Instrument of change
In her own unassuming way, pioneering composer Shirley Walker helped usher in a new era of film and TV music.Sometimes, change in Hollywood happens quietly, behind the scenes, without the hype that seems to surround even the slightest new Tinseltown development. When Shirley Walker changed expectations about who could be a Hollywood composer -- becoming one of the very first women to score A-list film and TV projects -- she did so with little fanfare, but the mark she made on the world of film music will endure for years to come.
Walker passed away Nov. 29 in Los Angeles, at age 61, from complications following a stroke. Known as much for her friendliness and generosity of spirit as for her talents as a composer, conductor and orchestrator, Walker leaves behind a powerful musical legacy that ranges from her first big break as a synthesist on the score of 1979's "Apocalypse Now" to her groundbreaking work as composer for such animated TV series as "Spawn" and "Batman Beyond" and her thrilling scores for New Line's "Final Destination" feature films.
Walker helped reinvigorate the field of music for series animation in the mid '90s by applying the highest level of craft to the genre, creating sophisticated, darkly atmospheric scores that could hold up to intense superhero action. Given her flair for scoring moments of peril, treachery and madness, she once described herself as the "Queen of Psychosis," and, with characteristic good humor, pointed out that she had a particular fondness for bad guys. "I really love the villains -- they're what keeps a story interesting," she said.
Walker was born in Napa, Calif., and was performing as a piano soloist with the San Francisco Symphony by the time she was in high school. She attended San Francisco State College on a piano scholarship and played in a number of Bay Area jazz and art bands before beginning her composing career creating music for industrial films and advertising jingles. Her work on "Apocalypse Now" led to a chance to do some co-composing work with Carmine Coppola on 1979's "The Black Stallion," and from then on, Walker stayed remarkably productive, becoming an in-demand conductor and orchestrator for such top composers as Hans Zimmer and Danny Elfman and composing her own scores for film and television.
"She was a singular talent," says Zimmer, who began working with Walker on the 1983 feature "Black Rain." "I learned a hell of a lot from her. She conducted for me, orchestrated for me and told me I wasn't a complete disaster when I needed to be told that. She was a real friend."
Zimmer thought highly enough of Walker that he once asked her to hire him as a synth player for "Batman Beyond." "I said, 'Let me just be your session guy. I'll keep my mouth shut, and I'll get to learn some more from you,'" he recalls. "Her work was truly immaculate. She was strong, warm, generous -- and she could knock you over with an action score."
Working on animated series and episodic television over the last decade, Walker often acted as a supervising composer, and she became a beloved mentor to many younger talents. "Shirley took me under her wing and gave me my first job as a professional film composer. She believed in me, and most importantly, she told me so," recalls composer Michael McCuistion, a "graduate" of Walker's mentoring at her Underscore Studio. "I'm grateful for our long-standing friendship, which was a mixture of sage advice, loving encouragement and shared laughter."
"She was a fierce defender of working conditions for composers and recording musicians, and she was so generous in giving of her time to help younger composers understand the intricacies and pitfalls of our business," adds composer Kristopher Carter, a fellow Underscore grad whose credits include "Batman Beyond." "She will be greatly missed."
Walker was a particular inspiration to women developing a career in film and TV music. Composer Lolita Ritmanis honed her craft at Walker's studio beginning with "Batman: The Animated Series." "She was my mentor, my colleague and my friend," Ritmanis says. "Her legacy reaches far beyond her musical talents. Shirley's determination to open doors of opportunity for aspiring composers remains unrivaled in our industry."
Composer Laura Karpman (ABC's upcoming "Masters of Science Fiction") first met Walker in 1987, when Karpman was the only female fellow at the Sundance Institute, and Walker became her unofficial advisor. "Shirley was the pinnacle of composers making music in Hollywood, and equally important, she was at the apex of the tiny group of the women composers in our profession," Karpman says. "The very best tribute we can make to Shirley is to continue to make room and build opportunities for women composers. Shirley's passing is a major loss. And although I am shaken, I am equally overwhelmed with the fortune I have had knowing this master composer."