Varese Sarabande label's Robert Townson counts down his top 5 scores
POZNAN, POLAND—If you have film scores in your music collection, chances are very good that they are on the Varese Sarabande label.
To celebrate its 35th anniversary this year, Varese Sarabande, which takes its first name from French composer Edgard Varese and its last from a Spanish dance, took its show on the road, holding concerts in Los Angeles, Macau, China; Tenerife, Canary Islands, and here in Poznan at the Transatlantyk Festival. A final concert will be held Oct. 19 in Los Angeles.
Robert Townson, VP and producer for the Studio City, Calif.-based label, has just overseen the release of his 1,200th project for Varese Sarabande. At more than 1.5 million copies in the U.S. alone, the company’s best seller is the soundtrack to “Ghost,” which included Maurice Jarre’s score and Alex North’s “Unchained Melody,” made famous by the Righteous Bros.
Townson is an incredible film score historian. When we asked him to list his five all-time favorite scores, we knew his selections would be interesting, but we didn’t know we’d also find out some fascinating movie trivia at the same time.
And yes, his five selections have all been issued on Varese Sarabande, but that’s what happens when you love film scores as much as he does. “I would never limit the scores to my label,” he says, “But as it turns out, it’s been a self-fulfilling prophecy. So in every case, it’s a situation where if I love a score so much, of course I’m going to do my own release of it.”
Townson’s top five scores in descending order:
5. “Planet Of The Apes” (Jerry Goldsmith): “In a lot of ways, number five the hardest spot to fill because, of course, it has to be Jerry, but the breadth of his work is unparalleled. Bottom line, no one did the amount of great work that Jerry did because he treated every film as though it were ‘Chinatown,’ whether he was working on ‘The Swarm’ or ‘Patton.’ He wrote the scores for the films that the directors wished they had made. And always brought his A Game and to a degree that is unmatched, Jerry just never had a bad day. The consistency of excellence is all his own. ‘Planet of the Apes’ was just creating an all-new language, taking us to a world that we have never seen before, through his music, convincing us that they were on a distant planet and all of these unusual sounds: French horns being played without mouthpieces and stainless steel mixing boards and the whole tapestry was genuinely and completely a world he created. He was working with Franklin J. Schaffner on that picture. Schaffner was a great example of a director who trusted his composer and let him do his thing. And that’s why we have the masterpiece that is that score and the film has gone on to become part of history.”
4. “Sunset Boulevard” (Franz Waxman): “‘Sunset Blvd.’ is an example of a mastery, a psychological role that the music plays in that film— so much range and energy in the writing. You have the glamour and the madness and the way Wasman wove it all together. Fifty years after Waxman won the Academy Award there had never been an album for ‘Sunset Blvd.’ Never, ever, ever. There was a concert suite that ran seven minutes, that was all that ever came from “Sunset Blvd.” So 50 years later, in 2000, I went to Scotland with [composer] Joel McNeely and we recorded the complete score with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. I found when I went through the manuscripts the 10-minute prologue for the scene that never exists in the film called ‘Conversing Corpses,’ and the movie originally opened with a scene where WIlliam Holden’s character wakes up in the morgue and the other corpses tell the story of how they met their end. So no one had ever heard that before and it’s my favorite piece of the score. It’s where he introduces all of his melodies and in that setting it’s just macabre and masterful and brilliant in so many ways.”
3. “Vertigo” (Bernard Herrmann): “I just see it as the summit of his work. It’s passionate, it’s psychological. It’s so responsible for shaping the impact of that film. That’s the film that literally among Hitchcock’s script notes—he wrote it himself— ‘We will leave this scene for Mr. Herrmann.’ They had worked together since ‘The Trouble With Harry’ in 1955 and had developed this shorthand, this relationship, where Hitchcock was confident enough in the voice that Herrmann was bringing to the film that he passed the reins to the composer. The best scores have always resulted in directors trusting the composer. The best advice or input to give to a composer is just have at it.
2. “To Kill a Mockingbird” (Elmer Bernstein): “It’s just such an emotional score. Elmer Bernstein, one of the great composers of all time. So grateful that I got to spend the time I did with Elmer. We did 30 some albums together. I recorded ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ with him conducting himself with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. He spent so much time before writing a single note just thinking about the score. He took the benefit of time to really let the film soak into him. The master composer that he is then came out with this melody that is just the most expressive reach into the heart. It’s what happens in the hands of a master composer who knows things that we can’t even conceive, but there’s just the soul of a great artist being expressed with notes on paper.”
1. “Spartacus” (Alex North): “I started doing what I do when I was young enough to get to spend the last few years of Alex North’s life working with him. We would hang out in his studio and talk about music. This is a guy who every genre he stepped foot in, he revolutionized. When I started talking to Alex about doing new recordings of his scores, the first one I brought up was ‘Spartacus.’ It had been my favorite score since growing up: the depth of writing, the mastery of every note, the range and all the different styles he put into it and still it all tried together in a unified work. ‘Spartacus Love Theme’ is just one of the greatest melodies to ever come from film and the degree to which he broke ground just in the orchestral writing, his language and what he was doing musically in that score just set the stage for so much of what came after. Just at its heart, the emotion behind it where he had all this genius but that it kind of disappears within the fabric of the story that he’s telling musically. When I found out that Universal was doing a restoration of the film in 1990, we were going to try to align with that, but then we realized the window that we had in order to get the recording done in time wasn’t going to happen. I promised Alex when we moved Spartacus out of the lineup, that one day I would restore and release his score. Twenty years later when I’m approaching my 1000th album, which was also the year that celebrated Alex’s 100th birthday and Spartacus’s 50th anniversary, [we did.] He didn’t live to see it, but what happened in the 20 intervening years is I got to produce ‘Spartacus’ at a level where it was the most elaborate production of any film score in history.” (Varese Sarabande’s 2010 release included 6 CDs, 1 DVD and an 168-page booklet, including two CDs devoted to “Spartacus Love Theme,” with variations by Carlos Santana, Bill Evans, and Ramsey Lewis, and Alexandre Desplat, as well as a new Lee Holdridge arrangement featuring flautist Sara Andon.)