Rerecordings are a vital part of the film score culture and are increasingly important considering how many actual score recordings are lost to the ages. Much has been rightfully made of the great work done by John Morgan and William Stromberg, by James Fitzpatrick and Nic Raine, and by the legendary Charles Gerhardt and the Classic Film Scores series, the latter of which was a gateway to the golden age of film music for many, myself included. A fairly recent trend has been to record scores for solo instruments, such as piano, violin, or flute, and arranger and organ expert Philipp Pelster has taken this to a new level with a new recording of Basil Poledouris’ immortal score to Conan The Barbarian, performed entirely on the GlatterGötz/Rosales organ at the Claremont United Church of Christ in California.
Now this may sound a bit off the wall, but then the best ideas normally are. However, taking an iconic multi-layered symphonic score (with choir) and transcribing that to a keyboard really adds a new dimension to the word “audacious”. But it’s brilliant. And weird. But brilliant. Just the idea of taking a score like this and translating it in this way is tremendous in itself, but being that Conan is a score that I personally know intimately, it’s really fascinating. And Pelster doesn’t try and stick to elements and instrumentation more suited to the organ but instead attempts to recreate it as faithfully as possible.
Perfect example: the choral sections. Anyone who knows Conan will tell you that it is full of this huge Wagnerian choir pieces that give the score an absolutely operatic feel. To many it would seem impossible to translate these to another instrument, but Pelster pulls it off superbly. Check out ‘Riders of Doom’ where the deafening choir propels Thulsa Doom’s forces as they raid the village, like a force of nature fighting alongside them. Here the different sonic layers come together to match the power and spirit of the choir and it’s a wonderful experience, so familiar yet so different.
In fact, Conan is perfectly suited for this medium. The film itself was somewhat rooted in concept as being a kind of opera and subsequently tells the narrative in a similar way to Star Wars, only that Conan was heavy on action and light on dialogue, and what words there were had strong roots in philosophy. Like Lucas’ film, it also has designs on being a silent film of sorts, and it’s undeniable that both films would be fairly easy to follow without dialogue and sound, with the music to carry the story. It’s high sense of narrative along with the subject matter of myth and legend makes it not only an ideal suitor for this kind of project, but also combines with the arrangement to create a new experience.
What this album does is turn Conan into a religious epic an opera created in the church of Crom. There are moments that have always stood out as important parts of the narrative, with the aforementioned ‘Riders of Doom’, the stirring melody of ‘Theology/Civilisation’, the hypnotic ‘The Orgy’ and the climactic ‘Orphans of Doom’, and this is no different, in fact it almost sounds like it’s been heightened further. This also applies to my favourite moment in the score, where we first see the adult Conan as he lifts his head while pushing the ‘Wheel of Pain’. The fanfare here is presented as a significant moment, like an epiphany, and it’s wonderful.
The album isn’t perfect. As you might expect with a translation like this, there are moments when the musical strands tend to blur into one, and it doesn’t sound great. But really, these are few and far between and the album on the whole is excellent. It actually reminds me of the Moog versions of Star Wars from the 70’s, and is proof that if the music is good, it’ll shine however it’s played. Time to dig out my recorder…
Conan the Barbarian transcribed for organ is out now from Naxos