Thursday, April 15, 2010

Alien: In Space, No One Can Hear Your Score

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Oh, The Internet. If there's something obscure, unreleased, suppressed, or otherwise hard to find, and more than one person is interested in seeing it, it's a guarantee that somebody has dug it up and put it on the Internet. And if you know where to look, you can find where it's been posted and share in the unique joy of having stuff others don't have.

I was lucky enough to land with a roommate in college who knew where to look. He introduced me to MP3s -- in 1997, before most people even had CD burners. He found lots and lots of interesting stuff out there online, well before even Napster came along and made illicit sharing of materials accessible even to the AOL-using crowd (a.k.a. the short bus on the Information Superhighway). I still have some music on my hard drives that iTunes had a hell of a time categorizing when I installed it, since it isn't tagged with any of the information that helps catalog music now that there are procedures for that kind of stuff. Just filenames.

During my college years, though, Alex gave me access to all sorts of stuff that found its way onto the intertubes, or Teh IntarWeb, or whatever stupid hipster label you want to apply. Software, music, games . . . you name it. I even have, on a hard drive somewhere, scans of some of the early drafts of Star Wars. I have no idea where the heck those came from, but they're fascinating -- and it's lucky that none of them were ever filmed.

One of these little treasures was a bootleg of Jerry Goldsmith's original score to Alien.

If you can't remember the music from Alien, don't worry. You've probably never heard it. Much of the original score that Goldsmith composed was altered, replaced, or dumped in the final film. Ridley Scott and company were fairly merciless with the music, tracking in some of Goldsmith's material from other films, and even throwing in some stuff from another composer. Various soundtrack releases over the years have included some of the music as Goldsmith wanted it heard - but never quite all of it. Leave it to somebody to find that stuff and put it on The Internet. And man, is it unsettling.

The material that was left in the movie - and there still is a fair bit of it - is mostly atmospheric, atonal stuff that gets under your skin without causing you to take notice of it. It works very well in that context. Can you hum anything from the score to Alien? Do you remember hearing music in it at all? Nah, probably not.

Do you remember being really, really creeped out for most of the film?

But Goldsmith did write a lot of unused original material that had more of a sweep and emotional heft. Why, there are even scraps of melody, like the haunting solo trumpet that plays the main theme -- which was never heard in the film, re-recorded with a sequence of rhythms and noises that are more . . . well . . . alien. It's really interesting that, two years after Star Wars, the producers actually resisted a big orchestral score to this space-based film very strongly.

Personally, I like the lonely sound of that unused main melody. The filmmakers ultimately thought it was too much. Some of this score may indeed have been too much, like great honking cacophonies of orchestral instruments and hard-to-identify sounds for Ripley's battles with the full-grown alien warrior at the end of the film. It sounds weird and scary and awful, as it should but together with that moment in the film, it may have been like dumping ketchup all over a great steak. I do wonder, though, how this nearly-perfect film might play differently with the original Goldsmith version of the music. Could it have been even better?

Unfortunately, this being a bootleg taken from multiple sources, most of them old and analog, it sounds mushy and rotten. Over the years, I've replaced a lot of the music I had originally obtained illegitimately with the real McCoy, and I will probably do that with this score - since now there's apparently a fully restored CD version of the complete score, both original material and what ended up in the film. That's what the cover is at the top, from which you'll find a link to the album's page on Amazon. Bootlegs prod the owners of the real music to release a better-quality official version. So I'm happy to have had the bootleg for so long, and maybe now I'll hear all of what I've been missing.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Alexander Nevsky: How to Score a Big Honking Battle Scene

I stumbled across Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky at just the right time in my teenage love affair with big, bombastic, epic movie scores. I had just bought the Leonard Slatkin/St. Louis Symphony Orchestra recording of Carmina Burana - still the best version yet recorded - and inside the disc was another CD, a sampler of classical offerings on the RCA Red Seal Label. I've never seen packaging like that before or since, though of course I've heard plenty of sampler discs.

It was a date with destiny. I'd bought Carmina Burana in the first place because of the quintessential choral bombast of the O Fortuna movements. We had used those in our high school production of Frankenstein, to great effect. Park Tudor had a terrific theatre department, one that was able to pull off a pretty impressive scene of the destruction of Frankenstein's lab while blasting that trademark Carl Orff vocal apocalypse. I still remember the tech director shouting, "More Carmina! More Carmina!" during one of the dress rehearsals.

So, after plunging my way through Carmina Burana's outlandish vocal landscape of vulgar Medieval bawdry and fatalism, I threw on the sampler disc and discovered the music for "The Battle on the Ice" from Nevsky in the very first track. From the eerie, hesitant strings at the beginning, all the way to the all-out choral frenzy at the end, I was hooked. By the time the track dissolved into audio from the 1938 Sergei Eisenstein film, clanking swords and horses and shouting men above howling winds . . . I knew that I had to track down both the film and the soundtrack.

