What’s a composer, exactly?

A post from the Soundtracks and Trailer Music blog has been making the rounds on Facebook, and it made me think about what a composer actually is.

The post in question, written by Michael A. Levine, a former employee of Hans Zimmer, heaps praise on the former Buggles member and creator of many incredibly epic film scores and takes a potshot at those who say he’s not a real composer. A cursory glance at his IMDb profile indicates that if you’ve ever watched a movie, you’ve probably heard his music. But, and I hate to say this given his stature and the fact that I do like his material, he’s not a composer. OK, so he is a composer in the dictionary sense of the word; he does construct music through mental labor. I cannot argue that. However, my opinion is that the word “composer” carries with it certain connotations that Herr Zimmer fails to embody.

Let’s take a look at some of the arguments Mr. Levine as to why Zimmer gets jobs that others don’t.

Hans is a visionary.

This is, in itself, inarguable. Hans Zimmer practically created the “epic” sound that shows up in film after film these days. However, the arguments Levine uses to defend Zimmer’s vision also back my stance. Levine related an anecdote where Zimmer asked him (along with several other musicians) to take a set of written instructions and interpret them repeatedly, hundreds of times, even, giving Zimmer a “toolbox of sounds”. That’s all well and good, but it is not composition. It is the creation of samples to be plugged into a constructed piece of music–glorified sound effects. That’s it. It takes a great deal of vision to anticipate this kind of a need, but it is not composition.

Hans works very, very hard.

So Zimmer works long, insane hours. This might indeed be a reason why he gets jobs that others do not. None of this speaks to composing. Many people work long, hard hours in music and never write a note.

Hans is the best film music producer in the business.

Great! But there’s a reason most well-known musicians do not produce their own recordings. It’s hard work that is more or less unrelated to the process of actually making music. The “right room, or engineer, or recording technique, or mixing technique” are not things that composers are typically worried about. Does that mean that if you’re a composer you can’t care about those things? Of course not, but it is typically the purview of people with other job titles.

Furthermore, this bit of defense contains the part that inspired me to write this piece in the first place:

We’re not talking about technical music skills. Hans is a so-so pianist and guitarist and his knowledge of academic theory is, by intention, limited. (I was once chastised while working on The Simpsons Movie for saying ‘lydian flat 7’ instead of ‘the cartoon scale.’) He doesn’t read standard notation very well, either. But no one reads piano roll better than he does.

With all due respect to Zimmer, if you don’t understand the music you’re writing, you’re not composing; you’re guessing. And if you don’t write musical notation either by hand or with the aid of a computer, you’re not composing; you’re writing a computer program.

Hans works with great people.

But why? Why does a composer need an army of ghostwriters? If you see a book on the shelf or at Amazon written by an athlete, or by a celebrity, or often enough by any public figure, most people realize that there was a ghostwriter involved and that the person who gets the top billing on the book cover isn’t actually a real author. Nobody questions this. Why, then, should people ignore Zimmer’s ghostwriters? If all he has is an idea but needs someone else to bring it to life, he’s not composing.

Hans is a charmer.

I fail to understand how charm, the ability to convince others that he is right, and a studio that looks like a Turkish bordello makes someone a composer. Moving on…

Hans delivers.

This may be the biggest reason that Zimmer gets so much work. When you’ve got an army of ghostwriters at your beck and call, you can be extremely flexible and avoid getting fired from jobs. In this respect, Zimmer’s production company is much more like a factory complete with assembly line than it is Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky sitting at his desk with a quill and inkwell. This isn’t just a matter of technology changing the methods; it’s a totally different experience. The methods for all composers have changed in the last few decades, but this is a different thing entirely.

That’s not to say that there is shame in this. There isn’t. Zimmer is free to do as he pleases; directors, producers, and studios are free to continue hiring him. He does consistently exemplary work that’s great fun to listen to. But this work is not composition.

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