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From its first ethereal tones, Academy Award-nominated documentary filmmaker Matthew Heineman’s (Oscar-nominated CARTEL LAND) CITY OF GHOSTS music score and sound design achieves a hauntingly simultaneous balance of nearly-imperceptible presence and atmospheric poignancy. “I sorta figured if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” reflects Mr. Heineman when expressing why he continues his creative collaboration with composers and personal friends, H. Scott Salinas and Jackson Greenberg.
With Mr. Salinas and Greenberg’s consent, I offer to kickoff our visit with an immediate impression during the start of the film that distinguishes it’s score from Cartel Land’s…it deftly emerges with warm, melodic cello and higher-notes vibraphone progessions from a dreamlike silence, and only registers as a lilting, tender counterpoint to the viscerally intense imagery of ISIS-occupied contemporary Raqqa, Syria in the picture’s opening sequence well after we’re already emotionally all-in invested via what will certainly be a harrowing, yet inspiring cinematic experience. Mr. Heineman recalls, “Cartel Land was an amazing collaboration with Scott and Jackson, and they’re so talented. We all developed a sort of shorthand making Cartel Land and for me, this film was extremely stressful on a bunch of different levels, so I just wanted to keep that band together. I reached out to them about collaborating quite early in the process, which influences the edit, allows them to freshly color the emotions and feelings of the images based on what I was responding to, what felt right or didn’t right away. So, those first sessions were extremely important to developing the language of the film.”
After the aptly assembled opening sequence juxtaposes quick shots of human ingenuity with fierce ISIS challenges, the creative team offers rhythmic marimba and guitar during it’s aural foreshadowing of visceral collective human resilience by showing early-resistance Raqqa uprisings against the anaconda-like noose unleashed upon local residents as the IS fighters descend upon the region from the hallucination-like mirage of surrounding desert terrain.
Integral to this story’s resistance are local members of the resistance platform, Raqqa Being Slaughtered Silently, or RBSS. We first meet hope in the schoolteacher Mohamed and blogger/videographer Hamoud…then immediately witness IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi slowly ascend mosque pulpit stairs. Tension feels temporarily relieved, then abruptly withdrawn as pensive piano accompanies our introduction to the situation’s lethality…the group’s member Moutaz is assasinated, and the team flees Raqqa for sactuary in nearby Gazientap, Turkey to establish a RBSS headquarters and where we meet their partner, Ibrahim, as well as German safehouses where we meet liason, Mouza.
“Raqqa is a nightmare,” whispers Hamoud’s brother, Hassan, one of the “Raqqa 12″ internal/external correspondents early in the film, and Mr. Heineman kindly brings us into their intuitively collaborative musical scoring process. “First, I sent them (composers Mr. Salinas and Greenberg) a few clips because we didn’t have a cut yet, and they delivered 10 – 12-minute ‘concentrates,’ that had a lot of different elements and we’d sit around and talk about what I was responding to.”
I ask about how scene cues felt unique in so far as they ascended from silence, almost imperceptibly. Mr. Greenberg responds with, “I think that’s a testament to the editing of the film. Every cue would start with a single instrument or sound. The opening sequence was so impactful (sic), with every intense moment followed by another even more intense moment, so we wanted to allow each of those to linger with the audience as long as possible while also moving them along in the story. The challenge was, let’s let people feel this but not have the music drag them out of the story, so our solution was to go with really simple opening to the cues, and then they often return to their simplest form at the end of the cue.”
Mr. Salinas expands, “There were a few cues that come in really strong too, so because mostly the cues were simple, so when the few cues that don’t behave that way come in, they feel way more impactful (sic), almost bigger than they actually are because we weren’t overusing that sort of strong. It’s sort of an instinctual tactic, that we can sort of really hit you hard when we need to. You’ll notice we do that with sound too, like when there’s an explosion or a phone suddenly dropping, it feels jarring. So, because before those moments, we’ve been in this interestingly delicate, smooth world, where I imagine your senses haven’t been overloaded yet, so we’re all sensitive to, when we go ‘to 11,’ how many times are you gonna do that and why.”
“When we were mixing with our amazing mixer, Tom Paul, who we worked with on Cartel Land, elaborates Mr. Heineman, “we said to him, ‘we want the film to have breaths but we don’t want them to feel like they’re breathing. So, in the sound mix, we did a lot of work with ‘reverb-ing’ sound in and out to help ease some of these transitions, make them seamless, make them seem like one long poem as opposed to a bunch of starts and stops.”
Case in point, about 3/4 into the picture, there’s a viscerally dynamic sequence elucidating the RBSS crew-in-exile as they emotionally transform from a sort of post traumatic stress detachment after settling into German safe houses, into a gradual fearless, actualized confrontation with German nationalists at an anti-refugee assembly. Tension builds as strings rise from a building bass and acoustic guitar trot that slowly gathers accelerating velocity into an alarming gallop. Mr. Heineman reflects on how he and the team approached music and sound challenges here with, “that scene was so chaotic and loud…there was a natural rhythm to the protests, and I feel that cue of Scott and Jackson’s is one of my favorite cues, so powerful. If you take away the ‘nat’ (natural) sounds, it’s pretty large and complicated but you just feel the emotion when you’re watching that scene. It’s really subtle in how it plays in the mix.”
Mr. Greenberg adds, “One of the things that happens in that cue is that at times, all the sounds get stripped away and we’re left only with music, and you can become aware that, ‘oh, wait a minute, the music was doing that the whole time,’ that creates a kind of whiplash impact.”
“It was similar to what we did sometimes in the Cartel Land mix, when we stripped away all nat sounds at the end of a cue and let the music bring it out,” Mr. Heineman recalls. “As a filmmaker, what I love is not going to a film with any preconceived notions or script in mind but letting it evolve naturally. If you’d talked to me a year ago when we started, would I ever think that we could include a scene of neo-Nazis marching through Berlin to somehow fit into this film. And while the film is sort of about this war of ideas, propaganda, information from these citizen journalists and ISIS’ slick propaganda, it’s also a story of immigrants, an exodus story, of Man’s understanding, coming to terms, and dealing with the cumulative effects of trauma…also, rising nationalism both in Germany and around the world. It’s about finding one’s own identity in a new place. So, what was beautiful about their music, is that nothing feels heavy-handed…it’s not like we get to Germany, Turkey, or Raqqa and suddenly the whole score changes. There’s a real sort of elegance to it, it’s so emotive but you’re not always aware of how the score is making that happen.”
Mr. Salinas chuckles at having utilized “that crazy precussion instrument – a ‘pocket piano’ I found at a luggage store in San Francisco” for that scene. It sort of sounds like an rhythmic organ but it’s made out of wood and makes really interesting sounds.”
Mr. Greenberg expands with, “It felt kind of like making an album where we felt free with Matt to experiment with shaping larger movements from those original stems. So, instead of aiming for a perfect cue, we did a subtractive rather than additive process, of a quickly freeing mashup approach. We also collaborated with a Syrian classically-trained musician, a well-known revolutionary songwriter who played over a dozen instruments…weird, distorted synths. We just did it and it worked very effectively because we all like similar source material and pushing the boundaries of what’s possible.”
Mr. Salinas adds, “I’d send in stuff, just as a jumping off point, and when it worked, it ended up in the movie.
In closing, I offer that the score maintains a organically-consistent vibe continuity flow throughout, to which Mr. Heineman generously lauds, “Yes, and I think that’s a huge testament to Scott and Jackson. One of the things I love about our collaboration is that we’re all sort of ego-less in the collaboration, there’s a trust that we’ve developed. For example, them delivering between 6 – 10 ‘stems’ for each cue, which allowed us the option to fine-tune everything. We played a ton with the stems.”
He kindly wraps to race after his next interview with, “I really appreciate your feedback on the film and our music process, it means a lot. Some people get the film and some don’t, and you get the intricacies of what we were trying to do.”
Soundtrack Picks: “LOGAN” is the top soundtrack to own for March, 2017
Also worth picking up BEFORE I WAKE, BEVERLY HILLS COP, FRANKENSTEIN, THE LAST VALLEY, PLANETARIUM, PLANET EARTH II, SILENT RUNNING TINA GUO: GAME ON! and many more!
To Purchase the soundtracks from this list, click on the CD cover
THE TOP PICKS
1) DUCK TALES / SKY HIGH
What is it?: Intrada has often mined musical treasure from the Disney vaults. But perhaps none are shinier than the treasure that results from composers with a taste for fantastical adventure, be it involving waterfowl or teen superheroes in training.
Why should you buy it: Not every funny animal star to grace Disney came from film or television, one case in point being Scrooge McDuck, a feathered spin on Ebenezer created by comic book artist Carl Barks in 1947. His money-making schemes providing no end of perilous trouble for nephew Donald Duck and his kids in a series of popular adventure stories, and later a syndicated TV show that provided the gist for 1990’s “Duck Tales: The Movie.” But when listening to Scrooge’s musical quest for the treasure of the lost lamp, you might assume you’re listening to the score for a long lost Indiana Jones picture, if given a somewhat lighter spin. Few composers gave that era’s kid-friendly comedy-adventures the kind of energetic rambunctiousness like David Newman. With lush orchestrations that shifted to new ideas at a moment’s notice, Newman’s scores for the likes of “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” “Galaxy Quest” and “The Brave Little Toaster” came across like a fusion between his dad Alfred Newman and Warner Brother’s toon king Carl Stalling. “Duck Tales” is a prime cut of his seamless ability to jet between cheerful rhythm and cliffhanging peril, a silly symphony by way of the lost Ark as Newman inflects Arabic exoticism into a constantly thrilling sense of discovery. Newman embodies Scrooge and company as a hardy band of explorers boldly facing death-defying traps, as well as a few pratfalls. It’s exactly the kind of dynamic scoring that makes the listener take cartoons all the more seriously, especially given the composer’s dynamic use of strings and brass, given a constant sense of melodic excitement and wonder that plays one of the composer’s best “Tales” where the real treasure within is robustly cliffhanging music that plays Scrooge as anything but a McDuck.
Extra Special: Michael Giacchino was fresh off Disney’s “The Incredibles” when the studio’s “Sky High” flew his way in a welcome case of superhero typecasting. Where Giacchino had taken a stylized, hep John Barry 60’s approach for that animated movie’s spandex-clad family, the composer’s approach for “Sky High” was all about his love for John Williams. Giacchino confidently responded to his first live action movie leap with a stupendous theme whose trumpeting melody was practically emblazoned with a big red “S,” Giacchino’s score immediately nails the lofty nobility of this power pack, while also capturing the underdog emotion of a son trying to fill his crusader dad’s cape. Like David Newman, Giacchino’s use of his formidable orchestral resources was serious, if not exactly life or death stuff given the villain’s plan to reduce her foes to kindergarten size. With numerous genre franchises that the composer would conquer on the horizon, Giacchino’s affection for the material rings through the theme-rich score, from the dastardly bell-ringing brass of evil to swirling, save-the-day orchestrations, a symphonically grand approach whose climactically suspenseful string and choral power would only grow to Oscar winning heights, not to mention the brilliant John Williams’ emulation of “Rogue One.” Yet “Sky High” is certainly a match for Giacchino’s most enjoyable work to come, a comic book-colored score that again showed him as being to the superhero manor born.
What Is it?: Marco Beltrami has always been a composer to find a uniquely dark sound in nihilistic subject matter, whether it’s onboard the twisted samples of a train to a frozen apocalypse in “Snowpiercer,” or using a distorted metal to defuse ticking Iraqi bomb death in his Oscar nominated score with Buck Sanders for “Hurt Locker.” He’s also been to the twisted well once or twice for Marvel, teaming with Philip Glass for a cool modernistic take on the disastrous revamp of the “Fantastic Four,” and journeyed with director James Mangold for a Japanese take on everyone’s favorite berserker Canuck mutant with “Wolverine.” If you want to hear the inspiration for “Logan,” then go back to the old, twisted west for Beltrami’s first Oscar nomination in service of Mangold’s “3:10 To Yuma.” Or better yet, listen to the psychologically perverse score to “The Homesman,” and you’ll get the tantalizingly doomed basis for “Logan’s” ride into the sunset as Beltrami lays the saga to rest with his creative claws blazing.
