DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: IN PRAISE OF THE SYNTHESIZED SCORE

Wednesday, 21 February 2007

IN PRAISE OF THE SYNTHESIZED SCORE

In Praise of the Synthesized Score

NOTE: This is the first of a series of ‘essays’, which will be posted from time to time.

After posting reviews for classic 80’s films “Manhunter” and “Escape From New York,” I realized what’s missing from the myriad of remakes of 1980’s films these days –the synthesized score!

After Disco lost is cred, it took that genre a good 15 years before it became retro-cool. Unfortunately in the film world, synth scores have yet to make its return. Synth scores are still under lock and key as a credible cinematic ingredient. I hope to present a case for it’s parole – for good. It’s definitely overdue.

In the late 70’s, the film world started hearing a new sound in their scores. For much of the decade, jazz instrumentation dominated the new school of film music. Since film music and pop music naturally coincide, it was natural for synthesized instruments to find its way into films. Perhaps the first synth score was Kubrick’s innovative retooling of Beethoven’s 9th. Despite the popularity of the film, it took until the end of the decade for the trend to catch on.

Some of the late 70’s popular films to score electronically included Georgio Moroder’s Oscar-winner for “Midnight Express”. A favourite of mine is Tangerine Dream’s score for William Friedkin’s “Sorcerer,” a year earlier than “Midnight Express.” The sound was so new and fresh, it gave the film an eerie, disturbing quality, and perhaps out of place for a film that takes place in the jungles of South America. Oddly enough it works, fabulously. (Of course, for every good electronic score, there were 3 or 4 horribly dated ones as well, but we won’t mention those).

John Carpenter, who scores in own films, is also a pioneer. His score for “Halloween” became an instant classic, and horror films have been trying to catch up ever since, with “The Friday the 13th and “Nightmare on Elm Street” imitating it blatantly.

But it was Vangelis’ Oscar-winning theme for “Chariots of Fire” that opened the floodgates. Vangelis went on to score such classic films as “Blade Runner,” “Missing” and “The Bounty.” Tangerine Dream started getting more work as well scoring “Thief,” “Firestarter,” “Risky Business,” and “Legend.” And who could forgot those opening synthesized chords of Brian De Palma’s “Scarface”. Oh bliss.

Most of today’s top composers, such as James Horner, Howard Shore and Hans Zimmer started off with electronic scores and, of course, eventually evolved, matured and adapted their style to fit the times. But it was Carpenter, Vangelis, Tangerine Dream and Moroder that lived and died with the style they invented and perfected. As result, we don’t hear of them at all in the present day.

Therefore I present a challenge to filmmakers: in your next film listen to some Tangerine Dream for inspiration and bring back the electronic score. Don’t be embarrassed, take a risk, and start a trend - all over again.


35 comments :

Pascal said...

I totally agree, Alan. Also, we can't forget to mention pioneer Philip Glass and his work on The Exorcist... brilliant stuff!

Alan Bacchus said...

Philip Glass and the Exorcist? Are you sure about that??

pascal said...

NO, I guess I'm not sure. But I could have sworn he was involved, so i checked (which is what i should have done first)... here's what i found:
"Lalo Schifrin's score was rejected (see also 1979's The Amityville Horror). In the liner notes for the soundtrack to his 1977 film Sorcerer, Friedkin said that had he heard the music of Tangerine Dream earlier, he would have had them score The Exorcist.

So, I guess it was not Philip Glass that wrote the Tubular Bells theme... my bad.

pascal said...

Also, Tubular Bells was written by Mike Oldfield. Sorry.

pascal said...

Also, Tubular Bells was written by Mike Oldfield. Sorry.

Alan Bacchus said...

Philip Glass did some work on Argento's SUSPIRIA. Maybe that's what you were thinking of.

Anonymous said...

My favorite movie score of the entire 1990s was James Newton Howard's score for Grand Canyon. I bought the cassette (this was the early '90s), wore it out and bought the CD as soon as it became available. Just magnificent.

Anonymous said...

Well said. I have been trying to preach the good word of Moroder for years to my peers to no avail. But then again, I think the Italians are generally underated in their work with synth scores in the 70's and 80's. Anybody else remember Fabio Frizzi or Goblin?

Jimmy James said...

Good call.

Just thought I'd point out that interesting synth scores are in fact being made these days, by the like of Cliff Martinez (Traffic, Solaris, Wicker Park etc) and
Angelo Badalamenti (Mulholland Dr etc). They don't quite have that 80s electro sound, but they are very good in their own way.

