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Think like Thalberg: What Classical Music can learn from the movies and vice-versa

hollywood600When I moved to Sydney in 1987 I got to know the city by memorizing its coves and bays. In Los Angeles since 2013, I’ve memorized where the studios are located. After all, locals often think of Los Angeles and Hollywood synonymously. Paramount is only a $10 cab fare away; Warner Bros is in the Valley. But in another sense I’ve learned a different geography. What I would call ‘classical music’s verities’ stand out more vividly now.

I had at first considered writing an article entitled ‘What Classical Music can learn from Hollywood; what Hollywood can learn from Classical Music’. I was going to include such ‘pearls’ as: ‘You’re never finished’. Film scripts, for example, are multi-coloured documents inserting rewrites way beyond the first day of shooting; how does that compare with classical music’s sketch, short score, orchestration..?

‘It Takes a Village’ (apologies to Hillary Clinton) occurred to me while sitting in our local cinema, the Vista, at the junction of Sunset and Hollywood Boulevards (where D.W. Griffith filmed the silent epic Intolerance in 1915 before the roads were paved) and realizing that the audience was sitting through fifteen minutes of end-credits. Such appreciation for everyone’s work! Classical music may have gotten over the idea of the lone genius starving in the garret. But in Hollywood you find the ‘sort of collaboration that once yielded cathedrals’, says Billy Mernit, a story-analyst whose classes on dialogue I’ve taken.

The distance I’ve travelled through this landscape also makes me sensitive to arguments about ‘New Music’. I’m reminded of a former piano teacher who said that when he came back to the piano after a long spell at the harpsichord all he could hear were the piano’s hammers. These days I notice the ‘shoulds’ in the programming debates. Companies should program New Music; people should listen to it.

Maybe it’s a worry that our classical music scene doesn’t seem to have a big-enough audience for the most future-bound music of our tradition but I wonder if there is another way of looking at this. Los Angeles suggests to me there is. ‘Should’ just isn’t in the vocabulary of anyone in the Green Room of 10,000,000 people that is Los Angeles County.

I guess people have been worrying about the decline in audience-appreciation for our modern repertoire since Henry Pleasants bemoaned the loss of singable themes in The Agony of Modern Music. Oliver Rudland wrote in a recent edition of Standpoint that composers stopped writing tunes because they lost their Christian faith. I don’t even think they have to write tunes (!).

Actor Joey Marino studies a screenplay while working  in Bru Coffeehouse, Los Angeles

Every second person working on a screenplay. Actor Joey Marino studies a screenplay while working in Bru Coffeehouse, Los Angeles.

But my favourite analysis is that of Richard Taruskin who, in a 2004 edition of The Musical Times, focussed on the idea (fallacious in his mind) that all that matters in a piece of music is the artist’s making of it (their ‘poiesis’), regardless of the audience’s capacity to hear. Taruskin traced what he called ‘the poietic fallacy’ back to 19th century critics like Alexander Serov or Franz Brendel (remember them?), but in Schoenberg’s atonality and 12-tone music he felt that the audience had really been abandoned.

I know Schoenberg tried to help audiences comprehend his new music by emulating classical forms. But the classical forms couldn’t serve their previous clarifying purpose once a composer’s means of punctuating them (Tonality) was lost. That’s not a catastrophe, except that at some point after 1910 you could often detect an idea that composers didn’t have to worry themselves if the audience was left behind. The composer’s principal, if not sole, job was to extend the musical language; it was the audience’s problem if they were bewildered.

‘A lot of the cuts are from the first act’ says screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, of the Clint Eastwood film J. Edgar, ‘because we didn’t want the audience to be ahead of it.’ [italics added] [1]. ‘Subtext helps your audience to participate. It’s fantastic if your audience knows a bit more than your characters,’ [italics again] says Billy Mernit. What do these seemingly contradictory statements suggest? A filmmaker is constantly shifting their audience’s understanding, and the audience is granted enough of the basics to play along? I decided to collar Mernit, since I know him, and put some questions to him.

Billy Mernit is a former songwriter who has had his songs covered by people like Judy Collins and Carly Simon. These days he’s a story analyst for Universal Pictures, and is best known for his textbook, Writing the Romantic Comedy. Mernit gets to see and comment on each of the seemingly interminable drafts a screenplay goes through before the cameras roll. How important is consideration of audience to the film work?

‘The general rule of thumb is that with most writers, first draft is for you. Second draft is where you start to take into consideration who it’s for and who might respond to it,’ he says, when I catch up with him in the sculpture garden at UCLA, where he does some teaching. ‘In the Hollywood studio system it is almost scientific. One of the first questions any executive asks of a project is “what’s the demographic?” “who’s the intended audience?” “how do we expect to sell this thing?” because it’s in the studio system that you’re dealing with major money.

‘And by the way, back in the Silent Era, in the early days of Hollywood, a lot of the stuff that is now sort of codified, in its nascent form was responding to audience. In some of the earliest Silent Movies, like Chaplin two-reelers, audiences were going “give us more of that. We love that.” And only when the audience created the demand for things, did Hollywood say, “Hmm, if we put a woman in the picture with that comedian we’ll expand our audience” – things like that.’

