Toward A Simpler Score

Alan Zilberman considers that trend in movies:

A generation ago film composers took a different approach when they wanted a score to sound significant. Compared to [composer John] Murphy’s “Adagio [in D Minor],” David Newman’s score from “Hoffa” sounds cloying: at the two-and-a-half minute mark, the orchestra overstates its case with high notes and a cacophony of percussion. Randy Edelman’s corny, relentless “Fire in a Movie Theater” sounds dated—anyone who went to the movies in the 1990s will wince when they hear the opening bars. There are some film scores that still sound fresh—James Horner’s score for “Aliens” is pulverizing, and John Williams’ work will always stand the test of time—yet there has been a sea change in film scores from complexity toward simplicity. This is because composers trust canny audiences to feel an emotional response when abstracted melodies contain an aural space for significance (or what feels like significance).

I talked about the power of simplicity with composer Nicholas Britell, who composed all the musical arrangements performed by Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in “12 Years a Slave.” … After studying neuromusicology at Harvard, Britell became deeply aware of, “patterns that trigger cascades of feeling.” … I asked Britell to give an illustrative example of powerful music.

He thought for a moment and suggested François Couperin’s “Les Barricades Mysterieuses [embedded above],” a baroque piece for the solo piano Terrence Malick used in “The Tree of Life.” According to Britell, the key to the piece’s power is the dissonance.

“Throughout the piece, there are certain times where the lines continue a little longer (i.e. “suspensions”). The harmony changes yet they’re still holding an old harmony and then they quickly resolve. This process is something I always find very beautiful. It’s the main technique of a lot of music, where something overstays its welcome by a millisecond then resolves.” Listen again and it’s easy to hear what Britell is talking about: as one melody continues, the notes from another evaporate as if the music is breathing.