Anonymous said...

Tangerine Dream were absolute GENIUSES. Two of their other great works were Miracle Mile and Three O'Clock High. When I think of some of the things that existed in 80's classics that aren't used enough (or at all) today, synthesized music is right at the top of the list.

Anonymous said...

I love this discussion about synth scores. All other "retro" film techniques and genres have made or are making a comeback, why are we not seeing electronic scores? As for contemporary examples, you guys may want to check out The Dust Brothers' score for "Fight Club", and also "Killing Zoe" scored by Tomandandy. As for the vintage electro sound, check out Jay Chattaway's score for the 1980 film "Maniac". Vive la synth!

Anonymous said...

Philip Glass did not do work on "Suspiria" -- the soundtrack was by Goblin.

For every good synthesized soundtrack out there, there are ten bad ones ("Poltergeist III" comes to mind... and numerous other lower budget films that could have been great if not for their gawdawful synthesized score.)

Anonymous said...

Personally, I've always enjoyed listening to the score from Tron by Wendy Carlos. :P

Carpet Layer said...

Tron is, indeed, an underrated score.
Another legendary synth score that hasn't been mentioned is The Terminator theme.

Damian said...

I guess I'm going to have to be the odd man out here and admit that I am not a terribly big fan of synth scores. I have always preferred traditional live orchestrs cores. I guess I'm just "old-fashioned" that way. I'd much rather listen to Star Wars than Blade Runner anyday.

P.S. Don't forget to participate in the Filmmusic Blog-a-thon this June!

Erik said...

It's good to see someone give Goblin a nod. While their work isn't totally synthesized, the synth does tend to dominate the scene, especially in their score for George A. Romero's "Dawn of the Dead." A wonderful score for a wonderful film, but neither of them fit the modern horror aesthetic.

What killed synthesized scores, then? Was it the gradual yet inexorable move to more grandiose, overblown arrangements which got in the way of the film and stuck out like a sore thumb, as (I would argue) was the case with Andrew Powell's score for "Ladyhawke"?

As for Wendy Carlos, let us not forget that it is s/he who performed the music for "A Clockwork Orange", not Kubrick.

Finally, while we're at it, let's give a nod to Harold Faltermeyer for his work on "Beverly Hills Cop". His theme for Axel Foley is one of the most distinctive pieces in cinema, synthesized or otherwise.

It's too bad we're not discussing television, or we could touch upon the finer points of Jan Hammer's "Miami Vice" work.

Darth Delirium said...

I feel that one of the biggest turning points in synthesizer music was when Hans Zimmer came out with Crimson Tide.

That sorta created the era where most young composers came out as synthies

Alan Bacchus said...

Sorry, for not mentioning Wendy Carlos wrt Clockwork Orange - of course, she rocks.

Thanks for mentioning Goblin as well.

Agreed - Crimson Tide was kind of a minor landmark for film scoring. A lot of films began imitating that.

Cliff Martinez rocks as well.

Also, I'll watch anything that is scored by The Free Association (David Holmes). Any thoughts?

Michael De Luca said...

Tangerine Dream's score for "The Keep" was also quite haunting. On the other hand, their score for "Legend" was minor compared to the lush original Jerry Goldsmith (orchestral) score composed for the picture. Unfortunately, the American distributor wanted a more "hip" approach. But yes, TD's score for "Sorcerer" is an electronic zenith of disembodied disturbance.

MKS said...

Philip Glass contributed to SUSPIRIA? I don't think so. SUSPIRIA's score is by the Italian band GOBLIN (who also did DAWN OF THE DEAD, BEYOND THE DARKNESS, etc.).

Let's not forget Klaus Schulze's brilliant score for BODY LOVE 2 and ANGST.

Even Jean Michel Jarre scored GRANGES BRULEES, LES (The Burned Barns) and did it beautifully.

Another sublime Tangerine score is NEAR DARK. WAVELENGTH and THE SWITCH also excellent. SORCERER is one of the greatest scores ever. Totally transporting and reps the interior landscape of the movie perfectly. Vangelis's marginally recent score for BITTER MOON is sublime. It's not available as a full score anywhere. It is on his compile CD. THE BOUNTY also terrific.

Mitchell Froom's score for CAFE FLESH was quite amazing, too.

Other electronic scores of recent memory: Lisa Gerard's work on WHALE RIDER is stunning, one of my favorites of all time.

