I’ve just come across this American composer (1922 – 1980) while programming Screen Sounds. What an amazing story. In the 40s he was officially blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee for refusing to divulge names of colleagues who were suspected of having links to Communism. Apparently his membership in several unions (such as the Radio Union) attracted the attention of authorities, but it’s unclear how guilty he was of having Communist sympathies. The liner notes to his score to The Mechanic – which I’ve included in the next Screen Sounds episode – quotes him describing himself as a “loud mouthed crusader” but doesn’t expand upon what he meant exactly. Regardless, the blacklisting put a stop to his career as a TV and radio host in LA for almost a decade, but he re-appeared in Las Vegas with his own band and rebuilt a career from there.
Eventually he had a breakthrough with his highly innovative and hard-edged scores to Sam Peckinpah’s movies The Wild Bunch (1969) and Straw Dogs (1971). Before his untimely death at the age of 57, he scored a total of 32 films. In addition, he scored two episodes of the first Star Trek series and wrote the title theme for Hogan’s Heroes of all things.
I’ve listened to all his music for The Mechanic from 1972 and wow.. the cue ‘Anatomy of an Assassin’, which I’ve programmed, combines quite angular, almost aleotoric music with jazz harmonies and even a straight-up quotation from Beethoven’s Grosse Fugue. In the liner notes he observes:
“It’s hard to find a film that will allow for sustained colours… [this score] is a veritable sonic light show with blocks and blobs of sound filling the spectrum, all painted in shades of black. Conceptually it’s non-objective. Rhythm and or melody would distract from the intention of the total score. But making the decision to use these compositional techniques throws out a lot of traditional means to achieve certain ends. Thus this score served as an experimental ground for techniques I have employed in later scores.”
That kind of deep introspection about the possibilities of film scoring seems a rare thing these days. His line about non-objectivity reminds me of Michael Nyman’s ‘non-teleological’ approach to the films of Peter Greenaway in the 80s, but I struggle to think of anyone else – except perhaps Jonny Greenwood – who would be prepared to “throw out” “traditional means” to achieve a particular musico-dramatic ambition.
This is a composer whose life and music I’m keen to explore further. In the meantime, I can’t find a link to ‘Anatomy of an Assassin’ but here’s another great cue from his score to The Mechanic: