- Courtesy of James Newton Howard
By Proma Khosla, Daily Arts Writer
Published February 21, 2013
As the Oscar race draws to a close, speculation continues about the year’s most coveted and contested awards. But just because “Best Picture” and “Best Directing” are the only things entertainment reporters want to debate, this shouldn’t diminish the significance of the other awards. One category that has always remained inextricably linked to the final stretch of the awards season is “Best Musical Score.” Often overlooked, a musical score can make or break a film by providing it with the right soul. Recently, the Daily discussed the process and experience of film scoring with renowned composer James Newton Howard.
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Like most composers, Howard should be well known to film enthusiasts. If you haven’t heard of him, you’ve heard from him by way of his work in scoring more than 130 movies since he got into the business in the 1980s.
“I never meant to choose this career path,” Howard explained. “I started classical piano lessons and I was something of a prodigious pianist. And it was shortly after that that I realized I was pretty good, but I wasn’t anywhere near good enough to have a career as a concert pianist, nor did I want one.
“I was sort of tired of practicing the piano, and I was very much drawn to popular music; so I dropped out of (the University of Southern California) sort of embarrassingly, six or seven weeks into my freshman year, and turned down a full scholarship, which was kind of traumatic — but I just had to do it.”
In 1975, Howard was hired by Elton John to play keyboards and do orchestration. After a few years, he went on to work as a session musician, arranger and orchestrator for record production. He was offered his first movie score in 1985.
“I didn’t know how to write music to picture — how to synchronize the music — and I didn’t know what I could write in six weeks or eight weeks,” Howard said. “Then I was talked into it … and I don’t mean to be simplistic, but I was just head over heels in love from day one.”
His creative process is simple: Write music.
“I think what happens is if one starts to try and look at an image of a movie and try and immediately write music that synchronizes exactly with the movie, it becomes very frustrating and overwhelming,” he explained. “What I usually do is read a script or have a fairly long, detailed conversation with the director and just go away from the movie and just play.
“What I’ll try and do is compose something, even if it’s 10 or 15 or 20 seconds, that just feels like it has some DNA — some connection to the movie I’ve seen. It’s really mostly more of a feeling level than an intellectual level.”
“And then I’ll put it up against the picture and see if any of it works,” he added. “And I just kind of inch my way along. It’s very much about — and I think all creative process is like this — about being able to trust your internal life and somehow just turn it over to that process and … in spite of your fear and insecurity, just trust that your ideas will be somehow applicable to the movie.”
Beyond being set to a film, Howard said he strongly considers how a movie score can stand as a cohesive, independent musical work.
“I think a lot about ‘What life beyond the movie can this music have?’ and I think of who’s listening to it and I pay attention to that idea,” he said. “I think that’s a good thing to feel, but it also can be potentially dangerous. … I really didn’t sense how subtle a score could be in supporting a movie without being so busy, so the inspiration and the feeling that I wanted to write interesting music in its own right is something that I’ve had to balance with supporting the film in a sort of simple and meaningful way.”
Still, Howard doesn’t limit himself as a composer. He explained that his creative process tends to differ a little each time he sits down to compose.
“A great score is a great score,” he said.