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Music & Vision's monthly column -

Film Musings

I've watched so many films that one of things I most miss most in my own life is a soundtrack. High drama -- like the rice boiling over (that is high drama for my life) -- should be accompanied by pounding drums or screaming strings. I'd like frenetic music to go with my rush from the house and some steamy music when I give my wife the 'eye'. Sadly, unless I just turn on the radio, or my walkman or iPod, there's not much chance of it. Besides, the radio just provides a basic background not necessarily suited to the events. Rather like a silent movie pianist who is not watching the film.

But this basic stream of accompanying music, apart from its mythic or symbolic quality, is a remarkable phenomena. Since the days of the silents, music is integral to the whole predominantly visual process. A movie without music is rare, and in the wonderful film My Dinner with André from many years back, the use of Satie's Gymnopedie at the end -- after a long film with mostly dialogue -- was a stroke of genius. I once watched a Fritz Lang silent film without music and my head ached for days. (Besides, do you know how loud it is when a whole audience is chewing popcorn? Trust me -- it's loud).

Film music has its genres (I noticed a book on the music of the Star Trek series recently) and of better and worse quality. There's the John Williams style and there's also the horror film manner. I've always found it interesting though, that music that people will not stand in the concert hall (too modern, too dissonant) passes unnoticed at the theatre, such as in the Friday the 13th series of films. Recently, the electronic instrument the Theremin, long a staple of 1950s sci-fi is making a comeback. Expect to hear much more of the swooping grace of this antique instrument. Great music can also be perverted as the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven was when given such a garish twist in the Kubrick film A Clockwork Orange.

There's no question that the quality is high and there is enough variety to satisfy everyone. Composers of the most eminent variety have contributed. One of my favorites, of course, is the music by William Walton for the Laurence Olivier Shakespeare films. My daughter has watched the film Bedknobs and Broomsticks -- and by extension so have I -- about 500 times and I still find the music by Richard M Sherman and Robert B Sherman to be very entertaining. But maybe my mind is going ...

But has anyone ever collected the playing of Harpo and the piano playing of Chico Marx on a CD? I'd go for that! And does anyone else remember the violin in the Mel Brooks comedy Young Frankenstein? I even knew the violinist. He taught at the University of Michigan when I was a student.

There are also composers who write concert music that cries out to be used in films. In Calgary, a member of the currently locked out symphony, the violist Arthur Bachmann (go to the Canadian Music Centre web site for information) is just such a one. Please, would some director notice him!!! His music demands a film.

Sometimes though music and film composer don't quite go together. I've never quite gotten used to the sound of Korngold's late romantic chromatic soup in Robin Hood. I have not been able to bring myself to watch Kundun, though I expect Philip Glass's music is very good. But I loved the music to the first Highlander film (theme song provided by Queen) and think that the music that went with the first Lexx film I Worship His Shadow, was brilliant (Go to and there will be an audio sample of the soundtrack loaded directly, though this is not the best part. But, worse still is that the first season's shows are only to be had in Canada and the UK! -- see: I liked it because there were times when two temporal streams seemed to be running concurrently -- a great effect. Please forgive me though if I don't mention Celine Dion and the theme from Titanic beyond this bare sentence. I no more believe in saccharine in my soda pop than in my music.

Writing film music is no easy task and one is always prey to the vagaries of edits and cuts. How much good music is laying on the floor in Hollywood is hard to guess, and how many well formed compositions have been distorted by the need to add or remove just a couple of frames and a few seconds is unknowable. There is a wonderful description by Otto Luenning in his autobiography of a group of musicians sitting around orchestrating film music in the 1930s. The money was good, the hours long, the cigarette smoke thick and the process bizarre (here's five pages of a lead sheet, everyone at the table gets one page. Start orchestrating. One wonders how it came out at all.)

And how much of this is on the net? Well, not as much as I would like. Copyright restrictions I expect. But here's a few tidbits.


Film Music on the Web

A very generous and detailed site of reviews and information. Excellent for gettings started looking for film music. I can't find any streaming audio at this site, but there is a links page that is a super bonanza. It's the second link here.


The Fascinating World of Film Music

Chris Malone maintains this page with reviews and links. Clips seem to be nonstreaming. Some of the reviews are scene by scene comment on the music. Here's someone who is also listening to the music.



This is a glossy, media savvy, graphic intensive site, with very brief audio clips, reviews, product tie-ins (such as to eBay) and more. The reviews are hip, sometimes hard hitting and informative. But tell me it isn't so: the Harry Potter movie hadn't been released when I visited, but the soundtrack had???


Disney songs

I'm not a big fan of Disney (does that comes a surprise?) but here's a page of all the favourite tunes. I'm not sure about what the Disney company thinks about this. They have their own site but I won't give the address. I will not contribute unduly to the delinquency of a listener.


Copyright © 12 November 2001 Gordon Rumson, Calgary, Alberta, Canada


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