North, Alex


North, Alex
(1910–1991)
   The composer of the film score of SPARTACUS, Alex North, was born on December 4, 1910, in Chester, Pennsylvania. He studied music at the Curtis Institute, the Juilliard School of Music, and the Moscow Conservatory-and with Aaron Copland, who also wrote some film scores. North composed underscores for some 50 short documentaries between 1937 and 1950. During this period he also wrote background music for some Broadway plays, most significantly Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949), and composed ballet music for choreographers Martha Graham and Agnes de Mille. His orchestral compositions include a piano concerto (1939, revised 1957) and three symphonies. North’s first major film score was for Elia Kazan’s film of Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), which ranged from gutbucket New Orleans jazz to passages of full-blown symphonic music. He subsequently scored such important movies as Martin Ritt’s The Long Hot Summer (1959), with Paul Newman, before turning to Spartacus (1960). North was engaged to compose the musical score for Spartacus before STANLEY KUBRICK replaced Anthony Mann as director, and had nearly a year to write it. Lee Tsiantis writes in her career essay on North,“For Spartacus North attempted to capture the feeling of pre-Christian Rome, using contemporary musical techniques,” since the film tells the story of a slave (KIRK DOUGLAS) who instigates a slave revolt against the Roman Empire, an insurrection which is savagely quelled by the might of the imperial legions. North “researched music of the period and unearthed unorthodox instruments such as the dulcimer and the ondioline in a quest for exotic tone color. ” Contrary to what is generally thought, North did compare notes with Kubrick while he was writing the underscore. Kubrick suggested that he study the music that Sergei Prokofiev wrote for Sergei Eisenstein’s Russian historical epic Alexander Nevsky (1938). “Inspired by Prokofiev’s score,” Tsiantis continues,“ North utilized a large brass section to evoke the barbaric quality of the times. He withheld the violins’ appearance until the film’s love story blossomed” between Varinia, a slave girl (JEAN SIMMONS), and Spartacus; at that point, North proved himself “more than equal to the lyrical efflorescence of the ‘traditional’ film scores of the past. ” Indeed, the love theme was delicately orchestrated at various points with solos for oboe or English horn, demonstrating North’s lyric gifts.
   David Wishart comments on the CD liner notes that North’s score for Spartacus is “abrasive, rhythmically challenging, and almost wholly uncompromising: Discords, dense blocks of brass, impertinent woodwinds, monumental percussion and complex syncopation create a raucous anthem for a barbarous era. ”The music for the opening credits, for example, includes generous helpings of brass and percussion, while snare drums crackle with intensity and the trumpets and trombones blast away with tuckets and fanfares, joined by crashing cymbals and strident strings.
   While Kubrick was editing Spartacus, he toyed with the idea of introducing some previously recorded music here and there, which was not composed by North. For example, he contemplated employing a melancholy theme from Chaplin’s Limelight (1951) for Spartacus’s death scene. Though Kubrick ultimately stuck with North’s score throughout, he would turn again to the concept of using preexisting music in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY. North received an Academy Award nomination for Spartacus and subsequently composed the score for another Roman epic, Cleopatra (1963), for Joseph Mankiewicz. In December 1967, Kubrick phoned North with an offer to create the music for his SCIENCE FICTION FILM 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Kubrick pointed out that North would have to compose the score for the film without seeing a complete rough cut of the finished picture, because the complicated special effects would not be completed until the end of postproduction. He told North to get started, however, by creating a waltz to accompany scenes of spaceships in flight.
   North flew to London, where the film was being made, and spent two days with Kubrick, who played the temporary music tracks he had used during the initial phase of editing the film; it included works by JOHANN STRAUSS JR. , RICHARD STRAUSS, and Aram Khachaturian. Andrew Birkin, who worked on the special effects for the film, recalls in 2001: Filming the Future that he played a recording of Strauss’s THE BLUE DANUBE one day, while he was screening some special effects footage with Kubrick. The director suddenly turned to him with a gleam in his eye and said,“Wait a minute. Could we actually use this for real? Am I crazy, or would this be a stroke of genius?” Birkin states that that was the first time Kubrick ever mentioned the possibility of retaining the temporary tracks for the movie’s actual musical score on the sound track.
   As North recalls in The Making of 2001: A Space Odyssey, “Kubrick was direct and honest with me concerning his desire to retain some of the ‘temporary’ music tracks which he had been using. . . . But I couldn’t accept the idea of composing part of the score interpolated with other composers. I felt I could compose music that had the ingredients and essence of what Kubrick wanted and give it a consistency and homogeneity and contemporary feel. ”
