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Knowing the Score

Film Composers Talk About the Art, Craft, Blood, Sweat, and Tears of Writing for the Cinema

by David Morgan

HarperEntertainment, 313 pp., $14 (paper)

The silent era of film proved that movies could exist independently of the sonic world, yet the full symbiotic effect of sight and sound -- as in The Mission or The Last Temptation of Christ -- testifies to the fact that the soundtrack is an important, if not crucial, component of any successful motion picture. A creative and effective soundtrack can make a good film great, or a crappy film palatable. A memorable soundtrack may even be powerful enough to stand as an independent work of art, separate from the footage for which it was created.

The process by which music is married to film is what author David Morgan investigates in Knowing the Score. A freelance film writer and author of Monty Python Speaks!, Morgan interviewed more than a dozen film composers to learn about the ins and outs of writing music for movies. While hearing from such notables as John Williams, Ennio Morricone, and Danny Elfman would have been ideal, Morgan interviewed an experienced and talented group, including John Corigliano (The Red Violin), Jerry Goldsmith (The Omen), Mychael Danna (The Sweet Hereafter), Elmer Bernstein (To Kill A Mockingbird), Philip Glass (Powaqqatsi), Jocelyn Pook (Eyes Wide Shut), and Michael Kamen (Brazil).

Morgan's chapters flow logically and are organized in two forms: as an imagined panel discussion where topics such as collaboration, period pieces, and adaptation are discussed ("imagined" is more accurate because Morgan edits the separate interviews to create a virtual roundtable); or as in-depth investigations of particular works, such as Carter Burwell's excellent soundtracks to Blood Simple, Raising Arizona, and other films by the Coen Brothers. Even though, by jumping between subjects and interviewees, the imagined panel format can come across as disjointed, it is helpful to hear how different composers deal with similar situations. The chapter with Robert Townson, a record producer who runs the classical and soundtrack Varèse Sarabande imprint, is also beneficial as it sheds light on how record labels view film's sonic companion.

To that end, it would have been equally illustrative to interview film directors who are known for successful use of music, such as Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, and Tim Burton. While Morgan's title may be a bit verbose, his editing flows very well and the book is quite readable. Due to its subject matter, however, Knowing the Score will appeal more to soundtrack and film fans than general readers. Nonetheless, it's a worthy insight to the world of film music.

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