With successful soundtrack composers there is usually one scoring project, one film title that publicly jump-starts their careers – John Williams's "Star Wars"; Howard Shore's "Lord of the Rings" – no matter how long they may have been in the business already. For the casual listener it can seem as if those praised and prized breakthrough scores were immaculate conceptions, their composers having arrived fully formed. And yet even modest investigation reveals some earlier milestone film score, not so famous, wherein that same composer actually announced his or her talent and intentions – music just as ambitious, albeit uncelebrated, unknown. I call those novice efforts "salvo" scores.
From the dictionary: "SAL'VO: a burst of artillery fire intended to announce an impending military campaign and the presence of a new power or authority on the field of battle."
It has often been the case that such salvo scores were more experimental, sometimes more personal and original than that composer's more famous efforts to follow but, in any case, they are certainly worth some extra attention on their own, both as precursors and for their own inherent properties.
I first came to this whole subject while pondering the rise of the recent Oscar-winning scorer, Alexandre Desplat. His refined sense of motif writing keyed to the atmosphere and setting of each of his films and his distinctive instrumentation keyed to each film's character has given public notice, since his first Oscar nomination in 2006, that he was advancing into the ranks of traditional soundtrack composers towards some kind of permanence. As far back as 2003, there had been talk about him when he scored "Girl with the Pearl Earring" showing a penchant for framing rather than illustrating or underlining the story on screen; letting a single theme, often scored for solo instrument, carry the film through a series of not exactly variations but 'revisitations and reminders' of that motif. His overall effect, then, was one of advocacy for the film's tone and setting – music as a courteous and well-bred host who always knows his place. And although ethnic elements influenced some of his scoring in films like "The Painted Veil" with its Britain/China subject or the middle-eastern thriller "Syriana" (2005) and there was an attempt at action music in 2006's robbery caper "Firewall", we began to hear a more prevalent characteristic of his style in later projects: the compositional grammar of Minimalism, obviously swayed by his familiarity with Minimalist concert composers John Adams and Steve Reich -- steady, pulsating repetitive arpeggiated phrases that support his motifs (exploiting the sound of Hungarian cimbalom in "Grand Budapest Hotel"; using a bank of synths to mimic the code-breaker computer in "The Imitation Game"). So far, none of these scores proffers anything so complete as a linear narrative composition that proceeds like storytelling nor virtuoso orchestral writing that aspires to concert music. Yet the sensitively observed placement of music cues, the careful choice of instrumental voicing, and the moto-persuasiveness of the Minimalist pulse are all together often what make his scores effective. For his Oscar winning music to "The Shape of Water" (2017) crystalline sounds on top of a liquid rotating base frame a lyrical theme with a suspended, dreamlike quality that hopes to persuade the viewer into a kind of reverie to absorb the romantic mystique of the plot (in which a lowly janitor of an aquarium miraculously establishes a relationship with one of the amphibious creatures on display there). With that music, Desplat arrived at last as one of the Hollywood sound-stage elite, circa 2018. And yet that is not what I'd call his salvo score.
I look back to 2004 and his complex, Minimalist pattern-music for Nicole Kidman in a film called "Birth". There, a brace of flutes repeat a 4/8 meter that, because it is eccentrically accented, almost sounds like Morse Code until low strings enter with a dark harmony in thirds; then horns surprise with a syncopated counterpoint in an adjacent key. The legato string motif that soon plays-off this multi-metered Minimalist backdrop has a more sympathetic, but fateful, feel to it and as the film proceeds, reminders of those opening pattern-flutes add a mysterious predestined, other-worldly pall over the whole plot (in which a ten year old boy claims to be the reincarnation of Kidman's husband who died ten years earlier.) Desplat's ethereal, compulsive music more than perfectly evokes the abstract realm of predestination and resurrection that either scarily controls or beautifully unites (depending on your POV) us all. It was a score that both provoked its film by drawing attention to itself and assisted the filmmaker by staying out of the storytelling per se, giving no attitude or opinion – merely framing the picture. Here was a salvo for a new composer, a new name to note.
