Tag: Hollywood

And the 89th Academy Award Composer Nominees Are…

The nominees for the 89th Academy Awards have been announced, including nods in the category of best original score to composers Mica Levi, Justin Hurwitz, Nicholas Britell, Thomas Newman, and the team of Dustin O’Halloran and Hauschka.

In December 2016 it was noted that scores such as Jóhann Jóhannsson’s notable contribution to Arrival would not be eligible.

Winners will be awarded during a ceremony at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood on Sunday, February 26, 2017.


Mica Levi
Justin Hurwitz
Dustin O’Halloran and Hauschka
Nicholas Britell
Thomas Newman


from La La Land; Music by Justin Hurwitz; Lyric by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
from Trolls; Music and Lyric by Justin Timberlake, Max Martin and Karl Johan Schuster
from La La Land; Music by Justin Hurwitz; Lyric by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
from Jim: The James Foley Story; Music and Lyric by J. Ralph and Sting
from Moana; Music and Lyric by Lin-Manuel Miranda


Sylvain Bellemare
Wylie Stateman and Renée Tondelli
Robert Mackenzie and Andy Wright
Ai-Ling Lee and Mildred Iatrou Morgan
Alan Robert Murray and Bub Asman


Bernard Gariépy Strobl and Claude La Haye
Kevin O’Connell, Andy Wright, Robert Mackenzie and Peter Grace
Andy Nelson, Ai-Ling Lee and Steve A. Morrow
David Parker, Christopher Scarabosio and Stuart Wilson
Greg P. Russell, Gary Summers, Jeffrey J. Haboush and Mac Ruth

Whither Los Angeles: The Émigrés

For this post on new music in Los Angeles, I’d like to briefly touch on the experiences of European émigré composers in the ’30s and ’40s. As in other parts of the Los Angeles story, the filmic myth looms large, while a more fascinating reality often slips out of grasp. It’s beyond my scope to give a comprehensive history of the period. (For that I recommend Dorothy Lamb Craword’s book, A Windfall of Musicians, which I’ve referenced liberally below.) While this period is discussed quite often, I think it’s crucial to at least look at this history when thinking about our city’s current trajectory in new music.

After all, this was the period when Schoenberg and Stravinsky had rival camps dueling for musical supremacy, and it was in Schoenberg’s Hollywood home that John Cage began harmony lessons, eventually leading to his famous quote about butting his head against the wall of harmony for the rest of his life. Composers who resettled in Los Angeles included Erich Korngold, Miklós Rózsa, Franz Waxman, Hanns Eisler, Ernst Toch, Max Steiner, Ernst Krenek, Erich Zeisl, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and others. This was art music’s golden age of Hollywood, complete with glamorous celebrity rivalries.

Although these artistic conflicts can seem distant to us now (though for me, the image of Schoenberg yelling “I do not have syphilis!” at Thomas Mann’s wife[1] in a Brentwood market will remain ever-fresh), they were powerful cultural forces at the time. Here, Californian naiveté and blatant commercialism butted heads with European rigor and elitism. This was a collision of worlds which never fully resolved or came to an agreeable integration, reflecting some of the fundamental fragmentation of Los Angeles. In this way, the peculiar contours of LA culture have made an indelible mark upon new music as a whole.

The narrative, as it is typically conceived, is that “Hitler shook the tree, and America gathered the apples,” to paraphrase Walter Cook. That is to say, artists and intellectuals fled the imminent horrors of Nazi Germany and settled in America, enriching our culture and collaborating with other émigré artists in a kind of creative expat idyll. Not surprisingly, many composers first headed for the East Coast, hoping to avail themselves of well-supported musical institutions[2]. The Depression’s effects were still resounding, however, and eventually, many of these composers moved on to Southern California in the hopes of gaining lucrative film contracts instead.

The darkness and desperation of the political backdrop seems particularly lost in this usual telling; when walking through UCLA’s Schoenberg Hall, it’s easy to forget that this was a period of exile and fear. Many of these composers lost friends and family in Europe, and could have easily ended up in concentration camps themselves had they not managed to escape. These artists were alive and mostly well in America by the grace of immigration policies alone, which privileged intellectuals; a summer holiday this was not.


Arnold Schoenberg, Hollywood, 1947 (George Platt Lynes/Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Adding insult to injury, Hollywood was not quite the gravy train many had expected. Then, as now, film music was oddly inhospitable to the language of the contemporary concert composer, despite a rich, shared theoretical heritage. Living here, it often feels as if the fields are cousins who speak related dialects, but have little to say to one another. Although a few composers, such as Korngold and Eisler, clambered their way through the labyrinth of the Hollywood process, the majority struggled. Hollywood has its own rhythms and hierarchies, and composers are employed at the end of the creative process. As Stravinsky noted after visiting the studios for the first time, “each…is a kind of principality, with its own borders, trenches, police, cannons, machine guns, as well as its ministers for the various technical and artistic operations.”[3]

Again, Los Angeles seems a place where cultural dichotomies are magnified—in this case, the rift between mid-century American and European musical priorities. In Europe, these composers had enjoyed prestige for their intellectual achievements. In the World War II-era United States, however, movie-goers wanted respite, escapism. At the core of the matter, American commercial art’s primary concerns and values are those of the working and middle classes, while art music’s fantasies come from a lineage of aristocratic patronage, however far receded into the past. It’s easy to see how movie studios might scoff at a European artist’s claim to creative eminence, just as Europeans turned their noses up at the thought of composing in a style suitable for the masses.

