Last week I interviewed composer Michael Brook about two film scores he recently penned: The Fighter and Country Strong. I was unfamiliar with Brook’s work prior to preparing for the interview, and was less than thrilled when I started listening to his score for The Fighter.
Brook’s forte is textural, ambient music. As anyone who has any familiarity with my musical tastes knows, I’m a diehard subscriber to traditional, narrative film music. Despite my lackluster first impressions of his work, Brook and I got into a very interesting discussion about the use and merits of both approaches to music, and it ended up being a fascinating conversation on topics both philosophical and artistic.
Without claiming any superiority, Brook explained that he gravitates towards more ambiguous, less narrative composition for a variety of reasons. First, he feels that it more accurately reflects life as we know it. A postmodern look at life reveals more complexity, less justice and easy answers. He specifically was charged with reflecting that ambiguity in his Fighter score.
He was also charged with “not leading the audience.” (This taps squarely into my discussion about how we classify something as cheesy or sentimental.) Brook’s approach to scoring tries to avoid informing (or forcing) a film audience as to what they’re supposed to feel in a given scene. We both agreed that film and film music inherently lead or manipulate, but that there are varying degrees to which they do. Some art strikes us as heavy-handed; others as highly interpretive or ambiguous.
From a purely aesthetic perspective, Brook leans towards texture and ambience because he feels it’s a more introspective, exploratory form of music. Where the traditionally Western, narrative style of composition imposes the storyteller’s story, he said, textural music (and indeed much non-Western music) immerses the listener in a mood or soundscape and allows them to craft their own thoughts or story.
I ended my conversation with Brook, not with a new taste for ambiguous music, but certainly with a new respect for the craft and the philosophy behind it. I guess that, at day’s end, I like to experience a goal-oriented musical story rather than bathe in a vague sonic atmosphere. I like to be led, to some degree—though certainly not forced.
Philosophically, it comes down to my fundamentally optimistic, Biblically-informed worldview. Life is not altogether ambiguous for me. There are plenty of mysteries to be sure, and a fair amount of complexity and nuance. There is even chaos. But if we want to tie my musical tastes to my spiritual paradigm, I suppose I prefer narrative, goal-oriented music because I see myself as the character in a clearly identified story, one with a well established goal.
It sure makes you think, though, doesn’t it?