Saturday, 16 May 2009

Film and Television Scores, 1950-1979

Drawing upon his extensive knowledge of the form, as expressed through the long-running website, Kristopher Spencer here presents a useful field guide to Silver Age film and television soundtracks produced between 1950 and 1979.

If there's a thesis here it's a subtle and understated one: that the Silver Age soundtrack, in all its diverse manifestations, was different but equal to its Golden Age predecessors.

It is also, crucially, a thesis that is proven, as diversity emerges as key to the accomplishments of innumerable Silver Age composers, from John Barry to Elmer Bernstein to Ennio Morricone.

These were men comfortable working in a variety of idioms, unafraid to eschew the safe middle-brow pseudo-Wagnerian Romanticism of the Golden Age for high-brow modernist experiments or low-brow pop, rock and easy listening idioms, often as not combined with classical and jazz influences from Bartok, Stravinsky or Miles Davis, along with just about anyone and anything else you might care to mention.

The book is comprised of theme-based chapters looking variously at: "crime jazz and felonious funk," or crime films and TV series, including blaxploitation; "spy symphonies" or James Bond and his contemporaries; "sexploitation serenade"; "staccato six guns," or the Eurowestern and its influence on its Hollywood counterpart; "sci-fidelity and the superhero spectrum"; "a fearful earful," or horror, including the giallo; and "rocking revolution," on the general phenomenon of the pop/rock score.

While there are inevitably overlaps on account of the inter-relationships between some of these genres and their composers - Bernard Herrmann scored the sci-fi classic The Day the Earth Stood Still, various Hitchcock and De Palma thrillers, and the heroic adventure Jason and the Argonauts for example - this overall structure works.

The start and end-points are logical ones, insofar as crime jazz saw Hollywood composers begin to get away from 19th century classical orchestral scores in favour of (almost) up to the minute jazz combos, whilst the emergence of the song-based score culled from the work of a variety of different artists has in time led to the rise of today's "music from and inspired by"CD's.

The latter aspect is one that Spencer is understandably ambivalent about, with a common criticism of such scores that they are lacklustre compared to the artists' own albums or music composed specifically for a film. But he also recognises that influences run the other way as well, as with the use of samples culled from obscure 60s and 70s library or soundtrack records, "imaginary soundtracks" and the likes of David Holmes' work on the Oceans Eleven series today - developments without which, it could be argued, interest in Silver Age soundtracks would be considerably less.

While my own knowledge of the individual genres under discussion varies - as would, I imagine, that of most readers - the best way to describe each chapter or section is as a comprehensive overview.

Those with a particular interest in a given composer and/or genre will likely find all the main bases covered, along with the possibility of learning about something they perhaps hadn't heard of before, as with the score that transcends the now forgotten film for which it was made for, but are also likely to see certain unavoidable gaps.

In the horror chapter, for instance, Spencer provides good overviews of Hammer and giallo scores, but omits to mention such personal favourites as Benjamin Frankel's score for Curse of the Werewolf, David Glass's for To the Devil a Daughter - both of which are about as 'difficult' and modernist as you are likely to find - and Bruno Nicolai's truly beautiful, neo-classical, mono-thematic scores for Jess Franco's Count Dracula and Sergio Martino's Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key.

Similarly, whilst acknowledging the importance of Goblin's work for Argento on Deep Red and Suspiria - along with the influence of The Exorcist's Tubular Bells on these - and in turn noting the group's involvement with Stelvio Cipriani's on Solamente Nero and Ring of Darkness, Spencer does not mention Libra's score for Mario Bava's Shock nor the Goblin-esque sounds of Trans-Europ-Express's work on The Cat with the Eyes of Jade.

Nevertheless, such omissions are understandable when we consider the sheer number of films and scores that would have to then be taken into consideration via a complete genre or composer based approach, along with the issues of availability and access that come into play - many Nicolai scores, for example, only exist in very limited private vinyl pressings through his own Edipan label, whilst library music was never intended for the record buying public as a whole.

If other absences could be noted - where are Bollywood and Japanese action / crime scores in the first chapter? Or the arthouse work of Giovanni Fusco, Georges Delerue and company? - they are thus understandable and excusable.

In time there will hopefully be discussions of these, along with individual studies of the work of particular composers and the idioms use for particular genres of those Spencer addresses here.

Until then - and we may be waiting a very long time, or find ourselves wading through unpublished theses, obscure journal articles and the like - Film and Television Scores, 1950-1979 will adequately suffice.

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