The Soundtrack Album
It’s actually funny how the original Exorcist LP sold so well, considering Mike Oldfield’s “Tubular Bells” was merely excerpted, the first 2 tracks had sound effects from the film, and none of Jack Nitzsche’s bridge cues were featured (although the composer is credited for the opening track, with shimmering ‘glassy’ tones and Arabic vocals from the intro Iraqi sequence). Moreover, director William Friedkin used very small sonic slivers and precise sections of the represented cues, so hearing the more complete versions on CD (or the original LP, for that matter) offer a different emotional listening experience.
In the extract, Oldfield’s signature motif begins and ends with ridiculously low fades, and once we’ve passed the oft-repeated section from the film, the track’s tone becomes decidedly light, with gentle Celtic harmonies more evocative of folk music than a devilish infestation in Georgetown. A shorter extract (:27 seconds) heard near the end of the album offers nothing new.
“Five Easy Pieces for Orchestra, Op.10” has a curious mood but gives no portent of nastiness, whereas Krzysztof Penderecki’s “Polymorphia” (the CD’s longest cue, running nearly 12 mins.) is more representative of the film’s shock waves.
Penderecki’s composition is a beautiful thing, starting with low vibrato murmurs, building an unsettling mood with bow taps, slashes, grungy chords, and breaks of dead silence, and sections which move from mundane stereo to a horrific pseudo-surround sound swarms of chaotic notes. The piece closes with string notes warping and evoking buzzing insects, but they recede into a series of distant tonal waves, trembling and spiraling into a formidable sonic surge with bowing resembling moaning notes and swarming clusters of sounds, before a single sustained harmonic tone from all strings closes the piece.
The second Penderecki composition, “String Quartet,” moves through distinct sound clouds: an unspooling whirl of tapping and plucked notes, notes resembling sonic rain drops, and shrill bowing. The second half is made up of impressions from the first, sort of deconstructing itself from quotations to skeletal sound remnants prior to a quiet, barely perceptible ending.
“Kanon for Orchestra and Tape” is the third and final Penderecki piece (running shy of 10 mins.), and it feels like an immersion into deep sonic clusters, moving towards clouds of plastic notes from shrill strings, before the piece drifts through textures that wind down towards silence.
Harry Bees’ “Windharp” is so abstract – shimmering, neo-atonal sound waves - that it’s easy to see why Friedkin experienced an eureka moment and included the piece in the film’s sound mix. George Crum’s “Night of the Electoric Insects” is equally brief, but it’s memorable for evoking the sounds of whining, buzzing insects, albeit semi-abstract; Crum’s piece plays like a frenetic discourse that’s restricted to a narrow tonal zone, hence the variations in performance urgency rather than notes, tempo, or dissonance.
The album’s closing track is Hans Werner Henze’s thrilling “Fantasia for Strings,” heard at the beginning of the film’s End Credit music, which offers a dose of semi-harmonic closure.
The Rejected Score
These were the full, sampled, and extracted cues that comprised the original soundtrack album which represented the collage of music mixed with effects and Nitzsche’s bridge material after Friedkin rejected Lalo Schifrin’s score.
Schifrin, originally engaged by Friedkin as the films’ solo composer, had actually written music for the film’s trailer - the impressionistic one consisting of rippling solarized flash frames of faces – and it’s a style the composer furthered in his score, working as well from the 20th century music samples given by the director. Friedkin’s desire was modernism, abstraction, and minimalism, but Schifrin only delivered just the first two, opting for an emphasis on grand, narrative horror – wholly contrary to the director’s musical vision of “loud silence.”
Schifrin’s trailer music consists of sounds that give a sensation of drowning, swarming, and being rendered catatonic from assaults of plunging tones, shrill strings, and string bass tones that evoke not singular but the intersecting harmonies reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann’s post-murder Psycho music.
Even from the 14 mins. of score – more was composed, but only a fragment was recorded – it’s obvious Schifrin’s music just doesn’t suit the film’s design of quiet/loud contrasts.
The rejected cues are a curious mix of a child’s opening solo vocal, an abstract string cue, furtive notes on double-bass, eerie two-note suspense motifs, and delicate chromatic patterns where Schifrin gathers all of his abstract elements – piano, water chimes, and a fattened chamber orchestra – and creates a lengthy cue representing a force infiltrating and worming its way into the physical and psychological framework of a person (Regan).
Plaintive strings and tense figures develop into an action-saturated section where there’s a sense of deep urgency as a force – high register, gliding figures on strings - seems to slip through the efforts of the priests, and low figures on double string bass infer where there’s a physical struggle onscreen.
The last fragment from the surviving recording session is a single source cue, intended for a party scene, and it’s a semi-melancholic piece with electric bass, strumming acoustic guitar, and a melody played by a romantic piano – really out of place, particularly with the lush string backing. It’s a conventional music tune designed to support a sense of normalcy in a party scene before another shock, but it just doesn’t fit – and that’s the basic problem with the rejected score.
As Jeff Bond recounted in his excellent 1999 Film Score Monthly article (Vol.4, No. 2) on the score’s troubled reception and immediate rejection, Friedkin’s confrontational approach was rooted in a rage stemming from a sense of betrayal, and that’s probably why the rest of the score was never fully recorded after less than a full day’s session of what should’ve been 3 with a 52-piece orchestra.
Schifrin himself never re-recorded the score – which is a shame – but elements are found in two particular scores. The child vocal and sense of innocence being assaulted by devilish forces made its way into The Amityville Horror (1978), and that eerie 2-note motif on strings was central to the unhinged, destructive nature of the killer who plants bombs and taunts police in Rollercoaster (1977). Neither score contains extracts or themes from the rejected Exorcist music, but there are ideas which clearly suited these specific films (and whose scores were released, albeit in short albums with source music rubbish).
Schifrin’s score is only available on a limited gold CD [pictured at top] that came with the 25th Anniversary VHS boxed set, and the 2002 limited DVD boxed set. That disc also includes 7 of the 10 tracks from the original album due to licensing issues. The missing cuts – the two “Tubular Bells” extracts and Crum’s “Night of the Electric Insects” are only available on the original LP and import CDs (including German and Japanese discs).
© 2010 Mark R. Hasan