Music in Film: Shirley Walker

Feature Ivan Radford 31 Jul 2013 - 06:22

The work of one of cinema's unsung talents, Shirley Walker, comes under the spotlight in this week's Music in Film...

When I started this soundtrack column, I knew I wanted to talk about some of the most overlooked people in the soundtrack industry: female composers.

Not dissimilar to directing, there are surprisingly few females compared to the number of men in the scoring field, but they’ve done some superb work. Les Mis wouldn’t have happened without Anne Dudley's additional music, Never Let Me Go’s gentle tragedy stemmed in a large part from Rachel Portman, while Lisa Gerrard co-wrote arguably the most influential score of modern times: Gladiator. Lisa won a BAFTA and a Golden Globe for her work with Hans Zimmer. The Oscars, on the other hand, only nominated Hans.

But it’s impossible not to start with the one who started it all: Shirley Walker.

An electric conductor - Batman (1989) and Edward Scissorhands (1990)

 In 1979, Shirley played synth on Carmine Coppola’s soundtrack for Apocalypse Now. Fast forward nine years and she was picking up the baton for Danny Elfman. It was perhaps an apt part for a female composer to play: the conductor is an equally underrated role. But conductors are what give life to a score. Even with the same notes and dynamics on the page, listen to an orchestra perform a piece on two separate days and you could get two different sounds altogether.

For Elfman’s scores, with their precise, offbeat quirky rhythms, that role is even more important. In 1989’s Batman, it’s the fast fanfares and deliberate beats of the brass that create the menacing tone, coupled with the carefully timed percussion. In 1990’s Edward Scissorhands, the swelling volumes and delicate silences are what make the main theme and the heartbreaking Ice Dance so beautifully moving. Try doing that without someone waving a stick in front of you.

 (It’s interesting to note, incidentally, that like orchestration, Danny doesn’t tend to conduct his own music. Shirley Walker, on the other hand, tended to do all three.)

Not unseen - Memoirs Of An Invisible Man (1992)

Walker’s conducting was enough to impress producer Chevy Chase, who suggested Shirley for John Carpenter’s Memoirs Of An Invisible Man when working with Jack Nitzsche fell through – a landmark decision, not just because Carpenter likes to do his own scores, but because it was the first time a female composer had a solo credit on a major studio picture.

 “The first two days of that score, there were a lot of people who had come to visit the scoring stage because they were here to witness this event,” Shirley said in an interview in a 1998 issue of Soundtrack Magazine. “I was almost in tears about that. I had to ask somebody why all those people were here, and when they told me it was just incredible.”

Like most of Walker’s stuff, it’s a fun listen, with a great ear for percussion and timing. The gong and the brass section are having a ball, while she also knew how to create quieter moments; a gorgeous helping of muted trumpet on In A State of Molecular Flux coupled with a supernatural wave of strings manages to be both sad and suspenseful.

Going back in - Escape From L.A. (1996)

Carpenter obviously liked what Walker had delivered: he hired her again four years later to co-write the music for Escape from L.A.. The result? In a word: synths. Synths, baby, yeah. Drums, metallic clanks, buzzy noises; it’s a score that sounds different and exciting in good old electro-Carpenter fashion but it’s easy to imagine some of the music’s unpredictable character coming from that precise offbeat quality Walker worked with back in her Danny Elfman days.

A man’s world - Chicago Joe And The Showgirl (1990)

Memoirs Of An Invisible Man may have been Walker’s first solo credit but Chicago Joe And The Showgirl almost got there first. Two years before Carpenter snapped Shirley up, she composed this sassy score for Bernard Rose, a period number that sings with 1940s style. Sashaying along with brass and woodwind, it blends old-school Hollywood grandeur (try the opening) with cheeky runs on the piano to produce a soundtrack with a real swing in its step – and still manages to find time for sombre flutes and gentle harps. But, due to legal reasons, Shirley got none of the credit. Whose name went on the manuscript? Hans Zimmer.

Shirley’s take on it from Soundtrack Magazine: “My association with Hans Zimmer, which lasted a good many years, came about because right at the time he was coming over here from England, he was with the same agency that I was with, and he wanted an orchestrator and somebody to conduct for him. I had a lunch meeting with him and his partner and we all hit it off, and we had a glorious span of projects there for quite a few years. And Hans actually got me another feature, Chicago Joe And The Showgirl, which again is a shared credit. It’s nothing he wrote a note of, but his contractual obligation was such that he kept his name on it.”

Superheroine - Batman: The Mask Of The Phantasm (1993)

After working on Tim Burton’s Batman, Shirley developed an attachment to DC Comics, scoring both the TV series The Flash and Batman between 1990 and 1995. Smack in the middle of that came the animated feature Batman: The Mask Of The Phantasm.

Echoing Elfman’s 1989 theme, Walker took the serious brass tones and ran with them to create something really rather epic: trumpet fanfares contrast with jaunty piano licks for the deformed comedy of Mark Hamill’s The Joker, while the judicious use of synth noises (not unlike Memoirs Of An Invisible Man) give the whole story a supernatural air.

Best of all, though, is the choir chanting a strange language at a scarily loud volume. Only when you listen carefully do you start to work out what they’re singing: their own names backwards. It’s exactly that sense of humour that seems to pervade Shirley’s work – somewhere between her conducting and writing, you always get the feeling that musicians enjoyed what they were playing.

Scarily good - Black Christmas (2006) / Willard (2003) / Final Destination (2000/2003/2006)

Walker’s amusing charm was never better displayed than in the Final Destination franchise. Composing the music for the first three films, it’s telling that her main theme has lasted to this day – even after the arrival of Iron Man 3’s Brian Tyler. The signature tune for the series is a raucous blend of loud drums and even louder guitars, an aggressive, silly rush of energy that, if stereotypes were true, you could hardly believe came from a woman’s brain. Then, just when you think it’s ended, it starts up again for one last burst – a testament to Shirley’s versatility and the perfect embodiment of the series’ enjoyably trashy personality.

Black Christmas followed in Final’s footsteps, producing a fun score for Glen Morgan’s horror remake. It was, in fact, her final score before passing away, a mix of Christmas-style bells, stabbing strings in a Herrmann-esque style and some good old descending brass. It’s not the most memorable movie theme, but it’s certainly unnerving when accompanying the film – and for a horror movie, that’s what counts.

Willard was an equally twisted showcase for Walker’s warped timings – and, as happened with a lot of Walker's work in the past, is sadly unavailable on CD. The main theme is the only readily accessible piece. Jumping between time signatures with an accordion, it lets the brass thunder home the tune while still finding space for flutes to trill rodent footsteps up and down the stave. Minor thirds hitting every quaver along with a hyperactive xylophone only add to the colourful sense of darkness.

Jazz, horror, comic books and Carpenter thrillers. It’s a back catalogue that shows a lot of strings to Shirley’s bow. During her career, Walker conducted and orchestrated for a range of people, from Brad Fiedel (True Lies) and, of course, Elfman and Zimmer to even Carter Burwell. As she put it to Soundtrack Magazine, “I’ve just retired from that because, now that I’m composing, it doesn’t make sense”.

Many composers are praised for being able to do just that: compose. But to work as all three in a male-dominated industry – and do it so well? It’s impossible not to admire Shirley Walker’s work. The only thing that stopped her evolving CV? A tragic death following a stroke in 2006. At that point, she had scored more major motion pictures than any other American female. More important that that, you can hear that she had fun while doing it.

She was the first woman to receive a solo film credit on a major studio film. And someone who could kick loud guitar butt with the best of them.

You can read Ivan's previous Music in Film here.

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