Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The Russia House: Jerry Goldsmith

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Jerry Goldsmith’s The Russia House  could very well be the best score ever to feature an unwanted theme and an unwanted album. Not only did Jerry Goldsmith disapprove of the MCA Records album for The Russia House, but the title theme of the film itself was a reject from a previous Jerry Goldsmith score. The saga of the score for The Russia House begins two years before the film's release, when Goldsmith conjured up a bold and yet longing love theme for the film Alien Nation.

 In a seemingly nonsensical move by that film's producers, Goldsmith's score was rejected and expunged. Knowing that he had a perfectly viable, not to mention powerful, theme on his hands, he waited a few years before working it into the film treatment of John LeCarre's novel The Russia House.

“[Goldsmith’s score contains ] saxophone performances by Branford Marsalis (both scripted and improvised) that are nothing short of spectacular. Never once does he quiver unintentionally or even slightly miss a note. Perfection is bliss.”
- Filmtracks.com review

“The function of a [film] score is to enlarge the scope of the film. I try for emotional penetration – not for complementing the action. For me, the important thing about music is statement. I can’t describe how I arrive at the decision to make a statement, I simply feel it and react to it.”
- Jerry Goldsmith

Spoken like a true Jazz musician - and this from one of the premier composers of music for the movies in the history of film!

As has been intended since we posted an audio track from the film The Russia House on the columnar or left-side of the blog some months ago:

“We plan to do more with the music from Jerry Goldsmith’s wonderful film score to The Russia House in a future feature highlighting the beauty of the city of St. Petersburg; another of the JazzProfiles editorial staff’s attempts to meld Jazz and photographic images. In the meantime, please enjoy this audio track and marvel at Jerry’s gorgeous scoring for strings [especially beginning at 4:15] and Branford Marsalis’ mastery of the soprano saxophone. With Mike Lang on piano and John Patitucci on bass, this is one of the most beautiful movie themes ever written.”

A few years ago I came across a DVD of The Russia House.  The movie is an adaptation of John Le Carre’s novel by producer- director  Fred Schepisi, who also altered the ending of the novel into a happy one. The movie stars Sean Connery and Michel Pfeiffer who are well- served in their leading roles by an excellent cast that includes Roy Scheider, James Fox, John Mahoney and Klaus Maria Brandauer.

A number of things struck me about the movie including the engaging love affair between Sean Connery and Michel Pfeiffer [the romantic in me?] and the stunning scenes of Moscow and St. Petersburg, both of which came together to create a “feel good” movie.

But what impressed me the most about the film was how the wonderfully crafted music took this movie to a total visual and aural experience for me.

Not surprisingly, the music for this film score in all its unique splendor, was composed by Jerry Goldsmith, one of the great practitioners of this genre.

The film score does all the things it should do to support a suspenseful Cold War thriller, but it does so in many unique ways including the use of beautifully written string segments [few composers know how to score for strings anymore],  the interspersing a Jazz trio made up of soprano sax, piano and bass,  the use of electronic instruments and effects [including recording-in of a metronome] and the careful inclusion of the duduk and balalaika, traditional Slavic and Russian instruments. 

I am not often a fan of the soprano sax; it’s been disparagingly dubbed the “fish horn” for a reason.

But I came to especially enjoy the sound of the instrument as played by Branford Marsalis after listening to him soar over the film score throughout the movie, but most particularly, during the seven minute [7.39] closing scene when the film credits are launched over exquisite camera shots from around Russia’s traditional and modern capitals: St. Petersburg and Moscow, respectively.

Marsalis solos over beautifully orchestrated strings which are interjected with piano and bass rhythmic phrases, the latter played by Michael Lang and John Patitucci, respectively.

The film was released on December 11, 1990 and a CD of the sound track music was subsequently  issued on MCA Records [MCAD-10136].

While doing further research on the evolution of Jerry Goldsmith skillfully  crafted score, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles found two detailed accounts to share with you.

To give you a sense of the architectural beauty of St. Petersburg or in Russian  - Санкт-Петербург – we have interspersed photographs of some of its most famous venues throughout the profile.  These are also included in the video tribute should you wish to view them collectively while listening to Jerry, Branford, Michael and John at work.