Why Should You Buy It?: Right from the “Wolverine” recall of a western-style harmonica that signals a blade-slinger who doesn’t want to be pulled back in, and the lovely, lonely piano theme of his melancholy existence with the last tatters of his X-life, Beltrami (along with his composing team of Sanders, Marcus Trumpp and Brandon Roberts) embody a savage, wounded animal who’s nonetheless a warrior poet. A seething berserker rage, along with the villainy of the hapless cyber-enhanced reavers become gnarled, electric guitars that paint a bleak, hypnotic landscape replete with melancholy and sudden death. The crazed musical violence is balanced with a poignant, Zen calm that gives the score a nicely modulated impact, eerily enhanced by the crystalline sound of a glass armonica’s water bowls. Mostly defying the kind of big orchestra that could potentially recall a sunnier Marvel superhero film, Beltrami pays off those big moments nonetheless as he crafts perhaps Marvel’s most distinctive score yet.
Extra Special: While “Logan” makes no bones about being a bloody update of “Shane” (excepting that the kid attached at the hip to the gunslinger is no shrinking violet), the biggest musical surprise here is how Beltrami’s score is way more of a throwback to Gene Hackman than Alan Ladd, employing some of the nuttiest use of jazz rhythms to the hard-broiled action genre outside of Don Ellis and David Shire’s scores for “The French Connection” and “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.” Beltrami puts piano runs into the jagged adrenalin frenzy of “El-Limo Nator,” where the brass impalement fiesta of “Forest Fight” kicks it with a seeming improv drum solo that might have come from “Whiplash,” as kept pace with wildly rhythmic brass. Electric guitar also leaps into Beltrami’s mayhem, really given a chance to shine in an album that reveals the intricacy of the score. It’s the sound of pure, savage creativity that uses low key emotion to rips out fans’ hearts, laying bare a wounded soul and a hell of a post-apocalyptic western-jazz score at that.
3) THE RED BALLOON / PARIS WHEN IT SIZZLES
What is it?: A label that’s often shown a love of foreign soundtrack, or delightful Hollywood froth that just happens to take place overseas, Kritzerland now puts out two Parisian soundtrack delights, one about the tender relationship between a boy and helium, and the other using, swinging jazzy hijinks to bring dialogue to a screenplay in the city of lights.
Why should you buy it?: A classic to schoolchildren of a certain age, Albert Lamorisse’s 1956 short film “The Red Balloon” featured the wordless interplay between a young boy and a puppy-like balloon, winning an Oscar for Best Screenplay in the process. Following him around the streets, into school and dancing out of the popping desires of bullies, the lovely little score by Maurice Leroux is a magical thing of wonder, shimmering bells conjuring the enchantment of a special friend, as sweet orchestrations become the blissful sound of youth, all while painting the balloon as a flesh and blood playmate. Thematically buoyant, Leoroux’s playfully suspenseful score seems like the music of a lost Disney animated feature from the 40’s, capturing a sense of natural wonder that might befit a “Bambi” sequel, a vintage quality enhanced by the archival sound. Lamorisse followed up “The Red Balloon” with “Le Voyage en Balloon” (aka “Stowaway in the Sky”), a far grander1960 feature that finds “Red’s” balloon-fascinated boy soaring over France with his grandfather. This time the score was by Jean Prodromides (who’d go on to score adult fare like “Spirits of the Dead” and “Danton”). Far more dance hall and a bit less “childish” in approach, Prodromides’ score is a delight, given a theme that dances from waltz to lullaby as it captures the sights below with sumptuous orchestral enchantment. While not “French” as such in approach, there’s no mistaking the Gallic countryside in the joie de vivre of its music, which floats on the magic of where the air takes you, as its soaringly melodic dance rhythms escalate with excitement, and finally a stirring chorus worthy of an epic. Both “Balloons” add up to a real charmer, showing how music and imagery remain aloft together to convey the magic of both flight and boyhood wonder.
Extra Special: Way more in jazzy key with a 1964 American bachelor pad, Nelson Riddle is in full, swinging bloom with “Paris When It Sizzles.” William Holden played another screenwriter on the make, though with Audrey Hepburn making for far more agreeable company than Gloria Swanson as the temp trying to break his mental block in gay Paree. As the idea girl segues his stream of consciousness from one nutty scenario to the next. Riddle was Frank Sinatra’s go-to arranger when not scoring TV and film assignments like no one’s swinging business. By the time he sizzled, Riddle already had such hep credits as “Ocean’s 11,” “Lolita” and “Come Blow Your Horn” to his credit. “Paris” particularly sings with the fun variety of premises offered here, from aping stormy Dracula music to cliffhanging cowboy and Indian action. Musical movie-movie stereotyping has rarely been this delicious as Heft’s talent for “serious” drama meets his jazz chops, given a quite lovely theme for the two eye-catching stars who’d previously proven their chemistry in “Sabrina.” Hefti also pays ode to “Paris” with a can-can inspired chase and the waltzing brass and accordion, while also globe hopping with an Argentinian tango and Italian mandolin. “Paris’” delights are only enhanced with a second CD, featuring copious alternates as well as the original soundtrack release from back in the day. But given an artist whose sweet cocktail touch remains as fun as ever, Riddle’s “Paris” is le jazz hot at its finest, as it delightfully, and purposefully run though any number of clichés, as given new vibrancy by Hefti’s boundless imagination.
4) SPLIT / FRANKENSTEIN
Price: $8.99 / $9.49
What is it?: From a psychopath with submerged multiple personalities to the violently misunderstood creation of Mary Shelly, two new, distinctive horror scores create music that’s’ as much about inner psychology as body terror scares.
Why should you buy it?: M. Night Shyamalan is the master of surprise twists, the latest of which is his almost shocking return to form with a super villain who has many of them, the most intoxicatingly evil of which is the new music identity of West Dylan Thordson. With Shyamalan having used the robust symphonic sound of James Newton Howard for his way higher budgeted films (with the music ultimately becoming the best thing about one disappointment after the other), the filmmaker’s retreat to indie world brought has now brought him the relatively unknown Thordson, no doubt having a light shown on his talent with his score for HBO’s documentary series “The Jinx,” which detailed the murderous guises of the money-hungry killer Robert Durst. Now given a multiple identity murderer with a bit more of a sympathetic background, Thordson creates a singularly unique horror score, beginning with a metallic, growling effect that seems to come from the bowels of hell, signaling a “Beast” gnawing to break free from a kidnapper’s jumbled personas. Yet there’s a melodic measure of sympathy for a man / woman / child who isn’t of his own making, even as the score’s more lyrical moments become inevitably distorted. For all of the identities at play, Thordson keeps the score at a subtle, spare pitch, gradually unnerving the listener with each new revelation of a captor, seizing the grown, unholy anticipation of the emergence of his inner Beast. It’s a mixture of sympathy and fear that encourages any number of interesting samples that seem to come from a steam pipe-filled jungle lair, nicely balancing melody with growing savagery in way that signals the emergence of a musical talent determined to take the percussive brutality of the genre in his own direction – a contrast of styles that makes the JNH reappearance of an old Shyamalan theme (as heard in the movie itself) all the more effective in this ear-catching, fear-inducing soundtrack that makes us eagerly await the next sound that will jump out of Thordson.
Extra Special: The cinematic body parts that comprise Frankenstein’s monster have been given innumerable mix-and-matches for well over a century, some dressing Mary Shelley’s classic tale in blood-splattered Victorian finery, while others have sought to garb him the baleful creature in futuristic clothing. But rarely has a hoodie given such new, impressive life to the undead as “Candyman” genre auteur Bernard Rose with this excellent, woefully unrecognized modern-day spin on the story as old as time – its hopelessly disfigured mother’s boy strikingly electrified from its score by Halli Cauthery. Composing additional music for the likes of “The Chronicles of Narnia,” “Hellboy II” and “King Kong: Skull Island,” Cauthery made a strong feature debut with the eco-guerillas of “The East.” For “Frankenstein,” he paints a portrait of weird, brutal science run amuck, as driven by a tender, doomed heart. A plaintive piano lets us know that the escaped, patchwork man “Adam” only wants to belong, even as harsh, industrial samples wreak unintentional havoc. It’s a experimental nightmarishness that’s genetically spliced with poignancy, the music trying to resolve into melody before being swept away by some bizarre, angry effect in Cauthery’s effective mesh of sound design and score. But there are also strong themes at his “Frankenstein’s” core, the most effective of which is a mournful, monk-like chorus, its string emulation marching him to inexorable tragedy. Like Rose’s astonishing, determinedly ragged take on the legend, Cauthery’s work is as raw as a barely stitched-together wound, raging against a Los Angeles to distinguish both film and score from its ancestors, who’ve perhaps never dared as much to break a familiar mold.
5) TWISTER / CLIFFHANGER
What Is it?: Action films began to get truly outrageous in the 90s as one testosterone-fueled picture tried to beat the other out in terms of the sheer, epic scale of logic-destroying insanity. The same might be said of their scores that reached new heights of awesome bombast, and manliness – two prime music cuts of that decade being Mark Mancina’s “Twister” and Trevor Jones’ “Cliffhanger,” a tornado of orchestral players now fully unleashed in the new millennia via La La Land’s ultimate editions.
Why Should You Buy It?: Probably the 90’s most seminal action score belonged to “Speed,” Jan De Bont’s ingenious, time-ticking elevator to bus to subway triathlon that truly introduced the percussive talents of Mark Mancina to Hollywood with this thrilling fusion of thematic tradition and then state-of-the-art sampling. For their next venture, De Bont and Mancina traded off mechanical carnage for nature’s fury with the barnstorming music of “Twister.” One might expect they’ve mistakenly put on the score for a bucking bronco western when hearing the rollicking Americana theme that opens the score, though the tip of the hat that we’re in modern times comes from the ripping guitar solos by no less than Eddie Van Halen, showing that the horse these heroes are riding is in fact a town-tossing string of hurricanes with a temper worse than any red-maddened bull. With the string-driven orchestra more pronounced this time, Mancina’s delightful hoedown conveys the fun of the death-defying, mind-boggling profession of storm chasing. It might be crazy, but it’s also heroic given Mancina’s bold approach that conveys the characters fearlessly barreling into the CGI weather events, their swirling majesty conveyed with towering brass and a foreboding chorus that might as well the voice of God giving warning. It’s big, unabashed fun that conveys director Jan De Bont’s way of throwing the kitchen sink, as well as a cow, at the screen, an unabashed enthusiasm for multiplex thrill rides that Mancina boisterously embodies with a category 5 score, driving hell-bent for rhythm into the kind of throttling, thematic percussion that distinguishes his action scoring for one of his most delightfully gonzo projects.
Extra Special: Bruce Willis’ skyscraper-mountaineering battle for survival against Eurotrash criminals inspired a wave of “’Die Hard’ in a….” movies of varied ambition and originality. But leave it to explosive “Die Hard 2” director Renny Harlin to try to summit the most breathtakingly outlandish of them all with Sylvester Stallone for 1993’s “Cliffhanger.” Michael Kamen’s score (also just re-issued on La La Land) had pretty much chiseled the orchestral path up for these pictures, but Trevor Jones took the approach to swaggering heights with his biggest blockbusters score. Certainly buffed up to take on villains in the great outdoors after his stint on “Last of the Mohicans” the year before, Jones composed a sweeping, horn driven theme that captured both the heroic majesty of nature, and Sly’s rescue ranger who finds himself in world of hurt, and heroism while taking on nasty John Lithgow’s gang of thieves, wiping them out one by one with a cunning that Jason would admire. Meshing his own distinctive sound with the kind of swirling action orchestrations that were the rage in the summiting days of James Horner and Alan Silvestri, “Cliffhanger” has a solid, multi-thematic base and rhythms to spare, but always with a keen sense of desperate, noble emotion of a man alone. The music lives up to its title with a thrilling, near-continuous sense of peril. Embodying the percussion of a ticking time bomb, dastardly brass for the bad guys and even calling back to the hymn from his breakthrough score to “Excalibur,” Jones truly opens up the lush vastness of the massive, near-Wagnerian orchestra at his disposal, while also applying his distinctive touch for eerie, voice-like electronics for the mountains’ icier recesses. And action cues don’t get more exciting than in the spectacular, helicopter-hanging finale, as Jones’ unleashes a punishingly exhilarating series of orchestral punches that work the listener to sweaty exhaustion. A composer who could pour on fun, balls-out rhythmic excitement like few others in scores like “Dark City” and “Desperate Measures” (and whose touch is dearly missed now in the multiplex), “Cliffhanger” trumpets its back into the CD market, peaking on this new presentation that features both the complete score, along with the original album presentation, whose remastered sound has never been more thrillingly majestic
ALSO FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION:
While his videogame music has aggressively let the blood flow for “Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate” and “The Banner Saga,” Austin Wintory is in even more demand as a composer who stretches the ethereal, imaginative boundaries of the genre. It’s a talent for gorgeously drifting melodies that brought him worldwide acclaim with the Grammy-nominated music for “Journey,” its angular figure making his puzzle-solving way across the desert. Where those sands were full of exotica, Wintory has taken the plunge into the oceans of “ABZÛ” in a way that strongly swims to that ultimate example of wave-swept tone poems. Indeed, one can imagine Claude Debussy being enchanted by this latter-day, interactive “La Mer” as gossamer flutes and strings gently push the quest of a lone diver, the music floating, and playfully dancing among fish, whales and mysterious structures to be unlocked. His chorus wraps itself around the listener, the harmony venturing from playfulness to melancholy and enchantment with a flowing effect that is nothing less than hypnotic throughout, the symphony as lush as water itself. One not only comes away with the majesty of the ocean from listening to “ABZÛ,” but also with the transformative power of game scoring to truly submerge the listener in a magical world that gives them appreciation for the real wonders of the sea outside of their living room. After “ABZÛ,” one looks forward to the gaming elements that Wintory has yet to conquer.
