Film music ≠ classical music, or ruh-roh …

I think them’s fighting words.

Guardian blogger Tristan Jakob-Hoff reinforces a perception about film music I’ve heard for years — film music is not equal to classical music. When I was an intern for CRI, the label received a proposal from a guy who worked in film. It wasn’t his first time to send in a proposal. My supervisor shrugged and explained to me why the CRI committee would never take him seriously. Because the creative direction of film music is dictated by the needs of the director, it doesn’t really qualify as thoroughly composed work.

That’s probably not a convincing argument for some folks, but I’ve never really warmed up to soundtrack work because some scores really need the visual aspect to grasp. At least it seems that way to me.

A number of commenters on that post point out that under Jakob-Hoff’s definition, ballet and opera would be excluded from classical music. What comes first, though? The music or the choreography? As for opera, a libretto without music is pretty much a play. But in the case of film and TV, the score seldom ever comes first. All the President’s Men doesn’t even have much of a score to speak of.

So yes, I tend to side with Jakob-Hoff in this argument, but I don’t totally buy it either. Some scores stand on their own, and in the case of Interview with the Vampire, the score is better than the movie.

Yamashiro Shouji’s work for Akira, for instance, puts Asian music from all over the region in a terrifying setting. Never mind that it was written for a film — the Akira soundtrack is one of the most imaginative pieces of music created. In Japan, the score was released as the Akira Symphonic Suite. It’s no exaggeration.

At issue, though, is the inclusion of film composers on UK radio station Classic FM’s Hall of Fame 2008. While Jakob-Hoff thinks such listing is a disservice to classical music, it’s also a disservice to soundtrack work. New Yorker writer Alex Ross takes issue with how the label "classical music" gets applied to a body of work with tremendous diversity. So too with soundtracks — Michael Nyman’s The Piano and Bear McCreary’s Battlestar Galactica get filed under the same section. And while Hans Zimmer ranked 78 in the Classic FM list for his work on Gladiator, he’s also the guy who scored a No. 1 hit with the theme to Miami Vice, the TV show, not the movie remake.

Soundtrack work is not classical music. Soundtracks are chameleons, tasked to be anything at anytime, perhaps the only genre to sound like everything but itself.

It reminds me of that riddle about a mirror I read in Neil Gaiman’s The Book of Magic: "To all things I give no more than I am given; in time I may have all things, and yet I can keep nothing."