Born in Pennsylvania, Alex North's parents were of Russian descent and later he was to attend the Moscow Conservatory for two years of study. Yet his upbringing, his outlook on life and his music were entirely American in nature. On returning to the US he studied with Aaron Copland and in Mexico with Silvestre Revueltas (which experience perhaps germinated certain musical ideas for his later score to "Viva Zapata!" featuring some Mexican dances). With this musical education behind him he spent the war years creating music for documentaries for the Armed Forces while working on his own concert works. Soon after WWII his first symphony received its first public performance, and Benny Goodman played North's commission "Revue for Clarinet and Orchestra" at a concert attended by Leonard Bernstein. North was no stranger to Jazz but this performance signalled a lasting relationship with this form of expression.
North went on to compose much classical and ballet music before carving out a niche for himself as a composer of incidental music for the theatre, including Shakespeare and many contemporary plays. One of these was "Death of a Salesman" for Elia Kazan, and that partnership moved together into film when North wrote his first film soundtrack for Kazan's film version of the Tennessee Williams play A Streetcar Named Desire. Then soon afterwards North was to score the film version of "Death of a Salesman". This first foray into film music made a considerable impression on the movie business with his novel use of Jazz totally unlike the traditional romantic style still prevalent in the cinema at that time, and both film scores earned the composer Academy Award nominations. It wasn't just the use of Jazz which made North's style of composition stand out from previous scores. His music belonged more to modern classical music than to the romantic era, with its atonality, unusual harmonies bordering on dissonance, and creative use of instrument combinations. An Alex North soundtrack seems more akin to painting with sound than the structured approach of other composers. This style of music seems to give the impression of layers of complexity, and in certain types of drama seems to convey a subtle suggestion of hidden complexity to the characters and their interactions.
North's early film career was to maintain a link with the stage, with a number of screen adaptations including another by Tennessee Williams "The Rose Tatoo", and theatrical movies like "Les Miserables" and "Desiree" not to mention "Stage Struck". Even the original screenplays he worked on seemed to have the intimacy of the stage, and North is quoted as saying that he preferred to write music for this type of film where he could identify with and express the feelings of individual characters. This early success meant that he was much in demand at this time, and he went on to score many additional movies in the 1950s including the aforementioned "Viva Zapata!", "The Racers", "I'll Cry Tomorrow", "The Rainmaker", "The Bachelor Party", "The Long Hot Summer" and "Unchained". This latter movie may be largely forgotten these days but the theme song that North wrote for it seems to have a life of its own - "Unchained Melody" with lyrics by Hy Zaret. There have been a number of highly successful cover versions, especially the Number One hit by "The Righteous Brothers", and the inclusion of this version on the movie "Ghost" introduced the song to a whole new generation. This in turn increased its popularity leading to yet more cover versions, including another hit sung by Robson and Jerome fresh from their popular TV series "Soldier Soldier" in the UK and, most recently, Gareth Gates.
As the movies continued to roll, North was asked to compose for a wider variety of genres. Whether by luck or design, many of these turned out to be character-driven allowing his talents to excel. It wasn't long before he found himself scoring for Westerns in the shape of "Cheyenne Autumn" for John Huston, and Epics such as "Spartacus" for Stanley Kubrick. Both of these directors resulted in further work for the composer. With John Huston, North for a time had one of those frequent director-composer partnerships, resulting in "The Misfits", "Wise Blood", "Prizzi's Honor" and "Under the Volcano". Spartacus was a successful film, but the relationship with Stanley Kubrick was more short-lived. It is easy to see why Kubrick commissioned North to score "2001: A Space Odyssey", since the music for Spartacus has a raw elemental energy interspersed with a waltzing love theme. However all the music North created for this Science Fiction movie was ignored by the director, who decided to retain completely the temporary backing track made up from classical works, including the now famous opening from Richard Strauss so inseparably associated with the film. North's original score has been recorded by North's friend Jerry Goldsmith and is available on CD - check our review of this incredible music.
Other Alex North scores re-recorded by Jerry Goldsmith and the RSNO include "Viva Zapata!" and "The Agony and the Ecstasy". This latter movie depicts the artistic highs and lows of Michelangelo's painting of the Sistine Chapel. The score is an interesting one covering the full range of emotions and styles from the Agony in Romantic/Modern style to the Ecstacy in Baroque/Classical style reminiscent of Handel. While North's output declined in later years as he suffered from illness, he still managed to produce soundtracks, including several of the John Huston films, "Dragonslayer" and "Good, Morning, Vietnam". In 1986 "The Academy" presented him an honorary award for his services to film music over 4 decades. During his career he had received no less than 14 oscar nominations, and this honorary award was perhaps some consolation for not having received the top award in any one year. But far more than noting the quantity of great film music he had created, the award was more a recognition of his unique place in the development of film music. Most film composers before North composed almost exclusively in a style not far removed from that of the late 19th century, the romantic period. North's music however was quite clearly from the 20th century (in his use of modern harmonies and thematic intensities as well as the seemless inclusion of popular idioms like Jazz). His films scores drew freely on a wide variety of musical experiences with complete mastery and much inventiveness. He demonstrated the flexibility of the medium and was thus instrumental in sending film music off in new directions.
The record label Varese Sarabande is planning to issue a limited-edition bumper pack dedicated to Alex North's score for "Spartacus". The package includes 6 CDs, a DVD and a 168-page book! This is producer Robert Townson's 1000th release for the label, and he says that disc 1 will contain the full 70 minutes of recorded stereo soundtrack, 2 more discs will contain the full score (that's 2 hours 20 minutes) in mono, a further disc will contain unused and alternate cues from the film, and the final 2 CDs will feature 22 different versions of the Spartacus Love Theme. Some versions date from the 60s such as pianist Bill Evans' jazz version from 1963 but other remixes have been newly arranged and recorded by various composers. The DVD is a 96-minute documentary about North and his music including interviews with John Williams, David Newman, Alexandre Desplat, Mark Isham, Lalo Schifrin, Christopher Young, Mark Isham and Robert Townson talking about North and his place in film music history.
All these won oscar nominations:
And these are also notable films by the composer:
For further excellent examples of Alex North soundtracks, check out "Spartacus" and the epic album of his "Cleopatra" on 2 CDs - see the links below. A great compilation album of music by North is called "North by North" which includes a wide choice of tracks from 12 different movies together with an expanded version of his score for "Journey into Fear". Additional soundtracks to seek out include "Viva Zapata!" and "The Agony and the Ecstasy" which are available in re-recorded form on CD with Jerry Goldsmith conducting the RSNO. Also conducted by Goldsmith is the unused score for 2001: A Space Odyssey. Although the music is completely original, you can hear a certain similarity to the classical soundtrack which was retained for the released film. On 4th December 2012, the 102nd anniversary of Alex North's birth, the original recordings of his lost score to "2001: A Space Odyssey" were released for download at Amoeba Music. A website dedicated to this music at www.AlexNorth2001.com provides more detail about the new album.
Here are some links to recommended soundtrack albums by Alex North:
For sheet music by North, you may want to try his song "Unchained Melody". This can be found in a variety of different arrangements for various instruments. For standard piano/vocal arrangements you can start by look at these pages at:
In addition to the recent release of his score for 2001, the Alex North estate have also been involved in the release of an album full of unusual cover versions of Unchained Melody. You can preview some of the tracks at this link on Soundcloud.