Frustrated music lovers have a score to settle

Wed Jul 30, 2008 9:22pm EDT
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By Kevin Cassidy

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - If you're a fan of film music, you've probably suffered through this experience: You're watching a lavish Hollywood action film filled with the usual wall-to-wall pyrotechnics and visual wizardry, but with every ear-ringing explosion or gunshot, the orchestral score you've been enjoying in the film's quieter moments is being drowned out by a muddy sound mix that favors mayhem over melody.

Effects-heavy sound mixes can be extremely frustrating. All too often, a talented composer's muscular score is buried so deep in a cacophony of noise that it begs the question: Why is there music at all in this sequence? Often the decision to include constant underscore appears to be tied to a misguided fear that today's moviegoers need a constant barrage of stimuli or they'll run for the exits.

But it's not just the film geeks who are dissatisfied with Hollywood's kitchen sink approach to score and sound.

"It's the most frustrating thing in the world," says veteran composer John Ottman, who should know because he often does double duty as both composer and editor on big-budget, effects-heavy releases, including "Superman Returns" and "X2: X-Men United."

"Either have the music there or just don't have it there," he says. "If the music is there, it should be there for a reason. It's not just there to be under the layer of the sound effects. Sometimes you sit there and watch a sequence and think, 'Why did I agonize over that scene for a week and why did we spend five hours recording that cue when, by the time you hear it in the movie, it's just a drone?"'

As an editor, Ottman often finds himself in the position of determining just how much music is needed for a given scene. But despite his knack for full-bodied orchestral scores, he prefers to err on the side of caution when it comes to music.

"I always say if there's a way to do it without a score, that's the way you should do it," he says. "When I edit a movie, I edit the film for months without temping it (adding a temporary score). In fact, I get my entire edit together, and there's not a note of music in it because I want to see how much the film can withstand with no music. I only want to score where it's necessary, because why gild the lily?"

That said, Ottman notes that the amount of music he writes depends on the project, and that despite his initial instinct to compose a minimalist score for the upcoming Tom Cruise World War II drama "Valkyrie," that approach changed because the film called for it.   Continued...

<p>Italian movie composer Ennio Morricone (L) conducts the Sinfonietta orchestra during a Christmas concert in Milan December 16, 2006. REUTERS/Alessandro Garofalo</p>