At the Precipace We Change: Tyler Bates’ Music To Make The Earth Stand Still

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Tyler Bates’ has crafted a primarily dissonant, pulsating, and edgy score for the 2008 interpretation of the classic science fiction cautionary tale, THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, one that is well in keeping with director Scott Derrickson’s epic of near-cataclysmic destruction while also sharing the film’s sense of humanity and harmony. Bates’ aggressive score carries the film – and we the viewer – to the precipice of annihilation but, musically emphasizing that same sense of shared harmony and a human spirit shed of its cruelty, allows us to achieve redemption.

Tyler Bates came to Los Angeles from Chicago in 1993, where he had grown up writing, recording, and playing in local rock bands. His first scoring assignment was for Adam Rifkin’s low-budget sci-fi thriller called PSYCHO COP 2. That led to additional scoring assignments for movies of the same ilk, mostly independent affairs like TAMMY AND THE T-REX (1994, aka: TEENAGE T-REX), BALLISTIC (1995), and Roger Corman’s ALIEN AVENGERS (1996). Bates bounced between film scoring and touring with his rock band, Pet, until being on the road became tiresome and he began to miss the opportunities to create music in the studio. Getting back into film, Bates scored a wide variety of movies: the remade action thriller, GET CARTER (2000), the up-tempo of WHAT’S THE WORSE THAT COULD HAPPEN? (2001), the crime drama LOVE AND A BULLET (2002), and the disturbing DAWN OF THE DEAD remake (2004). His association with Snyder led to his massive score for 300 (2006) and his music for Snyder’s interpretation of WATCHMEN, due out next May.* Bates also has maintained an ongoing collaboration with Rob Zombie, scoring the director’s THE DEVIL’S REJECTS (2005), his 2007 HALLOWEEN remake, the WEREWOLF WOMEN OF THE S.S. trailer for GRINDHOUSE, and the recently completed HAUNTED WORLD OF EL SUPERBEASTO (2009). Bates has also scored the TV series CALIFORNICATION, James Gunn’s horror pic SLITHER (2006), and Neil Marshall’s post-apocalyptic DOOMSDAY (2008).

After Snyder’s DAWN OF THE DEAD and Zombie’s HALLOWEEN, THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL is the latest and largest big budget remake that Bates has had the opportunity – and challenge – to score.

Composer Tyler Bates

“It seems like a lot of the films I work on kind of carry that weight!” Bates acknowledged. “The expectation of what the music should be for many of the films I do is probably something that’s next to impossible to satiate for most of the fans, but you can’t let that get in your head. What you have to do is get a feeling for what the film itself is – not what the idea of the film is but what the film itself is, and for one, do the best thing you can for the film, and, two, serve the director’s vision. Really, that’s how I have to approach it.”

Bates came into DAY after Derrickson had been attracted to his previous scores – although perhaps not the ones one might immediate imagine. “Strangely enough, DEVIL’S REJECTS and SLITHER had the most profound effect on him, of my work!” Bates said. “It was cool!”

In this case, however, Bates was up against tremendous competition from the score of the original classic film. The music by Bernard Herrmann for the 1951 version of THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL is one of the most significant, influential, and iconic science fiction soundtrack efforts of all time. Its use of Theremin (long with the same year’s THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, scored by Dimitri Tiomkin) was groundbreaking and forever associated the instrument with science fiction; Herrmann’s brilliance in crafting sonic structures and melodic ambiances resulted in a score that is nearly impossible to replicate.

Bates realized he shouldn’t even try. “I can’t think to myself, Oh my god, Bernard Herrmann did the original! I don’t expect to ever exist in a paradigm close to his stature, so I can’t even think about that. I think that would end up setting me backwards. My approach was just to get into it and understand what Scott wanted to communicate, because obviously there is a consciousness about the film and its message that is slightly different than that of the original, which you kind of have to expect, fifty-seven years ago. Frankly, I think most of the people who will go to see THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL won’t even realize that it’s a remake.”

Instead of trying to emulate Herrmann, Bates recognized that he is scoring Scott Derrickson’s interpretation of the Robert Wise classic, which is a different film with a different tone and a different sensibility. “We got this on HALLOWEEN when Rob Zombie and I did that,” said Bates. “People revere an original property and feel that it’s sacred, but frankly, there’s a good story to be retold, as it applies to the climate of the world now. If that’s something beyond the scope of a person’s ability to take in, on a new level, without necessarily using the original as a criteria for whether or not they’re going to enjoy it, then they probably shouldn’t bother themselves with it.”

Bates’ resultant score is a potent and cataclysmic evocation of a subtle and ultimately benevolent invasion of the earth by a higher intelligence. The score characterizes both the epic-level awesomeness of such a concept and the inevitable menace of that visiting presence through a tonality of clearly restrained synthetic power and a pulsing, relentless assuredness of purpose.

It’s not a thematic score, with recognizable themes resurfacing from time to time. The music is derived from an ambient movement that is replicated, developed, looped, restructured, and regenerated throughout the score. It’s the feeling of the cue that is built upon to create the various atmospheres that are culled together to form the cohesive sonic structure.

“The impetus for what the score would be came about from watching them film a couple scenes with Keanu and Jaden Smith up in Vancouver,” Bates recalled. “I came back to L.A. and was just experimenting and trying to create a feeling on my GuitarViol. It was not intended to be the score. I just happened to record this one passage into my computer and a couple months later when Scott came over I played it for him and asked what he thought of it. His eyes lit up and he said, ‘I think that’s the score!’ Well, it presented an incredible problem for me because the actual piece had a sound that I couldn’t replicate; it wasn’t in time; it was a little distorted, and it was harmonically very rich. So it posed some restrictions, but he stuck to wanting me to base the score off the feeling of the movement in this little loop that I created.”

Bates managed to replicate that sensibility and develop it into a full score. “It turned out to work out really well and it spawned a number of thematic ideas for the film,” he said. “But my goal was to bring some human spirit to the music, and that was a challenge. Keanu has appeared in so many genre roles of this nature, that I also wanted to feel like it was definitely a new experience with him as an actor in this role, so it was a matter of also creating an environment that I hadn’t quite experienced with him on screen. That took some handiwork and experimentation with electronic development.”