Jerry Goldsmith’s The Russia House from FilmTracks.com 

“The Russia House: (Jerry Goldsmith) If a single film and score could define the word "bittersweet" better than any other, The Russia House would be the champion example. The potentially explosive adaptation of John LeCarre's novel needs no introduction to the concepts of depression and oppression, and despite the story's famously distraught conclusion, audiences were seemingly unprepared for either the gloom of the film or the distorted and confusing ending of the adaptation.

The film fell short of all expectations at the time, though the lead performances by Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer were well enough praised. The espionage story was the first major American production ever to be shot on location in the former Soviet Union, with a sharp, somewhat technological edge driving its fear factor.

Perhaps the most critical element of The Russia House is its extremely memorable score by Jerry Goldsmith, a score with about as much frustration and depression built into the circumstances of its creation as the story of The Russia House itself. Goldsmith first conjured the beautiful theme for this film in 1987 for Wall Street, but when he left that film due to creative differences with the filmmakers, he adapted the theme into his electronic score for Alien Nation the following year.

Being that the 1988 alien/cop drama was so wretchedly awful, however, Goldsmith wasn't particularly disappointed when his score was completely rejected from the finished product. His bold and longing love theme for Alien Nation was realized in that film's cue "The Wedding," but never did it truly take flight until it was altered slightly (improving its romantic flow in three places) and handed to an accomplished jazz trio for The Russia House in 1990.

Goldsmith's approach to the genuine locale was countered by an interestingly American approach to scoring the visuals, infusing a slight edge of old-style noir into the picture. He took a chance by composing an almost exclusively jazzy score, building off of the Barley (Connery) character's performance of the saxophone in the film.

To address the concept of espionage, and not to mention Connery himself, Goldsmith inserts a slight touch James Bond's mechanical instrumentation, making restrained, but smart use of his library of synthetic rhythm-setters. To address the danger of the romance, he offers us a glimpse of the ominously nervous strings that we would eventually hear in full for
Basic Instinct.

The most surprising aspect of the score for The Russia House is its simplicity in instrumentation and repetition. It's hard to imagine how a score of this minuscule size and scope could be so overwhelming in its appeal. That might say something about Goldsmith's raw talent, and perhaps it speaks to three years of development on the concepts.

His base elements are simple; a jazz trio handles the majority of the themes and underscore, with saxophone performances by Branford Marsalis (both scripted and improvised) that are nothing short of spectacular. Never once does he quiver unintentionally or even slightly miss a note. Perfection is bliss.

Michael Lang is equally renown for his fabulous piano performances, and he delicately establishes an elevated level of classy bar room atmosphere for Marsalis' sax. The bass, performed by John Patitucci, has a larger role in the score, not only providing a rhythm for the other two jazz performers, but also handling a large portion of the underscore.

It is during these sequences with the bass that Goldsmith utilizes his electronics to his fullest. With his knowledge of synthesized integration having matured since the experimental days of Legend and Hoosiers, Goldsmith's electronics are almost identically appealing in both the concurrent 1990 releases of Total Recall and The Russia House.

The James Bond aspect of the spy tale called for the presence of mechanized subterfuge, and thus, the use of Goldsmith's wide array of synthesized sounds keeps a consistent rhythm set throughout the score. Most of these sounds are common, light, upper-range, chime-like keyboarding from Goldsmith's library, though the incorporation of a "release of air" effect is unique to this score.

Not always are the solo bass and electronics geared towards suspense, though. The third element of Goldsmith's score is the reasonably sized string section, which is added to provide a whimsical effect for the grand, romantic performances of the title theme (this could also just be a smaller string ensemble simply mixed over itself... it doesn't matter either way). During these moments, the electronics cease their systematic beats and blossom into chimes and twinkles.

No better of an example exists than the finale of the film, when the dream-like "The Family Arrives" sequence provides a false sense of hope at an otherwise doomed finish to the story. During these elegant performances of Goldsmith's cherished theme, the sax, strings, and piano rotate in their pronouncement of the theme, with all three together occasionally blowing the listener away with stunning aural beauty (such as "Bon Voyage"). Over half of the score, though, consists of the suspenseful underscore previously mentioned, with the bass and electronics leading the way. Goldsmith throws in two more elements during these sequences.

First, some very light percussion, crisply recorded, keeps the film moving at a pre-set tempo. To do this, Goldsmith integrates the clicking of a metronome (the device by which instrument performers set their tempo in practice) right into the scheme of the recording. Only a snippet of traditional jazz band percussion is used, such as the light cymbal tapping during the faster rhythmic opening to "Training."

