December 1, 2015

SHEN | Tradition and Modernism

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I recently participated in a discussion on a forum for composers where one person ridiculed the trailer music for the new Star Wars movie, especially focusing on how irreverent it was to force John Williams’s beautifully orchestrated themes for the original films into the modern trailer music formula. This sparked quite the debate. On one side were the people who loved Williams’s work and couldn’t stand to see it “dumbed down” into the pounding, epic and often-formulaic genre that is modern trailer music. On the other were the defenders of the new age, those who saw trailer music as a format of music just as legitimate as any of Williams’s scores and who felt put down by the ridicule presented.

The argument is rooted quite deeply in the music industry, so a little background might be helpful. Trailer music grew into a distinct and profitable venture fairly recently, starting as composers began offering their pieces specifically for use in promotional campaigns, most commonly those for TV and film. Since trailer music as an industry evolved to suit the needs of editors in charge of editing promotional media, it became defined by those needs. Many instances of modern trailer music are composed with the “introduction-build-climax” formula since it has proven to be a highly effective way of grabbing an audience’s attention, with big percussive hits throughout to sync with dramatic scene cuts.

However, since trailer music relies so heavily on editor demand, the industry has become a stew of similar music. There are many trailer composers pushing out thousands of tracks that are all using the same techniques and structure to achieve the exact same goal. This promotes a homogenous view of the industry, which is why many composers will regard trailer music as an unoriginal and inferior form of creative work. This in turn creates a sort of bitterness among those who write trailer music when looked down upon by those who think their own work requires more skill.

So when undisputed masters of composition such as John Williams are brought into the mix, hordes of composers – new or experienced, obscure or famous, knowledgeable or not – flock to their side. Thus the forum debate on the translation of his work into trailer music form. The original poster brought attention to how the public adored the new trailer renditions of Williams’s themes and ridiculed them for their opinions – ideas such as believing Williams composed the trailer pieces, or marveling at how well-made the new music was. The forum member also made an example of trailer music as a genre, showing off a trailer piece that he composed in less than half an hour and with minimal effort. As you might imagine, the debate was taken personally by a number of people, and also stood for the tradition of Williams’s masterpieces versus the modern era and its stereotypical “epic trailer music.”

But the real question is, why is there an argument in the first place? The title of this blog post isn’t “Tradition versus Modernism,” and that was intentional. Why can’t the two coexist? Trailer music evolved into what it is today based on an incredibly specific set of needs, and other music did not. Trailer composers make music with a certain set of techniques, and other composers do the same with other techniques. On the matter of translating Williams’s themes into trailer music form – why not? It’s a fresh take on material that we know and love, and it’s not as if we have to forgo one type of music to get the other. Williams will still be composing in his traditional style for the new film. In summary, it was a debate that completely missed the point of creativity. Believe or not, different ideas and views can coexist, and the sooner we can recognize that, the sooner the world will become a better place.

Zhao Shen is a freshman computer science major in the College of Arts and Sciences. He loves music, movies, milkshakes and penguins, and is currently working on his doctorate degree in procrastination. He can be reached at [email protected]