Alex North - Writer

Composer. Nationality: American. Born: Chester, Pennsylvania, 10 December 1910. Education: Attended Curtis Institute; Juilliard School, New York; studied with Ernst Toch, Copland, and Revueltas. Family: Married Annemarie (North); two sons and one daughter. Career: 1933–34—enrolled at the Moscow Conservatory; 1935–40—composed for ballet; began composing for documentaries; 1951—first score for fiction film, A Streetcar Named Desire ; also composer for TV, including the series The Man and the City , 1971–72, and the mini-series Rich Man, Poor Man , 1976, and The Word , 1978. Award: Special Academy Award, 1986. Died: Of cancer in California, 8 September 1991.

Films as Composer:


Heart of Spain (doc); People of the Cumberland (Meyers and Hill—doc)


A Better Tomorrow (Hackenschmeid—doc)


A Streetcar Named Desire (Kazan); The Thirteenth Letter (Preminger); Death of a Salesman (Benedek)


Viva Zapata! (Kazan); Les Miserables (Milestone); Pony Soldier (Newman)


The Member of the Wedding (Zinnemann)


Go, Man, Go (Howe); Desirée (Koster); The American Road (Stoney—doc)


The Racers ( Such Men Are Dangerous ) (Hathaway); Unchained (Bartlett); The Rose Tattoo (Daniel Mann); Man with the Gun ( The Trouble Shooter ) (Wilson)


I'll Cry Tomorrow (Daniel Mann); The Bad Seed (LeRoy); The Rainmaker (Anthony); Four Girls in Town (Sher); The King and Four Queens (Walsh)


The Bachelor Party (Delbert Mann)


The Long Hot Summer (Ritt); Stage Struck (Lumet); Hot Spell (Daniel Mann); South Seas Adventure (Thompson and others)


The Sound and the Fury (Ritt); The Wonderful Country (Parrish)


Spartacus (Kubrick)


The Children's Hour (Wyler); Sanctuary (Ritt); The Misfits (Huston)


All Fall Down (Frankenheimer)


Cleopatra (Mankiewicz)


The Outrage (Ritt)


Cheyenne Autumn (Ford); The Agony and the Ecstasy (Reed)


Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Nichols)


Africa (doc)


The Devil's Brigade (McLaglen); The Shoes of the Fisherman (Anderson)


A Dream of Kings (Daniel Mann); Hard Contract (Pogostin)


Willard (Daniel Mann)


Pocket Money (Rosenberg)


Once Upon a Scoundrel (Schaefer)


Shanks (Castle); Lost in the Stars (Daniel Mann)


Bite the Bullet (Brooks); Journey into Fear (Daniel Mann)


The Passover Plot (Campus)


Somebody Killed Her Husband (Johnson)


Wise Blood (Huston)


Carny (Kaylor)


Dragonslayer (Robbins)


Sister, Sister (Berry)


Under the Volcano (Huston)


Prizzi's Honor (Huston)


The Dead ( The Dubliners ) (Huston); Good Morning Vietnam (Levinson); John Huston and the Dubliners (Sievernich)


The Penitent (Osmond)


Ghost (Zucker) (song)


Le Dernier Papillon


By NORTH: articles—

Variety (New York), 12 October 1960.

Cinema (Los Angeles), Fall 1969.

In Knowing the Score , by Irwin Bazelon, New York, 1975.

Soundtrack! (Hollywood), March 1985.

On NORTH: articles—

Spolar, Betsey, and Merrilyn Hammond, in Theatre Arts (New York), August 1953.

Cinestudio (Madrid), June 1972.

Films in Review (New York), October 1972.

Thomas, Tony, in Music for the Movies , South Brunswick, New Jersey, 1973.

Ecran (Paris), September 1975.

Palmer, Christopher, in Film Music Notebook (Calabasas, California), vol. 3, no. 1, 1977.

Pro Musica Sana (New York), Summer 1982.

Soundtrack! (Hollywood), December 1982.

Soundtrack! (Hollywood), March 1983.

Films in Review (New York), June-July 1986.

Palmer, Christopher, in The Composer in Hollywood , London 1990.

Obituary in Variety (New York), 16 September 1991.