Assessing the need for a slight Soviet influence on the score, Goldsmith also composes for the duduk and balalaika, the former being an Armenian instrument that will sound, to the common American ear, like a low, fluttering woodwind instrument. These elements are combined well with Goldsmith's American jazz, leading to a very smooth and listenable hour of music.

The duduk is employed in a creative way so that it almost sounds as though it's a naturally lower progression of the sax, increasing both instruments' emotional range at moments like the end of "The Meeting." Cues that merge these woodwind sounds, as well as the metronome and synthetics, with some slight improvisation from the lead trio (such as in "Crossing Over") are a delight.

In sum, Goldsmith's music for The Russia House is the type that you wish you could hear every time you go into an upscale bar. It is friendly, yet mysterious. It is smoky, yet crystal clear. It is vibrant, yet lulls you to a different place. Its recording quality is so crisp that Marsalis' sax bounces off the walls with remarkable clarity.

The monotony of its underwhelming construct is compensated for by the sheer talent of its performers and the constant sense of movement that Goldsmith's rhythms use to maintain your interest. In these regards, The Russia House is the ultimate "homework score," a description used by career students who have spent countless hours researching and writing to this music. The vocal version of Goldsmith's theme, performed in the song "Alone in the World" by Patti Austin, melts wonderfully into the center of the album. The song's arrangement and instrumentation by Goldsmith is consistent with the surrounding underscore.

Aside from the recognizable Goldsmithian electronics and some minor key bass string movements teasing later development in Basic Instinct, this score is like nothing composed by any other major film composer in the last twenty years. Other composers have tried to score films with the same emphasis on jazz, but none has succeeded with the same class and sense of style as Goldsmith accomplished. To that end, traditional Goldsmith fans might not warm up to The Russia House at first.

But it has become a legend within the film score industry, a favorite score for several leading composers still working today, with similar praise extended from fans all over the world. Goldsmith's love affair with the final track of The Russia House (the ultimate highlight of the album, for which he allowed the trio of jazz musicians to improvise over seven minutes of material, leading to an enjoyably snazzy conclusion for the album) that he would reprise the sound almost identically in his underrated 1993 score for The Vanishing (though curiously out of place and not as crisp in sound). He would also touch upon the basics of the style at the end of 1997's The Edge.

Even on its addictively attractive album, however,
The Russia House still caused frustration for Goldsmith himself. Not only was his theme unwanted for no less than two films, but the MCA album, as presented, was unwanted by the composer as well.

It's a classic example of how many composers wish to maintain control over the presentation of their works outside of their intended film use. Perhaps the ultimate irony of Goldsmith's quest to narrow down the length of the album for The Russia House is that neither of the other two scores featuring versions of its themes (Alien Nation and The Vanishing) would receive commercial albums, both relying instead on bootlegs and eventual Varèse Sarabande club treatment.

Goldsmith disapproved of the MCA Records album because it presented the mass of the music from the film intact. Many people will argue alongside Goldsmith that The Russia House would make a fantastic 30-minute album. But MCA, in this case, got it right. There are nuances in this score that make every moment one of intrigue.

If you cut out all of the duduk ethnicity and bass string suspense, you'd be left with the dozen renditions of the love theme, and one of the great aspects of the score in its entirety is its ability to bring one of those lush thematic statements at just the right moment of lonely despair.

Many reviewers will be deterred by the length of the album, overlooking the profound impact that an understated score like this can have on its film, and many fans will comment that the score is simply too depressing to enjoy on a bright sunny afternoon.

But elegance comes in many forms, and the music from The Russia House, while perfect for the shadows of midnight despair, is a score that anyone (and especially a Goldsmith enthusiast) should be able to appreciate at any hour. The score came during a fantastic year for film music, but while John Barry's Dances With Wolves, Danny Elfman's Edward Scissorhands, and Basil Poledouris' The Hunt for Red October, among others, drew more public attention, the quality of The Russia House exceeds all of them. The difference is style. *****

The Russia House from
Film Released: December 11, 1990
Film Score by Jerry Goldsmith
CD: Released by
Serial number

Principal Soloists:

Branford Marsalis, soprano saxophone
Michael Lang, piano
John Patitucci, bass

Orchestrated by Arthur Morton

Vocal tracks : Patti Austin

"Leviathan scored a year earlier proved to be the turning point in Goldsmith's career and the reason why composer and agent went after a more rewarding assignment in 1990. Leviathan remains a popular score, but as a movie, Jerry Goldsmith deserved something a lot more worthy of his talents.

