Film Music Composer Ken Thorne

Ken Thorne began his musical career as a pianist with the big bands in his native England during the 1940s, playing the night clubs and the dance halls. Later, aged 27, Thorne decided to seriously study composition with private tutors at Cambridge. He then studied the organ for five years under Dr. Sidney Campbell at Ely Cathedral, and later with Dr Harold Darke at Cornhill in London.

As a film music composer Thorne burst onto the screen with his big band influences during the swinging sixties, with Jazz music, a style heavily associated with Henry Mancini, a far cry from the characteristically grand, heroic theme tunes and bombastic overtures of John Williams. Thorne’s orchestrations of William’s already established Superman music left Superman-The Movie fans divided in opinion, just as his Oscar-winning adaptation of ‘A Funny Thing Happened On the Way To The Forum’ and ‘Royal Flash’ had proved for their respective Lester movies.

But with the release of the complete scores in 2008, that opinion overwhelmingly leaned in Thorne’s favour. Finally, after 25 years, fans were able to hear the music outside of the terrible thin sounding VHS and DVDs. It proved what a great adapted score Superman II really is. And Superman III gave the composer more of a free musical rein to explore new ideas.

The Interview

This interview was conducted well before work began on the soundtrack restoration (see Superman-The Music here).

Questions by Oliver Harper.

Oliver: How did you come to work on Superman II?

Ken: When it came about that Richard Lester was chosen to direct Superman II, he asked for me to score it for him. As far as I know I was his first choice. We had already worked together on many other projects including “A funny thing happened on the way to the forum,” and “Royal Flash” (both of which were adaptation scores) so, as Superman II was also to be mainly an adaptation of John Williams’ music, it seemed the right way to go.

Oliver: How much time did you have to write the Superman II score?.

Ken: About six weeks.

Oliver: Did you think you could do the score justice with a smaller orchestra?

Ken: There are two points here: The prime one was cost which decided both the size of the orchestra and the number of sessions available. The other was the optimum number of players for the CTS studio (at Wembley, London) which I was using. John Richards was engineering for me and of course we discussed this matter.

Oliver: Did John Williams come in to oversee the recordings?

Ken: No, I had no communication at all with John Williams.

Oliver: Did you find it difficult to score the theme tune? I have heard many versions of the theme by other composers and they just don’t compare to yours and Williams?

Ken: Let there be no mistake here! I had all of John Williams’ cues from Superman-The Movie to work with. The adjustments I made were those from triple to double wood wind etc. to fit my orchestra, and also the timing of the cue to fit the new length of the titles. Otherwise, apart from some editing, it was his work and not mine.

Oliver: Was there any music left on the cutting room floor which you wished would of been left in?

Ken: No, I can safely say there was only one cue which I used that Richard didn’t like, and I re-wrote it overnight so that it was played on the following session without further problems.

Oliver: Who’s choice was it to keep the theme tune the same?

Ken: It was a part of my brief that I was to use the John Williams’ Superman theme. I too thought this was essential as it was so perfectly suited to the character. No one could have improved on it!

Oliver: The opening themes to the films are very different for example I find Superman 2 to be a lot more bassy and more uplifting, what was your approach to changing John’s work for Superman II?

Ken: If you find the opening to Superman II more uplifting than One [Superman-The Movie], it maybe because I increased the tempo of the march a little. The key and orchestration remained the same. As for the sound quality difference that would be due to studio equipment and ambiance, and also personal choice of course!

Oliver: When Superman II was shown on TV in USA, the film was extended roughly by 25 minutes a lot of the music sounded very different IE. cues reworked – Were you informed of these changes?.

Ken: I didn’t know of this and haven’t seen the result. I can’t comment.

Oliver: Have you ever performed your score in concert?

Ken: No, I never performed this music in concert.

Oliver: When the soundtrack was released on vinyl and tape a lot of music is missing like the amazing alley change at the beginning and when Superman rescues the kid from Niagara Falls. Were you annoyed that a lot of music was left out from the release?

Ken: Yes, it was disappointing, but in the days of the LP, space was much more limited than today, so I guess I wasn’t too surprised.

Oliver: When Superman III went into production were you again Lester’s first choice?

Ken: I’m sure there were discussions regarding the music as there would have been in all other areas of the movie. Superman II had been a happy experience which probably had something to do with the decision to give me this assignment. When I first sat through the movie in a Pinewood viewing theatre I was disappointed. The premise of a drunken Superman didn’t appeal to me at all, and the comedic elements seemed forced and unfunny. However, I very much wanted to work with Richard Lester and his crew again so I took it on. It proved to be a really tough job!

