Signs of change? DG signs an Oscar composer

Signs of change? DG signs an Oscar composer


norman lebrecht

February 12, 2016

The Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, Oscar-shortlisted for Denis Villeneuve’s crime thriller Sicario, has been snapped up by the prestigious classical label.

It’s the first major move by DG’s new prez Clemens Trautmann and it looks like a policy shift.

DG signs classical artists, not living composers. We can’t recall an exclusive composer relationship in the label’s history.

And DG has always focussed on mainstream, seldom on contemporary music. Boulez, when he crossed over from Sony, was signed as a conductor, not as a composer.

Trautmann says: ‘Jóhann’s is a compelling voice, one of the most distinctive and imaginative to emerge in recent years. His work speaks directly to people while remaining enigmatic; it touches deep emotions and draws listeners into new relationships with the world around them.’

Let’s see how it goes.

Jóhann Jóhannsson

UPDATE: One reader mentions Max Richter by way of precedent. Composer, or track mixer?


  • Tommy says:

    He is Oscar-nominated for Sicario. Oscar-shortlisted means something else.

  • John Borstlap says:

    Johannsson is a film composer, not a composer of serious music, and his acceptance by DG clearly part of the label’s move to de-classicize their image by moving into pop- and cross-over territory, under the impression that this is the ‘Zeitgeist’: purely commercial policy.

    • Halldor says:

      Do you actually know any of his non-film music? From that comment, it appears not. He’s a “film composer” in the sense that Britten, Prokofiev, Korngold, Walton, Shostakovich, Copland and Takemitsu were “film composers”.

      • John Borstlap says:

        But isn’t it obvious that his ‘serious music’ is film music as well?

        Nothing against film music. But don’t call it ‘serious’.

        • jaypee says:

          Thank you, O Master, for these words of wisdom!
          What would we do without your legendary good taste, your well-informed opinions and, more importantly, your open-mindedness…

          On question though: why is your wisdom limited to this blog?

        • Stephen says:

          I think it’s pretty churlish to say that something isn’t serious – which all but an idiot would think is denigration – and then to say you have “nothing against it”. It’s a bit like Trump saying he has “nothing against” Mexicans. I’m also unaware that the potential synchronization of music against film places a glass ceiling of quality against the composer, or that the fact that it is commissioned for a specific purpose and therefore has constraints necessarily renders the art null and void de facto.

          Is Handel’s Water Music inferior because it was commissioned to play alongside fireworks, which placed constraints on him (for example, length, tempo, mood… exactly the same constraints as in film…)? Or Bach’s work rendered inferior by the length and stylistic constraints that would have been placed on him by their use in a church service, or the fact that he was melodically restricted by needing to fit the music to the set text?

          Do you consider music synchronized with any other medium – ballet, say – inferior also?

          • John Borstlap says:

            Sorry to disappoint you….but calling a spade a spade is not denigrating the spade.

            But in this case it is not hard to see that film music as a genre is artistically inferior to serious (concert) music, simply because its function is on a much simpler level, and thus offers less interest purely as music. It is not much interesting in itself, if separated from its function as accompanying a film. Therefore, it is most of the time cheap, sentimental, ‘easy on the ear’ and especially: to be forgotten immediately as not to distract from the ongoing movie. Imagine the heroine is about to offer her lips, after an hour of agonizing struggle, to the hero, when suddenly a very interesting modulation in the orchestra wants you to listen carefully where the music as such is going… you close your eyes. And where people don’t listen to the music, or are deaf to it and thus don’t notice the modulation, to have film music is pointless anyway. In opera however – to make a comparison – the protagonists are also part of the music, since they sing, so they are embedded in the musical flow.

            It is a matter of genre and the expectations that go with it. Film music is supposed to create a mood, nothing more. Even very good film music creates a mood and we don’t expect some aesthetic / artistic indepence and completeness from it. Serious music is expected to present the entire range of the art form, also ballet music or opera: in those genres, music is wedded to the stage but as a complete art form in itself (that is why good opera is rare and very hard to write because it has to both closely relate to the stage and be musically complete in itself).

            Handel’s ‘Water Music’ would have been unacceptable if it were merely some blurbs of mood music – that suite is thoroughly composed as complete music, and does not loose anything when performed without the fireworks and royalites. Commissioned music in the old times was limited by all kinds of restrictions but always a complete work as music was required…. And later: Stravinsky’s ballets were – most of them, that is – written closely following a ‘plot’ and a structure of choreographic narratives, but the music is entirely satisfying if performed without the ballet. Debussy’s ballet ‘Jeux’ was composed closely along a silly narrative with quickly changing moods and situations, and the music is capable of catching both those moods and create a complete musical narrative independently from it.

