Saturday, June 5, 2010

Brian Easdale, the Ondes Martenot, and The Red Shoes

The problem I have with film music as concert music is that they are for the most part incompatible. The best film music reinforces the action of the movie, sometimes so subtly that the viewer in the movie theater is unaware of the music. This is not to say the music is without value to the film. Take it away, and the experience of the film is diminished.

Pairing the right film, or film maker, to the right composer is almost as delicate a process as the marriage of composer and lyricist, or composer and librettist. Many a great composer has flopped miserably when engaged to score for the big screen. A great example would be Heitor Villa-Lobos. His composer credentials are absolutely in order, but Villa-Lobos never understood the role of music in the movie. Consider the film Green Mansions. Villa-Lobos either didn't understand or didn't care to understand the idea of film music as cues. He wrote in a broad sweep music which he intended to be heard. He simply would not rewrite the music to align with the frames of the movie and when others were brought in to do the hack work Villa-Lobos retreated, sorely disappointed with the experience. He reclaimed his music, restoring it into an extended concert form called Forests of the Amazon, and that is how the music survives today.

On the other hand, many composers work very well with film, understanding fully their music as underscore rather than the star of the movie. Bring this music to the concert hall and it is largely ineffective. Just listen to a soundtrack album to understand what I mean. Outside of the main title or occasional extended chase or love scene, the music is not allowed to say much of value. Take it away from the popcorn and milk duds and the music pales. This is why it is so extraordinary when film music does make the leap to the concert stage. In rare instances it can even make the transition without adaptation or rearrangement. However, the best of the best benefits greatly from adaptation into suites, thus allowing the music to rise and fall, soar and weep, without having to align to the despotic film frame.

Brian Easdale came to music as a "legitimate" composer, studying under Armstrong Gibbs and Gordon Jacob at the Royal College of Music. His earliest music was concert music. However, from the mid-30s onwards he was increasingly involved with film, writing for the GPO Film Unit - a division of the UK Postal Service. This would have been largely documentary film, allowing a much freer hand to the composer. During the years of World War II, Easdale was first assigned to The Royal Artillery, soon to be reposted to the Public Relations Film Unit, India. This is hardly the career path of today's film composers, but somewhat parallels the film period of American composers such as Virgil Thomson and others who worked on projects for the United States Resettlement Administration.

In 1948, Brian Easdale produced his most important film score for the movie The Red Shoes. This somewhat free adaptation of the Hans Christian Anderson story by the same name blossoms into a 17 minute dance section which, of course, allowed the composer to create music more akin to concert music than film music. Easdale did not waste the opportunity; the ballet music is one of the reasons Easdale's score won the Academy Award for Best Original Score, making him the first British composer to win the award. Contemporary accounts of the score describe it as modernist, though the most surprising "modern" moments are provided by Easdale's use of the instrument known as Ondes Martenot (French for Martenot waves - it was invented in 1928 by Maurice Martenot). One of the earliest electronic instruments, the Ondes Martenot looks part mad inventor and part religious icon. The sound can be described as angelic or science fiction and there's little mistaking the sound when it emerges out of the orchestral soundscape.

Brian Easdale had one stipulation regarding his score for The Red Shoes. He asked that Sir Thomas Beecham be allowed to give an opinion on the score before submitting it. Thankfully, Sir Thomas liked the work and in fact volunteered to conduct the recording of the ballet segment. This brings us pretty much full circle in this brief discussion of composing music for film, for Thomas Beecham had little patience for the making of films. For this reason, he insisted the music be recorded first, leaving it to the dancers and the technicians to spot the frames to the music, rather than the other way round. One can almost hear Villa-Lobos complaining he should have had the same opportunity with Green Mansions.

submitted by James Baker

1 comment:

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