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Sunday, 25 November 2012


Music is the soundtrack of your life. – Dick Clark

As a writer it’s generally taken for granted that I would be passionate about books and I am but if you asked me if I had to live without words or music I would have to stop and think about it—seriously. I have another passion that I mention occasionally—it goes on my CV as a hobby but I’ve never much liked the word—and that’s the cinema. In Scotland we talk about going to the pictures rather than going to the movies or even going to see a film. The first film I ever went to see at the George in 1962 was a live action Disney film, The Legend of Lobo. I howled—no, not like a wolf, like a three-year-old boy who’d seen the most tragic thing he’d ever seen. How could they do this kind of thing to wee kids? Seriously, the film had a real effect on me. In my mind through it’s always been called Lobo, the Lonely Wolf, and it wasn’t until I looked it up on the Internet that I discovered the proper title.

There was no dialogue in the film; the only interpretation is through a story-song composed and sung by the Sons of the Pioneers, and narrated by Rex Allen. I don’t recall any of that I’m afraid. And that has so often been the case when it comes to the films I saw growing up. Oh, a name would appear in the credits: Elmer Bernstein, Dimitri Tiomkin, Bernard Herrmann, Miklos Rozsa, but none of these really meant anything to me; I was too engrossed in the stories and the only time I really paid attention to the music was during the titles. And that probably continued until the early seventies when A Fistful of Dollars was first shown on TV in the UK. It was made in 1964 but there was no way I was going to get to see a film like that when I was five. This was a landmark film for me and for the Italian composer Ennio Morricone.

As budget strictures limited Morricone's access to a full orchestra, he used gunshots, cracking whips, whistle, voices, guimbarde (jaw harp), trumpets, and the new Fender electric guitar, instead of orchestral arrangements of Western standards à la John Ford. Morricone used his special effects to punctuate and comically tweak the action—cluing in the audience to the taciturn man's ironic stance. Though sonically bizarre for a movie score, Morricone's music was viscerally true to Leone's vision. – Wikipedia

I have no idea how many times I have seen this and the other two films in the Dollars Trilogy—many, many times—but the one thing I never tire of it the music in fact it was listening to the soundtrack to A Fistful of Dollars that reminded me to write this post. I always have music playing. In the last article I talked about some of the classical music I have enjoyed and continue to enjoy; in this article I’m going to focus on soundtracks and Morricone is a good place to start. He has written music to accompany some 500 films and television series in a career lasting over 50 years. Here’s the title music to For a Few Dollars More:

Seriously this makes my hair stand on end and being as hirsute as I am you can imagine how that feels. For many, though, their awareness of Morricone begins and ends with spaghetti westerns—he ended up composing scores for over forty westerns—but that’s only a fraction of his output. The next piece by him that struck me was the title music for a TV series called An Englishman's Castle first broadcast in 1978. The story was set in an alternate timeline in which Nazi Germany has won World War II and occupied Britain. This wasn’t the first time the music has been used and it was used again only a few years later as the title music for The Life and Times of David Lloyd George when it was released as a single and reached No.2 in the UK charts.

One of my favourite scores by him is for The Legend of 1900 about a man born onboard a ship and who lives out his entire life there while also managing to become an outstanding pianist. Haunting. And a damn good film, too, by the way.

And if you think that is good just listen to the same tune with Roger Waters doing the vocals. This is not music to write over. But indulge me:

I’m not sure that Morricone was the first film composer I heard being talked about. I probably heard the name and promptly forgot it. The first composer I heard people talking about was actually John Williams who has been on the go just as long as Morricone; the Italian is only four years older. The thing they were talking about—it was probably on TV—was Williams’ reintroduction of the concept of leitmotif. I knew about that from studying music at school. Now, it’s his trademark. Richard Wagner is the composer most often associated with leitmotifs. His cycle of four operas, Der Ring des Nibelungen uses dozens of them, often related to specific characters, things, or situations. It’s not new even in terms of films—just think of ‘Lara’s Theme’ from Doctor Zhivago—but Williams made it his own in Jaws: the shark’s theme was integral to the power of the film. It’s not music I’d stick on to write over, mind, although I have a fair number of soundtracks by him that I’m happy to listen to while I write. Of course I was aware of his work before Jaws being a great fan of Irwin Allen's shows Lost in Space, The Time Tunnel and Land of the Giants on which he worked, nodding frequently to composers of Golden Age Hollywood like Herrmann, Steiner, Korngold and Waxman and you can see their influence in his score for Star Wars although I have grown a little tired of it, personally. I much preferred his score to Superman:

I once heard a local brass band play the titles at the mouth of a shopping mall and I was seriously impressed. Had a look online and there are a few covers but mostly they murder the piece.

