As a film music collector, I am aware that this underatted and often neglected art form comes in all shapes, sizes and consists of numerous sounds. We have the symphonic styles as employed by composers such as John Williams and his illustrious predecessors such as Korngold, Steiner, Newman etc, and many others both in the past and in recent years. But movie music has evolved and at times like every other medium has hit its low points and then climbed again to the heady heights of excellence. I think the low for me must have been at the end of the 1970’s and through to the mid-1990.s I say low point, well that’s not exactly true because also during this period we did get wonderful symphonic and lush sounding soundtracks, but it was during this period also that the song score began to take hold, and the age of the music supervisor also came into play. Why they call them music supervisors is beyond me, because most of them cannot read a note of music and to coin a phrase from a good friend THEY WOULD NOT KNOW A SEMI QUAVER FROM A CROTCHET LET ALONE A CHEESE QUAVER. So, a music supervisor (and we will use this title loosely) was basically someone who found songs and got the rights of the songs cleared so that the film company could use them on a soundtrack to a movie, thus cutting out the composer and also the original score. Many of the songs had very little connection with what was going on in the movie, in fact they were at times (well all the time) selected to create more revenue for the film studio, who invariably would release a soundtrack album filled with them, at times it was like, NOW this is what I call bleeding the fans of the film dry vol 1, etc. And these supervisors actually got paid to do this and got a credit on the big screen too. Many films included both original score and songs too, and even in very rare cases original songs as well. In the 1990’s a soundtrack would often be released as being the original soundtrack, and it did not contain one scrap of the films score, it was all songs that were , wait for either in the movie,,,, or,,, are you ready for this inspired by the movie? Then we got a token track at times from the score tacked onto the end of the album or CD, five mins if you were very lucky. But of course, there are also scores for films which are not symphonic and are not song scores. The electronic or synthesised score, was a way of the film company saving money, after all if they had one guy and a synth machine, that’s got to be cheaper than the LSO right? Well not according to award winning composer Maurice Jarre. Who produced some epic sounding soundtracks that were brimming with themes as in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and DOCTOR ZHIVAGO etc. Jarre told me in an informal chat backstage at the Barbican that an electronic sore sometimes would cost more to produce than a fully symphonic work.
At the time I think he had just scored WITNESS, and when you think about it the amount of work that must go into creating an electronic score as in time etc must be high. When I think of a synthesised or electronic score, BLADE RUNNER by Vangelis comes to mind as does the composer/performers soundtracks to CHARIOTS OF FIRE and THE APOCALYPSE OF THE ANIMALS, then there are movies such as BEVERLY HILLS COP, and TOP GUN both of which were scored by Harold Faltermeyer, and lets not also forget that composers such as Jerry Goldsmith and Alan Silvestri went down the electronic route on a number of occasions. HOOSIERS, BASIC INSTINCT, GREMLINS and RUNAWAY for example by Goldsmith and DELTA FORCE by Silvestri were entirely synthesised scores.
Composers such as James Newton Howard and James Horner utilised the electronic path too, Horner’s WHERE THE RIVER RUNS BLACK for example and Newton Howards RUSSKIES were completely synthesised. And there are the likes of Jay Chattaway, Brad Fiedel, Craig Safan and their like all of whom, experimented with synths and electronics to achieve some stunning results. Did this make the scores that these composers created any less enjoyable, not for me they didn’t.
Even Elmer Bernstein who is well known for creating iconic theme laden scores for the cinema turned to non-conventional means when it came to scoring GHOSTBUSTERS and BLACK CAULDRON in fact Bernstein in the latter part of his career employed the Ondes Martenot many times, but does it mean a score is any less thematic because of the way in which it is realised? In fact, the Ondes Martenot,s presence within a score or a section of a score is mesmerising and attractive. Also let’s not forget Miklos Rosza with his PARANOIA theme for SPELLBOUND, so electronics have been around for a little while and have made some stunning impacts within film soundtracks, and coming up to date, (well the 1970’s).
Giorgio Moroder, was active in the area of scoring movies, his first film work was MIDNIGHT EXPRESS, for which he won an Oscar. Moroder’s disco based synth lines pulsated and meandered around the movie, but they worked and they also enhanced and supported the storyline in the same way that a fully symphonic score would have done, in fact I think that an orchestral score for MIDNIGHT EXPRESS probably would not have been so effective, the composer/producer manged to employ electronic sounds but at the same time purveyed an emotive and dramatic aura throughout, electronic soundtrack can be cold and non-emotional, but Moroder fashioned an effective LOVE THEME for the movie, which although a little more up-tempo than one would expect, is still filled with a delicate and fragile sound the composer utilising keyboard, choral effects and percussion.
