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.

15 comments

  1. Another great post Jim, there are so many examples of the sound of a child’s voice (or voices) to scare the crap out of you in film music.When juxtaposed against a frightening scenario, the purity of the voice makes it that much scarier. Whoever invented the device certainly deserves praise for it.

  2. Don’t forget the full descent into creepy when the girls choir breaks into irrepressible giggling at the end of Carol Anne’s theme. Listen to that track in the dark and it may just give you a heart attack.

    Children=innocent. Ha!

    1. Tim,
      Almost forgot that one; that might be the scariest piece of music i have EVER heard!! :)

    2. Yeah, I meant to mention that in the post but it slipped my mind. I think your equation and comment immediately following are spot on.

      1. Your right Jim, I should have said credit instead of praise; poor choice of words LOL

  3. Here are some eccentric and terrific uses of kiddie choruses:

    Neal Hefti effectively children, with smart-aleck intentions, in his score for OH DAD, POOR DAD, MOMMA’S HUNG YOU IN THE CLOSET AND I’M FEELING SO SAD. They belt out that title song and are used for harmony throughout the score.

    Laurence Rosenthal did a compelling job using children in his Main Title for THE COMEDIANS. A harrowing theme, driven by Haitian percussion, is eerily interspersed with a children’s chorus reciting a mandatory pledge to “Papadoc” Duvalier. The effect is searing.

    It’s also interesting the way Ennio Morricone, throughout his career, used the Cantori Moderni di Alessandroni, mimicking high-pitched kiddie choruses, harmonizing in many of his compositions. Some good examples would be: Main Title for AD OGNI COSTO (GRAND SLAM); GRAZIE ZIA; the ultra creepy IL SORRISO DEL GRANDE TENTATORE (SMILE OF THE TEMPTRESS); and the wildly silly QUANDO LE DONNE AVEVANO LA CODA (WHEN WOMEN HAD TAILS).

    Morricone had the right idea – instead of working with real brats, he got adults to do the dirty work and probably saved a lot of valuable studio time.

    1. I can see I’ll have to catch up on my creepy kids cues, except for POLTERGEIST, which creeps me out regularly, often around the end of October (and for which I think J.G. deserved a second Oscar – as beautiful as the score for ET is, I never thought it suited its film as well as Goldsmith’s did).

      Another October non-surprise that crept immediately to mind is Christopher Komeda’s ROSEMARY’S BABY, which I think is an additional example of an adult voice mimicking childlike innocence(?). Always sounded to me like it could be a Mia Farrow vocal.

      1. You’re not the only one who thinks that about the E.T. score, Dave. While I see your point, E.T. is a personal favorite and such a milestone in Williams’s career that I can’t take that Oscar away from him.

        As for ROSEMARY’S BABY, everything about that movie creeps me out. I think I’ve only seen it once. It wasn’t that it was scary so much as creepy. Every time I walk by the Dakota I always think of that movie.

      2. You are right on target: Farrow did the “la-las” for the “Rosemary’s Baby” lullaby. She was still in her child-bride days w/ Sinatra at the time; qualifies as major “scary child” vocal in my book.

    2. All of these scores I’ve never heard before! There just aren’t enough hours in the day. And my Morricone knowledge is sorely lacking, outside of his Oscar nominated scores (for obvious reasons). Will have to give these a shot.

  4. Great post! And don’t forget Elliot Goldenthal’s “Pet Sematary” which was probably temped with Schifrin’s “Amityville Horror”. While very effective in music, I think that children’s laughter, giggling, singing, and humming have become over-used as sound effects in today’s horror movies. Now those effects annoy me or bore me much more than they scare me.

    1. I don’t think I’ve ever seen or heard PET SEMATARY. I must say it was probably the grossest Stephen King book he ever wrote, or at least up to that point. I think that’s probably why I never saw the film. Plus I’m not sure I can deal with dead animals, even in a film. (Wuss.)

      1. For me, Jim, the Dakota just isn’t as Goth as it used to be since they power washed it. The musty gray in the movie still works, though.

        And, Bill, I never wanted to own the ROSEMARY soundtrack – effective as it is, hearing it in the film is enough – so I didn’t know ’til now that Mia is credited on the album. Live and learn.

        Also learned something to ease my fear that I was seeing things a couple of weeks ago. THE ARRANGEMENT recording does exist in several issues. Google The Arrangement David Amram OST, and the first and ninth links on the page that comes up have it, LP and/or CD. Also a site called soundmarketplace.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *