An Interview with George Duning by Randall D. Larson
Originally published in Soundtrack Magazine Vol.9/No.35/1990
Text reproduced by kind permission of the editor, Luc Van de Ven and Randall D. Larson
George Duning started out as a trumpet player, performing both jazz and symphony music, in the 1930s. Eventually he began making arrangements for dance bands, and soon became music director for the Kay Kyser Band from 1938 to 1944. In 1944 Duning went into the Naval Unit of the Armed Forces Radio Service, where he conducted concerts, made arrangements for albums, and wrote original music for propaganda broadcasts which were sent overseas to Japan. When he got out of the Service in 1946. Duning decided to take his chances in Hollywood instead of going back to the bands, and he found a job as an orchestrator at Columbia Pictures, a task which eventually led to full time music composition. Noted for his delicate scores for contemporary drama, George Duning demonstrated a similar penchant for fantasy film scoring with films like BELL, BOOK AND CANDLE. BEYOND WITCH MOUNTAIN and the TV movie, GOLIATH AWAITS. Duning was also one of the composers who scored the STAR TREK television series and his music for episodes such as ‘The Empath’ were effective and understated.
Your early days in Hollywood seemed to run the gamut of different types of films needed all manner of musical styles…
I was fortunate, I was able to adapt myself to almost any type of picture score. I’ve done psychological dramas, love stories, comedies, westerns – I love to do westerns (the psychological-type; dramatic westerns, not the chase-type) – and I don’t think there’s any type of picture I haven’t done. I’ve done things with jazz scores, touches of rock and stuff in the last few years, and symphonic style. I’ve adapted myself. As a matter of fact, to be successful In Hollywood, you have to write for any type of background, which requires that you have a good background of theory, of musical history. Some of the best times that I can remember in scoring pictures for instance, was THE WORLD OF SUZIE WONG, which I did in London. I was over there about twelve weeks, and I did a lot of research at the King’s Library. I did a lot of research In Los Angeles for SALOME, which was one of my early scores, looking way back Into the Hebraic musical literature. It’s fascinating to get into all of these different mediums.
How would you describe your own approach to scoring a film? Do you lean toward leitmotifs, atmospheric moods, dissonances in any characteristic way?
My personal approach has always been this: I look at the picture when the producer or director calls me in. I ask to be shown the picture without any stops between reels and so on. I want to sit through it, and from that, almost every time, I’ll immediately get a feel for It, whether it’s to be a score based on one single long theme, or maybe three or four short pieces of thematic material which will identify characters, or maybe it’s a picture that calls mainly for sounds of suspense or that type of thing — which Is actually not music, per se, but musical sounds. It just depends on the subject matter of the picture.
BELL, BOOK AND CANDLE was one of your most successful scores. Do you recall what approach you took on this film?
That was my favorite. Again, there I felt it needed a good, strong theme, which was the main theme. Steve Allen later put a lyric to it. Then I had short themes, a cocky little theme for jack Lemmon, and I had a gimmick for the cat sequences with Kim Novak. Then, if you remember a couple things where Jack would flick his hand and the street lights would go on and off, that sort of thing, I worked out what I guess you’d call an electronic device – by recording certain sounds on tape and then speeding up the tape, doubling or tripling the speed and using a variable speed mixer to raise the pitch, I’d get weird sounds to go with these shots. That was one of my early experiments of that type.
You scored eight episodes of television’s STAR TREK. What sort of musical underscoring did the producers of this series want from you?
I was fortunate on that. So many producers of those types of films wanted strictly the far-out sounds, the weird effects, the electronic sounds. My producer on that picture was Bob Justman, and he said “I want you to play the story. Forget about any crazy electronic sound effects.” He wanted me to play to the story and not to the fact that it was science fiction.
Did you score each episode as a single entity, or did you try to link them at all, musically?
No, no. Each one was a single entity.
You also scored episodes of THE TIME TUNNEL around this same time. What sort of music did you provide for this series, and what were the differences between working on it and on STAR TREK?
The same approach. I played the story, not the so-called futuristic content.
How would you describe your music to the TV-movie, GOLIATH AWAITS, about the people living in the sunken ship?
That, to me, was a contemporary thing. There’s an amusing story — the producer, when I first sat down with him and the director to discuss the music for the film, the first thing they both said to me was “We don’t want any water music!” They didn’t want any bubble music! So I was able to more or less stick to a conventional symphonic approach score?
What were the thematic elements of the score?
That was not so much of a theme as an effect, almost like a submersion type of effect that I used for the underwater sequences, to build up the suspense and excitement. I did have a theme for the girl, and I had a very nice horn theme for the captain of the undersea group, which could be played in both a major and a minor mode.
THE STAR TREK SCORES OF GEORGE DUNNING
Return To Tomorrow
And the Children Shall Lead
Is There In Truth No Beauty?