by Dan Goldwasser
Here we take a little break from the soundtrack world, and focus on the literary world. There have been plenty of books written about the craft of film music, ranging from interview books, review books, and even coffee table books. SoundtrackNet decided to take a look at a few of them, because there's more out there than the music store!
In "Knowing the Score", author David Morgan (of "Monty Python Speaks!") takes on the world of film music. He interviewed such composers as David Raksin, Michael Kamen, David Shire, Elliot Goldenthal, Elmer Bernstein, Carter Burwell, Patrick Doyle, and others. The book is organized in a very straightforward manner. A particular issue (such as "Period Pieces" or "Orchestration") will be addressed through the use of interview snippets from the various composers. Morgan also talked at length with these composers about a particular project (such as Kamen on Brazil, Goldenthal on Titus, and so forth).
The interview questions aren't exactly hardball ones, but Morgan does a rather solid job of getting lengthy and interesting answers from the interviewees. In the process, some rather interesting facts are brought out. I hadn't realized that Burwell wrote a complete score to Kiss The Girls that was then dropped and replaced with Mark Isham's score, or that Goldenthal had previously written a score to Julie Taymor's stage version of Titus. The interview replies are cleverly interwoven to give the impression that all of these industry greats are sitting in a room together, sipping coffee and answering Morgan's questions.
About 300 pages long, this is a well-done book that will probably be a rather quick read, especially if you find yourself engrossed in the subject matter.
Harper Collins, 2000, ISBN 0-380-80482-4 ($14.00)
This book is rather different from "Knowing the Score" mainly in terms of format. With 15 composers interviewed, including John Barry, Elmer Bernstein, James Newton Howard, Thomas Newman, Howard Shore, and Christopher Young, the answers are not interwoven as with the other book. Rather in this case, each composer gets his (or her - Shirley Walker is interviewed as well) own section. The interviews came across as interesting and respectful, but it felt just a little dry at times, probably as a result of the length! They range from 20 to over 40 pages long, and the book is much larger than your average paperback. So even though it's only about 430-pages long, it feels a lot longer.
But the few detriments of this book are things you can overlook rather easily, because this is film music we're reading about, and it's straight from the horses' mouths. As one would expect, the detail and depth of the interviews allow the personality of the composers to come through. As a result, Marc Shaiman's interview is probably the most entertaining read, because he's such an offbeat character. If you're interested in detailed straightforward interviews with these film composers, then this is the interview book for you.
Silman-James Press, 1999, ISBN 1-879505-40-1 ($19.95)
It's actually the only book I have that gives you a real good idea of what it takes to write a score for film or television. Composer Jeff Rona (one of the gang over at Media Ventures), takes the reader step-by-step through the process of writing a film score, and writing a television score. He gives us detailed information on the pitfalls and problems he had with the projects, and also tells us what worked for him. With photographs, diagrams, charts, score cues and even links to his website where you can hear these cues in depth, this book truly does cover it all. Setting up your studio, recording the music, explaining royalties, and much more - it's all in there! To top it off, Rona even interviews other composers to get their thoughts and perspectives on various aspects of the industry.
This book contained some incredibly useful advice, and the methodical approach to explaining everything made it an incredibly easy read, one that I enjoyed. I might take personal issue with his decision to use White Squall as the film score example (come on Jeff, there have been better projects you've worked on!), but that's just a minor point. Remember, not everyone's experience will be the same, so what worked for Jeff might not work for you! But it's still a great book that gives you a lot of insight in what it might take to succeed in the wacky world of Hollywood.
Miller Freeman Books, 2000, ISBN 0-87930-591-6 ($24.95)
When it comes to sheer magnitude, nothing compares to this enormous book. Taking up most of your bookshelf, this gargantuan 870+ page book gives thumbnail reviews of over 3,000 soundtracks. While people's tastes may differ, this is still quite a heck of a guide. Listing the soundtrack alphabetically, and then grouped by composer, the book also features a listing of websites (somewhat out of date) and an address listing of CD manufacturers (also somewhat out of date).
