FSFT5: Desert Island Discs aka Is There A Film Music Canon?

So I’ve decided to wade into the shark infested waters that I have so far avoided.  When I first started the Film Score Friday Top 5, there was one list that I avoided like the Swine Flu: Top 5 Scores, what could also be termed a so-called “Desert Island” list (as in, if you were stuck on a Desert Island, which scores would want to have with you).  Both of these lists, or questions postulated to a person, point to a similar idea: the canon. 

The term canon in this context is not the large gun fired from a Pirate Ship or other sailing vessel, or even the imitative musical device used in works as far ranging as “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” to Pachelbel’s  infamous on in D heard everywhere, at least according to one comic.  No, in this sense, canon is meant as a collection of works or artists that we hold up as exemplars of whatever genre under consideration.  In criticism, historiography, and other such disciplines, this can become a rather thorny topic.  As a musicologist in training, one learns the “Western Art Music” canon (you know, those dead Germanic guys: Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, Bach, Brahms, etc), but at the same time, scholars are now attacking that very idea not only because of its very limited scope, but also because of the very way in which it was created.  (If you wish to know more, I would direct you to the recent articles by University of Oklahoma musicologist Dr. Sanna Pederson.) 

So all this brings me to a crisis of sorts in my own study of film music.  Since deciding a few years ago to make film music my primary area of study, I have been doing my best to acquaint, and in some cases reacquaint, myself with those scores and composers that most people talk about: Korngold, Steiner, Herrmann, Rozsa, Goldsmith, along with the more contemporary practitioners (Williams, Elfman, Zimmer, etc).  But no matter how much I hear or read, I still feel like there is so much out there that I have yet to hear.  I know I have a dearth of Hermann in my ear largely because my school’s library doesn’t have much of his music (mainly one compilation disc of his work with Hitchcock and the North By Northwest score), but even beyond Herrmann, I still feel like there is so much that I don’t know. 

Which brings me to the question in the title of this post: Is there a Film Music ‘Canon?’  My instincts say yes and no.  On the one hand, we humans have the insatiable urge to catalog and categorize things; put them into neat little boxes.  Witness the overabundance of lists not only by the AFI but just about every major trade publication and magazines.  But by doing so, what do we gain?  We know not everyone is going to agree:  sure Mozart was a genius, but was he that great?  (Personally, I say yes, but that’s another blog entirely, we’re here to talk about film music.)  The obvious gain is that it does help one to have a place to begin when trying to get into a new genre of music, art, film, etc, but it also has the adverse cultural effect of giving message board trollers something to rant about and rail against – which is maybe my biggest fear: either leaving something out or going for the obvious choice. 

So, now that I’ve given you an entirely too long introduction, here is my response to the question of:  If you were on a desert island, and magically had power and a stereo system but could only have 5 film scores with you, what would they be?  Not a ‘best’ list, but rather a personal one.  Yes, I took the easy way out.

 1) The Empire Strikes Back – John Williams:  Obvious, yes, but I couldn’t survive long on a desert island without my “Imperial March.”

2) Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan – James Horner: My love for this has been stated elsewhere in this blog, ‘nuff said.

3) The Hunt for Red October – Basil Poledouris:  Not only was Poledouris born in my home town of Kansas City, Missouri (like famed director Robert Altman), this score is one of my long time favorites…if only for the opening title with its Russian chorus.  But the rest of it is also pretty good.  More a sentimental pick, I would still like to have it with more on this remote atoll.

4) North By Northwest – Bernard Herrmann:  One of the few Herrmann scores I know well, and a favorite.  The off kilter meter is great and fits the film so well.

5) The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly – Ennio Morricone:  Morricone’s scores for Leone are so iconic and well known that his scoring for the Old West has passed into cliché.  But that doesn’t make it any less amazing.  Besides, when I start having imaginary gunfights on my Desert Island (either out of boredom, insanity, or both), I could hardly imagine a better soundtrack.