          • Stephen says:

            “Sorry to disappoint you….but calling a spade a spade is not denigrating the spade.”

            False equivalency. Referring to one spade as a “good spade” and another spade as “not a serious spade” would denigrate the second spade – quite obviously. The contortions you are having to writhe yourself into to claim you are not dismissing it as inferior…whilst dismissing it as inferior…are spectacular.

            “…simply because its function is on a much simpler level, and thus offers less interest purely as music. It is not much interesting in itself, if separated from its function as accompanying a film”

            If that were true, a piece of Mozart synchronized to film would therefore be, de facto, artistically inferior to the very same piece of Mozart played in a concert. Which is quite obviously absurd. Your argument is poor.

            “Therefore, it is most of the time cheap, sentimental, ‘easy on the ear’”

            Whilst some film music may be – that is undeniable – that cannot support the argument that you make, which is that film music is – by definition, no less – musically inferior. See argument above, which applies again.

            “Handel’s ‘Water Music’ would have been unacceptable if it were merely some blurbs of mood music – that suite is thoroughly composed as complete music”

            Ok – so what stops a film composer composing “complete music” in precisely the same sense? Why is there a glass ceiling of quality which music synchronized to film and written at the behest of directors and producers may not pass, but which music synchronized to fireworks and written at the behest of royal benefactors can? Why can complete music not be written to film, by definition? (Whatever “complete” music is, which is a handwave of the most arbitrary kind – are a certain number of notes or contrapuntal voices required?)

            “It is a matter of genre and the expectations that go with it.”

            So the quality of art is therefore dictated, for you, in large part by audience expectation – and to take that ad absurdum (but perhaps how you think? Maybe the Trump reference wasn’t so far off) – because there is the (often false) idea that richer and more well-heeled people go to classical concerts, that means concert music is more artistically worthy by definition, and it is impossible in your mind – impossible, no less – for a film composer to write music of an equal stature?

            Why do audience expectations diminish the quality of art? You don’t seem to be able to decide whether you are arguing for art for art’s sake or not…

            Note that my point is NOT that all film music is artistically worthy. Much of it isn’t. It’s written under great duress, and subject to a great number of constraints. That said, the idea that it cannot – ever – be artistically as worthy as the same music played in a concert hall. The idea that you cannot structure a film cue to be as compelling musically as concert music is a peculiar snobbery borne out by neither fact nor reality.

            Your arguments aren’t worthy of much more discussion.

    • David Osborne says:

      Serious music? Seriously in 2016? You actually believe there’s such thing? Why not go the whole hog and call it ‘fine art’ music.

      • jaypee says:

        Yes, seriously, in 2016.
        This John Borstlap has such a high opinion of himself that he doesn’t even realize that he’s making a complete fool of himself with his rant.
        He knows nothing about contemporary music, jazz, rock music and, obviously, film music. But that doesn’t stop him to pontificate and pretend he’s a respected specialist. He obviously thinks that systematically commenting every time something about modern music appears on slipped disc will convert someone to his “mission”… Sooner or later, he’ll realize that he’s just a troll.

        I wonder how many people now will carefully avoir reading or listening to anything with the name “Borstlap” on it…

  • Michael says:

    Classical labels have to be willing to change and adapt, otherwise there is the chance of getting stuck in the past (and oh yes going out of business). Good for DG, good for Classical music, and there is nothing wrong with wanting to make a bit of money with, dare I say, crossing over (cue the film music from Sicario).

  • Laurie Davison says:

    DG had also previously signed Osvaldo Golijov.

  • Neil van der Linden says:

    And hadn’t they signed Karl Jenkins? The composer, who as a musician ruined Soft Machine definitely. In fact because he wanted to make Soft Machine too ‘serious’, and they were buried under a shipload of pretentious. By the way.

  • Cale Wiggins says:

    What a ludicrous line of reasoning. If film music invariably suffers from contextual separation, then how, pray tell, do you explain the wildly successful inclusion of many so-called “serious” concert works in films? Why do they fit so well into to this flippant use if what is being stated here has any grounding in reality? How is film music different from incidental music for the theater? Do you also see the music from Rosamunde as something that suffers from contextual separation? This is the ignorant, self-aggrandizing voice that used to insist that an opera wasn’t an opera if it didn’t include a ballet sequence.

