Crowded Out of Eden: Composers and the Hollywood Dream

Jonathan Rhodes Lee on January 11, 2010
Film composer James Horner has been in the news a good deal lately. Horner is a versatile and experienced musician, with soundtracks as diverse as Star Trek II and Field of Dreams to his credit. His most recent effort, the sci-fi extravaganza Avatar, directed by James Cameron, reunites him with the director and genre that launched his professional career in the first place.

Avatar has generated a huge amount of press as, putatively, the most expensive film ever made. What’s more, Cameron’s work with new camera techniques and 3-D rendering has been said (by Cameron himself, among others) to be the next revolution in sci-fi. As a by-product, Horner has gotten more attention than for any of his scores since Titanic.

Now, you’d think that all the attention would please him, but his reunion with Cameron also seems to have dredged up some long-held, hard feelings. Horner demonstrates, in various recent interviews, that his relationship with the movie industry is definitely of the love–hate sort. 

Film music historian Jon Burlingame wrote a fascinating article for last month’s Variety, in which Horner expresses dismay at the status of film composers. In Horner’s estimate, film musicians are no longer on the level of picture editors, as they once were. They’re treated more as hired hands, as contract workers. In another interview, for London’s Times Online, Horner describes a tense working relationship between himself and Cameron in one breath, and then lambastes the state of contemporary film composition in another: “The idea of film themes is not necessarily an important construct anymore for a lot of film composers. I hope it changes. Now it’s all action music, and it shows.” He might be hoping against his own predictions. Burlingame closes his article by quoting Horner’s dismal outlook: “No one just says, ‘What do you think of my picture? I want you to write what’s in your heart.’ I haven’t heard that in years. That simple concept does not exist anymore.”

All this grumbling about working methods and Hollywood’s controlling grasp raises an interesting question: Did the “simple concept” described by Horner ever really exist in Hollywood? Presumably, he’s remembering the late-1970s and ’80s, when composers like Horner and, more famously, John Williams collaborated with the London Symphony Orchestra on vast, lushly detailed, symphonic poems. Those films’ scores were tied to the visual action, to be sure, yet the music was given prominence and achieved a life of its own in the collective cultural conscience of my generation.

This period was a circumscribed one, though, and the list of people working in this type of music-happy movie environment is brutally short. Disgruntled movie musicians make up a much longer list. Their story stretches back at least to the Golden Age of studio production, the 1930s. A brief review of this history of kvetching reveals that each generation of musicians working in Hollywood tended to view the past through rose-colored glasses, using language as grumpy as Horner’s to describe their own situations.

Assembly-Line Composition Comes to the Studio System

Those composers working under the huge studio systems in the 1930s and ’40s longed for the good old days of silent-film orchestras, when they raked in huge salaries as composers, arrangers, and conductors (often filling all three roles on one picture) and were viewed as important artists in a new, creative medium. In sharp contrast, the grueling pace of film production during Hollywood’s heyday precluded any time for artistic reflection. The production method was definitely of the assembly-line sort. In a 1974 interview, film composer and orchestrator Hugo Friedhofer (The Best Years of Our Life, Between Heaven and Hell) explained the process of musical typecasting throughout his long career: “So-and-so was a great man for main titles, so-and-so was a great man for string arrangements, so-and-so was a great man for chases, etc.”

David Raksin (Laura, Fallen Angel, and so on) recalled his early experiences similarly. “Friday afternoons I would usually go over to Warner’s [the Warner Bros. studio], where Leo [Forbstein] would show me either a main title or a montage or a battle scene. That was all I did — maybe a chase. ... In most cases, I never even saw the rest of the picture.” Even the king of 1930s film scores, Max Steiner, wasn’t in full artistic control of his creations, despite the fact that his name appeared on credits as prominently as the films’ directors. Music Director Forbstein instructed the staff orchestrators like Friedhofer to “‘write as close to what Max is doing as possible.’” That’s because their own music was to appear anonymously on a score officially composed by Steiner.

It's not that composers like Steiner were incapable of producing their own scores. Rather, it was the case that deadlines were simply too grueling in this system, with composers expected to produce scores in sometimes as little as two weeks, often seeing bits and pieces of the picture only as they were created. Teamwork was therefore of the utmost importance to music department staffs, and some composers and arrangers remembered the period for its great camaraderie.

Meddling Muddles Music

Aaron Copland: conductor of
many film scores

Many of them didn’t see it that way, though. A number of composers recalled meddling supervisors, studio businessmen who cared very little about music and knew even less about it. Prolific orchestrator Leo Shuken recalled how industry bosses instructed him to “throw those Goddamn harmony books away.” Famed producer Irving Thalberg once issued a memo to his music department at MGM, demanding that composers “kindly refrain in the future from using minor chords.”

America’s most famous classical composer, Aaron Copland, also tried his hand at film composing throughout the 1940s, but not without letting his views be known in print. In Our Music, he wrote: “[The] typical Hollywood composer is concerned not with the reaction of the public, as you might think, but with that of the producer. ... A pleased producer means more jobs. That alone is sufficient to explain the Hollywood stereotype of music.” Thus, even these celebrated figures from Hollywood musical history didn’t get the type of leeway that Horner dreamed of in his interview with Burlingame.


