OST – original soundtrack

For most of my life, I’ve been a keen collector and appreciator of film soundtrack music.

Yeah baby! It’s Thunderball

There was this slow dawning, as I went into my mid-teens that, while other kids were following the charts and raving about David Bowie, Hot Chocolate and the Bay City Rollers (I know), I had my head in the scores to Thunderball , Close Encounters, Earthquake  and  The Good, The Bad and the Ugly.

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Saturday Night Fever

Don’t get me wrong; I liked the popular hits too. I liked all sorts of bands, but they were something entirely apart from the film scores. Incidentally, I’ve been a big ELO fan for most of my life. Jeff Lynne’s work has been a bright spot for me over the years; but that’s the subject of another post.

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Jeff Lynne

Something that used to bug the hell out of me was the way soundtrack LPs (yeah, back in the days when vinyl reigned) often seemed to use cues that didn’t sound the way they had at the cinema. I later learned that scores were often re-recorded for an LP release. This allowed them to iron out any bugs or perhaps to fatten up the arrangements and make them “more listenable”. At this point, there was still some snootiness  amongst musos about the validity of film music.

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John Williams

I was lucky enough to be around when some of the greatest names in film music history were working their magic. I’d find myself reading that fine print they put on movie posters, to see who’d done the score. If it was James Bond, it would most often be John Barry. If it was a disaster film, John Williams (the American composer, not the Australian guitarist). If it was sci-fi, then Jerry Goldsmith. Films about WWII always sounded great if Ron Goodwin had done them (Where Eagles Dare anyone?). And Hitchcock was always best when backed by Bernard Herrmann (check out North by Northwest!).

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Ron Goodwin
Bernard Herrmann. He of the shrieking violins in Psycho

It wasn’t until the 1990s that filmmakers realised there was an audience out there who wanted to hear exactly what they’d heard on the big screen and not some mocked-up version of it. There was also a burgeoning realisation that  film music was a good thing in and of itself; that it had a valid place in musical history and was something people wanted to hear.

Yoda conducts the LSO with his midget lightsabre

The soundtrack market exploded and I was in heaven. All of a sudden, there were re-releases of film scores going back into the 1950s and 60s. Gone were the CD releases which just carried the limited selection of the vinyl release. A CD could hold twice as much material, so in most cases you could get every single cue from a film in there.

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Jerry Goldsmith at work

I still collect soundtracks, but am quite selective about which ones. Contemporary films seem to be pervaded by generic-sounding cues which you could transfer from one film to another and never know the difference. This is because the turnaround time is much shorter now and it’s harder for composers to catch and express that original sound which travels with the audience as they leave the cinema.

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John Barry

For me that’s the hook. A film needs its own special sound and you can’t achieve that by just vomiting off-the-peg musical cliches all over it. John Barry always used to build his work around two or three themes and you’d get fragments of them woven into the whole film. It made the story cohesive and provided an emotional ground upon which to stand and view the images before you.

Indecent Proposal. A real balancing act for composer John Barry

There are those who still put out work with strong themes; themes you can hum and remember. Michael Giaccino’s work on Jurassic World was something else. Not only did he work in John Williams’ themes from the Jurassic Park series, he added stirring motifs of his own and produced something wonderful in the process.

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Jurassic World

Another superb modern film composer is Alexandre Desplat (Girl with a Pearl Earring, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows I and II and Zero Dark Thirty). Desplat is probably one of my modern favourites. He never turns in anything shoddy or without merit.

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Alexandre Desplat

The list of available film composers is massive now. There are university courses in scoring for film and it has almost become institutionalised as an art form. For me though, the names which really shine are the ones whose style you can recognise and who counterpoint the action or tell you something about what’s going on inside a character’s head without flagging it up too obviously. It’s a delicate balance and not everyone can do it. That’s what separates the men from the boys in film composition.

 

James Boyd – concert guitarist

For quite some time, I’ve been meaning to mention James Boyd, a virtuoso concert guitarist based here in Norfolk. I’m fortunate enough to have lessons with James and he is, without a doubt, one of the most extraordinary people I’ve ever met.

When I first went along to see James, I don’t mind admitting I was very, very nervous. I hadn’t had much luck with teachers, was petrified of playing in front of other people and, aware of how good James was, was worried he would simply confirm my fears: that I was actually rather crap and should stop playing altogether.

Boy, was I surprised.

Within the first lesson, James had got right to the issue and got me actually playing. I’d been struggling along, on and off, for decades and had always stalled at the same page on the same book… and then eventually given up.

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I’d gone along to that first lesson with some preconceptions; scales, grades, strict regimens of practice and so on. However, the conversation ran something like this:

“Do I need to think about grades?”

“Do you want to?”

“No.”

“Well don’t do them then.”

“I guess I’ll have to study scales?”

“You can, but why not just do them when they crop up in a piece of music?”

James won the Julian Bream prize at the Royal Academy of Music when he was there and now travels all over the world giving recitals and concerts. He knows what the pitfalls are and his emphasis is always on being a good musician, not on “producing notes”.  More to the point, he’s overcome all these obstacles in the context of world-class performance.  This is why I’d always recommend learning from a pro player.

I’m aware that this post could become a hagiography, but when you’ve had the frustration of never quite getting it right and then come across someone who helps you succeed and  tells you you’re a good player (and James never bullshits people)… well, those moments are gold dust.

I’ll leave you with a link to one of James’ executive training sessions. He’s taken all that he’s learned over years of playing the guitar professionally and applied it to business development and corporate learning strategies. I think you’ll agree, he’s someone you could listen to for hours.

 

Face the music (or not)

Not long back, I had a break of several weeks from playing the guitar. I don’t get that much time to devote to practise anyway. Really just a few minutes at the end of the day at the moment.

I’d been butting heads with a couple of tricky pieces (for me anyway) and so decided to park it for a bit and do something else. Watch films, clean the car, load some ammo, God forbid, even just sleep. Anything but go over and over the same troublesome musical phrases.

After my break, I’d been quite concerned that what I’d learned would have evaporated or that I’d have to backtrack several months in order to catch up.



Weirdly, I found the opposite to be true. I went back fresh into what I’d been learning and, instead of getting to those knotty bits in the music and falling over, I found that they pretty much just trotted out as though I’d been doing them for decades.

This is apparently something well known to musicians. Not just retained muscle memory, but an entirely different function of the human brain; it seems to go on working on problems in the background.

I guess that’s why it’s often better to sleep on a difficult decision or other issue that you can’t resolve by stressing about it and getting nowhere.

I’m not suggesting for a minute that I did sod all practice and then woke up one morning and found I had the hands of David Russell, but it was an important lesson that sometimes you’re just meant to leave something be and allow it to percolate.

After all, music is meant to be fun isn’t it?

 

 

Six strings

Another of my interests is classical guitar.

I’ve played on and off since I was 18, but was trying to teach myself from a book and always stalled at about the same level. The longest “off” was 20 years!

I thought it might be interesting to post occasionally about what I’m working on or maybe the odd video.