  • Mauro Sheehan says:

    Exclusive living composer contract? Try Leonard Bernstein, 1976 until his death in 1990. Research would’ve prevented such a loss of memory.

  • Alvaro says:

    You guys are hilarious. Like I said in a recent email to the commander and chief of this blog, what do you think? That DG/SONY will keep on releasing more and more records of music thst has been recorded 50000X more than they should’ve?

    If theres no new material, theres no business model. Specially when a huge % of the streaming (the winning model, by all standards) is of OLD releases.

    So, I guess then that Disney Studios will soon be a major player in the Classical Labels 😉

    I insist (almost daily):

    What needs to happen for you people to accept that your artform is – by all means and purposes – dead?

  • Jonathan Riehl says:

    Would Henze not fall into the (then) living composer category on DGG?

  • John Borstlap says:

    Film music composers have to adapt to standards and requirements which are very different from concert music. Film directors rarely require concert music for their movies, lest the music intrudes into their own imaginations, and when they have the chance to engage concert composers, so to speak, mostly they back-out (Schoenberg and Stravinsky in Hollywood were once invited to write for film, but were quickly dismissed). There is no reason why complete concert music should not be used / written for a movie, but then we don’t have film music. People protesting the idea that the requirements of film music somehow make it a less interesting and less musically valuable genre, are generally also the people who resent concert music for being surrounded by an air of ‘greatness’, ‘meaning’, and ‘historical importance’, and see its prestige as mere snobbery. Such protests can be understood as products of an egalitarian world view where cultural achievement is suspect, but where achievement in areas different from culture are excepted from the accusation of elitism (we want the best dentist or surgeon – no snobbery there?).

    Much new music of today which returns to more accessible idioms carries a smell of the thin and sentimental qualities of film music, probably because its composers prefer to attend the cinema to visiting the concert hall, thus demonstrating their adherence to the majority of culturally-underdeveloped people. And since that majority consists of quite a number of people, large record labels with a large overhead and thus, heavy financial pressures, go where they suspect most of the money is to be found. The results of such collaborations is then presented as ‘classical contemporary music’, showing the process by which the concept is further eroded.

    Combinations of film and serious music are rarely successful, not because of the limitations of film as a genre, but because so few people try it, and so few film directors have any clue about music; the required talents to make it work seem to be so rare. The french film director Christian Chaudet, however, created a beautiful and entirely successfull film adaptation of Stravinsky’s opera ‘Le Rossignol’ (an opera which does not work very well on stage but when the music is liberated from the opera context, opens-up new possibilities). Chaudet used advanced computer techniques to interpret the plot is such a way that the music not merely accompanies the narrative but expresses it, a great achievement, and possible because Chaudet is a very musical person, plays an instrument himself and can read orchestral scores. But then, we don’t have film music, of course:

    Part 1:

    Part 2:

    Part 3:

    Part 4:

    Part 5:

    • Stephen says:

      “Film music composers have to adapt to standards and requirements which are very different from concert music”.

      Not by definition, that generalization could not hope to hold. In certain circumstances yes, of course, nobody would argue commercial and timing concerns could affect a piece, but not *by definition*, no less. It quite obviously depends on the film. Your sweeping generalization doesn’t hold. Neither is it correct – the composers of the classical period writing for benefactors had to write music that pleased the benefactors and fulfilled the needed function, and had to write within equally strict parameters – largely social, but also in terms of length and function. Was Bach free to write as he pleased? No, of course not, he had a job to do each Sunday, which is why certain pieces are certain lengths, especially in their liturgical context. Handel’s Water Music couldn’t be funereal in style, or his boss would have been most displeased when his party didn’t go so well. These are no different to the concerns of a film director, really, and no different to the constraints you claim render film music inferior by definition.

      “There is no reason why complete concert music should not be used / *written* for a movie, but then we don’t have film music.”

      NB – what I asterisked, for just a moment. Handwave. You are drawing a distinction between the two which you cannot demonstrate then using it as alleged “gospel” to try and prove your own point. You can’t prove an argument with an assumption and then use that argument to prove your assumption – this is circular. I note you now state that complete music can be written for a film, which contradicts what you said earlier.

