Thomas Stevens

Utility Music

  • For Trumpeters Only

Music and Musicians in the Service of Others.

When asked during a TV interview why he had abandoned his four-time Oscar-winning career as a composer of music for motion pictures to pursue a career as a pianist/conductor in classical music, my old friend, Sir André Previn, gave the following answer, offered as a Quotable: “Well, for one thing, I didn’t like writing music for people to talk over.”


At nine o’clock one morning (horrors) in 1975, the esteemed Hollywood studio trumpeter Malcolm McNab and I recorded the first half of the first movement of the Vivaldi Double Trumpet Concerto in “C” at the Warner Brothers soundstage in Burbank, California, for the theatrical motion picture, “All The President’s Men.” When I later watched the movie, I learned that our efforts were used as “source” (onscreen) music in a scene where an LP (remember those?) was played on a phonograph to prevent the protagonist’s conversation from being heard by “eavesdroppers.” And a few years after that, I learned from a movie industry executive that the film’s producers had originally wanted to use Maurice André’s commercially released recording of the Vivaldi for that particular movie “cue” (segment), but that Maurice’s record company had demanded $15K in so-called mechanical license fees; so, the decision was made to have Malcolm and me do it during the first twenty minutes of one of the regular soundtrack sessions for the film. Our fees of double the prevailing union wage scale totalled less than 10% of Mr. André’s proposed fees, thereby, ironically enough, violating one of Maurice’s personal cardinal rules, as he related it to Jean-Pierre Mathez and this writer many years ago in Paris, translated roughly from the French and included here as a Quotable: “Never play for 1000 Francs what you should be paid 10,000 Francs because then you will never again be able to get 10,000 Francs to play it.”

With respect to Mr. Previn’s remark, in actuality, music specifically recorded to accompany people talking would seem rather civilized: What about music to underscore noisy violent onscreen activities?

On another occasion during those years we did the Overture from the Bach “Magnificat” for the original version of the Hollywood movie, “Fun with Dick and Jane” ((Jane Fonda/George Segal). Bach’s music was used to underscore a police shootout filmed at Ventura Place in Studio City, California (great music adapted for car crashes and guns blazing). And we were seriously worried about our intonation? To paraphrase Meredith Wilson's well-known comment, later the title of one of his books, regarding his piccolo: “and there we sat with our trumpets”).

Having done a modicum of work in the Hollywood studios, mostly during the time period 1967 through the early 1980s (at least according to the printed film credit statements from the AFM that arrive annually in my mailbox regarding those activities), it must be said that the artistic quality and technical proficiency in those environs were astoundingly high, by any world-class standard of measurement, from the creative musicians (composers/orchestrators/music preparers) to the instrumental performers; however, as a musician I could never understand the obsession with the search for musical perfection that went on in many of those sessions when the musical end product invariably would have, as Previn noted in the Quotable, people talking over it (or worse-or even far worse-sometimes to the point where the music would be only barely audible). Unfortunately, I once made the mistake of mentioning this to one of my Hollywood colleagues at a social gathering, and his rather terse response was that making music for motion pictures made more sense and was more relevant than what I was doing when performing and promoting my “funny trumpet music” (translation: New Solo Music for Trumpet) that no one wanted to play or hear (at least his comment represented a refreshing change from the oft-repeated and clichéd rhetorical question one usually hears from those quarters, one which usually sends the leaders of the symphony orchestra world into DefCon 1, to wit: Why do symphony orchestras search for musical perfection when 90% of their audiences are there either for social reasons and/or because it's the thing to do and would never hear the difference, anyway). A Quotable regarding the latter point: "...another one of those uncomfortable truths"....Tuba Virtuoso and Conductor, Roger Bobo

The issue of so-called "utility music" as presented in this post is not about the "the good or the bad old days." It is about today. During the 1980s, a recording engineer, speaking to record producers at a NARAS seminar sponsored by the Academy, posited that due to changing recording technology, "session musicians are [sic] becoming more and more like musical data providers." At the time, I found this statement and the attitude it represented rather disturbing, and when I recently heard the very same point being articulated in the present tense, ("today musicians are....") I thought to myself, "it's here!"