Why movie scores sound better live

Feature Ivan Radford 27 Jun 2014 - 06:50

Film scores aren't just for playing in the background any more. Ivan looks at how they're taking centre stage...

Film soundtracks have always been a strange medium. The music relies on movies for their full meaning. They're so integral to a film and its mood that to listen to them away from the big screen can seem strange to many. Others, meanwhile, take the chance outside of the cinema to pore over them in detail, or use them for background music while running or working (How to Train Your Dragon's on now, if you're wondering). It's only in recent years that another way of listening to them has become popular again: with your eyes.

Do a quick Google for "film with live score" and you'll discover a whole heap of events currently happening around the UK in which orchestras accompany a screening. Why the sudden trend? Is it because audiences are becoming more appreciative of soundtracks? Or that film music is valued more highly in general? It's a bit of both.

Of course, live music and cinema is not a new combination. Back in the day - you know, the day - silent movies would have an organ or piano playing along with them. Some stars, such as Buster Keaton, would even offer hints to the musician to keep in time, subtly tapping out a metronome beat to pace a set piece correctly; once you notice it, a fascinating demonstration of the close relationship that exists between soundtracks and images.

Silent films, from shorts based on Dickens at the BFI to Rex Ingram's The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse at Birmingham's CBSO, have continued that tradition in the modern age. If you ever have the chance, The Dodge Brothers (featuring the flappy-handed Mark Kermode) doing Beggars of Life is a toe-tapping barnstormer of an evening, while any event involving Neil Brand at a piano is a master class in improvised accompaniment.

Until recently, though, it remained arguably a niche form of entertainment. That perhaps changed when the BFI held its Genius of Hitchcock celebration two years ago. Featuring nine restorations of his early silents, the season saw newly commissioned scores given the fanfare - ahem - they deserved.

Outside the British Museum, Neil Brand delivered a fantastic orchestral score for Blackmail, complete with mocking brass during one visual gag involving a jester painting. Nitin Sawhney used songs to soundtrack The Lodger, giving his Herrmann tribute an emotional depth during romantic scenes. Shlomo, best of all, proved Hitch could work a cappella, as a beatboxing quartet nailed Hitch’s Innocent Man on the Run archetype by singing the line "You don't know what you're doing to me" over and over.

All of these musical decisions were even more effective thanks to being performed live. Since Hitch's sell-out shows, people seem to be cottoning on to that fact: live scores are everywhere. The Royal Albert Hall, with its mushroom-enhanced acoustics, has brought the world The Artist, Singin’ in the Rain, West Side Story and Gladiator concerts in the last couple of years, culminating in May 2014 with a double-bill of Michael Giacchino's Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness. The Royal Festival Hall and Barbican, meanwhile, are on a roll, with everything from Waltz With Bashir to Beasts Of The Southern Wild given an orchestral showcase.

At the same time, film composers are becoming more prominent: while John Williams's Star Wars and Indiana Jones have been staples in classical repertoires for some time, now we regularly have nights dedicated to one person. The Royal Albert Hall recently premiered a celebration of Danny Elfman's work with Tim Burton, David Arnold has an evening in London coming up next month, while Clint Mansell is taking to the stage in October. Even Ennio Morricone is conducting his career highlights in December as part of a national tour.

It's heaven for soundtrack fans, because you pick up on so many extra details when watching an orchestra.

Michael Nyman demonstrated his versatility and percussive imagination accompanying shorts at the London Film Festival last year. There Will Be Blood's score - performed briefly at a concert at the Southbank Centre in 2013 by the Kensington Symphony Orchestra - revealed that the best way to play Jonny Greenwood's atmospheric music is to hold the instruments sideways. It's one thing to hear to those sinister, discordant notes; it's another to see them plucked on a violin like a funny-shaped guitar.

Star Trek sent chills through the Royal Albert Hall audience when Giacchino's French Horn melody took flight, but the live orchestra revealed Giacchino’s striking knack for instrumentation. Ever wondered what the hell an Erhu, used on Spock's theme, is? There was the answer, along with how to play it. Tried to pin down why Michael's rendition of Alexander Courage's classic theme sounded so faithful to the original? It partly stems from the bongos, which reprised their offbeat role over the end credits - a touch easily noticed on stage that could easily get lost in a cinema’s speakers. (After that and Mission Impossible's In Russia, Phone Dials You, Giacchino is officially King of the Bongo.)

