Tuesday, July 16, 2013

This Is How You Die

Today marks the release of my short story "Apitoxin" as part of This Is How You Die, a speculative fiction anthology from editors Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo, and David Malki !. It is the sequel to the bestselling Machine of Death. The stories within these volumes are incredibly diverse, running the gamut from sober and philosophical to uproariously funny. All the stories share a common premise: the existence of a machine that, based on a simple blood test, can tell you how you will die. Not where ... not when ... simply how. The predictions never change, no matter how many times you take the test. And they always come true. The caveat is that the predictions may not mean what you assume they mean; they can be vague, or ironic. For example: "old age" could mean getting killed by an old person in some fashion, as Ryan North posits in the webcomic that kicked off the whole shebang.

The original Machine of Death was published independently a few years back, and was the #1 bestselling book on Amazon on the day of its release. That got a lot of attention, leading to This Is How You Die getting picked up by the Hachette Book Group division Grand Central Publishing (the same folks who publish Stephen Colbert's books, as it happens). We're unlikely to be #1 on Amazon this time around; sales will be spread out over many more retailers, such as Barnes & Noble and iTunes. Also, by ill fate, our competition this week turned out to be an obscure writer by the name of J. K. Rowling. But we're still shooting for the Moon! So far, the book has received glowing reviews from Publishers Weekly (who named it one of the Best Summer Reads of 2013), Kirkus Reviews, Library Journal and The A.V. Club. You can visit the official website to learn more, watch a Funny or Die promo video, and read about the campaign to get the book on the New York Times Bestseller List (which would be awesome, thanks very much).

I've had a chance to see the finished book now, and it's jam-packed with terrific stories, comics and artwork. My own story, "Apitoxin," is a tale of Sherlock Holmes and his encounter with the Machine of Death, and was brilliantly illustrated by Indigo Kelleigh. His drawings are inspired by the original Sherlock Holmes illustrations that Sidney Paget created for The Strand Magazine, and the results are simply spectacular! There will also be an audiobook released at some point. Needless to say, I'm incredibly excited to be part of such an amazing project!

Monday, March 11, 2013

Release Roundup: Winter 2012/2013

Time for another round of catch-up! As the sidebar shows, there have been a "bunch" (pun intended) of new CD releases for which I have written liner notes over the past several months. I've also been busy working as a co-producer on an upcoming release, which is a whole new experience for meand part of the reason I've had so little time to devote to the blog! More on that in a few months. In the meantime, as the top graphic indicates, things have been getting wild!

First up, I'm very pleased to report my first two jobs for Quartet Records and its founder José M. Benítez. Based out of Spain (but catering to an international market), Quartet has been around for a while now, releasing many dozens of classic and current soundtracks—some reissues, others for the first time ever. Their growing prominence could not come at a better time, since the Film Score Monthly label has released its last production (more on that shortly). My first job for Quartet was for an expanded edition of Henry Mancini's score for Revenge of the Pink Panther (1978). This was the last of the Blake Edwards/Peter Sellers films to be made while Sellers was alive, and it's an outrageously fun entry in the series—with influences from disco to dixieland, and chock full of classic Mancini melodies. My second for Quartet is another Henry Mancini score, this time for the 1970 Vittorio De Sica film Sunflower (a.k.a. I Girasoli) starring Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni. This one is definitely NOT a comedy, telling the story of an Italian woman who travels to Russia on a desperate search for her MIA husband in the aftermath of World War II. Although the film is not terribly well known in America, the score showcases some of the composer's most striking and beautiful melodies. It is also Quartet's 100th release, so I'm doubly honored to be involved.

On the Intrada front, this winter saw the release of an exciting double-feature premiere of scores for films by influential director Don Siegel—both inspired by true events. The first is a short score by composer Leonard Rosenman for the WWII film Hell is for Heroes (1962), which stars Steve McQueen as a brash, independent-minded private holding his squad together along an indefensible position on the Siegfried Line. Rosenman's score is angular and modern, in his characteristic style. It's short, but it packs a heck of a wallop—and it neatly foreshadows his work on the popular TV series Combat. Joining Rosenman on the same disc is Jerry Fielding's score for the prison-break classic Escape from Alcatraz (1979), which stars Clint Eastwood as ambitious lifer Frank Lee Morris. It's a fascinating entry in Fielding's filmography: a harsh and challenging work written in the style of musique concrète, which involves the electronic manipulation of both live instruments and sound effects. It's an utterly unique score, and a true testament to Fielding's brilliance.