In perhaps a fitting symbol for the closest these worlds ever came to true mutual assimilation, Disney’s Fantasia—many a middle-class American’s introduction to classical music—edited Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring freely, about which the composer could do nothing, having signed over complete creative control. Stravinsky wrote of the screening in 1939, “I remember someone offering me a score and, when I said I had my own, the someone saying, ‘But it is all changed,’ … It was indeed. The order of the pieces had been shuffled, and the most difficult of them eliminated—though this did not save the musical performance, which was execrable.” This is hardly the image of a cinematic gesamtkunstwerk that a European composer might have imagined.

All of this history should make an impression on us, but in our sprawl, this history seems less potent, spread thinly. In the McCarthy era, many of these artists were targeted and blacklisted; Eisler was deported for his outspoken views. In 1995, USC signed over its Schoenberg Institute archives to a Berlin foundation and renamed the building. We are still not quite sure what to do with this history.

For me, there is more than a little frustration with my own culture for not embracing these artists more fully. I have the nagging sense of missed opportunities, despite the many fruitful encounters which occurred. But maybe it wasn’t our place to fully integrate these composers into our musical culture. As Americans, we must define for ourselves the direction of our concert music, and be grateful that this creative period, with its fragmentation and disappointments, existed at all.

1. Dorothy Lamb Crawford, A Windfall of Musicians: Hitler’s Émigrés and Exiles in Southern California (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 109

2. Crawford, A Windfall of Musicians, 24.

3. Crawford, A Windfall of Musicians, 163.

Whither Los Angeles? New Music in Tinseltown

Like many Southern Californians, my personal history has been touched by echoes of Los Angeles’ pop culture past. Family stories include the composer of “When you Wish Upon a Star” babysitting my father, my great-grandfather playing the latest Hollywood hits (as well as Klezmer) on clarinet, and another great-grandfather lured by the promise of Columbia Pictures—not as an actor, but as an electrician. However exotically portrayed, the pop industry’s machinations here are quotidian, a bread and butter background for many who call this place home. And, perhaps like many composers who grew up grumbling about this pop culture backdrop and who are now witnessing the flowering of an LA new music community, I am wondering how we got here.

For this series on new music in LA, I’d like to investigate and invite feedback on the role of the composer in this city in particular, and trace the background of this cultural phenomenon—from the days of European émigrés who took to Hollywood with varied levels of enthusiasm, through the dystopia of Mike Davis’s City of Quartz (our “peculiarly infertile cultural soil, unable to produce, to this day, any homegrown intelligentsia”), through today, a Los Angeles that seems poised to define new music in America, or at least a new way of presenting it.

So, what exactly is going on here? While the LA Philharmonic has been lauded as a bastion of institutional innovations since the middle of the last century, these experiments have always seemed, to me, to occur in a vacuum, hardly touching the larger cultural landscape. Now, a grassroots new music community (or as “grassroots” as anything which is tied to higher education can be) is in a true dialogue with the larger artistic culture, and the promise of the LA Philharmonic to make Los Angeles a contemporary musical destination seems to have finally taken root. An LA aesthetic has emerged, and I can’t help but notice a bit of pioneering Wild West in the raucous brew. Simultaneously collaborative and independent, the film set of our city seems to foster a wild creativity that grows everywhere, rather than privileging the genius-hero myth. There’s an undeniable energy afoot, and as the same core musicians bounce from project to project, it’s inspiring to watch a collective style evolve: finally we seem to have moved from our oft-maligned laidback attitude to something more bright-eyed and vital.

It’s hard now to find a week in which you can’t hear something new—really new—in Los Angeles. wild Up and The Industry present ever-more spectacular feats as they expand the boundaries of what opera and intermedia collaboration can be. Inventive new music series are springing up across the city, from WasteLAnd to MonkSpace, People Inside Electronics, Equal Sound, the Wulf, and on and on and on. And many of these groups are “entrepreneurial”—not under the auspices of major institutions, but rather informing them. wild Up has teamed with the LA Phil for the Grand National Composers Intensive, and the Industry is teaming with the LA Phil to develop unique opera projects. More importantly, these concerts and organizations are having an impact on the national conversation about the potentials of new music, as Alex Ross noted in his 2015 new music roundup which included a disproportionate number of Angeleno composers.

It wasn’t always this way. It’s hard to believe that Los Angeles was once a backwater called “Queen of the Cow Counties” for its role in supplying the much wealthier and more developed San Francisco with beef. Or that half a century later the city had turned from “toughest town in the West” to a roaring dream factory, its very existence sold as part of the mythos. If America is a place that went from barbarism to decadence without the usual intervening period of civilization, the Los Angeles of the early 20th century must have seemed an intensification of this phenomenon.

In other cities, the impact of the past might be taken for granted, its influence fluid, but more or less publicly circumscribed. In Los Angeles, the past is oddly prominent in the undying appeal of Hollywood, and yet in other places, seems completely hidden, subsumed by our zeal to tear down or pave over, as gentrification’s disruptions rip the past apart. In a city simultaneously private and public, how can we tell what parts of the past belong to us all, and what is only part of a single story? Does the dream factory affect new music at all, aside from being a source of session work or editing jobs? I’d argue that it does, and that the unique cultural ferment of Los Angeles, its Wild West emphasis on individual freedom, its raw cultural melting pot comprise a subtle but crucial backdrop to our experiments on the musical frontier.

Alicia Byer

Alicia Byer

Alicia Byer is a composer, improviser, and bon vivant from Southern California. She studied composition, improvisation and electronics at Mills College, and continues to follow the promise of new music wherever it leads.