Bates also made sure he included a Theremin in his roster of orchestral rolling stock for the DAY score. “We had to include the Theremin!” Bates grinned. “But it’s not so much a literal expression of the Theremin, as in the original. It’s used throughout the score very richly as far as textures are concerned. A lot of the ghostly ambiances throughout the film are layers of Theremin performances. There’s also some melodic stuff, but you sometimes can’t quite tell the difference between the Theremin and our solo vocalist, Nan Vernon, so it’s been kind of interesting.”

Singer Nan Vernon was called in provide an organic vocal texture – not songs but wordless singing – which is not always obvious when the score is heard; however, the sound of her voice, as with the Theremin, lends a strikingly subliminal texture. “Nan transcends the term ethereal,” Bates said. “It’s not something she has to conjure up; it’s just her state of being! She’s a fan of the original movie so when I talked to her about it she was just very happy to get involved.”

Bates use of Vernon’s vocal recordings, like his incorporation of the Theremin, underscores some of the more emotional moments of the film – as in the scene between Jaden Smith and Jennifer Connelly at the military cemetery. “Nan is able to do that without being poignant,” said Bates. “I don’t think the vocal is ever truly a solo or lead instrument, but she’s definitely enhancing the orchestra in expressing certain counter melodies to what the strings are often playing. She’s definitely brought more of the authentic ethereal sort of otherworldly quality to the music.”

Jennifer Connelly, Keanu Reeves
Jennifer Connelly, Keanu Reeves

In addition to the pervasive atmospheres associated with Klaatu and the potential danger of his presence on Earth, Bates’ music has characterized the heart of the Jennifer Connelly character through whose eyes much of what transpires is filtered for the audience. This material begins to appear about half way through, as the alien’s decision that “If the human race dies, the Earth survives” begins to acquiesce to the awareness that humanity can, as John Cleese’s scientist opines, change at the precipice of destruction. This musical material is more serenely reflective in its sustained tonality and quiet measures, evoking sympathy and a benevolence of purpose that is contrapuntal to the pervasive dissonance of Klaatu’s or G.O.R.T.’s music, even though both styles are part of a whole in his musical approach.

“For the most part the score is driven by the character of Helen, played by Jennifer Connelly,” said Bates. “She is, as the film begins, unrelated to the story, going through a series of personal challenges, emotionally and whatnot, in her life, so what’s going on with her is already an emotional element in the score. And then she’s also a scientist, so her connection with Klaatu is one of wonderment and awe as well as dread, because I think there’s nobody who understands, more than her, what’s really potentially going to happen in the film. The thing was to try and not necessarily oversell Klaatu as the bad guy. G.O.R.T. is more than threatening presence, and one that we’re not quite certain what’s going on with. The cards are always face down with that character in the film.”

GORT
GORT

Bates treated G.O.R.T. menacing ambiguity and immense power with layers of dark and heavy atmospheric music. “At one point, G.O.R.T. is restrained in a flash chamber, and before that goes wrong, there’s a sense of some impending doom.” Bates’ recognized that there’s an inherent cliché in underlining the obvious doom and gloom of that scene, but avoided that by including in his harmonic approach the same kind of flowing chords that emphasized the Helen material. “We didn’t want to make a cartoon of this movie, so most of the dynamics are steeped in human emotions,” said Bates. “I’m not really trying to oversell the outer space elements.”

The music for DAY, consequently, begins with the human story and then layers all these other elements on top of that, but without losing the initial humanity. The score works in harmony with that sensibility, with a depth to its sonic textures and progressive structure. One moment, for example, when the scientists are initially gathered and brought to Central Park to investigate the landing of the Orb, burbles of electronics and sustained string harmonies create a sinewy chord of apprehensive inquisition, dramatically but quietly underlining Connelly’s character’s question, “Did you hear that?” As the group encounters the swirling Orb, the music opens into an exuding harmony of synths, strings, and choir that is unmistakably unearthly and movingly powerful. Later in the film, when Klaatu’s Orb rises and all power and movement on the planet stops for a short time and the film achieves its title, Bates’ provides a rising cadence of grandiose eloquence that builds through surging symphonics punctuated by a subtle use of synth stingers and a massive choir intonation, emphasizing the cosmic importance of the sequence.

The score as a whole may be characterized by its overall sense of dissonance and orchestral onslaught, but its lynchpins are these moments that speak to the heart of humanity – Connelly’s music and that of the changed Klaatu, recognizing that, on the precipice of destruction, there is hope for humanity – providing the music’s motivic (if not thematic) unity. Bates develops his score progressively by riffing on these motifs, and culminates it in a very satisfying gathering of atmospheric development that retains the sense of largess coupled with elements of introspection.

It’s a powerful and climactic science fiction score. We can only wait to see what he comes up with for WATCHMEN in May.*

FOOTNOTE:

  • The WATCHMEN’s intended May release may be in doubt since a court has ruled in favor of 20th Cnetury Fox’s contention that they – not Warner Brothers, which produced the film – owns the U.S. distribution rights. Read more here.

The Score: The Splintered Sounds of Elia Cmiral

Composer Elia Cmiral with SPLINTER actress Jill Wagner

Composer Elia Cmiral’s recent score for SPLINTER is the latest in a dozen or more horror or fantasy film scores concocted by the composer since he emerged in 1986. While he can be equally adroit at action-thrillers like RONIN, science fiction like BATTLEFIELD: EARTH, television series like NASH BRIDGES, and warm family dramas like THE READING ROOM and THE WISHING TREE, it is in the realm of cinematic horror that Cmiral has made his most significant mark on movie music. Highly textured, intricately layered, and evocatively orchestrated works for STIGMATA, THEY, WRONG TURN, SPECIES III, TOOTH & NAIL, THE DEATHS OF IAN STONE, and the American versions of PULSE and its sequels have earned Cmiral the reputation for stimulating, provocative, and chilling accompaniment for horror movies.

