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The Usual Composer Suspects

There was a moment in this year’s Academy Awards “ceremony” where, for the benefit of those alleged millions of worldwide viewers, the camera descended vertically from stage-level at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood to the floor below, drawing down from the tawdry stage sets, past host’s patent leather shoes, and through the floorboards to the hidden world below …

The movement thrums with portent: What lurid secret is the camera about to excavate? What deeds will be exposed to the voyeuristic light of motion pictures? Who and what is down there in the dark?

In the movies Hollywood has churned out for a century now, the cinematographic syntax (cinetax?) has conditioned the viewer to anticipate menace in those soon-to-be-revealed depths:  a lurking assassin; a body already dead or a murder underway; an adulterous affair in progress; a lapdog trapped in the joists; a ticking time-bomb; or all of the above.

At the Kodak Theatre on Sunday evening we arrived not at an illicit romance in progress or a deranged killer sawing up corpses, but at a fleeting shot of the Academy Awards orchestra in the midst of a Romantic riff sawing at their violins. These are hardly goose-bump raising images, at least not for most, but secrets nonetheless.

Until a couple of years ago the Awards’ orchestra was “live” only in a chronological sense:  the band bunkered down a mile east along Hollywood Boulevard in a studio in the Capitol Records Building.  The program would spare a few seconds of its four hours to broadcast a shot of the musicians incarcerated off-site. This was presumably a concession to the union, confirmation—if any of Hollywood’s false-flag magic can be trusted—that the accompaniment wasn’t being provided by a pre-recorded digital file filtering down from the Cloud, or by inmates of a conservatory workfarm in the People’s Republic of China or, worse, by a gaggle of twelve-year olds in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela’s world-famous El Sistema after-school music program.

It turned out that there were real musicians under there, and that they are mostly women! These female musical forces aren’t exactly legion when you compare their numbers with those of the Vienna Philharmonic. And that celebrated orchestra plays on the stage of the gleaming nineteenth neo-classical temple that is the famed Musik Verein, not jammed into the nearest hole. Then again, the Vienna Philharmonic didn’t admit women into their ranks until 1997. (And we’re now shocked by the acceptance of far-right ministers into Austria’s government?) Halfway through Awards night the camera assured us that the orchestral violin-playing women of Hollywood are busy, or at least five of them are. We could also see that they labor under the direction, not of a man, but of man, Harold Wheeler, the stalwart Hollywood maestro who happens to be African-American. If there are identity quotas in the Academy Award’s pit, then they are being met even if one floor down. These orchestral women are indeed working—and working together!

Above boards the numbers tell a different story. Women have garnered a number of nominations and even several wins for Best Song, though one could argue that this recognition stems from their long-sanctioned role (sanctioned by males, that is) as entertainers: they have bodies that can be ogled, but for centuries have been held to lack the mental capacity for writing “serious” music. It’s one of the oldest and stalest tropes of music history and criticism: song needs a body, composition a mind. Evidence for this interpretation of female success might be adduced in the form of Lady Gaga’s nomination for “Til It Happens To You”—written for the documentary about campus rape, The Hunting Ground.

Confirmation of this enduring prejudice can be seen in the fact that only two women have ever received the Oscar for Best Soundtrack—the more prestigious award that has often gone to those composers coming geographically and/or aesthetically out of the European tradition of Wagner: Erich Korngold, Miklós Rózsa, Bernard Hermann, John Williams, among others. Since the category of best original score was introduced in 1935 only five women have been nominated, the two female winners confined to adjacent years:  Rachel Portman for the Regency drawing room pastiche of Emma in 1996, and Anne Dudley for her ironic, post-industrial jazz-funk score for The Full Monty in 1997.

This year the slate of best composers was made up of the usual suspects, all of them male: Carter Burwell, John Williams, Jonny Greenwood, Alexandre Desplat, and Hans Zimmer.  Whatever you call the Oscars— inside job or one big ad for the movie industry that suckers like me somehow think worth watching—it’s the men who are taking home the statuette (that’s male, too, even though, as host Jimmy Kimmel pointed out in his opening monologue he’s got no penis). With that little golden man come the big bucks.

The inexorable Alexandre Desplat took home the laurels for the score of The Shape of Water, a thin and pseudo sci-fi, theremin and glass-harmonica backed, bit of whimsy. He started his speech with a shout-out to his mother: unseen back in France one presumes. She’s ninety years old, Desplat informed us, that is, the same age as the Academy Awards themselves. Where would a great musical mind be without a doting mother or wife?  Desplat then condescended to thank director Giullermo del Torro for allowing his “music to become the voice of the characters.” Only in Hollywood do a few richly-rewarded notes entitle a film composer to such grandiosity; only here do whistle and hoot, a scrim of strings and eighth-note melody, lay bare the deepest truths of humanity.

Even if Zimmer was a bridesmaid for the ninth time (he’s won only once, and way back when for the Lion King), the ubiquitous German, whose Dunkirk score garnered him his tenth nomination, was himself the star of a slick Walmart ad, which, improbably, finds him suffering from block in his home studio. The fabulously prolific German can only manage to plunk out on his electronic keyboard a fragment of a naïve melody he’s composing for a scene screening on the monitor in front of him: it’s a shot up the skirt of a woman on a bicycle riding towards the camera.  (Is this a hidden critique of male hegemony and Weinsteinian lechery by the successful and respected Hollywood director Nancy Meyers, sneaked past the prudes and opportunists at Walmart? One doubts it.) Uncharacteristically Zimmer just can’t close the deal on this thumb-sucking tune as his producer and the ethnically diverse quartet of session musicians pace and slump in the hallway outside. A Walmart box miraculously arrives, like Manna from the heavenly distribution center. The Indian sage percussionist with the requisite long, gray beard and homespun headgear starts doing a tabla routine on its resonant body as he delivers it to Zimmer in his studio. The other musicians follow, and this influx of colorful humanity jostles the composer into completing his melody as all join in. They’re all male except for, that’s right, the violinist, who takes up a position at the back of the proceedings: the men, as usual front and center.

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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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