The business of re-recording film music — My Adventures in Underscore - part 17
I’ve worked on more than 800 movie soundtrack albums since 1997: 300 for various labels down south in Los Angeles and nearly 500 for Intrada Records up north in Oakland. That includes a handful of composer “promo” discs, symphony recordings, and a few individual artist releases. The majority of my work has been as graphic designer and art director, which includes determining everything from what’s on the cover, how to present the liner notes and photographs, to how small the copyright text appears on the disc face.
The funny thing about all this is, that in every case I was the last guy to hear the music on the album. In the early days, when my assignments were being produced in LA, there wasn’t much opportunity for me to listen along in San Francisco. The albums started as tape transfers of multi-track elements or stems, and worked their way over the course of months into little shiny silver discs. There was no opportunity or need to share that part of the process with “the graphics guy.”
I like to think my situation was the inverse of a composer on a motion picture. They typically have little to do with the visual development of a project, and don't get involved until the film is assembled in the editing room. Only then do they get to do their part. Similarly, I came in late to my projects, and had to design the packaging without ever hearing the audio—although I was free to listen to other works by the same composer in order to catch their vibe and keep the creative juices flowing.
For the first time, I would be treated to a very different experience. I was asked by my good friend Douglass Fake to hear the music for a new release from the beginning. In fact, I would get to hear it from the moment of performance, so that I could describe it for the benefit of fans and supporters who contributed to the project.
I write these words in a chilly conference room in Glasgow. Our taxi had dropped us off at our hotel cater corner from the Royal Scottish Concert Hall the night before. Doug and his conductor William T. Stromberg are seated at a table in the middle of an otherwise empty hotel ballroom. They are framed by gold chandeliers and chintz curtains, a touch of glamour appropriate for the Golden Age of Hollywood. They are reviewing large sheets of orchestral scores, while a DVD plays on a laptop, to confirm that they have the correct tempo and emphasis for every bar of music. Because they will be recording this music with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra tomorrow morning.
Bill Stromberg is a barrel-chested, jovial dynamo, who never seems to have met a sheet of soundtrack music that he didn’t like. Or at least, that he didn’t find worthy of closer inspection. A lifelong fan of film music, he’s worked as a composer, arranger and music historian his entire career. He’s probably best known, along with his partner John Morgan, for 80 albums of classic film music reconstructions from House of Frankenstein to The Charge of the Light Brigade, culminating with his own label, Tribute, which completed over a half-dozen unparalleled albums before closing up shop (re-recordings are an expensive, risky proposition.)
As he cues up the main titles, Bill hums and bounces along in his seat, hands darting right and left in time with the beat. He’s a fascinating contrast to his producer, a more reserved and studious fellow who silently runs his finger along the printed score and stares with the conviction of a scholarly monk. Until the crescendo—when his arm stiffens and raps the page. “Did you hear that?! Listen how balanced they are!” Bill responds “We’ll have that. I’ll make sure!” The two men exchange a glance and make notes in the margins.
For nearly all of the hundreds of soundtrack albums that Doug has released, most have survived either in the vaults of movie studios or in the personal archives of their composers. Recording technology and preservation techniques have evolved considerably over the past 90 years, but many wonderful film scores no longer exist outside of the movies they were created for. Those unfortunate works were permanently flattened into monophonic recordings, blended with sound effects, dialed out to accommodate dialog, and forever sealed like flies in amber.
In that case, the only way to present music in a listenable form is to re-record everything fresh. This is not an inexpensive proposition. The sheet music must be found or recreated. Even if the composer’s original sketches survive, the piles of player’s parts are likely gone and need to be recreated and printed for every member of the orchestra. In the worst case scenario, another composer can reconstruct the score by ear, “taking down” each note from the film itself—a tricky business indeed.
The major expense is hiring an orchestra—a music contractor books each player for the gig, juggling upwards of 60-80 schedules to make the date. The best players are members of unions that dictate the number of hours they can play, the scheduled breaks they take and the hundreds of dollars per hour they will be paid. Equally precious is the recording staff: specialized sound engineers and Pro Tools operators who will mic the stage, balance the sound and mix the 49 tracks into a workable assembly.
Intrada has been re-recording film scores of all genres for 35 years, including the work of titans like Miklòs Ròzsa (Spellbound), Bernard Herrmann (Jason and the Argonauts) and Dimitri Tiomkin (Dial M for Murder). Special mention is reserved for long-time collaborators Bruce Broughton (Silverado) a composer who conducted some early recordings with the prestigious Sinfonia of London, and especially Jerry Goldsmith (Chinatown) who kicked off the series by conducting two of his lesser-known but worthy compositions from Rio Conchos and Islands In the Stream. Doug and company are justifiably proud to be the first to get Jerry to revisit his earlier work, and initiate a new wave of recordings in the process.
