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Essay

From Scene to Shining Screen: A Short History of Film Music

 

Paul Chihara Went Hollywood
(And Carnegie Hall, Too)

by Mic Holwin

One of today's most-lauded concert work composers, John Corigliano won an Academy Award last year for his third film score, The Red Violin (only the second classical composer, after Aaron Copland, to be so honored).

Likewise, acclaimed contemporary composer Tan Dun is receiving accolades-and may become the third classical composer to receive an Oscar as well-for his score for this year's multi-Academy Award nominee Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

The days of sorting concert music composers and film music composers into separate bins, it seems, are over.

Almost.

"There is still a stigma in saying you're a movie composer," says concert and film composer Paul Chihara. "But it's less so now than ever before. All of my elder colleagues-that is, the composers of David Raksin's generation, Al Newman, Leonard Rosenmann, Max Steiner before them-they all definitely felt it. And some of them, like, for example, Miklós Rózsa or Bernard Herrmann, were quite defensive about it. In fact, Herrmann became so angry that he was considered a second-class citizen that he gave up and moved to London."

Paul Chihara photo credit: Robert MillardNo second-class citizen, Chihara. His orchestral works have been commissioned by the Boston Symphony, the London Symphony, the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The San Francisco Ballet retained him as composer-in-residence for 10 years, during which he wrote critically-praised scores for ballets Tempest and Shinju. His symphonic, chamber and solo works are programmed internationally.

In his quarter-century Hollywood career, Chihara has also composed music for over 70 motion pictures (Prince of the City, Crossing Delancey, The Morning After) and series for television (China Beach, Noble House, and most currently, 100 Centre Street). (He's done Broadway as well: he was composer for the musical version of James Clavell's Shogun, and musical consultant/arranger for Duke Ellington's Sophisticated Ladies.)

"I work in both camps, so to speak," says Chihara. "I've worked in Hollywood for a long time, but I'm also a member of the 'respectable avant-garde.' And I teach at a university, which of course means academic."

Ironically, Chihara had tried academia earlier in his life but found it too dull. In 1973, Chihara left a tenured position as professor of electronic music at UCLA to follow his dream of composing movie music.

"That was considered quite shocking at that time," he says. "I lost a lot of respectability in the concert music world, even though I had been working there since 1965. I heard several people saying 'Chihara has gone Hollywood!' That at the time was considered bad. Now, with the respectability of the use of pop culture in 'serious' concert situations, it's actually cool among the younger avant-garde classical composers to invoke movie music."

For someone who decided to "go Hollywood," Chihara has very respectable roots. He studied composition with Nadia Boulanger in Paris and with Gunther Schuller at Tanglewood. He studied film music at his childhood hometown movie matinees.

"I grew up on movies, not on concerts," says Chihara, who was seven years old at the end of World War II. "In Seattle as a boy, we didn't have opera or ballet or anything. Movies, that was everything for me." Young Paul soaked up film noir, westerns, musicals. "Movies always promised a world of adventure," he says. "They were never humdrum."

So the future adult Chihara's academic quandary is understandable. "When I was a professor in my first career, I really felt unfulfilled," says Chihara. "I wanted to live a life closer to my fantasy life as a child. That's why I took the plunge."

Did anyone discourage the budding young composer from a life in the movies?

"Everyone!" he laughs. "Except my family, of course. All of my colleagues, they though I was crazy."

He may have been. When he left teaching to pursue a career in Hollywood, Chihara had no motion picture experience. "In fact," he laughs, "I had no training in tonal music-I was writing 12-tone! I didn't know a single person; I had no contacts whatsoever in Hollywood." But Chihara lived in Los Angeles, which he figured put him a notch above other wannabe film composers who didn't.

The proximity did indeed help. Chihara's big break happened quickly, thanks to cult hero B-movie director and producer Roger Corman.

"Corman's secretary Julia-I don't even know her last name and I owe her my career!-called UCLA and asked for a student who could do electronic music," explains Chihara. "I was the professor of electronic music back in 1970. And I said, 'I'll send you my best student.' Of course, I went down myself." Chihara got the job: Death Race 2000 (1974), starring Keith Carradine and Sylvester Stallone (in his first Hollywood film).

Chihara has only praise for Corman (whose credits include Candy Stripe Nurses and Bloodfist). "He's honest in the most important thing about business: giving you credit. I didn't care about the money-I was starting a career, I would've paid for that whole production if I had to! He gave me feature credit, full screen, as composer. Overnight, I was working. I'd like to call that a success story, but I had nothing to do with it!"

Chihara continued writing concert works along with movie scores, employing a "bi-polar compositional style" in the first 10 years of his career. "I was one person working in the movies and another person writing for the concert stage," he explains. "If you heard a piece I wrote for the Boston Symphony at that time, I don't think you would've known I was a film composer. You might have said 'Oh, that passage sounds a bit like Hollywood,' but we say that about everybody."

He has integrated his personas over the years. "Now I seem to be the same person," he says. "If I'm working on a commission for the Cleveland Orchestra, I no longer separate out my Hollywood compositional experiences."

He especially didn't need to for a recent American Composers Orchestra commission, part of two weeks of events celebrating Hollywood composers. The resulting work Clouds-inspired by film noir and music of the 1940s-will be premiered at ACO's Sunday April 22 Carnegie Hall concert.

The post-modern blurring of lines between popular culture and "sophisticated culture" has allowed Chihara to do what he most wants to. "Emotion- ally I take the music that I write for movies very seriously," he says. "It's not just a gig for me."

Mic Holwin is a writer and designer based in Brooklyn, NY.


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