Looniest tunes

Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig, Daffy Duck, Roadrunner: they have the same favourite composer. His name? Carl Stalling. By Andy Gill
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Long neglected by even the most comprehensive of musical compendia, the composer Carl Stalling gets a belated testimonial this Sunday (18 February, 5.45pm) when his story is told in the Radio 3 documentary A Corny Concerto.

You may not know the name, but you certainly know the music. As house composer for the Warner Brothers animation department, Stalling cranked out hundreds of highly detailed scores, at the rate of one a week, for 22 years. Along the way, he invented a complete style that we take for granted today. The recurrent moment in the Roadrunner cartoons when Wile E Coyote is grimly awaiting the impact of the plummeting rock? That was Stalling's sound. The moment in a Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig or Daffy Duck cartoon when the protagonist tiptoes from tree to tree? That was his sound, too.

"He created the musical language that we associate with animation today," says Richard Stone, Stalling's successor at Warners. "Devices such as having the music be in sync with people walking;doing eye-blinks on a xylophone; doing a piano glissando when something falls; and using musical puns such as The Lady in Red when a character is wearing a red dress - it's all really his doing."

Stalling started as a silent-movie organist, accompanying films on a Wurlitzer at a Kansas City cinema. When the town became the centre of the fledgling animation industry in the Twenties, he was well placed to further his career. Moving to California to become Walt Disney's first musical director, he eventually left the company in 1936 when the struggling Disney could only offer him part-payment in cash; ironically, the stock options he was offered in lieu would probably have made him millions, but he chose to join the animators working at Termite Terrace, as the new Warners animation studio was known.

Stalling would be involved from an early stage with a cartoon's creation, devising tempi and musical direction in great detail at storyboard conferences, then working to exposure sheets featuring frame-by-frame descriptions of the action. "The amazing thing to me," marvels Richard Stone, "is that his scores were so wonderfully in sync with every subtle action in the screen, despite his never having seen the picture." Stalling also brought innovatory techniques to the job of film composition. "When he recorded the music, it was done in little bits and spliced together later," explains Rodney Newton, head of the music department at the International Film School in London. "He used what became known as a 'click track', made from punched holes in a strip of film that produced a click sound when it went by the projector - a system that was used right up into the Seventies by all film composers."

Besides his technical innovations, the sheer energy of Stalling's compositions revolutionised the nature of cartoons, bringing a new sense of dramatic counterpoint to the medium, and introducing the eclectic mix of impressionistic hints,quotes, puns and sound effects that is still standard in the industry. It was a far cry from the vapid, unsynchronised backing music that Disney used on his cartoons.

"Stalling used a much larger orchestra that included strings, unlike the Disney orchestra," explains Richard Stone. "His scores are witty and wonderful without ever being cute, and that's the hardest thing to do."

"He was a master at combining his own compositions - which were brilliant, to say the least - with pastiches of Wagner, Rossini, Smetana or Donizetti, and popular music of the day," adds George Docherty, who has conducted many of Stalling's scores in his Bugs Bunny on Broadway concerts. "And this music is tough: you can go through 10 different styles in the space of 50 seconds: you'll be playing a Tchaikovsky violin concerto one moment, then a ragtime, then a country solo for a bar and a half - and it never stays in one metre. You have to concentrate, because this music is making left turns and about-faces and vertical dives - it's like the bungee jump of session-recordings."

It's this frenetic eclecticism that has led to Stalling being compared with Charles Ives and Aaron Copland as a quintessential American composer of the modern era; others rate him as high as Prokofiev. The avant-garde jazz montagist John Zorn, who narrates the documentary, acknowledges him as the greatest influence on his own work, and even goes so far as to claim that "Stalling's mastery of jump-cuts and block-form composing rivals Stravinsky's". High praise indeed for a man whose life was dedicated to a stupid coyote's futile pursuit of a flightless bird. Meep meep!