. ASSASSIN’S CREED
At the least, filmmaker Justin Kurzel attempted to break the game-to-movie curse with this adaptation of Ubisoft’s long-killing franchise, even if the results were pretentiously muddled and visually muddy. Yet it certainly didn’t lack for ambition, especially when it came to the music of his partner, and brother in crime Jed Kurzel. Having given minimally unbearable tension to Justin’s serial killing “Snowtown Murders” and percussive grunge to an ultra realistic bloodbath of “Macbeth” (while also delivering memorably unique scores for “The Babadook” and “Slow West” outside of the family circle), the Kurzels entered the animus of intended multiplex blockbuster here. But those expecting the usual orchestral-synth fusion action stuff here definitely don’t know Kurzel’s resume, as the composer delivers a surprisingly thoughtful and interesting score that’s one of the few things that survives “Creed” untarnished. With an antihero who jumps between centuries with the air of a gene-travelling machine, Kurzel creates a haunting, dream-like ambience that flows well with the segues from past to present, creating an eerie sense of myth for the creed’s bloodline, if not a holy sense of purpose. But while “Assassin’s” has atmosphere to spare, fans check into something like this for the action. On that note, Kurzel also delivers with unique ferociousness, amping up his rhythm into a head-bashing mix of age-old ethnic instruments and a rocking adrenalin attitude. Sure “Creed” dies on the sword of its noble ambitions, but Kurzel’s consistently interesting, and sometimes thrilling music soars with much promise ahead from one of the more unique composers to arise from Down Under.
. BEFORE I WAKE
“Before I Wake” stands as one of the best studio-made movies you’ve never seen. That’s because the studio was Relativity, whose botched near-releases numbers Mike Flanagan’s superb fantasy thriller among them, a tale of a boy’s ability to materialize dreams that stands tall in a genre of youthful chillers that includes the likes of “The Lady in White” and “Paperhouse.” But just because you have to get an all-region player to see it (certainly worth the purchase), that doesn’t mean the exceptional co-score by The Newton Brothers and Danny Elfman can’t escape Relativity’s vault of horror, courtesy of a limited edition from Varese Sarabande Records. Taking a lo-fi approach to high concepts, Flanagan is certainly the most impressive genre filmmaker on the rise with “Oculus’” killer mirror, stalking a deaf woman in “Hush” and providing a creepy retro beginning for “Ouija: Origin of Evil” – all films distinctively scored by the non-sibling team of The Newton Brothers (aka Taylor Newton Stewart and Andy Grush). Given his most ambitious picture at the time with a youth’s somnambulant conjurations of boogeymen and butterflies (hence “Wake’s” original title of “Somnia”), one can see how Danny Elfman was brought on board to add his own distinctive approach to the score. But as opposed to three voices creating a stylistically clashing morass of fear, Elfman and the Newtons seamlessly play off of each other to create an atmosphere that’s both uncanny and empathetic. Given an ersatz mutant boy who’s an object of terror through no fault of his own, “Before I Wake” uses a poignant theme for piano and strings, leaving no doubt for still-grieving foster parents to take him in, even if the eerie melody tells us their decision is unwise to say the least. It’s in these sections where Elfman’s music shines, leaving no doubt as to who’s behind the aching violin and boy’s chorus that’s embodied so many misunderstood monsters, his music beautifully soaring as it appears the kid has the magic to heal his new parents’ hearts. But if “Wake” eerily lulls you into thinking it’s going to be a nicely understated feel-fest, The Newtons arrive with a jolt to bring the nightmarish, surreal terror to the table as caffeine becomes a way better idea than sleeping pills. With the Newtons conveying jump-scares and uncanny atmospheres, The Newtons create a powerful sound for night terrors, in turn making “Before I Wake” powerfully work on two levels between wanting to hug an innocent child, and running away from him. With moving, emotional poetry and seat-jumping shocks, “Before I Wake” paints a gripping, meeting of the musical minds that conjures equal measures of abstract fear and lyrical redemption. Now if only we could properly see this movie, which would truly be a dream come true.
. BEVERLY HILLS COP 1 and 2
Few composers embodied the hip synth action attitude of 80’s Hollywood like Harold Faltermeyer. Riding the wave of such dance floor-to-score pioneers as Giorgio Moroder (“Midnight Express”), Faltermeyer evolved the disco-pop groove into peppy musical bullets for smart-ass heroes from “Top Gun’s” Maverick to “Fletch” and “Kuffs.” But when it came to bouncy sass, no character that Faltermeyer played has the decade-defining hipness of “Beverly Hills Cop’s” Axel Foley. His iconically bouncy theme was a perfect match for Eddie Murphy’s career-defining role, that of an authority-flaunting prankster, yet a guy who’s also packing utterly confidant coolness as he delivers one-liners alongside banana and bullets. Like a great song hook, Axel F.’s melody never wore itself out through any number of iterations, which is mostly the case for the first “Beverly Hills Copy” soundtrack. Alex’s theme drives a lion’s share of the score, as joined by cool, Calypso-esque, finger-snapping suspense motifs as Murphy takes the smug out of the upscale hood. It’s pretty much all play and no danger, a nearly always-lightweight approach to action that made “Cop” all the more agreeably fun. Even though Faltermeyer could have easily coasted on the sequel score given an unmistakable theme and sound, “Beverly Hills Cop II,” took an essentially new direction back to the glitzy hood, showing off a darker complexity alongside the Murphy funk. For if director Tony Scott’s take on the franchise was way more violent, and far less successful than Martin Brest’s, the way more stylized testosterone of “II” nonetheless gave Faltermeyer far more playing ground to work with. Vocal effects now join the snappy percussion as new themes mix it up with the cop’s lightweight takedowns with cool, sleekly sinister heist grooves for keyboard and mean electric guitar. Low rhythm even means the possibility of Axel actually getting shot. Having released a complete set of “Lethal Weapon” scores, La La Land Records does a similarly fine job with these electro-icons of 80’s action grooviness, including numerous alternates, and just as importantly for fans, the songs as well from Glenn Frey’s “The Heat is On” to The Pointer Sisters’ “Neutron Dance” and Bob Seger’s “Shakedown.” It’s great having Foley and Faltermeyer truly on the beat at last, music as inseparable as a fish out of water who schooled the snobs with rhythm.
. CEZANNE ET MOI
Cinematic portraits of raging European artists often involve tormented, impressionistic scores, a la Miklos Rozsa’s swirling orchestral colors for Vincent Van Gogh in “Lust for Life.” Yet even as Paul Cezanne swears a river at society (when not punching through canvases or defacing them with black paint), Eric Neveux takes an approach for the artist that’s positively soothing in the face of his anguish. A fine picture (opening Stateside on March 31) that details the tormented bromance between one of France’s great artist and Emile Zola, the country’s man of letters, “Cezanne et Moi” is awash in beautiful, poignant melody that takes a dramatically universal approach as opposed to one that’s Gallic. It’s all the better for two creative geniuses whose work has risen above nationality, even as a friendship begun in boyhood hits increasingly rocky, self-loathing paths through the decades that this movie traces. Neveux, a longtime composer whose work has ranged from the stark “Intimacy” to the gossamer magic of “Hideaways” comes up with a striking theme for lush strings and piano, love music for the often punishing bond between two geniuses that’s full of admiration and sadness In its often sweeping power, Neveux communicate the allure of the countryside that’s drawn artists since time immemorial, in this case one who paints it with a brilliantly eccentric eye. Also eschewing a period approach as Cezanne and Zola’s ties ebb and recede through the latter 1800’s and into the new century, Neveux’s traditional, yet contemporarily vibrant music gets across the kind of passion that drives the frenemies. Yet it also has the restraint that embodies one man who explodes with passion, while the other is emotionally constricted in spite of his explosive political writing. It’s gorgeous, haunting work that stands as one of the truly impressive musical etchings of the power of creativity, and the lyrically romantic bromance of a wayward bond between two geniuses whom you’d wish could just hug it out.
. THE FOUNDER
Carter Burwell has spent much of his career traveling the byways of America for a host of dreamers and losers in such eccentric scores as “Raising Arizona,” “Fargo” and “The Rookie” a highway of oddball rhythms and portentous strings and piano that’s sped down no more effectively than with his score for this Oscar movie that should have been, if not for the Weinstein Company switching its release dates around more confusingly than a garden salad on a McDonald’s menu. That fast food behemoth’s real birth by the avaricious idea man Ray Kroc is the subject of “The Founder,” a terrific American success story where greed is one tasty whopper. There’s a delicious homespun quality as this milk shake maker salesman ventures from one dead-end drive in to the next, a wistful flute and guitar creating a rustically woeful atmosphere with the potential of something big around the horizon. But there are ideas bubbling in the head of this entrepreneur upon encountering two hamburger makers happy to stay put where they are. Krock’s desire to think way out of the wrapper is heard with the ethnic rhythms of the Indonesian gamelan, joined by equally offbeat percussion, or sturdy, militaristic percussion that paint Kroc as the fast food General Patton, with a similar scorched earth attitude. Any number of fun montages take “The Founder” from one McDonald’s franchise to the next, with Burwell’s talent for wistful irony tipping us off to the sad, nearly ignominious string fate of two all-beef patty suckers at the rhythmic, winner-take-all hands of Kroc. There’s a wry, thrillingly bitter taste to “The Founder” from a composer who consistently defies the ordinary with a sound as distinctive as the taste of McDonald’s fries, though way more wonderfully tangy in his continued, oddball journey through the American dream. Further adding to “The Founder’s” fun is any number of diverse song pit stops from 60’s blues pop to kitsch, including stars Michael Keaton and Linda Cardellini doing a charming duet of “Pennies from Heaven,” as well as The Penguin Cafe Orchestra’s “Music for a Found Harmonium,” a signature, wacky instrumental tune that’s sure after Burwell’s own whimsical heart.
. THE LAST VALLEY
Both writer-director James Clavell and composer John Barry were students of epic, haunted history – one man a specialist in penning rugged, manly sagas like “King Rat,” “Shogun” and “Tai Pan,” and the other a musician who brought romantic sweep to such period scores as “Out of Africa” and “The Scarlet Letter.” Clavell and Barry fatefully met over the course of the Thirty Years War, cinematically speaking, with 1971’s “The Last Valley.” In this unsung, 17th-century spin on “Lost Horizon,” Michael Caine’s ruthless, German-accented merc clashes with Omar Shariff’s humanistic teacher, both having fled to a seemingly peaceful village in the midst of the mindless, religious warfare that’s burning the world around them. However, the seemingly quaint hamlet reveals itself as its own lethal hotbed of intolerance as soldiers and peasants uneasily mingle. Barry had fought with militaristic heroism with Caine in “Zulu,” then dealt with the affairs of ancient royalty in his Oscar-winning score for “The Lion in the Winter.” It’s to that soundtrack which “The Last Valley” owes its own heritage in the use imperious military timpani, voices that range from ghostly wordlessness to sing-song chants, and most importantly a bold, brass-driven orchestra conveying torrid emotion and life and death stakes. Blessed with a typically great Barry theme, the steel-swinging anger of the holy warriors is embodied in church gongs, male choral marches and Germanic and Latin song, music vaingloriously convinced of might making right, while bucolic lyricism for flute and strings is given to doomed romantic respite. There’s considerably more suspenseful action to “The Last Valley” than “Lion in the Winter,” with a rhythmic, time-ticking orchestra very much in the tradition of Barry’s Bond classics (he’d score “Diamonds Are Forever” the same year) that will make this equally exciting to 007 fans. Issued as a rare LP, then on CD as both a re-recording and original track presentation, “The Last Valley’s” latest emergence on Spain’s Quartet label is the last word on Barry’s powerhouse score given its spectacularly remastering from the original LP, bringing out all of the passion, and tragedy of this darkly poetic, and angry work on how no land can stay untarnished in the face of the intolerance waging war around it.