I discovered both, eventually. The re-recorded soundtrack album fulfills the potential of Prokoviev's massive score and detailed orchestration, subtleties that were completely obliterated by '30s Soviet recording technology. In the same year that Hollywood released Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, with beautifully recorded soundtracks, the score to Alexander Nevsky in the original print sounds like it was recorded through a tin can from the other side of a thick wall. The 1996 re-recording by Yuri Temirkanov and the St. Petersburg Symphony Orchestra rectifies that, and then some. I absolutely love it.

The film itself is mostly a disappointingly one-dimensional piece of thinly veiled Soviet agitprop, a tale of a medieval Russian hero who smacked down a Teutonic invasion. Obviously, it was designed to psych up the Russian people for the storm that was a-brewin' with the Nazis in the late '30s. (Nothing unique or even wrong with that, necessarily; Olivier did almost exactly the same thing with his WWII-era production of Henry V, though Shakespeare has to be given credit for creating some slightly more well-rounded characters.)

Nevsky is remarkable in its imagery and editing, though, as you probably don't need to be reminded if you're familiar at all with Eisenstein. The man literally wrote the book - several, actually - on the marriage of sound, image, and editing in film. What Eisenstein created in his scene of the battle on the icy Neva river created the template for big cinematic battles. Check out the scene here with some observant commentary on the construction of tension leading up to the battle . . .

Look familiar? That's because nobody has yet figured out how to do it better. Just about every big, old-fashioned frontal army battle ever filmed has followed this pattern visually, and often musically: Shot of the "good" army, shot of the "bad" army, shots of the leaders of the armies and close-ups of the troops, back and forth and back and forth, faster and faster until the moment when it all hits the fan and the two armies collide. You can see it in everything from Gladiator to Braveheart to Spartacus, and even the stupid Gungan battle in The Phantom Menace. (All of those are video links for comparison . . . and yes, you really should click on the Phantom Menace video link. It's been "improved" with some fan editing.)

Also, for comparison, here's a video of the same scene with the original soundtrack recording of the score: Nevsky Battle on the Ice The full score is a revelation compared to that tinny mess.

Man, do those Teutons look mean with their big, face-obscuring helmets, and their creepy hooded priests. Speaking of Star Wars, take a look at those guys and tell me they didn't influence the likes of George Lucas when he was creating his stormtroopers and Sith lords. Just sayin' . . .

As for Prokofiev's score, it's emotionally manipulative, epic scoring at its very best, and you can hear its influence clearly in many, many scores that have come since -- including a few that are in my collection. You can be sure I'll make a note of it when the time comes.

Monday, April 5, 2010

The Abyss: A Score out of Water

Context is everything. A clown at a kid's birthday party or at the circus is harmless and sometimes even entertaining. A clown at a bus station is scary. A penguin at the zoo is a delightful attraction for children. A penguin in Antarctica is just another flippin' penguin. Ringo Starr as drummer for the Beatles was just peachy. Solo Ringo Starr is . . . well, kinda pathetic.

You get the picture.

And when you don't get the picture, sometimes a soundtrack just doesn't sound like much. This is what keeps The Abyss from getting a lot of rotation on my playlist. I really like the movie; I think it's every bit as good as Aliens or the first two Terminator flicks and full of everything that James Cameron excels at doing. I just haven't seen it for a very long time, which leaves me with the problem of not having very specific visual anchors for a lot of Alan Silvestri's soundtrack album, and on its own, it doesn't have enough to hook me.

I used to think of Silvestri as a poor man's John Williams. That may be unfair; I think he clearly has his own strengths, especially after a good 20 years more of development. But listening to this, one of his earlier efforts, you can tell the vast difference between their styles. This is all stuff that works gloriously when you're watching the movie: complex rhythms, wild brass flourishes, ominous clunking sounds from the very lowest note on the piano, wordless chorus, and tinkly strings and flutes for emotional moments. Outside the film, it's all a little disjointed. A Williams cue from the same era would tell a whole story musically all by itself. Both are perfectly valid approaches to film scoring, but one is a whole lot more fun to listen to.

So, there's not a lot to say about this album. (I'm not even quite sure how I ended up with a copy.) It's just fine, but if I want to listen to a Silvestri score, I'll probably go for something with a more consistent through-line, like the manic cartoonishness of Back to the Future, the lyrical schmaltz of Forrest Gump, or the sheer testosterone binge of Predator.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

2001: A Space Odyssey/Alex North's 2001: Triumph of the Temps

If film composers have the equivalent of the "actor's nightmare" - you know, where you're supposed to be putting on a show but don't know your lines/don't have your props/are naked, etc. - I imagine they'd go something like what Alex North went through in 1968 at an early screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey . . . .

