Saturday, December 16, 2006

THE LEGACY OF SHIRLEY WALKER


I got a chilling measure of how closeted I’ve become from the world around me this past Friday afternoon. Film composer Shirley Walker, a favorite of mine from her work on the Final Destination series, as well as the remake of Willard (all films done in collaboration with writer-producer-directors James Wong and Glen Morgan), and her Emmy-winning orchestral score for the animated Batman Beyond series, passed away of complications from a stroke early on November 30. She had only recently completed her score for Morgan’s upcoming remake of Bob Clark’s horror thriller Black Christmas and was visiting family and friends in Reno, Nevada, when she died. And by the time I’d heard of her death, she’d already been gone for two weeks.

It’s the way I found out about Shirley Walker’s death that shook me up. A coworker and I were busily working on the closed-captioning and subtitling of a current theatrical release that takes place in Brazil, and we were decrying the absence of another coworker, who is a bit of an expert on world music and belongs to a band that traffics almost exclusively in Brazilian forms and styles—we were hoping that he might be able to help answers some of the questions we had regarding the country’s music and language. I sent him an e-mail, which he returned the next day, saying that he’d be glad to help, but unfortunately he was in Santa Barbara County. But he added that if there were any questions he could help answer by listening to the soundtrack over the phone, he’d be happy to oblige. So when I engaged another coworker for some help on a difficult audio passage on Friday, he mentioned that it was too bad our resident expert on Brazil wasn’t around to lend an ear, and I jokingly replied, “Yeah, he has some nerve running off to Santa Barbara County in my time of need,” assuming that he was on Christmas holiday. The coworker who was helping me then said, “Oh, he’s with his family—his mother died recently.” While I was busy reeling from the news, he added casually, “You might know of her—she was a film composer.”

I thought of the coworker's last name, and it only took me a second to realize who he was talking about. “You mean his mother is Shirley Walker?” And then, “Shirley Walker died?”

I heard about her death only yesterday, and I can’t shake this sense of sadness, not only for my own loss as a filmgoer and a fan of dramatic film scoring who appreciated Shirley Walker’s work, but also for my coworker, whom I’ve worked with for over six years, someone with whom I’ve never socialized outside of the office. And this is through no fault of his—- he has always been reliable in letting everyone here at the office know when and where his band would be appearing live, and though some around the office have occasionally taken him up on his invitations, I never have. But he always offers intelligence and good humor to everyone, in his office demeanor and in his work, and I can’t help but think that his mother’s personality must in some way be reflected and carried on in his. My sadness extends, too, to my own sense of isolation as I continue to wrap myself up in the busy-ness of my own concerns. How could I go for two weeks and not know that someone who works right across the hall from me suffered such a loss? It seems even stranger to think of being in someone’s company in an office setting for such a long time and never knowing that one of the members of his family has provided you with so much aural excitement and musical pleasure.

But all this musing is about my own sense of disorientation at hearing the news, which is a whole lot less important than the pain my friend is enduring right now. At least when I see my coworker again I will be able to offer him condolences imbued with thanks as well as sympathy. And when I see the new version of Black Christmas, whether it be next week or next year, I will listen even more attentively and appreciatively to the final score of Shirley Walker, a pioneer who opened doors for women in the role of film scoring and composing, and remember her for her talent and the inspiration she brought to genre work that often doesn’t engender much respect. And I’ll think of her son too, and how lucky he was to have such a mother.

4 comments:

Peet said...

I've got cold chills all over, Dennis... I'm not (consciously) familiar with Shirley Walker's work, but I'll remember her name.

Sal Gomez said...

Dennis,
It's a small world my friend. It amazes me just how small it is when I hear stories like this, either knowing the people on a personal level or knowing someone who knows someone. Give your friend my blessing.

Anonymous said...

"I've got cold chills all over..."

I get those every time I listen to Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. Stimulus, response.

Brian said...

Very sad news that I did not know about until reading it here. Shirley Walker was one of the first film music names I knew, actually, as in high school I was an avid Oingo Boingo fan who became interested in film scores largely through the entry of Danny Elfman into the field. Walker conducted several of Elfman's most memorable scores, including Scrooged, Batman, Dick Tracy, Nightbreed and Edward Scissorhands.

I eventually grew to know her through her own compositions (Escape From L.A. and Willard particularly) and now I learn that she broke into film music by playing the synthesizer on one of my favorite underrated film scores of all-time: Apocalypse Now! What eerie tones she helped contribute to that bizarre journey- they echoed in my head when I was in Laos taking a two-day river trip down the Mekhong in 1999 (though mine was a completely peaceful trip, thankfully).

Thanks for the wonderful tribute, Dennis.