Memories of Alex North
Alex North is one of those unique composers. You could tell me that’s not something new and that I say that a lot. Let me explain myself and you will understand.
When Hollywood was asking for symphonic and dramatic music for its blockbusters, Alex North used jazz like no-one before for Elia Kazan’s A Streetcar Named Desire (a masterpiece).
When music needed to be epic and glorious, full of melodic and memorable themes (like Ben-Hur or El Cid), there he was with a profound grievous symphony for Spartacus, composing also one of the best love themes ever. Already in the eighties, not giving up his style, he composed a fascinating score for Dragonslayer, far from the symphonic excess from those years (Star Wars or Krull).
That was Alex North. A composer who did what he felt like and who cared little about how his music would work outside of the movie. More than unique, he was hard unclassifiable, because of his different points of view regarding the stablished musical styles within the business. His peers were fascinated by this, specially Jerry Goldsmith, who’s work was highly influenced by North (listen to A Streetcar Named Desire and you will find the same noir feeling in scores like Chinatown).
If you think that his music has no power without the images, take The Sound and the Fury, edited by Varèse Sarabande, and play the CD. I remember the huge effect that had on me: I was barely eighteen and I had never listened to something like that. It was followed by the fantastic recording that Jerry Goldsmith made of A Streetcar Named Desire. At this point, I was completely in love with the music of Alex North and not, curiously, after listening to Spartacus, a score I also love.
I’m one of those weird fans: I enjoy Jerry Fielding, Michael Small, Leonard Rosenman and even tough composers like Bernard Herrman. It was not a surprise that this happened to me with the most and unclassifiable composer in history (maybe a shared position with Bernard Hermann).
Talking about North and his friendship with Goldsmith, I would like to mention an anecdote: Alex North deared him to compose the score for Tora! Tora! Tora! without the violin section, a very loved part of the orchestra for him. He overwhelmingly succeeded. This creative friendship meant the perfect push for each other, making Jerry Goldsmith a great composer as North clearly influenced his work.
For all of you who mentioned the composer’s most known scores, I dare you to dig deeper and find the hidden ones: Hard Contract, The Children’s Hour, Africa, The Devil’s Brigade (a marvelous belic movie in which we can feel North’s influence) or Bite the Bullet.
Alex North is a luxury everyone can reach, a treasure not even Cleopatra could imagine in her palace. A fascinating composer that, even today, stays fresh and authentic, unmatchable in his style, an innovator.
Thank you, Maestro.
Alex North is part of a rare and elite group of film composers. He was one of the definers of the artform. One of the ground breakers. There was a generation of film music that came before him but North was at the forefront of revolutionizing what dramatic scoring was and could be. Jerry Goldsmith himself, after hearing North’s A Streetcar Named Desire is quoted as saying that “film music had changed and would never be the same.”
In 2010, when I produced Alex North’s Spartacus score as a deluxe boxed set, it became an industry- wide celebration of and salute to Alex. That aspect of the project meant so much to me. The number of composers who took part in the project in some way was unprecedented. Some arranged and recorded new variations of the Spartacus love theme. Some were part of the feature documentary “Conversations on Alex North’s Spartacus: The Celebrations of a Masterpiece” and some wrote tributes to North to be included in my Spartacus commemorative book. Who took part? John Williams, Lalo Schifrin, David Newman, Christopher Young, Alexandre Desplat, Mark Isham, Brian Tyler, Dave Grusin, Nathan Barr, Lisbeth Scott, Patrick Doyle, Joel McNeely, Diego Navarro, Randy Edelman, John Debney, Alan and Marilyn Bergman, Bruce Broughton, Ennio Morricone, David Shire, John Corigliano and Pino Donaggio. How many scores and composers could attract a group of fellow composers like that to pay such tribute?
Shortly after this Spartacus boxed set, Lee Holdridge arranged a Spartacus Love Theme Fantasy for Flute and Orchestra for flutist Sara Andon, which Andon has performed internationally.
Spartacus is revered as of one the greatest film scores ever composed and North’s stature as a composer only continues to grow. There are so many other classics among his work! The future is so bright and exciting for the music of Alex North.
