What Sound Looks Like

An ongoing series cross-posted from instagram.com/dsqt

Picked up three LPs yesterday at a used-music shop, two scores and a compilation. One of the scores is John Williams’ Earthquake, which I’ve been interested in since collaborating with Geoff Manaugh on a fault-sonification project several years ago. The big takeaway from the LP, released in 1974, is that much of what could be mistaken for score in the film is, in fact, the sound design of the communications, infrastructure, and emergency services activity. The recording closes with almost three minutes of “actual sound effects,” per the bright pink sticker on the LP cover. I’ve never heard the Earthquake music on its own, separate from the film, before.

The second is Two Film Scores for Piano (1976), both by Harvey Schmidt, composer of the 1960 musical The Fantasticks. One is from A Texas Romance, 1909 (from 1964), written and directed by Fantasticks lyricist Tom Jones, and the other is from Bad Company (from 1972), a more straight-ahead drama directed by Robert Benton and starring Jeff Bridges. I don’t know of many movies that have only piano for the score. The main one I can think of is The Firm, with music by Dave Grusin, which I sometimes discuss in the class I teach on sound. There’s also David Shire’s The Conversation, another subject in class, though that one employs some sonic effects to extend the music’s psychological telegraphing. I’m interested in how the solo piano works in film, since film music historically has been a fairly grand affair; it took Hollywood a lot longer to lose the orchestra than it did the sense of film being merely a document of theater. And there’s the connection to silent film scores. Solo piano is also timely, due to HBO’s much-discussed Westworld.

The third album is a Windham Hill compilation from 1987, Soul of the Machine, one in a series of themed collections the new-age label was releasing at the time. It was preceded by a piano set and succeeded by a guitar album. Beyond its utility as a period document, I was most interested in a piece by Gary Chang, who composed one of my favorite film scores, A Shock to the System, directed by Jan Egleson, which combined electronics with the Turtle Island String Quartet.

An ongoing series cross-posted from instagram.com/dsqt.

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