Trevor Duncan

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Trevor Duncan has achieved major recognition in two specialized musical fields: in England, as a composer of light music, he has had few peers since the 1950s, and as a film composer, despite the fact…
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Trevor Duncan has achieved major recognition in two specialized musical fields: in England, as a composer of light music, he has had few peers since the 1950s, and as a film composer, despite the fact that his work has been limited to a relative handful of features, some of his music is known internationally. Born Leonard Charles Trebilco in London in 1924, he showed a special aptitude for music as a boy, but avoided formal music training almost entirely. He took courses in violin, harmony, and counterpoint, but found his true education in the act of playing music and writing it. He joined the BBC briefly, in 1942, but was soon serving as a radio operator in the Royal Air Force, playing in dance bands in his off-duty time. He rejoined the BBC in 1947 as an engineer and within a couple of years, he was experimenting with orchestration and started to compose. One of those who most encouraged him in this effort by using some of his early work was bandleader and radio personality Ray Martin.

He wanted to compose professionally, but discovered that the BBC's regulations virtually precluded employees from getting their music put on the air. Not willing to give up his day job, he began writing music for newsreels and motion pictures under the pseudonym Trevor Duncan. He was fortunate enough sell his first two compositions, "Vision in Velvet" and "High Heels," to Boosey & Hawkes, the renowned music publishing house. "High Heels," in particular, was widely played over the radio and was recorded commercially by Sidney Torch and Duncan began writing more material, much of which proved popular with producers and audiences alike. By 1954, with his music activities becoming more lucrative than his BBC job -- and with the latter becoming a drag on his ability to place music on the BBC -- he was forced to give up his radio position.

By the end of the 1950s, Duncan was one of the most popular composers of light music in England and regarded by many as the natural successor to such figures as the renowned Eric Coates. He was writing music for movies, as well as for television and radio, and two of his compositions from 1959, "The Girl From Corsica" and the "March" from his "Little Suite." These became fixtures in British popular culture thanks to heavy radio and television exposure, with the former also becoming a hit record in a version conducted by Ron Goodwin, who has since re-recorded it several times, both compositions being well-represented in the British CD catalog. Duncan was a household name in England as the 1950s drew to a close, but was little recognized in America. This was to change somewhat in the decades to come through an improbable sequence of events during the mid- to late '50s. A little-known low-budget producer/director and writer named Edward D. Wood Jr. was putting together a movie about aliens reanimating corpses as part of a plan to destroy humankind and he had hired a music director named Gordon Zahler to assemble a score. Zahler auditioned pre-recorded material from a multitude of sources and settled on a pastiche music track that swelled, groaned, and surged in all of the right spots on the screen. The movie was eventually released as Plan 9 From Outer Space, and the main theme for the film and the underscoring of some of its eerier moments was a Duncan composition called "Grip of the Law."

Plan 9 From Outer Space sank like a stone at the time of its release, but it developed the core of a cult following through television showings, was subsequently excavated and put back into distribution by devotees of comically bad films (catering to other fans of bad movies), and has since been studied and analyzed more intently than any American movie since Citizen Kane. In the process, Duncan's "Grip of the Law" (which was tracked into numerous other works during the early '60s, including at least one episode of the original Biography series, dealing with Kruschev) and the other mood music used in the movie has found recognition along with its composer. Indeed, that piece was one of the centerpieces of the Plan Nine From Outer Space soundtrack assembled by Paul Mandell and issued in 1998. Other examples of Duncan's mood and soundtrack music also turned up tracked into such early '60s television shows as Diver Dan. Duncan was one of the most respected light music composers of the 1960s and by the end of the decade, he had branched into other areas of music -- including symphonic composition -- culminating with the publication of his "Sinfonia Tellurica" in 1970. He remained active into his eighth decade.