How To Make An Award-Winning Soundtrack

We’re well into award season and this Sunday sees the crème de la crème of Hollywood at the Academy Awards witnessing who is crowned Best Actor, Best Motion Picture and superficially Best Dressed. But what about the production awards who don’t get as much coverage as the others? Jonathan Goldstein takes a look at what makes an award winning soundtrack, and the challenges of working with Oscar-worthy directors.

1. What in your opinion makes an award winning soundtrack?

That’s an interesting question and one that I’ve debated often when I’ve had the honour of sitting on various awards panels. Personally, I think it’s quite a serious business. If you want to be a responsible judge, the question you must ask yourself is – how will your decision be perceived by an emerging and aspiring generation of creative artists/composers who will view your judgement as a measure of what’s great and what’s not? If you pull something out of a vast collection of work and say “look at this!”, you have to mean what you say, and stand by it, because you can bet your life everyone will do exactly that: look at it, marvel at it and then try to copy it. Before you know it, your award has started a new trend. So awarding something just because it’s cool, funny, pointlessly shocking or offensive which, let’s face it, happens, isn’t smart. An award-winning piece of work needs to stop creators dead in their tracks and make them reassess their craft. When I was on the film music panel for the Ivor Novello Awards, amongst all the vast and impressive orchestral entries there was one shockingly stand-out piece of work: a minimal score consisting of just guitar and cello. It silenced the room and made the hairs on everyone’s necks stand up. It was humbling and made us wish we had done it but, dammit, hadn’t. There was nothing to debate; just a unanimous show of hands. It was, in short, an award-winner.

2. Do you agree with the statement that most award winning soundtracks are compilations of good songs rather than compositions? 

 Sometimes, yes. There has always been a blurring of lines between ‘score’ and ‘soundtrack’. You often hear people talk about ‘a great soundtrack’ but often this is essentially a playlist, curated by the music supervisor and often helped along by investors from the record industry using the movie as a vehicle to promote bands and artists. There is nothing wrong with that in itself but, equally, there is nothing integral to a movie about a selection of pre-existing tracks. Whilst it can be massively effective (one need only think of Pulp Fiction etc.) it is quite a separate thing from the craft of writing an entire movie score. The reality is that because soundtracks are essentially made up of pop/rock tracks, they are more accessible and sell-able, whereas original scores require a bit of concentration so they don’t work so well in the car, on the tube or in the shower. The contribution that original scores have made to the world of cinema is breathtaking but, ironically, generally less appreciated or acknowledged. There are still, however, plenty of awards for original scores, so it is far from dead as a category (unless it’s D&AD which, bafflingly only awards ‘Best Use of Music’ – why is that, D&AD?!).

3. Is it important for the composer to work closely with the director on a film?

Yes, very much so. The director is the person with the overall artistic vision, so it’s vital that the composer works closely with him/her to understand that vision and dig deep inside it. Having said that, some composers struggle with this and it has been known for composers to fall out with their directors due to ‘artistic differences’ (they obviously don’t have rent to pay!). On the other hand, it has also been known for composers to challenge directors to historical, ground-breaking effect: famously, the shower scene in Psycho which Hitchcock was going to cut because he didn’t think it worked. Bernard Herrmann, the composer, persuaded him to keep the scene in until he watched it with his music in place. The rest, shall we say, is history. But this is rare indeed and my advice to composers would generally be: don’t be a smart arse!

4. Do you think music is often considered an afterthought when it comes to films and adverts?

Yes. Always. I’ve given up trying to find a solution to this problem though which is two-fold: firstly, no-one quite knows what they want from the music until the ad/film is shot, despite best intentions and efforts to start the process early on. The weather, casting, set, location, director’s mood, editor’s decisions, client’s / producer’s interventions all conspire against any sensible level of forward-planning. Secondly, when people do finally get round to the music, they’ve usually run out of time (and, ahem, money) so a mad scramble ensues with opinions flying around and… oh, by the way… they need it yesterday… “is that ok?”.

5. In your opinion, what would consider the most important soundtrack of all time?There has to be more than one, but obvious contenders are: Jaws, for the power of two notes which, incidentally, would have sounded positively comical when Spielberg would have first heard John Williams demo them on the piano (no digital mockups in those days!); Psycho (see Question 3!); 2001 A Space Odyssey – not for an original score (that was actually thrown out!) but for putting the art of Music Supervision on the map – who would have thought a Johann Strauss Waltz could set the tone for deep space? On which note: Star Wars is up right there and, in fact, anything by John Williams who is probably the most gifted, influential and copied film composer of our time, aside from Hans Zimmer. But, in reality, the award should actually go to the 19th century opera composer, Richard Wagner, for inventing the concept of the ‘leitmotif’ – a theme/musical device that announces or represents a character on/off-stage. Where would the Storm Troopers in Star Wars or the shark in Jaws be without that?!

6. What is the most frustrating thing about writing film music?

This would have to be the syndrome known as ‘the curse of the temp track’. But, like the musical afterthought problem in Question 4, there is no solution, folks. An editor chooses a track to cut to for a tempo and a mood, and, before you know it, through sheer repetition and being the first thing anyone hears, this track becomes the template which the composer must follow or face certain career-ending consequences. The skill is to find a way of reinterpreting the reference in a new way without panicking the director/producer, and/or paying homage to the track without ending up in court. No-one said it was easy. But someone did say that editors should only be allowed a metronome. Nice thought!

7. Which soundtracks would you say have been the biggest influence on your musical career?

Ooh, tough one, so many have influenced me but I guess the ones that stick out are: There Will Be Blood; the beautiful Italian-inspired movies such as Cinema Paradiso; the score to Babel (in fact anything by Gustavo Santaollala); 12 Monkeys, for its bizarre but brilliant use of Argentinian Tango music to accompany Terry Gilliam’s dystopian vision – who would have thought?! The power of film music to revolutionise our perception of things is what makes it so special.

8. It has been claimed that people still do not take the film score genre seriously enough, however the popularity of live performances of film scores could help classical music evolve beyond declining record sales and audience figures, for example cinematic experiences with a live orchestra at Royal Albert Hall.. What are your views on this? 

Absolutely. I think the genre has come a very long way and is now being taken quite seriously by the musical establishment. Radio 3 even plays movie music from time to time! The rise in live performances is very exciting and indicates a genuine appetite amongst the public, so something is definitely happening. It’s great to see more and more screened performances. Long may they continue – at a concert hall near you!

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