April 2012
Music in the Western: Notes from the Frontier

by Warren M. Sherk

A new anthology edited by Kathryn Kalinak, Music in the Western: Notes from the Frontier, is chock full of the latest research and findings on the genre. Several of the essays will be of particular interest to Tiomkin scholars and aficionados. The book, part of the Routledge Music and Screen Media Series, contains essays by film studies scholars and musicologists Ross Care, Corey K. Creekmur, Yuna de Lannoy, K. J. Donnelly, Caryl Flinn, Claudia Gorbman, Kalinak, Charles Leinberger, Matthew McDonald, Peter Stanfield, Mariana Whitmer, and Ben Winters.

When one thinks of Dimitri Tiomkin’s music for Westerns, High Noon probably tops the list. In fact, Corey Creekmur’s essay, “The Cowboy Chorus: Narrative and Cultural Functions of the Western Title Song,” opens the book and launches directly into a discussion of Tiomkin’s title song, “Do Not Forsake Me.” The success of the film and song established a new model that incorporated substantial cross promotion between the film and music industries.

BUY: Music in the Western [Hardcover, Paperback, or Kindle Edition]

Moving beyond the influence of High Noon, Music in the Western offers new insights into Tiomkin’s influence on the creative work of directors making Westerns and composers writing for them. For example, in “Soundscape of Kurosawa’s Chambara Westerns,” Yuna de Lannoy points out that certain pieces of music from Rio Bravo inspired Japanese director Akira Kurosawa and the composer Masaru Sato in the making of Yojimbo and its sequel Sanjuro. Check out the section of de Lannoy’s essay, “Yojimbo and Music in the Western,” for the fascinating details.

In “The Dollars Trilogy,” Charles Leinberger discusses the influence of Tiomkin’s “Degüello” theme from Rio Bravo on composer Ennio Morricone for the Western films of Italian director Sergio Leone. Leinberger provides a transcription of the Degüello melody and writes,

The fact that this theme bears a remarkable resemblance to a musical device that Morricone will later make part of his signature style is almost certainly not coincidental.

What fascinates me personally, as a composer, is the effect Tiomkin’s music had in both of these cases. Other composers, rather than imitating Tiomkin’s music or style, discovered a different way to approach a scene musically after seeing and hearing Tiomkin’s music for Westerns.

Music in the Western includes one complete essay on a Tiomkin-scored film, offering Ben Winters thought-provoking examination of the music for The Unforgiven, directed by John Huston. Winters writes, “Tiomkin’s score arguably adds layers of subtlety to the narrative.”

Kathryn Kalinak is Professor of English and Film Studies at Rhode Island College. She delivered the annual Mary Tucker Thorp College Professorship lecture at RIC titled “Scoring the West: Notes on Dimitri Tiomkin, Howard Hawks, and the Western,” in November 2011. In the book’s introduction, she states,

All the essays you are about to read treat the score as a crucial element of the western and remind us what we miss when we ignore the music.

My advice? Don’t ignore film music and don’t miss reading this important new volume that may change the way you think about music in the next Western you see.

Film Music: A Very Short Introduction

If film music is a topic of interest to you, you will want a copy of Kalinak’s Film Music: A Very Short Introduction. Offered both in paperback and as a Kindle e-book for under US$10, this affordable little book covers film music around the globe and is highly readable.

Don’t let the size or sub-title fool you. The book is jam-packed with information and excels in its overview of music in world cinema. Even if you think you know the history and common practice of film music, you will probably learn something new from Kalinak’s concise history.

Filled with interesting insights and observations culled from her familiarity with film music literature and her wide-ranging knowledge of the subject, this tome deserves a place on your literal or digital bookshelf. It also makes a nice inexpensive gift.

BUY: Film Music [Paperback] or Film Music [Kindle Edition]

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