Classical Music Review: New Releases

Alex North - Bite the Bullet.  Original soundtrack recording, conducted by the composer.  Prometheus Records, Kon. Astridlaan 171, 28000 Mechelen, Belgium.  E-mail address:

Although Alex North's music sounds fine in Richard Brooks's movie western, Bite the Bullet (1975), the soundtrack is much more impressive when heard on the Prometheus Records release culled from the original master tape.  Part of the reason for this may be as Henry Brant has commented, "North's intricate, carefully balanced textures often suffered damage and were later distorted in the control room with false volumes by the sound engineer on instructions from the producer or director."  Concert hall composers have to put up with conductors who ignore tempo indications and dynamic markings, but film composers apparently suffer more.  They have to compete with dialogue, car chases, explosions, and -- in the case of Bite the Bullet -- trains and horses.

While North has an orchestra of over 70 players here (but only 22 strings), he scores transparently for maximum clarity.  The instrumentation calls for winds and brass in fours -- including North favorites such as contrabassoon, euphonium, and saxophone -- and 15 in the percussion section, including timbales, keyboards (piano, celesta, and organ), and even an ondioline (which the composer first used in the 1960 score for Spartacus).  Instrumental color cannot camouflage or compensate for poor ideas or sloppy musical thought.  Fortunately, North never has such problems, and his music here is rich, varied, and vital.

One of the most imaginative cues is "Badlands."  This begins with a syncopated ostinato figure played by 12 cellos, punctuated by bleats from the tubas -- the rhythm marked by claves -- and a bleary cadence from the brass.  The situation becomes more complex with the addition of timpani, coupled with vigorous figures on cello, bass, and piano, with tattoos, in spurts, on snare drum and cymbals.  Rising string material, played non-vibrato, is overlain with an altered chord in mixed winds played 20 times, followed by many complex timbral/rhythmic shifts.  North gets as much drama and contrast from his 4'39" as some would in an entire symphony.

Other cues are just as spectacular.  The comic overture doesn't have your typical Hollywood Western sound; instead, it's a highly individual, joyful romp, with quick cross-cuttings amongst different instrumental choirs.  North's light touch also appears in the rambunctious "Fun Ride" and the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink "Prisoners."  His famous lyric side surfaces in the exquisitely mixed colors of "Foal," the guitar duo "Night Pause," and parts of other cues, which often have quickly shifting emotional climates.  And North's timing is always right on the money.  To be sure, the episodic nature of film music encourages a wide expressive range, but North surpasses all in depth.

Bite the Bullet goes from populist to experimental with no obvious sense of strain, and hangs together perfectly well.  The Mexican source music and march suite, which round out this CD in arrangements by Hershy Kay, are given snappy renditions by North, who conducts with authority throughout.

-Michael McDonagh
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