15 October 2008

Memories of a black mass

Halloween has a very specific soundtrack in my apartment. It’s the time of year when the iPod sitting in its dock hooked to my sound system starts playing “Danse Macabre,” “Night on Bald Mountain,” the soundtrack to Psycho, and of course, the score to Halloween. But mostly, it’s the season of Jerry Goldsmith’s “Omen Trilogy” of soundtracks—October perennials since high school.

If any piece of music can be said to have caused an epiphany for me, it’s the score to The Omen (1976). It made me a soundtrack collector and fanatic. By high school I had already made a turn toward film scores; I had zero interest in contemporary popular music, and only a passing interest in some classical music. But I liked John Williams’s epic populist soundtracks to Lucas and Spielberg movies, and grooved with John Barry’s 007 music. I had found some work by Bernard Herrmann via his Ray Harryhausen films. And I had one or two pieces by some fellow named Jerry Goldsmith. I knew enough about Mr. Goldsmith to know that he won an academy award for his score to The Omen. Even though I had never seen the film before, I picked up the album when I saw it in a store. I had no idea my musical life was about to change.

The first time I listened to The Omen soundtrack, it scared the living daylights out of me. This has nothing to do with the religious aspects of the music, since I’m not religious in the slightest. Something about this Latin-chanting chorus and the mix of liturgical with modernist orchestration deeply unnerved me. I had to shut the album off during the third cut, “Killer Storm,” because I suddenly couldn’t take it. That is still one wicked and shivery piece of music.

I’ve never had a piece of music hit me like this, before or since. For some people it’s Mozart, or Hendrix, or Miles Davis… for me it was a Black Mass called “Ave Satani” and the madness and despair that followed it.

When I got back to listening to the rest of the album, I was glued to the chair where I was sitting as if I were watching the most engrossing suspense film ever made. For days afterwards, the themes and the chanting of the chorus with their black mass would not leave my head. When I later saw the film and heard how the music worked with the images, I was even more astonished. (The film remains a personal favorite, and I placed it in my list of Top Five Halloween Films.) But the score had worked its dark magic on me, scared me into shutting it off, before I had even seen a frame of the film. That’s genius.

I emerged from this as 1) a Jerry Goldsmith fan, and 2) a film soundtrack fanatic. Neither obsession has ever left me. I have some hundred and fifty soundtrack albums by Mr. Goldsmith, and nearly a thousand various other scores on CD and LP. The Omen first showed me the incredible possibilities in the dramatic film score and made me a lover of this peculiar and varied musical form. The Omen isn’t my favorite film score of all time—that honor belongs to another Goldsmith score, Chinatown—but it is the one that influenced me the most.

During Halloween season, The Omen and Goldsmith’s scores to the two sequels, Damien: Omen II (1978) and The Final Conflict (1981) rule my roost. The sequel scores use the choral ideas from the first film, but are very different in style, particularly The Final Conflict, which is operatic, stately, and occasionally emotionally uplifting. The middle film score sits between the medieval solemnity of the first and the classicism of the third with an approach that is slick, fast, and almost jazzy. It contains one of Goldsmith’s most sustained pieces of tension music, “Runaway Train.”

All three scores were later re-issued on CD in expanded editions, which I snapped up immediately. I still have my old CDs as well, since they had gone through so many years with me already.

Jerry Goldsmith died in 2004, but I was fortunate and honored to have met him in person twice. He was a generous and modest-seeming man, honestly surprised that he had fans like me running around collecting his albums (“Do you really listen to all of them?” he asked me incredulously). He was full of wonderful stories about his long career, and I listened to him speak about them for six hours at a special seminar. The second time I met him, during the scoring sessions to Deep Rising that the film editor had invited me to, Goldsmith signed my albums of The Omen and Chinatown, and they remain two of my most treasured items.