The Gold Standard of FBI Themes

I’ve said it before in this glacial election season: what this show needs is a composer with symphonic ambition and a talent for capturing in music everything from the loftiest of sentiments to the dirtiest of tricks.Through magic-meme technology such a soundtrack would unleash riveting motives and/or grandiose orchestral effects every time a candidate, an enemy, a backroom fixer, a four-star general, or a Billy Bush appears on your screen. This musician would have a talent for matching evocative themes not just to characters but to ideologies and ideas: Walls and Wall Street, tax returns and transcripts.

Franz Waxman, white courtesy telephone! Max Steiner pick up your iPhone 7s! Miklos Rosza, Uber is on its way!

I’m not talk about ring-tone ditties or other pre-fab snippets of melody larded with stock harmonies, but rather about swaths of sonority ranging from the heroic to the dastardly, all of it worthy of the legacy of Richard Wagner and Bernhard Hermann.

Last Friday’s shake-up of the presidential plot proves just how badly a talented election composer is needed. This latest twist puts me in mind of a beleaguered Hollywood producer who, badly shaken by disastrous test screenings of his movie Election 2016, extracts a re-write from a chained-to-the-desk type. It’s a panicked move to save a picture that appears destined to be a flop. The desperate writer goes for a late-in-the-game flea-flicker: emails discovered on a computer confiscated from a disgraced politician and sexting addict still barely married to a top aide of one of the candidates compels the F. B. I. Director to re-open a smoldering case against a candidate already tarnished by profound doubts about her honesty.

It’s not the most compelling narrative ever devised and utterly unbelievable to boot, but if this kind of things works for House of Cards it might succeed in righting the badly listing ship of 2016 Fools by buoying viewer ratings.

Still, it’s pretty weak material in serious need of musical punch. There are composers out there up to the task. Offered enough cash, John Corigliano might return to the relentlessly unsettling electronics of his score for Altered States (1980): this would give the arid prose of Comey’s recent letter a sufficiently paranoid sonic backdrop and, on election night, the wallop of a fittingly apocalyptic judgment. The Golden Age gestures and inspired pastiche of Corigliano’s Red Violin (1997), for which he rightly won the Oscar, could be echoed—or directly lifted—for the scurrying G-Men and for Hillary’s endless longing for the White House.

But who has time to crank out new stuff with just a few days to go, even if the conspiracy theories and recriminations will continue long past next Tuesday, indeed far into the future? Even the mind-bogglingly prolific masters of movie music mentioned above would be hard-pressed to produce anything in a time.

So for our late-innings soundtrack we’ll have to make a withdrawal from the Classical bank. Luckily the gold standard of F. B. I. themes waits in its safe deposit box. When the letter-wielding Comey popped again into the news to Trump’s red-faced glee, I thought back to the television series starring Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. that ran from 1965 to 1974. Have a listen to the opening credits and feel your ears perk up, your pulse race, and your interest surge in these previously soporific Beltway machinations.

High, sharp strings and quaking percussion plummet onto the craggy dissonance of low brass buffeted by timpani, immediately conveying a sense that even the mighty and seemingly secure tread at all times perilously close to the chasm of doom. After the cataclysmic fall from safety, stentorian trumpets proclaim their intention to strive for justice above the rumbling of underworld trombones. The gallop of bugles evokes both the chariots of the Roman Coliseum and the chargers of Monument Valley—timelessly antique yet unmistakably American. (Never mind that it was written by a transplanted Pole.) The music is archetypal but riveting in its brutal specificity. Every time you read or hear “F. B. I.” over the next four days—and beyond—summon these portentous strains to your inner ear, or reach into your pocket and send the good-versus-evil stanzas through your earbuds.

The music even adds muscle and bite to the mini-civic lessons that is the primitive opening animation sequence of the F. B. I. series: the separation of powers symbolized by a cut-out of the Capitol building hulking its way onto the dark background; this is followed by the executive obelisk of the Washington Monument (the legislative branch takes up too much of the screen to make room for the White House); the judicial temple of the Supreme Court; and finally the fiercely independent F. B. I. then still ensconced behind the Neo-Federalist ramparts of the Department of Justice before the Bureau moved itself across Pennsylvania Avenue to the fittingly Brutalist fortress of the Hoover Building in 1975, the year after the television series ended its nearly decade-long run.

The composer of the F. B. I. theme—and the music for its many episodes rich in diverse and compelling themes—was Bronislaw Kaper, one of the greatest Golden Age Hollywood composers, even if his name is far less well-known than those of some of his illustrious peers.

Like so many of his colleagues, Kaper was an émigré. He left his native Warsaw to study in Berlin in the 1920s, but became cabaret composer instead. In the early 1930s he fled the Nazis, first to Vienna and then to Paris where he was discovered by Louis B. Mayer and brought to Los Angeles. At MGM, Kaper did not disappoint his shrewd sponsor, starting right off with a hit— the song Cosi-Cosa for the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera in 1935. Over his long career Kaper did some 150 soundtracks and hundreds of songs, including the music for the 1947 MGM film Green Dolphin Street. In a 1975 interview with Soundtrack magazine, Kaper recounted how he was at an MGM staff meeting where the young André Previn, yet another escapee from the Nazis, was reading Downbeat, a periodical Kaper claimed never to have looked at before or since. Previn leaned over to Kaper and whispered, “Miles Davis recorded Green Dolphin Street.” Kaper said, “So what?” Previn replied: “That means that in the next three months you have fifty recordings of the song.”

Kaper had a gift for pleasing, often disarmingly simple melodies, yet it was in full-fledged modernist soundtracks that he made his most lasting contributions, scores in which he strove towards what he claimed as his first musical goal: to be a “legitimate” composer. One the most powerful of these works is his gripping expressionist score for Act of Violence (1948), directed by Fred Zinnemann and starring Robert Ryan. One can hear the influence of its shuddering brass, cello yearnings, colliding harmonies, and terrifying ostinatos in Previn’s later score for another Ryan classic for MGM, Bad Day at Black Rock from 1955.

When it came to giving musical shape to absurd fates, dashed hopes, justice denied and found the irrepressibly upbeat Kaper was himself unbeatable. That his F. B. I. is even more arresting this week than it was fifty years ago is unimpeachable testimony to his enduring, if rarely acknowledged, genius.

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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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