A Biographical Essay by Randall D. Larson
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.15/No.58/1996
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Randall D. Larson
One of the most under-rated British film composers is Don Banks who, while scoring only a handful of films during the 1960’s, left a notable mark on British film music. Bank’s music – particularly that for several Hammer horror films – was amongst its most melodic and evocative compositions, approaching dark subjects in lighter, more lyrical fashion that nonetheless acquired terrible power when necessary.
Born Donald Oscar Banks in South Melbourne, Australia, in 1923, Don Banks commenced studies in piano and musical theory at the age of 5. His musical advances were interrupted by induction into the military service during World War II, where he served in the Australian Army medical Corps from 1941 to 1946. During this time he managed to receive private studies in piano, harmony and counterpoint. After his military discharge, Banks enrolled in the University of Melbourne’s Conservatorium of Music, where he studied for two years under the tutelage of Waldemar Seidel (piano), A.E.H. Nickson and Dorian Le Gallienne. In 1950, Banks travelled to London for further studies in composition with the renowned Matyas Seiber, then Luigi Dallapiccola in Florence and Milton Babbit in Salzburg.
Returning to London, Banks began to work in film and television music, while producing the serious compositions that would later establish him as a significant figure in the London music scene. Banks’ musical output covered a large variety of forms, including jazz, chamber, concerto, orchestral and electronic music.
Banks began working in motion pictures in 1957 with a documentary entitled ALPINE ROUNDABOUT. According to Hammer’s music director, Philip Martell, Banks asked for scoring work in order to supplement the insufficient income received for his classical and esoteric compositions. He went on to score 19 feature films, 22 documentaries and more than 60 episodes of various television serials. Banks also maintained a long-term relationship with Halas & Batchelor Cartoon films, scoring more than 70 shorts, advertisements and animated television series.
His work on feature films began in 1958 with MURDER AT SITE 3, a low-budget thriller for Eternal Films Ltd, for whom he scored three additional pictures through 1961. Banks composed music for four Associated British Pictures films, including THE TREASURE OF SANTA TERESA (1959), as well as HOUSE AT THE END OF THE WORLD, starring Boris Karloff, for Alta Vista Productions in 1966. Banks’ last film score was TORTURE GARDEN, composed in 1970 in collaboration with James Bernard.
In 1972, Banks returned permanently to Australia to accept an appointment as Head of Composition and Electronic Music Studies at the Canberra School of Music, where he remained until 1973. He was engaged in various educational positions through 1978, when he was appointed Head, School of Composition Studies, at the NSW State Conservatorium of Music. Banks was offered a few Australian films to compose score, but due to his teaching and administrative work load, as well as his failing health, he was prevented from taking up those opportunities, though he indicated he would have loved to score the films. Don Banks died in 1980 after an eight-year battle with cancer.
While noted as a composer of concert works (more than 50 classical compositions), Banks wrote a prodigious amount of commercial music for films and television. “Don was a twelve-tone/serial composer who revelled in the opportunity to write abrasive and highly dissonant scores in an idiom akin to that of the late Schoenberg,” said composer Douglas Gamley of Banks. Indeed, Banks’ style was particularly suited to horror scores, capturing both the flavor and texture of Hammer’s macabre storytelling. Nearly fifty percent of Bank’s feature film compositions were for Hammer Films, including such notable scores as THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN (1964), RASPUTIN, THE MAD MONK (1966) and THE REPTILE. These scores exhibited Banks’s peculiar affinity for underscoring cinematic terror. His EVIL score is by far the most melodic of the Frankenstein scores. Bank’s main theme is dynamic, gently forceful; it captures both a dramatic sense of excitement and a mixed feeling of horror and pathos. The RASPUTIN score was based on a Russian-sounding melody which surges out over the typically Hammeresque swirling string repetitions that accompany the moody scenes. A second theme has to do with Rasputin’s hypnotic power: strings, harp glissandos and a repeated 4-note woodwind figure.
Banks also experimented in jazz, providing a straight modem jazz score for the 1964 psychological mystery, HYSTERIA. This score is pure window gloss, however. It interacts not at all with the characters or situations but provides the kind of steady thrum of sound familiar from 1960’s TV spy show music. Also in 1964 Banks scored John Gilling’s adventure film, BRIGAND OF DHANDAHAR, with a splendidly regal military march, a heroic theme for horns over furiously piping woodwind and snare drum, giving the film both a sense of excitement an adventure.
THE REPTILE may be Bank’s best horror score. Opening in typical Hammer horror fashion, with lethargically progressive horns over crashing percussion, the score opens into a faint solo flute melody. The majority of the music is very dissonant, utilizing the full resources of the orchestra; the main titles comprise a nicely arranged assemblage of bell tree, harp glissandos, harsh horn tones, xylophone and flailing violins all following the vague rhythm of the thunder that punctuates the soundtrack. Those plaintive flute figures are the score’s thematic mainstay, however, occasionally interacting with the ambient dissonances and suspense motifs, but primarily Banks chose to invest the score with nonmelodic yet tonal orchestrations and ambiences.
Banks’ last Hammer horror score was for the studio’s third foray into Egyptology, 1967’s THE MUMMY’S SHROUD. Bank’s score followed the style of Franz Reizenstein in the original MUMMY, arranged for orchestra and choir. The main theme is nicely evocative of ancient Egypt, powerful and dramatic, capturing an almost fateful tone and conjuring up a feeling of ancient catacombs and obelisks.
Banks provided one additional horror score beyond Hammer, for Amicus’ anthology film TORTURE GARDEN, in which he shared the task with James Bernard. Philip Martell was the music director for that film, and needed the score in only two weeks, so elected to divide it between both composers. Since the film was an anthology of unrelated Robert Bloch stories tied together by a loose framing story, their diverse approach worked quite well.
Scoring the Hammer films was extremely hard work for Banks. “Often he would be in the study at our house in Purley at 8 AM and wouldn’t emerge until midnight,” recalled the composer’s son, Simon Banks. “He was under a lot of pressure to produce the work quickly, as the music was always added last to the film. Don would finish the work exhausted. He was a perfectionist and never skimped on any detail to finish a piece on time. The work was hard but he appreciated the experience he was getting.”
While his film music commitments took their toll on the “serious” music he really preferred to compose, Banks nonetheless enjoyed the musical opportunities that film scoring offered. Interviewed some years ago in Australia, Banks said “I confess that I was doing too much. I don’t really regret this because I’d be composing 40-minute film scores. Some of them would be experiments in sound and I would hear them played back by the best musicians in London… I was beginning (other) works and never really completing them… my energies were being used and being sapped by writing music perhaps ten, twelve or more hours a day continually.”
However, film music gave Banks tremendous opportunities to experiment in music – particularly the 12-tone techniques that interested him. “He couldn’t use this technique in some of his musical compositions for it was considered too ‘avant garde’ and would be panned by the critics,” said Simon Banks. “So he would use 12-tone in Hammer horror scores to experiment with his music.”
Despite the hard work, Banks enjoyed composing music for Hammer Films. “He was thankful for Philip giving him the chance to work on these films, and in those days he desperately needed the money,” wrote Simon Banks. “He grabbed the opportunity as a young and up and coming composer, to improve his style and technique. Where else could you write or amend a score and have it immediately played back by the-best players in England who made up the orchestra. This was a tremendous learning experience and a thrill for him.”
An unfortunately and unfairly neglected film composer despite his numerous influential positions and his wide-ranging compositional output, Don Banks remains a notable figure in British motion picture music.