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 Posted:   Sep 30, 2023 - 9:59 AM   
 By:   Night   (Member)

I just came across this, from his 60th birthday celebration a decade ago. I thought it would be interesting to share his choices because I found it to be interesting myself.

As part of our 60th birthday celebration(s), and in tandem with a series spotlighting movies he has scored, we eagerly offer a John Zorn-curated selection of films with exemplary soundtracks that he considers to be among the towering examples of this under-appreciated art form. Celebrating the work of a gifted group of composers, some of whom have achieved acclaim (especially Bernard Herrmann, Ennio Morricone, and Henry Mancini), and others who are perhaps more obscure (Hans J. Salter, Perry Botkin, Jerry Fielding), Zorn’s selection demonstrates the sonorous spectrum of possibilities explored by these artists, and provides a fresh opportunity to consider these films from a very particular perspective, through the prism of their brilliant scores.

“This series was suggested by my dear friends at Anthology as a part of my 60th birthday celebration – a short selection of films that feature some of my favorite soundtracks. Following their guidance of choosing some known films, some unknown, some cult hits, some total obscurities, the selection is personal not definitive, and perhaps will act as a point of departure and inspire further exploration on your part. Some scores blend into the background, some jump out, and some are way better than the films they accompany – but all are fine examples of the many possibilities in what sadly has become a more and more conservative world, almost a dying art.” – John Zorn

Here below are the films with some his favorite scores that he selected at this event, in chronological order with his own comments on each score and film:

Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (Hans J. Salter, 1943)

Hans J. Salter worked in the Universal music department for 30 years, often with Frank Skinner and Charles Previn. In 1942 alone, Salter worked as composer and/or music director on no less than 44 film soundtracks – almost one film a WEEK – and although the music used was often a combination of cues composed by each of them and derived from the Universal stock department, it is evocative, beautifully orchestrated, and quite remarkable. The music in FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN is brilliantly placed, and will be quite familiar to fans of the Universal Horror films and the Sherlock Holmes series from the 1940s. It is amazing how many different films and scenes have been illuminated by these cues – they have been used and reused for dozens of films. The eerie moods have attained iconic status, often under the direction of the underrated but brilliant auteur Roy William Neill, whose use of light, shadows, music, and sound effects sustains a mood as perfectly as anyone. FYI, Lugosi’s dialogue was completely removed from the final cut as they decided it wasn’t appropriate for the Monster to have a Hungarian accent!

Touch of Evil (Henry Mancini, 1958)

Although Welles’s original cut featured only sound effects for the famous opening tracking shot, the Mancini music is fabulous and contains the DNA of the music he was to make for the next 10 years – from PETER GUNN and MR. LUCKY to the PINK PANTHER series and beyond. Concentrating on Afro Cuban Jazz, his killer LA band includes Henry Mancini regulars Pete Candoli, Barney Kessel, Jack Costanzo, and of course the distinctive tenor soloist Plas Johnson. In accordance with Welles’s direction, there is no background scoring here – the music takes the form of ‘source music’ – coming from juke boxes, radios, and Marlene Dietrich’s player piano. A fascinating 1958 score by one of the most beloved soundtrack composers in the world.

Vertigo (Bernard Herrmann, 1958)

It’s almost impossible to choose one score from Bernard Herrmann. NORTH BY NORTHWEST, CAPE FEAR, SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, PSYCHO, and MYSTERIOUS ISLAND are just a few of my favorites – but VERTIGO is really a masterwork. Drawing heavily on Wagnerian harmonies it captures the mood of obsessive love better than any other film – a close second may be John Barry’s score to BODY HEAT.

Murder by Contract (Perry Botkin, 1958)

Here we have another pared-down score with a basic theme that really gets under your skin. Morricone once told me that a film only needs one or two good themes to tie everything together – and here Perry Botkin delivered a doozy! A guitarist who played with Bix Beiderbecke, he later worked for decades in radio as music director for the likes of Eddie Cantor, Al Jolson, and Bing Crosby. This was his first job scoring a film (one of two!) and his shining hour. From here he moved to TV where he scored THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES. The instrumental title track for MURDER BY CONTRACT became somewhat of a hit in Japan in the early 60s where lyrics were added and it was called the “Murderer’s Theme”.