Cmiral (pronounced SMEAR-all) was born in Czechoslovakia in 1957, the son of a theater stage director. The young Cmiral was therefore immersed in the theater from a very young age. Showing an inclination towards music, he wrote scores for student movies while attending conservatory in Prague. Moving to Sweden, he began to write more seriously for theater, movies, and commercials, eventually succumbing to the draw of Hollywood and arriving in Los Angeles to enroll in the film scoring program at USC. Drawing on his experiences in Sweden and his new contacts in the US, Cmiral got the job to score a low-budget thriller called APARTMENT ZERO. On that film, noted Argentinean composer and tango maestro Astor Piazzola had been secured to write the music, since the film took place in Buenos Aires. But the music wasn’t quite what the producers wanted and Piazzola left the project; Cmiral was quickly hired to write and record a wholly new score within ten days. Cmiral embraced elements of Argentinean tango in his score in keeping with the film’s locale, inspired by certain harmonies he found in the tangos of that region. “Since I only had ten days, I wrote maybe 15 or 20 minutes of music which I recorded with a small orchestra, and the rest I improvised with electronics direct to the picture,” Cmiral said.

Cmiral came into the horror genre at the time when horror movie music was moving away from the traditional 19th Century Gothic forms that had characterized the genre in the past. With technological and stylistic advances in electronic and the influence of rhythms, harmonies, and orchestrations out of rock and roll and world beat music, horror scores of the 1990s were becoming more of a fusion of sonic textures, atonality, and layered, harmonic tonality combined together to create an atmosphere of disturbing apprehension. “When I came to USC, there was a Gothic shadow on horror scores, and I think I was lucky to be in the time and place where I could start to write these things,” said Cmiral. “Then, with the whole movement during the 1990s, there came more scores with a similar direction, more people like me started to write similar kinds of things, and horror scores are completely different than years ago.”

Cmiral recognized, however, that an effective horror movie score is not all about dissonance, cacophony, and terror tonalities; it’s also about contrast and character and story. The contrast between a warmer, more melodic species of music to help the audience relate to the characters and their emotions will then make the disturbing horror music far more powerful and effective to audiences. Even his first horror score, 1999’s STIGMATA (a tale of terror involving a young woman with unexplainable injuries on her hands that replicate the wounds of the crucified Christ) contrasted thickly orchestrated textural ambiances comprised of disturbing mixtures of synths and symphs with a very reassuring and melodic upsurge of voice and violins, which forms a kind of a respite from all the textured terror music.

“I always start to write by asking myself what the picture really needs before I start to write,” said Cmiral. “I watch the movie and try to get under the skin of the characters, asking myself, as a member of the audience, would I expect to hear, how can I enhance the character and her or his emotions, rather than say, okay, here’s this, here’s that, here’s the chase.”

For WRONG TURN (2003), Cmiral began the score emphasizing the beauty and expanse of the large West Virginia forest in which our heroes become lost. “The opening theme reflects the large forest in West Virginia,” Cmiral said. “I had a big string ensemble, and then with the low woodwinds and brass I just felt I would get lost in this forest also.” To reflect the film’s forest environment, Cmiral brought in dulcimer, guitars, dobro, and fiddle, associated with West Virginia roots music, and laced those instrumental elements throughout the score, even combing them with the darker electronic elements that represent the cannibalistic, inbred mountain men who threaten the characters. “One part of the score is of course electronic, which becomes darker towards the end, with a lot of disturbing and distorted sounds, but I also wanted to bring some elements that I could bridge between the orchestra and the electronica, something that is connected to a West Virginia kind of sound, so I and these elements are heard later when the kids are running from the shack. The chase actually uses some dulcimer hits and grooves.”

In 2006’s PULSE, a remake of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s 2001 j-horror epic of the same name, Cmiral
provided a powerfully atmospheric score. The film has to do with an alien technology that uses wireless signals to enter our dimension. Cmiral’s score utilizes eerie synthesized textures and sampled orchestra and choir that builds an interesting and affecting sonic tonality. The score is not a thematic one, but rather builds a layered progression of sounds and textures ainto patterns and rhythms that combine to create a disquieting effect that generates plenty of foreboding and suspense.

Cmiral’s score for the 2007 After Dark Horrorfest entry, THE DEATHS OF IAN STONE is brim-full of persuasive chills. The film, from Italian director Dario Piana, tells of an all-American guy who is murdered each day by horrifying pursuers, only to wake up in slightly different lives to experience the terror of being murdered again. The score is comprised of elements of melodies and melodic tonality as well as all manner of textures and synth pads and sampled sounds layered into very interesting musical patterns. Cmiral makes use of sound design and musical textures, from bird cries to soft bells and whisperings sighs, to fabricate an extremely compelling sonic ambiance that is affecting and haunting; again, the score contrasts the complex sonic textures with very melodic orchestral tonalities and even a love theme for the protagonist’s romantic interest.

TOOTH & NAIL, a post-apocalyptic thriller set after the world runs out of gas and society evaporates like fumes in a hot engine, gave Cmiral the opportunity to contrast the two surviving tribes and their opposing struggles to survive. Cmiral alternated the tuning on a glass harmonica to generate a very unpleasant kind of sound. “I wanted to reflect this strange apocalyptic feeling where suddenly we don’t have any rules, and you do whatever you want to do to survive,” Cmiral said. “I used these weird glass harmonica clusters along with high string harmonics, and for the meat eating people I did very metallic, organic grooves using different sounds. I recorded the sounds of scissors, knives, and an axe, in order to reflect that they were very organic, they eat meat and they were trying to re-establish the old society, what they remembered or they knew.”

“As a film composer I am writing for the movie. If I have a horror movie, and I am writing to help the movie and the characters, and then it dictates what I write. I love a movie like SPLINTER which I would say is really more of a thriller than a horror movie. It’s about these two couples who try to survive when a parasite attacks them, so I’m writing for the characters. There are some horror scenes, but they are secondary.”

