Maybe you’re old school, and love the swelling, bombastic scores of Max Steiner and Wolfgang Maria Korngold – or perhaps you’re a rocker and have King Creole or The Girl Can’t Help It constantly on your turntable. Maybe you love the swinging sixties spy vibe, and have John Barry, Lalo Schifrin, and Hugo Montenegro loaded into you iPod. Ennio Morricone, Piero Piccioni, Bruno Nicolai, and Mario Nascimbene have legions of fans with their sophisticated Euro sounds – are you one of them? Does John Williams theme from Jaws still send shivers up your spine?
With a bit of help from a few friends, over the next week or so, I am going to be looking at movie soundtracks – from spy films and beyond. I am going to drag out some of that old vinyl and shine a light on a few of my favourites – and hopefully serve up a few aural gems that you’ve never heard before.
Today I am joined by, Jason Whiton from the sixties spy style website, Spy Vibe, who shares his five favourite soundtracks below.
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1. The 10th Victim
There must be some things that one falls in love with because of the timing or the context. I saw this film when I was a little kid, and it immediately became a template for me that defined a kind of height in futuristic, erotic, spy-vibe. The sound of the organ, the women and their orgasmic vocalizations, it was just immensely thrilling to me. It wasn’t until Crippled Dick Hotwax put out their compilations of Italian soundtracks that I realized that the 10th Victim was part of a larger scene. And although I enjoyed hearing more music in that style, I always stayed true to this score. I love the main phrases. I love its avant-garde quality at times. And it captures the aesthetic of the film. I was grateful that I got to contribute to the Blu-ray edition!
2. Planet of the Apes
Goldsmith made some genius decisions to use the primal nature of percussion to define the sound of this score. Again, it has an avant-garde quality that I like a lot. It reminds me of Kontakte by Stockhausen. And the pacing of the sounds, I think, echo beautifully the emotional journey of the story. After loving this for years, I have finally started to explore Dame Evelyn Glennie, a contemporary classical percussionist, who is experimental (and deaf!). Check out her amazing documentary with Fred Frith called Touch the Sound.
3. On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
By far the best Bond score, in my opinion. Just the theme alone encapsulates the emotions of the story. You have a main theme, representing Bond, that is constantly trying to push forward. And in a call and response structure, you have a variety of phrases and instruments that are constantly challenging him, pushing him to the breaking point. There is even a wonderful use of brass in moments that paint the character with a dash of traditional honor and duty. Listen to the theme again and you will see what I’m talking about. In addition, there are cool electronic sounds introduced in the score, which give it a non-cartoony futuristic vibe.
4. Tohru Takemistu
I’m a huge fan of this Japanese composer. He scored things like Rising Sun and the new wave films by Oshima and Teshigahara. Takemitsu is known for his use of negative space and traditional instruments, and also experimenting with unusual sounds. His scores are often quite haunting and surprising, which is why I like them. Nothing cliche going on there! Also, the minimalistic nature supports the Japanese film within its own tradition of aesthetic principles. Having lived there for many years, it rings truer to me than almost any other style.
5. In Like Flint/Our Man Flint
Although there are many fun spy soundtracks I like, not to mention John Williams and Star Wars, I find myself most often listening to this score. I think that it is for no other reason that I find the main phrase soothing and interesting, and I enjoy how they find so many ways to repeat it throughout. Maybe for that reason, it starts to play like one long piece with separate movements. And like OHMSS, there are fun examples of early electronic sounds. If I was to choose on the concept alone, I would also have to mention the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (Doctor Who) as a fascinating time capsule into experimental music made for mainstream narrative work.
It’s hard to leave some out.
Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence
The soundtrack that defined my twenties. A brilliant score by Ryuichi Sakamoto (YMO), which was also recorded as a single with vocalist David Sylvian (Japan). I discovered this score when I was twenty and probably played it constantly for almost ten years. The main hook is just incredible, and the score progresses with a contrast of two themes to mirror the two pairs in the story. Sakamoto also recorded a rare piano-solo version, which is worth tracking down.
Jason Whiton is the creator of Spy Vibe. Jason composes the soundtracks to his short films, which have been awarded and recognized by Sundance, Park City Film Music Festival, and other major festivals and museums. A life-long musician, Jason recently composed a contest-winning song re-mix for the artist, Yoko Ono. More info at www.jasonwhiton.com.