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Use Of Music By Thomas Newman Film Studies Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 1039 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Since the advent of silent cinema in the late 1800s (Prendergast 1992), the film industry has grown into a global powerhouse contributing over £4.5bn to the UK economy last year alone (Oxford Economics 2010). Initially used in 1895 to drown out theatre projector noise, music has become a vital ingredient in the cinematic experience with composition to film developing as a narrative art form in its own right (Burt 1994, Prendergast 1992).

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The Hollywood film industry accounts for the largest market share of box office ticket and DVD sales worldwide, and as such is the dominant trend setter in film composition (World Film Market Trends 2009). The “golden era” of Hollywood scoring began in the 1930s when many European composers fled an increasingly Nazified Europe to the USA. They took with them a rich classical European heritage (Chihara 2010, Lochner 2009) and many acquired work as film composers, in turn defining the Hollywood sound. The orchestral score dominated Hollywood until the 1960s when technological developments (e.g. close miking, synthesisers, multi-tracking) and alternative stylistic approaches (e.g. jazz, rock n roll) allowed for a new pallet of sounds to be utilised in the compositional process (Burt 1994, Chihara 2010).

In 1977 the traditional Hollywood sound made a dramatic comeback with the release of Star Wars (Chihara 2010). John Williams’ Wagnerian score had its roots firmly set in the golden era, and as the films success sky-rocketed the orchestral soundtrack became increasingly desirable to directors. Other composers followed Williams’ lead, and the style of the golden era was repositioned as a standard in the industry (Clemmensen 2005, Prendergast 1992, Rona 2000).

Whilst Hollywoods A-list composers were sticking to their traditionalist guns, the 1990s saw a new breed of composer gaining a foothold in the industry. Using ethnic instruments, sampling techniques and sound design alongside the traditional orchestra, the creative pallet broadened and film scoring entered a new phase – “postmodernism”, which dominates today (Chihara 2010, Rona 2000). The current trends in film scoring are likely to continue for the foreseeable future, with composers such as Hans Zimmer (Gladiator, Batman Begins), James Horner (Titanic, Avatar), Marco Beltrami (3:10 to Yuma, The Hurt Locker) and Thomas Newman (American Beauty, The Shawshank Redemption) receiving academy awards and nominations for their work (Academy Awards Database 2010, Rona 2000).

Thomas Newman in particular is revered as a pioneer of the modern Hollywood sound. Having composed some of the most memorable and successful film music of the last 20 years, he has rewritten the rules on film composition and is regarded by his peers as a true master of the art (Cassidy 2010, Nonesuch Records 2010). His scores are renowned for their uniqueness and inventiveness, with an emphasis on textural sounds, unusual instruments and rhythmic movement, and are instantly recognisable. His style is characterised by blends of synthetic, abstract and acoustic, percussion and a particular harmonic signature. He supports a films narrative by revealing and blending these layers, much in the way of theme variations and leitmotifs in more traditional cinema. His scores are generally subtle and rarely distract from the film, but away from the intended setting his work often fails to stand up as music in its own right (Mok 2000, Rona 2000).

Newmans instrumental pallet varies dramatically from project to project, and is specifically catered to the needs of each film. For example, the score for quirky suburban drama American Beauty uses marimba, xylophone, dulcimer, detuned mandolin, tabla and ewi. Whilst this may seem a little unusual (given the films setting), the instrumentation is extremely well suited to the different characters and their individual personalities (Cassidy 2010, Clemmensen 2005). In contrast, his score for the hit Pixar animation Wall-E utilises an orchestra (with particular emphasis on harp), electric bass, a host of odd percussion instruments and many synthetic mechanical sounds. The overall sound is jaunty and sparse but sits perfectly with the robotic narrative of the film. Although American Beauty and Wall-E are totally different films with very unique scores, they are easily identifiable as Newmans work.

Objectives and Methodology

By investigating Newmans musical narratives across a range of stylistic and technical approaches, the author will develop a firm understanding of the techniques Newman utilises (orchestration, harmony, texture, synthesis, experimentation and so on) and how they characterise his scores so strongly. An in depth examination of Newmans work will provide the author, and readers with a rare insight into the creative processes employed by of one of the worlds top film composers. As such the author feels that the conclusions drawn from the investigation will be directly, and beneficially applicable to all future composition practice he may undertake (whether for film, TV or other narrative based projects).

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The author will investigate a dynamic cross section of Newmans film scores – American Beauty, Finding Nemo, The Shawshank Redemption and Wall-E. The films have been chosen for their diversity in narrative and genre, thus allowing for analysis which encompasses the full scope of the composers work. In addition, Finding Nemo and Wall-E are animations. If any major compositional similarities are discovered in these films, the author will further investigate Newmans approach to define how, through what methods and why he has composed with such similarities.

Much of the authors argument will be synthesised by applying theories and analytical techniques derived from texts by leading film music analysts to the context of Newmans scores. These sources include Film Music a Neglected Art by Roy M Prendergast, Narrative Film Music by Claudia Gorbman and The Art of Film Music by Ben Burt. Interviews with Newman will be used to justify the points made and all arguments will be well balanced with reference to multiple sources.


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