The story is legendary in film music circles: North went to the screening expecting to hear the hour or so of music he'd been asked to compose, with the rest of Stanley Kubrick's three-hour epic unscored or accompanied with classical selections. What he heard was all the classical temp tracks that Kubrick had used to edit the film, and none of his own work.

I find this version of events a little hard to believe. North was a veteran of many film scores by that time - including at terrific contribution to Kubrick's Spartacus, presumably how he came to work on 2001. He must have suspected something fishy when he was just asked to stop working on a half-finished score. But the grievance of the director who's a little too in love with his temp score is a common one among film composers, so it's no surprise that North's unused score became something of a cause celebre for the film scoring world.

North's 2001 became a mythical, Grail-like object for film music aficionados, since the original tapes were lost and very few people had ever heard it, let alone seen the score. It's down to North's friend Jerry Goldsmith and Robert Townson, a producer for Varese Sarabande records, that we have the re-recording of the unused North score available today, since Goldsmith recorded it in 1993 with the National Philharmonic Orchestra.

This segment is supposed to be about both the official soundtrack album and North's version. Honestly, the selections present in the official recording of the 2001 score need little comment. They work for me, and for the film, on a visceral and intellectual level that is nearly impossible to imagine differently. I could write an essay about the use of music in 2001 and its revelation of the thematic content of the film . . . actually, I have, but I'll spare you those ten or twelve pages. They're full of stuff about Nietzsche and other people that undergraduates like to talk about to seem super-smart.

With this score CD, though, it is possible to imagine how different some scenes may have sounded, with a little bit of creative manipulation of a home entertainment system and a quick finger for the "play" button -- a little more DIY than the Wizard of Oz/Dark Side of the Moon experiment, but do-able.* We did just this one day in the class on Stanley Kubrick's films that I took (fittingly enough, in 2001) from James Naremore at IU. (That's the class for which I wrote the essay.) I told Prof. Naremore that I had a copy of this recording, and he proposed that we do a little experiment in class with some of the scenes and North's score. The verdict was nearly universal: Stanley Kubrick made the right choice.

You only have to listen to North's proposed substitute for the Richard Strauss Also Sprach Zarathustra theme over the opening credits (Track #1) to realize that it just isn't quite right. Maybe that's unfair, since Zarathustra is so thoroughly embedded in our synapses as the "theme from 2001." But North's fanfare, while structurally similar - right down to the lingering pipe organ in the last few instants - and actually more musically sophisticated, just seems too courtly and refined for that awesome and soul-shaking shot of planetary alignment. Strauss' primal C-G-C is just impossible to top.

Prof. Naremore was perhaps a little unkind to the shreds of score that we attempted to match to the picture in 2001. Of the drum-heavy, Stravinsky-esque score that North wrote for the "Dawn of Man" sequences (Tracks #2-6), he remarked, "it sounds like Spartacus II." I think the music deserves a little better than that. It's good stuff, really. (It's a little similar to what Goldsmith himself did that same year on Planet of the Apes, actually.) It's just not the right stuff (ahem) for Kubrick's magnum opus.

Some people in the world of film score buffs - including Jerry Goldsmith himself, apparently - insist that North's score would have worked better for the film, since it's more thematically and stylistically unified, while still capturing the essence of the musical ideas in the temp tracks that eventually became the score for 2001. (Goldsmith knew a thing or two about having scores rejected, so he may understandably have been a little bitter about the whole business.) Even the liner notes sound pretty defensive. For Track #9, "Moon Rocket Bus," the notes state that "North's music would have underscored thee scene just as effectively while being more interesting as music."

I'll concede the fact that North's composition is more consistent. But again, watch the space station docking sequence with North's cue "Space Station Docking" (Track #7). North's music shimmers prettily, but Kubrick's choice of The Blue Danube waltz shows a sly sense of humor, marrying the trite with the miraculous. Kubrick was up to something with music as metacommentary, and he never did go back to using an entirely composed score in the rest of his film career - not always with such great results. (Just think of that stupid repetitive piano in Eyes Wide Shut. Or don't, actually.)

As with the deleted scenes and often-way-too-long "directors' cuts" of movies themselves, I can understand why cuts and deletions were made, including entire scores like this. I love having them to see and hear what might have been, but ultimately I think they end up justifying the choices of film editors -- and in this case, its director.

*Gee, speaking of this, the plot thickens -- Somebody has discovered that Floyd's song "Echoes" lines up nearly perfectly with the "Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite" sequence in 2001. It's on YouTube, of course: Judge for yourself. Personally, I think this may just be proof that it's easy to convince stoners of nearly anything.