Pale Flower (Toru Takemitsu, 1964)

The self-taught maverick Toru Takemitsu collaborated with Yuji Takahashi on this score and the results include one of the most amazing main title themes ever written. The use of electric slide guitar and percussion in tandem with stochastic brass writing similar to Xenakis is as fresh now as it was 50 years ago! Masterful music by two master musicians – both mavericks, legends, and heroes to generations of outsiders.

The Ipcress File (John Barry, 1965)

One of the most infectious and evocative themes ever written, IPCRESS FILE is a score I’ve listened to thousands of times. It’s a great late night mood setter, perfect for winding down and drifting off to sleep. This and Goldsmith’s CHINATOWN are constantly with me on the road – and are my soundtrack to the end of a hard day. They are like coming home. The use of the cymbalom is brilliant. Simple, but remarkably deep and profound. A beautiful and understated alternative to the dynamic bombast of the Bond films, which I also love.

Pierrot le Fou (Antoine Duhamel, 1965)

Godard continues to be the ONLY director whose drop-the-needle strategies work for me – he alone commands a supreme knowledge of how previously existing music can be used in an overall sonic design, and his HISTOIRE(S) DU CINÉMA is perhaps the highest level of this technique, reducing Hollywood’s attempts at the same approach to nostalgia, advertising, and cartoon silliness. But here in his early years he trusted the brilliant Georges Delerue to do his thing and the results are magnificent. This and SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER are fabulous examples of 1960s French scoring – heavy on strings, lyricism, and moodiness. PIERROT holds a special place in my heart – I am really a Romantic, not a Postmodern – and this film’s music never ceases to reduce me to tears.

Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (Ennio Morricone, 1970)

Morricone has written so many dynamic and brilliant scores in his huge career (often for Leone) but few have had as original and striking an orchestration as this one. The jew’s harp takes a major role here, adding, as so often is the case with Ennio’s scores, a feeling of irony and commentary on the sardonic vibe and black humor of the story. After recording THE BIG GUNDOWN, my Morricone tribute album, Walter Hill called me in to score one of his Hollywood films. What he wanted was IRONY – which he asked for a bit too often in the form of Cyro Baptista’s cuica ‘laughing’ at the onscreen action. I couldn’t do it then and I can’t do it now. I have no idea why people think they hear ‘irony’ or ‘sarcasm’ in my work. There is NONE and never has been. My score was junked and saved me from being offered further work in the Hollywood dream.

The Mechanic (Jerry Fielding, 1972)

Jerry Fielding was a man of integrity who suffered greatly in the glad-handing, backstabbing world of Hollywood – he was a cat who didn’t take any shit and fought for what he believed in. Temporarily derailed by McCarthyism for not naming names (particularly his employer at the time, Groucho Marx) he moved to Vegas where he worked with Abbott & Costello and Eddie Fischer. A student of Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco along with Jerry Goldsmith and John Williams, he brought some serious experimentalism to films in the 60s with his intelligent and colorful scores – often more intelligent than the films he scored. The music to THE MECHANIC is a personal favorite – as revolutionary in its way as Goldsmith’s PLANET OF THE APES. The cues are beautifully worked out and take the film to a whole new level. Sadly this kind of thing is impossible in today’s conservative and money-driven marketplace.

The Conversation (David Shire, 1974)

Along with MURDER BY CONTRACT, THE THIRD MAN, and a very few others, THE CONVERSATION is a perfect example of restraint, modesty, and intimacy in film scoring – the entire film scored by a single instrument! With an incredible economy of means Shire provides tension, release, excitement, and melancholy to this masterful tale of Harry Caul, the surveillance expert. Originally scored for a small jazz ensemble, Coppola wisely decided to use the solo piano score instead throughout the entire picture. The music was composed first and played to the actors before shooting to get them into the mood. A modern classic.

Chinatown (Jerry Goldsmith, 1974)

Jerry Goldsmith is another one of those composers who has done so many incredible scores that it is difficult to choose only one. Some of my faves include PLANET OF THE APES, LIST OF ADRIAN MESSENGER, OUR MAN FLINT, LONELY ARE THE BRAVE, and PATTON – but CHINATOWN is truly a masterpiece. Called in at the last minute to replace a turgid and stiff score by Philip Lambro, Goldsmith spotted, composed, and recorded the entire score in just 10 days. Drawing slightly on his own score for THE DETECTIVE from 1968, with a trumpet playing the main theme, the unusual and moody orchestration features 4 harps, 4 pianos, percussion, solo trumpet, and strings, and apparently came to him in a dream. Pure Magic.

