Monday, February 01, 2021

What's the score?

Happy Monday from Douglas in Scotland.

One of the many common questions put to authors is whether they listen to music while they write. 

I do listen to music while I bang away at the keyboard. And I can grow quite evangelistic about the sort of music I prefer.

Ever since I was a lad I have appreciated, enjoyed, nay, loved movie scores. This goes back to even before I was fully aware that people actually wrote them. I'm sure I didn't believe they just arrived whole from the heavens but I couldn't at that time name a composer. 

It was predominently western themes that caught my interest at first, with a smattering of TV themes. The Big Country, The Magnificent Seven on the big screen, Doctor Who, Mission:Impossible, Man in a Suitcase among the small screen offerings.

I still have the first album I ever bought with my own money - well, my parents' money, because I was at the time without funds of my own due to not being in gainful employment, child labour having been effectively outlawed in the UK for a number of years. 

It was a collection of movie themes on the United Artists label and it cost me the princely sum of 21 shillings. That's £1.05 in today's decimals. And yes, it had versions of The Big Country and The Magnificent Seven.

And just to prove it -

As I grew older I realised there was a whole world of such music out there. There was a snag, though.

Simply this - it wasn't cool.

I was met by superior smirks and sneers when I professed a love for the compositions of John Barry, Elmer Bernstein and Lalo Schifrin (whose music was cool even then but they didn't understand that. I give you one word. Bullitt. I rest my case).

In fact, it was Schifrin's theme to Enter the Dragon, complete with Bruce Lee's vocal stylings, that had a sales assistant actually laugh in my face when I requested the single. It wasn't Bowie, or T. Rex, or even Perry Como, who I could have been buying for my mother. This was the tune to a film, for goodness sake! And because he never saw it on Top of the Pops or The Old Grey Whistle Test (two shows popular here in the UK back then showcasing pop and rock) I was a figure to be scorned. The mocking look irritated me then and it does now. 

I refused to be bullied by these arbiters of cool. My love of movie scores grew. At that time they were called soundtracks but that had to change as more film makers opted to use pop and rock on their movies. If custom-written music was used it was released as the Original Score. That is, when it was released, or at least available here in the UK.

So when I'm writing, it is more often than not film music blasting over the speakers - and I will often select it to fit the storyline and, on a meta level, the particular scene I am writing that day. If it's something soft and perhaps lyrical then James Horner might come into play. If it's an action beat then Jerry Goldsmith is the man for me. Incidentally, he is my all-time favourite composer and no matter who else I mention here, no matter what I'm writing, there will be at least one of his compositions also used. Thought you'd want to know.

For a long time I thought I was alone in this but in the past few years I've discovered that there are other authors who take the same approach. 

There is a reason for this.

Film music should be about story and emotion and atmosphere. The best composers, past and present, have to be storytellers as much as the screenwriter and director. They have to understand pace and mood. They have to know what will work in a particular scene in order to bring out its intent. A good composer can also make a mediocre film more exciting than it actually is - Jerry Goldsmith was a master of that. 

That is why I find such music so helpful in my writing. It's all about the feels.

When writing my first Rebecca Connolly book 'Thunder Bay', my scores of choice were, among others, 'The Fury' and 'Dracula' by John Williams but also some classical pieces, particularly 'Isle of the Dead' by Rachmaninov and various bits of Sibelius. I wanted that dark, brooding feel, you see, and they deliver that in spades. 

For the next in the series, 'The Blood is Still', I went for Bear McCreary's music for various series of 'Outlander'. There was a Jacobite rebellion connection to the story and the music worked perfectly. Obviously! (Also, he is one of the best composers working today). Because there was a childhood memory element, I also used Elmer Bernstein's 'To Kill a Mockingbird.'

For three months I have been battering away at a spec novel that has been in my head for years. Around 100,000 words since November. I will pause here for you all to say attaboy.

It's an historical adventure/thriller and for its score I relied on two Spanish composers - Fernando Velazquez and Roque Banos. Their work is dark, mysterious and richly romantic, making it just the job for my storyline. 

The book may never see the light of day but I had a ball writing it and the music had a lot to do with that. Roque Banos' music for the Spanish period film 'Alatriste' is an absolute joy and contributed greatly to what I hope is the spirit of my book.

Am I listening to something as I write this?

Well, I am, thank you for asking.

I have Daniel Pemberton's music to the revamped 'The Man from UNCLE' blaring right now. It's bright, breezy and carries enough of the spirit of the 60s and Lalo Schifrin cool, mixed with some John Barry and Ennio Morricone, to make it work in the film, as a listening experience and as a nostalgia piece. My only gripe is that it doesn't feature the original theme to the TV show at any stage. 

Guess who wrote that? 

Clue - his first name was Jerry...


Rick Blechta said...

Oh! I know, I know! Pick me! Pick me!

Jerry Goldsmith, who wrote a ton of great film and TV music and was an adept orchestrator. My favourite film score, for which he one an Academy Award, was The Omen which packed an incredible, tension-building punch.

My favourite score for more recent movies is Howard Shore's work on the Lord of the Rings/Hobbit movies. His themes and orchestration are brilliant. And he's a Toronto lad! He played sax for Lighthouse and came to hear a band I was in back in the '70s. Nice guy.

Douglas Skelton said...

Jerry Goldsmith was - is - one of the greats and one of my cherished musical memories was seeing him conduct the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in Glasgow. I also saw Elmer Bernstein. The Royal Concert Hall was packed for each of them. And Howard Shore is also one of the better composers today. His Rings scores both service the film but have a life of their own beyond the visuals.