Classical music, cartoons share a past Call it collision or call it collusion

July 18, 1993|By Scott Duncan | Scott Duncan,Orange County Register

Remember the day Richard Wagner met Elmer Fudd?

If you grew up watching cartoons -- and chances are, you did -- you know it came in a Bugs Bunny cartoon, "What's Opera, Doc?"

For millions, the first brush with Wagner's "Die Walkuere" came not in the stentorian soprano of Birgit Nilsson, but in the glottal rasp of Elmer's fractured Valkyrie melody:

"Kill da wabbit, kill da wabbit . . ."

A similar collision occurred in "Fantasia," when Walt Disney set -- Tchaikovsky, Dukas and Ponchielli to animation of balletic hippos, hopping mushrooms and dancing brooms.

Since 1940, "Fantasia" has shaped perceptions of classical music. Fifty years later, for example, the silhouette of Leopold Stokowski and his flowing mane of white hair remains the icon of a conductor.

The odd liaison of cartoons and classical music dates back decades, though the affair cooled in the '60s when styles changed and animation budgets declined.

Animation boomlet

But lately, the orchestra and its friends in Toontown are working together again. Cartoon music is hot, fueled by an animation boomlet that's seen a resurgence in old-style cartoons, such as Warner Bros. "Tiny Toons Adventures" and MGM's refashioned "Pink Panther" series, and the birth of new ones -- "Ren & Stimpy" and "The Simpsons." All appeal to a dual audience of kids and their cartoon-bred parents.

An offshoot of this renewal is a new live entertainment, the musical cartoon spectacle. "Bugs Bunny on Broadway," which combined a live orchestra with film clips of Warner Bros. cartoons, toured amphitheaters two summers ago.

And now the Walt Disney Co. is unveiling its "Disney's Symphonic Fantasy," a live program with Disney characters and a symphony orchestra performing music from Disney animated features such as "Fantasia," "Pinocchio," "Cinderella," "Snow White," "Little Mermaid," "Beauty and the Beast" and "Aladdin."

Animation music and the orchestra seem to go together in Disney's eyes. "There are lots of different styles in animation, but the orchestra is a natural for animation because it can express a variety of colors," says Disney's music director, Bruce Healey.

Mr. Healey, a composer who also wrote some of the music for Disney's show, can remember seeing "Fantasia" when he was 6.

"It blew me away," he says. "I think it had a lot of impact on me musically."

Indeed, beyond the classical tunes that are quoted or satirized, cartoon soundtracks have influenced generations of listeners and made an impact on musical style.

In the ultraserious world of classical-music composition, it now is fashionable to acknowledge the influence of cartoon music.

John Zorn, who models pieces such as "Cat o' Nine Tails" on brief, cartoonlike musical events, has called cartoon music "the great avant-garde music of America, in that it doesn't make normal musical sense."

Animation energy

John Adams, one of the country's best-known composers, admires the "athletic, almost aerobic energy" of animation music. He recently said his newest work, "Chamber Symphony," was inspired partly by overhearing his son watching cartoons. Its third movement is titled, appropriately, "Roadrunner."

The late Carl Stalling, who created the Warner Bros. style, is regarded as the father of the genre. His work at Warner Bros. was carried on by his successor, Milt Franklyn.

"Stalling's approach was to capture all the nuances of the cartoon in the music," says Mark Watters, a composer of animation scores and soundtracks for MGM.

"Every blink of the eyes or sound effect was in the score," Mr. Watters says. "In many ways, animation music has changed enormously since then."

Mr. Watters has written music for the "Tiny Toons Adventures," an update of Warner Bros. cartoons, which used an orchestra that won several Emmy awards for music. He is supervising composer for MGM's new update of the "Pink Panther" cartoon series, which is based in a jazz style.

Mr. Watters says music in animation often is more centrally involved in characters and plot than film or television soundtracks, which tend to be more atmospheric.

"Animation music is much more in the forefront of what the audience is aware of," Mr. Watters says.

The Disney philosophy sums up the paradox of animation music. "If you notice it too much, it's not doing its job, but if it isn't doing its job, you really notice it," Mr. Healey says.

Sometimes, animation music is meant to stand out. In scoring a new series of "Pink Panther" cartoons, Mr. Watters had to work with one of the most famous themes in film and animation, Henry Mancini's languid saxophone tune for the "Pink Panther."

"Because the Pink Panther talks in this series, the music had to change somewhat," Mr. Watters says. "We kept the great theme, of course, but we had to update it a little."

Mr. Watters says animation music is enjoying a comeback these days. "Disney features [such] as 'Little Mermaid' and 'Aladdin' are making everybody wake up to the fact that animation can be very profitable," he says.

"Disney wins the Academy Awards because they hire great composers and provide a wonderful budget for the music, which is so important.

"Music is what brings animation to life."

CARTOONS PLUS

What:"Disney's Symphonic Fantasy"

When: Thursday at 7 p.m.

Where: Merriweather Post Pavilion, Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia

Admission: $20-$27

Call: (410) 730-2424

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