Another name that has gained Hollywood credentials lately is Michael Giacchino. Initially he was an office intern at Universal Studios, then a music student at Juilliard until he landed jobs assembling soundtracks for a number of Disney-related video games, brandishing a style in gaming circles that was imitative of the scores of John Williams in flicks like "Indiana Jones" or "Superman". But they were pleasing likenesses and they caught the attention of a gamer-geek turned action-flick director, J. J. Abrams who asked Giacchino to score his TV series "Alias". Thereafter, it was only a right click to [working on] big screen soundtracks. What gave Giacchino legitimacy within [the] scoring industry, though, was his championing of traditional methods for composition, refusing to "just noodle around at a synth keyboard". Quoted by 'Variety' columnist Jon Burlingame, he vowed, "I do my best to not ever listen to what (first draft scoring ideas) sound like on the computer... (When you're writing in your head) you're more free with composing ideas that you might otherwise [gloss] over if you were just throwing them into a computer to hear them back..."
Giacchino had done two successful scores for animated Pixar films – "The Incredibles" and the Oscar-nominated "Ratatouille", both early colourful atmospheric soundtracks. Then in rapid succession he graduated to live action, big-boned scoring jobs: "Sky High", "Star Trek", and "Mission Impossible 3" for Abrams again. It would be a third Pixar romp that was his salvo score because it contained everything he had learned so far about action music, about how to manufacture ambiance on behalf of animation and a clever new awareness (as he matured) of how to tread lightly with an underlying sense of amusement and joy – this was his score to 2009's "Up". He had to do more than drive this picture with sound and fury; this was a character fable: the story of an old man who literally launches an end-of-life adventure for himself, using a clutch of giant balloons to float his whole house on a tour of foreign lands such as he'd always dreamed. Accompanying him is a bold-spirited boy scout and a sweet natured music score made of soaring John Williams fanfares and crescendos, cartoonish marching bands, a fiddle tune, a carefree waltz, then a tango, some whiffs of early jazz maybe from the old man's memory, and a whole lot of the requisite sentiment as the main character and the composer look back on all they've been through "seizing the spirit of adventure".
It took a specialty music label to belatedly issue this jaunty score as a soundtrack CD but from there the salvo went out: Giacchino would win the BAFTA, the record industry Grammy, and the Oscar for Best Score 2009. That was when he began to shed the shadow of Williams and whatever stigma was attached to being a 'mere' game music tracker. It was his successful combination of heroism and whimsy that made this score personal and upped his ante within the business. That's what salvo scores do: they exploit and announce, for that composer, what's been waiting to happen all along. "I always knew it would come," their friends say, but it takes a salvo to prove it.
Identifying these salvos in a film composer's career is hardly a new sport. Subjecting veteran composers to the same scrutiny, albeit from a timely distance now, can be just as rewarding and surprising. Many would assume that some early John Williams film score like "Jaws" (1975) or "The Poseidon Adventure" (1972) was his obvious salvo because it preceded his monumental success with the "Star Wars" series, but I trace his breakthrough backwards to 1969: his lively, smart, and warm Americana score to "The Reivers", that William Faulkner coming-of-age tale about a group of Mississippi runaways on a spree across the 1905 southern states. The film initially got a score from Lalo Schifrin that was more subdued like Schifrin's music to "Cool Hand Luke" (1967). Producers rejected that, though, wanting a more symphonic sweep to the soundtrack and it was the open and airy feel of the string writing in Williams's replacement score, coupled with much detailed solo work for winds, guitar, banjo, harmonica, and tacked piano that made this new version reach out with the verve and authority of the original source novel – and made the composer, like never before and for ever more, a Hollywood force to reckon. All of his action scores and all his more subtle dramatic music, not to mention his career as a favorite American concert conductor, came after this Reivers salvo, though he'd already been providing quality screen music (often in a jazzy Mancini style) for comedy flicks and melodramas for years.
Some of the salvo scores of those veteran composers seem obvious to us now. Elmer Bernstein gave first notice of his uniqueness with his 1955 jazz-aware but classically narrative music for "Man with the Golden Arm" even though he had previously suggested two other features of his signature style in lesser movies, pre-salvo: insinuating a Coplandesque western voice through his small score for a racehorse film, "Boots Malone" in 1951, and experimenting with brittle broken rhythms and intense solo instrumentation in 1952's "Sudden Fear".
