Past, Present & Future
November December 2011

by Courtland Shakespeare

Imagine the shower sequence in Alfred Hitchock’s Psycho, but with the Looney Tunes title theme playing in the background or maybe the theme from Hawaii Five-0.

Either way, without Bernard Herrmann’s legendary, frantic violins, it wouldn’t be the same intense experience—no matter how it was cut by George Tomasini (the film editor on many of Hitchcock’s films).

Originally, Hitchcock wanted the shower scene to have no musical accompaniment at all and told composer Herrmann to leave it alone. Of course, he didn’t listen and went against the director’s wishes. Instead, he wrote one of the most memorable music cues in the history of cinema.

It goes to show what an enormous influence film composers have on an audience’s perception of a film. Listen to the opening music of The French Connection. The Don Ellis score attacks your ears and makes you gnash your teeth with its dissonant pitch intervals. It sounds fiendishly out of tune. Along with the pounding percussion, you just know this is going to be one dark, nasty story.

Another incredibly powerful score that attacks your central nervous system by way of the auditory canal is featured in The Lost Weekend. Entering the nightmare world of a severe alcholic, the profoundly disturbing music by Miklós Rósza incorporates a theremin. It was one of the first times the electronic instrument was used in a film soundtrack (1945). He also used it in his Academy Award-winning score for Spellbound, which came out the same year.

Bernard Herrman used the eerie-sounding instrument in The Day The Earth Stood Still, but copycats eventually over-used it in a wave of trashy sci-fi flicks in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

On the other hand, Forbidden Planet incorporated a unique, electronically-generated score by Louis and Bebe Barron. This was long before synthesizers and the digital instruments we take for granted today. The extraordinary soundscapes turned the picture into one of the most influential films of the last century.

Years later, following the Barron’s example of not using an orchestra, Vangelis became one of the greatest composers of electronic music today. His score for Chariots of Fire won him an Academy Award (1981). The following year he wrote a superb soundtrack for Blade Runner, which wasn’t even nominated.

Wendy Carlos, on the other hand, turned electronic music upside down by recording synthesizer versions of classical composers such as Bach and Beethoven. Stanley Kubrick hired Carlos to score A Clockwork Orange which included Moog performances of Elgar, Rossini and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

To this day, movies still use enormous quantities of concert music ripped from past centuries. Mozart’s Requiem, composed (but not finished) in 1791 turns up in hundreds of movies, TV shows and commercials to the point where it is reduced to an anonymous cliché. Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps is also a rich vein that’s been tapped repeatedly for popular films.

There is, however, a legacy of superb, original film composers including the prolific Max Steiner, who wrote hundreds of scores including Casablanca, Gone With the Wind and King Kong. He was nominated 24 times (he won three). The list also includes Tiomkin, Korngold, Elmer Bernstein and the late, great Jerry Goldsmith who scored hundreds of films including five Star Trek movies and Chinatown. By the way, one of his students wrote the theme for Hawaii Five-O (Morton Stevens).

Today’s most in-demand composers have gone back to the big orchestras, but with more subtle, textured soundscapes and less “overt” melodies.

James Horner worked for over two years on the score for Avatar and says it was the most difficult job he has ever undertaken. Although it was nominated, his score for Titanic was the one that won him his only Oscar. Meanwhile his list of over 100 great film scores reads like a greatest hits collection.

Closer to home, Howard Shore was born in Toronto and went to the University of Toronto. He may not have as many nominations as Horner, but he has three Oscars for his original music written for The Lord of the Rings films.

He has also been a member of the popular Canadian band, Lighthouse and worked with Lorne Michaels as musical director in the early days of Saturday Night Live. Since then he’s written music for most of David Cronenberg’s films. He’s also worked with high profile directors such as Tim Burton and David Fincher.

His latest film, coming out on November 23, is Hugo. Directed by Martin Scorsese, it’s the magical tale of a young boy in Paris back in the 1930s who is trying to unravel a mystery involving a robotic automaton.

Another Canadian composer making it big in Hollywood right now is Mychael Danna who also graduated from the University of Toronto. Among his recent work is Little Miss Sunshine and the haunting Moneyball (released in September). It is a very gentle, pensive score for a completely different kind of baseball movie.

Danna’s brother Jeff is also a composer. He wrote the score for Resident Evil, Apocalypse which made use of contemporary, heavy and intense rock themes to counterpoint violent zombie action. Such music got tapped again when Paul W.S. Anderson got the team of Tomandandy to score Resident Evil: Afterlife 3D last year. Instead of the traditional orchestral structure, their work represents a new direction in heavy electronic, synth rock.

On another electronic tangent, Trent Reznor (Nine Inch Nails) and Atticus Ross composed a very modern and idiosyncratic score to capture the contemporary envirotech of The Social Network. They won the Academy Award for it last year.

This year they wrote the score for the upcoming The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo due out just before Christmas on December 21. Directed by David Fincher and starring Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara, the film is expected to do well this holiday season.

NOTE: I didn’t go into the topic of musicals, because they are a completely different kind of score (West Side Story, Camelot, Sound of Music). They have a direct correspondence to the world of popular songs. Soundtracks tend to have more in common with ballet music. For that reason, I also didn’t mention films that use popular songs instead of a score (Pulp Fiction, The Big Chill). While the technique can be very effective, there is often no original music composed for the film’s soundtrack.

A sampling of favourite film music currently available on iTunes:

Bernard Herrmann
Jason and the Argonauts
Journey to the Center of the Earth
Citizen Kane
Taxi Driver

Miklós Rósza

Louis and Bebe Barron
Forbidden Planet

Blade Runner

Wendy Carlos

James Horner

Howard Shore
Lord of the Rings

Unfortunately, at this time, you cannot purchase The French Connection (Don Ellis) or
The Lost Weekend (Miklós Rósza) from iTunes. You might find a collector's CD from a dealer, but it could be expensive.