If you think about music in a movie, you probably think either of a hit single playing over a montage, or a big bombastic John Williams score such as “Star Wars” or “Indiana Jones.”
But, as composer Peter Golub will tell you, a lot of movie music works its magic less obviously. Even John Williams has his quieter moments.
“Check out John Williams’ score for ‘Catch Me If You Can,'” said Golub, recommending the music of Steven Spielberg’s 2002 caper comedy (starring Leonardo DiCaprio as a con artist and forger, and Tom Hanks as the Fed on his tail) because it has “more of this contemporary feel, the kind of neutrality — I don’t mean neutrality in the sense of ‘bland,’ but in the sense of being non-manipulating.”
Golub knows film music. He’s written scores for such movies as the 2008 Sundance Film Festival jury winner “Frozen River,” Denzel Washington’s drama “The Great Debaters,” and the documentaries “Wordplay” and “I.O.U.S.A.” And, since 1998, Golub has been director of the Sundance Institute’s Film Music Program, running the Composers’ Lab, which matches music writers with filmmakers. (Among the lab’s alumni is Tyler Bates, who wrote scores for “Watchmen” and “300.”)
Golub will talk about movies and music, and the intersection of the two, at this month’s Sundance Institute Film Series entry, Wednesday, May 6, at 7 p.m. at the Park City Library Center, 1255 Park Ave., Park City. The event is free to the public.
Golub started as a musician and composer of concert works. He later moved into writing music for theater, ballet and, eventually, film.
Writing a work to be played in a concert, “the music is just about the music, and you’re calling all the shots,” Golub said. “Writing for a film, you’re serving or accompanying someone else’s vision. The music has to be a participant in that. You’re very much leaving room for the film, accompanying the film, playing with the film. It’s not just what sounds good, or what’s the most interesting music, but it’s what that film requires in the moment.”
Some films don’t require much. For “Frozen River,” a drama about two moms — one white (Melissa Leo), one a Mohawk (Missy Upham) — who reluctantly partner to smuggle illegal aliens over the icy St. Lawrence River, Golub aimed to write music “that’s very spare, very much part of the landscape,” Golub said.
Other films use music to add to the fun. Golub cites David Holmes’ scores for all three of Steven Soderbergh’s “Oceans” movies: “It’s very contemporary, Las Vegas. Everything’s in quotes, because we’re all having fun in this specific locale. Everything has a cool joke to it,” Golub said.
In the Composers’ Lab, Golub and the Sundance team work to match composers with filmmakers — and to teach both groups how to work with the other.
“Filmmakers are often intimidated,” Golub said. “They feel they don’t know anything about music, so how do they even discuss it? It’s actually better that they don’t try to speak in musical terms, but rather in dramatic terms. Let the composer solve the technical questions of keys and instrumentation. Talk about what the music’s trying to do dramatically.”
Composers, on the other hand, “tend to overwrite. They’re there and they want to show what they can do, and they have this emotional response to a scene,” Golub said. “Often it’s a process of stripping away, and leaving room for the movie. It’s working with the image rather than on its own.”