Monday, October 15, 2018

Renaud Capuçon’s New Album of Film Music

This past Friday the Erato label released its latest album featuring violinist Renaud Capuçon. The title of the album is Cinema; and, as one can easily guess, it consists entirely of music composed for film soundtracks. Capuçon is accompanied by the Brussels Philharmonic conducted by Stéphane Denève; and on one track, Bob Telson’s “Calling You,” written for the film Bagdad Cafe, the words of the song are sung by Nolwenn Leroy.

As the booklet notes observe, Capuçon (translated into English by Susannah Howe) was familiar with the two albums of film music recorded by Itzhak Perlman; and those who attended this season’s Opening Night Gala concert by the San Francisco Symphony know that Perlman’s interest in this repertoire is as strong as ever. Nevertheless, this is music that, of necessity, derives its impact through its contribution to a background, rather than a foreground. In other words, as far as listening experiences are concerned, those most likely to be drawn into the music are those recalling the cinematic images and/or narratives with which the themes are associated. Without those associations, each of Capuçon’s selections lacks the proverbial leg to stand on (writing as one who finally shed the crutches I had been using for over two months in favor of a cane)!

Where a selection may have a basis for interest of its own, that interest has more to do with history than with the music. I refer to the track on Capuçon’s album of the “Romance” theme composed by Erich Wolfgang Korngold for the film The Adventures of Robin Hood. In 1938 Korngold was making his living conducting opera in Austria when Warner Bros. invited him to Hollywood to work on the score for this film. That invitation got Korngold out of Austria right about the time that the Nazi’s invaded. When news about the fate of Jews in concentration camps came to light, Korngold would tell his friends that Robin Hood saved his life!

Korngold was one of those composers who was equally at home with scoring music for films and with composing concert music. However, to his credit, he appreciated the difference between the two activities. Thus, when Bronisław Huberman persuaded him to compose a violin concerto in 1945, he had no trouble drawing upon his film work as a source of themes. However, he knew how to “liberate” those themes from their past cinematic associations; and I doubt that anyone listening to that concerto today thinks about those associations or even knows the films behind them. (The Wikipedia page for the concerto provides a movement-by-movement summary of the soundtrack sources.)

The point of this anecdote is to argue that treating film music the same way one treats concert music amounts to what Gilbert Ryle called a “category-mistake” in his book The Concept of Mind. The Wikipedia page for this concept defines it as “a semantic or ontological error in which things belonging to a particular category are presented as if they belong to a different category.” The difference between concert music and film music is so great that, for all intents and purposes, there is no region in which they even slightly overlap due to the radical qualitative differences between making one or the other.

This is not suggest that an album of film music will not please many listeners. It is only to affirm that the underlying act of listening to such an album involves a category that is entirely different from the category of listening to music composed for concert settings. For my part, so much of my time is occupied with the latter category of listening to leave anything left over for the former. Film fans, on the other hand, probably prefer spending time in that former category; and they will probably get a kick out of this new album.

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