That brings us to today's announcement of Film Score Monthly's 250th and final soundtrack release: a deluxe 3-CD presentation of Jerry Fielding's monumental score to Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch. This is an important release on a number of levels, and not just because it's the last to come out on Lukas Kendall's Film Score Monthly label. It's regarded by many as Sam Peckinpah's greatest film, for one thing. It's indisputably one of the great Westerns of all time, for another. And its arguably Jerry Fielding's magnum opus: a score of incredible beauty, adventure and violence—but with an emphasis on beauty. Fielding's gorgeous melodies tap directly into the melancholy lyricism of the Mexican revolutionary era. He poured his heart into the score, and in the process exposed the heart of Peckinpah's unforgettable characters—foremost among them, the outlaw Pike Bishop, ferociously portrayed in a career-high performance by William Holden. I am deeply grateful to have worked on this release, co-writing the liner notes with Lukas Kendall, both on account of the high caliber of the film and score, and because of the debt I owe to Lukas. It was he who first recruited me to write pieces for his Film Score Monthly website and magazine, and thus got me started on this work I love so much. My association with Lukas has continued on projects for other labelsMr. Kendall has kept quite busy, despite launching a second career as a screenwriter and film producerbut this release nevertheless marks the end of an era that should be celebrated by all lovers of great music.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Reflections on Batman: The Animated Series and Shirley Walker

Batman: The Animated Series premiered on FOX in September of 1992, when I was twelve years old. I don't remember precisely when I started watching (I don't think I was tuned in for the premiere) but it wasn't long before I was hooked. I had never really given much thought to the character of Batman before. I had seen the campy 1966 film on VHS, and the way had been somewhat prepared by exposure to, of all things, Darkwing Duck. My father had taken note of the darker direction the character was heading in comics and film, and didn't exactly approve. So in many ways, Batman: The Animated Series was my first exposure to the real Batman (with loving affection and all due respect to Adam West). It became my gateway to Tim Burton, Frank Miller, Denny O'Neil, Alan Moore and countless other artists who left their stamp on the legacy of the Bat.

The series was also my first exposure to the work of Shirley Walker, who supervised and led a team of composers to create the music for the show. Even at twelve, I was already a certified film and television music fan, so I was especially tuned in to the scores of my favorite programs. And I knew right off the bat (so to speak) that Batman: The Animated Series was something special ... something far more enthralling and interesting than the norm. I knew that most of the cartoons I watched used library music, because I would hear the same pieces again and again. Batman, by contrast, used the same themes for characters, but did so in the context of original underscore for every episode. And what themes and scores they were! Gothic, brooding, thrilling; as wild and colorful as the Dark Knight's gallery of rogues, and the perfect complement to the show's superlative writing, acting and directing.

You can imagine my surprise when I went to the local record shop (Harmony House, for those of you who remember) and discovered that there was no soundtrack CD available to buy. At the time, market realities meant nothing to me. Every soundtrack I had wanted, I'd been able to obtain in some shape or form. It had never occurred to me that music that was so good might not have an album to go along with it. I found some consolation in the soundtrack release for the 1993 theatrical movie Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, also by Shirley Walker and featuring several themes from the series. But it was all-too-short, and lacked so many of the enthralling melodies that I craved. The only other solo Shirley Walker score available at the time was Memoirs of an Invisible Man. I resigned myself to enjoying her music in the context of the show, while it lasted, and thereafter sang her praises to anyone who would listen to me. My appreciation for her incredible gifts as a composer and orchestrator only grew deeper over the years. Shirley became one of my artistic heroes, with her music playing a significant role in my imaginative life.

