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Discovering Alex North

by Jason Comerford

When I was a little kid (maybe 11 or 12), I stayed at my aunt's house for a week during the summer. My aunt and uncle firmly believed in the power of videocassettes; so every other day, when not swimming or running around and causing general mischief, I parked in front of the TV and watched a movie. One such video turned out to be Spartacus. Until that point my exposure to film music had been limited to a lot of John Williams and a smidgen of Danny Elfman. Old-fashioned film scores hitherto had little, if any, impact on me.

Spartacus was something different, even to my untrained and inexperienced young ears. What struck me was the deft balance of the ferocity of the war material and the lushness of the love passages; as I listened to North more as I got older I recognized that particular balance was a good example of the Alex North style.

The score, as I came to realize, was not so much old-fashioned as it was new-fashioned. It was contemporary music wrapped in the pretenses of old-style composing. This, indeed, is the brilliance of North; that of taking conventionalities and revitalizing them with great finesse. Any old composer could have scored Spartacus with a lot of war drums and swoony string passages, but not with the brilliant modernism that North brought to the medium of film music composition.

John Lasher's notes for the limited release of Dragonslayer tell us this much about Alex North: that he started out, as all the best do, inauspiciously. Born of Russian-descent parents in Chester, Pennsylvania, in 1910, he bounced from various jobs in the music industry until a gig writing "Psycho-Dramas" for the military during the second World War led to a commission to compose a concert revue with Benny Goodman and the City Symphony Orchestra. From there, North began writing first concert pieces, then incidental music for plays. Director Elia Kazan was so impressed with North's command of the medium that he invited North to score the film version of A Streetcar Named Desire, in 1951.

A Streetcar Named Desire turned out to be a watershed in both North's career and film music composition. In many ways a forebear to the "rebel scores" of the late sixties through the early eighties, Desire's sound structure was based less upon bombast and more upon the concentration of music on the doomed characters of Tennessee Williams' play itself. North decided to use a jazz sound on Desire that both reflected the film's environment and the characters' personalities and flaws. The brilliance of the composition lies in the understated emotions that run through the music; North, like Bernard Herrmann, used the music both as accompaniment and comment.

The music for Desire (the original score is available on a Capitol CD; a rerecording conducted by North's close friend Jerry Goldsmith is available from Varese Sarabande) pulses with energy, both physical and emotional. The opening, "Streetcar," exemplifies the film's undercurrent of perilous dynamism, with pulsing, driving sections for drums, trumpet, and strings. It has struck me how well-conceived the music's dramatic arc is, with the music's tone gradually changing from light to dark, as Blanche DuBois' sanity and defenses wither underneath Stanley Kowalski's unrelenting animalism. North's incorporation of the story into the music is the score's chief asset: the polka theme that represents Blanche's haunted past is a leitmotif that North originally incorporated into the stage production, based on Williams' original conception in the written play. The polka motif was one of the first instances where a composer looked beyond the story's superficialities, and when you hear it today, the original is still the best.

North's career took off from there. After Desire, he became an in-demand composer whose dramatic sensibilities extended towards the most minute details. Besides Spartacus, his score to John Ford's 1964 Western Cheyenne Autumn was another case of a genre given a completely fresh musical outlook. Available on a beautiful-sounding Label X compact disc, Cheyenne Autumn contains none of the stock compositional methods that plague many Western scores: no Aaron Copland here. The music is constructed around a quiet, almost melodic main theme, with pounding, dissonant supporting themes giving the main theme a stark contrast. The major contrast of the score is given with the themes representing the film's Native American villains, with snare drums and strident woodwinds providing thematic identity. As with all of North's music, themes aren't fully fleshed-out; North doesn't quite take the Herrmann route and use repeating phrases as opposed to fully-wrought motifs. His themes are low-key but not so low-key as to fade into the background of the film and provide little insight into the drama of the film. The most effective moments of Cheyenne Autumn, indeed, are those moments where light and dark collide, and the film's internalized, psychological aspects are fully realized by the music.

North specialized in such music throughout his career. The now-notorious rejection of his score to Kubrick's 2001 in 1968 was something that plagued his career outlook. Jerry Goldsmith recorded the score in 1991 with the National Philharmonic Orchestra, and while the music that survived only barely covered the first third of the film, it's easy to see that North's approach to science fiction was as innovative as all his other genre attempts. Much of the 2001 score was recycled and utilized in his 1981 score to the fantasy Dragonslayer, one of North's crowning achievements. Unlike other scores in his oeuvre, North's approach to the film was that he had to address the film's lack of a plethora of emotional entanglements. "Except for the relationship between Galen and Valerian," North noted, "everything was impersonal. This allowed me complete freedom to compose set pieces (i.e. scherzo, rondo, et al) such as I might do when composing for the concert hall." North's radical approach to Dragonslayer--scoring it as if it were a concert piece--resulted in one of the finest and most underrated scores of the 1980s, a decade typified by the emergence of strenuous musical overkill. North's understated handling of the subject matter resulted in music that works in tandem with the film's imagery in a manner that's practically unseen today. (How many composers today would score a fight scene--"Tyrian and Galen Fight"--completely without pounding drums and brass? North scores the cue with woodwinds and minimal, understated usage of drums.)

The music of Alex North employs such care and thought that compared to much of today's sensory-assault music, it seems practically nonexistent. But as with the finest things, patience is rewarded. North's music is difficult, and very cerebral, but ultimately very insightful into the films for which they were composed. The genius of Alex North lay not in the understated manner in which he approached the medium, but in the penetrating insight he gave to his music. North remains, for many, a treasure that's yet to be discovered. I was lucky enough to have discovered him when I was 11; how about you?

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