   North returned to London on December 24, 1967, to start work for recording his score on January 1, after having viewed and discussed with Kubrick the first hour of film for scoring. Kubrick arranged a posh apartment for him in Chelsea, on the banks of the Thames, and furnished him with a record player, tape machine, and the like. “I worked day and night to meet the first recording date, but with the stress and strain, I came down with muscle spasms and back trouble. I had to go to the recording in an ambulance. ” Henry Brant, who helped North orchestrate his score, conducted while he monitored the recording session in the control room.
   “Kubrick was present, in and out,” North continues. “He made very good suggestions, musically. . . . So I assumed all was going well, what with his participation and interest in the recording. But somehow I had the hunch that whatever I wrote to supplant Strauss’s Thus Spake Zarathustra” for the opening fanfare of the picture “would not satisfy Kubrick, even though I used the same structure but brought it up to date in idiom and dramatic punch. ” At all events, after having composed and recorded more than 40 minutes of music in those two weeks, North waited around for the opportunity to look at the balance of the film and spot places for additional music. Kubrick even suggested over the phone certain emendations that could be made for a subsequent recording session. “After eleven tense days of waiting to see more film, in order to record in early February, I received word from Kubrick that no more score was necessary” for the balance of the film; he was going to use sound effects alone in the remainder of the movie. “I thought perhaps I would still be called upon to compose more music; I even suggested to Kubrick that I could do whatever was necessary back in L. A. at the MGM studios. Nothing happened. I went to the screening in New York” in April 1968, “and there were most of the ‘temporary’ tracks” on the sound track, in place of his score. “Well, what can I say? It was a great, frustrating experience,” North concluded. He deemed the prerecorded music of mostly classical composers that Kubrick had utilized on the sound track was “just not in keeping with the brilliant concept” of Kubrick’s film.
   Tsiantis comments, “It is a tragedy that, in their only subsequent collaboration” after Spartacus, “Kubrick decided to jettison the forty minutes of original music North wrote for 2001: A Space Odyssey. The director fell in love with his classical ‘temporary’ track and decided to retain it. ” Because aficionados of North’s music have vehemently protested Kubrick’s scuttling North’s score, Kubrick set the record straight in talking to MICHEL CIMENT: “However good our best film composers may be,” he began, they are not Richard Strauss, Johann Strauss, or Aram Khachaturian. “Why use music which is less good when there is such a multitude of great orchestral music available from the past and from our own time? When you’re editing a film, it’s very helpful to be able to try out different pieces of music to see how they work with the scene. ”This, of course, is common practice. In the case of 2001, Kubrick decided that the temporary tracks could become the final score. “When I had completed the editing of 2001, I had laid in temporary music tracks for almost all of the music. ”Then, as is customary, he engaged the services of a film composer,Alex North. “Although he and I went over the picture very carefully, and he listened to these temporary tracks and agreed that they worked fine and would serve as a guide for the musical objectives of each sequence, he nevertheless wrote and recorded a score which could not have been more alien to the music we had listened to; and, much more serious than that, a score which, in my opinion,was completely inadequate for the film. ”
   With the premiere looming,Kubrick had no time left even to consider having another score written by a different composer. “Had I not been able to use the music I had already selected for the temporary tracks, I don’t know what I would have done. ” North is cited above as maintaining that he was unaware that Kubrick did not intend to use his score until he attended the premiere; Kubrick counters that North’s agent was aware of this turn of events. “The composer’s agent phoned ROBERT O’BRIEN, then the head of MGM, to warn him that, if I didn’t use his client’s score, the film would not make its premiere date,” he said.
   The agent’s point was that Kubrick did not have time to have a substitute underscore written by another composer, and that hence Kubrick would have to use North’s music in order to avoid postponing the premiere. By the same token, if North was chagrined to see that none of his music was in the final film, he must have thought that, at the very least, the score would be a combination of his music and the preexisting music Kubrick had selected. After all, Kubrick had initially told North that from the beginning, he wanted the movie’s music to combine North’s compositions with at least some of the prerecorded music. North’s chagrin when he attended the premiere, then,was based on the fact that it never occurred to him (or to his agent) that Kubrick would ultimately use the preexisting music exclusively on the sound track.
