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Remembering Herman Stein

By Randall D. Larson     March 29, 2007


Herman Stein
© R. Larson

REMEMBERING HERMAN STEIN

Composer Herman Stein died on March 15th in Los Angeles, at the age of 91. Best known for the music he composed as a member of the Universal Studios music department in the 1950s – including working on the scores of The Creature from the Black Lagoon, It Came From Outer Space, and The Incredible Shrinking Man – Stein was a prolific composer in virtually all genres.

Born in Philadelphia in 1915, Herman Stein was a self-taught child prodigy musician who began playing the piano at age 3 and gave his first recital at age 6. He performed professionally in bars and restaurants as a teenager, and during the 1930s and 1940s he became a noted arranger for jazz orchestras and radio programs in New York. In 1948 he moved to Los Angeles, where he studied formally with Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, joining the music staff at Universal Pictures in 1951, where he remained until 1958. His music, usually without specific credit, graced more than 200 movies of all kinds, from Westerns like Destry, The Duel At Silver Creek, The Far Country, and Joe Dakota, comedies like Has Anybody Seen My Gal and several Abbott & Costello, Ma & Pa Kettle, and Francis the Talking Mule films, crime dramas like Girls in the Night and The Glass Web – but it’s the monster movie music that has endured, especially his 3-note blaring ostinato composed for The Creature from the Black Lagoon and his plodding, “footsteps” suspense motif from It Came From Outer Space. Much of Stein’s memorable monster music is available on CD from Monstrous Movie Music (www.mmmrecordings.com )

Monstrous’ David Schechter told the Los Angeles Times that Stein “helped define the sound of monster movies back in that time,” adding that "This Island Earth is one of the landmark science fiction scores… It's up there with Bernard Herrmann's The Day the Earth Stood Still and Dimitri Tiomkin's The Thing From Another World. It's every bit as inventive, if not more, but nobody knew who wrote it."

The composers who worked in anonymity at Universal’s music department scored reels of film day in and day out by assignment and the studio with little choice in what they were handed to do – and most heard their music used over and over again, as completed scores were assimilated into the studio’s vast recyclable music library. Like many of the composers who were musicians first, and filmgoers second, Stein did not feel any particular admiration toward these films as he was scoring them, and was surprised to learn many went on to become revered classics of the genre. To him, it was just a job, and when he named what he felt were his finest musical moments at Universal, few were from the iconic horror scores than we aficionados hold in such high regard.

“We’d grind pictures out like a factory in those days,” Stein told me during a 1983 interview at his home, where he proved to be a most gracious and

It Came From Outer Space poster.

hospitable host. “Sometimes two or three of us would work on a picture; one of us would come up with the main theme and the others would use that theme in the cues we’d do. Sometimes I would do a reel or Hank [Mancini] would do a reel, or Skinner would do a reel, that sort of thing. It was quite a collaborative effort. Sometimes somebody would inherit the Main Title, and we would have a theme there. Whoever had to use that particular theme would compose it in his own particular way. For example, we did a picture called It Came From Outer Space that was a little different. I remember that I did the Main Title and some other cues, and we also used some library music. Everybody would do different things, but for continuity, somebody would come up with a certain theme for this character or that character. When the rest of us had to compose a cue that involved that particular character we based our writing on that theme. We actually used each other’s themes interchangeably but we would compose it in our own way.”

Even though they were composed by a team of composers working fairly independently, these scores are remarkably unified, generating a purposeful single direction in moving their stories forward. 1953’s It Came from Outer Space featured a sparing use of Theremin to establish its eerie, invading-alien tonality. While Stein’s blaring Creature from the Black Lagoon ostinato has been criticized for overuse in the 1954 film, it’s affect can not be denied – like the famous Jaws ostinato composed by John Williams twenty years later, its sound alone is enough to cause chills and suggest the monster’s presence even when the gill man is off screen. The music that Stein wrote for 1956’s This Island Earth, assisted by Salter and by Mancini, who scored the last reel, was an amazingly progressive and modernistic score for the typically 19th Century musical sensibilities of Universal. A haunting, brooding atmosphere is sustained through the use of tremolo vibraphone, flutes, and high-register cellos performed in wide vibrato to achieve eerie, synthesizer-like acoustic tonalities. While the music to 1957’s The Incredible Shrinking Man was very much a group project (including

This Island Earth

the use of a popular theme by Foster Carling and Earl E. Lawrence incorporated into the score), Stein’s contributions included the film’s powerfully summarized End Title, after diminutive Scott Carey accepts his ongoing shrinkage and boldly strides out into the garden, which to him begins to resemble an alien cosmos.