By saying "no" to a lot of assignments they held out for Fred Schepisi's adaptation of John Le Carre's book
The Russia House. The movie had quality written all over it and although it failed to make massive box office, the movie garnered enough respect to make it critic friendly and musically Goldsmith wrote one of his most respected works. At the time he placed this ahead of Islands in The Stream as his own personal favorite.

Fred Schepisi's polished adaptation was tailor made for scoring, with emphasis placed on the Russian locations, and at times looking like a travel log, it had to play over some of the best photography lensed for film. Goldsmith's classy jazz score is introduced over the cold grey skies of
Moscow and introduces Michelle Pfieffer's character (Katya). Goldsmith's transparent string writing shows his intentions for this theme and introduces Branford Marsalis' haunting Saxophone as the lead instrument.

Regardless of the love story this is still a cold war spy drama set against a post glasnost
Russia and we are introduced to the intrigue through some restrained but nonetheless suspenseful string work as British Intelligence search the flat of Barley Blair (Introductions). Here Goldsmith creating light but ominous overtones for strings and Piano for the espionage. These aspects come to the fore later in a sequence where Blair is taught how to spot anyone following him (Training). Here synth work and strings create momentum by way of some unusual sounds, especially noteworthy is a 'swishing' effect as Blair shows his lack of seriousness to British Intelligence.
The developing relationship between Blair and Katya is Goldsmith's main focus though as his main theme transforms during their early scenes together and the awakening of their love for each other (Katya and Barley - Bon Voyage). Here Goldsmith introduces Dante by way of atmospheric chimes and ethnic instrumentation (First Name, Yakov). For this character Goldsmith uses the traditional Russian woodwind instruments the Duduk and also the Balalaika. Their tone perfectly conjuring up the mystery of this character and the potential threat of being caught by the Russian authorities.

As Blair and Katya become wiser to the coercion of the
CIA and MI6, and realizing they are in danger of being caught, they plan an escape. Barley's Love and My Only Country signal their undying love for each other as Goldsmith breaks from spy games to focus his elegant theme once more on their relationship. Crossing Over sees the US and British intelligence waiting anxiously to see if Blair has got what they want from Dante. As the clocks tick away so does Goldsmith's metronome, now tense bass creates a sense of uncertainty as plucked strings and piano provide the signal that Blair has done his own deal to save Katya and her family.

Goldsmith clearly adored this project, closing his score with a lengthy romantic end credit (The Family Arrives) in celebration of the family being reunited, with warm strings, minor electronics and improvised Jazz.
The Russia House is evidence of Goldsmith at the top of his game and is also interesting at revealing the original theme he developed for his unused score to the movie Alien Nation. Thankfully though The Russia House became its well deserved home.

MCA issued a lengthy CD, with a crisp recording and proved a wonderful show case for the talents of both Marsalis and Mike Lang (it was no coincidence that Marsalis turned up in James Horner's
Sneakers). One of the longest CDs approved by Goldsmith, he was ironically criticized by some for its length. But his agent, Richard Kraft, took the blame for that."

Released by
Serial number

Cues & Timings
1. Katya (3:57)
2. Introductions (3:12)
3. The Conversation (4:13)
4. Training (2:01)
5. Katya and Barley (2:32)
6. First Name, Yakov (2:53)
7. Bon Voyage (2:11)
8. The Meeting (3:59)
9. I'm With You/
What Is This Thing Called Love (Cole Porter) (2:39)
10. Alone in the World (4:09) (Patti Austin - song)
11. The Gift (2:34)
12. Full Marks (2:27)
13. Barley's Love (3:24)
14. My Only Country (4:34)
15. Crossing Over (4:13)
16. The Deal (4:09)
17. The Family Arrives (7:38)

With the help of the ace graphics team at CerraJazz LTD we have now reset the closing music to Jerry Goldsmith’s film score for The Russia House to the following visual tribute to St. Petersburg, a magnificently beautiful city that the German poet Goethe once referred to as – “The Venice of the North.”