. A PALACE UPON THE RUINS
Certainly one of film’s most intellectually-minded composers, Howard Shore’s prolific work also includes any number of concert and opera pieces – much in the same way that previous musicians like Jerry Goldmsith and James Horner sought to write music utterly free of visual constrictions (let alone studio notes). Given that Shore has written no more rigorous scores than for David Cronenberg with the likes of “Naked Lunch” and “Dangerous Method,” those fans will likely appreciate the haunting expressions of “A Palace Upon the Ruins.” This compilation of Shore’s tonal works begins with the titular chamber piece, a meditation on loss, with Elizabeth Cotnoir’s lyrics of bereavement and healing given beautiful, German-sung expression by Jennifer Johnson Cano. The somber choir of St. Alban’s National Cathedral School make a poignant plea for “Peace,” their voices joined by a resounding organ- the group then given the elegiac melody of Shore’s interpretation of Robert Penn Warren’s poem “The Garden.” But the most Cronenbergian, and score-like of the selections within are Shore’s “6 Pieces,” with the darting, slicing pianos and strings conjure an uneasy, impressionistic tapestry, the movement’s sting power feeling like the onset of madness before Cotnoir’s lyrics once again try to sooth the unbalanced beast with pleading lyricism, and some sense of twisted peace. The album ends on the blissful piano notes of Lang Lang’s “Cantania,” a delicate melody written for a wedding of all things, “A Palace” gives much for the adventurous listener to ruminate on in terms of Shore’s “serious” music, a realm that can often be uninviting, but here made entrancing as the composer showing a powerfully stripped-down side to his expressionistic cycle outside of the rings one.
Rob (aka Robin Courdert) has mainly been heard in the states with unique works of mayhem, from the throwback Giallo electronica of “Maniac” to the full-blooded, if somehow tender demonic revenge of “Horns” (and one of these days as well for the perpetually unreleased, no doubt horrifying score of “Amityville: The Awakening”). Those film’s viewers entranced by Rob’s work will likely have the feeling there’s even more variety to him. Now thanks to a double CD from France’s Music Box label, American listeners can get an earful of a stunning, way more lushly melodic side of this ingenious composer than we’re used to, beginning with “Planetarium.” Natalie Portman and Lily-Rose Depp are two sisters with seeming talents to contact the dead, an illusionary act that catches the eye of a Nazi-era Jewish filmmaker in a movie that has yet to orbit theaters here. But given Rob’s beautifully evocative score, one can imagine much of their sensual, ghostly duet in troubled times given his use of rich, eerily romantic string melody that would have Bernard Herrmann swooning, or Philip Glass’ ears tantalized by hypnotic, repeating rhythms. Eerie voices rise as well in a score that brings to mind the score for the soundtrack for “Perfume” in all of the right ways, along with exotic, Arabic music, Spanish guitar and tender violins also sensuously evoke a sisterly bond beyond the material world. It’s rapturous, evocative “Planetarium” that will likely have spellbound listeners asking what realm of existence Rob has come from. Far more familiar to fans of “Maniac” is the second disc’s start with “Belle Epine” (released here as “Dear Prudence”), an earlier film from “Planetarium” director Rebecca Zlotowski with latter Bond girl Lea Seydoux as a teenager throwing herself head first into the wild life. Given a Goblin-rific use of electric organ, voices and synth beats, “Belle” is even more hardcore Giallo than “Maniac” often playing like the soundtrack of a great Dario Argento movie that never was. Cool keyboard melodies evoke the kind of haunted, young female innocence that usually met at the end of a killer’s blunt instrument back in the 70’s / 80’s synth score heyday that Rob captures par excellence. His Ziotowski triptych is rounded out with 2013’s “Grand Central,” wherein Seydoux’s character falls for a fellow nuclear plant worker to tragic results. Given the protagonist’s Arabic ethnicity, Rob uses an ethnic approach to powerful, stripped down effect, conveying the bleak lives that lead to very bad decisions. With solemn flutes, percussion and the eerie whistle of the glass armonica and haunted female voice, Rob finds the poetry, and uneasy, toxic atmosphere of an ill wind blowing for their relationship. But whether the scores are orchestrally sweeping, prog-rock or ethnically intimate, the approaches of Rob’s work for Ziotowski make for a singularly gripping double-CD that reveals Coudert cresting in a new wave of unique French composers, whose soundtracks I’m glad to have land on our shores.
. PLANET EARTH II
Spanning the globe from “Frozen Planet” to “Wild Arabia,” and “Yellowstone, England-based Silva Screen Records is seemingly the migration point of all BBC documentary scoring. Few are as formidable in scope as their newest release “Planet Earth II,” a sequel to the 2006 nature series whose camera gets even more in the face of all creatures great and small. Shows of this sort allow music to run wild, becoming tone poems for viewers who tune in to see shadows of themselves in the “human” behavior of bears, birds and big cats. And who better to launch “Earth” than a majestic main theme from “The Lion King’s” Hans Zimmer (who’d play it on Stephen Colbert’s show no less). But the lion’s share of the scoring belongs to Jacob Shea and Jasha Klebe for Bleeding Fingers Music. Fresh talent in the Zimmer music brain trust who’ve contributed to “The Dark Knight,” “Man of Steel” and “Inception,” the duo have their own, strong voice here in giving beasts the musical personalities of human beings. Komodo dragons rage with the percussive fury of Batman, ethereal voices accompany a singing indri and butcher birds and bee eaters a quirky rhythm that’s straight out of Italy. And in what might be the most nightmare-inducing segment ever on a nature documentary, the sight of swarms of razor snakes engulfing desperately running baby iguanas hammers with tribal drumming, hissing samples and terrifying, spine-chilling builds as lizards evade the coils of death, or not. Such is the size that Shea and Klebe give to the score that it could easily accompany a zebra evading a lion or Jason Bourne running through the streets of Tangier, as opposed to the Langurs of Jodhpur. Where other documentaries take a more traditional symphonic approach, Shea and Klebe’s blend of lush strings, ethnic instrumentation and often eerie atmospheres bring a contemporary vibrancy to this genre that propels the music from one continent to the next, impressively evoking a sense of wonder, excitement and emotional identification for beasts that could care a whit about the music transforming them into human beings
. REALITY CHECK
In an electrified universe where everything 80’s is new again, one of the most interesting composers to ride the retro wave previously surfed by Tangerine Dream and John Carpenter is Poland’s Wojciech Golczewski. Where he created distinctively chilling soundscapes with “Late Phases,” “We Are Still Here” and “Beyond the Gates,” his concept album “Reality Check” really takes off on his synth-ified sci-fi score to “400 Days.” But where his music for astronauts emerging from a mission into a terrifying new world had smooth, sampled edges, “Reality” adds a distinctively cool rudeness to that keyboard polish. Conceptual cues blend with prog-rock electric guitars, bell percussion on top of drum machine beats, while other pieces take on a more meditative progression. It’s a cool universe that cleverly warps about sounds that scream of old-school synth soundtracks into a dark, groovy salute that will no doubt please fans from the Tangerine Dream day, let alone viewers of “Stranger Things” seeking to expand their fannish listening horizons. “Reality Check” is an album that unleashes throwback imagination to a time when banks of computers were weird orchestras unto themselves.
. ROCK DOG
There’s been no prime mover at bringing world music kicking, screaming and laughing into mainstream comedy scoring like Englishman Rolfe Kent. Musically reinventing the genre with the wonderful likes of “Election’s” tango, “About Schmidt’s” mopey African rhythm and the catty tribal rage of “Mean Girls,” Kent’s soundtracks are a constant source of inventive delight, even as he’s continued to explore new dramatic sides of his inimitable sound with “Vampire Academy” and “Labor Day.” There’s no kind of movie to bring out a composer’s wild side like kid-friendly animation, especially one about a funny animal following the power of music. While it had the misfortune of following the similarly themed “Sing” at the box office, “Rock Dog” certainly didn’t lack for enthusiasm, especially in its underscore. Given that its bright-eyed and bushy-tailed hero hails from Tibet, Kent launches his wanna be a pop star’s journey in a Kung Fu Panda way with far East instrumentation and funky percussion, an Asian inflection that carries through the score with Kent’s trademarked use of such ancient wind instruments as the erhu and shakuhachi. As Bodi ventures to the big city and meets the pitfalls of music biz, Kent brings in a plethora of energetic styles from spy jazz to squelched chorus and Koto-esque drumming, all nicely held together by a richly melodic orchestra. Where “Sing’s” delightful score was all about pop, “Rock Dog” basically leaves that to the source cues, succeeding on its own sweetly dramatic journey. It’s full of peppy bits to be played by the Hammond organ and dulcimer, as nicely balanced by emotional moments for piano, strings and samples. Like its star, “Rock Dog” is continually engaging trip of musical discovery by a composer who just can’t wait to get one eccentric, ethnic instrument off of his wall and play the heck out of it. No musical mutt for sure, “Rock Dog” nicely joins the pack with Kent romping at the top of his delightfully oddball game.
. SILENT RUNNING
Sci-fi’s green revolution began with the lyrical strains of folk singer Joan Baez, and the impressive orchestral music of her sometime arranger Peter Schickele (better known under the name of his classical novelty act “P.D.Q. Bach”) with 1972’s “Silent Running.” “2001’s” effects whiz Douglas Trumbull also made his directorial debut as Bruce Dern’s eco warrior piloted away Earth’s last ecosystem from corporate destruction, abetted by the adorable droids Huey, Dewey and Louie. Given the all-consuming love of the environment, having Baez perform the theme song “Rejoice in the Sun,” and “Silent Running” gave major hippy street cred to this quite moving space opera, her lilting voice carrying potent, rhythmic imagery of children running through the grass, earth between their toes to reap a cosmic harvest, especially when these tunes’ potent moral message is given gossamer orchestrations for the guitar and piano. The bigger musical heavy lifting of “Running’s” gigantic crafts are well done by Schickele, who incorporates militarist pomp and circumstance with more unusual, rock-folk instrumentations for flute and percussion as Dern’s character is moved to violent revolution when his bosses order the gardens destroyed. But it’s a beautifully tender, meditative score for crotale cymbal, organ and electric guitar vibe, as graced with lush strings and Medieval rhythm, that’s “Silent’s” most effective thematic voice. Schickele’s music conveys a man truly alone in the universe, an unlikely messiah for the forests communing with holy nature in the company of cute robots. As graceful a sci-fi metaphor score as there ever was one, listening to the beauty of “Silent Running” makes it even more impactful knowing that this would be Schickele’s only true film score to date, one that remains as uniquely resonant as ever at turning the often dark sounds of space music into a vibrant tree-hugging message score worthy of Woodstock. Jeff Bond, himself an insane collector of model spacecraft (even winning an award for his own Valley Forge), does a very nice job of detailing this very 70’s soundtrack in his liner notes, which features down to earth quotes by Schickele about conjuring his folksy, sci-fi magic.
