Picture Perfect: A HyperHistory of Film Music in the United States

Directors during “The ME Decade” wanted talented composers to work with and more. They sought out extra pieces of sound and music more than ever; snippets of songs or chord hits, or bells that they had heard coming out of some rusty jukebox in another continent, perhaps. Tried and true techniques were now laced with experimental sounds or rock music. The collaboration between Brazilian-born composer Lalo Schifrin and George Lucas, THX-1138 (1970), started the decade off with bizarre new sound combinations. William Friedkin‘s The Exorcist (1973) is a prime example of a 1970s collaboration which ultimately swayed towards the whim of the director. Who could forget Jack Nitzsche‘s music for the film? Yet Friedkin sought out additions to the score, which included Mike Oldfield‘s famous “Tubular Bellstheme. This put a shadow over his relationship with Nitzsche, who was outraged that another composer’s work would be featured in his soundtrack. The trend of great collaborations of the 1960s was changing.

With the acceptable sound palette ever expanding, some composers followed their imaginations to great lengths to insure a completely unique score. Jerry Goldsmith‘s throwback noir score for Chinatown (1974) features the usual crooning, melancholy theme you’d expect with the addition of two harps and four pianos (one of them deliberately detuned, another prepared). Goldsmith’s experiments in instrumentation were often accompanied by his curious flirtations with atonality. While Chinatown sports some nice twelve-tone tunes, his 1968 score for Planet of the Apes is, from beginning to end, strictly serial. Goldsmith continued to experiment by adding microtonal electronic sounds to his score for Logan’s Run (1976), eventually creating his first fully electronic score for the 1984 film Runaway. Goldsmith’s attempt was not nearly the success of Wendy Carlos’ synthesized renditions of Beethoven for Stanley Kubrick‘s film adaptation of Anthony BurgessA Clockwork Orange (1971).

The new genre of the sci-fi blockbuster was brought to life by the sounds of John Williams, an established composer whose career was changed by a meeting with a 23-year old director named Steven Spielberg. Spielberg introduced Williams to his friend George Lucas and the two collaborated on the first major science fiction blockbuster, Star Wars (1977). Williams’s ability to combine precise, classical film scoring techniques with varied influences for specific themes was exactly what was needed for the unique worlds encountered by the characters. Williams claims to have learned about film scoring from Joseph Campbell, the storyteller and historian whose theories about symbols and the subconscious have influenced just about every mainstream movie plot.

Williams’s working style in the ’70s was to allow the steps of the plot to guide his muse, to draw from the visual symbols in each scene and provide the music that he thinks the viewer’s subconscious hears playing. The joy of listening to Williams’s work on Star Wars or Superman comes from the thrill of the subjectivity, of experiencing adventures as the main character does.

Does this mean that he is a throwback to the composers of the ’30s and ’40s, who were thought of to be less than autonomous? It may seem as if the creators of film music in the ’70s indeed answered to the director and placed their own ideas second, but like most things in the “ME” decade, there is no easy interpretation.

Williams’s famous five-note theme “Wild Signals” for Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind was undoubtedly an inspired piece that stood on its own and contributed to the plot rather than followed it. Without the theme, which the UFO used to communicate with Earth, the suspense would not exist. Yet Arista did not satisfy the public with the full-on score on the soundtrack release in 1977. Strangely, although the music was in fact a part of the plot, it was still deemed a secondary product, not worth the investment usually reserved for the promotion of the film itself or its director. This attitude towards the marketability of film scores was about to change drastically…

From Picture Perfect: A HyperHistory of Film Music in the United States
By Nicole Zaray
© 2003 NewMusicBox

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