Musique Fantastique: An Interview with Author Randall D. Larson

Listen to them. Children of the night. What music they make.
– Bela Lugosi, DRACULA (1931)

A soundtrack can often make or break a movie for me. While some might find it easy to overlook a dissonant score that sounds out of place or overbearing, I find the choice of music in a film as important as the casting. A good film score can literally become another character on the screen. It can set the pace and mood of a film or blend seamlessly into the background. Soundtracks can transform a film’s atmosphere and confirm or deny our deepest feelings and fears. And nowhere is this more apparent than in horror, science fiction and fantasy films.

Author Randall D. Larson knows much more about the importance of a good film score than I do and he just published the second edition of Musique Fantastique (Book One), his highly acclaimed comprehensive analysis of music in science fiction, fantasy, and horror films. It’s a fascinating and informative read that should interest anyone who appreciates film music. Recently Randall took the time to answer a few of my questions about his book for the Movie Morlocks and I hope you’ll enjoy reading his answers.

Movie Morlocks: This is the second edition of Musique Fantastique, which was originally released in 1985. What inspired you to revisit the book and publish a new expanded edition?

Randall D. Larson: In the quarter century since the first edition was published, so much significant film music – individual scores as well as scoring trends in genre movies – has been composed, I felt it was time to update the book to cover what’s been happening in science fiction, fantasy, & horror film music since the mid-1980s. Additionally, so much more information, interviews, and reference sources were available, not to mention access to pre-1980s films and film music, that I was able to significantly expand the coverage that was in the first edition to make it far more comprehensive. I also felt there was enough interest within the film music fan community as well as within genre film fandom to justify an expanded and revised second edition.

Movie Morlocks: The book is loaded with information but I also found it very engaging. I appreciate that you write for scholars as well as film enthusiasts so your book can be enjoyed by just about anyone. Can you tell TCM’s blog readers a little bit about your background and how you got interested in film scores and soundtrack composers?

Randall D. Larson: Musically I’m a child of the ‘60s. The Beatles were my passage into musical awareness and appreciation, and I was a rock and roll kid all through high school. I became aware of film music through PLANET OF THE APES (1968) and 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) but it was actually Ennio Morricone’s score to ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1968) that really knocked my film musical socks off and enlightened me to the power of music to engage the imagination and the emotions, just as that Sergio Leone film was my epiphany to the immersive power of cinematic storytelling. From there I just dove headfirst into film music and explored as much as I could, and it didn’t take long for my Famous Monsters of Filmland-inspired passion for sf and monster movies to assimilate my new film music inclinations. I began writing soundtrack reviews for Soundtrack Collector’s Newsletter (published in Belgium) and others; when one of them called it quits, I arranged to assume the title and continue it on my own (I’d been a fanzine publisher since 1971). I published five issues of CinemaScore: The Film Music Journal, taking it from a 16-page newsletter to, in its final issue in 1987, a 160-page paperback magazine. Meanwhile I wrote “The Score” column for Cinefantastique magazine off and on from 1983 to 1999. My regular “Soundtrax” column appeared on a couple of web site, finding a permanent home at Buysoundtrax.com in ‘07.

My background in music is purely appreciative – outside of picking an air guitar or laying down a drum fill on a tabletop I don’t play an instrument, nor do I have an academic background in music. My perception comes from more than a quarter century watching and listening to movies, collecting and listening to soundtracks, interviewing composers and understanding their perspective in mapping out and constructing film scores. I don’t analyze film music in academic or musicological terms, which I think has made my writing on this topic as accessible to non-musical people as to those proficient in the trade. I try to examine what music in films does in dramatic terms, as an integral component of cinematic storytelling; what the music feels like – the scores’ structure, instrumental palette, and how it achieves what it does.

Movie Morlocks: I noticed that composer Christopher Young wrote a very compelling and complementary introduction to your book. How did that collaboration come about?

Randall D. Larson: I met and interviewed Chris shortly after the first edition came out, when he was first starting out in film scoring. I found out he was a fan of the book – as well as a fan of and quite an expert in classic monster movie and horror film music. I’ve interviewed him several times over the years to cover his work so when I came to put the second edition together he was the perfect choice to write the introduction in view of his long-time credibility in genre film music and his personal knowledge of the book’s original edition. He agreed and took the task to heart, coming up with a great intro that was both enthusiastic about the book and shared his own perspective on composing for genre films, which formed the perfect entr’acte for the new book.

Movie Morlocks: Film scores often go unnoticed and composers rarely seem to get the same kind of recognition that directors, actors and writers receive. Lately a lot of films seem to recycle scores from other movies and many studios don’t appear very willing or able to hire composers to produce original soundtracks. Do you think film music is currently suffering from this trend?