. A SUMMER STORY
Few composers wore emotion on their vest like Georges Delerue, but then again maybe that’s a French thing, especially given his country’s wealth of musical masters. His venture to the English countryside with 1988’s “A Summer Story” stands as one of his most heartbreakingly lovely works in a long line of tearjerkers that’s included the handkerchief-grabbing likes of “Steel Magnolias,” “Beaches” and “Jules and Jim.” The tragic events here are very much class conscious, as a handsome posh is attracted to the local farm girl, with results inevitable for any fan of “Far from the Madding Crowd” and “Howard’s End.” A sort of cousin to the Phillipe Sarde-scored “Tess” in its tale of a servant girl whose trust leads her terribly astray, “A Summer Story” gave Delerue lush fields of poignant romance to till. With its a lovely main theme, the composer rolls up his sleeves with boundless melody at his disposal. As this “Story” begins with the bliss of first love, Delerue starts off with similarly poignant optimism using the flute with utmost delicacy as his orchestrations that convey the ebb and flow of the verdant countryside. Yet there’s the danger of the social mores that will break the couple apart in the air, the score becoming ever more beautifully sad, if sometimes dangerous, with the violin heard at its most anguished. Few of Delerue’s scores sing with the weeping poetry of “A Summer Story,” whose new release from Music Box adds fifteen minutes to a gorgeous presentation that stands as an ode to the kind of classically inspired, gorgeous anguish that was Delerue’s stock in trade as he heard the universal musical laments of lovers torn asunder, a siren cry especially well examined in Gergely Hubai’s liner notes.
. THE THIEF OF BAGHDAD
Where Austrian émigré Max Steiner made an indelible, score-setting imprint with his fantastical adventure for 1933’s “King Kong,” it was Hungary’s Miklos Rozsa who’d set a gorgeously romantic tone for many lost cinematic worlds to follow – among them “The Jungle Book,” “The Golden Voyage of Sinbad” and “Time After Time.” But the genie in the bottle for his rapturous sound was 1940’s “The Thief of Baghdad,” producer Alexander Korda’s remake of the Douglas Fairbanks 1924 Arabian adventure, complete with flying carpet. And if black and white had become glorious Technicolor, then silence turned into the exotically swirling orchestra under Rozsa’s command. Like Steiner, Rozsa was a classical wunderkind back in the old country, now having fled its darkness to establish the operatic language of Hollywood scoring. Given the tongue of a Middle Eastern Neverland, Rozsa wove Arabic rhythms into a sumptuously melodic orchestral score. But whether given the pounding film noir of “Double Indemnity” or the holy crusade of “El Cid,” Rozsa’s suspense and action stylings had a mad, whirling dervish quality to them, an escalating, swashbuckling fury that “Baghdad” really put on the map with cliffhanging joy. Conversely “Baghdad” has a simpler, innocent quality to it to orchestrations that would sometimes border on the frenetic. It’s a little thief’s wide-eyed view of an opulent, danger-filled kingdom that he’s thrust into along with a lovestruck prince that makes this score so effortlessly charming during its formidable length, a joy of discovering the next giant jewel, evading an enormous, skittering spider, the clockwork sounds of the bad guy’s villainous inventions, or rubbing a lamp that sweeps over “Baghdad.” Also bringing sparkle to his epic score is its fun song interludes, with a chorus joining with a heroic symphony. Where Rozsa would later have the honor of creating the first real soundtrack album for Korda’s “The Jungle Book,” the iconic “Thief of Baghdad” has begged for decades for a sonic lamp polishing. And leave it to album producer James Fitzpatrick and The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra & Chorus under conductor Nic Raine that really let “Baghdad” out of its sonic bottle. Having done yeoman work on such Rozsa re-performances as “Quo Vadis” and “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes,” their beautifully performed “Baghdad” is a real jewel in the crown for these collaborators, given fine liner notes by Frank K. De Wald that help bring this classic score to new, radiantly fun life.
. TINA GUO: GAME ON!
One of the most alluringly fierce players to ever pick up a cello, Tina Guo has graced such film scores as “Inception,” “Iron Man 2” and “Sherlock Holmes.” Her distinctive sound as much of a character as the underscore itself, perhaps no more than in her bold signature that embodied Wonder Woman for “Batman Versus Superman” and her own upcoming film. Just as busy touring with the likes of Hans Zimmer as she is performing at scoring stages, Guo’s beyond passionate cello voice is spotlighted for her nifty concept album “Game On!” Those lucky enough to have seen Tommy Tallarico’s dearly missed Videogames Live! concerts in LA from a while back will get an idea of the thunderous collaboration between solo artist and a full orchestra and choir both exploding with colorful rapture as game footage flashes behind them. Guo’s evocatively explosive playing of themes from “The Legend of Zelda,” “World of Warcraft,” “Metal Gear Solid” and “Halo” make these hugely popular melodies her own. But as opposed to hitting everything at a thunderous, warrior woman peak she’s well capable of, Guo nicely balances her approaches for these cleverly arranged suites. “Final Fantasy VII” starts off with positively angelic stings, harp and sweeping cello, only to turn into a head banging electric guitar prog rock jam. “Skyrim” begins with Orc-like chanting as Guo gets quietly medieval, only to rise with battle-ready power. A native of China, Guo’s beautiful erhu playing gives powerful oriental emotion to Nate’s theme from “Uncharted,” while a suite from “Journey” is especially haunting. And if everything seems a bit serious, there’s a playful bit from Super Mario Brothers to show Guo is equally capable of mushroom-jumping levity. Showing just how well the cello has evolved from its classical origins to becoming the battle cry of the PS4 generation, Guo’s “Game On!” is a thoroughly fun listen, a fusion of rock concert and score tribute that lets her cello evocatively sing with passion in the midst of epic, controller-pressing accompaniment.
. TREASURE OF THE YANKEE ZEPHYR
Aussies seem to have a natural swagger that comes with hardy, very reluctant emigrants thrust into the wilds down under – no more so than when it comes to their boisterous, often brassy film music. The first composer from the continent to make a big splash was Brian May, with his dark, rip-roaring music for the first two adventures of Mad Max (as well as a series of genre scores for “The Day After Halloween,” “Patrick” and “Harlequin” that can be heard on Dragon’s Domain’s release of his “Fantasy Film Collection”) Yet just as big a chase the same year as May put orchestral pedal to “The Road Warrior’s metal was 1981’s way more light-hearted music for “Treasure of the Yankee Zephyr.” A hunt for gold directed by “Deep Red” English-actor-turned filmmaker David Hemmings, and not managing to star one Australian in a leading part (which is why the movie ended being shot in New Zealand), the delightful score is likely the closest thing that May got to doing a live-action cartoon (not that Max wasn’t). Given way over-the-top characters battling for bullion and booze, May unapologetically engages in Carl Stalling-esque pratfalls and villainous lurching about. Over-the-top, Teutonic militaristic villainy effortlessly segueing to madcap classic music rhythms. But then as Ernest Gold proved with “It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World,” nothing brings out treasure hunting fever like blazing waltz rhythms, though May’s trumpeting, adrenalin-fueled orchestrations, every bit as intense (if a bit lighter) than Max Rocketansky’s. Just call it his Bugs Bunny score, as done with the exuberant energy that he used to propel an apocalyptic V8 interceptor to glory, here with a wonderfully berserk classic swing in the fuel line.
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ON THE SCORE is sponsored by La-La Land Records
If any animated-centric studio could claim its soundtracks as eternal, then it would be Walt Disney Pictures, whose many fairy tale-based classics owed as much to their wondrous scores and songs as their animation. Yet for all of their memorable tune-filled pictures like “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,” “Cinderella” and “The Jungle Book,” the studio’s animation department was nearly underwater in 1989. But then, two energetically melodic hands belonging to Alan Menken and Howard Ashman rescued an adrift studio with one of the most memorable endearing cartoons in memory with “The Little Mermaid.”
Versed in the off-Broadway man-eating plant hit “Little Shop of Horrors,” the duo pulled Disney into a whole new world of critical and financial success. Indeed, a generation of fans knows the Disney songbook by verse as created by Menken and Ashman, whose winning duet of lushly romantic, adventurous instrumentals and beyond-catchy tunes won repeated Oscars – a joyful spirit that Menken continued after Ashman’s after “Aladdin” with “Hercules,” “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” “Pocahontas,” “Tangled” and “Enchanted,” further showing his own live action chops with “Noel,” “The Shaggy Dog” and the decidedly R-rated title toon of “Sausage Party.”
Yet the undeniable jewel in Menken and Ashman’s crown remains 1991’s “Beauty and the Beast.” Their charmingly revisionist take on the classic French fairy tale dared see Belle as the bookworm heroine, whose courage and romance never wilted in the face of a bellowing prince charming in the furry rough. Blessed with earworm songs and a gloriously romantic underscore, “Beauty” not only won Oscars for score and song (the second of the eight underscore awards that Menken would receive with Disney), but also became the first animated film in history to receive a Best Picture nomination.
The “Beast’s” popularity was enough to transform him into a long-running Broadway show (a Disney hat trick that the NYC-born Menken also saw with the Great White Way adaptation of “Sister Act” and “Newsies”). Now given the hit live action versions of “Cinderella” and “The Jungle Book,” it’s a given that “Beast” has morphed again into a flesh and blood film, albeit with a kitchen’s worth of CGI. But rather than rest on his original score’s laurels, Menken’s new “Beauty and the Beast” does it one better, adding lush, spellbinding attraction, emotional depth and rousing adventure into a familiar mix of instantly recognizable song riffs. It’s a lavish new affair between an unlikely couple that stands as a work both familiarly profound and energetically revitalized, continuing Menken’s classic collaboration with Ashman onto new, singular heights.
Now on a new episode of “On the Score,” Alan Menken talks about putting a new bloom on a tale as old as time, told for the first in live, musical action for Disney
Click above to Listen Now or Click Here to DownloadBuy the Soundtrack: BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (Live Action) Buy the Soundtrack: BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (Animated) Buy the Soundtrack: BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (Broadway) Go see A BRONX TALE: THE MUSICAL on Broadway Visit Alan Menken’s website
Of all of the instruments given to an orchestra, few evoke poignancy like the cello. When given to the hands of a master, it becomes a weapon of devastating power – both on its own and as part of the Middle Eastern-tuned ensemble that conveys the “Cries from Syria.” Wielding both strings and score is Swiss-born musician Martin Tillman, whose talents as soloist and composer bring explosive, sad light to a world-shattering conflict, and refugee crisis created by Syria’s unending Civil War.
Their tears are chronicled by Russian documentarian Evgeny Afineevsky who’d previously revealed the brutal, valiant battle for Ukrainian freedom with “Winter on Fire.” But where that film ended on a note of tenuous hope, “Cries from Syria” has no such optimism as it details the seemingly insurmountable fight for freedom of a people against a brutal dictator. With nothing spared to the audience to show them the truth about a situation that’s killed thousands and displaced millions, it’s all the more important for Tillman’s score to draw viewers to the hope of its victims, as well as their horror.
Mixing the lethally cold music of torture and wanton murder, Tillman nevertheless hears the optimism of their spirit in the human voice and an ancient, aching Middle Eastern ensemble. Filled with melodic irony, Tillman gives “Syria’s” score a powerful, unforgettable truth that will perhaps move listeners to shock, and tears as they wrap their minds around an unfathomable situation that’s often being met with a cold-hearted response the world over.
Martin Tillman has long been able to create his own well of emotions with his distinctly evocative use of the cello, his virtuoso contributions heard to suspenseful, eerie effect in such scores as “The Pledge,” “Hannibal,” “Phone Booth” and “Constantine.” It became the sinisterly humorous voice of undead brigands in numerous “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, became an aging cad for “Something’s Gotta Give” and the dark heart of Hans Zimmer’s superhero-scoring changing “Batman Begin.” It was his frequent contributions to the work of Zimmer and his compatriots that have yielded some of Tillman’s most frighteningly unique work, no more so than with the electrified sound of a girl’s vengeful ghost in “The Ring” and its sequels, the second of which Tillman co-scored.
Continuing to play with any number of stadium acts while adding his instrumental voice to the likes of “Man of Steel,” “Rush” and “The Martian,” Tillman’s own scoring star is on the rise with his work (along with percussionist Satnam Ramgotra) for the doomed, moody heroism of “Last Knights,” as well as documenting the repressive cultural killing of women with “In the Name of Honor.” Yet even as Tillman scores his most powerfully bleak project yet for “Cries from Syria,” the soft spoken composer has found a soaring, rocking sense of optimism with his acclaimed concept album “Superhuman,” embodying the stylistic voice that tells us to rise for the stars above one’s own situation – a dream he desperately hopes for when it comes to an intractable crisis for the millions of innocent people inhabiting Syria, or desperately hoping for a safe haven from it.
