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THE BEST...THE BEAUTIFUL...AND THE BIZZARE | AND THE
BIZARRE : Penning merry melodies for Bugs & Co. is
back, big time | SO SOCAL

Name that 'toon

January 25, 1998|Josh Sens

To Wile E. Coyote, cascading notes from a piano, building toward crescendo, mean just one thing: an anvil is plummeting straight for his head. To Carl Johnson, it's music to the ear.

"It's a piano gliss," Johnson explains, "the sound you get when you drag your finger across the keys. If an anvil or a safe falls out of the sky and you don't hear a piano gliss, it just doesn't look right."

At least not to Johnson. In his world, every cartoon occurrence--every tiptoe, every eye-blink, every anvil falling earthward--is a musical event. Johnson, 32, is a rising star in the rarefied field of cartoon music composition. Musicians who write tunes for the 'toons are in demand again now that animated movies--think "The Lion King" and its successors--have become moneymakers.

Johnson studied at USC's film school and got his start with Disney's animated TV show "Goof Troop" in 1992. Since then he's composed the soundtracks to the likes of "Winnie the Pooh's Grand Adventure" and "Pinky & the Brain," about two precocious lab rats, and is working on the DreamWorks prime-time animated series, "Invasion America," which airs in March.

"Carl is one of four or five guys out there who really have the Stalling style down cold," says Richard Stone, musical director of Warner Bros.' "Animaniacs" series.

Stalling style refers, of course, to Carl Stalling, the former movie-house pianist whose cartoon melodies set the standard in the 1930s and '40s. His scores for Loony Toon classics such as Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig became Warner Bros. trademarks and laid out what insiders still regard as the unwritten rules of cartoon music composition. Nothing pleased Stalling more than musical puns that riffed on anything from Wagner operas to Tin Pan Alley hits.

"If a character was fishing, he might quote Schubert's 'Trout Quintet,' " Johnson says. "If someone was eating a hamburger, it might be 'The Old Gray Mare.' Composers today try to do the same."

They also abide by another Stalling standard: that certain actions beg for certain sounds. In today's Warner Bros. cartoons, footsteps are accompanied by pizzicato cello and staccato bassoon. Eye-blinks warrant two quick notes on a xylophone.

Johnson has so thoroughly absorbed all of this, it's getting hard for him to tell where 'toon town ends and real life begins. "If I'm walking down the street and I hear a piano gliss," he admits, "you can bet I'm going to hit the floor."

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