Further back in film history, though, the true salvo scores for soon-famous composers can be unexpected. Most peg Max Steiner's "King Kong" music from 1933 as a definite salvo because, so early in the sound era, it announced for all time how active orchestral sounds could blend with action on screen and make the show believable. But I would point to 1935, "The Informer", as Steiner's real salvo, a case where the score provides a strong Irish theme and, in mimicking the moods and actual movements of the characters, addresses the audience directly, less like sound effects (a la Kong) and more like a narrator (though that style of scoring seems contrived and naïve to us today). In like manner was Bernard Herrmann: his first score was "Citizen Kane" (1941) but he worked to make his second, "All That Money Can Buy" (aka "The Devil and Daniel Webster") more directly narrative, more self-consciously symphonic, with an internal musical development of its own. The director stood out from "Kane" – the composer announced himself and his whole innovative career-to-come through that "Devil" salvo. For a few classic film composers, their debut score assignment was all they needed as a salvo: Alex North's ground breaking decadent jazz for" A Streetcar Named Desire" (1951); Waxman's creepy/funny "Bride of Frankenstein" (1935); Raksin's song of regret in "Laura" (1944). More often, though, salvo scores make later, unpredictable entrances.
Most film music historians welcome Jerry Goldsmith into the ranks of fame via his first Oscar-nominated Bartok-laced score to "Freud" (1962) or at least his striking trumpet ballad for the latter day cowboy in "Lonely Are the Brave" (1962). But a truer salvo predicting Goldsmith's versatility, ambition, and skills, comes from 1960, the melodrama of restless, reckless youth prowling the streets of 1920s Chicago, "Studs Lonigan". Goldsmith's intentionally indulgent main theme played by a melancholy harmonica is at first backed by a dark orchestra in simple harmonies adjacent to D minor, soon augmented by a bluesy trumpet (prefiguring his similar treatment of 1930s L.A. in his masterful score to "Chinatown"  also in D minor). That "Studs" theme is moody music to match its narcissistic, immature main character, evoking also the pulp-fiction milieu of the James T. Farrell novel that spawned the film. Still, Goldsmith, who had already scored any number of sharp insightful TV dramas from "Perry Mason" to "The Twilight Zone", sees his wider Studs score as an ironic, knowing musical commentary. Along the way, he incorporates crafty references to certain narrative classical pieces whose scenarios mirror this film's band of urban outsiders: from Kurt Weill's "Three Penny Opera" to Stravinsky's "L'Histoire du Soldat" – both tales of moral rambling. Then in a burst of virtuoso writing and performance, comes a ten minute music sequence accompanying our young rogues for a night on the town – beginning with a warped waltz for the pub-crawling scenes, then layers of other theme lines including that opening harmonica tune. A piano obbligato begins intruding in harmony with all that, but soon widening its range, grows in energy and orchestral detail, turning into a frenetic ragtime romp with increasingly dissonant strings behind it all. This is Goldsmith putting the industry on notice that he was not just a TV composer and that he could not be ignored – again, the very definition of a salvo.
At the same time in that jazz-prone period of movie history, mid-1950s to mid-60s, another name came out of television scoring to find success in film. In this case, Henry Mancini's dramatic jazz/pop scores for the TV detective "Peter Gunn" led to his ever more marked visibility with the songs and jazz riffs in "Breakfast at Tiffany's" (1961). You'd think those were probably Mancini's salvos ("The Pink Panther" came later.) But research pulls up an earlier salvo score announcing everything that Mancini could do, at least the potential. This was a routine Universal Studios assembly line drama from 1957, "A Man Afraid", and it was the first film to credit Mancini's name on screen as sole composer. It's a story of revenge/redemption set in suburbia where we witness a home invasion. The young would-be burglar is killed by the homeowner, played by Jeff Candler, in the act of defending his own sleeping son. But of course the late thief was also someone's son and his distraught father now takes to stalking and threatening Chandler's boy Michael. Thus we have a suspense story with torn emotions on both sides. Already adept at schlock sci-fi film scoring and puppy love stories but still interested in serious drama, youngish Mancini begins this score (as we watch the break-in) with a complex contrapuntal piece – a repeating ostinato of low piano doubled by basses in what seem to be alternating time signatures. Then unison strings enter evidently in that same shifting metric pattern, yet delayed by half a measure so that the two lines clash but also mesh like gears in a timepiece. Unison trombones declare a third line whose theme spans the unsettling (evil) interval of the augmented 4th: the "tritone". Lastly, once the burglary is in progress, a double-time figure picks up in the strings. As a music student, I found all this hard to follow, trying to count-out the meter of any one of those lines: the juxtaposition of what seemed like broken meters kept throwing me off. I even sent the music cue to the late Mancini's music librarian and he couldn't count it by ear either (and it was too obscure a film for Mancini to have retained the scoring sheets). Finally, it took a graduate from the East Coast Peabody Conservatory to show me that the whole tense shifting structure was actually ingeniously contained within a steady 3/4-6/8 meter all along. Only the accents and the offset entrances made it sound discontinuous, thereby creating strain and intrigue for that opening film scene. This was Mancini showing his Juilliard training and his coaching from advanced composers like Ernst Krenek – experience that would serve him throughout the next forty years of soundtrack composing.