What inspired you to pick up the cello above all other instruments? And how did you make its sound your own?
I was surrounded by cellos as a kid. My parents had a boarding school. During the summer they opened our house to 30 kids and teachers and organized music camps. I loved the deep human sound of the instrument, and it became my dream to be a rock guitarist. However, I had no talent on the guitar whatsoever! I then decided to study the cello professionally and perform with it in orchestras. But did not like it as much. That changed a few years later when I basically electrified my cello and started to emulate the guitar with it. In the very first view years of doing that, I played along to Peter Gabriel’s soundtrack for “Passion,” along with albums by Toto, Supertramp and many more…all alone in my basement.
What interested you about film soundtracks, and was a move to Hollywood always in the cards?
I was far more into rock and roll than movie soundtracks. But I enjoyed scores like “White Nights,” and the scores to Fellini films. My favorite score was Morricone’s “Cinema Paradiso.” What really what made me interested in going to Hollywood was when my cello teacher, Lynn Harrell, accepted me here at USC. He’s a fantastic artist and teacher. Also, most of the recordings I listened to in the 80s all came out of LA. So I had a vision that one day I would meet all of the musicians and writers I admired, and I did! I met Sting, Elton John, BB King, Shaka Khan, T-Bone Burnett Alison Krauss. I also met many great session Players like Michael Landau, Vinny Colajuta, Steve Lukather and Leland Sklar.
How did you come to Hans Zimmer’s attention? And what do you think he particularly liked about the sound of the cello in relation to his scores?
I think he heard me on some TV shows. I was working a lot at that time with Jeff Rona, which connected me to him. Hans couldn’t figure out what I was doing in the beginning, nor did I. But eventually we came up with a plan how to use the electric cello in his scores. It blends really well in the hybrid world of the modern soundtrack. I was literally one of the first on the Hollywood score scene with the cello. Hans called it “the secret weapon,” because you never could see its sound coming. Sometimes the cello would be percussive. Sometimes it sounded like an Armenian instrument called the Duduk. Then it could sound like The Edge’s guitar in U2. Fun, literally unlimited voices can come from the cello, even wind and whale sounds.
Tell us about your first experiences playing on scores as an instrumentalist? How much of your own personality could you bring to your role as part of an orchestra?
In the very beginning I was a session player in Hollywood orchestras, but I felt a little bit that I wasn’t really meant for that. I needed artistic freedom. So I eventually ended up playing more and more solos for various composers, adding my own spin to their scores, whether they were classically influenced or more modern. Eventually I borrowed from the technique of the fabulous session players I’d worked with about how to be in the moment and come up with unique ideas within the framework of a score.
How did you go from player to composer on such scores as “An Everlasting Piece,” “The Pledge” and “Pearl Harbor?”
It was just a natural progression for me. I always composed, even as a player, but more for my own CDs. I eventually worked as a co- writer, and now doing my own scores. But deep down I’m still that “rocknroller.” It’s a lot of years of me having worked with Hans Zimmer, Harry Gregson-Williams, Mark Isham, Steve Porcaro, Jeff Rona and many more. They provided me with the tools and inspiration.
Your real breakthrough as a cellist and composer was on “The Ring” and its sequel, where you received a full co-composer credit. What do you think it was about the electric cello that made it so suited for horror scoring, especially this story?
Hans and I came up with some unplayable parts for both the electric and acoustic cello, which we then sampled. There was the “human” sound, and then the electric. It became the dark distortion of horror and suspense.
What was the challenge of becoming a solo composer, especially when it came to orchestrating what instruments you wanted to favor?
Since I am not a “proper” composer, I started in the early days with riffs and little melodies on the cello. But piano is still, and always will be my instrument of choice to write on. I do love small simple scores, where I normally do my own acoustic cello parts. Then Christine Wu adds her one-woman orchestra, which sounds tremendous! I keep experimenting with new sounds all the time.
You teamed with fellow Hans’ percussionist Satnam Ramgotra on “Last Knights.” What was that meeting of the “session player-turned composer” minds like, especially given your different specialties?
It was perfect. We are great friends and love to improvise, which you can hear a lot throughout the score, where I concentrated on doing the love scenes and the action bits.
You recently created the concept album “Superhuman,” which you could say plays as a diverse “soundtrack” of its own. Tell me about what inspired the album, and what you hope to accomplish from it.
My wife’s horrible MS inspired me to come up with a project which is inspiring to me, her and hopefully the listener. The dream is to tour the world with it. Having a blast is my goal!
How did the experience of scoring such documentaries as “Brave Miss World” and “In the Name of Honor” teach you about the different approach the genre has from fiction. Or is the dramatic goal the same?
I am a big fan of great documentaries because of their subjects and storylines. They always open your eyes to new stories that are real and need desperate attention. Sometimes documentaries have a dynamic that is similar to fiction, though I suppose the feel of the music is less melodramatic and action-oriented. I tremendously enjoy composing music for them.
What were your thoughts about the situation in Syria before “Cries” came your way?
I did not know much, just what I saw on the news. This film obviously changed my life by getting to know some of the people who are a part of the story, like Kholoud Waleed, who is so amazing as she talks about the civil war.
How do you think playing cello on such scores as “Black Hawk Down” helped set you up for “Cries From Syria?” And how would you describe how film music plays the war-torn Middle East?
I was in a Persian band here in LA called Axiom of Choice, so I already had my appreciation for Middle Eastern music On my first Album “Eastern Twin,” I used some of its influences with the player Tom Vedvik. Playing on “Black Hawk Down” was my first approach of making new groves with the electric cello. It was a very “open-minded” world music score that had bits of Middle Eastern and African approaches in it. I suppose that played a part in Kathy Nelson introducing me to Evegeny Afineevsky for this film.
Could you talk about your collaboration with Evgeny? What do you think drew him to your music, and what did he want the score to achieve here?
I think he really got the sound of my cello in a cerebral way. The film is about a human tragedy of crazy proportions and it was important to give it a human, hopeful element despite all the horror. I came up with themes and started placing them. Also my conversations with the editor Aaron I. Butler during the writing process were very fruitful. As I only had 9 days to do the score of 1 hour 37 minute film, it just happened so quickly that I only remember the hours left to meet the final deadline!
Tell us about the instruments used in the score, and the players.
I had Mamak Khadem for voice, Satnam Ramgotra on percussion, Christine Wu for the string orchestra and additional music, orchestration and electronics by Joerg Huettner and by William V Malpede. I played on the keyboards and various acoustic and electronic cellos. We also recorded with Alaa in Berlin via Skype. He performs beautiful instrumental versions on an Arabic instrument called the Oud, and sang in the street demonstrations by the Freedom Fighters
How did you want to use the female voice?
We used it as an expression of humanity, and the represent the Syrian motherland. The voice is The Mother, the comforter of all, especially the children.
What things about the documentary particularly moved or shocked you, and how do you think that translated to your score?
The loneliness of the children as they experience on horrific moment after another, with absolutely no future in sight. I tried to give them a comforting sound of hope
When you work on a documentary like this, does it have a psychological effect on you?
Yes. Immense sadness.
Did you distort instruments, or samples to create a sustaining sense of unease?
I distorted many of them. I sampled my own cellos and had Joerg Huettner create amazing sounds with it. He layered 60 of them to create a “wall” of cellos, which we used in scenes where the Russians attack with chemical weapons.
Given how brutally powerful the documentary is. How did you want to balance subtlety with the bigger emotional moments?
I just went with my intuition, always letting the story come first. I’d also counterbalance the terror with hopeful themes.
Another impactful musical sequence is where the documentary shows the “white hats” saving people from rubble, a squad of rescuers who’d win Best Documentary short this year. How did you want to score them?
They provide “Cries from Syria” with one of the most optimistic moments of the film, which I hoped my music helped.
Could you talk about scoring the ending of the film, which is essentially a plea to stop the war? How can you imagine it being stopped though?
I hope and I hope. But it does not look good at the moment.
When it seems that many Americans could care less about what the people in Syria are going through, how do you hope your music will make viewers empathize with them?
I pray the music helps them to hear it even more as an international problem, to make the civil war and the refugee crisis not only about Syria, but about what’s happening all over the globe, which made me score “Cries from Syria” as contemporarily as possible.
Tell us about your forthcoming scoring and film session work.
I am preparing Superhuman Shows in Europe. I’m glad to now be doing a fun project with a rock band, an orchestra and a lightshow. And there is always a next movie popping up from nowhere! After “Cries from Syria,” I know that I can handle any nine-day deadline!
Visit Martin Tillman’s website HERE
A sinister, hypnotic score with a racially satirical difference, “Get Out” creeps up on you with a lulling power until whipping forth the musical equivalent of deer antlers. It’s a soundtrack full of the kind of lethally cunning assurance that can only come from a composer schooled in suspense. But like this film that reveals comedian Jordan Peele as a master of metaphoric horror, listeners will be shocked to discover that this is actually the movie composing debut of Michael Abels, a composer whose background lies in a not-so lily white world of concert and performance work.
Growing up on a farm in South Dakota, Abel took up the piano at the age of four, a musical exploration that grew to include jazz, gospel and African drumming. His cultural influences would be reflected in work that encompassed the life of Martin Luther King, fall of The Berlin Wall and global warming. With his orchestral skills growing through commissions by the Richmond Symphony, The National Symphony and the Los Angeles Opera, Abels composed music for children’s fables narrated by the likes of James Earl Jones and Garrison Keillor, wrote a hip-hop ode to The Watts Tower and explored the operatic tunes of Giuseppe Verdi.
Abels’ impressively prolific body of work outside of the movie screen only makes for the kind of seemingly come-from-nowhere debut that dazzles with a wealth of ideas. Yet perhaps you might expect Jerry Goldsmith to actually be under his skin, as Abel’s superb, subtle use of deceptively bucolic strings, delicate harp, old scratch fiddle and demonic chanting bring to ear such classic scores from the seemingly dead maestro as “The Other” and “Poltergeist,” let alone “The Omen.” Abels is indeed to the old school manor born, beginning “Get Out” with a catchy, skin-crawling version of the 1930’s song “Run Rabbit,” brilliantly re-configured to sound like some doom-laden spiritual. The banjo-like Kora, an ancient, African instrument, along with gasping voices, tell us that the movie’s happy liberal home is in fact a southern plantation of the damned. Sucking our seemingly placid hero into mind slavery is the sound of percussive bowls, becoming the ersatz metronome of a stirring teaspoon. Even an emulated orchestra, usually the bane of horror scoring, is used to terrific, effect as it slowly reveals a silent garden party to be a human auction in the score’s most striking moment.
But when the chorus practically sings “Amen!” it’s time for Abel to really claw out of his lulling melody and deliver the kind of stabbing terror right in line with a climactic body count, though with the big difference here being a black hero that doesn’t make the stupid, dooming mistakes of his genre forbearers. There’s a thrilling sense of discovery from Abel’s subtle, slow burn score that helps Peele wield his darkly satirical edge, showing a composer who can play The Man’s horror scoring expectations while at the same time subverting them into something even scarier. “Get Out” is a breakout score for Abels in more ways than one.
Tell us about your musical beginnings, and what styles interested you. Was the influence of film music ever part of that equation?
Yes, from the beginning. The first film I remember seeing was “The Sound Of Music.” I think I must have been 3 years old. Rogers & Hammerstein’s Do Re Mi influenced me profoundly. “One word for every note, by mixing it up, like this!” The perfect and essential music composition lesson.
Tell us about how you explored various cultures, and historical figures and events through your musical education?
Like every passionate music student, I explored them as I discovered them. Tchaikovsky, Ravel, Duke Ellington, Stevie Wonder. After college I made an effort to study West African music for a semester. There was more separation between classical, popular and world music in the way it was taught back then, but I tend to be fascinated by any music that is well written and performed.
What were your first experiences with a symphony orchestra like?
Great. I actually got to hear the first piece I ever wrote performed. Little did I know how lucky I was! There is nothing like the sound of so many great musicians playing together, it’s just magical and always will be.
If you’d watched horror films before “Get Out,” did anything strike you about the fate that usually met black characters in them?
Come on. Everyone knows the black guy gets it in the first reel. If not, everyone’s got a stopwatch on him to see just how long he lasts. Obviously that’s one of many stereotypes this film sets out to turn on its head with humorous and terrifying results.
Were you familiar with Jordan’s sketch comedy show with Keegan-Michael Key?
