Music theory professor Brent Yorgason discusses the music of “King Kong” and BYU’s upcoming live performance
The School of Music will present BYU’s first ever movie in concert with “King Kong” (1933). The BYU Philharmonic — under the direction of Kory Katseanes — will perform Max Steiner’s landmark score as the film plays on the big screen in the de Jong Concert Hall Nov. 2.
The concert also marks the first time the score has been performed live since its reconstruction from Steiner’s original sketches by film composer John Morgan. Music theory professor Brent Yorgason worked behind the scenes with BYU students, faculty and staff as well as industry professionals to transcribe and polish the reconstructed score, coordinate media elements and create click tracks to keep the live music in sync with the images on the screen.
Yorgason discusses the importance of Steiner’s legacy — and BYU’s unique connection to it — below.
Q: Why is it important for people to be familiar with Max Steiner and his work?
A: In a sense, every film composer owes a debt to Max Steiner for creating this art form of the movie score — many call him the father of film music. He started many of the things that we take for granted with music in movies today.
There was a time in early film when they weren’t sure what to do with music in the medium, and it was often relegated to the beginning and end of the film or restricted to moments where an instrument or radio could be seen on screen. Steiner thought music could do more, and in collaboration with film producer David O. Selznick he created the expectations we have today for music as a dramatic underpinning of the images on the screen. Steiner’s work was groundbreaking in creating a link between music and film to elicit emotions in the audience.
Q: While “King Kong” was not Steiner’s first score, it remains one of his most beloved and influential. Why is this?
A: “King Kong” is considered by many to be the first film score masterpiece and a landmark in the development of film music. This score is what they call wall-to-wall; it’s relentless, playing almost the entire film. This was also the first film score that audiences really noticed and acknowledged for its impact on the overall film experience. And this score is different from a lot of Steiner’s other scores — such as “Gone with the Wind” and “Casablanca” — because he was writing for a creature feature, what they considered a horror film in the 1930s. One of Steiner’s real gifts was to match the action and mood of the film with his music.
Q: What is BYU’s connection to Max Steiner?
A: Our film curator at the Harold B. Lee Library — James D’Arc, who recently retired — is a great lover of film music. Over his career, he tried to collect as much original film music material as he could to preserve in our Special Collections archives. He would approach film music composers and their families and ask them if we could preserve their documents for them. Many film studios actually destroyed their copies of film scores and orchestrations because they didn’t have space and didn’t realize how important they would become.
James D’Arc approached Steiner’s widow in 1981, and she agreed to donate his original film score sketches — we have almost 250 of his scores — along with his Academy Awards and other memorabilia. The Max Steiner collection is our largest collection, and researchers have come to BYU from around the world to study his sketches. One of the most valuable items in the library is his score for “Gone with the Wind,” and the sketch for “King Kong” provided the guide for Los Angeles film composer John Morgan to reconstruct the score that we’re using in the live screening.
Q: Why is it important or useful for students and professors to explore popular movie music in addition to their more conventional studies?
A: The BYU Philharmonic has tackled some of the heaviest pieces in classical literature, works like Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. Steiner has an important place in music history as well, and our students should know his work in a similar way that they should be aware of composers like Brahms or Beethoven.
Philharmonic director Kory Katseanes also strongly feels that this is an important training experience for his students. If they ever have a job as a studio musician for film or any kind of media, they will be able to use these new skills, including playing with headphones and following click tracks. We hope to make events like this a regular thing for students in the School of Music moving forward.