Splinter (2008)

With SPLINTER, Cmiral’s knack for intricately carved sound designs fusing the orchestral with synthesizers and sampled and processed sounds provided an especially eerie and discomforting resonance under which the film plays out. SPLINTER tells the story of a convict and his girlfriend who carjack a couple on a weekend retreat in the woods. Both couples soon find themselves trapped together in an isolated gas station, on the run from a deadly parasite that occupies the woods outside. Like WRONG TURN, Cmiral’s score begins tonally, emphasizing the expansive forest in which most of the action occurs, and then gradually turning the music darker, more fragmented and more ominous. “I started with a very atmospheric approach and then got wilder as this parasite develops and attacks the people. It winds up with complete symphonic chaos, very aggressive, and very dark.”

To find a musical correlation with the “splinters,” the multitudinous parasites that occupy the forest, Cmiral crafted musical textures comprised of electronics, glass harmonica, fragments of cello and violin, and layers of percussion until he had a virtual forest of musical elements that, in their mass, formed a very dangerous and disturbing musical atmosphere. “When these people walk into the forest, I created these textures, and they are changing,” Cmiral explained. “It’s not just one layer, there are hundreds of layers, droning and evolving. I was imagining these splinters, and how the parasite is attacking animals and people and how they would change through the parasite. I tried to reflect it in the score.”

In effect, the parasitic splinters equate to musical notes, and as they get more horrendous in the film, the score gets more chaotic. The story drives the symbiosis of the music as it develops. “I tried to see myself in this gestation, and these three people they survive a couple of attacks and they see how the parasite is so aggressive and so fast,” said Cmiral. “I tried to reflect that in using the same thing in the music.”

But these ideas didn’t come easily on this score. It took Cmiral considerable experimentation to finally hit on the approach to scoring SPLINTER. “I wrote a lot of music for this movie and tried this and that,” he said. “The movie was really interesting to score because it just refused traditional themes. I literally tried hundreds of different ideas, I put in some traditional, defined tones, like strings or piano, but it didn’t work. So I scaled it down and tried something else, and I ended up with a very rich texture for the first half of the movie, and the first real kind of traditional theme from solo cello comes at the very end, with a reflection of the opening title. It’s kind of amazed me, myself, how the movie dictated what it needs.”

After scoring so many horror films and thrillers, Cmiral is obviously comfortable in the genre, yet that does not mean that each assignment is necessarily easier than its predecessor, because every film requires something new. Horror film music has gone from the Gothic orchestras of the 40s and 50s to the textural approach of the 90s. Where will it go in the future? Cmiral has some ideas on how the sonic palette of monster movies will expand over the next five or ten years.

Elia Cmiral and Toby Wilkins

“I try to be different and try to find a new way to score these films,” Cmiral said. “I have some ideas for my next project, like maybe using more human sounds. This might be something I can try to explore. I think the electronic chaos we’ve heard so much of, if it’s in the hands of somebody who doesn’t really know what they’re doing, can end up with drones and just sounds. We have so many great libraries of sounds nowadays which we didn’t have fifteen years ago. I didn’t have these sounds when I did APARTMENT ZERO where I had to do everything myself – I had a couple of very primitive samples – but that limitation forced all of us to use more imagination and develop sounds, instead of people thinking they are Stravinsky overnight by buying a classical library with this classical sounds, but it’s not really true. I played in an orchestra, and when I am writing this kind of sound I am thinking like a player – how would I play that, how would it sound. Even if I am using some library sounds I’ll overdub live instruments or find different ways of using existing sounds to get a kind of realism, instead of just getting something from the box.”

The Score: Remember Irving Gertz

Film composer Irving Gertz, a significant contributor to the music of the Universal science fiction film boom of the 1950s whose music was heard in dozens of the studios classic sf and horror films of the decade, died on Nov. 14 in Los Angeles, at the age of 93.

The youngest of eight children, Gertz was born May 19, 1915, in Providence, R.I. He played a variety of instruments at an early age and went on to study at the Providence College of Music. He became associated with the Providence Symphony and composed several chorus works for the Catholic Choral Society. In 1939 he began working at Columbia’s music department before joining the army two years later. After World War II, Gertz returned to motion pictures, scoring and arranging for many companies.

His first work in the genre at Universal was in collaborating with Herman Stein and Henry Mancini on IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE (1953), each of them composing about an equal third of the score (although the main thematic approach was created by Stein). Universal Pictures exemplified the team approach to film scoring, and most of the studio’s B-pictures were composed by a group of anywhere from two to half a dozen or more composers, each taking segments of the film and sharing musical motifs to generate a reasonably cohesive composition. Virtually all newly composed material went into the studio’s music library and these tracks were liberally re-used, under the coordination of music director Joseph Gershenson, in a multitude of other films. Thus Gertz contributed either original music or recycled library cues to the scores of THE CREATURE WALKS AMONG US in 1956 (most of the score was written by Henry Mancini, aided by Gertz, Heinz Roemheld, and Hans Salter) and 1957’s THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN (Gertz’s most memorable music from this film is the mysterioso in the early scene in which the ocean mist envelops Scott Carey), and he composed nearly all of the original music for THE MONOLITH MONSTERS (1957).

It was this film (with its unusual story of crystalline rocks from outer space that react chemically to the water on Earth, growing to monstrous, threatening proportions) that perhaps best exemplifies Gertz’s science fiction scoring of the 50s, and stands out as fine “B” movie music for the period. Most of the score was composed by Gertz, with assistance from Stein and Mancini, plus a short tracked cue that opens the picture, originally from THE DEADLY MANTIS, by William Lava. In fact, much of Gertz’s music for MONOLITH MONSTERS came from DEADLY MANTIS as well, as was often the case with B-pictures in those days. Gertz and Lava co-composed the score to MANTIS fairly equally, and their thematic material was delicate and discrete. But MANTIS had buried much of its music under the sound effects of the roaring, buzzing insect while MONOLITH foregrounds the music, which plays a larger role in the film.

