Soundtracking 4: Haunting Sounds

The Arts

You can tell a John Barry score in three notes. His haunting music seems to stand the test of time better than most – John Williams, for example, wrote great sweeping soundtracks but appears to have lately fallen from favour in the lists of best scores.

Meanwhile, David Arnold has made a decent fist of mimicking John Barry, to the point where his romantic theme for ‘Die Another Day’ seems to stem from Barry’s own hand, but he seems to have no character of his own. There are now only a few composers whose scores you can recognise as being identifiably theirs.

Paul Ferris (who sometimes worked under the pun-name Morris Jar) confounded audience expectations with a lush, lyrical score for ‘Matthew Hopkins: Witchfinder General’, probably because director Michael Reeves confided that he was making a English western. His score has been debased by having been used in a hair shampoo commercial, in the same way that one associates the William Tell overture with the Lone Ranger.

Last week I went to a Secret Cinema gig where they showed ‘Diva’ at the Coliseum, home of the English National Opera, and had a soprano perform the film’s arias live on stage (they also restaged the motorbike chase outside, blocking half of St Martin’s Lane to do so). But that score has been a victim of its own success, and has been overused on commercials.

One of the most consistently surprising scores of all exists on the full-length version of ‘The Wicker Man’. The director’s cut is sown with ancient dances and folk motifs that almost twist the horror-thriller into a musical, but there are repeated notes and phrases that subtly undermine the wholesome back-to-nature themes with something ungodly and disturbing.

Sadly, this was one of only two scores by the talented Paul Giovanni, who, like so many members of the creative community, was lost to AIDS in the early nineties.

3 comments on “Soundtracking 4: Haunting Sounds”

  1. Andy says:

    John Barry, Danny Elfman, Alan Silvestri, James Horner and John Williams are the five composers I can readily identify on hearing a perviously unheard theme by any of them, Barry immediately, the others after a minute or so. They all employ certain signature sequences which virtually trademark their work. Debney and Arnold are very good composers but, as you say, they do seem to be musical clones, Debney of Williams/Horner and Arnold of Barry in particular. I can generally recognise a Masamichi Amano or Joe Hisachi track likewise, but I’m less sure of them. Oddly Jerry Goldsmith tends to elude me, he does have a huge musical range though. One of the newer composer’s I particularly like is Michael Giacchino (Star Trek, Incredibles (rather John Barry there mind you) and Ratatouille amongst lost of others). Not heard enough to suss his style though.

    Doesn’t the old joke go “What’s a definition of an intellectual?”, “Someone who can listen to the William Tell Overture without thinking of the Lone Ranger”. Or Greensleves and Lassie. Or The Dance of the Reed Flutes from Nutcracker and Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut. Or Air on a G String and Hamlet, the Mild Cigar from Benson and Hedges, etc.

    (Showing my age there…)

    I’m not against music used in commercials, the Classic FM album “As Heard on TV” is very good, although my wife can’t abide it simply because she can’t help but associate the music with the advert. I’m more amused by the use of other soundtrack composers’ music in the previews for films that bear no relation to them. A track from James Horner’s “The Rocketeer” seemed to crop up almost all the time a little while back.

  2. J. Folgard says:

    Nice post -and thanks for the Youtube nugget: the first time I saw ‘The Wicker Man’ I was astonished that such a gentle (sorry) piece of music could evoke such dread in the movie’s context.

  3. Morricone and Rota are the quintessential “immediately recognizable” film score composers, I’d say.

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