RIP Ken Wannberg

January 28, 2022

Remembering Composer/Music Editor Ken Wannberg (1930-2022)

Word has come from several sources that Ken Wannberg, legendary composer and acclaimed music editor, reportedly passed away on January 27, 2022. Details have not yet been released. Wannberg was one of those unsung heroes of film music, a quiet musician who labored tirelessly behind the scenes for more than forty years on some of Hollywood’s biggest scores and biggest films.

Kenneth Gail Wannberg (born June 28, 1930) served as a music apprentice and then an assistant in Hollywood, learning the trade on films like SOUTH PACIFIC and THE KING AND I. His work with Bernard Herrmann on JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH was his first as an official music editor, and he went on to work on more than a hundred films in that capacity.

“I started in film after I got out of the service,” Wannberg told writer David Hirsch in an interview published in Soundtrack! Magazine, March 1995 (issue Vol 14, No. 53). “I was playing in clubs and I didn’t want to do that anymore. A friend of mine was a film editor, and he said ‘Why don’t you become a music editor.’ I didn’t know what that was. He said ‘They do the same thing I do, but with music.’ I sent my resume to the head of music at Fox. I was granted an interview, he liked me, and three months later I was hired.”

Wannberg’s association with John Williams was legendary and ongoing. Their collaboration began with VALLEY OF THE DOLLS in 1967 (Williams had adapted the songs by Dory and André Previn into the film’s score) and continued through all six of the STAR WARS movies, the original INDIANA JONES trilogy, the first three HARRY POTTER films and most of Williams’ other big scores. Wannberg also worked with such composers as Georges Delerue (JOE VERSUS THE VOLCANO, BEACHES), Alex North (PRIZZI’S HONOR, THE DEAD), James Horner (PROJECT X), Michael Small (BLACK WIDOW), Dave Grusin (LUCAS), several films for Michael Convertino, and many others. Wannberg retired in 2005, his last work as music editor was on Williams’ MUNICH. One of Wannberg’s favorite Williams songs was “Star of Bethlehem” from HOME ALONE (1990); and when Williams rearranged the song for concert performances, he dedicated it to Wannberg.

A sampling of Wannberg’s soundtrack CDs from BuySoundtrax, Percepto, Prometheus, and Rhino Records

Wannberg was also a film composer, having scored nearly two dozen films and television shows, starting with an episode of TV’s ROOM 222 in 1970. Among his feature film scores were the crime thriller THE AMATEUR (1981), the horror film OF UNKNOWN ORIGIN (1984), the science fiction adventure THE PHILADELPHIA EXPERIMENT (1984), the romantic comedy BLAME IT ON RIO (1984, uncredited), and the TV movie remake of RED RIVER (1988). His last movie score was for 1992’s made-for-TV drama FATAL MEMORIES. Although he was only credited as conductor and arranger on Peter Medak’s ghost drama THE CHANGELING in 1980, Wannberg actually composed much of the film’s score, which is an amalgamation of himself and two other composers’ work, deftly woven together by Wannberg. “It was awkward, to say the least,” Wannberg told me in a 2001 interview. “It was just the preference of the director and producers. There’s a lot of it I would do differently today [and] there are a few things I like very much. But I’ve grown musically, so I would do things differently. I think every composer would say that about his early work. But it worked for the film, and what more can you ask?”

A regrettable farewell and an earnest salute for the loss of a master musical craftsman, whose efforts contributed to the effectiveness and artistry of some 200 film and television episodes.

Update Feb. 3: For more details, see Jon Burlingame’s obit in today’s Variety.

– Randall D. Larson

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