For Twentieth Century-Fox, Gertz scored THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE (1959), an intriguing if poorly visualized monster story about a man saved from death by an alligator gland formula (with the unfortunate and unexpected side-effect of gradually transforming him into two-legged crocodilian). Gertz provided a wholly original score that overcame the picture’s tight music budget not by reducing the size of the orchestra or the amount of music – both elements Gertz knew the picture needed to maintain a convincing atmosphere to enhance its fanciful premise – but by composing music that, with a few minor changes, could be used in more than one scene, thus saving considerable time and money.

Gertz composed music for Universal’s THE LEECH WOMAN (1960) before joining fellow Universal alumni Stein and Hans Salter on Irwin Allen’s television series, VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA and LAND OF THE GIANTS, where he composed the music for several episodes.

“Irving was an immensely talented composer with a unique style, and many of his classical works have been performed in concert through the years,” noted David Schechter, of Monstrous Movie Music, and a long time friend of Gertz. “More important than that, he was a gentle soul and one of the kindest gentlemen I have ever met in my life.” Schechter added that he had the opportunity to take Gertz and his wife Dorothy to the Long Beach, California film music concert, “where Irving had the first opportunity in his long life to hear any of his film music performed live, that being his brilliant ‘Eskimos Attacked’ cue from THE DEADLY MANTIS, authentically conducted by Bill Stromberg.”

Noted Jack Smith, a Golden Age film music devotee and historian, “I’m truly saddened to hear of this Hollywood Maestro’s passing. His great music is a treasure to those of us who spent our lives in the dark on Saturdays, watching horrifically fun movies while screaming our heads off and eating jujubes, popcorn, Payday candy bars and gulping those big colas. Thanks Maestro Gertz, for a richer kidhood – and wonderful memories as a graying member of the cognoscenti. THE ALLIGATOR PEOPLE is my favorite…”

Gertz is survived by his wife of 64 years, Dorothy; two daughters, Susie Anson and Madeleine Herron; and four grandchildren.

Pained by a Guilty Conscience: A Lament on Missing "Trek – The Concert"

Folks, I sense the need to write a big public apology to Maestro Erich Kunzel, a celebrated conductor who recently conducted the Colorado Symphony Orchestra (with themed appearances by Trek actors Robert Picardo and John de Lancie), at Boettcher Hall in Denver, Colorado while I sat at home in my paper-strewn office typing away. It was the closest he’s knowingly been to my geographic location and I wasn’t at the concert hall where a self-respecting fan should’ve been. For that, Mr. Kunzel, I wish to tell you that I am mighty sorry.
I feel as though I was playing the hypocrite that night because I’m always complaining—uh, ‘verbally observing’ that we don’t get enough of the likes of him in the Colorado Springs/Denver area. I whine and say that if they’d bring such talent as an Erich Kunzel, John Barry (don’t have much chance there anymore) John Williams, James Horner, or a James Newton Howard, the people will come. Well, Mr. Kunzel was just one hour away from me and I wasn’t there. I felt like a heel about it too; I still do. After all my moaning & groaning about the lack of film music being put on display, I was not there to support it that time around. Oh, I could go into the reasons, but would it really matter? The bottom line is that I was here, not there. And heck, he wasn’t just giving a concert; he was giving one right up my alley – Trek: The Concert. That’s right, a collection of music from the universe of Star Trek! “Oh, the pain. The pain,” as an old iconic character I know might say.

Erich Kunzel
Erich Kunzel

Maestro Kunzel is no stranger to those interested in film or classical music (just two of the ponds in which he dips his toe). He’s been conducting professionally for just over fifty years, with 125 albums under his belt and ten million recordings sold. And like John Williams with the Boston Pops, he’s got a long & respected relationship with the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra. Over fifty-five of the eighty-five albums he’s made with the Cincinnati Pops have landed on Billboard’s top ten charts. He’s won several Grammy Awards, the Grand Prix Du Disque, and the Sony Tiffany Walkman Award for “visionary recording activities.” He’s even made historic trips to China. I mean, we’re talking about an artist who’s been presented with the National Medal of Arts, the highest honor given to artists and arts patrons by the United States Government. Why on earth was I in my office, feeling guiltier with every key stroke while this distinguished artist was in Denver performing with the Colorado Symphony for people like me?
Click to purchase
Click to purchase

Could I regain any modicum of personal pride if claimed that I was listening to albums of the Maestro’s while I typed away (like Time Warp – full of neat science fiction cues and Classics of the Silver Screen – which focuses on classical music that’s been used in films)? I don’t know, somehow I felt unworthy of listening to them right then. But I had to do something to connect with what was going on up the road.
Such puny efforts ain’t good enough though. I wasn’t walking my talk that night and I feel a bit like a Denebian slime devil about it, Mr. Kunzel. So again, I’m sorry. I’m sorry about not being there to bask in the emotive notes wafting through the hall. I’m sorry for shooting off my mouth about the need to support such efforts, then not being on hand for yours. I’m sorry for being a fanboy of yours—who has for years enjoyed listening to and collecting your body of work—yet not showing it where I needed to at that moment. I’m sorry for being that heel I was that evening.
For the record, I and a lot of other fans think you’re grand, even if we couldn’t be at Denver’s Boettcher Hall that November 1, 2008 evening. We do sincerely thank you for being there though! Would it help any if I said I was there in spirit, dear sir?
For more information on Erich Kunzel and his work, visit http://www.erichkunzel.com/.

The Score: Peter Scholes and THE TATTOOIST

New Zealand director Peter Burger’s horror film THE TATTOOIST, recently released on DVD, has a way of imprinting itself on the viewer. It’s a unique horror film that envelops itself with Samoan culture and develops a very interesting ghost story out of that culture and the spiritual aspects of Samoan tattoo. Taking place in the tattoo parlors of Auckland, New Zealand, the film makes the most of its clash of cultures. It is very nicely performed and directed, and is very interesting in its use of, for American and European audiences at least, an unfamiliar cultural mythology as well as in the way its story plays out. One of the standout elements is the film score by New Zealand composer Peter Scholes, who maintains an effective musical sound design, incorporating the unique tapping of Samoan tattoo instruments as a recurring ostinato of horror throughout the film.

