I was talking with my buddy Doug Adams this past weekend and somehow the discussion got around to Howard Shore. Shocking, eh? Doug and Howard… It’s like chocolate and peanut butter or margaritas and Mexican food. Two great names that go great together. But I digress.
We started to discuss the score that was our first introduction to Howard’s music, and voila! A blog topic was born. (Thanks, Doug, for the inspiration!)
So I’ve decided to write a series of blog posts (assuming you guys like the idea) of the one score that made me finally sit up and take notice of a composer. Not necessarily the best, my favorite, or my first exposure to them, but the first time I said, “Who wrote that?!”
Because I don’t want to write a 10,000-word blog post (and I want to use this topic for further posts), I’m limiting this installment to 10 composers. There’s no rhyme or reason to their order. In fact, I just picked the first 10 composers that came to my head. But considering the number of composers over the years, these posts could go on indefinitely (again, if you enjoy them). Feel free to comment below with your choices for these composers or list 10 of your own!
There’s no better place to begin than with the composer who got this discussion rolling in the first place…
When Doug and I were first talking about this topic, I panicked. I thought, “Is LORD OF THE RINGS really the first time I can remember being exposed to Howard’s music enough that I finally recognized his voice?” I mean, my memory is faulty at best, but what little film music street cred I have would have been completely shot if that were the case. Thankfully it was not. It was 1991’s one-two punch of NAKED LUNCH and especially THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS that brought Shore’s music into focus for me. The sheer terror that Shore’s music instilled with those dark, sustained chords occurred in everything from THE FLY and DEAD RINGERS and continue to this day. With this score, at night, I can still hear the lambs screaming.
If you’ve read this blog for any amount of time or know me even slightly, the answer to this one is obvious. THE OMEN was my first soundtrack purchase and the start of my lifelong love of film music. Sure, Satanic sounds are the crux of Goldsmith’s Oscar-winning Black Mass, but so does my favorite Goldsmith theme, labeled “The New Ambassador” on the soundtrack, a melody that weaves throughout all that demonic music. Goldsmith wrote many more beautiful themes before and since, but that single track began a love affair with his music that continues to this day.
I consider myself fortunate to have been alive and well at the rebirth of film music with STAR WARS. I wore out that original 2-LP soundtrack, and I know damn well I’m not the only one. Echoes of the score can be heard in Williams’s early work and certainly in his later scores. But nothing matched the sheer thrill of watching the film for the first time on the big screen. I saw it by myself when I went to visit my grandparents in upstate New York. I was one of only a handful of people at the theater and it was arguably the most thrilling moviegoing experience of my life. Some of that may be due to the haze of memory, but Williams’s score still sends thrills and chills up my spine every time I hear it, especially the remarkable pulse-pounding minutes leading up to the destruction of the Death Star.
My first exposure to Waxman came from the excellent Charles Gerhardt LP devoted to his film music. With suites from such great scores as PRINCE VALIANT, A PLACE IN THE SUN, and TARAS BULBA, it’s no wonder I was smitten from the first listen. But it was Gerhardt’s arrangement of Waxman’s Oscar-winning music to SUNSET BOULEVARD that was particularly thrilling. Film noir, jazz, and a little bit of Strauss’ Salone (which was much further down the road for me in my musical education) combine to create one of the all-time great Golden Age scores. SUNSET was the first film I saw with a Waxman score, and it’s still his best.
Like Waxman, my first exposure to Newman was through Gerhardt’s tribute album. That album had so many great scores on it—CAPTAIN FROM CASTILE, THE SONG OF BERNADETTE, THE ROBE, AIRPORT. Since it was a rerecording, I was as yet unfamiliar with the power of the Newman strings. That would come later. But it was the melody for the 1959 soaper THE BEST OF EVERYTHING that made me melt into a puddle of tears the first time I heard it (still does, even as I type this). It’s sad that that film was my entry into Newman’s vast output, but I knew once I saw it that it could only get better from there. Still, with Johnny Matthis’s lovely rendition of the title song and scoring that never descends into a syrupy goo, that melody made me a Newman fan and proved to me that he was simply “the best of everything.”
