International composers

Overseas tunesmiths continue to thrive in today's Hollywood, carrying on a tradition that goes back to the golden age of filmmaking.

If the 2005 Oscar nominations were any indication, politicians decrying the outsourcing of American jobs might want to take a look at the world of film composing. Of the four nominated composers -- Alberto Iglesias for "The Constant Gardener," Dario Marianelli for "Pride & Prejudice," Gustavo Santaolalla for "Brokeback Mountain" and John Williams for "Munich" and "Memoirs of a Geisha" -- only one, Williams, was born in the states.

Despite the universally esteemed Williams being the clear favorite, Argentina-born Santaolalla won the award for "Brokeback." And the previous year, Polish composer Jan A.P. Kaczmarek won for "Finding Neverland." Add to that the increasing prevalence of what might be called a "world music sensibility" in modern film scoring, where an Armenian duduk is as likely to be heard under dialogue as a saxophone, and it's clear that the film-music melting pot is once again on the boil.

The facts might raise the hackles of isolationists, but as Kaczmarek points out, this phenomenon is as old as Tinseltown itself. "Hollywood was always open to strangers, and they were coming (to Hollywood) in the era of Max Steiner and Miklos Rosza," he says.

Indeed, it's not an exaggeration to say that the very traditions of Hollywood film scoring were laid down by immigrant composers, including Rosza, Steiner, Franz Waxman and others who fled Europe, many to escape the burgeoning Nazi regime during the 1930s. So, what's driving this latest embrace of foreign-born movie-music maestros? For veteran composer Lalo Schifrin, who also hails from Argentina and studied music in Paris before moving to America to work with bandleader Dizzy Gillespie during the late 1950s, the answer is the same as it's ever been: talent.

"(Foreign composers) came here, and they were very good, excellent composers, and they were also writing music that I would call universal music -- music that had no borders," says Schifrin, who is perhaps best known for composing the unforgettable "Mission: Impossible" theme. "Bronislau Kaper, who was Polish, had to do a (1965) movie called 'Lord Jim,' which takes place in Indonesia, and he researched Indonesian music, but he still was writing universal music in a universal language."

While some foreign-born composers elect to live and work in the U.S., others such as Marianelli and Iglesias contribute to American or English-language film productions while working on their native turf. That can lead to logistical challenges, in addition to the adjustments that have to be made between the Hollywood system and the film-scoring traditions at work in other countries.

"It's really scary when a European composer does a picture and the first picture is a big commercial movie," Kaczmarek says. "Most often, the composer will be replaced because the dynamics of a big Hollywood movie and the corporate structure and the pressures are unbearable for somebody that's not used to it."

Finding a common language is key for directors working with foreign-born composers. After working with preeminent American composer Bernard Herrmann early in his career, director Brian De Palma tapped Italian composer Pino Donaggio to score 1976's "Carrie" and went on to work with legendary Italian composer Ennio Morricone (1967's "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," 1987's "The Untouchables") and Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto (1998's "Snake Eyes"), among others.

"The fact is that with Morricone and Donaggio, English is not their first language, so you need an interpreter," De Palma says. "But since you mainly describe things with musical terms, and sometimes, as in Pino's case, you use temp tracks, you can give them an idea of what you are looking for."

Marianelli, who scored Warner Bros. Pictures' "V for Vendetta," acknowledges that communication can be a challenge but adds that the uniquely subjective nature of music also can be a formidable hurdle in the collaborative process. "Occasionally, one finds that there is a language problem, and someone describes as 'happy' the same piece of music someone else feels is 'melancholic.' I don't think it is only due to language: Music is a very subjective experience."

New Line president of music Paul Broucek, who hired French composer Alexandre Desplat to score 2004's "Birth" and Kaczmarek for 2000's "Lost Souls," argues that technology has made many of the problems inherent to multinational productions a thing of the past. "We'll set up a secure FTP site on the Internet, where there's a constant posting of new sketches that the director can access, and the composer can post his stuff, and the music and picture editor can access," he says. "I've had experiences using this technology (with) a European-based composer, where I think the director and composer have more interaction than if they both lived in L.A."

While technology might very well be assisting filmmakers in overcoming such mundane realities as rush hour traffic and varying time zones, firmly entrenched working methods are another matter.

