Meeting New Composers at the Movies

Sunday, September 18, 2016.

This might sound strange, but shut your eyes the next time you watch a movie.

Doing so will reveal a secret: that TV and film soundtracks strongly impact what viewers feel. Many might jump at a crescendo in a horror movie, for instance, or sniffle during a violin solo in a romance.

“The music in the background really affects our emotions as much, if not more so, than the acting,” says Donato Cabrera, music director for the Las Vegas Philharmonic.

This is why film and TV provide ideal introductions to modern-day composers, he says.

“Whether it’s a TV show or a movie, listen for a moment and think about what the music is doing to you emotionally,” he suggests. “Then Google the composer of the soundtrack and see who that person is and what else they’ve done.”

Some names don’t need much research. Take John Williams, the composer behind the universally recognizable themes for films such as “Star Wars” and “Jurassic Park,” which feature a grand symphonic style.

There are other current composers to discover, though. Cabrera considers some the most influential today, including John Adams, Steve Reich and Philip Glass.

“They’re considered the three most famous composers of what is commonly referred to as the minimalist movement,” he says.

Even if their names don’t sound familiar, you have likely heard their work.

Philip Glass has composed music for many popular films, including “The Hours,” “The Illusionist” and the “Fantastic Four.”

Adams has also been involved with a variety of soundtracks for critically acclaimed films, including the 2010 film, “I Am Love.” His dramatic “Harmonium: III. Wild Nights” was even featured in the 2015 Best Picture-winning “Birdman.”

Steve Reich’s music has been included in a variety of documentaries and films, too. His “Three Movements for Orchestra” can be heard in the background of the intense cornucopia scene in “The Hunger Games,” though the song wasn’t included on the official soundtrack album.

There is a reason these compositions work well for the screen.

These particular composers are known for applying a dynamic repetition of sounds and musical phrases throughout their works, Cabrera notes, creating a dramatic buildup.

“If you listen to Steve Reich music, it sounds like you’re in the middle of Manhattan, with this great pulsating energy,” he says.

This minimalist technique has continued to have widespread influence not just in cinema but among younger generations of composers, Cabrera adds.

Even The Guardian ran a feature highlighting the continuing popularity of minimalist music, suggesting that the movement has inspired even popular artists and groups such as Bjork and Radiohead.

High-profile composers today such as Reich, Glass and Adams have also produced many works outside of film and TV, which Cabrera encourages music lovers to explore. His recommendations include Adams’ opera “Nixon in China,” which explores critical political issues.

“There are many living composers who are very exciting to me,” Cabrera says.

He hopes to inspire more people to discover them, too. This is why he typically includes at least one modern-day composition in each philharmonic concert.

“I consider myself a typical concertgoer, and I want to occasionally hear something that I’ve never heard before,” he says. “I firmly believe that for all art forms to remain relevant and remain a part of our society, that we must continually explore the boundaries of the art form. And the boundaries of the art form is what’s happening now.”

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