He tends to be associated with big tunes; blockbusters and there is no doubt the man can write a good tune but, for me, one of his finest scores has to be Schindler's List. I, as often is the case, heard the score before getting round to seeing the film—I only saw it sometime later on TV—and so I’ve never associated the music with the film; it stands, as all truly great music should, on its own. I have several great albums to quite mediocre films. Anyway I defy anyone to hear this and not be moved:

Another contemporary of these two great composers is Jerry Goldsmith who also started off writing incidental music for shows like The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and The Twilight Zone. To my mind Goldman—much like the younger composer Danny Elfman who I’ll come back to—is at his best when writing powerhouse scores like Alien, Total Recall and the original Planet of the Apes film. Not always the easiest stuff to work over but I regularly listen to all of his Star Trek scores; Star Trek: First Contact is probably my favourite though and here is a nice excerpt. The main theme makes my hair stand on end every time I hear it. String writing of the finest order.

On the whole, though, while writing I’m looking for work that doesn’t overpower or distract me so I tend to shy away from soundtracks to action or horror films, although I could recommend quite a few. For the rest of this article I’m going to focus on composers of gentler soundtracks. At the moment, for example, I’m listening to Sylvia by Gabriel Yared. Yared is a Lebanese composer who I first became aware of when I saw the film Betty Blue but I’ll always jump at a chance to listen to a new piece by him. He’s probably best known for his scores to An English Patient and Cold Mountain but here’s a nice short suite based on what I’m listening to just now:

Composers and directors often find themselves working together over and over again if their early collaborations are successful. Anthony Minghella sought out Yared after hearing his work on Betty Blue and they did several films together. The same is true of Tim Burton; his composer of choice is Danny Elfman. Elfman is another prolific film composer best known for, of all things, the theme tune to The Simpsons. That aside, it’s not hard to see the influences of Nino Rota and Bernard Herrmann in his work although, on the classical side, he’s definitely indebted to the Russians. He does a lot of action and science fiction work, things like Batman, the remake of Planet of the Apes, Spider-Man and Hulk, work that goes well along with the images but isn’t always that memorable after the show’s over but, again, it’s his gentler work that works best to write to like his scores to Sommersby, Black Beauty and Big Fish. Here is the main theme from Dolores Claiborne. The person who posted this added a note: “Enjoy. Remember...close your eyes and turn it up.”

M. Night Shyamalan’s go-to composer is James Newton Howard and the first three films they worked on together are—arguably—the best work that either of them did. I’m talking about The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable and Signs. Of the three, if I had to pick, I’d probably go with Unbreakable but it would be a hard call. Again the odds are he is probably better known for writing the title music to the TV series ER than anything else. He’s another composer whose work I would buy purely based on the name irrespective of the quality of the film it supported. The example I’m going to leave you with is from The Village which I actually liked as a film. It probably marked the turning point for M. Night Shyamalan as a director but the soundtrack stands up well on its own:

Alexandre Desplat is a composer whose work I know well. Like all those listed above he has been in the business for years and has tackled movies of all kinds from gentle films like Birth and Tamara Drew up to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Parts I and II. It’s a fairly recent score that has jumped into my current list of favourite scores and is a good example of how a great score can be hidden under a mediocre film. That film was Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and I’ve heard little to recommend it but the soundtrack is wonderful. It wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar this year but then (criminally) neither were his scores to The Ides of March or Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II. The clip I’m going to leave you with is 'The Candidate' from The Ides of March.

Thomas Newman will be known forever (by me at least) as the composer of the theme tune to Six Feet Under. He’s been nominated for Oscars a few times but always seems to get pipped to the post. He’s not a composer I jump to hear—I find his work a little samey and I don’t just mean ‘instantly recognisable’ in the same way as you can usually tell a symphony by Beethoven after a few bars—but he has produced a few scores that I would recommend: Meet Joe Black, The Horse Whisperer and In the Bedroom for example. Here’s an example from Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events:

Someone left a note under this piece in YouTube, “Just brilliant. I would say his music is just as good as Hans Zimmer's or John Williams.” It’s an opinion. I’m not sure I agree with it but whoever said that has reminded me that I haven’t mentioned Zimmer yet. I expect these days he’s best known for his soundtracks to The Lion King and Gladiator. I actually remember him first for his brief stint in the pop group The Buggles. (You can catch a quick glimpse of him in the music video for their 1979 single ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’.)