Robert Townson is the most prolific film music producer in the world. As the vice president and producer at Varèse Sarabande for thirty years, Robert averaged one new album release a week over three decades! His lifelong passion for film and classical music has made him one of the world’s greatfilm music scholars and educators, inspiring others through his lectures, writings, concerts and recordings. In July of 2010, Townson celebrated the release of his 1000th album (Alex North’sSpartacus), and currently has nearly 1500 to his credit.
Robert produced and hosted two concerts with the RSNO in November 2018, celebrating the Varèse Sarabande 40th Anniversary in both Edinburgh and Glasgow. Townson continues his soundtrack and concert production activities to bring great film music, live and recorded, to audiences all over the world.
Robert’s latest recording is “Cinema Morricone”, featuring Sara Andon and Simone Pedroni, recently released on Sony Classical.
I was raised in Italy and, as a kid I had a passion for movies so as my parents, thank God, had.
We grow up by watching the most spectacular films ever, Cleopatra, Spartacus, The Agony And The Ecstasy, you name it. Because of the duration of such movies my mother prepared for us sandwiches and drinks and it was always an event, always a joy.
The music was amazing, leading you far away and giving you the gift of a memory of the story to stay with you forever. Memory of the beauty, of the colors, of the characters, of the magnitude of the events.
This was my very first impact, as a kid, with the music of Alex North.
Later in the time, as an adolescent, I was so surprised to discover that the same guy who wrote Cleopatra had written the music for A Street Car Named Desire or for Death Of A Salesman or for so many John Huston’s movies.
Such a different environment, colors versus black and white, narrow rooms versus wide landscapes, heroes versus ordinary people.
Carlo has written music for over a hundred projects, ranging from theatrical features to documentaries and television series. His ability to blend modern sonorities with the melodic traditions of Italian film music has been a passport for working alongside many established directors, such as Patricia Riggen, Eugenio Derbez, Jonathan Hensleigh, Robert Markowitz, Ricky Tognazzi, Carlos Saura-Medrano, Clive Donner, Sergev Bodrov, Ivan Passer, Joseph Sargent, Roger Young, Uli Edel, Sergio Sanchez Suarez, Robert Allan Ackermann, Carlo Carlei, Maurizio Nichetti and others
A fellow composer told me once that, broadly speaking, film composers could be divided into two categories: individualists and people-pleasers. The former retain an unmistakable personal style and artistic integrity, while the latter do their best to adjust their compositions in order to please their clients, even if it means having to copy the temporary music track to the point of questionable legality.
Alex North was definitely an individualist. To the listener, North’s personal brand of modernism instantly announces a high level of complexity, in musicological and narrative terms. To some people, his music goes over their head. His admirers find an incredible treasure trove of layers, surprises, interesting juxtapositions, always coupled with a keen focus on character and emotions.
One key moment for me, as I was discovering film music as a young fan, happened while I was listening to the Dragonslayer soundtrack album. Given the pervasive dissonance of that score (even in the jolly «Forest Romp»), I was wondering if there were any major chords in it. To my amazement, I found that North had created very brief moments of major-key optimism: sometimes, certain instruments drop out of a cluster chord, and the remaining instruments keep playing a major chord, but only for a split-second. In other places, a sudden major chord appears out of left-field, only to be overtaken once again by musical darkness and dread. The effect is similar to a light being switched on in a perpetually dark room, for the briefest of moments, to remind us that light still exists.
Of course, Alex North was more than capable of composing melodic music characterized by beautiful simplicity, but he seemed to excel at multi-layered, atonal writing, which, in some cases, must have been the result of some courageous decisions on part of the composer and the film makers who supported that style of music. If Cleopatra was made today, it would be unimaginable for a composer to write a score as harmonically complex as North’s for the 1963 version. Who in today’s big-budget film making would dare write the kind of «sick ballet» music that accompanied the gladiator training sequences in Spartacus (1960)? Lucky for us fans, Alex North was allowed to bring his unmistakable style to several, big-budget spectacles, as well as intimate dramas. Unforgettable artistic statements from a true individualist.
By the way, Alex North’s sinister use of Au clair de la lune in The Bad Seed still gives me chills!
