Culture Conversations: Music
Knowing the Score
The Park City Film Musical Festival
Everyone loves movies. And that fascination for the cinema is reflected in the number of festivals and award shows worldwide. Every year we pay particular attention to who wins best actor or actress, best director and best movie, whether it’s at the Academy Awards, Cannes or Sundance, but we hardly notice who gets recognized for the musical score. But what would a film be without music? Music can add a tremendous amount to the impact a movie has on its viewers. With very few exceptions, perhaps most notably Alfred Hitchcock’s 1944 “Lifeboat” – which is powerful in part for its lack of a score – music can really enhance the viewers’ experience and become an aural symbol for a particular movie. Bernard Herrmann’s shrieking violins will forever remind you of the shower scene in Hitchcock’s 1960 film “Psycho,” just as much as John Williams’ pulsating rhythm in Steven Spielberg’s 1975 film “Jaws” will always conjure up visions of a great white. But of course the music used in films doesn’t have to have sinister associations to stand out. Dario Marianelli’s score to 2005’s “Pride and Prejudice,” directed by Joe Wright, beautifully evokes the atmosphere and character of the early 1800s with some disarmingly simple yet striking tunes.
With the added dimension that music obviously can bring to a movie, it’s surprising that not more attention has been given to it. That also surprised Leslie Harlow when she started looking into it. An avid moviegoer and cineaste, Harlow is also a violist who subs for the Utah Symphony, a studio musician and the founder and director of several highly acclaimed chamber music festivals that run throughout the year and are anchored by the Park City International Music Festival. To say that Harlow lives and breathes music and films would be an understatement. So it’s only natural that someone like her would surely also be interested in exploring the music side of movies. And that’s exactly what she did.
Eight years ago Harlow started the Park City Film Music Festival, which this year has screenings at three Park City venues: the Egyptian Theatre, Prospector Theatre and the Santy Auditorium. “We were the first festival of this kind in the United States and we are still the main one that we know of,” says Harlow. A quick Google search backs up her assertion and shows that while there are quite a few combined film and music festivals around the country and in Europe, there is only one other film music festival, the Soundtrack International Film and Music Festival in Cardiff, Wales, that comes closest to Harlow’s goals. “What we do is focus on the impact music has on films, and we also focus on documentaries about music,” she says.
As an active performer, Harlow understands the importance of music. “It can reach audiences on a more subliminal level, and it enhances your perception,” she says. Music adds another layer to your enjoyment of a film. “It brings in something else other than just images and dialogue. It helps you understand attitudes.” The films that Harlow screens at the festival must fall into one of five categories: 1) narrative feature film (at least one hour playing time); 2) documentary (any length); 3) music documentary (any length); 4) short film (animated or live action, less than one hour playing time); 5) art film (experimental). All of the films that are screened are judged and receive awards for best in each category. There is also an audience award.
Harlow has specific criteria for selecting films to be screened. “We don’t choose films solely because they have elaborate scores,” she says. “What we want to do is reward the composers for their work.” The movies that make it into the festival aren’t required to have complex or intricate orchestrations. And whether they’ve been recorded by a large studio orchestra or just by a small band, all films are judged equally. “What we look at is how the music works with the film,” Harlow says.
Because she is a musician, Harlow has a special affinity for music documentaries. “There is such an amazing variety about these films,” she says. “We’ve had all different kinds of submissions, from films about music in Africa to the development of musical instruments. We like this broad approach. We look at these films from how interesting they are and from an educational experience, as well as from an entertainment factor. We just don’t want to turn any of them down.” When Harlow has had to decline a submission in the past it was because the screening schedule was full and there was no room to add more movies. “We hate doing that because it’s hard to turn down a film on a subject we care a lot about.”
Since the Park City Film Music Festival accepts both big budget films and indies, there needs to be certain criteria in judging the musical scores that level the playing field. And Harlow has found a simple solution to that. She first plays and watches the movie closely, then she plays it again while she goes about doing something else. “If the score is so compelling that it has the emotional pull to draw me in, that’s what we’re looking for. And we want to reward the composer for that ability. And listening to it as background music is really an effective way to gauge the score’s impact.”
And Harlow insists this is an objective way to judge the music and one which also takes into account the process of providing a film with a score. “It’s a huge world,” she says. “There are a lot of aspects in putting music to a film.” For the big studio films, composers are under an immense amount of pressure to meet nearly impossible deadlines. “They’re writing and recording almost simultaneously,” Harlow says. There isn’t much time to do retakes, and oftentimes the takes that are going to be used have to be chosen immediately, frequently during the film-editing process. “Some composers find it hard to work under that kind of pressure,” Harlow says. “Our festival isn’t about composers working under pressure. We’re interested in the creative side. We focus on people who can compose for films. We have a lot of respect for that skill and we enjoy what they do.”
