Hans P. Ströer

The Mystery of Film Music

by Hans P. Ströer

Our ancestors subsisted on roots, plants and fruits, without knowing anything about their nutritional content. Sating hunger was all that mattered. Grumbling stomachs demanded to be filled. The composition of the foodstuffs, their individual components and their particular effects were unknown. The first vitamins were discovered a century ago and, thanks to rapid progress in related research, we now know exactly which substances are on our plates and what effects they have on our organisms.

The effects of music and its components, on the other hand, remain largely unknown. Most of us listen to music without knowing what’s inside it. Exposure to sound is all that matters, because silence can be as painful as a grumbling stomach. Music has been the subject of research, but the results are nebulous. Each piece of music affects each person differently. And not only that: the same person doesn’t always perceive the same piece of music identically when he or she hears it at different times in various life situations.

Scientists have explored and understood how things work in many other areas of life, but they haven’t figured out how music works. Why not? Are you and I all of us opaque in this aspect? Don’t our musical reflexes work according to recognizable and repeatable patterns? Or do those reactive models continually mutate? Are too many variables involved?

What seems like a state of paradisiacal naiveté becomes a problem precisely where music is supposed to be created on demand, with a specific function and reliable effects on the greatest number of hearers: for example, in film.

The Mystery of Film Music

“What the music does in a film somehow remains a mystery…. To make film music effective is such an incomprehensible process that even I must admit, after having survived over sixty films, that I understand almost nothing about it.”

(Bernard Herrmann in “Filmmusik,” Tony Thomas, Munich 1995)

Because of this uncertainty, composers of film music rarely get a signed contract at the start of a production. They’re usually given a predefined trial period to develop the essential parts of the composition, present them, and change them as often as necessary until the customer gives the green light for their finalization. But in many cases, they never even get close to this point, because the composer is fired and a new one is hired.

In the early days of Hollywood too, the big studios would not only hire several screenplay authors, but also several composers, to write for one and the same film. The composers competed with one another, each trying to find the right tone for the film and to convince the decision-makers to use his music rather than any of his competitors’ compositions. Max Steiner, who composed the music for “Gone with the Wind,” describes a typical commissioning:

“Get us some film music, but be sure it’s not too expensive. If we don’t like it, somebody else will go over it.”

(From “Filmmusik,” Tony Thomas, Munich 1995)

David Raksin, the “grandfather of film music,” coined an appropriate saying: “Only someone who has been fired and exchanged for another is a dyed-in-the-wool film composer.”

(From “Knowing The Score,” Irwin Bazelon, New York 1975)

Eighty years have passed since then. The conversational tone may have become more elegant, but the number of instances has increased in which film music has been rejected and composers have been fired and new ones hired. A recent and prominent example is the firing of Gabriel Yared (who won an Oscar for his music to “The English Patient”) by Wolfgang Petersen, who rejected Yared’s music for Petersen’s film “Troy.” The trigger for the sacking was a preview in front of a small group of spectators, the majority of whom didn’t like Yared’s music.

Of course, a positive rating for the music from a preview audience doesn’t guarantee success at the box office. But how can one get good music or, should we say, the right, the best music for a film? A film composer often seems like an iPod with neither jogwheel nor display, like a jukebox with neither buttons nor index, like a cook with neither recipes nor menus, like a tailor with neither tape measure nor pattern, like a perplexed hairstylist…. What should one say to him? How can one brief him? How can one talk about music?

“Appropriate music for ‘Faust’ is wholly impossible. Our era abhors the repulsiveness, the repugnancy, the terribleness which parts of it would have to contain. The music would have to have the character of Don Juan; Mozart would have had to have composed the music for ‘Faust.’”

(From “Gespräche mit Goethe,” February 12, 1829, Johann Peter Eckermann, Leipzig 1908)

“It’s always so difficult with the music! I don’t know. What should I tell you? Just do it like Morricone!”

(The issuer of a commission to a composer of film music, 2009)

Do we need film music at all? No one would deny that camerawork and cutting, stage design, furnishings and light, costumes and makeup, sound and noises are indispensable stylistic elements in the making of a film. But music? An exotic ingredient, stirred into the pot shortly before serving, like an audible garam masala? Is it really necessary? Why are nearly all films still produced with music? Why do directors, producers and composers around the world subject themselves to this ordeal?