All about Edwin Wendler in www.edwinwendler.com
Alex North was one of the best film composers we’ve ever had grace the art form. Not only is his music daring, inventive, and totally appropriate for the subject matter at hand, it is sophisticated beyond measure. Alex had a knack for understanding the emotional complexity on screen and had brilliant ways of expressing the deeper meaning of the characters and the film with his music. If you think of his music for Streetcar Named Desire, Spartacus, Viva Zapata, and Cleopatra, you see a composer who is way ahead of the times with how sophisticated his language is. At a time when composers were still expressing emotion with large gestures and generalized content, Alex’s writing was incredibly specific to the scene and characters much in the way we see films scored today.
Spartacus in particular is a masterpiece of scoring. Spartacus was composed in 1960 and features a blend of some of the greatest moments of action and internal dialogue ever put on film.
In what I call the Spartacus “Triptych”, Alex shows his keen understanding of how music can support a film’s emotional complexities with subtlety and precision.
- Part 1 is the music for the holding pen where Spartacus and Draba wait their turn scored with a grim dirge-like slow march. (First Pair)
- Part 2 is the fight itself with it’s frantic rhythms and orchestral stabs heightening Spartacus’ fight for survival against the mighty Draba. His handling of the moment of dialogue in the middle of the scene is brilliant, making room for the dialogue but keeping the tension alive. (Gladiator’s Fight to the Death.)
- And finally Part 3 is the aftermath of Draba’s death with the men walking through their prison climaxing with Draba hanging upside down from the ceiling as a warning to the men. This music continues into the evening as they sit in their cells and brood over what has happened. (Brooding)
Each section depicts emotional states that are part of a slow progression toward what will end up being the breakout from the gladiatorial “school.” For 1960 his language is so refined and so perfect for the film it is a stunning achievement in cinematic scoring.
James T. Sale (Washington, D.C., 1967) began drum lessons through the DC Youth Orchestraat Theodore Roosevelt High School, after which he attended St. John’s College High School. From there, he enrolled in the Film Scoring Program at Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he studied Composition and Orchestration, with a major in Film Scoring. After moving to Los Angeles in 1992, he worked as a librarian and copyist for Suzie Katayama at the Sony music library.
James began writing music for feature films with The Cheshire Cat (1996), until becoming Mark Mothersbaugh’s orchestrator and conductor, starting with Herbie Fully Loaded (2005). He has written additional music for films like Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009), Hotel Transylvania (2012) or The LEGO Movie (2014). Other projects include Music Within (2007), The Box (2007), the documentary JFK: A President Betrayed (2013), as well as Return to Zero (2014), the TV Movie Sister Cities (2016) and Saint Judy (2018) for director Sean Hanish.
I first discovered the music of Alex North in the early ’80s when Label X announced a limited edition LP of his score to Dragonslayer. I didn’t know the film or score, but a film about dragons…a limited release…I was in!
When I played it I didn’t get it. I expected something from the school of John Williams. Rather, this was a modern, stark, complex work. When Label X announced a release of North’s Cheyenne Autumn, I didn’t know the score or film but a western…a limited release…I was in! When I played it I didn’t get it either. I expected something in the Copland school of scoring. This was modern, different harmonic structures…alien to me. But when they were released on CD and I played them again, something clicked. I was listening to genius.
With my preconceived expectations long gone, I could hear the brilliance, the intellectual depth of North’s writing. My heart pounded as his music spoke to me and filled me with wonder. Naturally I discovered his stunning score to Spartacus, his fiery, passionate music for The Sound and the Fury, and the exotic Cleopatra shortly thereafter.
North didn’t take well-traveled roads in his compositions, but cut his own, brilliant, intellectually stimulating and usually challenging path. He was a musical force in film scoring, an innovator, a role model, and his music will last for generations.
All about Roger Feigelson in http://store.intrada.com/s.nl/it.I/id.31/.f
When I hear about Alex North or his music, I always think about how singular, personal and coherent he was during his career. Obviously, he was one of the most talented composers of movie music, and music in general, that existed in North America during the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s. This Spartacus’s author (always unique, brilliant and special) knew, above all, how to keep his most personal style. I think his material, together with Jerry Fielding’s and, perhaps, Leonard Rosenman’s, are hard to consider commercial.
