Tag Archives: John Williams

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Hollywood’s Sonic Temples

           MGM-Sony-Streisand Scoring Stage in Los Angeles

Opera will always have La Scala and Covent Garden.  And the Beatles will always be identified with EMI’s Abby Road Studios in London.  But these mostly unseen Hollywood scoring stages may matter even more.

If you have wondered why a film in a good cinema can be so engrossing, more credit than you might think should go to the sonic power of the score you are hearing. The audio tracks of all sorts of older and recent movies can be breathtaking in their depth and clarity.  Think of the orchestral scores of John Williams, Rachel Portman, Howard Shore, Alan Sylvestri, Bernard Herrmann and many others.

The old standby, E.T., is unthinkable without William’s wall to wall music, which was recorded at what is perhaps the most preferred venue for large groups available in the United States.  The place: the venerable MGM Scoring Stage on what is now the Sony Pictures lot in Culver City. Now named for Barbra Streisand, the 6100 square-foot Stage features a short but potent reverberation time that seems to make big movie set pieces positively bloom.  Musicians, audio engineers and filmmakers love how this building sounds. For most, any changes to this this barn-like room would be unthinkable. You’ve surely heard it, though probably never seen it.  It played a big part in films such as Empire of the Sun, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, La La Land, as well as many classics, including Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind and Singing in the Rain. If it can sometimes be hard to know where film magic actually begins, this is one place to look (or at least hear). The history and glorious sound of this stage makes it one of the most beloved film industry landmarks in Los Angeles.


The film score is probably how most Americans now experience the full-throated power of a traditional orchestra.

It’s no surprise that filmmakers treat this large room filled with its forest of microphones as if entering sacred ground. It’s likely to be the spot where a composer and director will first hear a score that they have only known in piano or MIDI arrangements.  Adding to the sense that this is a place of miraculous revelations, they are also likely to hear it played perfectly by an impressive cadre of studio musicians.*

Another landmark is the Scoring Stage built in 1929 on the Warner Brothers lot in Burbank. Thirty years ago studio executives were eyeing it as a tempting space to convert into production offices, but in the late 90s actor Clint Eastwood persuaded them to rebuild and preserve it. Some think that the renamed Eastwood Scoring Stage has a slightly drier acoustic, but stunning scores have been laid down within it, including those for Casablanca, Back to the Future, Days of Wine and Roses, Rattatouille, Frozen and many more.

An interesting side note: the Warner stage was also used as a location in a pivotal scene in the 1954 version of A Star is Born. Judy Garland records a song while Ray Heindorf conducts. Play the scene to the end and catch a great moment of film acting. James Mason’s private conversation with Garland’s Esther includes a proposal of marriage that has been secretly recorded by one of the stage’s engineers. Her candid list of his faults that all in the room hear during playback turns into an excruciating humiliation.  The moment is a little master-class on film acting.

It seems fitting in the midst of the current renaissance of interest in film music that we also celebrate the remaining purpose-built stages on the lots of the remaining studios.  Similar spaces run by Fox (the Newman Scoring Stage in Century City) and Skywalker Sound (in Marin County, north of San Francisco) contribute to the survival of the orchestra as a major tool of film-making.  A film score is probably how most Americans now experience the full-throated power of a traditional orchestra.

There is also an interesting irony in how these nearly perfect spaces are meant to be used. The amazing performances are obviously heard via well-placed microphones rather than a live audience.  Ask a player, and they will tell you that going to work in comfortable clothes has some virtues. But the applause that usually comes with a live performance in is not part of the picture.  Our awe at their work only comes after the fact.

*Thanks to YouTube, many videos with good audio show musicians and composers at working on scores for films, television, and games.  For a good sample based on the work of composer Peter Boyer at the Sony Stage see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O9NiicNKDGU 

Turns out, Americans Love Opera

Vertigo Commons Wikimedia
                 Still from Vertigo, Commons Wikimedia

Grant me a rhetorician’s right to stretch the meaning of word about as much as clothing that seemed to fit better in the summer.  Music dramas have always been popular and show no sign in disappearing.

Attendance in the nation’s opera houses may be thinning a bit. But there can be no denying that Americans might surprise themselves to be reminded they often love opera as a form.  Grant me a rhetorician’s right to stretch the meaning of word about as much as favorite pieces of clothing that seemed to fit better in the summer.  Music dramas have always been popular and show no sign in disappearing.

I was reminded of this recently while watching the final hour of Steven Spielberg’s much-honored E.T.: The Extra-terrestrial (1982).  The last half is pretty much given over to John William’s rich score that soars as high as the  kids fleeing the feds on bicycles. The music leaves us breathless, not all that different from the second act conclusion of a Puccini opera. Williams voices most of the melodic highs with lots of strings, but keeps the traditional Hollywood trope of shimmering brass puncturing through.  Let’s face it:  E.T. is an opera on bikes.  And we’re the better for having it.

It turns out that most commercial films are scored with wall-to-wall music.  A lot is what composers call underscoring, meaning music meant to be heard in a mix of voices and ambient sound.  For example, the haunting Schwartz and Dietz ballad Something to Remember you By goes mostly unnoticed in a party scene of The Band Wagon (1953).  It deserved a better fate. We are sometimes not fully conscious of the great stuff that drifts past our consciousness.

I was amazed recently to see a new documentary on director Alfred Hitchcock, who carried on an extended discussion with French ‘new wave’ director François Truffaut in the nineteen sixties.  The book was later published as Hitchcock/Truffaut (1966).  In the documentary the two auteurs talked endlessly about lighting, shots and set ups, mostly in reference to Hitchcock’s landmark films.  And yet, strangely, they were unusually mute on the subject of music, even in what is often considered Hitchcock’s best film, Vertigo (1958).

No one can fault a director for being a visual person.  Even so, I think of Vertigo as an opera created as much by the composer Bernard Herrmann as by Hitchcock’s relatively static shots. The film’s is not much into verbal repartee. So it’s little wonder that a full scale screening of it these days may well be in a concert hall, with orchestras like the San Francisco Symphony accompanying a showing of a pristine print.  Interestingly, the music from Scene D’Amour, one of the many sequences featuring James Stewart lurking behind Kim Novak’s enigmatic character, has since shown up in films such as The Artist (below), the not-so-“silent” French film that won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2011.

Luckily we have the recent work of the young writer/director Damien Chazelle, who is carrying the tradition forward in his new award magnet, La La Land ( 2016). In a conversation in our offices last year Mr. Chazelle confirmed that he grew up watching old MGM musicals.  That seemed rare enough for a man born in the 1980s.  But only then did we learn how serious he was.  He mentioned that he needed to fly back to L.A. to deal with an 80-piece orchestra ready to lay down his new film’s music tracks. New directors are not usually packing scoring stages with whole symphony orchestras.  Chazelle was finishing La La Land partly as a homage to larger-than-life Technicolor classics like Singing in the Rain.

American operas can show up anywhere and be embraced by almost anyone. I remember myself as a nervous new husband trying to deal with a sometimes overbearing father in law. I hated the time we spent doing illegal “drag-fishing” in the beautiful waters off of northern California’s Point Reyes.  With beer and buckets we ventured forth in his too-small boat to snag some halibut. Yet I can also remember his reverie during rides back to the beach house in his beat up truck.  He loved listening to his 8-track recording of the music from Lerner and Loewe’s Paint Your Wagon (1969).  It really wasn’t much of a surprise that the crusty former member of the California Highway Patrol had turned himself into a lover of horse a opera.