Suffer the Little Children
There are few more disturbing sounds than children’s voices lifted in song. Now wait. I can hear the furious cry of all you parents out there even as I type this. Before you brandish the torches and pitchforks, let me explain.
Take child stars, especially those with natural voices–everyone from Shirley Temple and Bobby Breen to Andrea McArdle and Justin Bieber. These are kids that have some God-given talent (yes, Justin Bieber has talent), yet whose voices are almost freakish in their purity and power over the masses, especially in pop music. Add in their insane popularity and those same voices are primed to instill jealousy in the listener. “Why them and not me?”
So what happens when you get a gaggle of children together? Their collective sound can easily verge on treacly, like in The Carpenters’ classic “Sing,” which is saved by Karen’s sublime vocals and Richard’s pitch perfect arrangements. Throw in a holiday like Christmas and it becomes a veritable breeding ground for depression.
With the Oscar-nominated song “Somewhere In My Memory” from HOME ALONE, John Williams’s lovely theme becomes something much deeper and disturbing with the Leslie Bricusses’s lyrics added. As sung by the children’s chorus, the song takes on a haunting refrain of times gone by, fond memories of family holiday traditions that I dare say few families experience, no matter how hard they try. Once you move out of the holiday realm, things get even dicier.
In the score for GLORY, Prokofiev, I mean, James Horner uses the pure voices of the Harlem Boys Choir to keen over the unburied dead of the Civil War. It’s a haunting use of the chorus, even if Horner did borrow the theme from Prokofiev’s IVAN THE TERRIBLE.
In Lalo Schifrin’s score for THE AMITYVILLE HORROR, the playful sound of children la-la-la’ing is used for something much more evil. Accompanied by high string harmonics, wandering tinkling triplets in the piano, and belching sounds from the basses, the voices are the perfect musical setup for the seemingly innocuous exterior of the infamous Long Island home that houses something sinister.
Even creepier are the wordless children’s chorus at the heart of Jerry Goldsmith’s score for POLTERGEIST. A truly beautiful Goldsmith melody lies at the heart of Carol Ann’s (Heather O’Rourke) theme, yet the voices give it a sadness and poignancy, especially given the real-life tragic end of the young actress playing Carol Ann.
So there you have it–jealousy, depression, death, evil, and loss–all from the mouths of babes. Sure I’m reading a bit into these for the purpose of this post. But it is that unique combination of innocence and lack of guile that makes a child’s voice so flexible in the hands of a good composer. I bet you won’t listen to the purity of children’s voices the same way ever again.