“Music is music,” Stein said, “and if you compose for a dramatic situation, which happens to be a film, you approach it fundamentally the same way. The fact that it’s an outer space plot, or a supernatural one, really doesn’t matter to the composer. You’re composing music for a film, and you’re fulfilling the function of a film composer which is to intensify what you see on the screen--not necessarily to describe it or to identify it, but to get an overall effect. When you see a film with music and everything, the photography, the story, it all becomes a homogeneous whole, and everything contributes to that total effect. So it’s really no different writing for a science fiction picture than any other, it is not a specialty.”

Regretably, few of Universal’s music staffers received screen credit – usually music superviser Joseph Gershenson (an executive, not a composer) got a screen title crediting him as “music director” or “music supervisor.” Only if one of his staff composers composed the entire film by himself would that composer be rewarded with an on-screen music credit.

Stein, Schechter said, "was a tremendously gifted composer, but he did his work in relative obscurity."

The composer was still downplaying his early film work in a 2000 interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer in which he maintained that he was little more than a craftsman and that "Universal was a factory."

"I still have recurring dreams of not making a deadline," he said.

Henry Mancini, who started his own film music career in the Universal music factory, recalled in his 1989 autobiography, Did They Mention the Music, working with Stein: “He used to sit up in his room, without a piano, and write. This amazed me, this ability to write without a piano, although there are many composers who do”

Following the end of the studio system and the demise of the Universal music department, Stein and many of his fellow staffers found work in television, scoring episodes of  Wagon Train, Daniel Boone, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and Lost In Space. He also composed the score for Roger Corman's groundbreaking 1961 civil rights drama, The Intruder. Stein retired from composing at the end of the 1960s.

His wife, Anita, who played viola for the Los Angeles Philharmonic for many years, died in 2001. Stein left no survivors.

“The only thing I object to in science fiction pictures is when the music just becomes sound effects,” Stein told me, considering the popular sci-fi movies of the early 1980s. “That does not help. There’s one generality that I’d like to make, and it’s not only about science fiction pictures but about all film music, and I think it’s an important one, and that is this: music can be a good piece of music, played away from the film, and it may not help the picture because it may not be right, but if it is bad as music, it can never, never help a picture. I don’t know if anybody else ever made this observation but I make it twenty times a day! If it is bad music it is not going to help. A lot of pictures work not because of the music but in spite of it, and I’ve heard many pictures that would have been better if the music had been better.”

To read my complete interview with Herman Stein about his Universal monster music, see my July 13, 2006 column, archived here at: http://www.mania.com/51698.html 


THIS WEEK’S RECOMMENDATION

Howard Shore has composed a warm and eloquent score for The Last Mimzy, Bob Shaye’s gentle family fantasy based on a short story by Henry Kuttner about two siblings granted magical powers when they discover a mysterious toybox. The score, released last week by New Line Records (by Silva Screen Records in the UK and Europe), is thoroughly orchestral – at least until it’s End Title song, “Hello (I Love You”) performed by ex-Pink Floydian Roger Waters, who co-wrote the song with Shore – it’s not the 1968 hit by The Doors. With ripplings of “Comfortably Numb” and The Dark Side of the Moon in both its lyric and sound, the song is innocently magical and as thoughtful and reflective as any Floyd hit of previous rock eras.

Opening with a powerful, surging motif called “The Mandala,” Shore creates an inquisitive piece for recurring ascending figures of horns and strings that open into a magnificent vista of orchestral color as the theme is stated broadly and very dramatically, escorted by rustling cymbals and ragged percussion until it is suddenly clarified with sharp precision and, just as suddenly, it ends, irresolutely, seemingly interrupted by other events, to be reprised in a later track.

The Last Mimzy soundtrack.