“The intimate relationship that music has to the true essence of all things also explains why, when appropriate music is heard accompanying a scene, an action, a process, an ambience, this music seems to unlock the most secret meaning and to be the clearest and most correct commentary….”

(From “Die Geburt der Tragödie aus dem Geiste der Musik,” Friedrich Nietzsche, Leipzig 1872)

“Music in a movie – somehow it makes the mood.” “Without music, the power would simply be missing.”

(Young people at the soundtrack bar, from “Stars and Sounds,” Matthias Keller, Kassel 2005)

To find this “appropriate music,” one typically orients oneself nowadays according to clear generic models, i.e. the internationally successful blockbusters. After the scenes have been cut into their final form in the cutting room, they’re provisionally underlain with pieces of music excerpted from successful films. The provisional music is supposed to serve the composer as a taste for a dish that he’s expected to repeat in his kitchen, i.e. to imitate in his musical composition. But there are two main stumbling blocks. First, the budget is ridiculously small compared to the budget of the successful blockbuster. Second, copyright law prohibits an all-too-similar copy of the original score. So the composer tiptoes along the tightrope between prohibited plagiarism on the one hand and an undesirably great deviation from the original on the other hand.

A similarly large group of filmmakers, film critics and filmgoers view this method with skepticism. They suspect that film music contains some kind of nerve poison that manipulates their feelings without their consent. But what they’re so suspicious of is, in fact, the emotional power of music. They often complain about film music which, they say, ruined an otherwise outstanding movie – the music was too much, too loud, downright hideous. In the most extreme case, they want to see filmed acting, pure and simple, with no additional effects. Though they can accept tracking shots, changing viewpoints, cropping of images and even leaps forward or backward through time, they feel that any music which isn’t directly produced by the action in the scene itself is disruptive and superfluous.

All this shows the extremely strong effect imputed or ascribed to film music, expected of or feared from it. When a composer of film music is commissioned, a spirit is summoned who, one hopes, will be like some sort of magician who adds something to the film that cannot be expressed in words. In the best case, he succeeds in this without a lot of talk and explanation. And it’s not unusual to keep a tight rein on the magic by carefully adjusting the volume control whenever the musical sorcery threatens to overwhelm the other filmic elements.

“But it became clear to me that [music] is generally much more powerful [and] that, on the other hand, painting could develop powers like those which music possesses.”

(From “Rückblicke,” Vassily Kandinsky, Berlin 1913)

Throughout the course of history, the individual artistic genres have always been assigned different rankings in the ancient and ongoing competition among the various art forms. In film, as a multimedia synthesis of the arts, this battle threatens to flare up again. Often another collaborator on a film will feel that his contribution is drowned out or outshone by the film music. The music can seem threatening for everyone else: not only for the Foley artists, but also for the cutters and even for the directors. It’s astonishing to read what Fellini said about this in an interview:

“Music confuses me. I prefer not to listen to it at all. It penetrates me, takes possession of me and demands my undivided attention. This insistence disconcerts me very much. I concern myself with music only within the context of my profession and then only through the mediation of my friend Nino and the musician Rota, otherwise I fundamentally avoid music. As far as music is concerned, I’m completely ignorant because it leads me into a dimension in which I would be totally dominated.”

(From “Federico Fellini - Interviews,” Federico Fellini/Bert Cardullo, Jackson, Mississippi 2008)

“A film must also function without music. The power of the word must manifest itself completely.”

(A German director, 2007)

The effects of music are particularly strong in situations where nothing more can be said in words. The unforgettable sight of ecstatic, howling, hysterical, sobbing, tearstained concertgoers could fill every non-musician with envy. What visual artist, author or filmmaker wouldn’t wish that his work could exert such a powerful effect on its audience? It’s a great temptation for directors to want to incorporate this strong stimulant, i.e. music, into their films. But the fear can be equally great – the fear that they won’t be able to control this unpredictable stimulant, which could potentially outshine them.

There are two main difficulties that are likely to be encountered in the production and implementation of film music. First, it’s obvious that the effects which the music and its individual parameters might have on the audience are not precisely controllable; the director, the cutter and the producer are the first audience that hears the film music. Second, the enormously expressive power of music and the fact that it’s an independent component of the film, inserted from the outside, are felt as a strong intervention in the existing cinematic composition. With this in mind, it seems as though conflicts are preprogrammed and inevitable. In situations such as these, how can film music come to be at all?