I had a great time with Superman II. My assignment was clear. “You will base your score on the themes used by John Williams in Superman-The Movie.” I was faced with the task of using material from Superman-The Movie to fit to a totally different approach by a different director who had little in common with his predecessor! I really enjoyed the challenge. Superman II regarded Superman as a cartoon hero. The villains were totally villainous, it was a love story, and it contained a lot of humour. it was not intended to be viewed as a serious drama. Superman III fell between the cracks! It couldn’t decide whether to be serious or comical. I found it very difficult to score and only wish it could have been as stimulating as Superman II!

Oliver: This film was not going to be reworking of the original score, did you find it refreshing to add some of own magic to the film?

Ken: Yes, I was glad to have more of a free hand. The John Williams’ Superman march was still thought to be essential to the character, as was some other material, and I always worked with this in mind. Giorgio Moroder also contributed songs for the movie but in the end they were not used.

Oliver: Was the same orchestra used?

Ken: Yes, pretty much the same lineup and the same studio.

Oliver: Where you given more time to score the film?

Ken: Yes, this time I was “in” on the film earlier than I had been on Superman-The Movie.

Oliver: Do you prefer to use a smaller orchestra than the typical larger LSO?

Ken: The only difference in size lies in the violins, violas, and basses. Here again the acoustics of the studio play an important part in choosing numbers. I used three flutes, but only two oboes. then again, three clarinets, but only two bassoons. The brass and percussion etc. were full strength.

Oliver: How did you come up with the theme opening theme to Superman III?

Ken: The opening sequence was written so as to set the comedic tone of the picture, and I used the Superman theme in an abbreviated form for the rescue of the drowning man in the car.

Oliver: My favourite music from the film has to be when Superman enters the canyon and gets shot at from different directions from the super computer – how did you come up with this fantastic score for this scene?

Ken: In the same way that Wagner used the ‘leif motif’ to represent a character in his operas, it always seemed to me to be appropriate to use that John Williams’ key musical phrase when we are watching Superman the hero in action – That is the basis for this cue overlaid with dramatic orchestration to enhance the visual.

Oliver: Did you enjoy coming up with the Gus Gorman theme? I have noticed that some of cues have appeared in some of your earlier work.

Ken: The Gus Gorman theme was really secondary. It wasn’t enjoyable and gave me no pleasure.

Oliver: You mention Moroder earlier, did he have much input in the overall design of the “pop music?”, what was his overall motif to the films music?

Ken: To the best of my knowledge he was engaged to write songs for the film but in the end it appeared they were not used. I have no idea who originally brought up the notion of songs….it always seemed an odd idea to me!

Oliver: Do you like Henry Mancini, because your the only other composer to have scored a Pink Panther film, and the style is written all over Superman III?

Ken: I knew, and highly respected, Hank. In fact, when I was conducting for Andy Williams back in the seventies, he was doing the first half of the show with us at “Caesar’s Palace” in Las Vegas! He was a great guy and a great talent and he really was the inventor of “the song score,” where, in a movie, a theme song is used orchestrally in various ways as the background score.

Oliver: When the Superman theme kicks in, you tend to use build up notes for each time he appears, which I think is great, Williams blended the theme in with the background notes, but you concentrated on the main theme as whole, why did you make that decision when scoring the film? Example (drops the ice slate on the chemical plant)

Ken: I felt that the “buildup notes” were exciting, and a perfect way of introducing the march at that moment, but in other parts of the score the march theme itself is varied quite a bit both melodically and rhythmically.

Oliver: The scene where they have the Olympic games and Superman blows out the torch did you score the marching theme? People have always been confused about who did that but it sounded similar to your style.

Ken: Yes, I wrote that short piece…..I hoped it sounded noble and heroic!

Oliver: What was your favourite bit of score for Superman III?

Ken: If anything it was THE MAIN TITLES which had to underscore Richard’s visual humour, Superman, and GENERAL CHAOS!! It was hard to write.

Oliver: Why did Evil Superman not get a new theme?

Ken: Because he was still Superman and the cues written during his “evil” period made little if any reference to his major key theme anyway.

Oliver: Were you asked to score Superman IV?

Ken: No.

Oliver: Did Giorgio Moroder and his team (Keith Forsey and Sylvester Levay) work with you in the UK- how much did you collaborate? Did you enjoy the experience?

Ken: No, I had no connection at all with Giorgio Moroder or his team. (by the way, I know Keith Forsey, but on a social level. I haven’t had the pleasure of working with him.)

Oliver: Did you get offered other Superhero film scores after Superman II and Superman III?

Ken: No, not of that genre.

Interview is © Copyright Dharmesh Chauhan and Oliver Harper and may not be used in whole or in part without prior written permission.

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