I was very saddened to read of the death of David Raksin, whose Laura theme is one of the great inspirations in film-music history. I knew Mr. Raksin slightly. He was a warm and witty man whose library of anecdotes reached back deep into the golden age of Hollywood. I was amazed to read that he was 92 — he looked 75 at most. A few years ago I had lunch with him at Musso & Frank's, and when we sat down he said, "I used to have lunch at this table with Charlie" — meaning Charlie Chaplin. He told me fabulous stories of Schoenberg, from whom he took some lessons. Once he made the mistake of asking how to write music for an airplane sequence, whereupon Schoenberg snarled, "Like music for big bees, only louder." He also retold at my request the famous Raksin Hitchcock anecdote. Hitchcock didn't want music for the lost-at-sea drama Lifeboat because he thought audiences would wonder where the music was coming from in the middle of the ocean. Raksin said, "Ask Hitch where the cameras are coming from." I had been meaning to e-mail him asking whether he knew Lulu at the time of Laura, because something about the theme resembles Berg's "portrait" music. Too late. First Jerry Goldsmith, now Raksin: these are sad days for film-music buffs.
Incidentally, Raksin not only wrote a glorious, swaying theme for Laura but also introduced a striking electronic innovation. Everyone who's seen the movie remembers the scene in which Dana Andrews stares at Laura's portrait and falls under her spell. The mood is set by eerie shimmering chords on the soundtrack. What Raksin did — as he explained in an interview with Roy Prendergast, author of Film Music: A Neglected Art — was to record a series of piano chords with the initial attacks omitted. The engineer turned on the microphones only after each chord had been struck, and continued bringing up the levels until ambient noise saturated the ringing tones. Raksin then made tape loops from this spectral, disembodied sound. "It was the interplay of the partials without the ictus," he explained. Some years later, the Beatles used the same trick to create the massive piano chord at the end of "A Day in the Life."