He probably paid for it with less professional status and less popularity than his peers.
The sure thing, in my opinion, is that Jerry Goldsmith probably wouldn’t exist without Alex North’s influence in one hand and Bernard Herrmann’s on the other; both being pillars for the third one to create, model and inspire his particular style (Rozsa as well). Sometimes North is a mystery for those who approach his music for the first time. He can be a little strange and enigmatic. He was not a composer that leaned towards typical or easy formulas, but the more you immerse in his work the better you realize about his grandiosity, and most of all, about the huge personal touch of his music.
There’s a variety between my favorites: the western The Wonderful Country and Bite the Bullet; his two projects with Elia Kazan for ¡Viva Zapata! and A Streetcar Named Desire; his tremendous and dramatic music for dramas like The Misftis o Who is Afraid of Virginia Woolf? , and historic epic like Spartacus or The Agony and the Ecstasy.
I’m especially fascinated with risky scores like Journey into Fear, Dragonslayer or his rejected work for 2001: A Space Oddyssey. A titan who eventually got the appreciation from the industry with the first Honorific Oscar given to a movie music composer.
Germán Barón Borrás teaches Audiovisual Media. He composes music for shorts, is partner in organizing the Film Music Festival City of Ubeda, and is fan and crazy about soundtracks since he noticed them at an early age.
The first time I saw the name of Alex North on a screen was after the magnificent prologue and musical comment of Jerry Goldsmith for the movie The Agony and the Ecstasy, on its excellent credits. A majestic music introduces the Carrara mountains. It’s a religious style composition that seems to indicate that the extracted ivory is headed towards a religious man. It’s not until the name of the director Carol Reed appears that we are introduced to a very opposite style: the music turns military, with syncopated drum rhythms and we witness Pope Julio’s II (Rex Harrison) cavalry taking the city. (Such an irony, for God sake, indeed, I think).
It comes after two pillar scores like Spartacus and Cleopatra. If I had to choose some music fragments, from the first one it would be the beautiful love theme dedicated to Jean Simmons and Kirk Douglas and the spectacular fight between Woody Strode and Douglas, with the syncopated rhythm again. Breathtaking, evoking a primitive and warrior feeling.
From the second one, the other splendid love theme for Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and the lavish arrival of the Queen to the eternal city. Alex North and Elmer Bernstein renewed the musical schemes in the epic-historic movies that Dimitri Tiomkin, Miklós Rózsa, Max Steiner, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Franz Waxman, Bronislau Kaper, Alfred Newman or Victor Young had strongly consolidated.
And we get to the punchline: the rejected work he did for 2001: A Space Odyssey. There has been a lot of talking about this, and I may not be the most suited person to give an opinion, but I would have said a couple of words to Stanley Kubrick, had I had the chance: “You are a shameless fool for showing such lack of respect towards Alex North”
Juan Arbona Comellas is the president and founder member of the Asociación Balear Amigos de las Bandas Sonoras (ABABS). He has participated in congresses, festivals and movie music concerts in Valencia, Sevilla, Úbeda, Barcelona, Córdoba y Londres. He has collaborated in seminars with Enrique Escobar, José Sola and Joan Bibiloni. He has done multiple presentations about cinema topics and he has written about movie music composers in different media platforms.
Edwin and I frequent Amoeba Music in Hollywood. It’s one of the last HUGE retail stores that sells nothing but CD, vinyl, DVD’s and Blu-rays. Since I’m a very big collector of autographed soundtracks, over 5500 right now, I’m always checking their CD’s and vinyl.
Composers and stars often times signed the back of vinyls as I believe there was usually more room to write their name and the back of vinyls were often times white. Since they didn’t have sharpies back then most used a pall point pen. So upon checking out vinyl at Amoeba Music I often times would just flip the vinyl over quickly to see if I see any scribbles.
I’ve been lucky in the past and I was really lucky on Thursday August 22nd as I found a nearly mint copy of one of Alex North’s best scores, least in my opinion, THE SOUND AND THE FURY on vinyl and upon a quick look on the back I noticed some writing. Upon further inspection the vinyl appeared to be signed by Alex North. Since we all have smart phones I quickly searching on Google for Alex North’s autograph and sure enough that WAS his autograph. And even more shocking and incredible is this vinyl appears to be made out to someone named Jerry and someone Alex refers to as his comrade.