Moroder of course had been active on the 1970’s disco scene and had produced massive hits for the likes of Donna Summer (I FEEL LOVE, LOVE TO LOVE YOU BABY, BAD GIRLS, and the re-working of McARTHUR PARK etc) and there is little doubt because of his popularity at that time was seen by the producers of MIDNGHT EXPRESS as an already established artist that was not only capable of providing a score that would be serviceable for the film but also his name would generate sales of the soundtrack album, which it actually did. The soundtracks opening track CHASE become a floor filler in many clubs and discos even at the lengthy 9 min duration that it was, it is a track that is still played today and has been sampled by top Dj.s and music producers popping up here there and everywhere. The beat and the recurring 11 note motive creating a haunting and rhythmic musical persona on which Moroder built his hypnotic composition adding sounds and snippets of sub themes to it as it progressed and grew, the composer developing the theme and repeating it to make sure it became fixed in the memory of the watching audience or listeners and dancers in the clubs. Moroder also composed a secondary theme for the movie, which was a slower variation of his CHASE piece, but he added to this a more exotic sound which was perfect for setting the scene and accompanying the location in which the movie was set Turkey.
Combining simple musical lines with percussive elements and adding strings or synth strings to lift the entire passage.
This style of electronica or electronic music spawned many sound a-like tunes such as MAGIC FLY by Space, which is more or less the CHASE theme, with a few minor variations but more commercially viable for being played on the radio. I think it too heavily influenced bands such as TANGERINE DREAM, with Italian born Moroder himself picking up on the creativity of German band KRAFTWERK when he set out to establish his own style and musical identity and of course Jean Michel Jarre’s OXYGENE which was probably one of the most successful sythn inspired works from the early to mid-seventies, alongside TUBULAR BELLS by Mike Oldfield, which was mainly instrumental as in conventional but did contain some electronic support.. It is also worth mentioning that Moroder probably had a hand in influencing numerous other bands, DAFT PUNK for example, who are now active in the film scoring arena.
The sound that Moroder achieved for MIDNIGHT EXPRESS was at the time nothing out of the ordinary, but in later years many have come to not only respect the direction he went in but also revere the sound he managed to create as being something of a milestone in modern film scoring, a game-changer or an innovative and important change in direction and the beginning of what many call the hybrid score. I am surprised that Moroder did not compose more for movies and TV shows, but I was pleased to hear his score for THE QUEEN OF THE SOUTH last year, which evoked so many of the themes from MIDNIGHT EXPRESS for me personally. The composer also worked on movies such as THE NEVER ENDING STORY collaborating with singer Limahl on the opening song and composer Klaus Doldinger on the score; I have to admit I preferred Doldinger’s score as it contained more symphonic elements, but the electronic style of Moroder and the symphonic sound of Doldinger complimented each other well. Moroder also was involved on the soundtracks for FLASHDANCE and ELECTRIC DREAMS both of which attained a kind of cult status with songs from both movies entering the pop charts. And let’s not forget he was also composer or a contributor on AMERICAN GIGILO, SUPERMAN lll and SCARFACE and wrote a new score for METROPOLIS the silent classic.
The electronic score existed many years before Moroder, Faltermeyer, Vangelis and their like. Cast your mind back to THE FORBIDDEN PLANET a futuristic MGM movie, that starred Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis and a youthful looking Leslie Nielsen, the music or at least the musical or electronic tonalities and sounds heard on the soundtrack were the work of Bebe and Louis Barron, the score was more of a soundscape when you think about it, as there were few thematic properties present. I remember having the MGM 78 rpm record, which I am sure still resides in my house loft, it contained two tracks from the soundtrack, which I have to say were somewhat difficult to listen to but worked so well in the movie. The strange sounds on the soundtrack were almost continuous, and not only under-scored the storyline but became the sounds of the planet and its inhabitants both human and alien.
THE FORBIDDEN PLANET is credited as being the first fully electronic score. The composers responsible created a sound and also a style that was to influence many other artists which was not restricted to just film composers. Its sound and its presence perfectly enhanced the production, and its influences were also far reaching. It is probably true to say that without this score being conceived and created then other film scores such as those mentioned as in CHARIOTS OF FIRE and BLADE RUNNER might not have come into being.
But even before FORBIDDEN PLANET electronics were utilised within film scores, not as the sole instrumentation but often to create otherworldly sounds and atmospheres as in the 1951 move THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL which was scored by Bernard Herrmann. The eerie sounds as realised by Herrmann brought much to the production and were an important part of the movie as they created a sound and a persona that was associated with the visitors that came from outer space, Herrmann’s talent at adapting and creating sounds to suit movies was already apparent, but his use of electronic sounds that acted as support to symphonic compositions and vice versa was and still is mind blowingly unique.