The sci-fi evening was capped off by a surprise preview of Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes – a bit like a band playing a track off their new album. Conducted by Giacchino himself, the piece saw him eschew the expected drums for a quiet, moving piano, harp and choral melody.

The Danny Elfman concert, accompanied by clips and concept art for Tim Burton's movies, had an even bigger final surprise: Elfman stepped out to perform What's This? and Oogie Boogie's Song in sync with footage from The Nightmare Before Christmas. One could easily imagine a composer to be a restrained, quiet person. Elfman soon put that to rest. Jiving and contorting his face while wearing a fetching green jacket, he was clearly having the time of his life free from the restraints of a recording studio mic - much to the delight of the crowd (and the amusement of the distracted orchestra). Throughout his over-the-top theatrics, he didn't miss a beat.

Mica Levi's astonishing Under the Skin, though, is perhaps the most effective score to be given an airing. Unusual, unsettling and incredibly haunting, it performed live by a small ensemble emphasised both its complex ambition and artful simplicity. Over the trippy, birth-like introduction, a woman spoke random words into a microphone, while synths soon started to join in; a mix of sound and music that would normally only be witnessed behind post-production doors. But it's the string theme that stuck in your mind: three notes stretching up into the ether, as Scarlett Johansson's alien does… whatever it is she does with her male victims. The prevalence of the metronome-like drum, meanwhile, was even more evident than before; a lub-dub cycle that underscored almost every scene in the movie, echoing the heartbeat that Scarlett's ET hears around her but can never have.

The event, like many of these occasions, sold out completely.

Is that because soundtracks are increasingly recognized as a form of art? In the publicly voted Classic FM Hall of Fame, film scores have had a growing presence. In 2013, Howard Shore’s The Lord Of The Rings climbed 14 places to 20th in the chart, its highest position since 2004. This year, Hans Zimmer’s Inception crept in at 300th. It’s a rise not unlike that of video game soundtracks, which online campaigns have fought to gain recognition for (Nobuo Uematsu’s Final Fantasy music came third in 2013). This year, Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 was bumped into second place after three years in the top spot – it is no coincidence, perhaps, that it is also well known for its role in Brief Encounter. Indeed, the Royal Festival Hall this year has an entire concert devoted to recreating David Lean’s romantic classic.

Scores are certainly becoming more valued – not only by audiences but also by organisers. Tickets for these events are, inevitably, more expensive than a typical screening; in an age where event cinema is increasingly relied upon to keep exhibitors in business and combat audiences streaming things at home, live scores offer another premium experience that can be priced to match.

But fans are clearly interested. Why? Because live score screenings offer an experience unlike any other. There’s the technical wizardry on display – the sight of the conductor, precisely timing their tempo with the pictures on a small monitor – but also the emotional experience. Orchestras can distract from a movie at times, but the part-concert/part-screening hybrid gives them a rightful pride of place; the feelings music can evoke is even more powerful in a group environment. At the Royal Albert Hall’s Star Trek screening, the auditorium spontaneously erupted into applause when the title appeared – an act that would be unheard of in a cinema. The outburst occurred not just when the text came onto the screen, but when Giacchino’s French Horns played their rousing theme for the first time.

Film soundtracks are a strange medium. They rely upon movies for their full meaning. Live score screenings, then, may seem odd, but they are, in many ways, the soundtrack’s natural environment; a chance to appreciate a composition within its context. For 90 blissful minutes or more, the music isn’t not just background music for jogging or working – it’s all around you. If you ever get the chance to see a movie with a live score, I highly recommend it. It’s sense-ational.

Some upcoming screenings / concerts:

2nd July - Michael Kamen concert (Amaryllis Fleming Concert Hall)
4th-6th July - West Side Story - Film With Live Orchestra (Royal Albert Hall)
6th July - David Arnold concert (Royal Festival Hall)
30th/31st July – Beasts of the Southern Wild + Live Score (Barbican)
6th/7th Aug – There Will Be Blood + Live Score (Roundhouse)
15th Aug – Brief Encounter Live (Royal Festival Hall)
18th Aug - Dawn Of The Dead + Live Score (Union Chapel)
19th Aug - Suspiria + Live Score (Union Chapel)
7th Oct - Clint Mansell (Barbican)
14th Oct – Clint Mansell concert (Glasgow)
10th December - Ennio Morricone concert (The O2)
14th December – Ennio Morricone concert (Birmingham)
15th December – Ennio Morricone concert (Manchester)

Read Ivan's previous instalment of Music In Film here.

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