Fast-forward to 2006. I had begun to write about film and TV music for Film Score Monthly magazine in 2001. Although I wrote mainly reviews and articles, I had conducted one brief interview, with the widow of a relatively obscure composer whom I admired (Harlene Stein, wife of Ronald Stein). I had been knocking around the idea of approaching Shirley Walker for an interview for a while, but I lacked the wherewithal to actually go about it. Finally, my friend and colleague Doug Adams grew impatient with me and volunteered to set up the interview. He had interviewed her himself years prior, circa her 1999 re-score of Mystery Men. The only caution he gave me was to tread carefully if the subject of her family came up, because her beloved husband Don had tragically passed away earlier in the year. I nervously sent her an email, and was thrilled when she readily agreed. We spoke on the evening of September 8, 2006. I called an hour after our scheduled appointment (I had miscalculated the time difference between Michigan and California), but she graciously didn't mention it, and responded to all my questions about her work and career with detail and good humor. The conversation drifted pleasantly once my notes had been exhausted, and by the time I hung up the phone I felt on top of the world.

Over the coming weeks, I transcribed the interview and exchanged several more emails with Shirley. The piece was published in two parts under the title "A Woman of Many Capes" in the October 2006 and November 2006 issues of Film Score Monthly Online. Then, on the evening of November 30, while I was working at the library, I received a text message from Doug informing me that Shirley had passed away due to an aneurysm. The news left me devastated. I took my break immediately, sitting alone in the parking lot of a nearby Burger King, and I remember being numb for the remainder of my shift. That night, I sent a note of condolence to the Dynamic Music Partners (Michael McCuistion, Lolita Ritmanis and Kristopher Carter), all former members of Shirley's team whom I had also interviewed for the magazine. We agreed to present their piece without alteration, save for a short memorial preface. The interview ran and life went on, although it was a long time before I could listen to Shirley's music without experiencing a lingering, bitter pang.

Almost one year later, at the beginning of November 2007, I started writing liner notes for the Intrada record label. A year after that, in December 2008, La-La Land Records announced a 2-CD world premiere release of scores from Batman: The Animated Series. Although hardly a complete representation (no single 2-CD set could have possibly done justice to the full scope and breadth of the series) it was a brilliant flame in what had hitherto been a dark void, and included music from many of my favorite episodes. I don't mind saying that I shed a few tears. A few months later, they released an expanded version of Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, which I viewed as equally important and essential. It was the beginning of a long-awaited renaissance. Superb releases of Shirley Walker's music for The Flash and Space: Above and Beyond would follow from LLL over the coming years. Meanwhile, I wrote about her supplementary music for The Black Stallion for Intrada (a gig that put me in touch with conductor and music editor Dan Carlin, Shirley's friend and co-conspirator) and began to write liner notes for La-La Land, including for Danny Elfman's Batman Returns and Elliot Goldenthal's Batman Forever.

In the Fall of 2011, I was asked to write the liner notes for the long-delayed second volume of music from Batman: The Animated Series. It would be 4-CDs, twice the length of volume one, and go a long way towards providing a more comprehensive overview of the show's music. Needless to say, I threw myself into the job with gusto. I contacted many of the show's composers for new interviews, and solicited further information from Shirley's colleague Bruce Broughton, and from Doug Frank, the Warners music executive who was responsible for hiring her. Batman: The Animated Series, Vol. 2 was released at Comic-Con San Diego in July of this year, just a few months prior to the show's 20th Anniversary. To date, nothing I have worked on has meant more to me on a personal level. I owe an incredible debt to the generous people who made it possible, in particular MV Gerhard and Matt Verboys of La-La Land Records, as well as Shirley's family of composers, all of whom were outstanding in their support of this project. I am so thrilled that this music, which I consider to be perhaps the best ever written for television, is finally getting out there for people to discover and enjoy. And it's not over yet! Future volumes of both Batman and Superman are in the works, and other treasures besides. If I could go back and show my twelve-year-old self what's been done, and what is being done even as I type this, it would blow his mind. I still don't quite believe it myself. But the evidence is right in front of me, on my CD shelf. I used to dream about holding such a release in my hands. It's not every day that a dream literally comes true.

Mission Galactica: Journey's End

The above graphic just about sums it up. For almost two years, I've been writing about this series and music for Intrada's landmark four-volume, 7-CD series. The third volume was released over the summer, and the fourth volume was finally released this past month (both with new cover artwork by Paul Shipper). At last, fans have ALL the surviving music (virtually everything) which Stu Phillips composed for the original Battlestar Galactica series and its associated film presentations, as well as some choice cuts from the spinoff Galactica 1980. It's been a very happy project for me, and thanks are once again due to Douglass and Regina Fake, Roger Feigelson, Joe Sikoryak, Mike Matessino, and especially maestro Phillips, who was always ready to lend an insightful word. Apologies if I've forgotten anyone. It's been a long journey, but Galactica has finally come home!

