.

Rózsa, Miklós. A Double Life: This is Rózsa's autobiography. It is fantastically entertaining and it's almost difficult to believe that one person did so much. Then one has to remember that the man moved in a lot of artistic circles in his lifetime. It's amazing to read about how much the man looked down on Hollywood and was a bit of a culture snob. There are several really entertaining stories including one about Stravinsky refusing to acknowledge a piece of his own and a scene in Ben-Hur that was original supposed to be shot with topless women for "authenticity."

Smith, Steve. A Heart At Fire's Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann: Apparently no one knows more about Bernard Herrmann than Steve Smith. This intelligent and literate biography portrays Benny in all his brilliance, his fiery personality, and all his contradictions. Worth the read about the guy who is largely responsible for and the forerunner of modern American film music1.

I've intentionally chosen to leave scores out of the discussion. It's too messy a subject and is becoming less and less important in contemporary film scoring unless you wind up spending more time as an orchestrator (which isn't a bad thing - those folks make pretty good money). I will however mention this: if it's at all possible you should attend one of Steven Scott Smalley's film orchestration seminars. It's four hundred bucks for the seminar, plus plane tickets and lodging (unless you know somebody who lives there), but it's just about the best four hundred bucks you'll ever spend. two days of intense discussion and score study and nearly 400 pages of scores and sketches. I would imagine that they haven't updated many of the score samples since 2003, owing to the fact that Scott hasn't worked much lately (because he's, well, kind of a hippie and tried to cram 40 years worth of work into 20 years so that he could retire and live off the land) but it's still worth the trip2. Yes, I do reference the scores. A lot.

1. Yeah. That last bit is solely an opinion of my own.  But maybe a topic worth exploring in the future.

2. Though if you do attend, particularly in L.A., you have to be prepared for a couple things. First, if you're a classically trained composer, you're going to bang your head on the table a fair bit because of the pop musicians that raise their hands when Scott starts talking about the octatonic scale. Second, you'll most likely be one of the youngest people in the room (out of one hundred people, the only person younger than me was a Brazilian kid named Thiago who was a student at UNC-Greensboro).


Reed said...

"...if it's at all possible" what? If it's all possible WHAT?

Reed said...

The more and more I think about this orchestration class, the more and more I want to attend!

Herr Vogler said...

It's extremely useful.

Though I'm not sure I'd want to live there, I do love L.A. I went totally on the cheap. I have a couple of friends that live out there that I was able to crash with and I flew on Thursday and Monday to save a few more bucks. I spent pretty much the entire day on Friday before the workshop at the Getty Center, which is just...plain...awesome.

the warrior bard said...