So, could I take another Clintonian expression and turn it into one of my ‘lessons’ – ‘It’s the Audience, Stupid’?

‘Well, the slight confusion in the question, the thing that’s being conflated is …it’s creator versus producer, meaning a creator may not be thinking of the audience; a screenplay might be a very personal endeavour. But the producers of a screenplay are thinking audience first and foremost.

‘I don’t want to be too glib about this because if you’re a story analyst who’s worth what they pay you, on a certain level there’s this naive, fundamental “does this get me excited?” You have to have a personal response to it. And that, by the way, goes with producers as well. You don’t necessarily get into producing unless you have a great love for movies, like a good story and want to be involved. So I’m responding as a human being, that’s the litmus test. If it grabs me and I’m thinking “I’ve gotta keep turning these pages”, I am the audience; with the producer’s hat on. I don’t think of things in terms of what’s commercial or not. It’s more “is there something in the story that speaks to some kind of audience beyond myself?” Everything should be personal, of course, and the most personal projects are quite often the most impassioned and unique, right? but it’s a communicative medium.’

A producer like 1930s whizkid Irving Thalberg (the model for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘last tycoon’) thought that the success of a movie was arbitrated solely by the audience, director Billy Wilder’s ‘wonderful people out there in the dark’. I wonder if the classical music fear of giving so much consideration to audience response is that we would lose out on masterpieces?

Says Mernit: ‘Well, it’s not like Mozart or Verdi or Vivaldi were writing extremely esoteric masterpieces that were being foisted on an unsuspecting public; they were using the popular vernacular. But the crucial difference is that Hollywood is not attempting to make the general public watch a Godard movie. You can have a Best Picture winner like 12 Years a Slave and it’s something that people can relate to, whereas much modern classical music – unless it’s Minimalist – is very difficult for most audience members to even hear. It’s as if you were making a movie with a strange lens on the projector.’

I find myself wondering if classical music would ever get to this level of deference to the public. After all A Composer’s Cohort, an article on the Opera America website, says, ‘…try not to worry about the reception….Whether the audience likes your piece is arbitrary but informative.’ I can’t help feeling that not only would this be a strange abdication of skill in the movie world which is premised on predicting hits (and often does), school teachers wouldn’t say, ‘I have no idea at what point I lose my students’ nor would sales personnel concede, ‘I have no idea when I’ve lost the buyer.’

And it’s not as if classical music was always in such an unknowing position. A classical composer knew that if you put an A minor chord after a G while you were in the key of C, an audience would experience interruption. Wagner knew that if he kept withholding resolution of the ‘Tristan chord’ we in the audience would lean in with yearning. And I’m convinced Tchaikovsky set his audience up so that they would burst into applause at the end of the march in the ‘Pathétique’ and feel all the more excruciatingly the wrench into the Adagio lamentoso which in fact ends the symphony.

Do classical music writers want to second-guess the audience? Do they want positive reinforcement of their vision that badly? I wonder what would happen for contemporary repertoire if the practitioners began to ‘Think like Thalberg’; if classical music had its equivalents of film producers, people in orchestras who could stand between a CEO and a Director of Artistic Planning, a CAO (Chief Artistic Officer) if you like, with the authority to say, ‘Look, the audience feels you’ve got ten minutes more music than thematic material. I saw them fidgeting at the preview we set up to test their responses.’

These are just some of the thoughts that have come to me from immersing myself in a different artistic milieu. But to come back to an earlier promise, what can Hollywood learn from classical music? I said above I was thinking of writing about each artform’s lessons for the other.

So far I only have one, but it’s big, and fairly reaffirming. Paradoxically it’s something about form. In Save the Cat, probably the most popular screenwriting text of today, the book that every second aspiring screenwriter working on WiFi in Starbucks has sitting by their elbow, the author Blake Snyder says ‘Act II begins on page 25. No, please. Don’t argue’. Yes, but I will. (By the way, since screenplays are formatted so that one page equals one minute of running time, this is even more restrictive than it sounds.)

Classical music wouldn’t buy this. Classical Sonata Form, for example, is a 3-Act structure. It was a screenwriting teacher, Sydney’s Linda Aronson, who made me think about this. Classical Sonata Form contains exposition, development, and recapitulation. There are certain goals it must satisfy but look, there is a world of variation in the way Haydn, Beethoven, Mahler, Shostakovich and others even closer to our time went about it. Classical music proves you don’t have to be rigidly formulaic.

But screenwriting may not be as schematic as I think. I put this to Billy Mernit. ‘It gets moved around a lot,’ he says. ‘The A-teamers are not slaves to those kinds of restrictive formulas really.’ And then I think of Pulp Fiction – three acts functioning traditionally but out of real-life chronological order, containing enough that’s familiar for an audience to appreciate what’s fresh. Yes, even as I continue to try to learn from classical music, Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction’s screenwriter/director) proves you can create an innovative masterpiece that is also popular.

Gordon Kalton Williams
© 2015


1. Steve ‘Frosty’ Weintraub, ‘Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black Talks J. Edgar, The Barefoot Bandit, and Ron Howard’s Under the Banner of Heaven’, collider Nov 10, 2011