By 1981, I was already familiar with Grusin’s work through his Oscar-nominated scores for HEAVEN CAN WAIT and THE CHAMP. So by the time ON GOLDEN POND rolled around, I could recognize certain harmonic progressions and melodic figures. Today, it might be difficult to remember the aura of autumnal sadness that surrounded the film’s release. Even though the story was more than a tad sentimental, watching two cinematic legends like Henry Fonda and Katharine Hepburn was something special. Augment that with the amber glow of Billy Williams’s beautiful cinematography and Grusin’s combination of contemporary and Renaissance harmonies and gentle, piano-based orchestrations, and you have a winner. Grusin always succeeded best in intimate characters dramas. And if his music wasn’t necessarily the most complex, it always got to the heart of the drama with an economy that was—and still is—refreshing.
Through my Oscar obsession, I got to know many of the major Maurice Jarre scores. But after a while, the melody lines, harmonies and use of percussion begin to sound the same, whether the story takes place in Russia, Amish country, or the jungles of Africa. But there’s no denying the power of Jarre’s Oscar-winning score for LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. And it took the late-80s restoration of the film before I appreciated Jarre’s talent. I had never made it through the film on TV and there is no better introduction to Jarre’s music than seeing it on the big screen. No one sounds like Jarre. And while I sometimes question his choice of music for a particular scene, when he gets it right, like in the classic main theme, it’s thrilling. I actually found new respect for Jarre when Film Score Monthly released a CD of his concert works, in which you can hear seeds of his film music, especially in his use of percussion.
Few film composers are as chameleon-like as Mark Isham. In early films like THE TIMES OF HARVEY MILK, REVERSAL OF FORTUNE and LITTLE MAN TATE, I couldn’t get a handle on Isham’s style. But with his Oscar-nominated score A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT, I finally sat up and took notice. This gentle, quiet film about sibling love and fly-fishing seemed a big snore when I first saw it in 1992. I’ve seen it many times since and it has seeped under my skin, mainly thanks to Robert Redford’s sensitive direction, Philippe Rousselot’s gorgeous Oscar-winning cinematography, and Isham’s lovely Americana score. With its folk harmonies and almost hymn-like atmosphere, Isham’s Oscar-nominated music sounds unlike anything he has written before or since. While I still can’t define an Isham “sound,” he is an underrated composer with film score fans that deserves more recognition.
From the get-go, André Previn has always been one of my favorite composers. For years, all I knew was his stellar work on ELMER GANTRY (mainly due to my ridiculous Oscar obsession), his conducting and arranging of classic Hollywood musicals, and his lovely score the stage musical COCO. But thanks to the numerous discs put out by Film Score Monthly, I’ve become more familiar with his less-well-known (at least to me) film work. From his earliest scores for Lassie, Previn defined his style with flinty, contemporary harmonies and some of the best French horn writing in the industry. You can hear them in nearly every film, but GANTRY was the starting point and still my favorite Previn score.
If you were alive in the early 1970s and above a certain age, you couldn’t get away from JONATHAN LIVINGSTON SEAGULL. Richard Bach’s phenomenally bestselling self-help novella was pablum for the brain and the film wasn’t much better. At least the film had beautiful cinematography and a great Neil Diamond soundtrack. Between those classic songs (which take me right back to age 11) was some stellar scoring work by Lee Holdridge. Holdridge had begun working with Diamond back in the late 60s and their work on the score is seamless. Some of it may seem a bit soft rock for film score purists, but I can’t help but get caught up in Diamond’s lovely melodies and Holdridge’s soaring, lush arrangements. Though Holdridge would go on to higher-profile gigs, I’ve always come back to the comfort of this wonderful score.