I finally saw - and heard - a movie sporting a score with the smallest genuine instrumental ensemble I can recall. Not just a single player, a true ensemble. But one that would fit in a closet with room to spare. This be no criticism, though. On the contrary, it is worthy of some note.
The Legend Of Hell House comes from 1973. John Hough directs, Richard Matheson scripts from his own novel. The shudders onscreen come courtesy Pamela Franklin, Roddy McDowall, Gayle Hunnicutt and Clive Revill. It's a variant on the possessed house theme with sturdy players and several vibrant shocks. So about that ensemble. Brian Hodgson and Delia Derbyshire write the music and just four players seem to be realizing it, probably including the composers. There are very few harmonies and themes really play no part. The ideas are all stark and transparent. But beyond that, thing's aren't so simple.
What the two composers do is underline the opening credits with a solitary drum, tapping over a twisted line intoned by a contra-bass clarinet. A solo trumpet reproduced at half-speed provides brief splashes of color. And all three of these instruments sound over a hovering low-key synthesizer. In fact, this electronic portion of the ensemble provides a very important color in the score, albeit rarely moving beyond a pair of two-note chords comprised of a minor third each. The contra-bass clarinet idea that winds in and about becomes the other main voice. The drum and trumpet figure in specific scenes rather than throughout. Mostly it's the synthesizer that hovers underneath various scenes such as numerous transitions between dates and times etched across the screen. And the growling-yet-still-melodic voice of the contra-bass clarinet does the rest of the heavy lifting. For all its apparent simplicity, the musical ideas are studies in contrasts yet work very well together. They actually become something of a "voice" for the house - nudging, nagging, scaring - and ultimately doing harm to the inhabitants making their studies within.
A fun sidebar here. The movie had a certain reputation when first released and director Hough went on to further success. In an interview appearing as an extra on the blu-ray, Hough points out that following the project, his biggest ambition was to get work not in fright films but with Walt Disney. His wishes came true and he soon found himself directing both Escape From Witch Mountain and the sequel Return To Witch Mountain for the famed family-friendly studio. During the interview, he also makes mention of the music for Legend Of Hell House as well as his admiration for the two composers behind it. As time permits, check this one out.
It took me some eight months to catch up with the rest of the movie music world but last night I finally watched The Book Thief. No spoilers so read on. I knew John Williams' Oscar-nominated score from the album, of course. But not how well it might work with the images and story. How well it might meet the visions of the director. Underline, enhance the heartfelt playing by lead Sophie Nélisse. Which, all of the above, it did beautifully. I think the score is a masterpiece - in the classic sense.
The picture was bigger than I had expected. Visuals, scale, subject matter. Emotionally overwhelming at times. WWII, Nazi Germany, life in turmoil, homes displaced, Jews in hiding, loved ones disappearing, men, boys going off to war... and books banned, burned. How difficult for one young girl who desires to read, to learn, to understand these events. And Williams wrote straight to the heart of the story, not the world at war around young Liesel. I must admit it is a little worrisome thinking about scoring pictures the way Williams scores them is now becoming a thing of the past. Not in the usual "they don't make 'em like they used to" sense because most of the technological developments in picture making seem to have been good ideas. Editing has become more efficient. Space ships now look real. Battles look more intense. I don't know, something like that anyway. But music, at least in a picture like The Book Thief should be timeless, emotional, real. Perhaps it should even be written that way, with paper and pencil. I look back through the centuries of music done by masters with pen and paper and know the fruits of their labor are indeed timeless, emotional, real. Ralph Vaughan Williams symphonies resonate today just as they did a century ago. That sort of thing. In the Blu-ray extras there is a feature on Williams and he states to the camera that this old-fashioned method is how he works. Were I composing music for movies I'd be saying "I'll have whatever she's having." Translation: I'd be doing whatever it is that Williams does.
But I digress. My desire to have richer contemporary soundtrack experiences lately gets in the way sometimes.
This was a wordy way of saying I thought the music was more than just an important part of the movie Brian Percival was putting on the screen. It was a layer of it, a part of the collaborative effort that results in a good movie. Were there a method of creating national treasures out of movie composers, I reckon John Williams should be just that.
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