 
 
 Posted:   Sep 30, 2023 - 10:08 AM   
 By:   Thor   (Member)

Cool, interesting read (although it appears Zorn confused Delerue with Duhamel for PIERROT LE FOU).

John Zorn was a named I first encountered in the 90s. I intended to explore him at the time, but never did. I remember reading that he was very much into Carl Stalling (who is curiously absent from the list). Should probably make amends and explore his work now.

 
 
 Posted:   Sep 30, 2023 - 10:15 AM   
 By:   Night   (Member)

Oh, I missed to include a few of the most obscure ones. He actually included one Stalling score too and two other more lesser-known films. Although I can't remember the titles of the three works I omitted that he selected (I decided to only include his feature film choices). You can probably find them if you are curious and search for it online. One of them was a Harry Partch documentary I think and the last one an avant-garde film.

 
 
 Posted:   Sep 30, 2023 - 1:21 PM   
 By:   Tobias   (Member)

John Zorn? Was he the guy who wrote the unused score to Walter Hill`s Trespass? If so that`s pretty much what I know about him.

 
 
 Posted:   Sep 30, 2023 - 1:27 PM   
 By:   Night   (Member)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Zorn

 
 
 Posted:   Sep 30, 2023 - 6:14 PM   
 By:   Rozsaphile   (Member)

I heard him claim in a radio interview that seeing BEN-HUR multiple times at an early age was a decisive influence on his life. That surprised me greatly. He didn't mention the music or the composer, so I surmise that something else struck his fancy. I think it was a "Fresh Air" interview with Terry Gross.

 
 
 Posted:   Sep 30, 2023 - 6:48 PM   
 By:   villagardens553   (Member)

I just happened to be in New York City in the late 80s when Zorn and his electrifying group Naked City were in residence at The Knitting Factory in Greenwich Village. Bill Frisell on guitar, Joey Baron on drums, Wayne Horvitz on keyboards, and Zorn on alto sax. A dazzling mix of avant-garde jazz, rockabilly, thrash, and 60s film themes--it was a treat! One of my most memorable concerts. Zorn introduced the Bond theme by saying "This is by the great John Barry!" He also did A Shot in the Dark, Chinatown, Contempt, The Sicilian Clan. I would have loved to hear that band play The Ipcress File.

 
 Posted:   Sep 30, 2023 - 6:48 PM   
 By:   ibelin   (Member)

I heard him claim in a radio interview that seeing BEN-HUR multiple times at an early age was a decisive influence on his life. That surprised me greatly. He didn't mention the music or the composer, so I surmise that something else struck his fancy. I think it was a "Fresh Air" interview with Terry Gross.

When people bring up 'Ben-Hur', usually they have in mind the chariot race scene, which is indeed one of the greatest scenes in cinematic history. So perhaps he had that in mind? Or maybe he had in mind the overall experience of watching the film. The magnificent opening titles and everything else make the film feel like a real experience.

 
 Posted:   Sep 30, 2023 - 7:41 PM   
 By:   nuts_score   (Member)

What a great find, and read! I got quite into Zorn's music in my later teens as I got more into underground and experimental jazz music. He's got some wicked words in discussing these personal favorites of his. I do love the love given to Toru Takemitsu.

 
 
 Posted:   Oct 1, 2023 - 5:55 AM   
 By:   JasonComerford   (Member)

Huge fan of Zorn! I once saw Marc Ribot perform at Zorn's performance space in NYC, The Stone -- teeny tiny place but it was an amazing experience.

Zorn's one of those compulsive creators, so his discography is ridiculous, but for the uninitiated, I'd recommend his album of Morricone covers, "The Big Gundown." Zorn has written in so many different styles and idioms that there's truly something for everyone -- his 7th Filmworks release, "Cynical Hysterie Hour," for example, is his take on Japanese cartoon music, and it's WILD. But then he's also done very mellow, chill surf music ("The Gift"), intense avant-garde metal (any of the Painkiller or Naked City albums, for example), chamber music ("The String Quartets" is excellent), and on and on.

Zorn is truly a universe unto himself, and there's so much to discover!

 
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