“Whidbey Island,” which follows, is a gentle melody for horn and strings, punctuated by piano. When the primary melody is first introduced it sounds quite Williams-ian, but soon Shore takes it into different areas, where it softly tangles with piano and winds and nicely accompanies the film’s environment into view, musically setting the stage for the adventure to follow.

“Under the Bed” musically embodies that ubiquitous childhood fear while investing it also with an intoxicating curiosity, and what might have been a purely suspenseful motif becomes rich with heightened wonder as Shore’s violins resonate lavishly. “Palm Readings” rustles with quiet apprehension. “Help!” reprises the heraldic main theme, allowing it to breathe in a very broad and eloquent fashion, until a low-end cello counterpoints the high end melody and closes out the cue on a note of disillusion.

“Can I Talk” is an especially evocative piece, driven forward by a scampering undercurrent of harp, very cohesive and tight, before morphing into furtive and desolate violin figures, hesitant and withdrawn, eventually coming together in a very nice mélange of massed strings, and then launching into a bold rhythmic statement, purposefully moving continually forward.

The score concludes – and finally resolves that abruptly ended introduction from “The Mandala,” in “Through the Looking Glass,” a very fitting and satisfying musical denouement.


FILM MUSIC NEWS

Discovering yet another amazing young film composer, soundtrack label MovieScore Media presents its 19th online release, coming out on http://www.moviescoremediashop.com on March 27, 2007, and on Apple’s iTunes store shortly thereafter. The album features award-winning UK composer Laura Rossi’s dark and disturbing score for the independent thriller Shooting Shona, directed by filmmakers Abner and Kamma Pastoll.

Shooting Shona soundtrack.

The score for Shooting Shona is written for a handpicked selection of musicians with a string quartet, piano and solo woodwinds creating the ominous mood of the film, sometimes evoking the tradition of the great Bernard Herrmann and his scores for the Alfred Hitchcock classics. Produced by February Films, Shooting Shona is an intimate thriller about the disappearance of Shona’s flatmate and her subsequent struggle to find her. The film stars Sam Burker, Tim Downie, Dipika Guha and Daniel Gosling, and will come out on DVD in the near future.
www.moviescoremedia.com.
Composer’s site: www.laurarossi.com

Yet another horror classic from the 1970s has just received a remake. This week, Variety reviewed a new version of Brian DePalma's SISTERS, directed by Douglas Buck, starring actress Lou Doillon (daughter of Jane Birkin and director Jacques Doillon) as the Siamese twins, with Chloe Sevigny, Dallas Roberts, and Stephen Rea. Variety said of its score, "Composers Edward Dzubak and David Kristian would probably blush at being compared to Bernard Herrmann, but they have nothing to apologize for either."

Rykodisc has released the impressive score for Rome. In this British costume drama, the turbulent transition from Roman republic to autocratic empire, which changed world history trough civil war and wars of conquest, is sketched both from the aristocratic viewpoint of Julius Caesar, his family, his adopted successor Octavian Augustus, and their political allies and adversaries, and from the politically naive viewpoint of a few ordinary Romans, notably the soldiers Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo and their families. The dramatic score is by Emmy award winning composer Jeff Beal. The haunting album of ancient sounds and rhythms perfectly complements the HBO series. – via soundtrackcollector.com

Scottish composer Craig Armstrong (Moulin Rouge, The Bone Collector, World Trade Center) is currently working on the score for Shekhar Kapur’s The Golden Age, an epic drama about the relationship between Elizabeth I and Sir Walter Raleigh, starring Cate Blanchett and Clive Owen. Also providing music for the film is India’s soundtrack icon A.R. Rahman. Scoring sessions are scheduled to take place at Air Studios, Lyndhurst Hall, in London shortly. The Golden Age is produced by Working Title, for whom Craig Armstrong previously provided the original score for romantic comedy Love Actually. The Golden Age is scheduled to premiere on October 7. – via filmmusicradio.com


Recommended Soundtrack sources:
www.buysoundtrax.com  
www.intrada.com  
www.screenarchives.com  
www.footlight.com  
www.arksquare.com/index_main.html (Japan)
www.intermezzomedia.com/ (Italy)
www.moviegrooves.com  
www.moviemusic.com  

 

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