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Big Music in the Movies… w/ Christopher Palestrant

Big Music in the Movies—How We Got from There to Here

Kip Tabb

There may be nothing new under the sun, but there are certainly new ways to use the tools given to us from the past.

That was the theme from Christopher Palestrant’s Wednesday evening presentation of Big Music in the Movies… and Knowing What to Steal.

Palestrant, who is the Chair of Visual and Performing Arts at Elizabeth City State University, has a wonderful way of taking what could be very complex concepts and breaking them down into digestible and very often humorous tidbits.

He was on the Outer Banks last February with his 50 Years of Broadway: from Hair to Hamilton show. Although Big Music was a Zoom meeting, it followed the same format, walking the audience through the history of how we got from there to here.

“The first experience you have of  watching a movie…is found in the music…” Palestrant said.

His introduction is underscored by playing the theme to 20th Century Fox films that was not retired until Disney bought the studio in 2019. The audience also gets a fascinating tidbit of information about the composer, Alfred Newman, who, it seems was part of a remarkable family tree of composers and musicians that included brothers, sons and his nephew, Randy Newman, the modern day performer who carries on the family tradition.

What made the evening memorable is the way Palestrant explains what we have heard and known are different ways of using music in movies, yet have never really identified what those differences are.

The journey begins in the 1930s and 40s with two composers, Bernard Herman and Eric Korngold. The composers are used because they approach how to use music as part of a movie it very different ways.

Herman, Palestrant explained, was known for non thematic scores—using music to create mood or a feeling. 

Korngold created very tuneful melodies, and would often use a specific theme for individual characters.

The difference in style between the two is stark and readily apparent. 

Herman worked with Hitchock. The screeching violins as the knife falls toward Janet Leigh—blame Herman for that. 

Meanwhile Korngold was writing rousing opening music, often for Errol Flynn movies. Or lush orchestrations that he composed for movies in the late 1940s.

Moving the compositions into a more modern setting, Palestrant points to the music Thomas Newman—son of Alfred Newman—composed for American Beauty in 1999. The orchestration is spare, the melody almost monotone—but it sets the mood perfectly and did win an Oscar for best original soundtrack.

But if the orchestration for American Beauty was spare, it was preceded by more than 20 years by the soundtrack for the 1956 sci-fi movie Forbidden Planet by Louis and Bebe Barron. It is an all electronic soundtrack—no orchestration at all. The soundtrack was so radical that the American Federation of Musicians threatened a lawsuit if it was called music, insisting that it instead be called “electronic tonalities.”

It was not just Forbidden Planet though that was moving Hollywood away from orchestral music. 

In 1955 Director Richard Brooks did something more than simply sidestep using an orchestra. Blackboard Jungle opens with Bill Haley and the Comets playing Rock Around the Clock, and as the opening credits end the music fades, but does not go away creating a rhythmic backdrop to the scenes of the New York blackboard jungle.

The powerful use of thematic music to identify characters and plot leads directly to the composer who may be the greatest of all film composers.

Think of Jaws and those ominous two notes repeated over and over—that’s John Williams.

What may set Williams apart from all the other movie score composers is his ability to draw on numerous musical influences, and do it quickly with full orchestration.

Palestrant pointed out that typically orchestration is added after filming is done and the director wants the music right away.

“They do their job at the end of everything. Films are largely completely made,” he said. “So they have to work terribly terribly fast.”

The theme from Star Wars is an excellent example of how Williams was able to work quickly and effectively drawing on multiple influences. There is the rousing fanfare that is straight from Newman’s 20th Century Fox theme. The orchestration and music, though, is a tribute to the era of romanticism in music—beginning around 1820 and continuing into the early 20th century.

“This score was insanely influential,” Palestrant said.

Composers began looking to the composers of the romantic era for themes. Although the new scores would be variations on the music from DeBussy, or Bartok and others, it still contained identifiable elements of the original compositions.

Williams, though, is influential for more than returning film to orchestration. In Star Wars there are nine main characters and music is used to give the audience cues as a who’s who in the cast.

The technique, Leithmotif, is straight from romantic era opera. Each main character has their own theme. That technique is used brilliantly in Star Wars—the ominous martial music of the Imperial March that introduces Darth Fader; or the soaring complex music of Luke Skywalker; or Princess Leia’s Theme, beautiful and melodic.

It is such an integral part of the movie that we cannot even conceive of Star Wars without it.

The ability to interweave individual themes for the main characters into the movie becomes part of how the audience reacts to what is happening on screen.

Music, film all of it is evolutionary drawing on the influences of the past. Palestrant now places us in a period of what he calls Postmodernism that he defines as a layering of different musical styles.

What is happening is that technology—cell phones, the internet—is giving musicians immediate access to any music anywhere in the world.

“In Postmodernism there is no high art. There is no low art. You might as well just use all of it,” Palestrant said.

The range of music and themes expands. There is Japanese and Jewish based music in orchestral scores; Donizetta: aria from Lucia di Lammeroor, an 1835 opera, becomes a visual cue in the Fifth Element.

All of the influences seem to come together in a remarkable piece of composition by David Arnold in the 2000 James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies.

Called the Back Seat Driver, it begins with a synthesizer and builds theme upon theme, finally filling the screen with full orchestration, bongos and percussion, the James Bond theme and more.

It was a great way to end the evening, showing how it all comes together, and all of it can be traced back to the 20th Century Fox Fanfare by Alfred Newman.