End of the beginning.
I am onto disk four.
Over the last couple of days I have, between working on comparatively noddy music cues of my own, been working through the quadruple box set of John Barry: The Collection.
Latter-day Bond composer and arch Twitter wit, David Arnold, referred to him as The Guvnor. Many called him a legend. His family and friends simply knew him, I think, as a very funny Yorkshireman.
I know him only through his music, as the bloke who first managed to intrigue a rosy-cheeked childhood Timmy with the idea of actually liking orchestral music. Took a long while, but it was John Barry’s scores that helped sow the seed of understanding for me, I think.
And I guess, if we know someone only through their art, then their death can’t connect too fully; their art is still with us. Still, the idea of such a character and talent and big name of British cinema gone through a heart attack this week is sad news.
What was it? In the cloud of acclaim that swells around many an accomplished obituary, what was it about John Barry’s music that could stand a chance of connecting with a thirteen year-old filling his head with Street Sounds electro and Kraftwerk, for example? What made him ‘great’?
Five Oscars, four Grammys, the odd BAFTA and Golden Globe, and decades’-worth of iconic film names against your own – including eleven Bond flicks – might make you feel pretty great. By all accounts, John didn’t change with the success. Perhaps true Yorkshiremen don’t, whichever part of the world they live and work in.
I think, trying to analyse it in the back of my head since Monday’s news, it comes down to one very vague word: atmosphere.
John Barry did that magical, mercurial thing so essential to film music, and any affecting music – he created atmosphere.
Yes, but how?
I guess it starts with a natural and – if I dare say such a casually diffident thing about such an arguably beyond-angelic human gift – reasonably straightforward ability to write tunes. Barry always created very recognisable melodies and comfortably flowing themes.
Despite the 20th century’s laudably conceptual efforts to bash a good tune to bits in the desire to see music, as everything, in a new way – and as much to simply overthrow the naff, I should think – the power of a good tune is as strong as ever. And crucially, it is often at its strongest in the context of a dark, flickering movie theatre.
There is something weirdly compelling and affecting about a ruddy great riff repeated uncomplicatedly or a huge theme turned over and over against pictures on a big screen in the isolation of I Payed HOW Much For This Ticket?! attention. It gets to you. And the simpler, the apparently often better. Weirdly, given how much you’re giving it attention.
I suspect strongly that Barry knew this. And I suspect it was on instinct when he looked at a movie scene, as much as any conscious strategy as a composer.
His arrangements of his simple tunes are always elegantly calm. Even when making a drama. Everything sits in its place in the orchestral pallet in a very considered way. Everything feels reassuringly deliberate.
Perhaps you could argue that his music is a pleasing synthesis of old fashioned and contemporary, which to audiences in the late sixties and seventies worked a particular kind of magic – since taken a little more for granted.
His ability to create something musical you could take out of the theatre with you – a hummable, recognisable theme – is old school, but his lack of snobbery in the face of a consistent time signature or a repeated phrase, more in keeping with a bit of pop music, is of its more modern time. He may not have been drawn to make arch modernist machine-like music like a contemporary such as Philip Glass, but Philip Glass is an acquired taste to say the least. John Barry makes sense to everyone.
Melody, clarity, consideration, structure. Fine, fine and blah, blah. Composers stuff – excuse me while I YAWWWN. But where is the spark of magic? What makes it, if there is one? Where am I hearing it, at least?
I think for me it might turn out to be something buried in the man’s psyche as a jazz musician.
Yes. Everyone likes to claim or demonstrate the understanding to bestow the influence of jazz. Everyone secretly wants to be a public clever-dick. Lord knows I do.
But it’s simply true that Barry was, as a musician, a horn player. And no-one plays the horn without being surrounded by an awareness of jazz.
Interesting then, isn’t it, that one of the signature sounds in John Barry’s arrangements is the strings – it’s those strings, baby. They speak for him all the time. He puts those big tunes right up top in the mouths of the strings. Not the horns. Not usually. Why?
It comes back, I suspect, to his presumably innate sense of atmosphere. Strings are the orchestral cat-gut short-cut to atmosphere and emotion. They just are.
But when you put that together with a very calm clear structure of sound AND an understanding of how jazz harmonies zing like no others, you have the ingredients for some true cinemagic.
Though I risk boring you sideways with the little ‘knowledge’ I have on any technical subject whatsoever, it is worth noting that jazz likes things to clash. Notes in particular. Personalities often. Budgets and expenses almost always.
But on the piano keyboard at least, you can see the energy a clash of notes creates. A typical ‘jazz’ chord essentially shoves in a fistful of notes in the middle. But it’s because those notes in the middle, making a brain-tingling something are actually notes at the top, but dropped down into the energy of the chord.
Scales. Doh Rey Me Far So etc. A musical key has eight normal notes in it from one octave up to the next. If you number those notes, a typical pop music chord uses notes 1, 3 and 5 to make a basic, essential harmony. Ta-daaahh. Music. Harmony. The very outer gates of writing a tune.
Now, up top, notes 6, 7, even 9 – yes, 9 – start to add a weird flavour to the harmonies. They don’t play ball with the main notes. They sort of subvert them. Accent them. Annoy them, but tickle the brain. And they unlock different progressions of notes and harmonies that start to do arguably more interesting things than safer pop harmonies.
There’s a whole debate there. And ultimately, you’re sometimes in a conspicuously jazz mood – say, when making a cafetierre and reaching for am intellectual-looking book… as if you ever get time for that – and sometimes you want to be able belt out a karaoke chorus. It’s all good.
The relevance of all this unschooled music waffle is that John Barry took some of those troublesome, jossly, Jolsony, clashing jazzy notes out of the scrum of a smokey piano chord, scrubbed them off, suited them up, smartened their hair, straightened their bow ties and placed them elegantly into the mouths of the strings.
When everything is calmly, harmoniously structured, to very deliberately and with no fuss have the violins descend semitones or sustain the minor seventh, creates tension. A very controlled, deliberate kind of tension.
It creates atmosphere.
Jazz, respectfully subverting the mainstream.
And just occasionally doing something bare-facedly sassy with the horns section as well. I mean, come on – James Bond’s own theme is a sudden riot of swing chutzpah. It’s bonkers. And it grins from ear to ear.
And, though Monty Norman’s name is against that particular piece of legendary music, I suspect privately he simply wrote the almost-naff guitar riff. I’d put money on the belief that it was John Barry who wrote the swinging blast of horn section finery that kicks in after it.
Masterfully instinctive. Warmly clever. Reassuringly witty. Universally likeable.
What a legacy to leave behind.
As I consider all this at the start of a new creative year for me, I am beginning to wonder whether my own staggeringly more humble musical abilities and achievements are facing an end too. The end of their beginning.
Or are we ever past the beginning of our work and learning?
I don’t know. As a musical great closes his book of work, I feel like I’ve barely opened mine, even after all this time.
Or maybe it’s just that listening to his music makes me feel as excited as a kid all over again. I can certainly feel quite an atmosphere.
John Barry – a creative inspiration and example. Here’s to the future.