Yes, ever since “Obama’s Anger” went viral. But I hadn’t seen a full episode until I was scheduled to meet Jordan. Then of course I watched some so I wouldn’t seem like a complete idiot. But I didn’t watch too much, I didn’t feeling intimidated would help.
Given that you had no movie credits, what drew Jordan Peele to you for “Get Out?” And do you think your mutual bond was being in uncharted territory, as he’d never directed a film before?
Jordan was looking for someone who had the harmonic language for horror who could also bring an African-American perspective. Yeah, there was some first-timer bonding because of that. But a director’s job is much different than the composer’s, and deals with so many other competing considerations. So I was focused on delivering a score he could be proud of, one that honored all the hard work he’d put in on this film.
Do you think your own background in orchestral, black-themed performance and orchestral pieces make the transition easier? Or do you think the freshest film scores are done by people who are unexpectedly thrust into that world?
I had some experience scoring to picture doing commercials and short TV projects right out of college. So I wasn’t in entirely uncharted waters. The difference is that Jordan chose me because he liked the music I had written purely for the joy of it, and had decided that was the voice he wanted for the project. If the score is fresh, it’s because that’s what he wanted and allowed me to do.
What were your biggest challenges adapting from free-form music to composing that has to play with picture?
The deadline. Every project has one, but the film post-production schedule is particularly demanding. The compositional challenges are not as daunting because the assignment is so specific that the creative choices you need to make seem clear. At least that’s how it was for me.
Did you immerse yourself in horror films, and scores to bone up on the genre’s music?
No but I did listen to particular pieces that Jordan said he found scary.
Could you talk about your creative collaboration with Jordan?
Essentially, he told me what types of music and which scores he found particularly scary, and why. There was a temp track for the rough cut, and so I asked him “what emotions does this music evoke that made you choose it?” and took careful notes. He is excellent at communicating about that, so I had very clear direction. But he also enjoys collaborating, so I felt free to try things and experiment.
Both you and Jordan come from multi-cultural parents. Do you think that gave you an added bond, especially given the theme of mixed couples in “Get Out?”
Believe it or not, we’ve never talked about that. Maybe because it was obvious? We have similar backgrounds, as we’re both in interracial relationships. None of our in-laws are trying to kill us. Or are they?
“Get Out” has a very calculated, slow burn to its pay off. How did you want to keep the kind of self-doubting suspense up, while gradually unraveling this family’s secrets?
The script is so brilliantly paced, all I needed to do was provide the correct emotional temperature in any given moment. I did some subtle things to reinforce that, i.e. I held off using any brass or low percussion instruments until midway through the film. But mostly it was “score the moment, score the film.”
Just in the way that “Get Out” handles its racial satire, your score handles its African elements in a subtle way. How ethnic did you want to make the score with its banjo-like strings, or was it important to “bury” those elements, much like the black characters themselves who are consumed within their own bodies?
A great question, but extremely hard to answer. The main title, “Sikiliza Kwa Wahenga” — that’s clearly meant to sound exotic and African in the way that we Americans imagine it. In the body of the film, it was important to make the score straddle genres as successfully as the script does. So I was trying to make it feel Hitchcock-ian, but with added rhythmic elements to bring a contemporary, African-American influence. “Sikiliza Kwa Wahenga” emerges in the score in a couple scenes, but without the vocals.
“Get Out” starts with the incredible creepy use of the 1930’s song “Run Rabbit.” Who had the idea of using it, and how did you so effectively distort it?
My guess is that it was the choice of Chris Moliere, the music supervisor. Jordan loved the implication that the song could be referring to black people in its lyrics “Run, Rabbit, Run!” even though I’m told it was actually written to demean German soldiers in World War II. Regardless, it’s a perfect choice for the abduction scene. I can take no credit.
How did you want to create the sound of hypnosis, especially given its particular form here?
That was the first scene I scored because I knew if I could get Jordan’s approval it would give me some themes I could use throughout. The scene is mesmerizing, it actually hypnotizes the audience along with the main character. The music had to match, had to draw the audience into a hypnotic pattern without them noticing. So that’s exactly how I approached it. There is a harp phrase that evolves into a pattern gradually.
You have a striking use of voices here that not only suggest the cult’s victims trying to claw their way out of the black pit they’ve been thrown into, but also the suggestion of the oppressed ghosts of the past. Could you tell us about that choral approach?
The black voices represent the souls of black slaves or lynching victims. They are trying to warn Chris, the protagonist, just like his friend Rod the TSA Agent does. Ghosts speak in dreams and metaphors, so the voices sing and whisper in Swahili, which forces us English-speakers to hear the foreboding in their voices, rather than the actual words. They are saying, “Brother, run! Listen to the elders. Listen to the truth. Run away! Save yourself.”
One of the most effective scenes is the ersatz “slave auction.” How did you want to handle the moment where we finally realize there’s a conspiracy afoot?
That moment is scoring with the same four descending chords we first hear when Chris sinks into “the sunken place.” It’s laced with the tense, rhythmic pattern first heard when Chris comes upon the deer in the woods. There’s another repeating melody of depressing finality that happens over the shots of each of the family members’ faces.
How did you want to play the unusually cheerful villains, as well as to create a bucolic sense of upstate suburbia?
I found the cheerful garden party guests to be quite funny, and wrote a baroque concerto in the style of Vivaldi for that scene. It was the type of music those characters would party at a garden party. Jordan hated it, saying, “It’s Chris’s story. The audience has to see the situation through his eyes.” Chris was feeling uncomfortable and on display. He was right of course, so I went back and wrote some unsettling, creepy, on-display music. The only comedy is in the dialogue, and in the embarrassment we feel watching the awkwardness of the situation.
There’s some particularly delightful sinister music as we get to see their training films. How did you want to handle these sunny, evil explanations of their technique?
There is one piece of comedic music. It’s the underscore for the orientation video that is played for Chris. Jordan said he wanted that music to sound “like an erectile dysfunction commercial.” (Point of fact, whoever scores those commercials is actually pretty skilled.) His meaning was, “Give me your most horrible saccharine happy music ever.” It’s so terrible I actually hesitated to put it on the soundtrack! But if you’re listening closely, the melody is the hypnosis theme that is heard in very creepy moments in the film, played on a cheesy jazz guitar sample over the most obvious banal chord changes. But that’s the only comedic music in the soundtrack. All the true comedy scenes are dry because they represent reality, and a break from the tension. The score is used to help create the sense of isolation and hopelessness that surrounds Chris as he gets deeper into his predicament.
How much of a horror score did you want to make “Get Out,” especially given that a genre film has to pay itself off by releasing the bloody tension it’s built up? And what was it like going for those musical shocks?
Jordan’s first direction to me was that, above all, the music had to be “seriously scary.” The film had to work as a legit psychological thriller, aside from any comedic or satirical aspects. So where the story was scary, the music had to deliver the shock. Creating the music that makes an audience jump is fun! It’s like lying in wait for your little sister to come around the corner.
Why do you think “Get Out” has become such a hit with both audiences and critics? And what do you think it says about the future of black-themed thrillers?
I think it’s a hit because it’s just so interesting to watch. The characters are interesting, they say believable things, the actors are each masterful in their portrayals, you care about what happens to the protagonist. It works as a thriller, as a comedy, as a satire. And if you don’t like the film, you want to talk to your friends for an hour about what you didn’t like about it! It’s a great entertainment, even if it rubs you the wrong way.
Many black composers peers can get pigeonholed into doing “black” scores, what’s your key to continuing onward as a composer suited to all stylistic colors. Or do you want to continue exploring scores with those ethnic elements?
I’m interested in doing any good creative project, regardless of what sonic colors the story calls for. I’m choosing projects based on whether they are well written and musically interesting. Projects that meet those definitions will likely include diversity. But it’s not a prerequisite.
If you could imagine a sequel to “Get Out,” what would the story be, and how would you like to develop your sound for it?
In my opinion, a composer shouldn’t develop a sonic palette before listening carefully to what the director is hearing in his/her mind. It’s their film, their vision. Composers are there to bring the music the director is hearing in his/her mind into reality. So regardless of the story, I’d begin by asking the director, “What are you hearing when you listen to this film? What emotions does the score bring up for you? What messages do you want the music to convey to the audience?” There’s your sonic palette right there.
Designed for early-career media composers, orchestrators, composer assistants, interns, recent graduates, and all interested.
CULTIVATING a CAREER & ARTIST GROWTH for media composers
Saturday, MARCH 4, 2-6 PM
ORCHESTRATION and MIDI TRANSCRIPTION
Saturday, March 11, 2-5 PM
The classes will take place in Los Angeles but will also be videotaped and released online in late March. Info below.
CULTIVATING a CAREER & ARTIST GROWTH for media composers
Saturday, MARCH 4, 2-6 PM,
at the Courtyard-Marriott (Brentwood Conference Room),
15433 Ventura Blvd (at Hwy 405), Sherman Oaks, CA 91403
Hours 1 and 2:
• Why is it vital to write unique, distinctive music for film, TV and games
• How to get scoring jobs in film and games
• How to stay relevant to your contacts and grow your client base
• How to get top industry professionals to actually listen to your demo
• The self-teaching composer: methodology of reading orchestral scores
• The self-teaching composer: methodology of film score analysis (harmony, form, thematic development, emotional arc, arrangement, style, aesthetics)
• “In betweeb jobs” – composing self-designed assignments, and expanding one’s skill set
• How to compose masterful and imaginative music when bound by a temp score and “temp love”
• Q and A
Hours 3 and 4:
DEMO CRITIQUE of 24 curated tracks submitted by the attendees
All are invited to submit one track only, however my team and I will select and curate 24 tracks that lend themselves to most substantial learning and discussion for the entire class.
The tracks (mp3s) will be played anonymously (by my assistant) to ensure unbiased critique / discussion. I will offer constructive suggestions and honest feedback. You will understand how directors, producers, reviewers, music supervisors, other composers “hear” and perceive your demo. During my 18 years in Hollywood I have heard over 5000 demo CDs by aspiring and working composers and have observed firsthand how directors and producers listen and respond to composers’ pitches. I’ve also been married to a music editor for 14 years who listens to one soundtrack every morning (that’s about 5100 film and game soundtacks).
PRE-REQUISITE: Reading Penka’s Six Blogs on Cultivating a Career published online by Designing Music Now (free content). Upon registration, you will receive the links for reading.
If you like to submit a demo for consideration: By submitting a demo, you agree that your composition will be presented and discussed publicly, although your name will not be mentioned. Email one track (mp3) file, with duration between 1:00 and 1:40 to penkakouneva[at]earthlink.net with the subject: MASTER CLASS DEMO CRITIQUE.
Please remove paddy intros, vamps, etc. The focus of the critique will be on how memorable is your theme and “sound” are, thematic development, form, production, arrangement, and cinematic / emotional arc.
The Demo Critique is limited to 24 tracks only. Please submit only mp3. No videos.
Early-career and aspiring media composers, orchestrators, composer assistants, interns, recent graduates, and all others interested.
COST AND REGISTRATION.
The cost is $70 per Master Class (All class materials are included.) The space is limited and the class will fill up fast.
Send payment via PayPal to email@example.com
Be sure to write in the PayPal memo: “CAREER MASTER CLASS” or “ORCHESTRATION MASTER CLASS” and your email
(Or email if you’d like to mail a check.)
For all colleagues unable to attend in person:
The Master Classes will be professionally filmed and made available online to all interested, via Wu Si. Estimated date of release: Late March.
If interested, please sign up at firstname.lastname@example.org or check Wu Si’s website for updates (wusinonprofit.org/penka)
ORCHESTRATION and MIDI transcription
Saturday, March 11, 2-5 PM,
Location TBA depending on enrollment
This 3-hour Master Class will examine the workflow, challenges, and best practices of a media orchestrator in Hollywood. It will demonstrate the skill set required for transcribing MIDI mock-ups into a Finale or Sibelius score, be it for 5 instruments or 125.
We will examine:
• workflow & procedures for error-free MIDI transcription and flawless scores from MIDI
• rethinking the MIDI for live ensemble
• orchestration techniques (balance, voicing, mass, texture)
• the difference in orchestration for film, TV, games, trailers
early- and mid-career composer assistants, orchestrators, media composers. A zipped Folder of MIDI files, scores, list of textbooks, methodologies for score analysis, blogs, and study materials will be given to all attendees.