Overall, it's a rather large undertaking that resulted in a few errors, which couldn't have been avoided given the sheer magnitude of the project! For instance, John Ottman is listed has having conducted Snow White: A Tale of Terror, when he actually did not. It's a minor point, but combined with a few spelling errors throughout the book, it slowly adds up. But it doesn't add up enough to dissuade anyone from getting this book. It's hard to find a soundtrack that isn't in this book, unless it came out after it was published. If you want a quick reference for soundtracks this book is the king of them.
Visible Ink Press, 2000, ISBN 1-57859-101-5 ($24.95)
Okay, so this isn't exactly the most comprehensive guide to soundtracks released. Broken down by composer, it doesn't list all of the soundtracks for any given composer - and there are many composers sadly missing from the book. But for those that it does list, Burlingame (who writes for Variety and The Hollywood Reporter) gives a thumbnail review, with a bit of historical reference for context. There is also a section focusing on Song Scores and Compilation Scores - basically pop albums and compilation discs. It's safe to say that if it's listed in this book, you really should make an effort to have it. (But that isn't saying that if it's not in this book, you shouldn't get it either!) Think of it as a "greatest hits" listing. Word is that Burlingame is working on a follow-up book, one that will address many of the soundtracks and composers he wasn't able to mention in this one.
But what makes this book so invaluable is the first section. Titled "A Brief History of Movie Soundtrack Recordings", this 32-page essay is an incredible journey through the history of soundtracks. Beginning with the first soundtrack (Don Juan in 1926), Burlingame explores the progression of music in the movies. From the MGM Musicals and the "golden age" of scoring (with Alfred Newman and the gang), through to the 1960's - where everything changed. Now it was all about a "hit song" - a trend that progressed through the 1970's, when there was a "rebirth" of film scores. Burlingame addresses every new trend with a non-judgmental, analytical approach that makes it a truly unbiased, fascinating read. It is for those 30-pages alone that I would strongly recommend this book.
Billboard Books, 2000, ISBN 0-8230-8427-2 ($18.95)
Ah, the coffee table book! Usually oversized, filled with glossy pictures, they lie out on our coffee tables for our guests to browse. This book, however, is something more. It's fully devoted to film music. It contains full-page reproductions of original orchestral score sheets from some highly influential film scores. After an introduction (with beautiful color pictures from films throughout the ages), the book is broken down by composer. Bernard Herrmann, Elmer Bernstein, Maurice Jarre, Jerry Goldsmith, John Barry, Lalo Shifrin, Michael Nyman, Gabriel Yared, Philip Glass, Howard Shore, Danny Elfman, Zbigniew Preisner, and Ryuichi Sakamoto are all covered in this book.
Each composer (with the exception of Herrmann) is given a short biography, and then the rest of the section is an interview where there are no distinct questions asked. It reads like a monologue, with the composer giving his thoughts on his films. The use of color photos and film scores helps accentuate the lovely design of the book. But what stands out the most is probably the CD that is included with the book. It contains recordings of 13 cues, one per composer. All of them, however, are re-recordings done by Silva Screen records, which means that some people might be disappointed they weren't the original performances. Nonetheless, this is the first coffee table book I've seen that is a true multimedia experience!
Focal Press, 2000, ISBN 0-240-80441-4 ($44.95)
Now this is an interesting book. It's not as much a film music book, per se, as it is a collection of philosophical essays on life, culture, and more - as seen through the eyes of a film composer. Charles Bernstein had written many essays through the past few years for "The Score", the quarterly newsletter for the Society of Composers and Lyricists. Compiling them together with a few more essays resulted in this book. Bernstein comes across as likeable, and almost whimsical in his thoughts and comments. The essays are well researched and interesting enough that this book was hard to put down.
It's interesting that a film composer would write about the rest of the world, and only mention in passing the craft that made him so well known. But that is the strong appeal to this book - by understanding what goes on in a film composer's mind, we get a better understanding of how they work. But even more importantly than that, this book reminds those out there who elevate film composers to godlike stature that they are still regular folks, with the same thoughts, needs, desires, and beliefs as the rest of us. This book brings the way we see film composers back down to earth - and should be required reading for everyone who has a little shrine dedicated to their favorite composer.
Turnstyle Music Publishing, 2000, ISBN 0-9704273-01 ($18.95)