On March 11, 2014 at the VI-Control forum, a young composer asked the question, “Has anyone found a resource for scores of the music of Alex North. These would probably be primarily film scorers, although he had several “serious” pieces performed and a few recorded.

“And for those who have not heard his writing, ie, Cleopatra, Spartacus, Virginia Wolff, Zapata, Africa & on, please treat yourself.”

I responded. As someone who for a while has sold what few film scores and film suites were available to support my Professional Orchestration books, I answered and explained that the answer was no, there were no published film scores from composer Alex North. Though I didn’t write this in my responding post, the exception would be those quotes in George Burt’s book, The Art of Film Music and Fred Karlin’s On the Track.

Aside from John Williams’ study scores, I mentioned Aaron Copland’s The Red Pony, William Walton’s Richard III and Henry V scores, and Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Sinfonia Antartica derived from his score to Scott of the Antartic. Despite the quality of writing contained in these film scores adapted for the concert hall, no one displayed any interest in them.

So, I went on about my business.

The next day, March 12, I received a LinkedIn “add me” request from Abby North. It said, “Heard you’re looking for Alex North scores. Perhaps I can help.”

Honestly, I was really shocked, but also pleasantly surprised, that a family member of a super well known film composer would write and ask if I’d like to study his scores.

If you’re not familiar with the Hollywood scene and trying to get and study scores of complete cues, to give you a mental picture, panning for gold in Iceland is easier, and about as rewarding.

To put it mildly, it’s easier to find Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee. Much easier.

Which is a shame, or really, a tragedy because the way you learn to compose is the same way you learn about composing for films – from the music. The most that has ever been available are concertized editions of cues. The pieces I already mentioned are superb examples. They may not be the exact cues, but they are from the score, and the scoring devices are still intact. And after you’ve listened a few times, there is that thing called the musical imagination where you can get the soundtrack and the movie, too, and listen to see how the cue was adapted.

This is still a great learning experience. And lots of us learn this way.

Then there’s a method that many composers use to learn from each other, since nowadays, you can no longer go into the studio library “stacks” and pull another composer’s score to see how they did it. And that technique is to buy the soundtrack, listen to it enough times until you’ve really learned it, and then watch the movie. Later when it’s released, you’ll buy the movie where you can rewind multiple times to learn better how the scene was approached.

But if you can ever get the cues, then you can really get a Grade AAA education not available in any college course. You’ll learn the scoring techniques, the compositional techniques, dramatic insights, and one unintended lesson – what the director cut from what was written.

That is a very important lesson because in the event you ever get hired by the same director, you have an idea of what to expect.

Composers who have achieved a level of stature understand this, and when possible provide copies of scores to those coming up who’ve demonstrated their seriousness about learning the craft. I was one of those people. And twice in front of the whole orchestra before the scoring session began, Jerry Goldsmith honored me publicly by handing me all the cues for Chain Reaction (one session) and First Knight (the second session). A few others like Henry Mancini and Allyn Ferguson were also gracious in allowing me to get their scores and study them.

To be frank, I needed it. When I arrived in L.A., I was part of what I call The College Boy Brigade. We all had degrees, a lot of us had degrees in jazz writing, but few of us had had direct hands-on time writing frequently for a live orchestra.

Students today still don’t. Most music comp graduates hear their final work played by the samples in their music notation program. When we arrived in L.A., none of us had even that. We totally relied on how well our orchestral musical imaginations were developed, or not.

College teachers forever knock film composers and orchestrators. Hack is a commonly used four-letter word to describe them. So it’s easy to think that since you’ve got your line writing down and that your oop-bop-sha-bang is firmly in place, you’ll sail through and be at the top in no time. I mean, how could we fail?

Ha!

Little did many of us realize that upon arrival we were competing with professionals whose resumes were as solid as the Rockies. There were those against whom we competed who had been trained by Nadia Boulanger, Aaron Copland, Charles Koechlin, Ernest Krenek, Darius Milhaud, Arnold Schoenberg, Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Ernst Toch, and others.

By comparison, I had drive and my Piston Orchestration book (which had no audio examples).

Confronted by this career reality, many of us were faced with two options: fold our tents, or make like Marines and dig in. That was my choice, and trust me, it was work, because writing for an orchestra is the hardest ensemble in the world to really write for because of all the subtle nuances across the range of each solo instrument and section.

So to be asked if I’d like to see Alex North’s scores was something I would never have expected because no one, and I mean no one, ever openly offers such an opportunity to learn.

Abby North and I corresponded over the next two days. I listed the scores I’d like to study for myself.

As we continued to write, I learned that Abby is a sharp music business professional who knows and understands copyright management and licensing.

Consequently, because of the ad agency background I acquired before coming back to music full time, I found it easy to simply “talk shop” with Abby in a candid direct professional manner.

Abby said she would get the 2001 scores duplicated in full score format and shipped.

For an entire week I rolled around in happy disbelief that this was all happening. I know it sounds hokey to say, but honestly, I would pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t in some dream state. It was just so unheard of.

I think it was the first day of Spring that I got an email from Abby North saying that the scores had been duplicated for me, that they were shipping to me FedEx ground, that I’d get them on the 26th of March, and would I please write to let her know they had arrived.

“Absolutely!” I wrote back.

On Wednesday March 26, my wife Caroline walked into my studio carrying a long package. In her soft lilting British accent which always seems to have a smile in it, Caroline announced, “Sweetheart, the scores Abby North sent have just arrived.”

No joke, my eyes really lit up.