THE TATTOOIST has to do with a young American tattoo artist (Jason Behr) who unknowingly plays a role in releasing a deadly spirit as he attempts to learn tatau, the Samoan tradition of tattooing. He becomes involved with Sina (Mia Blake), daughter of a local minister who distrusts the American, and also becomes associates with a family shamed by their missing son Lomi’s inability to complete his spiritual p’ea by finishing his ritual tattooing, all of whom seem to figure in a series of bizarre murders in which Jake’s tattoos unaccountably spread throughout the recipient’s body and suffocate them with ink.

Peter Scholes was born in 1957 in Auckland and grew up in the thermally turbulent area of Rotorua, New Zealand. His high school experience was as a border at Auckland Grammar and then he specialized in clarinet study at the Auckland Conservatorium of Music. He now pursues the dual career of performing (both as a conductor and a clarinettist), and composing, with numerous commissions by many New Zealand orchestras. His composition “Islands II” represented New Zealand in the 1993 UNESCO International Rostrum of Composers. He added film composition to his repertoire in 1993 with the drama film, DESPERATE REMEDIES for directors Stewart Main and Peter Wells. A handful of scores followed in amongst an extensive schedule performing and composing concert material. THE TATTOOIST was his most recent and perhaps most evocative film score.

TATTOOIST director Peter Burger and producer Robin Scholes (no relation) were looking for a composer who they felt would meet the musical requirements of a supernatural/ thriller. “I was asked to make a short example and, presto, I got the gig,” Scholes recalled. “My extensive work with orchestras and contemporary ensembles also gave me a strong basis on which to build my score.”

Scholes found the character of Jake, his alienation and discomfort as he becomes dangerously involved in the unfamiliar tatau culture, the perfect element to hang his score on. “Central to the score is the idea of a sound world in which there is a sense of being lost, or ‘out of your depth,’ and in a world you don’t understand,” Scholes explained. “Also the film keeps the identity of the ‘bad guy’ a mystery, so it was important for the music to build and set up his eventual appearance.”

Scholes chose to use an unconventional orchestration utilizing a mix of samples, real sounds, synthetic sounds, and processed real sounds – a variety of sound material that would appear disguised and balanced in unorthodox ways. He sampled the sound of a conch shell and then used it melodically, as in the scene where we first meet Sina at the tattoo convention. He processed the sound of French horn chords played live and then raised the pitch to create a very tense sound, but the score’s most striking element is the thin slapping sound of the Samoan tattoo instrument.

“The tattoo tool was a fertile source of sound material,” said Scholes. “This moved into other areas of the orchestration where I employed very quiet sounds but boosted their levels and made them compete with other loud sounds. I immersed myself in trying to get a score that would claw its way into the world of spirits – dare I say ‘into the twilight zone?’ – a world of sound where no sound exists. Rhythmic pulse was used sparingly – it tends to add to the comfort zone or accessibility of music so I only used that or hinted at it where forward motion was required. When you are lost there is an absence of forward motion.”

In his preparation for this score, Scholes studied Samoan music and culture in order to effectively integrated its sounds and sensibilities into his score. “I looked into the sounds of Samoan instruments and listened to song, dance rhythms, and the language,” he said. “The real preparation though was to get into my own head and live the world that the spirit was occupying and then listen to the sounds that were there. My earlier films have mostly been romances with dramatic climaxes so it was a shift for me to do this film. It came easily though – I guess growing up a science fiction fan with quite an interest in scary films helped. I remember long ago watching one of the FRIDAY THE 13th movies without the sound and seeing how it lost all its suspense.”

The recurring use of the Samoan tattoo-tapping sound becomes an unsettling ostinato used both musically throughout the score as well as a sonic element in the overall soundtrack of the film. “The tattoo tool was also picked up by the sound designers for the film,” said Scholes. “I worked closely with the sound effects team in the mix stages of the film to integrate the sound design elements of my score and make sure they worked together. We crossed paths in the film a lot because I filled my score with distortions of real instruments and musical elements which were more about sound than music.”

The haunting reverberation of the tapping tattoo instrument (which consists of a sharp wooden cutting tool or needle inked on one end with a piece of tortoiseshell bound at right angles at one end; the needle is lightly tapped with a wooden mallet to make its impression in the skin) resonates throughout THE TATTOOIST, lending it a unique sonic texture and creating an atmosphere with evokes apprehension and fear; even when the tattoo spirit is not physically on scene, its presence is evoked by the light tapping sound, which becomes quite discomforting as the film goes on. “The idea of making a sound for something which is not actually there became a driving part of the score,” Scholes explained. “The music had to create suspense and a sense of threat but also lead us to the end point of the story. The spirit is the ‘bad guy’ but it goes deeper than that. In the film we discover a complexity to his situation. He is lost and trying to find rest and doing bad things is the only way he can make contact with the physical world. I used a sound of a dried seedhead from my garden; pitch shifting it down made a great sound for the spirit’s hasty retreats.”

Rather than having a variety of themes or motifs associated with various characters, the TATTOOIST score provides a variety of atmospheres built on layered sonic textures (Jake’s nightmares), eloquent voicings (the chorus during Victoria’s death in the hospital), a variety of mysterious ambiances, and a lyrical love theme for Sina and Jake. For all its sonic diversity, the score remains cohesive and well integrated. “Cohesiveness often comes about through the extensive use of the same material – at its simplest level by repetition,” said Scholes. “My score for THE TATTOOIST, however, has very little repetition. Instead it is an evolving and constantly morphing music that relies on density and varying degrees of dissonance to propel the film forward. The music links the real world to the spirit world. The central character is Jake and one aspect of the approach to the music I took was to wire into Jake’s brain waves and see where that took me with sound. It was like listening to his stresses, fears, and anxieties and converting that to music. Because his character was always there on screen his mental state was the key to cohesiveness.”