The Hong Kong composer Raymond Wong has created some unbelievable scores recently. His best is A HERO NEVER DIES, but his Rjavascript:void(0)
Publish Your CommentUNNING OUT OF TIME is also incredible.

MarkKS

Shaye said...

One of my favourite synth scores of all time has to be Moroder's work on the Cat People remake -- UNREAL!! From thrilling, to hauntingly beautiful, to chilling and creepy.... and, of course, a Bowie song thrown in is NEVER a bad thing -- take a listen whenever you get a chance :-))))

Kamikaze Camel said...

I can't believe you didn't include work by, probably, synth score's biggest champion - Angelo Badalmenti. Not only has he created some famous synth music (Twin Peaks), but he still is. Heck, Mulholland Drive had sublime synthesised music.

MKS said...

Yes, Angelo B. is brilliant. ARLINGTON ROAD, especially the main theme, is haunting. MULHOLLAND incredible.

CAT PEOPLE is terrific, as is SCARFACE. Unfortunately, the main theme has never been released on any CD. I have had to make do with a score ripped directly from the DVD.

Anonymous said...

What about the synthetic interpretation of Carmine Coppola's classical score for Apocalypse Now?

Anonymous said...

I'm pretty sure the upcoming Tarantino/Rodriguez collaboration 'Grindhouse' is going to feature an electronic score in homage to exactly the type of scores your essay is about...

Anonymous said...

Risky Business was the first time I heard anything by Tangerine Dream, and I instantly fell in love with their unique sound. I can hear a piece for the first time, and instantly know it's them.

The other thing that comes to my mind when I hear the words "synthesized score" is the soundtrack to Beverly Hills Cop, especially Axel F.

opera jedi said...

A wonderfully evocotive use of synth was used in the recent adaptation of "Peter Pan." While most of the score was acoustic (and stunningly gorgeous), the music that accompanied the most magical moments featured synthesized chords and rhythm that jeked all of the Generation Xers back to our own "Never Ending Story" childhoods. Brilliant!

Anonymous said...

Eight paragraphs equals an essay? And i did note your use of inverted commas around "essay". But still. Pfft.

Anonymous said...

While it was certainly pre-Moog, and an argument could be made that it is not 'synth' in the current sense of the word, the score comprised entirely of electronic 'tonalities' produced for the highly influential 1956 film 'Forbidden Planet' needs mention.

Am I correct in thinking it was the first major score produced entirely through electronics?

Created by the husband and wife team of Louis and Bebe Barron, this inspired accompaniment to what is, essentially, a re-framing of Shakespear's 'The Tempest' set in the 23rd Century has never been relegated to goofy '50's artifact status. (Now, the lubricated coifs favored by the crew of the starship are another matter - as are their references to 'dames', but these can be seen as charming anachronisms, if you wish.)

Thanks for the reminder about 'Sorceror'. I need to see (and hear) that one again.

And 'Grand Canyon' - found many memorable parts in the film, but, as I am when experiencing great service in a restaurant, was completely unaware of the score.

Hey Erik, you might get a kick out of the orchestral music written for Ladyhawke by a Mr. Fojtik. Samples and more info are available at

http://www.manymusics.org/album.asp?d=1000&id=A-003250

Alan Bacchus said...

Great comments everybody. My 'essay' is not designed to be comprehensive, but a starting point for a conversation and to inform everyone of some more great films to see (and scores to hear).
And perhaps essay is the wrong word to use. oh well.

Candice said...

The first score that comes to mind for me is NEVER CRY WOLF. There's no better music for an isolated tundra!

pascal said...

Hey, speaking of Ennio Morricone. How awesome was his score for The Thing! He wasn't known for the 'synth sound', but that one stands out for sure...

Alan Bacchus said...

Indeed, Morricone's THING score is great. But I was always curious why Carpenter would choose not to score his own film. Anyone know?

Anonymous said...

Annotation to this blog entry from "March 1, 2007 8:48 AM":
>Hey Erik, you might get a kick >out of the orchestral music >written for Ladyhawke by a Mr. >Fojtik.

It really seems to be a nice piece! You can listen to short excerpts of it on Mr Fojtik's website, too. Here are the links (move mouse over images):

http://www.frankfojtik.com/pageID_3144278.html

http://www.frankfojtik.com/pageID_3162242.html

http://www.frankfojtik.com/pageID_3162243.html

Piss said...

I haven't seen anyone mention POPOL VUH, who scored Aguirre, The Wrath of God and other Werner Herzog films.