Obituary in Séquences (Haute-Ville), November 1991.

Obituary in Soundtrack , December 1991.

Obituary in Sight & Sound (London), February 1992.

Film Dope (Nottingham), July 1992.

Kendall, L., "The Re-making of Alex North's 2001 : An Interview with Robert Townson," in Film Score Monthly (Los Angeles), August-September 1993.

Grant, B., "The Art of Film Music: Special Emphasis on Hugo Friedhofer, Alex North, David Raskin, Leonard Rosenman," in Choice , January 1995.

Johnson, Victoria E., "The Art of Film Music: Special Emphasis on Hugo Friedhofer, Alex North, David Raskin, Leonard Rosenman," in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Fall 1995.

Kalinak, Kathryn, "The Art of Film Music: Special Emphasis on Hugo Friedhofer, Alex North, David Raskin and Leonard Rosenman," in Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television , March 1996.

* * *

In 1986, Alex North became the first composer to be voted an honorary Academy Award. The honor was overdue; he had never won despite 15 nominations between 1951 and 1984.

North came to films with a background in documentary and ballet music under the sponsorship of Elia Kazan. Kazan had a difficult time convincing Warner Bros.' music department to accept New Yorker North as composer for A Streetcar Named Desire , but Kazan persisted and the resulting score caused a reconceptualization of the role of music in films. The symphonic film score—rich, lushly orchestrated—had been a staple of the medium since the 1930s. In Streetcar , North wrote music that was heavily influenced by jazz and the blues yet preserved the structure of the classical film score. Cat-house blues piano and mournful trumpet wails functioned to evoke character, be it Stanley Kowalski's coarseness or Blanche DuBois's fragility. And it fit.

North's score for Viva Zapata! enabled him to use musical experience gained during a two-year stay in Mexico. It also gave him further opportunities to display a flair for unorthodox orchestration, but with a purpose: a sequence depicting peasants clicking stones together as a gesture of solidarity for the captured Zapata rises in volume, and as the scene progresses North adds an underlay of bongos, timbales, flutes, guitars, and plucked strings. The orchestra has added its rhythmic voice to the protest of the peasants' primitive percussion, extending in music the dramatic essence of the sequence.

Scoring against conventional expectations in Mike Nichols's volatile adaptation of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? , North toyed with and abandoned jazz and twelve-tone approaches to the project and produced a quasi-Baroque score: a tranquil guitar theme played against muted violin chords and harp pizzicati . As North said: "I wanted to get to the soul of these people and suggest they were really meant for each other. Frenetic music would have tipped the scales too much in one direction. You have to let the scenes play themselves."

Although North preferred intimate and personal subjects, his mammoth scores for Kubrick's Spartacus and Mankiewicz's Cleopatra are among his most celebrated works. On both he was afforded a luxury rarely given the film composer: a year to work preparing each project, collaborating in both cases at every stage of the production with musically sensitive directors. For Spartacus , North attempted to "capture the feeling of pre-Christian Rome using contemporary musical techniques." To this end, he researched music of the period and unearthed unorthodox instruments such as the dulcimer and the ondioline in a quest for exotic tone color. Inspired by Prokofiev's score for Alexander Nevsky , North utilized a large brass section to evoke the barbaric quality of the times. He withheld the violins' appearance until the film's love story blossomed, at that point proving himself more than equal to the lyrical effloressence of the "traditional" film scores of the past. It is a tragedy that in their only subsequent collaboration, Kubrick decided to jettison the 40 minutes of original music North wrote for 2001: A Space Odyssey ; the director fell in love with his classical "temporary" track and decided to retain it.

In the 1980s, Dragonslayer 's gothic, stentorian strains and Carny's expressionist grotesquerie displayed North's flair for the fantastic and the surreal. Under the Volcano marked his third teaming with John Huston and was a return to the Mexican inspiration of his youth. North's mischievous streak was showcased in his witty orchestral adaptation of Italian arias that wryly comment on the black comedy of Huston's Prizzi's Honor .

In all, North's achievement was to realize what he saw as the function of film scoring: "to extend the characters on screen by writing music that penetrates the soul of the individual." He was an innovator and experimenter who never lost sight of his considerable lyric gifts.

—Lee Tsiantis

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