A lot of the time he collaborates these days or splits the work. For example the credits to The Dark Knight lists both Zimmer and Newton Howard and he credits Lisa Gerrard on Gladiator because, as he says, “[E]ven though she didn't write the main theme, her presence and contributions were very influential. She was more than just a soloist.” Once again I’m going to highlight one of his gentler scores, Driving Miss Daisy:

Which brings me to women. Where are all the women, Jim? Well, the sad fact is that, as is the case with the classical music world, the male of the species dominates but just as there are up and coming female directors, there are a number of women out there who are holding their own. There is a list on Wikipedia but, as you’ll see, it only mentions a handful, thirty-six when I counted, but if you’d asked me to list all the female composers who are working today that I could think of these are the only ones I would have come up with off the top of my head: Rachel Portman, Debbie Wiseman, Anne Dudley, Jocelyn Pook and Lisa Gerrard and I have something by all five of them.

Rachel Portman was the first female composer to win an Academy Award in the category of Best Original Score (for Emma in 1996). Anne Dudley won in 1997 for The Full Monty. These were awards, however, for the best musical or comedy scores; no woman has yet won the award for the best dramatic score. (I know Nicola Piovani won for Life is Beautiful in 1998, but he’s an Italian male in spite of the name.) These are the only two wins to date although Portman has been nominated a couple of times since for The Cider House Rules and Chocolat. She is another one of those composers whose work I would buy purely based on her name. Here is a lovely suite from the film Grey Gardens although I have no idea what the photo of the dancer is all about; it has nothing to do with the film:

Debbie Wiseman still does a great deal of TV work—the list on her website just goes on and on—and I think it’s sad that often so much of this work never makes it to disc. A perfect example of this was the music written by Mark Snow for The X-Files and Millennium of which very little was ever released commercially. (I got a bootleg from someplace—don’t ask.) The work I’d like to share though is from the film Flood featuring vocals by Hayley Westenra. Normally I avoid vocal music but this isn’t so intrusive you find yourself listening to the lyrics:

One person whose lyrics you’ll never have a problem with is Lisa Gerrard. She is the most unique lyricist comparable to Sigur Rós or The Cocteau Twins with maybe a touch of Enya in there. She makes up words to go with her melodies and although at first you think she’s improvising, as a scat singer might using nonsensical meaningless non-morphemic syllables to imitate the sound of instruments, it’s not until you see her in rehearsals to realise that she is repeating the same sounds every time; fascinating to watch. Like many soundtrack composers she began life in a band—in her case Dead Can Dance—where she developed her idioglossic style; essentially she sings in a made-up language. The first album I bought (knowing nothing about her at the time) was Whale Rider; as it happens this was the first soundtrack that consisted purely of solo material and I was hooked right there and then and started to look for more. The films I found her attached to, considering her haunting style (there’s no other word to describe it), are diverse: Ali, Man on Fire, Constantine, Priest although she usually only contributes; Whale Rider is an exception. Actually the first time I heard her was as a singer: she does those amazing vocals that accompany the Farscape TV show. A track from Whale Rider:

You know it’s not until you start work on an article like this that you begin to realise just what an impossible task you’ve set yourself. Here I am about 3000 words into it and I’ve talked about less than a dozen composers and there are so many others I would like to mention. I know, I know, I could spread this article over several posts but really what I’m wanting to do here is set you off to discover your own soundtracks. In many cases when you’re watching a film you’ll be pretty oblivious to the music although there are some exceptions. Top of my list there would have to be The Hours where Philip Glass’ music, for me anyway, dominates the film; it is probably my all time favourite soundtrack. Glass is an oddity in that he manages to straddle the worlds of classical composing and film soundtrack composing like no other composer out there. Oh there are plenty of dabblers on both sides of the fence but no one like Glass. When I went to buy the separates that would make up my music system I took along a few CDs to test the quality. To test the bass I played the opening track to the film Koyaanisqatsi, a wonderful piece. The entire soundtrack is maybe not the best to work over—it can get a bit hectic a times—but this is just one superb piece of music. Here's the finale:

This is the first of a trilogy of films by Ron Fricke all of which have soundtracks by Glass; the other two are Powaqqatsi and Naqoyqatsi. I have a huge collection of his music and, hence, most of his soundtracks and there’s not a dud in the lot apart from the version of The Thin Blue Line with all the dialogue. (Who does that?) Kundun got him an Oscar nomination; The Truman Show won him one. If I found a new soundtrack by him I would pick it up without reservation; he never disappoints although can also feel as if he’s repeating himself especially since the same tracks keep getting slipped into films; e.g. two tracks from Koyaanisqatsi ended up in Watchmen which also included two other Glass pieces: ‘Something She Has To Do’ (from The Hours) and ‘Protest (Act II Scene 3)’ (from his opera Satyagraha).