"On most European movies, the composer's main partner is the film director, and they're often writing scores that are not exactly written to the picture," Kaczmarek points out. "They're being inspired by the picture and connected to it, obviously, but the whole thing happens through the process of editing, while here in America, we all write really precisely, and we're responsible for the entire concept -- which I like more, in a way."

Santaolalla employed this "prewriting" approach -- a technique Ennio Morricone used on many of his spaghetti Western scores -- on his Oscar-winning "Brokeback" score, but it's still a far more common practice in Europe than America.

"I find it really nice to work that way because you work out of the story and characters, and it becomes a real collaboration with the director," Santaolalla says.

Many independent film productions have chosen to work with foreign composers or composers who are less well-known because they are likely to come more cheaply than big-name veterans, Broucek says. "When they're establishing a career, they're not going to be able to ask for a million dollars," he says. "One thing I learned working as a music supervisor on indie films is ... you can pay full freight and get an uninspired score. When you're backing into a price, and getting creative and taking a chance on someone, you have a good shot at getting something original."

Also, American filmmakers sometimes seek out foreign-born composers to provide a specific cultural sound. "They hired me at Fox to do a movie about Che Guevara, (1969's) 'Che!' with Omar Sharif and Jack Palance," Schifrin recalls. "The movie happens in Bolivia, and the Bolivian music is influenced by the Incas. The north of Argentina is the same kind of music, and I'm very familiar with it. The rest takes place in Cuba, and I knew a lot of Cuban music."

These days, however, that kind of typecasting is rare. Today's foreign composers prize their ability to write music all of kinds, regardless of their ethnic backgrounds. "I am pretty sure that my own musical sensibility is fairly specific to my culture and upbringing, but in the equation, there is also my own curiosity, which constantly makes me try to bring into my music new experiences," Marianelli says.

It seems American audiences are looking for new experiences. Exotic instrumentation, wailing ethnic vocals and musical textures evocative of other cultures have been suffusing the fabric of film music ever since Peter Gabriel's influential score for Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ" in 1988. This multicultural approach to film music can be heard in projects as diverse as 2000's Oscar-winning "Gladiator" and the Sci Fi Channel's critically acclaimed series "Battlestar Galactica," the latter of which effectively employs a rhythmic tribal sound not typically associated with the sci-fi genre.

"What is interesting about it is this mixture," Santaolalla says. "You can't say 'Oh, this music comes from Greece.' It's not just typical music from Sardinia or something. It's actually a combination of a lot of elements."

Still, while the trend toward more world music in cinema is likely to continue for some time, it is a label that many consider a false distinction. "I really am not sure about the concept of 'world music,'" Marianelli says. "Does it mean 'non-Western'? We are all part of the world and listen to music from all parts of the world, so is there anything else apart from 'world music'? How would one decide where 'Western' stops and 'world' starts?"

Gabriel Yared, who won an Oscar for his score to "The English Patient" in 1997, understands the world music approach. "There's a desire to escape from the common or ordinary symphony orchestra, to widen the spectrum and colors and reinvent that sound," he says. "I've been attracted by world music since the '70s, and I have used Balinese gamelans and Mideast instruments in my early scores. What we call 'world music' and 'ethnic' is a very important approach to music because those primary sounds transmitted from generation to generation have a spiritual foundation and backside. Unfortunately, it looks like we're not learning from these essential roots; what we're doing is laying it over our habits in Western music, embellishing things with ethnic instruments, so it's a kind of diversion instead of respect. I feel sometimes ethnic instruments are inappropriate and overused -- just there to show they have a new sound."

For Schifrin, whose thesis while studying at the Paris Conservatory was on ethnomusicology, the term "world music" is virtually meaningless. "All the great masters of the past -- (Ludwig van) Beethoven, (Maurice) Ravel, who wrote the 'Rapsodie espagnole,' (Georges) Bizet, who wrote his opera, 'Carmen,' based on Spanish music -- did this."

Despite his aversion to the label, he is nevertheless happy to see international composers receive the recognition they deserve. "We should celebrate the existence of world music and the fact that people are awakening to the idea of world music, even though it's nothing new," he says. "I wish everybody would become more aware of all kinds of music, not just world music."