This was a fusion of electronic sounds and symphonic music and a combination that worked wonderfully, and a combination that the composer returned to most notably in scores for films such as JOURNEY TO THE CENTRE OF THE EARTH Herrmann’s dark and powerful work containing growling and foreboding sounds that were intermingled with symphonic parts and an ominous organ performance to create fearful, daunting and uneasy atmospheres which were perfect for the movie and also added another dimension to the unchartered territories of the underworld these rich and unsettling atmospheres created the perfect otherworldly moods that the film required. MYSTERIOUS ISLAND is another great score by Herrmann and although I initially thought that the composer had utilised some form of electronic support I have since re-thought this and listened intently, to discover that this is symphonic, with instruments creating sounds that are jagged and harsh, maybe giving the impression that there are electronic aids included, so maybe in this case we have conventional instruments setting out to imitate electronics rather than the other way around? The combination style of symphonic and synthetic was also employed by composer Franz Waxman within his renowned and ground-breaking score for THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN.
It is probably true to say that the majority of film music collectors would prefer it if electronics were not used within film soundtracks, but today the electronic hardware that is at hand to composers is so sophisticated at times it is difficult to decipher if it is electronic or symphonic and I for one have been fooled many times. Some argue that because of this that a number of scores sound similar to one another, maybe because the composers involved all use the same samples or sounds?
Certain composers do tend to place a drone sound over a sequence or scenes, which is basically a noise rather than actual music, a noise which to be honest has no melody or direction and is at times just a tone which does not alter or deviate at all. But nowadays and because of composers such as Hans Zimmer (sorry I know it’s that name again) this has become something of a regular occurrence within film and TV scores and at times it seems that the art of writing actual original music for film has departed the arena as it were. But, (yes it’s that But word again,) there have been times when you just know if a movie had been scored by any other medium of music or at least the music had been performed by symphonic means it would not have sounded right and certainly would not have worked as well in the context of the movie. BLADE RUNNER for example and also THE APOCALYPSE OF THE ANIMALS both by Vangelis had about them an originality and a creativeness that was rare with synthetic scores, the composer fashioning effective and affecting thematic properties that are innovative and iconic.
So, electronics have been around for longer than we probably realise and the assumption that it is a new component or for the film music composer is not correct. Composers such as Francis Lai, Ennio Morricone, Maurice Jarre etc are all associated with the silver age of film music, each have their own undeniable style and individual musical identity an identity that was the produced not by symphonic means alone, A MAN AND A WOMEN, WITNESS, ENEMY MINE, THE WORKING CLASS GO TO HEAVEN, are a handful of examples that we look upon as classic film music scores, but all have some elements that are electronically realised.
Sadly there is a down side to the use of electronics and samples within film scoring, and that is in this modern age it becomes quite easy for someone who is competent on a computer to come along and put together a score or a collection of themes or beats that can be expanded upon which might be suitable for a movie, I have always thought that the real talent of scoring a movie is when a composer sits and watches the film and whilst doing so is taking into account the timings the best place for any music to be placed to create maximum affect and also to support the action on screen, and I am also sure that whilst a real composer sits and watches a movie for the first time he or she is hearing the music they will create for it inside their head, which I am told happens every moment of the day for a composer.
The computer age has made it easier for one to hit a button, lay down a backing track and then add sounds and repeat these until something that resembles a theme eventually takes shape. But that is another story, synthetics, electronics, samples etc whatever you want to call them are here to stay and have become an everyday occurrence not just in film music but in all genres of music. Popular music too employs synthetics much more openly and widely, artists even having electronic aids to make them sound better when singing. So, are electronics a good thing a bad thing or maybe an ugly thing? Does it depend on the way in which they are used or in the way that a composer writes? That is the question. Listen to GETTYSBURG by Randy Edelman, it is a good score and contains some rousing and epic sounding themes, but is it symphonic, NO, not at all it is an example of electronics or synthetic sounds being formed into inspiring and imposing compositions, and because it is not symphonic is it a lesser work from this composer? Again, No not at all. Let’s, compare two random romantic movie themes, THE ANONYMOUS VENITIAN by Stelvio Cipriani now this is so lush and lavish filled with strings piano and woodwind that are brought together by percussion to create a lilting and haunting piece, orchestral through and through.
Now to BILITIS by Francis Lai, fully synthetic, but because it is, does it make this piece of elegant music any less effective or indeed affecting, do you see what I am saying? It still does the job it is destined to carry out, but returning to something I mentioned before in this article, if the theme from BILITIS was played by a one-hundred-piece orchestra with the accent on strings would it be as affecting? Probably not, and the same I suppose could be said if ANONYMOUS VENITIAN was performed at a synthesiser, would it sound right? Other composers I should mention that have utilised electronic sounds within their work for the cinema include, Francois De Roubaix, Michel Magne on various scores and Bob Crewe and Charles Fox on BARBARELLA, and that is as they say the tip of the iceberg and for the composers I have forgot to mention and I know there are many, I apologise.
Electronics and samples are not going anywhere, and the film composer as we now know him or her will utilise them as another tool in their musical armoury, and why not, if it works then use it, if it leads to a more creative and innovative film score, it can only be a good thing.