Other interesting words used was the use of “ominous”. The date this was signed by Alex was 1977 and Jerry DID win the Best Score Oscar for his work on The Omen. So all roads lead to this was Jerry Goldsmith’s autographed album from his friend Alex North. Abby North who is married to Alex’s younger son (Dylan North) told her this is almost certainly Jerry Goldsmith.
Carol Goldsmith, Jerry’s widow, as I saw online is selling the house her and Jerry lived in. It may already have been sold, so possibly she is down-sizing. I don’t know, but everything about this and the fact that Alex’s son believes it to be Jerry Goldsmith’s album from his private collection makes this one heck of a cool find.
All about Peter Hackman in https://www.bohemiaent.com/managers/Peter-Hackman
Alex North and the Musique Fantastique
American Composer Alex North (1910-1991) scored movies in a variety of genres, from westerns like Robert Parrish’s THE WONDERFUL COUNTRY (1959), John Ford’s CHEYENNE AUTUMN (1964), and Richard Brooks’ BITE THE BULLET (1975), majestic historical epics like SPARTACUS (1960) and CLEOPATRA (1963), dramas like THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY (1965) and WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? (1966), comedies like GOOD MORNING VIETNAM (1987), as well as the innovative A STREECAR NAMED DESIRE (1951), the first major jazz-oriented score and a considerable departure from the contemporary concepts of film scoring. His forays into films of the fantasy, science fiction, and horror—genres I have studied the most in my nearly five decades of film music appreciation and collection—have been few but they have been significant.
One of North’s early genre films was the haunting story of a possessed child, Mervyn LeRoy’s THE BAD SEED (1956). North had scored that picture contrasting a bright, tuneful piano theme for the little girl, which later becomes tortured by a variety of violent dissonances and chaotic figures, representing the terror of the child’s true character. North’s penchant for modernism, which both augmented and contrasted against the typical Hollywood movie music sound of the day, was well suited to scoring a film full of discordant personalities and dangerous threats.
Fifteen years after his Hollywood debut and a dozen years after scoring music for LeRoy’s potent psychological chiller, North renewed his collaboration with Stanley Kubrick (for whom he composed SPARTACUS) when the director asked him to score 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968), an assignment that would prove to be one of the most exciting, and ultimately, one of the most frustrating, of his career.
The score that North composed was primarily dissonant and modernistic in style, orchestrated with an emphasis on the woodwinds and brass, as well as two huge organs and 8 percussionists for instrumental effect. “My score was more contemporary, more rhythmic or pulsating, and more dynamic than the film score that was eventually used,” North told me when I had the chance to interview him in 1988 for Cinefantastique magazine. “Because there was no personalized story involved, the music is what I refer to as objective writing. It’s more impersonal, and that allowed me to make broad statements, musically.”
Sadly, for better or for worse, depending on one’s point of view, what might well have been North’s cinematic magnum opus was never heard in the film, Kubrick having fallen for his temporary score and creating his own score out of the various excerpts of classical and avantgarde music that he had put in the temp-track. “I thought this is the end, I’ve had it,” said North. «It was really one of the biggest disappointments in my career. Kubrick never apologized.” Fortunately, we have both the Jerry Goldsmith-conducted rerecording of North’s score (issued by Varèse Sarabande in 1993, and Intrada’s 2007 release of North’s original soundtrack recording) to savor what could have been.
A handful of genre scores followed the 2001 debacle. North provided an effectual musical accompaniment for Daniel Mann’s small terror picture about trained killer rats, WILLARD (1971), alternating between family music for Bruce Davison’s character as he trains his assassination rodents, to the very menacing agitato material as the rodents conduct their murder en masse. He composed over an hour of music for William Castle’s last film, SHANKS (1974), in which the mime Marcel Marceau plays a mute puppeteer who uses a deceased scientist’s invention to control dead bodies like puppets. The music here had an added responsibility, as SHANKS plays much like a silent film, leaving it up to the music to drive much of the movie. North’s music for SHANKS received an Oscar nomination for best music, but lost to Nino Rota’s THE GODFATHER, PART II.
