Tuesday, February 7, 2012

A few idle thoughts about film scores

I don't spend much time considering music; for many years after I first left home, I almost never put on music. In those days, my old-time radio hobby was running with a full head of steam and what time I didn't spend at home writing, reading or watching TV was given to old-time radio.

Eventually, I developed a fondness for classical music when I discovered it was the most pleasing music to hear while working. It was only natural for me to be inclined to the classics, coming from a home where each of my siblings and my mother played either the piano or clarinet. By the time I was listening to classical music all day, I'd learned how my close friend Craig was something of a classics man... but primarily a fan of film scores.

I didn't give film soundtracks much thought until Craig started initiating such conversations; I think John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith and Bernard Herrmann were previously the only film composers I could identify (aside: as a child, my siblings and I would joke about how Williams' scores sounded alike, before we even knew he was the composer of all the films in question; as an adult, I was seriously amused to discover other people held the same opinion of Williams). Craig loves film scores, to the extent of which he collects soundtracks based on his interest in the composer, not the film itself. I have to admit, despite his best efforts, I can't make that leap - I need to have both seen and enjoyed a film before I'm willing to experience the soundtrack. When Craig moved to Hong Kong he bequeathed his immense soundtrack collection to me, a gesture I quite appreciated.

Craig occasionally writes about soundtracks (often at great length) at his blog; I don't have nearly as much to say about them, but I felt I would share my list of my nine favourite tracks and why I enjoy them; we'll hit this in reverse chronological order:

Avatar: "Gathering All The Na'vi Clans For Battle" by James Horner

Since I became more aware of soundtracks and their composers, James Horner has become one of my favourites - and not just because we share a birthday! This track comes at the point of the film where... well, all the Na'vi clans are gathering for battle. Although there are many tracks on the album which I enjoy hearing over and over - and certainly tracks using less traditional instruments than this - this track has a section I love to hear where the music grows, swells, drops, then rises back up even higher, until it strikes it's highest notes at the climax.

The Dark Knight: "Like a Dog Chasing Cars" by Hans Zimmer & James Newton Howard

It was Craig who made me familiar with Zimmer and Howard, yet this film score doesn't get top marks from him; regardless, it's one of my most frequently-played albums and "Like a Dog Chasing Cars" is a great track to turn on when I want to get some serious work done; it's energetic and frantic, racing, going higher, then lower, then higher which is clearly a musical rhythm I like. I don't even recall where this track appears in the film (during the car chase?), I simply enjoy the sense of desperation the music evokes, that time is running out.

Dark City: "You Have the Power" by Trevor Jones

This music plays over the climax of the film and is about as close to a theme as the movie possesses. It's big and loud and it seems to me it captures the back-and-forth of the film's climactic duel.

Glory: "Charging Fort Wagner" by James Horner

Oh, Glory; your failure to win the Oscar for best score just underlies the unreliability of the Academy's judges. This was the film which really made me take notice of Horner; it's emotionally manipulative, triumphant and tragic, thus fitting the movie perfectly.

Star Trek II: the Wrath of Khan: "Main Title" by James Horner

I don't think I could omit a Star Trek track from my list; Trek has managed to have a pretty decent line-up of musical scores, but just I find this to be the most rewarding of the films, I find the track is also the most involving of the various openings.

Psycho: "Prelude" by Bernard Herrmann

Herrmann's score for Psycho is, of course, integral to the film and it's impact on popular culture, but even removed from the cinema, the heavy string theme which opens the picture - and then keeps reprising regardless of how suspenseful you may judge the events on screen - holds up quite well.

Vertigo: "Prelude and Rooftop" by Bernard Herrmann

Thanks to its appearance in various trailers on my Alfred Hitchcock VHS tapes, this is the music I associate with Hitchcock himself (after "Funeral March of a Marionette," of course). The track conveys an unsettling feeling, one which remains with you through the film as you attempt to understand what's really going on.

The Third Man: "the Third Man Theme" by Anton Karas

I think I could almost hum the entire score* of this film (my personal favourite picture). Somehow, this simple little zither score was the perfect touch to the film. It feels weirdly out-of-place with some of the surrounding scenes, serving to remind you this isn't a typical mystery/espionage story. Perhaps because the zither holds such a jolly, light-hearted feel, the comedic moments feel natural... and the shifts to violence and suffering feel all the more stark.

The Adventures of Robin Hood: "Prologue" by Erich Wolfgang Korngold

A few years ago I felt I really needed to own the Adventures of Robin Hood score, but unable to find a copy I settled on the Sea Hawk, another Korngold score. I didn't even realize Korngold had scored three of Errol Flynn & Michael Curtiz's pictures (the third being Captain Blood), nor who Korngold was (a world famous composer outside of films, as it happens). Korngold's score to Robin Hood is a large part of my childhood memory of this picture, noisy, a little gaudy, romantic and adventurous, but I could have easily nominated the other two aforementioned pictures in this slot; Robin Hood was the first Korngold I heard and the film is certainly my favourite of the Curtiz/Flynn/Korngold trilogy.

Right then, I'm off to listen to some Korngold. I hope you found something useful in this!

*= Yes, both tracks!

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