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June 25, 2009

Rewarding encounters with film scores by George Antheil and Garth Neustadter

Summertime means that orchestras turn all pops-y, with inevitable concerts featuring movie score hits. Of course, 9 times out of 10, that means John Williams. I was reminded of this a moment ago when a press release arrived for the BSO's July 25 all-Williams program at Oregon Ridge. Not that I have anything against Williams, mind you. Or, for that matter, Bernard Herrmann, whose Psycho music the orchestra will play in sync with the film July 9. An all-Herrmann concert would be fine with me any time, especially if it included excerpts from the nearly Wagnerian Vertigo score.

But, lately, I've been thinking about a couple of other film composers, one I had forgotten about, the other new to me. Thanks to TCM, the only cable station that we couldn't live without at our house (we keep a little TV set in the kitchen that has a broken off switch tuned to TCM 24 hours a day -- if we get broken into it, we want the burglars to know we have great taste), I've made two cool discoveries this week. Both of the films we DVRd from TCM have yet to be issued on DVD. One of these is ...

a deliciously dark, the-1950s-weren't-so-great-after-all goody called The Sniper, directed by a just-off-the-black-list Edward Dmytryk. Deranged man shoots innocent women in San Francisco 'cause, well, he's got issues.

The coolest thing for me is the film score by American bad-boy composer George Antheil. This is the guy who shocked the hell out of the musical establishment in the 1920s with such works as Ballet mecanique, which incorporated airplane propellers, eight pianos and heaps of percussion. At some point, Antheil made it to Hollywood, where money was to be made. Interesting friends, too. He teamed up with bombshell Hedy Lamarr to develop a torpedo/radar thing that got patented during WWII. Antheil, who died in 1959, didn't do a lot of musical shocking in his final years, but, judging by The Sniper, he turned out some very decent movie music.

You know a pro is at work in the scene when the sniper's second victim is about to meet her unexpected end while going about mundane business after returning to her apartment. Instead of a lot of spooky music putting the tension into overdrive, just a single chord is quietly sustained, on and on, until the glass-shattering rifle shot. The rest of the score may not be that inspired, but it's effective all the way through. So for that matter is the film. Yeah, the plot is creepy (it has an enlightened-for-its-time ending, though), and I took some grief from my partner Robert for making him sit through it. But it's a taut little souvenir of its time. Great location shooting in San Francisco, too.

Robert needed a change of cinematic pace after that one, and found it, again thanks to TCM, in The White Sister, a silent epic from 1923 with Lillian Gish and Ronald Colman, about a young woman who becomes a nun when she thinks her lover has been killed. I haven't had a chance to see all of it yet, but Robert (doubtless one of the world's most passionate silent movie buffs) insisted that I see a chunk of it last night and I'm glad he did. It proved compelling visually, dramatically and musically. The freshly composed score is by Garth Neustadter, a Lawrence University student who was one of the winners of TCM's 2007 Young Film Composers Competition. The guy's a natural, as his soaring love theme for The White Sister makes plain (there's a brief video clip of the composer playing it).

Silent films -- the cinematic equivalent of grand opera in many ways -- require so much music, and it can't be easy to avoid a kind of musical doodling in between big scenes. Judging by what I've heard of this effort, Neustadter clearly knows how to keep the score interesting and telling. There have to be dozens of silent films in need of new musical care. I hope he gets a chance to enhance a whole bunch of them.

Which brings me back to orchestral concerts. One of the best events the BSO has done in recent years was showing Chaplin's City Lights with live orchestral soundtrack conducted lovingly by Marin Alsop. That early 2008 presentation should have been followed up with another such attraction by now. The fusion of an artful silent film with a live, rich orchestral score is a fabulous form of entertainment -- perfect summer fare, by the way.

And after we get another silent movie treat, how about a George Antheil celebration? There ought to be some cool propellers around here somewhere.

Posted by Tim Smith at 11:37 AM | | Comments (1)


I _strongly_ recall a scene similar to the droning-chord passage you mention, though I believe this was in color. (Actually, it kind of reminds me of several other moments from a few Westerns -- spaghetti, for sure!!! -- and Harlem-gangster flicks I've seen. The '70s had a lot of fascinating, jazzy film scores for crime movies: heavy on the moody percussion, please!) Maybe I'm thinking of the sniper scenes (featuring that horrible loon played all-too-awfully by Andy Robinson -- I'm getting the willies just thinking about him) from "Dirty Harry" or something similar...

You have company with other fans of Antheil's score -- I've seen two other posts which mentioned the music favourably. I only know of his work through "The Pride & The Passion" and "Specter Of The Rose" -- both are good scores for their respective films.

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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