 So what if magically I had five more CDs on the island?  Or maybe instead of taking my top 5 symphonies I grabbed five more scores and stuck them into my magical duffle bag that also survived the calamity that washed me ashore this remote Desert Isle, those would be:

 6) Star Trek: The Motion Picture – Jerry Goldsmith:  Goldsmith perfectly scored the first Trek film, and it still bugs me to no end that Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory dissed it.  Yes, I know that it’s “just a TV show,” but a show so steeped in nerd culture should know better.

7) Battlestar Galactica Season 1 – Bear McCreary:  The Season 4 album has more music and overall was his best season on the show, but so many of my favorite cues are on the Season 1 album that that’s the one I’d grab.

8 ) There Will Be Blood – Jonny Greenwood:  It might be a little early for me to put this on the list considering I just heard it for the first time a week ago…but what a week it has been.  I hope to write a post on this one sometime in the near future.  I know that there are those who hated this score, but I found it amazing upon my first listening, and even more so once I saw the film.

9) Dodes’kaden – Toru Takemitsu: Not Kurosawa’s best film, and probably not Takemitsu’s best score, but there is just something about the main theme that I love so much: a joy, a simplicity…but also a melancholy.  It also sounds like it could light right into the song “MacArthur Park” which could be a bad thing to some people.

10) Lost Season 1 – Michael Giacchino:  Hey, I’m stuck on a Desert Island, you didn’t actually expect me to leave this off, did you?

 Well that’s it for now.  Disagree?  Of course you will, instead it’s…inevitable.   So I want to hear from you.  What would you choose?  And what would you include in a so-called ‘canon?’

2 thoughts on “FSFT5: Desert Island Discs aka Is There A Film Music Canon?

  1. Hi there,

    Just discovered this site! Great work and I’m looking forward to reading many of the articles….
    I really like your choices of desert island cd’s and certainly agree with many. Just as little parry, here are my top 5:
    1. Empire strikes back. Not so much the imperial march but for the music that supports the action, like the chase in the astroid belt (it’s almost Prokofiev’s Ivan the Terrible) or the Hoth battle scene. The scoring is absolutely brilliant. Apropos Prokofiev, I think Williams owes a lot to this brilliant Russian composer. But he always seems to want to hide it a bit. One of my favourite scenes that Williams scored was in The temple of Doom.. The palace ‘love/argument’ scene between Harrison and Capshaw. It could almost be in Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet)
    2. Fahrenheit 451, by Bernard Hermann. Together with Bartok’s ‘Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, perhaps the most interesting combination of these instrument groups. It would make a great programme for a concert!
    3. Vertigo…well just because it’s there ;-). I love north by northwest, but I think the music only works in combination with the movie. The movie in itself is almost symphonic in form and I believe this movie to be the best integration of movie and music. Take away the movie and it detects from the music. But the music of Vertigo seems to stand by itself (at least for me it does).
    4. Sneakers by James Horner. I am not a Horner fan, although Star Trek WoK has some brilliant moments. But to me he always sounds a bit derivative. But Sneakers is his Zenith and I am always hoping to hear something fresh like that from him again. It is some ways it is so American and yet there are strong influences of Pärt and Gorecki (e.g. the scene Cosmo… old friend). Great stuff. If I ever write a film score I would like to write something as intimate as this…
    5. Ben Hur. Just for the music of the scene when Judah meets Esther. What I find so amazing is that the theme consists of only very simple musical elements: there is a constant gregorian ‘Amen coda’ in the music combined with perfect intervals: the initial fourth, followed by a fifth and then using the brief springboard to the sixth, to the final sublime octave jump. And yet, as simple as the music in it’s parts is, it scoring is so lush and evocative….

    Som those are my top 5. I know I forgot many, many composers. Tiomkin, Korngold (the Sea Hawk, WOW!), Alfred Newman (hell, all the Newman family!), Alex North and many other scores by Williams….

    Looking forward to reading up on your site.
    Cheers form Holland,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.