But North’s next and final score in the fantasy genre gave him a splendid opportunity to write a masterful, epic adventure score. With Matthew Robbins’ DRAGONSLAYER (1981) North enriched this vivid historical film involving a wizard who sends a young and untried apprentice to kill a marauding dragon—spending spent months researching authentic material of the film’s time period and locale in order to imbue the spirit of medieval music into his score—that North, at the age of 70, proved he was still in fine command of musical form and orchestration. His modernesque, multi-theme score focused on a clear, deep solo horn leitmotif for the dragon, Vermithrax Pejorative, which is used throughout the score and is a marvelous illustration of the incredibly ancient, monolithic dragon. The score’s expansive breadth is richly adorned with a variety of effective themes and motifs. DRAGONSLAYER gave him another Oscar nomination for music, but it lost to Vangelis’ CHARIOTS OF FIRE.
North finally got his Oscar, in 1985, when he became the first composer to be awarded an honorary Academy Award—an overdue honor, having received 14 Oscar nominations between 1951 and 1984 without winning; becoming one of only two composers to win an honorary Oscar (Ennio Morricone, in 2006, was the second). Alex North died on September 8, 1991, leaving behind a profound legacy of film music, in all genres, and a growing legion of film composers he has greatly influenced. We remember him fondly.
Randall Larson writes regularly in various media about soundtracks, most notably on BuySoundtrax (BSX). More about Randall in IFMCA where he is a member.
Alex North’s career has an unfortunate distinction that arguably the best-known film of his career is the one which doesn’t feature his music – 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). A lot of film students meet his name for the first time when his unused work comes up in relation to the space epic and of course it is always mentioned in an unfavorable light when compared with the classical selection. It was this (and a few similar) stories that prompted me to write my book, Torn Music, chronicling the lives of unused scores all over the world. However, I’m sure at least one (or more) colleagues on this page will bring up 2001. Maybe not so his other scores.
Distant Drums (1951) was North’s first deep dive into Hollywood. It wasn’t his first movie (that would be A Streetcar Named Desire), but it was his first film done without the support of a former colleague – he was on his own. It’s a pretty standard western with two distinguishing marks – it doesn’t actually take place in the West but rather in the Florida swamplands, and it is the originator of the Wilhelm Scream.
Statistically speaking, westerns are the worst genre to show off your musical inventiveness as the setting dictates a special musical aesthetic and North’s Distant Drums was so out of the left field, that the second day of recording session was cancelled, meaning only seven cues actually got recorded. Imagine starting out on such a wrong footing in Hollywood and still come back! At least Distant Drums gave us Elia Kazan’s notorious letter that suggests that the Warner Brothers (who at this stage were real people) should perform aquatic stunts in their fecal matter and pass away – in much harsher words.
On the flipside of the coin, Alex North’s Sounder (1973) wasn’t as thoroughly well-documented as the other two rejections, it does offer a rare glimpse into that moment when a composer is obviously just the wrong selection for that project. The story of a young black boy’s growing up currently boasts a folksy, blues inspired score by recording artist Taj Mahal which creates a strong sense of the sweaty Southern atmosphere through a musical vernacular that the main characters are familiar with an often play themselves. North music on the other hand did well on describing character interactions and emotional responses to the various obstacles, the music remains an alien entity in the picture. In fact, it seems that his involvement was done for a similar reason that he got signed up for Kubrick’s space walk – that is, the presence of a prestige composer lent some credentials to an otherwise risky project.
North of course left no good material go to waste – while 2001’s reusage in movies like The Shoes of the Fisherman, Shanks or Dragonslayer are well-known , listeners who want to experience Distant Drums (the only of North’s rejected scores still unreleased) can simply listen to “Zapata” from Viva Zapata! as that music is simply a faster reworking of cue 5M1 from the abortive western project.
Gergely Hubai was born in 1984 in Veszprém. He graduated from the ELTE University in American Studies and History with teacher qualification in 2008. He is currently studying in the doctoral program of ELTE’s American Studies. His research looks at the relationship between artistic integrity and the Hollywood film industry through the analysis of rejected film scores. His writings and interviews on film music have been published on www.filmzene.net and other places. He regularly publishes interviews, CD resequences and film music restoration videos at the Daily Film Music Blog. He wrote the book Torn Music, about rejected works.
