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Celebrating Williams, Remembering Ifukube

Well, I commemorated Philip Glass’ 75th birthday last week. However, until I visited my go-to music man Alex Ross’ blog this morning, I didn’t realize that today (8 February) marks the 80th birthday of U.S. film composer John Williams. The man whom one could readily refer to as the best-known living film composer. Say what you will about Williams’ composition style (as outlined by Norman Lebrecht’s grumblings), many of us have felt some emotional or physiological thrill in hearing some of his tunes. After a decade of reaction against orchestral scores in Hollywood, perhaps most infamously embodied by Alfred Hitchcock’s dismissal of his incredible collaborator Bernard Herrmann, a supposedly “dead” form of music for film returned as a compelling force (no pun intended) with Williams. Luckily for Herrmann, some “New Hollywood” directors like Brian De Palma and Martin Scorsese brought him onboard for some of their films. With the jazz-inflected score from Taxi Driver being his last, Herrmann passed away in 1975, leaving a slew of films like Carrie and God Told Me To on his plate; one can only imagine what wonderfully ferbile and tender music he would have created for both macabre tales.

Around the time Herrmann started to have his belated renaissance, Williams started to achieve fame as a film composer. I need not indulge in describing the thrill that can be brought about by hearing Williams’ scores. It may be hyperbolic, but it is easy for me to imagine that they provided an orchestral complement to the soundtrack of Generation X. The same kids who would not want to hear “straight” orchestral music might not mind something similar to accompany a Hollywood thrill ride (which ties in with my discussion of the inadequacy of genre categories, but more on that in subsequent postings). In my case, my mother played classical music at home when I was a kid, but I also watched movies with the classically-influenced Williams’ scores. Which informed my musical tastes more? Were they complementary? Considering that I gravitate most strongly towards late 19th century German Romantic composers like Richard Wagner, Gustav Mahler, and Richard Strauss, it’s hard to pinpoint. I listen to their compositions more frequently, but I’m not going to put down Williams. Certainly, he opened the floodgates for many other film composers, and made it acceptable for their creations to be a part of cinema again. I can only hope that the either/or dichtomy of orchestral and popular music (another highly problematic genre-based dualism) can be put to rest, and filmmakers can be more agnostic what they use; if the music fits, accompany your film to it.

Oddly enough, on this date in 2006, a great Japanese composer also associated with film passed on. Akira Ifukube is perhaps best known for his scores to Japanese horror movies. And, yes, I mean The Big Gobowski himself, right down to his trademark roar (Resin-covered glove + double bass strings + slowed down playback = Run like Hell!). That music was another staple of my youth. Say what you will about the rubber suits, I still think they’re better than the CGI that has overtaken many special effects-based films. But that brief rant leads to another point I’d like to make; that Ifukube’s music lent soul to Toho’s iconic daikaiju, many with their own distinct musical motifs (such as the pteranodon Radon and the three-headed space dragon Ghidorah) and tension to what were otherwise outlandish and overblown spectacles… not much different from opera, really. That said, the first Gojira film was most certainly not played for any kind of laughs or vicarious thrills, and Ifukube’s score reflected that. See David Edelstein’s review of the 50th anniversary re-release, which also namechecks some personal favourites: Mahler’s 5th Symphony and Wagner’s Götterdämmerung (“Twilight of the Gods”). It is well-established that Ifukube tended to draw upon composers like Igor Stravinsky (and possibly a number of other Russian composers) as influences. Nonetheless, I can detect at least some affinities with the late German Romantic tradition as well. As a point of comparison, listen to the “redemption theme” that appears near the end of the immolation scene from Twilight of the Gods, and then the Requiem from Gojira tai Desutoroiâ, where G undergoes his own nuclear-fueled immolation. Coincidence? I’m not sure, but the affinities (at least for me) are quite compelling. (And don’t forget Somewhere from Leonard Bernstein’s genre-bending score for West Side Story.)

Oh… I need a Kleenex…

Beyond film music, Ifukube wrote a number of pieces solely for the orchestra hall. As the same Classical Net review mentioned earlier points out, Ifukube was also influenced by music of the Ainu, an indigenous group from Hokkaido. Admittedly, I don’t know as much about that aspect of Ifukube’s influences, but it further demonstrates the insufficiency of genre in defining what kinds of music we tend to enjoy. At least outside of Japan, I am certain that recordings of Ainu music would fall under the super broad “international” category, which actually indicates nothing substantial about its traits.

A summary? Sure… Besides the fact that this piece discusses two film composers, there’s also the underlying theme of the problems caused by genre as a way of categorizing music. Since orchestral and popular styles can appear in film, could both be considered film music? I know that some music is written “for” film, but pre-existing music of various kinds can be associated quite intimately with film, whether it’s The Blue Danube or Born to be Wild. But that’s yet another posting! And the same goes for definitions of “international” music, which may be someone else’s classical or popular music.

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