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"Action" music--the evolution

By Terry walstrom
12 November 2003

In the history of dramatic presentation, the spoken word has reigned supreme until fairly recent times. With the advent of miraculous technology for throwing images up on a large panoramic screen and the infusion of vast surrounds of ambient atmospherics a gradual shift in emphasis has evolved.

Music and pure visual action has all but replaced the spoken word and even in some respects the plot! At first music was the "verb" that connected the visual subject to the object of desire.

Activity onscreen was synonymous with activity in the orchestra pit. So potent and moving was this device that more and more sonic layers have been added over the years in multifarious incarnations. Clever composers developed an approach which seemed a best fit for the marrying of onscreen activity with their musical creations.

Roughly these schemes and strategies fall into the following categories:  

  1. The rhythm carries the pulse with various percussion colors. An ostinato can simply repeat a comprehensible pattern or the pattern can vary unpredictably.
  2. Brass chords and low strings. Sometimes woodwinds add a touch of variety.
  3. Slashing chords played tutti.
  4. Synth drones and bouncy wouncy electronic voices.
  5. Slow scales and sinister minor chords going "against" the action on screen.
  6. A bit of each of the above.

In the old days a guy like Tiomkin would use the entire orchestra in a fugue with parts carefully timed to ape (or Mickey Mouse) the action with a sound to match each action flourish.

Bernard Herrmann would repeat a small phrase modulating downscale with large or small choirs of instrumental colors. Or, he'd expostulate brazenly with large percussion canons and flourishing brass stings.

Elmer Bernstein would take 9/8 triplet-like rhythms and break them up in the lower section and let the horns and brass wail on top while the piano gave colorful obbligato decorations in the middle.

John Barry would divide eighth notes into 3-3-2 and alternate chromatic chords atop in a lurching rhythm while a definite memorable melodic phrase floated above.

Lalo Schifrin would take a West Coast Jazz instrument group and add ad lib Tabla drums, stream of consciousness flute and afro-cuban melody fragments.

Jerry Goldsmith would divide the rhythms into cells of uneven groups of beats, blend short motives of melody with electronic amplifications and batteries of percussion colors interspersed with huge blocks of heavy brass, glissandos and varied woodwind combinations.

Henry Mancini would take bass flute, low woodwinds, divided strings and agitato celli up a slow chromatic scale in half-tones with increasing dynamics.

Miklos Rozsa would build grand architectural choirs of instrument groups in a statement of theme and antiphonal "answer" of theme around vigorous brass configurations as counterpoints and obbligatos colored the dynamics.

And then.............

Contemporary composers appeared. A new kind of action music was born. Melody vanished. Themes were banal or mere accidental motives tossed up by chord changes. Augmentation of acoustic orchestra with heavy batteries of keyboard synths mirrored onscreen action and "punched up" whatever appeared.

Slow builds of walls of sonic amplification became a muscular wallpaper as stings of sampled sounds slashed through the heavy soup with chalk-on-the-blackboard psychology.

You could transplant this "action" music from film to film and hardly recognize any switch had taken place.

Ah, Brave new world.

T.

Read 58610 times Last modified on Tuesday, 24 February 2015 14:54
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Windmill Publications

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Specialising in book publications and CD releases about John Barry and our book "Hit ans Miss: The Story of The John Barry Seven.

PIA website

Have a look at our old "Play It Again" label website here.

Play It Again Records CD catalogue offered the discerning listener a wide choice of digitally re-mastered recordings from film and television, and rare collections of work from the likes of Don Black and Ron Grainer.

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A lot more James Bond concerts collected on the link below, I have put them all in this news item. So check it out from there!

http://www.moviesinconcert.nl/index.php?page=concertlist


The Bridgewater Hall - Music of John Barry November 2018

The Music of John Barry

Saturday 10 November 7.30pm
The Bridgewater Hall
Lower Mosley Street
Manchester, M2 3WS

Website

Nicholas Dodd conductor
Andrew Collins presenter
Manchester Camerata

John Barry created some of the most memorable and recognisable film scores of the 20th century, such as Midnight Cowboy, Out of Africa, Dances with Wolves, Zulu and of course much of the music from the James Bond series; his versatility and originality were peerless. His death in 2011 deprived cinema of a true musical great. This concert pays tribute to his life and music with a carefully selected programme, conducted by Nicholas Dodd, who collaborated closely with the composer on his later films. Nicholas Dodd is regarded as one of the leading conductors and orchestrators of Hollywood film music and is a noted expert on, and performer of John Barry’s music. In fact, every James Bond movie from the last 10 years bears his signature.