Alex North. The unrepentant traveler
My first contact with Alex North’s music was casual and, above all, intriguing. By the end of the seventies, when I was barely twelve years old and I was spending my evening studying for the final exams, in order to sweeten those hot and tedious hours full of obligations, I would turn on the radio as background music so I wouldn’t be distracted from my homework.
One of those evenings, after turning on the radio, I felt immediately impressed by a very dramatic piece of music, full of a strong magnetism that completely refrained me from starting my activity.
It was long before the internet and this digital era we live in now, and the piece had already started. Once the piece ended, the broadcaster in charge of the RNE’s program “Golden names in cinema music”, José Buenagu, jumped to the next one without making any reference to the name of the music I just listened to.
He did mention the name of the composer, Alex North, but it took me years to realize that that captivating fragment of music was part of the movie Cleopatra, directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz in 1963, specifically from the sequence in which Marco Antonio (a memorable Richard Burton) faces alone the troops of César Augusto (Roddy McDowall) after being abandoned by his men, demanding an honorable death.
A musical piece with an anguished crescendo that, to this day, still feels to me like one of the most brilliant and powerful moments in the history of movie music.
With great wonder, I discovered that he had composed master pieces such as Spartacus (1960), The agony and the ecstasy (1965), The shoes of the fisherman (1968), and, closer to my time, Dragonslayer (1981).
I had discovered his work in a disorderly manner, because regarding the grandiosity of all this movies, he truly made a difference in the fifties with a much more intimate kind of music, deeply anchored in the psychological deepness of the characters and their dramatic ties. That style was his presentation letter in A streetcar named desire (1951), in which he embedded jazz within the structure of the score, broadening the movie music landscape to new contemporary forms.
He also included folkloric music to this means in Viva Zapata! (1952), turning away from the frivolous style commonly used in movies with an exotic taste.
He recovered a beautiful and forgotten Irish song, The lass of Aughrim, and made it the core of his delicate work in The dead (1987), John Huston’s posthumous movie.
Truth is, North was able to join introspection and grandiosity like no other composer ever could, and that’s the reason why he dared composing music for scripts based on master pieces by Arthur Miller, William Faulkner, Malcom Lowry or even James Joyce.
Many composers that came after him, like Jerry Goldsmith (who re-recorded more than half a dozen Noth’s scores as requested by Robert Townson, discographic producer) and John Williams, recognized the legacy of the artist, paying tribute to him during his funeral, considering him a true master, acknowledging in this way his influence in their own compositions.
After fourteen nominations and an honorific Oscar for his whole trajectory in 1986 (first one given to a composer), North died September 8th 1991, after releasing The last butterfly that same year, a movie produced by his own son, Steven, with whom he had already worked before in Shanks (1974), an unusual and avant-garde movie that had an exceptional music that the Hollywood Academy recognized with a nomination. A unique and exceptional figure who always traveled alone through the rough seas of big production companies, never linking up with any of them. A true unrepentant traveler.
Frederic Torres is a veteran of film music criticism, from the end of the eighties in the pioneer magazine Música de Cine and in another featured magazie called Rosebud – Banda Sonora.
He also participed in Academia, the official magazine of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences of Spain, which is charge of the Goya awards.
He has a degree in Contemporary History and he has given lectures at Conservatories of Music and participated in concerts, always participating as a music critic in webs like Scoremagacine.com (from 2009), Músicadecineblog.com and Bandasonora.org (now in Cinearchivo.net).
He participated in the colective book Tócala otra vez, Oscar, published by Ilarión in 2011 for FIMUCITÉ, and he is the author of Alex North, El Viajero Impenitente, published by T&B Editores in 2016.
He has participated in several projects for Rosetta or Quartet Records,redacting the texts for the presentation of the edited scores and selecting the material to edit in collaboration with the composers.
SPECIAL THANKS TO ALL THE PEOPLE WHO HAVE PARTICIPATED IN THIS SPECIAL ABOUT ALEX NORTH, AND TO CECILIA AIVAR FOR THE INCREDIBLE SUPPORT TO TRANSLATE THE TEXTS.