One of the most widely recognised examples of Australian film music is Bruce Rowland’s orchestral score for The Man from Snowy River (George Miller, 1982).
This music featured at the Sydney Olympics opening ceremony in 2000, standing in as the sound of Australia, along with other iconic soundtrack excerpts (including Crocodile Dundee, Strictly Ballroom and The Adventures of Pricilla, Queen of the Desert).
In the early part of this clip – where the riders gallop through the bush in pursuit of the wild brumbies – we hear a prominent orchestral string ostinato (or repeated phrase) in triplets, which imitates the horse footfalls while enhancing the action. This section merges into the main theme (played in brass).
Then for the famous wild ride down the hillside – showcasing the skilful horsemanship of Jim Craig (Tom Burlinson) – the music becomes more sparse, almost silent. The sound of horse hooves punctuates a bedding drone – and helps to accentuate the element of danger.
Once Jim reaches the bottom of the hill – seemingly unharmed – he cracks his whip, triggering the introduction of the main theme on triumphant brass and percussion. The chase now resumes.
When the horses encounter a snow pass, the music becomes higher in pitch and more ethereal in tone and colour – with piano and metallic orchestral percussion such as chimes taking the place of the brass, giving an almost feative Christmas feel. The higher register also seems to resonate with the high-altitude environment.
Once off the snow, we return to the dramatic dynamics of brass which help foreground the Australian high country landscape. The scene concludes with an image of the rider coming to a halt, the only sound being the cracking of his stockwhip.
The types of orchestral devices found in this sequence and throughout the film echo classical Hollywood compositional and narrative techniques designed to function on subliminal, emotional and dramatic levels.
These devices and aesthetics emphasise the epic quality and spectacle of landscape shots and action sequences. The use of traditional orchestration and narrative techniques also says something about the film’s commercial imperatives as well as its intent to appeal to international audiences.
Notes by Johhny Milner (with thanks to Tom Dexter)