Scholes worked closely with director Peter Burger to establishing the type of music and its placement in the film. “Working with Peter was a treat,” recalled Scholes. “I was brought in at the late stages of postproduction so time was scarce. It was always a ‘cut to the chase’ scenario! He liked it mostly and left me to it, but was very vocal about anything he didn’t like, so many drafts headed for the recycle bin. Sequences he did not like often took quite a few reworkings and restarts to get it right.”

While THE TATTOOIST is in its essence a horror film, it is of course about lot more, such as the relevance to culture, the spirituality of Samoan tattoo, the concepts of family, of shame, of personal expression through tattoo. These were all elements that Scholes became conscious of while he was composing his score, and intentionally addressed them in the nuances of his music. “Apart from the tattoo tool, the conch was the most significant Samoan musical reference in my score,” Scholes said. “I loved the sound of it and the various pitch-shifted nuances that were possible. Intrinsic to my score, though, was the need to be seeing it all from Jake’s point of view. He was uncomfortable and felt out of place in Samoan culture. In the tattoo tent in Singapore there is Samoan chanting and my music crept in over it as Jake was drawn into it, but of course his understanding was limited and he was threatened and made insecure by this culture. Having lost my own son to heart disease when he was eight, I was very moved by the loss the family suffered when their son Lomi disappeared. Musically, the moments where we get glimpses of the boy who was are very important and take the form of laments. They reflect on the loss of innocence and loss of life. The scene where Jake breaks into Lomi’s room and finds all the boy’s stuff as he last left it was very poignant and spoke much of the guilt and shame that the family were burdened with.”

THE TATTOOIST resonates throughout with a unique clarity due to an unusual and effective musical sound design, and one that echoes the film’s various subtexts as well as its more over qualities of nightmare and the influences of ghosts. Scholes’ score was a finalist in Achievement in Original Music in Film in the 2008 Qantas Film and Television Awards. Not bad for a composer’s first efforts in scoring this type of film.

“I wish my music had been louder in the mix – it would have made the film scarier,” Scholes conceded, then added, “One thing that I think I achieved was a unique sound that was the result of quite complex layering of many elements both with traditional instruments, signal processing, and voices.”

For more information on Peter Scholes, see: www.peterscholes.com

CORRECTION: The byline for this article has been corrected. And producer Robin Scholes name has replaced a name erroneously included in the original text. We regret the error.

The Score: Norman Orenstein’s Diary of the Dead

By Randall D. Larson

George Romero’s celebrated Dead series has taken as much of a musical evolution as it has a cinematic one. From the classic black-and-white original NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, with its snippets of tracks culled from music libraries that provided a surprisingly organic musical accompaniment, to the heavy rock beats and pervasive synthetic atmospheres of DAWN OF THE DEAD (composed by the Italian rock band Goblin) and DAY OF THE DEAD (scored by composer and now director John Harrison), through the compelling synthetic sound design of composers Reinhold Heil (RUN LOLA RUN) and Johnny Klimek in LAND OF THE DEAD, Romero’s wicked soundscape has risen and fallen with his reanimated brain-munching cadavers. The latest Romero zombie epic, DIARY OF THE DEAD, recently released on DVD, revisits the franchise with a fresh viewpoint. Read More

Inferno by Keith Emerson – Soundtrack Review

Although often compared unfavorably to Goblin’s music for SUSPIRIA, keyboardist Keith Emerson’s score for the sequel, INFERNO, is every bit as in tune with the film, perfectly matching the mood and action. Unlike Goblin’s heavy rhythms, shrieking vocals, and shrill synthesizers of the previous film, Emerson employs a much more subtle approach, weaving a score out of quiet piano motifs supported by orchestral arrangements, only occasionally reaching into his electronic bag of tricks for a more outre effect. The result comes closer to a conventional piece of film scoring, underlining the on-screen action without drawing as much attention to itself. Read More