The studios’ heyday came to a crashing end after decades of antitrust lawsuits, which broke out as early as 1938. The plaintiffs cited studios’ corporate ownership of theaters and publishing companies as a monopoly over the distribution of filmed information. Court rulings and appeals were delayed throughout the course of World War II, but the Supreme Court eventually decided against the studios in the landmark Paramount case of 1948. This decision led to the major studios’ relinquishing their theater chains, which was accompanied by a major restructuring of the organizations’ internal affairs. For composers, this meant that their home bases — the huge studio music departments — were suddenly dissolved.

Rock, Temp Tracks, and Directors, Oh My

One interesting by-product of all this legal squabbling and studio restructuring was the change in interaction between composer and director. While David Raksin and Leo Shukin had complained so fervently about their lack of contact with film directors and about moronic studio executives’ demands limiting their artistic control, composers in the 1950s and later decades found themselves in constant contact with the production staff.

This change partly had to do with the shifting aesthetics of film scoring. Whereas large orchestras had been employed since the dawn of the sound era for lush, romantic scores, the 1950s and ’60s saw the rise of the pop music soundtrack and other approaches that didn’t require a single-composer credit. Many of the older music department employees complained about this new aesthetic. Shuken, for instance, stated, “Well, I’m personally fed up with, for example, at a graveyard watching somebody getting buried and hearing the high hat [cymbal] and electric bass.”

Even more insulting to film composers was the rise of auteur directors who provided their own music. Stanley Kubrick famously rejected Alex North’s score for 2001: A Space Odyssey in favor of his own “temp track” (the industry term for temporary music used while editing a film). William Friedkin also unceremoniously cast off Lalo Schifrin’s entire score, opting instead for a score of licensed music. “It really is Music Score by Tower Records,” quipped Friedkin.

Composers hated the fact that the music departments were gone, hated the new rock ’n’ roll soundtrack, hated the gall of a new breed of directors encroaching on their work. Many of them also hated the fact that they were unemployed, with no residuals or rights to their old classic film scores. By the 1970s, complaints had reached a fever pitch, and composer Elmer Bernstein even longed for the days when composers enjoyed the “buffer” of a music department staff, whom he remembered as “men who were fully qualified to discuss the considerations of a score much in the same way that a doctor and a consultant discuss a patient’s case.”

The reversal of complaints is striking. Whereas those composers working in the 1940s and ’50s lamented their distance from the creative heads and their unhappiness with the conservative, industry-minded music departments, a younger generation of composers dreamed of having someone to mediate between them and the directors, whose musical tastes they disdained.

Taking Composers’ Complaints to the Courts

Although the aesthetic complaints would seem to have shifted somewhat, the basic business complaints remained the same. A whole new round of lawsuits beleaguered the industry throughout the 1970s, with Bernstein as the plaintiff’s primary spokesperson.
1975 cover, Film Music Notebook
created by Elmer Bernstein
(score by Bernard Herrmann)

Bernstein managed to reestablish the Composers and Lyricists Guild of America, an organization that had been formed in the 1940s, once it became clear that ASCAP was of limited use to film composers. At the time of the 1970s suits, the CLGA had never been recognized as a trade union; staff composers continued to feel exploited; and credited composers experienced increased loss of revenue from the newly popularized recorded soundtracks, for which they received limited residual payments. Bernstein launched a magazine called Film Music Notebook in 1974, largely as a mouthpiece for these disenfranchised composers. Their complaints were noisy — indeed, most of the anecdotes in this article come from the pages of Bernstein’s magazine.

The project ultimately failed. The CLGA’s lawsuit was a multimillion-dollar class-action affair brought by 71 members of the organization against the major movie and TV studios, and other companies. The complaints mainly hinged on the composers’ inability to collect “neighboring rights’ assets” (royalties). Theodore W. Kheel represented the group, and directed the case toward the old territory of monopoly charges. The plaintiffs also played the “public access” card, charging that the studios not only were suppressing competition among publishers and denying composers’ potential earnings, but were also “depriving the public of access to the music.”

In the end, the courts dismissed the case, stating that it was a labor squabble. Since film composers never managed to unionize (and still never have), the battle was lost. The CLGA acquired some copyrights for publishing older scores, which partially put a halt to the studios’ practices of destroying old scores whose films were out of circulation. However, the details of the settlement also strictly stipulated that the composers were independent contractors. The class-action suit of the 1970s brought to a close a period of artistic and legal dissent with roots in the old studio squabbles of the 1940s.

So the freedom that James Horner enjoyed in the 1980s was rare indeed. In truth, his longed-for halcyon days may not have characterized the experiences of most Golden Age studio composers. And perhaps the new Golden Age of film music represented by the most famous scores of John Williams and Horner is coming to a close, too. We could be witnessing the dawning of a new era. In these days of YouTube and mashups, directors once again are wresting control of musical elements from composers, and using streamlined, technologically minded approaches that crowd out orchestral scores.

Hollywood film scores always seem to lag slightly behind popular taste, but eventually they embrace the best elements of that culture in their most successful products. Perhaps the upcoming generation of composers will produce exciting, new approaches to film scoring — and probably they, too, will long for some earlier model of production once they have worked in “The Industry” for a while.