      But further, whether a piece of music can function as a successful concert piece is, however, determined by the piece of music itself – not by its original inspiration without reference to the actual music. You’d have to look at the piece of music. Even if you can find one piece of film music that has high artistic merit as a concert piece your argument would be disproven. I would submit that Walton’s Spitfire Prelude and Fugue would cover that, or “touch her soft lips and part” from Henry V, which is as fine as anything he wrote in any concert suite. Q.E.D. There are many, many more examples, and even if there weren’t, your argument would not hold because it would not preclude the existence of such a piece in the future.

      You are saying that the mere existence of the film in the equation – the mere existence – renders the art inferior, irrespective of the film in question, irrespective of the notes written. In fact, you are saying a set of notes written for a film are inferior to the *exact same* notes written for a concert piece. If you cannot see why that is plainly false you are not thinking rationally.

      The same exact notes, in the exact same order – rendered inferior, in your mind, solely by the inspiration, or by the commercial expectations of the audience?? The same notes, sir…really?? Can you really say that with a straight face? And why, if you believe that, do you so fervently seem to believe in the concept of music for music’s sake as being superior, since you are arguing that something exterior to that – function – impacts the artistic quality of the music? You can’t have it both ways. Either music’s merits are judged by the music – “music for music’s sake” – or it is judged in the social and economic context of the audience, the client and their collective expectations – which is not judging music for music’s sake.

      “probably because its composers prefer to attend the cinema to visiting the concert hall”

      This is so breathtakingly ignorant, pompous and dismissive that I can’t understand how you get your clothes on in the morning – what stunning arrogance to assume what others do and do not do purely to bolster your own self-serving argument. Inferiority complex, much? Did you get rejected from a film soundtrack or something?

      “but because so few people try it,”

      Really? Without getting into the purpose of diegetic vs non-diegetic usage, and the blurring of that line in recent decades, you have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about – it’s tried and used all the time. It’s almost a cliché; that’s how often concert music has been tried in films. Are you for real?

      Lastly, ask yourself this. If you heard a piece of music in a concert hall that you did not know was film music, and it was complete and pleasing and artistically worthy, would the discovery that it was film music – purely, of itself, without any other change to your opinion – render that art less worthy or your experience of it at the time less valid? If your answer is yes, then I simply do not know what planet you are on.

      • John Borstlap says:

        Well well…. it seems: a comment inspired by a furious passion to defend film music, which will be happy to have inspired such commitment. Would it really be so hard to detect the aroma of cheapness, kitsch and sentimentality characterizing the genre? (And ‘serious music’ inspired by it like Johannson’s?) There may be exceptions, but it is not difficult to see the musical limitations of music written to emotionally support a movie, and compare them with concert music, or serious music, and understand that the limitations of the music that forms the core repertoire (as used here for comparison) is of another nature.

        But the author may find consolation in a well-argued defense of film music that understands it as a bridge:

        “Maybe film music is the only safe refuge for the ordinary musical ear, in a soundscape blasted by jagged orchestral explosions and wearisome post-modernist sound effects.”

        FiIm music stems from the 19C tradition of ‘programme music’, going from Beethoven 6 via Berlioz, Liszt and Wagner into Hollywood with Korngold et al, which cannot quite be considered an upward trajectory. In the 19th century, the distinction between ‘absolute music’ and ‘programme music’ inspired discussions comparable with this one, and we know now that 19C ‘absolute music’ was not that absolute at all, and almost always had an underlying narrative which was in itself not musical, so it was not quite ‘art for art’s sake’. The problem with programme music always was a matter of taste and of form (cheap expression and rambling form), which made it so suitable for the later requirements of film, because it gave the film directors the freedom the film composer had to forego. Everything following in its wake necessarily had to suffer from the same restrictions…. not difficult to see (hear).

        Interesting from an anthropological point of view is the fury with which genres, notorious for their bad taste, are defended, NB in the context of classical music. No need to go into that at this place…

        In this context it may be amusing to relate the following story: somewhere in the seventies, a Hollywood film director wanted to use (bits of) Strauss’ Alpensymphonie as film music to some plot happening in the mountains. But that was prohibited by copyright. So he asked a film music composer to ‘write something like Alpensymphonie but with different notes’ and indeed, such score was duly written and worked as well as the Strauss piece. Does this story mean that the new film score can be considered on a par with concert music? No, unfortunately it means that Strauss’ brilliant score suffered from artistic/aesthetic flaws that made it perfectly suitable for a context where the flaws were strong assets for their functionality. And there are more of such ‘concert pieces’ that are film music in status nascendi. Interestingly, Mahler symphonies, which also have lapses of taste here & there, are entirely unsuitable as film music because they absorb so completely the listener, who makes-up his own ‘film plot’ in his imagination, steered and defined by the music, hardly leaving a film director any space for his own ideas. Where used in film, like Visconti’s ‘Death in a certain famous Italian city’, it immediately dominates the situation and thus can only be used by a film director who wants it that way. I could cite the crazy movies by Ken Russell, but I think I made my point by now, hoping to have defended the better qualities of classical music – which are really there, in spite of the presence of film music in so many ears.

