Sunday, October 20, 2019

How the West Was Scored

By Christopher Robinson

Since 1928, sound has arguably become half of the motion picture experience. One could argue further that the better half of that part was… and still is- music. With a role so inextricably crucial, some might wonder why music is so often underused and mishandled. In any case, western films brought adventurous possibilities to the fore when adult filmgoers flocked to the big screen in the latter half of the 20th Century.

Early oaters or ‘B’-westerns were actually utilitarian products that flourished during the dawn of sound as location productions logistically shot without microphones, recording dialogue and sound effects later. With larger budgets, color cinematography, high-profile stars and improved storytelling came a need for exceptional soundtracks to compliment all the Wild West action. It was then that the western claimed its own irrevocable sound which can’t necessarily be pigeonholed into a particular formula but still harnesses the spirit of the genre in an a few instantaneous notes.

Early western talkies used generic suspense themes as emotional cues for audiences, often breaking the action and story altogether for an occasional dancehall number by a dolled-up starlet or country-western song courtesy of radio and stage stars like Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys and the Sons of the Pioneers.

These diversions proved popular enough to create cowboy stars out of crooners like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. Soon their stardom skyrocketed and some of their musical westerns became more “musical” than “western.” But Hollywood was getting serious about its oaters and traded the yodeling superheroes for complex, flawed “anti-heroes” in darker, melodramatic psychological tales with love triangles and thought-provoking symbolism and metaphors. In this ever-maturing realm, Gene and Roy would no longer be sufficient, nor would their yodeling.

Bold, sweeping orchestral movements with strings, brass and percussion were now married to the unmistakable American images that graced cinema and drive-in screens across the land. The western was thereby improved upon and reputable composers like Elmer Bernstein, Dimitri Tiomkin, Jerome Moross and Jerry Goldsmith were in constant demand to turn out hummable scores with sounds that brought gusto and bravado by the wagonload. As memorable as movies like The Magnificent Seven, The Sons of Katie Elder, High Noon, Bandolero! and Dances With Wolves may be, their scores are equally iconic and sometimes more so.

Elmer Bernstein incorporated classical music movements into his score for The Magnificent Seven, creating a crossover breed of the classical and popular that drives the film’s themes and action with exhilarating results.

Even more ambitious was the music that graced the westerns produced in Europe from the mid-1960s to the early seventies. Maestros like Ennio Morricone and Bruno Nicolai set opulent compositions to the gritty and sensationalized send-ups of the American westerns they loved. Morricone, possibly the greatest film composer of all time and quite arguably the most prolific, had known director Sergio Leone from their grammar school days in Rome. That friendship led to several collaborations and gave Leone an immeasurable creative edge. Morricone has been quoted as saying, “Leone wanted more from music than other directors. He always gave it more space.”

The partnership placed an undeniable stamp on Leone’s stylish work which, though forever iconic in its own right, couldn’t have reached such heights without the accompanying masterpiece scores. His spaghetti compositions were as diverse as the west itself, utilizing everything from Mexican horns and unintelligible noises to choirs, chanting and fuzzy electric guitars. Alessandro Alessandroni’s(I always loved that name) guitar and whistling contributions and the angelic vocalizing of Edda Dell’ Orso were equally integral components of this output.

An inevitable retreat to realism and understatement in western cinema, stateside and abroad, toned down the wild and operatic soundtracks as the seventies closed but an indelible impression of the music’s heyday has remained, never growing dated or lackluster. Remnants of the recognizable musical signatures and motifs continue to compliment modern takes on the Wild West, cementing their legacy.

Perhaps the rolling plains, rocky deserts and rustic woodsy cow towns are the perfect canvas for a great composer’s paintbrush in an entertainment industry with unlimited creative possibilities. Where other genres continually redefine their music, we always know precisely what the western sounds like and its lasting musical lexicon is intrinsic to its visuals of drama, conflict and scenic beauty. Indeed, a feast for the eyes-make that, the ears.

Editor's Note: WMD writers work hard to provide informative, real-life stories for your reading. If you do social media, please visit us on Twitter and Facebook. Please LIKE or follow our social channels. --Al Colombo

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