Understanding Action Music
in the past VS the present
In the Golden and Silver Ages of Hollywood, composers with classical, Romantic era training created action music out of THEMATIC (tuneful) motifs.
These catchy 'tunes' were used as 'bricks' whilst the orchestral techniques of arranging and orchestration were the 'mortar' binding and building the overall structure towering above mere image+sound effects.
The result gave an audience something I will call "An intellectual access" to onscreen "meaning" in the story.
A "tune" is an organizing principle.
A tune has a beginning, middle, and end.
A tune "tells" us something.
What remains is "THE WAY IT IS SPOKEN." i.e. shouted, whispered, through gritted teeth, etc.
Below I'll have you listen to 2 pianists playing Franz Waxman's RIDE TO DUBNO from the Cossack film, TARAS BULBA.
The purpose of the scene is to illustrate what would otherwise be pretty boring: joining of fellow Cossacks on a ride with the central hero to engage in whatever follows.
A 4 note tune is introduced. Instantly catchy and memorable.
As Waxman handles these 4 notes in varied rhythmic and harmonic variants, a sense of genuine excitement develops at a gallop.
The second version I'll have you watch is the FULL orchestral movie version. With the carefully selected instrument groups adding color and dynamic texture, an overwhelming emotive force lifts the audience's pulse and attention---all the while hanging on to the 4 note 'tune.'
In today's movies, for the most part (with the exception of animated films) composers (who aren't John Williams) rely on percussion tracks and slabs of tutti (everybody playing) stabs and swirls of NON-TUNEFUL --sound--for sound's sake.
My thesis? There is not much of intellectual interest in modern action music because the melody content is gone.
You can't walk away whistling or humming the tune and carry away the imprint of the emotional 'sense' of what you've seen.
First, the piano duo.
The orchestral version.
PIANO DUO: (begins 24 seconds in)
FILM VERSION: (The end is truncated)
In this scene from THE BIG COUNTRY, the music performs a similar emotional boost as, once again,
men on horses decide they love their boss and cannot allow him to ride alone to his death EVEN THOUGH they despise the feud he's fighting to no purpose.
The Major has decided that a showdown with the Hannassey's is unavoidable and sets off to finish things for good. When it becomes apparent that he and his men will be riding into an ambush, the Major turns to Steve for support. However, this man has had his bellyful of mindless violence and says so. The Major rides off alone to meet whatever fate awaits him. Steve has looked on this man as a surrogate father all his life and you can see the anguish etched into his features as he watches him depart. He mounts up, and the camera moves to the mouth of the canyon and the lone figure of the Major. As Jerome Moross' spine-tingling score slowly builds the angle shifts slightly and Steve gallops into view, drawing level with the Major he looks back to see the rest of the ranch hands come one by one around the rim of the canyon. There's not a word exchanged between Heston or Bickford but the flickering glances and quickly concealed smiles speak volumes. To me, this is cinema at its purest, where visuals, score, and subtle expression tell the viewers all they need to know about the nature of a relationship, and in this case what masculinity is about - the importance of loyalty, affection and sheer guts even when good sense should dictate otherwise."
The tuneful nature of the theme adds intellectual "meaning".