Halfway through "A Man Afraid" comes another salvo of the eventually familiar Mancini sound: his distinctive melody writing used to help tell the story. Here it is a humorous nautical tune on bassoon as young son Michael plays on a fishing boat down by the local wharf, pretending it's a pirate ship. Soon the vengeance-driven father comes aboard too, stalking the boy, and we realize that same bassoon theme has assumed a minor key to underline the threat. Music thereafter stays closely tied to the three themes of the film – the stalking menace, the innocent son, and the conscience issue at the heart of the drama: the guilt of two fathers. In one sense, Mancini's piano/bass ostinato that opened this score predicts the similar sound of his upcoming hit music for "Peter Gunn" minus the latter's jazz/rock bravado. But the provocative housebreaking music and the character themes in "A Man Afraid" were his truer opening salvo.
The very use of somewhat progressive composing styles in routine matinee movies was unusual for those times (or even today). Mancini eventually became known for popular rather than scholarly scoring and yet he did have a solid grounding in compositional know how: how to make each scene, no matter what the setting, sound confident and authoritative. So there followed from his example the pop/jazz decade in film scoring that produced names like John Barry and Lalo Schifrin and Dave Grusin leading to increasingly sophisticated multi-media music men like Michel Legrand and women such as Anne Dudley and Shirley Walker. Then came the John Williams era and the many adherents who either cloned or merely mined his brand of full-symphonic action music – Alan Silvestri, James Horner, Bruce Broughton, Patrick Doyle, James Newton Howard… By the cynical 1990s we had ironic offspring like Danny Elfman and Randy Newman and Carter Burwell in the field, scoring in styles made of equal parts smart alec cartoon shtick, horror film clichés, and satiric circus music like Nino Rota's for Fellini films. What next?? (This is not to deny those guys their satiric fun, nor to ignore the ongoing serious film work all through that same period from veteran composers, immune to fashion, like Laurence Rosenthal, Elliot Goldenthal, Wojciech Kilar, Vladimir Cosma, David Shire, Philippe Sarde...) But again, what next?
Next, the harsh New Millennium dawns. The film business has long ago moved away from a steady stream of studio-sustained film releases and stars. Composers too have, for a long time, been free lance consultants but now they are entering the field from all sorts of fringe multi-media directions: from online franchises, from home gaming fraternities, and even from rock bands. The learning curve of such careers, these wanna be film scorers, is still much the same as in the old days: before you're lucky enough to land a breakout film assignment, you'd better produce some kind of salvo score first, announcing that it wasn't luck at all but aptitude that made you stand out. Those curious and restless rockers are an interesting subgroup to spy on. One of the most successful to make the transition was Danny Elfman, late of the band Oingo Boingo who has gone onto a long association with the films of Tim Burton, providing sly, sardonic accompaniment to darkly playful films like "Edward Scissorhands" or "Beetlejuice". But three more recent candidates who started out either in rock bands or working with rock artists, have been growing quite as famous as the Elfman himself. And each has found one salvo score with which to announce his arrival.
Reflective of their life-and-times, the three salvo films we spotlight seem more discouraging, disturbing, dystopian than ever and yet their soundtrack scores are not at all the vociferous, graphic protest-music we might expect from a rocker. Instead each is utterly noncommittal towards its film story: each is ambient, abstract music, stoic and distant and grim, rather than directly narrative or emotionally involved. And each is scored surprisingly for a classical strings-only orchestra!
