Versión en español aquí.
If aspiring composers working in the audiovisual media were given a choice between developing their careers by being obedient and doing what they're told, or by being creative, following the director's vision but adding useful ideas, what would they choose? While the answer might be obvious, there would be those who would take the easier path, that of tell me what you want and I will do it happily, the path of the artisan but not of the artist, the path of the composer who thinks only of the music and not of the film that can be made with it.
Last week's article has generated an interesting debate in the social networks that goes beyond mere terminology, because the point in question is the recognition of film music. Although I maintain there is art in film music, I think Richard Bellis's counter idea is valid, in which the composer's work is considered in terms of mastery, which is superior to mere craft, a term very unfair to those composers who propose solutions as different from those who only follow instructions. It is, in any case, a matter for further discussion.
One wonders if the composer ought to be a collaborator, obedient and attentive to what the director indicates or if he should consider the film as his own and work in its benefit even when it means confronting artistic differences with the director. These two opposing positions represent, respectively, what Bellis defends and what I myself defend, although neither is Bellis a slave trainer nor am I encouraging Spartacus: between the black and the white of the question there is a scale of grey in which we both stand. It is evident that Bellis does not deny that the composer can be active in proposing solutions nor do I affirm that the director’s criteria should be despised. Both ideas are two sides of the same coin.
That said, if the emerging composer is forced to choose between one or the other side of that coin I certainly recommend that he not hesitate but go ahead and choose the path of obedience forgetting any aspiration to be Spartacus. Not doing so can cause serious problems that might jeopardize his career. This happens... it is what usually happens and is a disgrace however you look at it.
In a normal, reasonable and common-sense scenario, the composer would be seen as a highly important partner with whom to build the film, someone to be listened to if he has an idea that might improve it. Because there is something even more important than the director, and that is the film itself. In a reasonable situation, as a maestro in musical arts, the composer would have a voice and a vote, and the director the intelligence to know how to take advantage of this knowledge and any ideas proposed. This probably happens at the very highest level when directors work with the most important composers, but it rarely occurs if the composer is just starting out because he or she is expected to be submissive and obedient and not create complications with his own ideas, if indeed he has any, even though they might be much better than those of the director.
However, it is far more likely that the suggestions of a young director of photography, or an editor or even a sound technician just starting out will be taken into account more than those of an emerging composer (or even one already with some experience). This all makes for a bad ending... the fear of being fired for proposing something different or being classified as conflictive, a nightmare for so many composers with the talent to be real film makers who end as slaves to submission. And where fear exists, there will be blockage in the whole creative process. In consequence, the film may suffer, as usually happens, and ends up like a cathedral with construction deficiencies.
There are more negative consequences that grow out of fear or the excessive caution that may be felt by emerging (and not even those emerging) composers. Some affect the very idea of what constitutes film music, harming it either inadvertently or recklessly or even through indifference. But I will elaborate more on this point later. Right now there are more important things to talk about -the need for survival also creates monsters- which have to be dealt with. In this article, having raised the problem without the arrogance of presuming to offer a solution (because I do not have one), I think it is important to expose some of the causes.
Very briefly -the headlines themselves lead to the development of the explanation- there are two determining factors: education and work. It is inconceivable, in Spain or in the United States, that music should not exist as a discipline for those who are being formed as directors, producers or in other film category. In education, film music is a subject taught (if it is taught at all) to composers. At most, some talks or a few sessions are considered sufficient to train those who are not composers but who will devote themselves to filmmaking.
By not introducing music in the educational cycle of film, it is left to the emotional criteria of directors, and this is dreadful. A film director –as I've amply shown- can make musical decisions without even thinking about the music, or even about emotions. This could be taught but it is not, and students are not told about structure, narrative, architecture or discourse. For most directors film music is just music, and the composer is seen as a musician, not as a film maker. This problem is entrenched, and we must fight against it. It leads to directors ending up without properly knowing what to do with the music, beyond filling scenes or conveying emotions.
In the United States, film composers are not unionized, when almost everyone, even the hangers holding the micros, is part of a union. They therefore have no protection to cover them on issues of fees, rights, etc. There have been some attempts in the past which failed with professional prejudice to their promoters, as was the case of Elmer Bernstein, stigmatized for having attempted it. In Spain, film composers are not unionized either but furthermore suffer plundering (when not outright theft) with the often forced transfers of copyright to be able to work, something we must have to talk about at other moment. In the rest of Europe the situation is no better for this professional sector: some associations have been formed in its defense -Musimagen in Spain- and they have been working for years but without significant results. Thus, between the lack of training for directors and the lack of protection for composers it is understandable that cautiousness or even fear induce aspiring composers who might be film makers –should they have the knowledge or the desire to be so- to limit themselves to being artisans and, by relinquishing ever being Spartacus, conform to live as slaves. But this is not good at all, because movies also need composers who not only can, but are allowed to, be film makers.