Randall D. Larson: While the re-use of the love theme from VERTIGO (1958) in a pivotal scene in THE ARTIST (2011) made headlines last year, the practice of licensing the actual music from another film for use in a new one is comparatively rare. This often results from the temporary score process of postproduction: temp scores are used as musical placeholders before their film’s final score has been completed; they’re compiled from previous film scores or popular music by film editors or music editors to provide a sense of musical support for the film during the editing process and in advance test previews. The problem with temp scores is that directors often become so used to hearing that temporary music in their film that they can’t imagine any other music working as well. This is what happened with THE ARTIST, as it happened famously in Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) and THE SHINING (1980); and others. But actually more prevalent is the case when directors or producers want their new film score to sound like the latest big blockbuster success, and they then insist the composer write music that is similar to, while not directly copying, what’s in that temp score.


Photo of Randall D. Larson by Jon Broxton

Movie Morlocks: The first edition of Musique Fantastique was contained in just one volume but the new edition of Musique Fantastique (Book One) is just the first volume in an ongoing series of books. It covers a lot of ground, from the silent era to the early days of television, but there’s obviously a lot more topics you want to cover. How many more books can we expect from you and what can readers look forward to in future volumes of Musique Fantastique?

Randall D. Larson: There will be four books in total that make up the whole set, covering how music has been used in genre films around the world from the silent era through the 2010s. Everything from the first edition has been rewritten and expanded upon (thanks to archival DVDs, DVDrs, Youtube, etc.), I’ve got access to films I couldn’t procure or didn’t know about in the first edition, so much has been added to those chapters that appeared in the first edition. Book One basically deals with music from the silent era through the 1950s, and television scoring through the mid-1980s, including a look at Japanese film scores through the ’70s. Book Two covers the influential work of Bernard Herrmann, films of the 1960s, British, Italian, and European film composers, and music for animated fantasy & sf films. Book Three includes chapters on Goldsmith and Williams, examines electronic film music, and covers the 70s and 80s plus a look at sf & horror film music in Asia and Bollywood, concluding with television scoring from the latter 1980s through the present day. Book Four looks in detail at what’s happened in genre filmscoring from the 1990s through 2012, from the big blockbusters to the most obscure independent releases. I’ve launched a web site supporting the book at Musiquefantastique.com which includes an expanded contents listing of all the books, excerpts from each chapter, and much more background details about the books and how they were written.

Movie Morlocks: Last but not least, what do you hope readers come away with after reading Musique Fantastique?

Randall D. Larson: My intent has always been to provide a thorough understanding of how music works in these types of films specifically, how the genre has attracted the most unique and influential kinds of music, and how composers have musically emphasized the beat these genres have to offer – whether that’s the adventurous thrill of high fantasy, the futuristic strains of science fiction, the scary sonorities of horror. I wanted to describe this music in a way that would be compelling and persuasive to the reader. I also wanted to recognize the composers – from the top of the A-list to the most neglected – who have made interesting music in support of speculative, spectacular, and scary storytelling in films around the world for more than a century.

Interested readers can order the first volume of Musique Fantastique from the publisher’s official website: Creature Features and they’re also selling copies at Amazon.

0 Response Musique Fantastique: An Interview with Author Randall D. Larson
Posted By Susan Doll : September 27, 2012 11:00 pm

What a task to take on — the history of music in films. But, also an amazing contribution to cinema studies.

Cool to know he was excited by the score for ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. May be my favorite score ever.

Posted By Susan Doll : September 27, 2012 11:00 pm

What a task to take on — the history of music in films. But, also an amazing contribution to cinema studies.

Cool to know he was excited by the score for ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. May be my favorite score ever.

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : September 28, 2012 3:08 am

I think this book might have to be my third child. Thank you for the preview, Kimberly!

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : September 28, 2012 3:08 am

I think this book might have to be my third child. Thank you for the preview, Kimberly!

Posted By swac44 : September 30, 2012 9:41 am

Book Two sounds like a must-have, can’t get enough Herrmann! Sadly, I went to watch my VHS copy of the American Masters episode on him, but that tape has become unwatchable at this point.

Posted By swac44 : September 30, 2012 9:41 am

Book Two sounds like a must-have, can’t get enough Herrmann! Sadly, I went to watch my VHS copy of the American Masters episode on him, but that tape has become unwatchable at this point.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : September 30, 2012 6:18 pm

Glad you all enjoyed the interview with Randall. His books will definitely be must haves for fans of horror, sci-fi & fantasy film scores.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : September 30, 2012 6:18 pm

Glad you all enjoyed the interview with Randall. His books will definitely be must haves for fans of horror, sci-fi & fantasy film scores.

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