Typical of these scoring rockers is Jonny Greenwood, famous in the Brit-pop fusion group Radiohead. Although Thom Yorke is the leader of that band, Greenwood has written many of their songs, some so sophisticated that 'The New Yorker' classical music critic Alex Ross dedicated a whole article to them. Greenwood said his favorite composers were avant guardians like Stockhausen and Penderecki. Thus, his first film score, for a documentary about the biological stages of Life, "Bodysong", was predictably a collage of improvised sounds for string players and piano. At the same time, he began scoring a long list of Radiohead music videos enlarging on the songs themselves. There he learned that even fusion rock tunes have a certain "story shape" to them that could be scored and he learned to synchronize tonal sounds with visual montage images. He gained a full decade of experience, then, creating music for various theatrical films but his first official recognition within the movie industry wouldn't come till 2017 and an Oscar nomination for his contribution to the Paul Thomas Anderson film "Phantom Threads". His salvo score though, if anyone had noticed, had already come and gone: music for that same director's 2007 epic, "There Will Be Blood".
Ostensibly about the birth of the oil industry in 1902 America but more markedly about what all Anderson's films seem to be about (including 1999's dark Magnolia): the bitter, hard-packed relationships between fathers and sons that manifest as rage, spite, suspicion and sometimes mutual annihilation. In "There Will Be Blood" Daniel Day Lewis plays the oil entrepreneur Daniel Plainview at first merely ambitious, soon ruthless, ultimately murderous and profligate -- a metaphor for US oil-soaked Capitalism. At first he is smotheringly protective of his young son; soon resentful that the boy is not totally subsumed by him; eventually dismissive of him and driven to abuse anyone who challenges his authority, though by then he's long past being able to supervise or parent anything including his own oil empire. It is all soaked in that thick black coating of greed and dread that characterizes the amoral roots of big business in those times – and ours. But even as those feelings are strong and obvious from the screen, the Greenwood score stays well back:
A blurred chord from the string orchestra opens the film, then two notes alternate until they become a motif (on screen are scenes of unsuccessful dry-drilling in a drab Texan landscape). There are sustained single chords, then swirling strings just before an accident occurs on the big rig. We are fifteen minutes into the film before any dialogue is rendered but those abortive music bits do not assume a role of storytelling because they are not thematic; they are merely tonal posts. It will be Greenwood's idea to provide this kind of fragmentary musical captioning throughout the film – sometimes returning to those two alternating chords repeatedly on piano, sometimes building the violin lines into a syncopated andante, then making them slide into a two-step dance echoing the beer hall music of that era. Those atonal blur chords from the beginning are always at hand too, reminding us of Plainview's mental imbalance but still never quite interacting with him – for instance there is no scoring applied to him when he turns violent or churns within.
More broadly, as that era advances through the development of the continental railroad to the automobile, Plainview's dreams of power and influence have complicated even more towards paranoia. Here, a traditional dramatic score would have registered these passions and changes with either new themes or subtle perversions of the old ones but Greenwood maintains his blur, admitting a few more manipulative gestures by the string players – glissandos and sordi bowings – but in the most personal and intense scenes this score intends no emotional support. It steers clear on purpose, preferring, like the New Millennium itself, "no comment". How detailed Greenwood was in the direction of his string players I can't say – only that Robert Ziegler is credited as music director and conductor of the soundtrack. Still "There Will Be Blood" was a real launch pad for him – his salvo -- to a solid and finally recognized movie career.
Still more despairing was another strings-only score by another well established rocker, Clint Mansell – his 2000 salvo score for Darren Aronofsky's "Requiem for a Dream" about a young Brighton Beach kid's narc-habit and his mother's pill popping descent into her own addiction hell. This time we are fed repeating visuals of the kid's gangrenous needle-punctured arm and of the electro-shock treatments for the delirious mother – not pretty sights nor, after the third time, very necessary to watch as dramatic pay-offs. Mansell offers a series of harmonic blurs (again), pointed pulses and portents from his string ensemble, detailing it with celesta-like synth sounds and a wailing fuzz guitar. He, too, was a former rocker from a band called "Pop Will Eat Itself", perhaps less a composer now than a score assembler. For this assignment he had worked out his music cues on a Roland IV-880 synth but needed the musical literacy of one David Lang to actually orchestrate for strings because as he admitted, "I am not musically trained" and he felt "clueless because (my computer) was playing these samples and I had no way to translate them into notes for actual players."
