Ode to Jack Skellington (and the Contrabassoon)

Still the King.

It’s been interesting to watch, over the past ten years or so, the cultural ascent of Tim Burton and Danny Elfman’s holiday mashup spectacular The Nightmare Before Christmas.  When the movie came out in 1993, I was a young lad of 13, and went and saw it with my dad.  I had seen some ads for it, and for some reason, I was drawn to it, a bit too old, perhaps, for animated movies, but really excited to see this one, nonetheless.

I can still remember sitting in the theatre and absolutely loving it – when I left, all I could think about was going and buying the CD. I vividly remember the exact moment that the switch got tripped; it was during a sequence near the end of the film, when Jack sets off on his sleigh to be Sandy Claws, and this charging, soaring music kicks in, that my ears said to me, “You must have this soundtrack.” I didn’t know why, exactly, but the music resonated with me in this really profound way; the blend of epic, soaring melodies, flying woodwinds, and evil, deviant mallets and polka beats… I did not, at the time, know the name Danny Elfman, but I did know that I loved the music from Batman, Edward Scissorhands, and Beetlejuice.

After we got out of the theatre, my dad asked me, “Okay, so how was that different from any regular, you know, Disney movie?”  I tried to explain it as best I could, “Dad, it’s waaay different.  It was made using stop-motion, and it was kind of dark, and it was… just… different.”  I was a little bit insulted; after all, this wasn’t some kids movie, sheesh!  I was 13!  I had gone to see this movie, filled to the brim as it was with singing trees, dancing  bats and witches and whatever, not because it was a whimsical, gosh-golly romp, but because, even just with its ad campaign, it somehow spoke to something deeper within me.  That was a little embarrassing to admit, particularly to someone who was unsure about how it was different from a Disney movie.  It wasn’t Aladdin, for crying out loud! It was cool!

Actual, physical miniatures: they age much better than, say, "Ice Age" will.

Well, here we are, fifteen years (!!) later, and the film has yet to fade into the past.  In fact, over the past few years, its stature has grown, and its theatrical re-release a year or two ago seemed to cement it into its own little holiday film niche – perfect for parents whose kids are a little too old, or weird, for Rudolph, and who can deal with getting what is, in its essence, both a Halloween and a Christmas movie in one. The goth crowd, as well, has adopted a lot of the imagery from the film, and the amount of collectable Nightmare bric-a-brac has shot through the roof.

But, as I mentioned, the thing that transfixed me about this film wasn’t the cool stop-motion animation, or the Dia de los Muertos imagery (the thing that would finally tip the Day of the Dead scale for me would come a bit later, when I played Lucasarts’ unbelievable game Grim Fandango).  No, for me it was all about the music.  Not the singing, so much, but the score.

This really solidified for me the other day as I listened to the soundtrack for the first time in a little while.  I spent many of my formative years listening to (and singing along with) that disc, and I have it utterly memorized; however, I found that, this time through, I was ignoring the melodies and vocals altogether and focusing entirely on the orchestration behind them, and it was really doing it for me.

Danny Elfman brings a lot to the table as a composer; starting from his time as the bandleader of Oingo Boingo up through this movie, I think he was at the height of his most “Elfmanish” writing – oompa-oompa grooves, sinister mallets, oooohing choirs, and flying, unhinged woodwind runs.  But the thing that he also gets, more than just about any film scorer, is how to work contrast – he may be remembered for his lyrical melodies (think the choral parts from Edward Scissorhands), but what sets those melodies off is the deep, deep, crazy deeeep groaning grind that he can get out of the bottom end of the orchestra.

Take the variations on the melody that he throws in during “Making Christmas,” each one indicating a change in character voice and tone, or the twisting counter-melodies on “Kidnap the Sandy Claws.” I mean, the guy has some serious orchestration chops.  In fact, he has the orchestra doing a lot of the melodic heavy lifting, too; almost every single vocal melody line is doubled by a section in the orchestra, allowing the singers to take greater liberties with speak-singing while maintaining the illusion of a continuously sung melody. And beneath all that, the one instrument that knocked my hair back time and time again?  The contrabassoon.  Holy crap!  What an instrument!


Tuba is cool and everything, and a bass section can do mean things with a bow when it’s required of them, but there is absolutely no sound in the recorded world to equal that of a contrabassoon in its low register.  “Making Christmas,” a tune which is based around “The Carol of The Bells,” (Listen to the main motif, then change the rhythm, you’ll see), in particular, uses the instrument to smashing effect.  The main motif is tossed around the orchestra like a hot potato; it’s broken into upbeats and downbeats between sections, and played in really groovy mallet rolls, and then, at the end of the phrase, the fucking contrabassoon knocks that shit down like THREE OCTAVES, and it just blows your pants off.  Oh, man.  So hot right now.

I’ve managed to include some bassoon playing on The Exited Door (I am lucky enough to have some very cool double-reed playing friends). We get some nice, meaty low notes, and I want more – I have made a solemn vow to myself that, for my next record, I am getting some contrabassoon on there.  Hell, I don’t even know how to write something that low; I guess you just write, like, “32 v.b.” on the part?  Who knows.  But it’s happening.

From time to time I’ll read a review of a new movie that laments how ubiquitous Danny Elfman has become; he works with many directors now (Sam Rami and Gus Van Sandt come to mind), not just Burton, his life-mate in weirdness.  He has become more workman-like, perhaps, in his scoring for those directors; there are fewer of the iconic Elfman touches in his score for Good Will Hunting than there were in Beetlejuice.  He’s also not singing anymore, really; the last thing I heard him do was Nightmare, and Oingo Boingo is a memory, long-since past (here in an instant, gone in a flash!  What does it mean?  What does it mean? Heh).

But man; none of these things could even begin to mute my admiration and respect for the man. Actually, his versitility only makes me admire him more. He’s truly the full package; not only is he able to write a killer rock tune (have you heard Dead Man’s Party?), sing like some crazy, bizarro-world version of Sting, and come up with awesomely left-handed melodic themes, he’s also an absolute monster at arranging and orchestration.  One of the most idiosyncratic, easily identifiable, and just plain incredible composers of the last 25 years (I’ll effing stand by that), Danny Elfman is a man who knows how to use the full range of the orchestra, and he’s got the contrabassoon notes to prove it.

Top portrait of Jack by Arica Houy, who is awesome and whose stuff you should check out.

5 thoughts on “Ode to Jack Skellington (and the Contrabassoon)

  1. Lauren Thompson

    Dude! I play contrabassoon! Could you write something for me? I want something that sounds really cool, insanely beautiful, and even gnarly.

    1. Lauren! Hi! Do you live in San Francisco? If so, I will seriously consider writing a contrabassoon part for you on my next album. It would be cool and insanely beautiful.

      You think I’m joking.

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  3. Hi Arica,

    My apologies for the late response – for some reason I just saw your comment! You picture is lovely, and I apologize for using it without asking your permission. I’ve credited you in the piece, but if you’d like me to take it down, just say so. I wrote this post back when “It’s on google images a few times” was enough reason to throw it on my blog. No longer, obvs.

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