A Chat with The Composer - John Barry

A Chat with The Composer

ca. April 1972

LONDON - The lights dimmed in the fashionable Leicester Square Odeon, and from behind the glowing orange stage curtains came a blast of thumping, amorphous sound that purported to be music. Soon it was joined by a thin, childlike voice that kept singing, "Curiouser and curiouser" . . . and some other words that got lost between the forced volume (obviously based on someone's notion that more is better) and the inadequacy of the theatre’s sound system to reproduce in the higher registers.

All this was the prelude to a midnight screening of excerpts from a forthcoming, multistarred production of Alice's Adventures In Wonderland, due here around Christmas. For a preview, as well as a glimpse of the actual shooting, American National, which opens the U.S. and Canadian rights to Alice, flew to London a planeload of about eighty prospective exhibitors, some sixty press and TV people, and perhaps thirty-five of its own key executives. The screening was intended to be the highlight of the trip.

Unfortunately, as was soon apparent, it was anything but. To be sure, one could recognize in the excerpts such luminaries as Sir Ralph Richardson as the Caterpillar, Peter Seller's as the March hare, Sir Robert Helpmann as the Mad Hatter, and, if one looked very closely beneath the make-up, Michael Crawford as the White Rabbit. The excerpts, however, were studded with printed slugs reading "Scene Missing," the editing was still rough, the colour and the sound unbalanced. The underscoring, so important to a film of this sort, had yet to be written and many in the audience stated that they found the songs themselves uninspired.

As it happened, I had purposely sought out John Barry, Alice's composer, during my visit to the rambling Shepperton studio the day before, mainly because his was one of the few behind-the-camera names with which I was familiar. Also, I have consistently admired his work, from the rock variations of The Knack to the medieval classicism of The Lion In Winter, and from the pungent guitar concerto that accompanied Boom! to the blaring, driving rhythms of the James Bond pictures. I was curious to discover the kind of man who composed so effectively in so many different idioms.

There is probably no more endearing introduction to an artist than a display of familiarity with his work. In any case, before the afternoon was over, Barry - a lean, tall fellow who looks at least a decade younger than his thirty-nine years - had auditioned the entire score for me on the superb stereo system installed in his sleek white Citroen '72. "Actually," he said, half-apologetically, "the sound here is far better than the studio's sound system, and the tracks for my cartridges are properly mixed, while the film tracks won't be finally mixed until September."

I found John Barry's music for Alice - all twenty-one numbers - utterly charming, ingeniously orchestrated, and wholly different from any of his scores that I was familiar with. For one thing, it was more tender, more romantic, much in the spirit of Prokofiev's nostalgic modernisms in the Romeo and Juliet or Cinderella ballets, although interspersed were Elgaresque fanfares, and a hilarious patter song between Sellers and Helpmann that owed more to the Twenties' music halls than to Gilbert and Sullivan. Somehow, Barry had managed to make an orchestra that never numbered more than fifty sound like twice that many. And the lyrics by Don Black - often witty, sometimes poetic - always seemed to ride effortlessly just above the surface of their accompaniment.

Next day, over a kipper mousse at Burke's Club, Barry somewhat diffidently began to talk about composing for films. Although he had a classical education in music, his entrance into the film field was through association with a rock group, the John Barry Seven, and a period as accompanist to a rock singer named Adam Faith (who seems to have been the British Elvis Presley). When Faith went into the movies, Barry went with him. The duo did not remain together very long. "We had different ideas about music," said Barry, succinctly.

"I've come to look on music as a voice, an attitude, that exists outside the film itself," he continued. "If the music is saying the very same thing as the pictures, then obviously it is being redundant. If you begin to notice the music as an intrusion, then it is bad. But if you become aware of the music emotionally and are responding to it along with the film itself, then it is a good score. I feel that the film composer should be, first, a good dramatist, and, second, a good composer. He should be able to expand, through his music, what the film is saying, not merely repeat or underline it."

Barry rejects emphatically the notion that movie music should be bland or neutral, or simply-as Aaron Copland once put it - "a small lamp placed beneath the screen to warm it." According to Barry, "If music doesn't sing, or dance, or have an interesting harmonic concept, then it shouldn't be there at all. A film score should burn with its own fire, not merely glow in the dark like a pretty charcoal." When he reads a new script, it is with an eye to what he can add to it - and also to what he is not going to do with it. "Choice is taste," is virtually his maxim, and it applies equally to his choice of scripts and his choice of the musical forms to accompany them.

What concerns him most is the quality (or lack of quality) in most theatre speaker systems. Barry became extra conscious of this at an early age, because his father was an exhibitor. "It's absolutely pointless to go for hi-fi sound in films when you know how it's going to sound for most audiences," he said. "When I record a score, I go for the highest quality that the studio can give me. But then I bring in standard speakers and re-record for these. Actually, it's a recording calculated to bring out the best in your average theatre installations." By all odds, he admitted, the sound on his numerous LPs and tapes was better than anything one might hear in the theatre, or, for that matter, in the Royal Albert Hall, where the Royal Philharmonic will perform an all-John Barry program on October 7 (including excerpts from his score for Goldfinger, which he calls "Mickey Mouse Wagner").

I looked around for John Barry at the Leicester Square Odeon on that last night in London, but failed to spot him. I hope he wasn't there. What with the curtains that muffled his sound, the unbalanced tracks, and the Odeon's tubby speakers, he would probably have been tearing great handfuls out of his long, but already thinning hair.

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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.

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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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