What’s the opposite of a golden age? Whatever it’s called, it’s the age we’re living in when it comes to soundtracks—particularly from Hollywood movies. Trying to find a score that makes for decent home listening shorn of its accompanying images is a daunting task these days. Roughly speaking, your choices are either collections of pop songs (more or less inspired, cf. Juno) or formulaic scores that (1) tend to repeat a couple of themes ad nauseam and (2) are utterly predictable in their arrangements and melodic approaches. An ongoing film series at the Museum of Modern Art, “Jazz Score,” not only puts this dire situation in perspective, but shows us the birth of a specifically American approach to scoring.“Jazz Score” examines the relationship between jazz and film music—that is, not the depiction of jazz players on screen (as in Let’s Get Lost, Bird, Glenn Miller Story or ’Round Midnight) but the use of that musical idiom in scores. I won’t go into the nitty-gritty of the interplay between visual and sonic vocabularies, and focus on one simple fact about those movies: from a purely musical standpoint, their soundtracks stand on their own and make for consistently exciting experiences. Of course they gain a heightened frisson from being heard in context, but you don’t actually need images to thrill to Miles Davis’s score for Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows, Elmer Bernstein’s work on Otto Preminger’s Man with the Golden Arm, or Eddie Sauter and Stan Getz’s collaboration with Arthur Penn on Mickey One.
What’s interesting about this particular golden age, which roughly covered the late 1950s to the early 1970s, is that it was so uniquely American—like jazz itself, of course. Film scoring in the 1930s through late 1950s was strongly influenced by immigrants, particularly from Mitteleuropa, who tended to worked in a romantic or neosymphonic mode. Think of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who went from writing chamber music, operetta orchestrations and even his own opera, Die Tote Stadt (1920) before putting music behind Errol Flynn et al. Or Max Steiner, whose godfather was Richard Strauss, conducted musicals on Broadway and wrote the score for Gone with the Wind. Dmitri Tiomkin and Miklós Rósza were classically trained in their home countries of Ukraine and Hungary, respectively.
Even American-born composers essentially started in that tradition, though some of them, like Bernard Herrmann, would later take flight in fascinating modernist directions: David Raksin, for instance, studied under Arnold Schoenberg—not that you’d necessarily hear it when listening to his score for Laura. Alfred Newman, music director at 20th Century Fox for two decades, also took lessons from Schoenberg.
The jazzers, on the other hand, broke with that tradition. They ditched the big orchestras that pumped put all those violins and employed smaller ensembles; combination of one or two instruments were not rare. This of course matched the work of directors who, in many cases, ditched the machinery of Hollywood and focused on smaller-scale dramas and/or gritty urban concerns.
The results? Well, forget about MoMA or Netflix for a second, put some of those CDs on, close your eyes and enjoy—I guarantee you’ll last longer than with the latest opus by Hans Zimmer.