        • Stephen says:

          Wow, all the hallmarks of a poorly conceived argument with no foundation. Weak mixed metaphors (“aroma of cheapness”)? Present. (Music cannot have an aroma, since it does not stimulate the olfactory senses, nor can aromas be, of themselves, cheap, kitsch, or sentimental; the needless mixing of the metaphor weakens your point immensely).

          Needless anecdote? Sweeping generalizations not borne out by fact? All present and correct. You write, inexplicably, in the mildly self-satisfied style of a first year music history major who hasn’t yet learned that nobody else finds you particularly clever.

          Friend, I think the problem here is that you don’t seem to grasp that a few (or even many) examples don’t mean an inerrant rule can be drawn. You can cite all the individual examples of kitsch, sentimental music in film you like, or points where it is contrapuntally or structurally defective, or whatever – it doesn’t matter, because that doesn’t support *your* argument, which is that film music is defective *before it has even been written*. No amount of musical examples can support that, because your argument isn’t about the music, it’s about the genre itself.

          It’d be like you saying that oil paint is artistically superior to watercolor, irrespective of what any artist could do with either medium, ever, in the history of mankind. If one made that argument with backing – perceived permanency of oil and the value of the materials used – then one might have somewhere to start. But that’s not what you do – you argue that one is artistically inferior to the other before paint hits canvas – in fact, entirely separate to the paint and the canvas altogether, but purely just because you say so.

          It’d be like you saying that only paintings that are painted on a particular size and dimension of canvas had artistic merit. It’s an absurd argument. Any artistic argument that declares one genre superior to another by definition and without even the potential for exception is doomed to fail, and that has always been so. (You’re not the first to try, nor are you the first to fail).

          Film music does not exclusively derive from “programme music”. Some does – some doesn’t. It depends on the film and on the music in question, quite obviously.

          Nor does all art that is vigorously defended have to be inferior or in bad taste, as you imply. I note, googling you, that you vigorously defended your own art to the funding bodies that deemed it “lacking in originality” – ergo, by your argument, your own music must be, by definition, inferior and in bad taste. (Note that I couldn’t care less whether it is or not). You see how generalizations don’t work so well now?

          I ask once again, are a series of notes written for a piece in a film soundtrack inherently, immediately and instantly “inferior” to the same exact notes written in a concert piece, irrespective of the music itself, and simply by definition?

          • John Borstlap says:

            I will restrict my time to the last paragraph of this rant: notes don’t carry ‘meaning’ in themselves, it is the context that gives meaning to the units of music.

          • Stephen says:

            Oh good, glad you couldn’t answer any of it. I didn’t ask you about meaning, I asked you a simple question which you couldn’t answer. I guess we shall let that be that. Don’t think you persuaded anybody.

  • William Maxfield says:

    DG has published new works of Boulez, Carter, etc.

    • Christopher Culver says:

      “DG has published new works of Boulez, Carter, etc.”

      As far as I know, the last recording of music by Carter was published well over a decade ago, in a series (20/21) that was ultimately canned because DG felt it wasn’t selling enough to be worthwhile. (The same is nearly true of Boulez, where the only recent thing is a “Complete Works” box set that consists almost entirely of reissues from 20/21 and other defunct series.)

      A better example of DG’s commitment to new music that isn’t crossover are the recent recordings of music by Unsuk Chin and Pascal Dusapin. However, the former may have appeared for contractual reasons (related to Myung-Whun Chung and the Seoul Philharmonic’s signing), and the latter was a France-only release. So, it has become increasingly more fair to accuse DG of leaving the classical market behind for crossover.

  • Bruce says:

    I wonder what this means in terms of recordings. Will they encourage DG artists to record his music? Or will they use contemporary groups who normally would have no chance to record on a label like DG? It will be interesting (maybe) to see what happens.