A lot of people have odd ideas about classical music and yet they watch films with orchestral scores without batting a eye. I wonder how many kids have watched all the Harry Potter films and subsequently listened to several hours of symphony orchestras and yet have never heard a symphony by Beethoven or Mozart or Bach? For a long time I steered clear of many of the most well known names in the classical music scene, not because I’d not heard all of Beethoven’s symphonies (I’d done that by nineteen) but because I’d convinced myself that new music was so much better. It’s not but I had to grow in my appreciation for it so perhaps I should have posted this article first before the one I wrote on my love of classical music. It doesn’t matter. There is so much stuff out there to listen to. I’m always looking to broaden my range of experiences and the whole point of articles like this is to encourage you to do so too. Let me leave you with a little list of some of my favourite soundtracks to write to, in no particular order. All the links are to videos on YouTube. Enjoy.

You do realise I could have written this entire post using a completely different set of composers.

And if all this isn’t enough you might want to work your way through 150 Masterpieces of Films' Soundtracks.


Kirk said...

I think some movies use a good score as a crutch. Actually, I just think this about one particular movie: Breakfast at Tiffany's. I love "Moon River" by Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer, but they play it one too many times in that film. At one point, George Peppard is even whistling it as he walks up a flight of stairs. I suspect the overuse of the score might have had something to do with the original novel by Truman Capote, which was flimsy in terms of story. It's Capote's prose that makes that book such a good read. Unfortunately, it's a little difficult to translate pure prose to the screen, so they tried music as a substitute.

Gwil W said...

Jim, I'm looking forward to getting through all these tunes. I started with Fractals and I have to say the same thing I said on George Szirtes' blog about his Dudley Moore playing the piano video and that is that many a good piece is lessened by having drums. In my humble opinion (and I'm the first to admit no musician but I do have ears that work quite well) the non-drum sections of Fractals are far superior to the sections where the drums come in. It's as if the composer doesn't trust the listener to figure it out or even enjoy it without the composition being unfortunately almost brutalized. There's a tendency to over orchestrate. Perhaps Wagner's to blame for this unfortunate pattern since he gets blamed for almost everything else. Sometimes less is more. So I'll shut up now.

Jim Murdoch said...

You know, Kirk, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I suppose it must’ve been on the telly sometime or other but if I have seen it then it must've been many years ago. But I know what you mean about films that overuse a track or a theme and I have one or two of those in my collection. One might accuse Desplat of that with The Idea of March because he does reuse the same motif many times and yet I never get bored with it. I suppose it depends on what it is. I once played Jim Steinman’s ‘Surf’s Up’ all the way to East Kilbride and back over and over again and this was back in the day when all I had in the car was a tape deck.

An adaptation of a book will always be that. There’ve been some excellent adaptations but I think we have to view them as works in their own right and try and put the source material to the back of our minds. I’ve talked before about how being too faithful to the original isn’t always the way to go (e.g. Watchmen); it’s a fine line.

And, Gwilliam, ‘Chi Mai’, yes. I actually like the drums. It’s what I waited for in ‘Surf’s Up’ and it’s what we all wait for in ‘In the Air Tonight’. I may not have played much air guitar when I was young but I frequently hauled out the air drums to play along with Phil. I’m a big fan of real drums although Led Zeppelin’s ‘Moby Dick’ does drag on a bit. I had a tape of a rather good Scottish band from many years ago called Geisha Boys (although I think they changed the name to Gi Jap) and one of the things they were advised to do if they wanted to make it was ditch the drummer and go with a drum machine. Well, they never made it big and I can find no trace of them online so I guess they didn’t go with that advice.

