September 2001Film Music CD Reviews

Film Music Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster Len Mullenger

index page/ monthly listings /Sept01/

Elmer BERNSTEIN Music for the Films of Charles & Ray Eames OSTs, conducted by the composer AMBER AMB-2001 [53:03]


In 1952, Franz Waxman introduced a young Elmer Bernstein to Charles and Ray Eames, a couple known for their contributions to architecture and industrial design and whose creativity also included industrial filmmaking. It was the start of a quarter-century of collaboration, including the four works featured on this, the first of several planned discs by Bernstein's Amber Records.

"Toccata for Toy Trains" is a 13-minute work written in 1957 for a short film by the Eames focusing on -- yes, toy trains. As with virtually all of Bernstein's collaborations with the Eames, the score was written following discussions that focused on a scenario, mood and characters, after which the composer was left to himself to create. The result is music of pure enchantment - a delightful mix of mostly peripatetic percussion and piping winds that evokes a sense of motion and child-like joy. It probably helps if, like me, you had a model train as a kid -- but if not, you'll still find Bernstein's music here most infectious. (Side note: While this is the original recording of the Toccata, it isn't its premier release. Bernstein included a re-recording of the work on his Filmmusic Collection album with his score to "The Miracle" back in the mid-'70s.)

The second score, "Six Pieces for the Polavision Movie Camera," is one of their last collaborations, coming in 1977. (Charles Eames died the following year, his wife 10 years after that). It consists of separate musical vignettes for six, 2-minute scenes depicting the various uses of a new "instant" movie camera. Here again, Bernstein's compositional skills with a small orchestra are displayed to great advantage as the pieces range across a variety of moods. I particularly enjoyed his use of harp in the delicate melody of the second piece, and the jazzy, upbeat tempo that carries through the fourth piece.

These are followed by the seven-part "House: After Five Years of Living," a film about the Eames' Southern California home, built entirely with prefabricated materials. Each of the short parts is a divertimento depicting a different room. Composed for piano, harp, flute and cello - the smallest ensemble represented on this disc - these seven pieces run barely 11 minutes in all. The moods here are not as wide-ranging as in the previous work, but are essentially light and pleasant. Challenged by the subject matter (the film contained only slide images, and no dialogue) and a limited orchestral palette, Bernstein's music emerges as the true star.

None of the first three scores, however, prepares the listener for the final work, which is a true exercise in musical frivolity and all the more enjoyable when taken in that light. "Westinghouse in Alphabetical Order" was written in 1965 for, of all things nonmusical, a stockholders' meeting! Faced with the dilemma of explaining all of the company's many products to its shareholders, the Eames decided to simply list each one alphabetically. Bernstein was then provided with the typed list - it must have run to many pages -- along with the problem of how to present it musically. "It was difficult to get terribly excited about electric knives, knife sharpeners ..., " he explains in the liner notes. Finally, he hit on the idea of simply singing the list in what he ultimately describes as "a pastiche cantata . with tongue firmly in cheek."

These recordings, taken from the original tracks, represent a side of the composer not often heard. Apart from his occasional use of solo harp (which put me in mind, at one point, of "The Great Escape,") there is little here that's immediately suggestive of his better-known feature film scores. All of which makes this limited-edition album - available from Amber Records at - all the more interesting.

For Bernstein fans, this is a must. Others should find it an enjoyable listen. In all, Bernstein wrote music for about 30 of the Eames films. A second volume CD is eagerly awaited.

John Huether

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