   In any case, says Kubrick, “O’Brien trusted my judgment,” and endorsed his using the prerecorded tracks for his musical score in the film. “He is a wonderful man,” Kubrick concluded; “and one of the very few film bosses able to inspire genuine loyalty and affection from his filmmakers. ”
   In 1993 North’s score was issued by Varèse Sarabande in a recording by the National Philharmonic, conducted by film composer Jerry Goldsmith. With this recording, one can compare North’s background music for 2001 to the score that Kubrick actually used. North was right in guessing, as he suggests above, that Kubrick did not think his opening fanfare for the film was a match for Richard Strauss’s fanfare from Thus Spake Zarathustra. North employs brass and percussion and even chimes in a spirited theme which implies jubilation; the Strauss music is awesome and fraught with foreboding brass statements that are overwhelmed by thunderous tympani. Although both North and Strauss conclude their respective fanfares with an impressive sustained organ chord, North’s opener, which suggests a parade march, is not as appropriate a lead-in to the “Dawn of Man” sequence, which is the first episode of 2001, as the Strauss selection, since the opening episode is rather somber.
   What’s more, Johann Strauss’s “Blue Danube Waltz,” which accompanies the docking of a spaceship at a space station, has a flow and tranquility which the waltz that North composed for the same sequence cannot duplicate. When one listens to the actual film score for 2001 alongside North’s unused underscore, it is difficult to see how North’s music would have been an improvement on the background music that Kubrick finally chose for the film.
   Frank Miller extols Kubrick for being the first film director “to create a best selling score entirely pasted together from the classical canon,” a score which proved popular as a soundtrack recording. For the record, Kubrick’s scrapping of North’s music did not prove to be the career setback for North that the composer feared it would be. He continued to write distinguished music for films for another two decades. In fact, he was a favorite composer of John Huston, who commissioned him to score four films for him: Wise Blood (1979); Under the Volcano (1984); Prizzi’s Honor (1985), which starred JACK NICHOLSON and Anjelica Huston, and The Dead (1987), from the James Joyce novella.
   North’s last background score was for a French film about the holocaust starring the British actor Tom Courtenay, The Last Butterfly, released in 1991, the year of North’s death. For his part, North saw that the function of film scoring was “to extend the characters on screen by writing music that penetrates the soul of the individual,” as he says in Tsiantis’s essay. He was the first film composer to be awarded an honorary Academy Award for his lifetime achievement. It was bestowed on him at the Oscar ceremonies in 1985 and praised “his brilliant artistry in the creation of memorable music for a host of distinguished motion pictures. ” Among that number is his music for Spartacus.
   References
   ■ Bizony, Piers, 2001: Filming the Future (London: Aurum Press, 2000);
   ■ Ciment, Michel, Kubrick, trans. Gilbert Adair (New York: Faber and Faber, 2001);
   ■ Miller, Frank, Movies We Love: Classic Films (Atlanta:Turner, 1996);
   ■ Schiff,David,“Taking Movie Music Seriously,” New York Times, April 22, 2001, sec. 2, pp. 1, 36;
   ■ Schwam, Stephanie, ed. , The Making of 2001: A Space Odyssey (New York: Modern Library, 2000);
   ■ Tziantis, Lee, “Alex North,” in International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers: Writers and Production Artists, rev. ed. , vol. 4, ed. Grace Jeromski, (Detroit: St. James Press, 1997), p. 612;
   ■ Wishart, David, “Notes” (CD liner notes), Music from the Films of Stanley Kubrick (New York: Silva Screen Records, 1999).

The Encyclopedia of Stanley Kubrick. . 2002.

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  • North, Alex — born Dec. 4, 1910, Chester, Pa., U.S. died Sept. 8, 1991, Pacific Palisades, Calif. U.S. film composer and conductor. North studied at the Curtis Institute and Juilliard. In the early 1930s he traveled to Moscow and became the sole American… …   Universalium

  • North, Alex — (4 dic. 1910, Chester, Pa., EE.UU.–8 sep. 1991, Pacific Palisades, Cal.). Compositor de música para cine y director de orquesta estadounidense. Estudió en el Curtis Institute y en la Juilliard School. A comienzos de la década de 1930 viajó a… …   Enciclopedia Universal

  • north — /nawrth/, n. 1. a cardinal point of the compass, lying in the plane of the meridian and to the left of a person facing the rising sun. Abbr.: N 2. the direction in which this point lies. 3. (usually cap.) a region or territory situated in this… …   Universalium

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  • North — (as used in expressions) British North America Act North Canadian, río North Cascades, parque nacional North Down North Platte, río North West Co. North, Alex North (de Kirtling), Frederick, Lord …   Enciclopedia Universal

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