By Terry Walstrom
2 December 2003
If you were seated in a room opposite two people having an argument in Chinese you are likely to remember what they did and the tone of their conflict. But, the particulars would certainly be absent; i.e. the why and the wherefore. The general grievances might have substance and merit on both sides, of course, but you'd never know--would you?
Now, change the Chinese couple to people who speak your own language. You could follow the nuances of the argument and fit the dialogue to the general tenor of anger, resentment and rebuttal in a more meaningful way. I submit that action music is analogous. How so?
In John Barry's action music, as we all know so well, there are "words" and "phrases" selected out of the melodic main theme which are always intelligible as such even when "spoken" fast or slow or this instrument and that one.
Take Goldfinger, for an instance of this. In the PRE-title sequence we will hear the "gold-fing-er" phrase in many guises. We will find it parallel with the semi-tone rising and falling James Bond motif too. These occurrences of readily identifiable phrases are like bookmarks that enable our perhaps non-musically educated minds to keep pace with the action onscreen in a discernible way. In effect, we are reading several texts simultaneously (like having three books open in front of us) and skipping from one to the other without losing THE SENSE of any of them in the process. The visual, the general ambient sound or dialogue and the music can fit together and integrate a conglomerate thought which might otherwise be too complex or inexplicable to cohere comprehensively.
From Russia with Love gave me personally the best glimpse into how Barry achieves the cohesion of his style with the film. There are many separate melodic themes that circulate throughout the film. The general genius of fitting them together and overlaying one atop the other is the real prize. The melody to the song From Russia with Love, though it be composed by Lionel Bart, is so elegantly taken apart and reassembled over and over again by John Barry that no matter what new guise it appears in we recognize it as a part of some previous whole.
Take GUITAR LAMENT as an example of this. The melody to Guitar Lament is From Russia with Love refashioned. Five note phrase....two notes...two notes....
From Rush Uh with Love I fly to you.......
behind which is a refashioned James Bond rising and falling figure.
MAN OVERBOARD...Smersh in Action gives us yet another incarnation of FRWL theme in 3/4 time transformed. This too has the James Bond rising falling figure. Now Guitar Lament isn't action music per se. But, it is a gentle way of demonstrating the technique in use.
The real action music is the 007 theme unique on all the Bond films. Barry has a theory about the lurching rhythm of 007 that I always refer to as 3-3-2. (Clusters of eighth notes with the duration of three eighth notes followed by three more and then two for a total of eight to the bar.) Barry believes by breaking up the rhythm into unconventional beats there is a sense of forward movement which is more dynamic than straight accents on 2 and 4 or 1 and 3 which is natural to pop music. Barry lays his very simple theme for horns and brass on top the lurching rhythm and it is all very easy to follow. The in-between accents in the snare drums and instrument groups certainly lend excitement without over-complicating what the mind easily follows.
Without overdoing my explanation I'll just point one thing out. There is a lot going on for the ear to follow individually in 007. However, it isn't difficult at all to comprehend because Barry's logic and layout are exceedingly well chosen. It is actually a surprisngly elegant variation on the old OOM-PAH band technique.
What is the OOM-PAH band technique? In German bands, for example, the tuba player hits the keynote with a loud OOM and the brass plays the "answering" PAH. The tuba lays down the bass with a first and fifth note alternating and the brass echoes the chord with their PAH. What Barry does is substitute the kettledrum or low bass for the Tuba and change the duration to the 3-3-2. The "answering" PAH fits in the spaces. OOM pah pah OOM pah pah OOM pah OOM pah pah OOM pah pah OOM pah. Clever and effective.
Goldsmith, on the other hand has many changes in rhythm per track alternating unexpectedly to keep your sense of expectation off-balance. He might have 4/4 followed by 5/4 and 7/8 or 12/8 without telegraphing in advance which way he is going. He varies his instrument groups and interlaces them with electronic "stings" or supplemental colors constantly. Now you see it--now you don't is the order of the day. I very much enjoy Goldsmith's action music without having instant comprehension of what the music is "saying" internally.
It is a Chinese argument.
For me, raised on songs and singing and lyrical melodicism I am drawn to a song-like leading line in music. Barry really beautifies his action music lyrically. Sometimes it has a disturbing beauty to it. Barry's music for the Diamonds are Forever laser weapon in space is gorgeous and stately---but, lyrical. In The Man with The Golden Gun his action music practically sings the song to you while the orchestra decorates the rhythmic background wittily.
The closest Goldsmith comes to a Barry type score is his OUR MAN FLINT/IN LIKE FLINT films. His theme returns again and again in so many variations and guises it is burned into your subconscious indelibly. Naturally it is obvious he is mining the Bond-like similarities of the films while remaining true to his own muse.
The greatest thrilling action music of Goldsmith, for me, is in films like Papillon and The Wind and the Lion where moments of great lyricism penetrate the kaleidoscopic variants raging in the orchestra in flurries of mathematical complexity.
These two men have invented their own particularities. Of the two you would expect the easier man to imitate is John Barry. You would be wrong! There are more composers imitating Goldsmith than have ever come close to John Barry. Take just two. David Arnold and George S. Clinton. Arnold only appears to complement Barry's style. But, he cheats. He simply traces certain figures familiar to Bond fans and injects them like gravy into a Turkey's innards for flavoring. 75% of Arnold's meandering is furious competing voices in overblown orchestral settings set to thundering drumtracks. George S. Clinton tries to ape the general ambience of a Bond film in Austin Powers films. However, the imitation is so colorless and bland the energy and the humor dissipate rapidly into mere Punch and Judy.
John Barry remains unique among action film composers because his personality is everywhere in the music; that of a master in control of vast forces summoned to do his bidding. The result is so intelligible that the emotional veracity hits the audience with a double whammy and the spellbinding pleasure of total immersion into the shadowy world of film is made into a magical experience.