Composers' Oscar hopes yet again derailed by innovation - and by classical music
Over the last few years a narrative has been developing from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. If you want your score to be considered for Oscar nomination, make sure it's traditional in technique, and has only one composer — and by all means, stay away from previously existing classical music.
Two years in a row, Alejandro González Iñárritu's films suffered this fate. In 2014 Antonio Sanchez's electric drum score (a favorite of the year for many) for Birdman was deemed ineligible due to the film's use of music by Mahler, Tchaikovsky, Ravel, and Rachmaninov. The following year, Ryuichi Sakamoto's score for The Revenant was deemed ineligible because Sakamoto shared credit with Alva Noto (continuing a longstanding collaboration) as well as with Bryce Dessner of The National. That, combined with the more textural nature of the score, veered too far from the traditionally symphonic role of film scores in the past, making the Revenant score too difficult to distinguish from the other sound elements and thus too complicated to nominate.
This year's nominations won't be announced until Jan. 24 — but we already know three films that won't be nominated in the Best Original Score category. This year once agin, significant scores for some of the most critically acclaimed films of the year being left out of Oscar consideration: Arrival, Manchester by the Sea, and Silence.
Two-time nominee Jóhann Jóhannsson will not be considered for Arrival, his third collaboration with Denis Villeneuve — whose 2015 film Sicario garnered Jóhannsson his second nomination. Utilizing analog tape loops, piano sustain, and abstract choir work; the Arrival score intentionally blends with the sound effects to establish a feeling of space throughout the narrative. As a result, Max Richter's composition "On the Nature of Daylight," which opens and closes the film, was seen as substantially weighting the narrative. The Academy's determination was that "voters would be influenced by the use...in determining the value of Johann Jóhannsson's original contributions," according to Variety.
Despite the fact that the majority of the film was scored by Jóhannsson, with the collaboration starting before filming began, his work doesn't fit what one expects from a Hollywood science fiction film and Richter's classicism has been perceived to have a disproportionate effect versus Jóhannsson's experientialism. While his approach to creating a sound bed is not dissimilar to that he achieved with Sicario, there was not a pre-existing counterpoint to highlight the non-traditional nature of the score. The irony is that Richter's music serves to emphasize the distinctive nature of Arrival’s disorienting original score.
In the case of Manchester by the Sea, Lesley Barber produced a classically centered score, but it was supplemented by pieces from the classical repertoire. As Jay Gabler pointed out last month, "None of the repertoire selections heard in the film are apt to be recognizable to most viewers, but they're all very recognizably classical music." This is the problem for Barber: "heavy on plangent strings," writes Gabler, Barber's score "extends the effect of these pieces" creating a cohesion that's better for the narrative though harder to distinguish for Oscar voters. Nixed.
Also disqualified this year was the score by Kim Allen Kluge and Kathryn Kluge for Martin Scorsese's long-in-development Silence (you can stream the score in its entirety thanks to Paramount). As with Arrival, the Silence score is experimental in nature, blending insects and wind with abstract arrangements of percussion, vocal, and traditional Japanese instrumentation. Like The Revenant, it's paramount to the success of the cinematic experience, but in not announcing itself like a traditional score its import is deemed too difficult to discern in the voting process as most will see it only once (if at all) and only consider what they hear in the film.
So why is this important? It's a question of whether we create to express something or create to win something. In dismissing these scores, the Academy is reestablishing what it believes is important in the cinematic experience. While each score was composed organically alongside the making of the film and informs everything about the experience of watching, the scores do not announce themselves the way traditional scores do, and thus complicate the voting process.
(Ironically, this emphasis on tradition serves to penalize filmmakers who incorporate classical music into their movies: the pop music heard in Manchester by the Sea wasn't regarded as problematic, because it doesn't sound like a "score." Playing Handel or Poulenc, though, is the kiss of death for your composer's Oscar hopes.)
In declaring these scores not substantial enough for Oscar consideration, the Academy draws a line in the sand: they won't reward innovation, only work done within the traditional boundaries of film score composition. That puts the Academy increasingly out of touch with the evolving nature of cinema's creative process.