by Mic Holwin
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).
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.
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."
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.
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.)
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."
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.
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."
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.
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."
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."
discourage the budding young composer from a life in the movies?
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.
proximity did indeed help. Chihara's big break happened quickly,
thanks to cult hero B-movie director and producer Roger Corman.
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).
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!"
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."
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
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.
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."
Holwin is a writer and designer based in Brooklyn, NY.