Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Pillar to Post

I had this bee in my bonnet--well, "G in my gullet" might be more to the point--thinking about John Steinbeck's novels on film, specifically The Red Pony in its televised version from the Seventies (starring Henry Fonda and Maureen O'Hara), with a near-mythic film score by much-lauded composer Jerry Goldsmith, which has never been (legally) issued on LP or CD. That brought to mind Of Mice and Men, the version televised in the Nineties with John Malkovich and Gary Sinise and a wonderful Americana score composed by sometime Jazz trumpeter Mark Isham. (I actually met Mark back in 1983 or so when his earliest film soundtracks were being released on Windham Hill Records, but that's not part of this scrambled tale.)

Both Steinbeck novels when first filmed had famous landmark scores composed by Aaron Copland during his populist music period, stretching from the Billy the Kid and Appalachian Spring and Rodeo ballets, to his great Lincoln Portrait (one Copland recording has actor Fonda dryly perfect as the narrator), and beautiful opera The Tender Land, and late-Forties film scores, the period when Copland pretty much invented the sound of America in Classical music along with its extension into the movies.

I was thinking that an essay comparing the early and later scores might be entertaining, and also indicative of how well-served Steinbeck has been by the many excellent soundtracks--quietly masterful Alfred Newman for Grapes of Wrath, then Copland's two, followed in the Fifties by Alex North's Mexican-modernist music for Viva Zapata and Leonard Rosenman's somewhat-atonal, psyche-in-sound score for East of Eden, and later the piano work of Doctor John enlivening Cannery Row, plus the remakes drawing on Goldsmith and Isham. And didn't Duke Ellington write an orchestral suite based on Sweet Thursday for the Monterey Jazz Festival? Major composers and musicians all.

But that's where this vague plan has stalled, as I await (no breath held) the long-desired, long-overdue official issue of Goldsmith's music for The Red Pony. Even a release of the film on DVD would be most welcome. I mean, come on... Henry Fonda? A masterwork by score giant Jerry? Talk about a no-brainer. Why is that telefilm not available? And the collector labels Varese Sarabande or Intrada could easily create a fantastic 2CD set offering the complete scores from both versions, Aaron's and Jerry's "Ponies" running neck and neck, head to head. (It's actually been 25 years since VS issued the one and only Copland/Red Pony soundtrack--as opposed to the well-known suite he made from it.) Could it be... this year, Jerry's album?

In the meantime that round-up is a good idea that's going no further. Just like my long-promised and long-delayed Part 3 discussion of tenor saxman Bill Perkins. And an essay on Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Weill, and Lotte Lenya as I conceive them. And pieces on Tom Selleck on screens big and small, and the funny, sexy TV series Bones, and reviews of live albums by Art Pepper and John Coltrane, and a look at the amazing stream of Jazz compilations and reissues coming out of Spain (thanks to looser copyright laws), and then... well, who knows?

Will any of the aforementioned ideas come to fruition? I guess you'll have to check back from time to time to see where the posts take me--and you too, maybe.

Further deponent sayeth not.


Steve Provizer said...

Steinbeck has a pretty unique place in US lit. and his stuff provides good raw material for filmmakers. Although I've seen a lot of it, I have no memory of scores at all-except some Copland. This, I think, is actually a positive comment, as scores are kind of like parenting-you can screw a kid/movie up, but you can't really take credit if it's a success.

I Witness said...

Yes, the "best" scores do often fade ito the action/drama/landscape, but serious soundtrack collectors have ears as big as Jazz fans, hearing the themes and special cues, the stingers and changing melodies, especially when the composer is a favorite, or the film draws happy watchers back for a second or third screening. And DVDs are a boon too, often allowing one to isolate the score.

But most of the modernist greats are gone or fading--Bernard Herrmann, Elmer Bernstein, Alex North, Jerry Goldsmith, John Williams. The young turks now are big on percussion effects, or rock guitars, or trance, or avant garde Jazz, or world music instruments (mbira, oud, didjeridoo, and such). Sweeping orchestral scores are mostly a thing of the past. The films roll on.

I Witness said...

Oops. I meant to include Ennio Morricone in that master list. And of course there are excellent second tier composers gradually proving their worth, but Ennio's several hundred film scores sort of guide the way from yesterday to today.

Art of Peace Collective said...

So many plans! Ye, snow that St. Ate well. Mama Levertov lovingly described it as a life opening, fearful, fearless,
thousand-eyed, a field
of sparks that move swiftly
in darkness
Hope to witness so me of yaw wit in a swoon. Good blooming luck to ya - or as the wierd very fictation has it: no "devation" from the righteous path!

I Witness said...

Thanks... I think.