Music is truly the universal language. Whether a composer resides here in Los Angeles, or elsewhere around the world, we communicate in this common vernacular that sets ours apart from other professions. Although the seamless transference of our ideas from one global location to another makes our craft the most international of trades, sometimes we are myopic when it comes to recognizing this fact. One can either be too caught up in his or her own private world or naive to what other cultures have to offer. This is both good and bad and the paradoxes need to be explored.
Growing up in Oklahoma, my creative vision was a product of the environment I grew up in. Now that is not to say that all the listening to Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, or even the Beatles wasn’t assimilated into my palette, however it was only when I was afforded the opportunity to travel to Europe when I was sixteen that my horizons were truly expanded. Spending the summer in the south of France, I heard for the first time some of the exotic influences of the Algerian culture, particularly in vocal nuances and scales, and was struck at how these elements blended so unconsciously into the music that was uniquely French. Although all of this music was profoundly unfamiliar, it soon became a part of my greater knowledge and I soon found that my communication through music provided an outlet of expression that made me comfortable, even though I was thousands of miles away from my home.
In the same fashion, our own contributions as a composer or lyricist know no international boundaries and how wonderful that is. This year’s Oscar nominees came from such diverse locales as Italy, Spain, Argentina and the United States. We were proud to host a screening with Argentina’s Gustavo Santaolalla of Brokeback Mountain, a few months before he won the Academy Award for best original score. Uruguayan songwriter Jorge Drexler’s evocative song, Al Otro Lado Del Rio from The Motorcycle Diaries was feted at the awards the prior year and the SCL was fortunate to have Jorge as our guest at our Oscar reception and were treated to a discourse from him regarding the song and its evolution. Tan Dunn was our guest a few years previously, and he also was victorious on Oscar night.
Keeping with this train of thought, part of what makes our profession special is the range of influences that different locales and cultures bring. Each composer’s score or songwriter’s song is imbued with his or her unique talent and that is always, to a certain degree, a product of their geographical environment. I had the pleasure of interviewing last year’s Oscar winner, Polish composer, Jan A.P. Kaczmarek for the Score recently. Jan listed a range of influences, including maestro Ennio Morricone’s music, but Jan’s output certainly is most importantly a product of his singular environment although it clearly benefits from his larger vision, which in fact has been sculpted by those he admires.
Jan is building an institute in Western Poland near Germany. It’s called the Rozbitek Institute and will be a meeting place for artists from all over the world. In the same way that Sundance has brought together filmmakers from around the globe, Rozbitek will celebrate music and its creators in a similar fashion. The exchange of ideas and influences will undoubtedly expand our collective artistic scope and add to the over-all appreciation of our craft.
A number of prominent composers have made the study of indigenous music part of their life’s mission. Nowhere was that more evident than in the life and work of Bela Bartok. The gifted Hungarian composer, who was so accurately chronicled by one of my teachers, Halsey Stevens, was driven by a thirst of knowledge to document the native Hungarian folk music before it became extinct. His concert work was a testimonial to his tireless efforts to historically record these unique folk songs, as were his intricate piano pieces that many of us played. His oeuvre clearly reflected his passion for this music.
In the same way that it is appropriate and certainly desired to incorporate our own cultural nuances into our work, it is equally admirable to be able to call upon what we have learned from other composers to add to our larger creativity. Certainly the inclusion of exotic instruments has become common practice in our profession, particularly when we are called upon to create a time and place in our scores. The Society of Composers and Lyricists has made a point of presenting a series of seminars entitled Exotic Flavors: A Practical Guide for Writing for Exotic Instruments. Karen Han demonstrated the Erhu at our gathering in May. In the same way that Claude Monet and his fellow impressionists were influenced by the Japanese woodcuts of Ando Hiroshige, Claude Debussy was enamored with the scales and tonalities of Japanese music. Nowhere was Debussy’s fascination with another tradition more evident than in his symphonic homage to Spain, Iberia. Having a grasp of other cultures will undoubtedly widen your palette, but your unmistakable personality is bound to shine through.
The Union des Compositeurs de Musique de Film, a group of French composers, not unlike the Society of Composers and Lyricists, has created the International Film-Music Pavilion at the Cannes Film Festival. They have partnered with a number of composer groups from around the world to celebrate the art of film music. Their program has included a letter from the SCL extolling the virtues of our organization and we hope to become even more involved as this pavilion continues to evolve over the course of time. Our friend, Dennis Dreith has regularly attended the Cannes Festival in his role as administrator of the Film Musicians Secondary Market Fund, and your talented board member, Benoit Grey spent a good deal of time making contacts and spreading the word about our organization at this year’s festival.
I have met a number of times with officers from the Guild of Canadian Film Composers. They have their own society that has been successful with certain types of collective bargaining and from time to time have had issues that are similar to ours. My friends Ashley Irwin and Bruce Rowland from Australia have participated in SCL seminars and have brought their international perspective to our group, as has film and concert composer and SCL board member, Sharon Farber from Israel. Numerous participants in the SCL mentor program have traveled here from around the globe, and we probably learn as much from them as they are able to take from our program.
Finally, composers and lyricists from around the world have similar objectives. In interacting with our colleagues we will better our conditions, widen our perspective and perhaps most importantly, learn from each other which will not only enrich our music, but will in turn increase our value to the business as a whole.
Errata: I was still absorbed in the Gershwin house’s demise in our last issue. Of course the seminal book of Lyrics referenced in my last article was written by Oscar Hammerstein III, and not by Ira Gershwin. My apologizes.
Published in THE SCORE quarterly newsletter [Vol. XXI, Number Three, Fall 2006]