I watched Intrada’s Excalibur series emerge three decades ago as a fan, delighting in the sudden appearance of older scores that were never previously available. Holy smokes, Ivanhoe? A big, exciting, knights-on-horseback spectacular? That was unexpected—it was already 40 years old. There simply weren’t that many scores extant from that era, and the new recording made it sound vital again. I certainly didn’t expect at the time that I would soon be responsible, as Intrada’s new art director, for the package design of the next half-dozen albums in the series—but maybe it was inevitable. My passion drove me to pursue the gig.
Another fan-cum-collaborator is Paul Talkington, a charming and chatty fellow from the UK sporting a perfect gray pompadour and easy manner of Peter Ustinov. As a music contractor who works with orchestras around the world, he has been instrumental in revitalizing the Excalibur series, brokering a relationship with the RSNO. But as a film score enthusiast, he never fails to pepper his business calls with giddy asides like “Say, you know what would be a great score to take on next time…?” He can’t help himself, he loves this stuff as much as we do—and he’s also made a career of it.
That seems to be a common thread. Bill’s wife, Anna Bonn Stromberg, started in the soundtrack business right out of college and worked for composer Christopher Young (another Intrada favorite) before becoming a freelance music preparer and reconstructionist. A tall lanky blonde, she’s perfectly matched with her exuberant hubby. Anna silently follows the score as Bill makes his notes, but snaps into action when a problem arises. It’s lovely to see them lock eyes and work though a troublesome bar, or a discordant arrangement, bouncing ideas off each other and finding a solution before the clock runs out. And through it all, you can see their love for each other.
So here we are in Glasgow on Monday, January 16, 2023. Doug and I are traveling with Roger Feigelson, another aficianado who handles business affairs for the label in addition to his full-time job as a vice president at Oracle. (Roger embodies the axiom that the best way to get something done is to ask a busy person to do it.) If a deal can be done with a licensor, Roger will close it. He started buying albums from Intrada’s retail store when he was 15 years old, so young that his father had to drive him up the peninsula to San Francisco and wait patiently in a corner while the rapacious teen scoured the shelves and got the answers to his burning soundtrack questions.
Right now it’s our eyes that are burning and our heads that are aching from the brutal jet lag. The 15-hour redeye from SFO by way of Dublin was no picnic. None of us have slept much since and the extremely short days of Scottish winter (8:30 sunrise and 16:30 sunset) make it more challenging to keep one foot in front of the other. But gathered with Paul, Bill and Anna in a charming pizzeria down West Nile Street, the discomfort fades and excitement grows. We’re about to record two-count’em-two scores by perhaps our favorite film composer.
Bernard Herrmann was an irascible, singular artist who began his career as conductor/composer for none other than that other enfant terrible Orson Welles on CBS radio. His career in film spanned 35 years, from Citizen Kane to Taxi Driver, and his life ended the evening that he completed that score. But his reputation and music lives on, making him one of the few breakout stars of film music, embraced by classical and pop fans as well. His greatest collaboration was with an equally idiosyncratic director, which brings us back to Scotland.
Over plates of pasta and panini, we swap stories about “Benny” as if he was a beloved uncle. We’ve all heard the recordings of him berating his orchestras to “put some elbow in it!”, seen the unflattering pictures of an unkempt, distracted man with cigarette ash speckling his suit, and wished that he could have continued his fruitful collaboration with one Alfred Hitchcock. But the talent and ego that drove both men eventually ended their 11-year partnership. Tomorrow, we will celebrate that partnership the best way we know how.
Most of the music that Benny wrote for Sir Alfred has been preserved and presented at least once on recordings—even Torn Curtain, the score that Hitch rejected out of hand, ruining their friendship in the process. But the music for their second film, the remake of The Man Who Knew Too Much, has yet to be liberated from its celluloid bonds. After six months of research, preparation and a successful crowdfunding campaign, the last remaining collaboration of Benny and Hitch would be released.
I can tell that Doug is excited. As producer of the recording and president of the company, he has a substantial investment of time, money and resources riding on this project. If he’s feeling the pressure, he’s bearing it quite stoically. What I see is his streak of youthful enthusiasm. Tonight is a little like Christmas Eve, and there’s a big present about to be unwrapped over the next two days. Doug still remembers being struck by the main title of The Man Who Knew Too Much in 1962—when he first saw it on NBC’s Saturday Night at the Movies as a wee lad. He’s been waiting to hear that score apart from the film for over half a century.
In less than 12 hours, he’ll do just that. And so will we! Who needs sleep?
To be continued...
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