My Own Way

I have often had the good fortune to work with directors and producers who could cope with these situations. They joined with me as partners in a dialogue and, in some instances they invited me to participate in their artistic filmmaking process. This gave me time and opportunities to tentatively feel my way into their work and to find out what goals they were pursuing. They enjoyed the excitement of being involved in the music and seeing how the music added atmosphere and expression to their films. Together with me, we sought and found the right music. They never felt that my contributions were a competing foreign body. They were strong enough and free enough from vanity to take pleasure in an audible glow which they had commissioned, but hadn’t made themselves. And I never forgot that my music would not have been created without their film.

Perhaps it’s helpful for me that film music isn’t my sole professional activity. I also wrote music for the stage, i.e. for spoken drama, for twenty years. I’ve spent countless hours in rehearsal rooms, observing the work of directors and actors, and participating in critiques. As a jazz musician, I stood on the stage myself for more than 1,000 concerts: those on-stage experiences taught me a lot about how audiences are directly affected by music. As a studio musician and arranger, I accompanied and observed the most widely diverse artists in the often laborious process of creating their music. I’ve seen how they wrestled with their artworks, how they focused every last shred of their strength until they succeeded in coming as close as possible to their vision and satisfying their own expectations. Together with my brother, I’ve developed and realized our own ideas for various music and book projects, some of which we published through our own publishing house. Last but not least, as a commissioned producer in the team for Polygram for many years, I gained the firsthand experience of accepting responsibility for others, selecting artistic collaborators and granting commissions to them. In this context, I also became familiar with the uncertainty inherent in this position: Have we chosen the right collaborators? Will they succeed in the jobs we’ve tasked them with?

Especially as a wanderer between various styles and genres, I must be particularly attentive not to lose sight of the audience. It makes a big difference if I’m working on experimental forms intended for a small and highly specialized theater audience (as I did for many years with the director Elke Lang at TAT in Frankfurt) or if I’m composing music for a major European production that will be seen by millions of moviegoers (as I did most recently for Buddenbrooks” by Heinrich Breloer). But in both cases, I enter a space which is largely predesigned and which includes potential points of departure for musical accompaniment. My first task is to explore these. The next step is to find a musical tone and tenor that organically combines with the plot, the protagonists and the images. It seems to me that my work is already partly successful if the music resounds from the images as though it had always been there, created simultaneously with the pictures and the plot, rather than having been added afterwards. Like the actors and actresses, I too would like to make the audience forget that I’m merely “playing.” As a composer of film music, I think and feel like a “music actor.”

How It All Began

“As a little boy, I remember peeking through the crack of the door and watching my father as he stood in the middle of the living room and listened to classical music. He moved his arms and hands to and fro in wide-reaching conductor’s motions and he took a step or two, not because he was leading the orchestra that had recorded its performance on the vinyl disk, but to feel and experience the music more intensively.”

“Our father also played in a string quartet, which met in our home three evenings each year to play chamber music. First we would all have supper together, then furniture would be pushed aside, music stands set up and instruments unpacked. I’ll never forget the compact and transparent sound of that little ensemble. These were the first times I heard the names and the music of Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, Brahms, Mendelssohn-Bartholdy and many other composers.”

“When I was two years old, I had problems falling asleep. Every evening, after mama had exhausted her repertoire of songs, my father would stand beside my little bed and play gypsy music on his violin. I was fascinated, not only by the slightly rough sound and the vibrato of the profound melodies, but also by the expressive rocking motions of the violinist in the dimly lit bedroom. I would stand up, clinging tightly to the rails around my bed, and listen while I stood. When one piece was over, I would take the pacifier from my mouth just long enough to ask for a nursery rhyme on the violin. This musical request program would continue until my father sank to his bed in exhaustion and fell asleep, lying on his back with his arms outstretched, his violin in one hand and its bow in the other. Attracted by the silence, mama would tiptoe into the room, where she would find me standing in my bed – very happy and very awake!”

(From “Das Musikhörbuch,” Ströer Bros., Schott Music Mainz 2008)

(Translated into English by Howard Fine from an abridged version of a German text which was originally published in the book “Filmmusikbekenntnisse,” edited by Bèatrice Ottersbach and Thomas Schadt, UVK Verlagsgesellschaft, Constance 2009)