Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Hopeful Preparations

Original Facebook post here.
Today's formative-album replay: Alex North, Spartacus, original film soundtrack. It's odd the talismanic impact that a few precious items can have on a child, and this was especially true of the LP records (and to a lesser extent, the 45s) that passed through my hands in my preteen years. Though I had memorized my parents' own limited collection and acquired a few records of my own, the stash I most cherished was a quartet of old discs offhandedly bequeathed me by a second cousin when I was about 8 or 9. I still remember each one vividly, in their variously firm or crumbling cardboard sleeves: Peter, Paul, and Mary's Album 1700, Jan & Dean's Ride the Wild Surf, and soundtracks from two Kubrick films, around a decade before I would lay eyes on a single frame of them: 2001 and Spartacus. I loved the contrasting moods of the former, from Ligeti to the Strausses, but it was the latter from which I derived the most enduring pleasure, with its detailed liner notes, featuring evocatively gnarly photos from the movie, as well as a description of composer Alex North's approach to the score and the instrumentation (he'd researched ancient Roman music, don't you know, and "unearthed unorthodox instruments such as the dulcimer and the ondioline in a quest for exotic tone color"). In retrospect, I would guess that while it may not have been my earliest exposure to 20th-century-style orchestral dissonance, this was the first dissonant music I grew to love.

I think I always viscerally understood the score's programmatic elements: the hard glint of the brass correlating to the clash of swords and armor, the sputtering military tattoos to the menacing advance of armies and assorted hostiles, the lush strings to stolen embraces, the plucky folk melodies to lighthearted peasantry. It was only later that I recognized the kinds of dissonance North employed--roughly speaking, polyphony, or contrasting chords smashed together, as well as modal scales. I keep going back to this record in part for its inventive orchestrations; I hear new textures in it all the time, from bleating winds every bit as fierce as the sneering brass, gathering bee-swarms of strings, tuned timpani leaping and writhing under it all. But above all, having tried my hand at scoring for films and plays, I appreciate all the more the taut, spindly economy of North's writing. The ability to come up with pithy "cells" from which melodies and whole pieces can be constructed is indispensable for a film composer, as the form demands motifs than can be chopped and spliced and repurposed, like bits of film themselves; a good film theme, or theme-cell, is one that can be quoted and rephrased quickly and memorably, reharmonized for dramatic effect, even posed into conflict with other theme-bits like so many toy soldiers. Indeed, I'd go so far as to say that while it takes a skilled craftsman to develop such cells into full pieces with musical integrity and sophistication--the sort you'd want to hear quite apart from the movie--the ability to turn out short, eminently fungible units of music, melodies in miniature, that also happen to be evocative and striking in their own right (the three-note cell from which the famous love theme is elaborated, for instance) is a make-or-break job qualification for a film composer.

This talent, which North had in spades, aligns this music with the classical era (short bits developed into large structures) more than the baroque (long lines in interlocking counterpoint) or the Romantic (long lines, ever-larger structures). Of course, a certain neoclassicism is a characteristic of much of the 20th-century music I love, from Stravinsky to Revueltas (a friend of and clear inspiration for North). But, to give credit where it's due and bring this all full circle, I feel certain now that I came to love 20th-century concert music, sharp edges and bright colors and looming architecture and all, in large part thanks to this big, brash battle cry of a record. It has served me, if you will, as a kind of true North.

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