And so as Requiem's ruined protagonists tumble towards their ends, Mansell takes hold of the basic ingredients he has been using and shapes them (somewhat) to match the denouement on screen: a ticking rhythm behind the strings for the late hospital scenes, then unrecognizable sounds from those same strings altered electronically to seem nightmarish. In the end, harp adds a touch of sympathy to the scoring. A kind of string passacaglia, blending with the sound of Brighton Beach gulls provides a moment of respite to the viewer as though there were something, after all, to be gained from watching the downfall of these people – although the most any one of them can hope for is that death is a relief. Mansell used Requiem to stretch his awareness of the interplay between screen and soundtrack but also to expand his own music making: witness his more lyrical contributions to the animated "Loving Vincent" or his Minimalist string tones set to a clockwork of marimba pulses and brass blasts (a la Steve Reich or Philip Glass) in the angry, hopeless satire of robot dominated modern life, "High Rise". But it was from lessons learned in his salvo score to "Requiem for a Dream" that Clint Mansell became a viable soundtrack source.
Perhaps more disturbing still, at least more bizarre in its combination of distinctive Minimalism and sweet pop memes, is a third string score, this by one Abel (actually Adam) Korzeniowski: his salvo for 2018's "Nocturnal Animals". Truly and purposefully distasteful, this is the story of a car full of country yahoos who torture, rape and kill Jake Gyllenhaal's wife and daughter on a dark rural road – and how he wants to avenge them. Again, like Anderson and Aronofsky, director Tom Ford seems more to want to stage torture and strife scenes than tell a story. It's a desperate culture we've inherited and we perpetuate. But again, why a strings-only orchestra to score this nightmare which is part soap opera, part horror film, part TV-styled police hunt? Korzeniowski's music, like the others we've just sampled, is not directly narrative, though he does make music that begins to join the action on screen (by treating it like an hallucination) setting out two chromatic streams, then interpolating a kind of dream theme (which is actually a romantic waltz) though that soon falls apart into a tremolo passage and ends on a dissonant troubling-but-related chord. Unlike Greenwood who had been listening to Penderecki, Korzeniowski had actually studied with him and had come away with a facility for astringent music yet an ear for sentimental sounds. He had decided fairly early to concentrate on film and theater scoring but by 2011 he was also dabbling in the realms of rock music via a project with the monster concert rock diva, Madonna. Through 'Variety's Steve Chagollan, Madonna was reported to have said of Korzeniowski, "Sometimes I had to tell him 'stop thinking like a classically trained musician. Simplify'". His music for her project, then, was suitably simple, intuitive and at times even plush. When it came to scoring the harsh events in "Nocturnal Animals", then, Korzeniowski seemed to remember that advice, not to "over-think" but also not to get involved too directly in the dramatic events on screen. Simple comments, albeit with a curt edge, constitute the scoring here.
The premise of "Nocturnal Animals" is that Amy Adams is bored with her current husband and with modern life ("We live in a junk culture. It's all TV and cocktails.") but receives a manuscript of her ex-husband's novel-in-progress which she is drawn to read. Therein she reads about the roadside rapes/murders we have already seen semi-enacted. Throughout the film, the score holds on single chords during scenes of mental torture as though hovering aside; chase scenes are scored with strings chugging away over a tremolo; and any sympathy in the score (on behalf of the dead girls) is offered in tones that are simultaneously sad and sinister. The waltz, on solo cello, returns as Amy gets ready to meet Jake after so long. Piano and strings seem (finally) to want to personalize the moment but there is no real commitment in this monochromatic score to an emotional or narrative POV or interpretation, though Korzeniowski is less taciturn than the two previous scorers we've discussed and the dark nihilistic films they accompanied.
But whether one considers the traditional era of aggressive film music-as-storyteller or the current scene of music-as-chauffer, it still seems true that the future of screen scoring is probably less predictable by knowing the most famous films and their soundtracks than by studying what led up to them: their composers' apprentice scores, the salvos that, even unawares, were omens.
Here are links to additional information about some of the film composers whose "salvo scores" have been listed in this article: