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Rediscovering the Early Works of Brian De Palma through the John Herbert McDowell Papers

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Kelli Minelli

The following is a guest post from Kelli Minelli, one of the Music Division’s summer Fellows from Case Western Reserve University’s graduate program in musicology. Dance Specialist Libby Smigel introduces her: 

I’ve been delighted to have Kelli Minelli assisting the Music Division in identifying the scores and sketches found in the John Herbert McDowell Papers. While some of McDowell’s creativity is linked to Paul Taylor’s choreography or experiments of the Judson Dance Theatre, the eye of an astute musicologist is needed for organizing his vast creative output for future use by faculty, scholars, and musicians. In this post, Kelli brings to light McDowell’s collaborations with fledgling filmmaker Brian De Palma.


John Herbert McDowell, ca. 1976. John Herbert McDowell Papers, Music Division, Library of Congress.

Though largely unknown except to those familiar with the experimental theatre scene of Greenwich Village in the 1960s, John Herbert McDowell’s artistic influence and legacy extends to nearly every form of popular media. McDowell was born in 1926 in Scarsdale, New York. His interest in music and theatre developed early, and he became deeply involved with the emerging Judson Church Dance Theatre and New York Poets Theatre. McDowell was also involved with La Mama Experimental Theatre Club through the late 1970s, and worked with dancers/choreographers such as James Waring, Paul Taylor, and Elaine Summers throughout his career. McDowell’s influence is finally being recognized by contemporary dance scholarship, made all the more fruitful by the rich collection of his programs, personal materials, scores and audio recordings at the Library of Congress.

The link that I would like to explore here are his works for films. McDowell’s résumés, in their many draft forms found in the John Herbert McDowell Papers, cite his 17+ film scores, in addition to hundreds of pieces for dance. The most notable of these film works are his contributions to the earliest films of famed director Brian De Palma. A significant member of the New Hollywood movement of the early 1970s, De Palma is perhaps best known for Phantom of the Paradise (1974), Carrie (1976), Scarface (1983), The Untouchables (1987), and Carlito’s Way (1993).

How, I wondered, did De Palma happen to collaborate with McDowell on his earliest filmmaking projects?

De Palma and McDowell began a professional relationship in the early 1960s.  Though they did not overlap during their times at Columbia University (McDowell received his master’s degree in 1957 and De Palma began his undergraduate degree in 1958), a partnership emerged between the two through their mutual acquaintance, Sarah Lawrence College Professor Wilford Leach. De Palma has stated in interviews that he came to Sarah Lawrence for his master’s because of his friendship with Leach and their mutual involvement in the New York underground theatre scene—of which McDowell was an integral part. McDowell and Leach collaborated on a number of projects throughout the 1960s and 1970s, suggesting that Leach would introduce his filmmaking student to a local composer and friend.

Sheet Music. “Ballad 1” from Woton’s Wake, ca. 1962. John Herbert McDowell Papers, Music Division, Library of Congress.

McDowell is the credited composer on De Palma’s third student film, Woton’s Wake, released in 1962. The project, a 26-minute short that uses references and visual allusions to cinematic predecessors (from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to King Kong to The Seventh Seal), features numerous songs on its soundtrack and a score by McDowell. These ballads, with expositive lyrics written by actor William Finley (a frequent De Palma collaborator, and the titular Woton) and playwright Arthur Williams, give the murderous subject matter an ironic distance. Just as Kurt Weill’s songs heighten the “alienating” techniques of Berthold Brecht, so too do the songs of Woton’s Wake deliberately estrange the audience. McDowell’s score also furthers the film’s cynicism, using nearly continuous Mickey-Mousing to heighten the film’s actions. This technique pushes the listener’s sense of reality over the edge, an intentional measure to prevent the film’s dark subject matter from eliciting an emotional response from the audience. McDowell’s sketches of the score, which are found in the Library of Congress, illustrate his dedication to creative orchestration and rhythmic variance for dramatic effect.

McDowell’s next collaboration with De Palma, The Wedding Party, was filmed in 1963 but not released until 1969. The Wedding Party, a dark comedy about a groom’s doom and regrets during his chaotic wedding weekend, was co-directed by Cynthia Munroe, Leach, and De Palma. Munroe and De Palma, both Leach’s filmmaking students at Sarah Lawrence, shared the duties of producing and directing with their professor, though De Palma was the primary director. A full-length feature, The Wedding Party highlights McDowell’s talents for dramatic composition, as the score involves dozens of specific, themed cued sections. Trivia buffs may also recognize the title The Wedding Party as it was the film debut of then-up-and-coming actor Robert de Niro.

In 1968 De Palma released his first feature-length film as both writer and director, Murder à la Mod. While the film’s title song was written and performed by William Finley (who appears in the film as the murderous Otto), McDowell composed the score. Though this film disappeared from public attention soon after its New York City premiere, it does show clear blueprints of De Palma’s later style that would become his trademark: shocking, voyeuristic depictions of violence and clear influences of Jean Luc Godard and Alfred Hitchcock.

Cue Sheet from Murder à la Mod, March 1967. John Herbert McDowell Papers, Music Division, Library of Congress.
Title page from “Dragon’s Tale,” undated. John Herbert McDowell Papers, Music Division, Library of Congress.

The final, and perhaps most mysterious, collaboration between McDowell and De Palma exists within the Library of Congress as only an undated work titled “Dragon’s Tale: Drama per cinema auf Brian De Palma.” While no other information about this piece has been as yet uncovered, its existence provides even more evidence of their fascinating early partnership.

The John Herbert McDowell Papers at the Library of Congress opens countless doors for scholars of the performing arts, connecting McDowell to collaborators and movements that have shaped the contemporary theatrical scene. More clues reveal themselves each day as McDowell’s legacy materials are processed and explored, and now these unbelievable resources are accessible to scholars, film buffs, dancers, and actors alike.


A second-year graduate student, Kelli Minelli investigates voice, gender, and agency in film music, as well as researches the composer Bernard Herrmann and his 1951 opera Wuthering Heights. Current projects involve work on singing and its narrative influence in films, and twenty-first-century opera, with an emphasis on gender studies. Most recently, Kelli is studying representations of HIV/AIDS in popular music and theatre, using the Jonathan Larson Papers at the Library of Congress to study the musical RENT (1996).

Comments (2)

  1. Even with his Guggenheim, he had trouble making ends meet, and when we ran into each other occasionally in the Village he would grumble pleasantly about having to work a couple days a week as a typist or something when he could be home composing or doing nothing at all. Sweet man.

  2. I met John Herbert when he directed a production of Diane di Prima’s ‘Discovery of America’ at Theatre for the New City in about 1971. I was the stage manager. We continued to cross paths for several years after that. Sometimes on productions and other times, (most often) at the bar on the corner 4th street and 2nd avenue where much of the Off-Off Broadway hung out after work. He was a brilliant raconteur and a great talent. I lost touch with all of that when I moved to Europe in 1082 but I’m glad he is finally being recognized for the great talent that he was.

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