Suspiria by Goblin – Soundtrack Review

One of the most memorable elements contributing to the success of SUSPIRIA (1977) was the soundtrack. Combining elements of music (a synthesizer-heavy rock combo) and sound effects (heavy breathing, murmuring voices), Goblin provided something that went far beyond traditional background scoring, to become an integral part of the film. In a fashion somewhat similar to Ennio Morricone’s contribution to Sergio Leone’s Westerns, Goblin helped director Dario Argento achieve an almost operatic effect on screen; their auditory excess was the perfect counterpoint to Argento’s extravagant visuals, transforming a series of horrific set pieces into beautiful arias of violence. 
Goblins’s soundtrack music has been preserved on various vinyl, tape, and CD release; in fact, the original album pressing was probably one of their most successful releases, thanks to the popularity of the film. However, their SUSPIRIA music, which is so perfectly integrated into the film, fares less well as a stand-alone item. All that pounding, howling, thumbing, and wheezing is enough to send chills down your spine even without the movie images (it is the perfect imaginary soundtrack), but not all of it could be called a pleasant listening experience (unless your idea of pleasant is having your nerves set on edge).
The highlight of the album is “Suspiria ,” the main title music that recurs throughout the film. One of the greatest tracks in the entire Goblin catalogue, this opens with an eerie 14-note melody line doubled on vocals and synthesizer, with a buzuki strumming the accompaniment. Halfway through, it switches to a rock-and-roll arrangement with guitar, bass and drums pounding out the rhythm while Simonetti’s synthesizer slices through the texture, playing a speeded up version of the melody. Then song segues back to the slower, moodier approach to bring the piece to a conclusion. This is great stuff – by turns eerie and overpowering – and it really rocks!
“Witch” features a combination of timpani drums, vocals, and synthesizers, with some bass guitar underneath. The piece is a non-melodic collage of sound that works perfectly in the film, less so as a piece of musical entertainment.
“Opening to the Sighs” – with its pounding timpanis backed by synthesizer – sounds like a brief reprise of “Witch.” Building quickly to a climax, it serves as an intro to the next piece (on the original vinyl album they were listed as one continuous track).
“Sighs” begins, appropriately enough, with sighing vocals that suggest sound effects more than music (a technique Goblin had used in “Wild Session,” a track for Argento’s previous film DEEP RED). Then some jangly acoustic guitars jump in with arpeggios and a repetitive riff, backed by wailing vocals. The music finally guilds up to some ominous organ cords before fading out.
“Markos” is heard twice in the film: once during the maggot infestation, one at the conclusion. The track features a sequencer playing a simple synthesizer line, while timpani and other drums pound in the background the the bass guitar ripps through a series of solo lines up and down the fretboard. For all its sound and fury, this is one of the most musical tracks on the album – it sounds a bit like a furious jam session.
The next two pieces do not appear in the film itself. Like “Opening to the Sighs” and “Sighs,” “Black Forest” and “Blind Concert” are two separate titles that were originally combined into one unbroken track. With an electric guitar picking a moody pattern (enhanced by a flanging effect), bass and drums providing a traditional rhythm section, and keyboards adding melodies, “Black Forest” is straight-ahead piece of jazz rock fusion that begins softly before eruptng into an explosion of solos, alternating between guitar, synthesizer, and saxophone (the later by guest musician Antonio Marangolo). As musical entertainment, this is one of the best tracks on the album.
“Blind Concert” is somewhat less successful. After a brief transition from “Black Forest” (in which the “Suspiria” theme is played on celesta over some jangling bells and a vibraphone), the instrumental sinks into a funky jam session. While the drums and bass lay out a functional but uninspired riff, keyboards and guitar doodle in a sharp stereo split from your left and right speaker; an overdubbed synthesizer sweetens the results somewhat. Though not a great track, it is an interesting opportunity to hear the musicians just get together and play.
When the SUSPIRIA soundtrack was originally released, the final track was “Death Valzer,” a solo acoustic piano piece that, in the film, is played by the blind pianist when the ballet students are practising. It is a pretty little waltz, but it served as a weak climax to the album. Subsequent CD releases have improved on this by including several bonus tracks, including an alternate version of “Markos” and some variations on the “Suspiria” theme.
The new “Markos” track features a different synthesizer sound played by the sequencer, and the track fades out without the funny little final pops and whistles of the original. The “Suspiria” variations include a version with keyboardist Claudio Simonetti chanting non-grammatical nonsense about witches, over a scaled down arrangement of the theme played only on celesta and bells, and a new rev-ed up version performed by Simonetti’s band Daemonia. This version retains the three-part structure of the original but retains a more conventional rock-and-roll arrangement throughout, blurring the distinction between the different passages.

TRIVIA 

The credits for SUSPIRIA read “Music by The Goblins, in Collaboration with Dario Argento.” The group’s actual name is Goblin, and Argento receives no credit for composing any of the music on the soundtrack album. (A similar credit would appear in the 1979 DAWN OF THE DEAD, which Argento co-produced.)
Maurizio Guarini (who filled in on keyboards from time to time) has claimed that he recorded with Goblin for the SUSPIRIA soundtrack, explaining that his name was left off the credits for legal reasons (he was under contract with another label). The music shows little sign of his contribution. The only tracks on SUSPIRIA that display any of the jazz-rock stylings Guarani brought to Goblin’s earlier album Roller, are on “Black Forest” and “Blind Concert.”
The original vinyl record album featured two sleeves. When removed from the outer sleeve, the inner sleeve unfolded to reveal a pop-up of Dario Argento’s initials, decorated with the demonic Goblin logo and the dead ballerina poster art from SUSPIRIA. The inner sleeve featured a black-and-white photo of Argento working with Goblin in the recording studio, plus several color photos from the film, including behind the scenes images of Argento on set.
SUSPIRIA: Original Soundtrack (originally released 1977). Music composed and performed by Goblin: Claudio Simonetti (piano, organ, synthesizer, celesta, sequencer, vocals); Massimo Morante (electric and acoustic guitar, bazuki0, vocals); Fabio Pignatelli (bass, tabla drum, acoustic guitar, vocals); Agostino Marangolo (drums, percussion, vocals). With guest Antonio Marangolo on saxaphone.

The Score: Max Steiner's Music for "King Kong"

Producer Merian C. Cooper imagines Kong in actionFilm music fan Steve Vertlieb – who has been writing about this kind of stuff for as long as I’ve been reading about it – offers his impressions on Max Steiner’s score for the original 1933 KING KONG:

 Some seventy five years ago Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B Schoedsack created the greatest fantasy/adventure motion picture ever devised by the mind of Man, the immortal masterpiece “King Kong.” This modern film interpretation of the “Beauty and the Beast” fable became the most legendary and influential “Monster” movie ever made, and remains the quintessential telling of the now classic tale. In celebration of its poetic, magical allure, having prominently endured three quarters of a century, I’ve been asked by Film Music Review to create a brief remembrance of its powerful score by composer Max Steiner…in what would become, quite literally, the first important film music of the sound era.

You can read what Steve has to say on the subject here.

The Score: Bear McCreary – From “Battlestar Galactica” to “Terminator”

Bear McCreary seemingly came out of nowhere to invest the 2004 television reincarnation of BATTLESTAR GALACTICA with a rich and imaginative scoring palette. His music for the cable TV series quickly garnered him assignments on the films REST STOP and WRONG TURN 2. He has continued to score GALACTICA as well as TV’s small town fantasy series, EUREKA and, most recently, the Fox’s new TERMINATOR: THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES. McCreary entered film music through an apprenticeship with composer Elmer Bernstein (GHOSTBUSTERS). “I’ve always loved film music, but it’s probably because I’ve always loved music and I’ve always loved movies, so sort of the obvious mix of the two,” McCreary said. “Ever since I was a kid I was always paying very close attention to the music in movies. Whenever I’d go to movies with my friends, all I’d be talking about afterward was ‘Did you hear that French horn line that Jerry Goldsmith used in that one scene?’ All my friends – well, they didn’t know what I was talking about!” Read More