As far as over-orchestration goes, yes, Wagner has a lot to answer for. He’s never been a favourite. I’ve always viewed him as a bit of a one hit wonder (that one hit being ‘The Ride of the Valkyries’). I have a copy of his only symphony somewhere; he wrote it when he was nineteen and it’s perfectly listenable to but not particularly memorable. Gustav Holst once observed, a composer's most vital piece of equipment is an eraser and if you have a good look at the score for The Planets, even though it is written for an enormous orchestra, he rarely uses its full weight; the large number of instruments is there for colour.

Art Durkee said...

A younger soundtrack composer whose work I like very much is Bear McCreary. He also ahs a blog where he talks about his work, its process, and gets into the musical detail of it. Very good stuff. His style of music is also quite different from most soundtrack work, in that his "orchestra" is international in scope, and quite expressive.

Overall, you did a good overview here. As you said yourself, it barely scratches the surface, but you hit a lot of the best work that's being done these days, and that's great.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks, Art. I did wonder when I set myself this task who I’d forget. I tend to think of Bear McCreary as more of a TV composer although Wikipedia does list a handful of mainly direct-to-DVD films he’s scored. I should really do a third article on TV composers. Back in the seventies you could buy compilation albums featuring the themes to the popular shows of the day and I loved them but they’ve fallen by the wayside which I think is a shame. That said the TV theme has pretty much died a death of late—look at Lost as a shining example—and I doubt many are more than 16 bars long. We recently started watching the rather excellent Newsroom and it has a proper title sequence and a rather fine theme tune. We also really enjoy the titles to Game of Thrones, both the inventive visuals and the stirring melody. I’d never heard of Ramin Djawadi before this although I’ve seen several shows and films he’s worked on; I wonder why the name never jumped out because it’s unusual enough like Barrington Pheloung who does Inspector Morse. As far as TV composers go I think my favourite would have to be Mark Snow. Some of the incidental music he wrote for The X-Files and Millennium was truly breath-taking. Best theme tune ever? Hard call. The original Battlestar Galactica? Hawaii Five-0? I think I’d have to go with Doctor Who. I was particularly fond of the orchestral version John Debney did for the 1996 TV film (I get shivers every time I hear it) and, just as an aside, I was really sad that Paul McGann didn’t get a chance to develop his incarnation of the Doctor; I have my fingers crossed that he’ll appear in the show’s fiftieth year anniversary.

Art Durkee said...

Production values have changed, though. TV shows have budgets and production values as high as movies, in many cases. X-Files, definitely, set a record for the amount of music used per episode; in an interview, Mark Snow said it averaged around 38 minutes of music per show. McCreary and Snow I do tend to think of as film composers because the shows they are closely associated with, X-Files and MillenniuM for Snow, and the new Battlestar Galactica for McCreary, were made with film values and production budgets. For that matter, so was Star Trek: The Next Generation, which sometimes had some really great musical moments. And then there's Angelo Badalemento, who did the music for David Lynch's excursions into TV, but also the theme for Profiler, who also does incredibly great music.

So I think the distinction between TV composer and film composer is pretty much illusory. Some very interesting composers do both on a regular basis.

Jim Murdoch said...

I wasn’t suggesting for a moment that the work done by TV composers was somehow of a lesser quality to that of film composers, Art. I only draw the distinction for categorisation purposes. There is plenty of scope for overlap. I’ve listened to a lot of soundtracks to both film and TV shows and plenty of now famous film composers began life working on TV shows just as many filmmakers often started off directing TV shows or even adverts. On the whole I find film soundtrack albums more enjoyable than albums culled from TV shows; the exceptions are the ones we’ve already talked about although I should probably add Murray Gold’s work on the new Dr Who series; he won a watch when he got that contract.

Badalamenti is not a composer whose work I can readily call to mind (with the exception of the title music to Twin Peaks). I have the soundtracks to The Straight Story and A Very Long Engagement and I’ve heard others but for some reason his tunes don’t stick. If you played me a track by him I could probably tell you who it was—I’ve always been quite good at identifying composers (I impressed my music teacher when I was fourteen by correctly identifying a symphony by Sibelius)—and Badalamenti’s no different; his harmonies are fairly recognisable. Horner’s the easiest of the lot to identify but then he’s the most self-reverential.

Talking about film music I really should’ve mentioned Tangerine Dream who have some great soundtracks to their credit but I was thinking about leaving them to include in a post along with the likes of Brian and Roger Eno, Jean Michel Jarre, Harold Budd and Mike Oldfield, musicians whose work rarely includes vocals. We are talking about music to write over.

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