Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Hammer Film Scores and the Musical Avant-garde

Hear The Blood Of Dracula

Hammer Film Scores and the Musical Avant-garde
Written by David Huckvale
McFarland Press
ISBN: 0786434562

When I bought this book I was pretty sure I was buying into something I wasn’t really going to fully understand, to be honest with you. After all, the scores used in horror films are, for the most part, less tonal and much more complicated than the kinds of scores used in other kinds of movies and, since I don’t read music, I was expecting a much less comprehensible (to me) but ultimately more satisfying experience (I might learn something) from this book than what I got here.

Let me say, before I get into all that though, that this book is a really entertaining, well put together and easy to read publication. My real problems with it, and they are minor problems and I’m probably the only reader whose going to have those, lie in the exploration of the relationship of the music in the context of what Huckvale calls “the musical avant-garde” in that, the author states an intention at the start of the book... and then takes us on a merry tour of absolutely fascinating and first-hand, straight from the horses mouth anecdotes about, or by, the composers themselves, without pushing his points as much as I would have liked.

Stating, quite correctly, that horror movies are genuinely the biggest audience for certain styles of musical composition which includes atonal music and twelve tone serial music where the audience is not necessarily aware that they are listening to such things is an interesting thought to ponder when the audiences for concerts of such music (always popular in musical lessons throughout recent decades and probably a mainstay of compositional study to this day) are so small and these things are barely programmed in, when compared to classical music by composers who use melody and harmony in their work. However, I can’t agree with the authors claims that the Hammer and Amicus horror films made in Britain from the mid fifties to the mid seventies are necessarily, as claimed, the first exposure that audiences to these films would have had to these styles of composition in a cinematic context. And while these scores may well have been as influential on contemporary horror score writing as the writer claims, I can’t help but think that some of those late thirties and onwards “Universal Horror” scores by such mainstay composers as Hans Salter and Frank Skinner had some interesting passages which invoked a certain musical disharmony worked in with the more melodic writing which they also captured to an extent in their work. In fact, as I’m writing this now, I can hear Hans Salters early fifties three note motif for Creature From The Black Lagoon echoing around my head and I’m thinking to myself... well this really wasn’t meant to do anything but disturb you... musically it’s really not supposed to be that easy to digest.

What we have here then, is a less rigorous approach to the authors own intent which, while not sloppy, is certainly a little less analytical than I’d have liked for the majority of the volume (it does have its moments however)... and I guess if it had been more rigid in its exploration of the music in more technical terms I wouldn’t have understood a word of it so, in a way, I’m slightly disappointed but certainly grateful.

That being said, the book is jam packed with some really interesting stories about a whole slew of Hammer and Amicus composers and I was particularly interested to see both Elizabeth Lutyens (whose music I know from her brilliant and as yet unreleased score for The Earth Dies Screaming) and Richard Rodney Bennet covered in the text. Odd little production tales and the occasional analysis of the way the music works in certain movies make for a very entertaining, if quick to read, package and it’s especially useful when a score which hasn’t had a commercial release, such as The Satanic Rights Of Dracula, is discussed. I have the 19 albums of Hammer scores and compilations that GDI put out years ago but the majority, if not all, of these score CDs are no longer in print so this is a good book to have if actual musical samples are not to hand, although some first hand familiarity with the style of musical writing used in these particular movies would obviously enhance the readers experience of this worthy tome.

One other thing I noticed was that, although it’s an American book, the language used on the occasions that the author does get into the music written on the page seems to be mixed up between British and American terminology from chapter to chapter. For a while Huckvale will be talking crotchets and minims, which are terms I understand, and the next he’ll be talking about thirds and fourths, which I don’t. I found this a little confusing and it made me wonder if, perhaps, certain chapters of this book were sourced from previous works and essays.

Not much more I can say about this one to be honest... while less exploratory in sheer musical analysis than I was hoping for, it certainly is a joy to read if one has any interest in the music of these kinds of movies and it’s certainly a quick and jolly entertainment that everyone will be able to understand without knowing too much about music. While I wouldn’t recommend it to someone who wants to really study the scores of these movies as a necessity, it’s certainly of interest to people with a basic love of these kinds of scare-fests and their musical compositions. This book will certainly make you appreciate that you don’t have to just Taste The Blood Of Dracula... you can hear it too!

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