At previous festivals Harlow has screened upwards of 200 films and it looks as if there will be that many at this year’s event. “We’re still getting films in, even though our deadline for submitting is over, and right now we have about four times the number we can show,” she says. “Among the ones we have there are a lot of very clever films that I think people will enjoy seeing. And we have a lot of local entries. We like to promote Utah films because there are plenty of excellent filmmakers here.”
Hints 'n' Tips
Chasing the Light
When rules are meant to be broken
Ever since the early eighties, when I began studying plein air painting in a serious way, I have been cautioned not to “chase the light” when painting on location; but as in everything, in art there are no hard rules, only a lot of sound advice based on experience. That experience is passed down to other artists, who sometimes take those gems of thought and enshrine them into so called “rules” that were never meant to be. The old saying, “rules are meant to be broken,” more often than not, is a good rule to follow when approaching the study of painting. In one sense, without the breaking of these “rules,” no real progress is made in artistic expression. After all, it’s the constant pushing against the envelope that spawns new ideas and ways of doing things.
I may be assuming too much in expecting all my readers to know what I am talking about when I use the phrase “chasing the light.” This is a term that basically means that as shadows change on the landscape the painter changes the shadows on the painting itself in order to keep up with what is going on in nature. It is a generally held belief that responding to these changes as they occur is not a good procedure to follow because you never know what you will end up with. So the “rule”, as it were, would be to have a plan in mind and stick to it. Generally speaking, this is sound advice and merits our thoughtful consideration as artists.
Chasing the light is risky business to be sure, but it can pay off artistically if you have the courage to fail. After all, it’s only a small piece of canvas and some paint we’re dealing with here! Through personal experience I have gained out in the field over the years, I have found there are certain situations when chasing the light is not only OK, but actually preferable to sticking with a predetermined arrangement of the painting’s design. The longer I paint the more I come to understand that there are many different approaches to painting and great results can be had in various ways.
I can explain this better by illustrating a couple of real life examples of where this approach has worked for me. One day I was out painting in the Albion Basin on a sunny day when I noticed a fast moving storm moving up the canyon and realized that I would be enveloped by rain in a matter of minutes. My first reaction was to pack up and leave, but as I contemplated that idea, I looked over at the scene I originally started to paint and noticed a unique lighting situation that was common to the way things look right before a storm. I wondered if I would be able to capture the light effect on this outcropping of rocks before it changed altogether. Since I was already set up and had just started the sunny day painting, I figured I had nothing to lose. I pulled my poncho out of my backpack and began to work feverishly. The canvas size was an 8x10 and I was able to capture the effect I was after in about 15 minutes before the gale hit. The toughest thing about the whole experience was packing up and hauling my gear down the rainy, rugged terrain; the actual painting experience was exhilarating!
The way I approached this subject was very different than my usual method of a preliminary wash and placement of the various forms. I had to first go over the paint I had already put down, and, with the palette knife, make sure there weren’t any high spots; this would have to serve as the underpainting. A raw direct painting approach was the only thing that could work here! Thinking in terms of dark, medium and light, I laid in the various rock-forms with thick paint, responding to what was going on in the landscape as it was unfolding. A preliminary design was not to be had on this occasion and any finesse in the area of drawing had to be abandoned. The whole approach was one of color and value choices coupled with some attention to edges and paint handling; it was simply a matter of painting economics.
On another recent occasion I was taken by the subtle shadows on the Wasatch Range at the end of a painting class I was teaching. I decided to go back a few evenings later and set up about an hour before the same designated time when a similar lighting situation would present itself. Blocking in the major masses of foreground, middle-ground, mountain and sky, I cleaned off the mixing area of my palette and waited for the desired shadows to return. At just the right time I began to work quickly and lay in those shadows as they were developing in front of me. Because of the rapidly changing light at this time of evening, I expanded the shadows I originally started with in order to enhance the study as the shadows grew. I was able to get the desired effect just before noticing that an even greater lighting effect had hit some of the crevices and peaks on another mountain just to the right of where I was painting. Since that evening I have not been able to return because of a series of snowstorms that hit late in the season. The plan is a return trip in which the desired shadows will have to be put down in about a 15 minute span of time before they fade away. Wish me luck!