Alex North was born Isadore Soifer to Russian immigrants in 1910. North received scholarships and studied piano at the Curtis Institute and compositions at the Julliard School. Upon studying the Russian composers, he traveled to Moscow as a telegrapher and studied composition at the Moscow Conservatory from 1932-1935. In 1936 he returned to America and studied with Ernest Toch and Aaron Copland (both composed classical and film music). In this time, he composed and arranged music for Martha Graham and her dance company. He also wrote incidental music to plays and became music director for Anna Sokolow’s dance company. While on tour in Mexico with Sokolow, North studied with Silvestre Revueltas (another classical composer who wrote several film scores in the 1930s).
During the war North composed scores for many documentaries for the Armed Forces. Also around this time, North composed many concert works, including Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra (1941), Symphony # 1 (1947) and his Revue for Clarinet and Orchestra (1947) which was premiered by Benny Goodman. He also continued his underscoring of plays, but one is particularly of note – 1949’s Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller and directed by Elia Kazan. Their relationship continued in the 1950s as North scored Kazan’s version of A Streetcar Named Desire in 1951. This is one of the first jazz-inspired scores possibly his most acclaimed scores. In 1951 he also composed the music to the film adaptation of Death of a Salesman. His entry into film music started with a bang, using a jazz sound unheard in most movie scores. He continued to write modern sounding scores compared to the average romantic sounding scores. He worked again with Kazan on Viva Zapata! in 1952, but they didn’t work together after that, perhaps because of Kazan’s HUAC testimony. He also scored movies like Les Miserables (1952), The Rose Tattoo (1955), The Rainmaker (1956), Hot Spell (1958) and The Sound and the Fury (1959).
The 1960s brought North bigger budgeted films, and none of the films sound the same. Films from this time include Spartacus (1960), The Misfits (1961), The Children’s Hour (1961), Cleopatra (1963), The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965) and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). In many instances, North connected to the character problems, just as he had done in the theater. North employed many different techniques into his film scores which weren’t used often, such as jarring dissonance and exotic instruments. Spartacus and Cleopatra remain his most popular works.
His score to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) was unused in the film, and replaced fully by the classical music. His unused score was rerecorded and released by Jerry Goldsmith in 1993, and in 2007 the original recordings were released in a limited edition.
North’s non-film works include the theme to 77 Sunset Strip, Playhouse 90 theme for CBS, several episodes of Gunsmoke, The Man and the City, and Rich Man, Poor Man. He continued to do several scores in the 1970s and 1980s, along with some of the television shows mentioned. Scores include Bite the Bullet, Dragonslayer, Prizzi’s Honor, The Dead and 1987’s Good Morning, Vietnam. One of his last hits was his song Unchained Melody (music written for the 1955 film Unchained) used in the 1990 film Ghost.
Alex North died at the age of 80 in Los Angeles on September 8th, 1991. His scores included jazz and modernist techniques when most composers and directors wanted the more traditional Hollywood sound. This makes North one of the most original and innovative film composers.
He was nominated for 3 Grammy Awards, won a Golden Globe, won an Emmy Award. His record for Oscars is legendary - 15 Academy Award nominations with no wins. In 1986 he did receive an honorary Oscar “In recognition of his brilliant artistry in the creation of memorable music for a host of distinguished motion pictures.”