Composers talk film scores


The Day the Earth Stood Still
(Or, The Day I Understood for the First Time What a Film Score Was)

By Danny Elfman


I think I was around 10 or 11 when I saw "The Day the Earth Stood Still" at the Baldwin Hills movie theater in Los Angeles, where I grew up. Not meaning that I grew up in Los Angeles, which I did, but that in fact I grew up at the Baldwin Hills Theater. I spent pretty much every weekend there.

The movie began and from the first moment I was hooked. That in itself was not that unusual, but I came to realize that it was the music that was doing it. And I suppose that I was suddenly aware of its power, and more importantly, that it did not just make itself -- as I had more or less assumed -- but was created by someone.

Of course that person was the incredible Bernard Herrmann. I became an instant fan. From that moment on, I knew that if I saw his name in the titles of a movie, there would be something special.

Why did it hit me that way? That's always a hard one to answer, but the gist of it is I had never heard anything quite like it before. The use of the brassy orchestra mixed with the organs and the theremin were, to my ears, extremely powerful, but at the same time thoughtful, inspiring and evocative. Then, later in the score, the use of the ostinato piano was so fresh sounding to me. I still think the movie is a classic for its day but the score really elevated it. It gave it an original stamp and sound that was uniquely its own.

And in many ways that led in a weird, twisted, winding way to me becoming a film composer. So clearly, for me, the road began at that moment -- right there.

Illustrations by Chris Morris


Howard Shore on Toru Takemitsu's 'Woman in the Dunes'

I first heard Toru Takemitsu's score to Hiroshi Teshigahara's film "Woman in the Dunes" when I was 18. It left a lasting impression. Takemitsu's mastery of the dramatic ideas inherent in the story, and how he interpreted them in composition, fascinated me. It sparked a lifelong interest in how composers from different countries expressed narrative ideas in film.

The score to "Woman in the Dunes" does not so much play to the subtext of the drama; rather, it challenges it. The bold gestures of orchestra and pure electronics inherent in the score are balanced by the precise use of silence.


Terence Blanchard on Duke Ellington's 'Anatomy of a Murder'

What makes Duke's score such a classic is how the blues and swing were introduced to film with such grace and grandeur, filling the screen with the sounds of what was the cutting edge form of expression at the time.

Duke took the language of jazz and crafted musical passages that helped give the film flavor and character.

The piece "Flirtibird" features the great Johnny Hodges in a way that gave his style a chance to set the stage for what was to come in film for many years after.

Think about the number of scores that featured the bluesy, torched sax sound that was a big part of the film scoring world.

I can't help but think it was due, in part, to a combination of great writing by Duke and playing by Hodges and others that was heard on this score. Duke had the ability to take the language of jazz and shape, color and modify his themes in the way the greatest of American composers have done with classical music. "Anatomy of a Murder" is a classic because we can hear the breadth of this language and the vastness of it in ways never heard before.


Alexandre Desplat on Nino Rota's 'Amarcord'

"Amarcord" is the most humanistic and the most poetic of all Fellini's color movies. It is the first one I think that has this deep human impact and still an incredible world of fantasy and poetry based on memory. The music starts with an incredibly catchy theme -- very simple, a few notes. But very quickly the theme shifts to a medley of songs, as if the memories were struggling to keep the thread regular or straight.

The thing that I think is mesmerizing is the way the music is always playing inside the movie and outside the movie. The score becomes source. For example, there is a brass band that plays in the street and when the band goes away the music still plays, it becomes score. And this theme recurs throughout the movie. There is one incredible scene that is an echo of another central Fellini theme: There is a grand hotel where the young adolescents dream that they might be Hollywood stars or amazing people living in this hotel. During the summer there is an orchestra of course, but as the winter has come you see all these adolescents by the hotel in the fog and you suddenly hear the music. And it's just the memory of these kids. They dance together as though they are couples sort of imitating the adults. You hear the music and it is an amazing way of capturing what music does your senses and your memory and your emotions.

It is one of the most incredible musical European movies ever done. "Amarcord" has a sense of poetry that is just incredible. I was 13 or so when I first saw it, and it made an immediate impact. I bought the album right away. I would play the music on and on and I still have it on vinyl. It's an incredible piece that I would show to any young director or composer so they understand how much the music can mean and how you can twist it in every way so it works with the picture.


Marc Shaiman on Henry Mancini

If some mad scientist could conjure an actual person out of music, I would select Henry Mancini to become that perfect specimen of humanity.

I mean, imagine a lady or gentleman with the mystery of his score for "A Touch of Evil," the sexy swagger of his theme for "Peter Gunn," the humor of his "Baby Elephant Walk," the sly wit of his "Pink Panther" theme and then, of course, the heartbreaking vulnerability of the greatest movie theme of all time, "Moon River."

Well, that is a person I'd love to know. Or to be. His music points the way.


Jan Kaczmarek on Ennio Morricone's 'The Mission'

"The Mission" always gives me shivers -- a special kind of "physical emotion." When people ask me what my favorite film score is, I always say "The Mission" without thinking.

The main theme is magnificent. You have the seductive power of the melody and harmony which has such a strong impact. Then there is the ethnic element and you can always argue about how authentic it is, but beyond authenticity there is the "perception of authenticity." Everything Morricone chose were perfect in terms of telling the story of the resistance of a small group of people who are highly moral and facing their enemy. His approach to music is part of my basic foundation as a composer.

Illustrations by Chris Morris
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