Alan SHULMAN (1915-2002)
The Tattooed Stranger (1950) [23:57]
Tennessee Valley Authority (1946) [17:50]
Freedom and Famine (1946) [10:31]
Port of New York (1946) [15:35]
Behind Your Radio Dial (Excerpt) (1948) [1:21]
RKO Radio Pictures Orchestra/Herman Fuchs
rec. 1946-1950, RKO-Pathé 106th Street Studios, NYC
BRIDGE 9560 [69:14]
A founding member of the NBC Symphony orchestra, cellist Alan Shulman earned considerable acclaim with the Stuyvesant String Quartet and as an arranger and composer. One of his most notable projects began during the war when he contributed to a series of documentary films. Between 1942 and 1951 RKO Radio Pictures released a sequence of one and two reelers intended to compete with The March of Time and these are the scores heard in Bridge’s imaginatively constructed sequence of historic soundtrack recordings.
The earliest is Tennessee Valley Authority which depicts the advantages for farmers in the South of flood control dams. As one would expect of a visionary, utopian project of this kind Shulman’s score reflects the vivacious industry depicted, the music being powerfully enthusiastic and romantic, laced too with some folksy down-home moments and a quantity of Korngoldian splendour. Though he disliked ‘Brooklyn cowboys’ who overused the folk element – Copland and Morton Gould were obvious targets – Shulman used this element judiciously as local incident but not as foregrounding. Freedom and Famine followed shortly thereafter, an eleven-minute film showing events in war-ravaged Europe where Dutch dykes had been blown up by the retreating Germans. It also depicted scenes in Normandy and Paris. The focus here is on suffering children. Once again, Shulman’s score is to the point: stalking basses in the early pages, a chorale for the Normandy pages, and lighter more gracious scene painting for the Parisian episodes. This is the shortest of the film scores but it’s full of detail and variety.
Shulman worked closely with the music editor for Pathé News, and conductor of all these recordings, Herman Fuchs together finding ways to chart appropriate musical images in these scores. A perfect example is Port of New York, another product of a very busy 1946 for the composer. Cargo – human and otherwise – is depicted in the bustle of port life. Specific cues include a jaunty march for fumigating rats, and a piccolo solo referencing a search for water pollution. This vividly depicted scenario encapsulates both the drama and the romance of life in a New York revitalising itself for future urban development. It was soon to be re-edited and re-released under the title The Big Port in 1954. There’s a very brief 80-second excerpt from Behind Your Radio Dial which was restored in 2016 and is very jazzy.
The last project here was a B movie called The Tattooed Stranger, a police procedural two-reeler that may have been low budget but was not lowbrow. Shulman was back with the NBC Orchestra by now and worked on cues between orchestral rehearsals. The score is 24 minutes in length and starts with an announcer’s cue. There are many changes of scene and this affords Shulman myriad opportunities to characterise these scenes with precision and excellent orchestration. An inevitable chase scene is rhythmically propulsive, a light-hearted entry is a touch Bernard Herrmann-like and amidst the taut drama there’s an evocation of Holst’s The Planets. It was to be his final film score. Future work foundered with RKO offering to pay Shulman less in 1952 than they had in 1946. His colleagues Felix Slatkin and Eleanor Aller asked him to join them in Hollywood but Shulman preferred New York, his future concert work in the city and recording with his quartet.
Whilst Herman Fuchs, at the end of their collaboration, may have fractiously told Shulman, ‘You’re good, but you’re not that good’, it’s clear that Shulman possessed a considerable talent for film and documentary scores. These restorations, inevitably in occasionally constricted mono sound, have been sensitively transferred and remastered and are taken from Shulman’s own acetates and make a very fine case for the music. Jay Shulman’s booklet note, to which I am heavily indebted, is a must-read. And for anyone interested in American film documentary scores, and in the terrific music for that B movie, this is a valuable resource.