Release Roundup: Fall 2012

It's good to be busy, and Fall 2012 was the busiest quarter I can remember! Sadly, that means I allowed my blog updating to lapse (although I try to always keep the sidebar up to date with my latest doings). Here's a quick review of three liner notes projects from the last few months...

First up is Film Score Monthly's release of John Barry's King Kong. Barry fans may recall that FSM issued the original '76 album assembly of Kong back in 2005. This new Deluxe Edition 2-CD release includes that assembly, remastered, but it also includes the expanded film score and a large assortment of fascinating alternates. I've always loved this score—it's vintage Barry, suffused with his incomparable blend of melancholy and intensity—and the new presentation really shines like never before.

Next is Dennis McCarthy's Star Trek: Generations for GNP Crescendo. As with FSM and Kong, GNP previously released the original album presentation of this score (this was back in 1994, concurrent with the film's release). And as with Kong, this presentation includes the complete film score on disc one, and the original album plus bonus tracks on disc two. I did not actually pen the booklet notes for this release—that was done by Lukas Kendall and Jeff Bond. But I contributed a detailed track-by-track analysis, which can be read for free online at GNP's website.

Finally, we have Intrada's world premiere release of Henry Mancini's score for the 1981 superhero/spy spoof Condorman. The film is a live-action Disney picture from their experimental late-seventies/early-eighties period, and over the years it has both taken a critical beating and developed a significant cult following. It had no soundtrack release of any kind back in the day, making it one of the most-requested Mancini scores. The composer's fans will find it was worth the wait; it's big, romantic, and all kinds of fun.

Friday, August 31, 2012

Family Dramas and The Lost Child

Scoring family-oriented dramas strikes me as an often thankless task, particularly when the filmmakers are aiming for an "all ages" audience. There don't tend to be as many opportunities for big, attention-getting setpieces or larger-than-life character themes of the sort film music fans lap up, and the stories hew towards the gentle and uncontroversial. The music is expected to convey emotion, but within relatively "safe" boundaries, which seems (from my own non-composer point of view, at least) like a real challenge. There are no explosions or flashy special effects to hide behind; you can't bust out a jagged rhythm and a pumped-up horn line and call it a day. Your music is unusually exposed. And even if you have the aptitude for big, bold melodies, you have to be careful not to go too far in that direction lest your music overwhelm the intimacy of the drama. Step an inch over the line, and you get accused of being treacly or manipulative. It comes down to the ability to write a simple, beautiful melody that hits the sweet spot of not too circumspect and not overblown. That's a tough thing to do well.

One composer who can do this kind of "sweet spot" score well is Mark McKenzie. Mark has a gift for writing heartfelt melodies that convey grace and tranquility, making him a great fit for dramas with a strong family or religious theme. He's done splendid work as a composer in many other genres, of course; but he seems to have a special affinity for the warm and intimate, which can make for a nice change of pace from all the sturm and drang. Hallmark Hall of Fame has recently re-released just such a score: Mark's music for the 2000 film The Lost Child, performed by the Northwest Sinfonia. Previously available on CD and long out of print (secondhand copies are terribly expensive), it is now available as a digital download from Amazon, iTunes and CD Baby. I haven't seen the film, but the score is a lovely piece of work, with a tender main theme that gets a lot of play. The orchestrations are clear and warm in a way that is reminiscent of Jerry Goldsmith, who often employed Mark's services as an orchestrator. If you're looking for something peaceful and gently uplifting, The Lost Child is definitely worth checking out.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Jawing About Jaws

Radio host extraordinaire Tim Burden was good enough to have me back on his Movie Magic program on the Q Radio Network this week. The subject of our conversation: Jaws and Jaws 2, both the films and the magnificent scores by John Williams. A newly restored print of Jaws is currently playing in UK theaters, and is coming to Blu-Ray later this year. Needless to say, exciting stuff!