Imagine watching the opening scene of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” without its iconic musical score. Instead of the rumbling opening C major chord of Richard Strauss’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” the film would begin with an uncomfortable silence as deep as the universe it depicts.
Scores provide a level of meaning in a film beyond the events that occur onscreen. The added sense of aural drama helps capture the viewer’s imagination and pull him or her into the film. “2001” would become a mind-numbing series of long, boring shots of outer space were it not for the captivating score.
Since 1934, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has annually voted to select film scores that best serve as dramatic vehicles for their respective films. According to the Academy’s official rules, a film’s music is judged on its own quality as well as its contribution to the film.
What seems like a simple task of choosing the best score, however, has been complicated with the introduction of an important criterion: originality. During the 77 years that awards for best score have existed, there has always been at least one category requiring that the scores nominated are unique and original pieces of music by a single composer. Since the ’30s, this category has undergone several erratic modifications, evolutions, divisions and redefinitions.
Nathan Platte, a lecturer in the School of Music, Theatre & Dance who studied studio-era film music as a doctoral student at the University, explained that the emphasis on originality can be traced to the days of silent film. When a new film was shown, an organist or orchestra would perform excerpts of pre-existing classical music as accompaniment. Yet the fact that these pieces were poorly arranged instrumentally and incomplete compositionally angered music lovers.
“So (composers) started composing, sometimes for special films, an ‘original score,’ ” Platte said. “Sometimes it would be completely original and sometimes it would incorporate other music. But the idea was that that music had been written specifically for that film. And that carried into the sound era.”
However, this insistence on originality is a double-edged sword: Though the category encourages creativity, it also excludes well written scores that use pre-existing music. For this reason, the Academy has introduced various secondary categories over the years — like Scoring of a Musical Picture and Scoring of Music, Adaptation or Treatment — that give these “unoriginal” scores the recognition they deserve. Even today, there exists a secondary category of Best Original Musical — but it has never been awarded because there haven’t been enough worthy submissions to justify its inclusion.
Platte explained that, though these secondary categories have helped give credit where credit is due, they have also sparked a host of new problems.
“When you look at the years when they had these sort of dueling categories, there were always controversies about where a film should be placed,” Platte said. “Sometimes a film was placed in both, and sometimes a film that should have been in one was placed in the other and vice versa. It’s always been messy.”
“I think it’s an interesting problem to have, though,” he added. “It reflects on the ideas of what is original and why we prize it over something that is ‘less original.’ ”
Among the various music categories, the award for Best Original Score has reigned supreme since the mid ’80s, resulting in a trail of neglected “unoriginal” scores that were ineligible for nomination.
This year, it’s easy to see the controversial effects of this limiting single category and the debates that erupt as a result of the originality requirement. Composer Carter Burwell’s score for “True Grit” was ousted from a Best Original Score nomination since it contained arrangements of American hymns and folk songs. Likewise, Clint Mansell’s score for “Black Swan” was ineligible because much of the material Mansell used came from Tchaikovsky’s “Swan Lake,” albeit with substantial rearrangements.
While it is true that Mansell’s and Burwell’s scores rely heavily on pre-existing music, they are by no means the only films made during 2010 that make use of outside material. In fact, every one of this year’s nominees for Best Original Score includes some sort of borrowed music. For example, “The King’s Speech” includes substantial portions of Beethoven’s symphonies and concertos, and Hans Zimmer, in his score to “Inception,” reworked the introduction of Édith Piaf’s hit song “Non, je ne regrette rien.”
The moment a pre-existing musical source is incorporated, a score becomes less than 100-percent original. To get around this, the Academy added a definition of an original score as one that is “diluted by the use of tracked themes or other pre-existing music.” Yet who’s to say what constitutes that a film is “diluted” by outside material?
In the end, the decision is a subjective one that lies in the hands of the few Academy members who select the nominees. Yet as long as the originality criterion continues to determine the Best Original Score, the Academy will exclude composers who may not be original in their source material, but who treat pre-existing music in a new way.