PREREQUISITE: Some experience with transcribing MIDI sequences into a professional score for live musicians.
COST AND REGISTRATION.
The cost is $70 per Master Class (All class materials are included.)
Send payment via PayPal to email@example.com
Be sure to put in the PayPal memo: CAREER MASTER CLASS or ORCHESTRATION MASTER CLASS and your email
(Or email if you’d like to mail a check)
For all colleagues unable to attend in person:
The Master Classes will be professionally filmed and made available online to all interested, via Wu Si. Estimated date of release: Late March.
If interested, please sign up at firstname.lastname@example.org or check Wu Si’s website for updates (wusinonprofit.org/penka)
© 2017 by Penka Kouneva Studios
About Penka Kouneva:
Penka Kouneva (composer: Prince of Persia, Transformers games with Steve Jablonsky) is a Sundance Composer Fellow and winner of the 2015 Game Audio Network Guild’s Recognition Award. She scored 20 indie features, including the breakout features of Chloe Moretz and Josh Duhamel. She has released two orchestral albums receiving 5-star national press (The Woman Astronaut, on Varese Sarabande, and A Warrior’s Odyssey, on Sumthing Else Music). Her latest scoring job is Heroes and Legends (Astronaut Hall of Fame) at the Kennedy Space Center. She is known in Hollywood as an “exquisite talent,” an industry leader, and one of the hardest working professionals.
During the last decade while raising her family, Penka became a top studio orchestrator for films (Transformers, Matrix, Pirates 3; Lead Orchestrator on Ninja Turtles 2, Elysium, Ender’s Game, Need for Speed) and biggest games (Gears of War 2, 3, Sony’s Bloodborne, all Blizzard games – Overwatch, World of Warcraft, StarCraft II, Diablo III; Sims, Dragon Age 2. As an extraordinary mentor and lead orchestrator Penka has been instrumental in nurturing the careers of many rising talents who have continued to work on studio films, top TV shows, games and trailers.
Born and raised in Bulgaria, Penka was classically trained and received the first-ever Ph.D. in composition from Duke University. In 1999, Penka arrived in Hollywood with one computer, one contact and small savings. In the following decade, she made history as the first woman lead orchestrator on studio blockbusters since Shirley Walker . Penka is passionate about artist growth as she believes that development of one’s voice and mastery (along with cultivating relationships), is the prerequisite for success in today’s overcrowded media scoring business.
Madness and the curse of centuries-old grotesqueries have rarely been as elegantly conveyed as “A Cure for Wellness,” an auspicious entry into the time-honored genre of the sane man trapped in an insane asylum – or in this case a Swiss Alps spa seemingly dedicated to the spiritual, and physical health of its decrepit well-healed clientele. Much like a funeral director with obsessive detail to make an unholy mess spic and span, “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Ring” director Gore Verbinski has ensured that his institute resounds with old world, aristocratic class, all the better to hide the demonic suffering its delightfully twisted fairy tale is constructed upon. Leave it to British composer Benjamin Wallfisch to construct “Wellness’” castle-like foundations upon sturdily beautiful thematic melody. Given a chilling, waif-like voice to spin hypnotic suspense from, Wallfisch’s dazzlingly creepy score is the waltzing, singsong and ragingly mad stuff that classic nightmares are built upon, grandly abetting Verbinski’s cheeky homage to all things Mario Bava, Hammer Horror and passive-aggressive snobbery.
Much as its antihero stumbles upon one astounding wonder after the next while ferreting out a most reluctant executive, as well as a mysteriously sheltered waif, “A Cure For Wellness” continues Wallfisch’s pilgrim’s progress through no end of creative opportunities. Having started as an orchestrator and conductor for Dario Marianelli on the likes of “The Brothers Grimm,” and “V for Vendetta,” Wallfisch made his scoring debut with the gun-obsessed American teens of the Lars Von Trier-produced “Dear Wendy.” Using eccentric rhythms to help “The Escapist,” tunnel out of prison, Wallfisch next heard historical adventure both epic and psychedelic with “Conquest 1492” and “Hammer of the Gods.” He’d excelled with the tunefully evocative human drama of “Hours” and “Pressure,” where the settings of “Bhopal” and “Desert Dancer” let him explore a striking rhythmic mixture of East and West, Recently, his blending of soul and science proved the brilliant equation for a teaming with Pharrell Williams and Hans Zimmer on the Golden Globe nominated score to “Hidden Figures.”
But as of late, Wallfisch is swiftly becoming a go-to ghost whisperer, a voyage begun with “The Thirteenth Tale” and “The Enfield Haunting” (an allegedly true story that served as grist for “The Conjuring 2”). With his seat-jumping talents unleashed in Hollywood with the brightness-averse she-demon of “Lights Out,” Blumhouse berserkness will continue when Wallfisch takes on the killer doll of “Annabelle 2.” Yet for fans of classic, blazingly gothic scores, Wallfisch’s “A Cure for Wellness” will fix what ails them when It seems that unabashed, horror score melody is increasingly being straight jacketed. For refined subtlety and electroshock thrills have rarely danced with such devilish delight as they do in this grand ballroom of fiendishly refinished delights.
You’ve dealt with characters being trapped in claustrophobic situations in scores like “Hours” and “Pressure,” as well as going through catastrophic odysseys in “Hammer of the Gods” and “Bhopal.” How do you think scores like that set you up for “A Cure For Wellness?”
“A Cure For Wellness” is without doubt the most extraordinary, visceral, uncompromising and beautiful movies I’ve worked on to date, and is completely unique both in terms of its storytelling and central message. So whilst every score does in some ways set you up for the next one in terms of constantly refining your writing, I don’t think anything could have truly prepared for the incredible and inspiring journey I went on with Gore for this movie.
Could you talk about collaboration with Gore on “Wellness?” What was your own plunge into operatic darkness like, and how far did it push you as a composer?
It was an extraordinary and fulfilling yearlong process, starting with a waltz to be played on set for the actors to dance to. Soon after that I moved into Gore’s cutting rooms. We spent the next 6-7 months or so crafting the score together. It was a true collaboration, and wonderful to be so close to all the other filmmakers. The editors, sound designers, VFX supervisors, producers, Gore and myself were all under the same roof, working closely together and sharing ideas. I felt like I was being guided by Gore’s genius to discover musical concepts and sounds that I never knew even existed. He would give me vivid and compelling concepts, such as the ones he includes in the album’s liner notes: “There is a sickness inside all of us. A sense of the inevitable. A dark spot on the X-ray of our conscience…The disease is an unseen force, pulling the camera down a long corridor and the protagonist towards his epiphany. It promises absolution but leaves a bitter taste in the back of our throats. It casts its spell. A lullaby. We are the Lotus Eaters. Blindfolded guests of The Great Con: It diagnoses us and then, offers a cure”. It was without doubt the one of the most exciting and inspiring collaborations I’ve ever had.
Given the Swiss Alps setting of “Cure,” do you think that lent a classically “old world” melodic feeling to the score, especially with its use of the violin and grand waltzes?
Absolutely, yes. There was an incredible magnificence to the location, especially the way it was shot, that informed our choices in terms of the scale of orchestration.
For a score that’s mostly orchestral in nature, how did you want to use electronics?
It gave us another color, which was important especially as the truth of the story develops. In fact much of what appears to be electronic sonorities in the score started as warped acoustic recordings: violins, vocals, orchestral textures that were manipulated, stretched and transformed. Sometimes they were used for extremely uncomfortable sonic textures. Other times they were intended to evoke this disconcerting sense of perfection and sterility.
Could you talk about developing Hannah’s “ballerina” theme? And was it a natural that an eerie female voice would fit into this?
Hannah’s theme came very early on in the process, and it’s intended to feel like a lullaby with a dark secret. Something deceptive in its innocence. It was important for it to feel vulnerable, slightly restrained, with a symmetry and simplicity that is both child-like, and with a hidden potential. There’s a good reason why it’s sung by a female voice, but I don’t want to give out any spoilers!
What’s the story behind Mirel Wagner’s unplugged rendition of “I Wanna Be Sedated?”
Gore came across Mirel Wagner’s music and was keen on having her voice featured in the first trailer, performing a down tempo version of the classic Ramones song. Whilst we were recording her vocals, Mirel performed a version of the full song with guitar that just blew us away. We decided to turn it into a track for the soundtrack album.
Take a “Cure for Wellness” when its eely treatments begin in theaters on February 17th, with Benjamin Wallfisch’s score available on Milan Records HERE
Join Benjamin Wallfisch, Pharrel Williams and Hans Zimmer as they count the “Hidden Figures” HERE
Visit Benjamin Wallfisch’s website HERE
“I’m the daughter of a jazz singer and grew up surrounded by music…doing homework in the back of jazz sessions and surrounded by some of the greatest musicians there were. When we were doing a late-night scoring session for the film with bassist Russel Hall from footage (of Ferguson, MO. uprising) that was bringing up so many personal burning questions that we had, it just lined up when it came time to do the score,” reflects WHOSE STREETS? first-time filmmaker Sabaah Folayan.
Whose Streets? is an unflinching look at how the killing of 18-year-old Mike Brown inspired a community to fight back and sparked a global movement.
“I just have to give credit props to Samora (Pinderhughes, Composer) because he came into a situation of first-time filmmakers, and he was able to be so generous and open during the creative process while never letting us go off-track.”
“I’m honored and just feel blessed to be a part of this film. I don’t come from a musical family but just fell into it because it was a calling. Jazz was my first real love…I went to the Julliard School and studied with one of the great pianists, Kenny Baron, then lucky enough to do the Sundance Composer’s Lab, which is when I learned what film music is about. Through the Lab, I was connected with Sabaah and Damon (Davis, co-Director). I had just released an album called Transformations, which is exactly what this film is about…the history of African diaspora protest movements, so I was inspired to write for a piece about Ferguson.”
“At that point (music scoring) in the filmmaking, it was really stressful for me personally,” advances co-Director Damon Davis. “So those recording sessions took me back to something, music, that always took stress away, an organic, cleansing thing. I get super giddy about music and so does he (Samora), so we knew he was our guy for this.”
Filmmaker Ms. Folayan turns to Mr. Pinderhughes to share an anecdote, “I don’t know if you even realized this but when you came on, we were in our edit way past when we should’ve been and stressed, and this was something that was just working, a relief. You had been working on your Transformations Suite for years, and there was that one beautiful, celebratory cue at the end of the film during a wedding that made the scene so gorgeous.”
Mr. Pinderhughes reflects, “The way jazz developed historically and in how it relates to this film, with how jazz is presented now, is that it’s academic, old, or complex, but just like most black art forms, they came from ‘the hood’ first. This film comes from poverty and struggle of the streets, it doesn’t come from schools or academies, so that’s what jazz means to me. So, what we do with jazz music, especially representing iconic folks like Billy Higgins and Max Roach, is the inspirations that were part of this film, those are members that were openly pro-black, about the music speaking in the most freeing way possible, people who are from the streets, not from concert halls.”
Ms. Folayan adds, “Ya, during the scoring process, it was spiritual, and there’s something about jazz improvisation tradition, it’s not like you can do just anything, can’t just be turned out, it has to be felt. It was crazy working with Samora when we both felt it at the same time.”
“Ya, and in order to have those moments, you have to all be in a space to be willing to fail. Because if I was pressured to get it right the first time, I wouldn’t have been able to get to where we got, and that’s why I was so happy to go through that process with them. For this particular project, it was really important that it not be me just doing stuff in isolation, then sending it to them. We would go to each other’s house and work…it was super organic between us.”
I ask Mr. Pinderhughes to talk about what it was like to communicate emotion to both a musician (Mr. Davis) and not a musician (Ms. Folayan)? He suggests, “Ya you know, because they’re clearly both artists, it wasn’t really that different. Even though Sabaah doesn’t play (instruments), she is ‘a musician.’ All her family are musicians and she thinks like a musician. They both knew what they wanted and it was my job to just translate it, like for example, the idea of chapter markings, that came late in the process but was an idea Sabaah had from the beginning. So, we tried a couple things that didn’t work but then we had that time and space and we figured it out. It required the right musicians and me figuring out what they were trying to get to and being able to translate that. Damon is a producer, so we used some of his songs and mine, but a bunch we produced together.”
Mr. Davis elaborates, “St. Louis is a landmark, monumental place but so are every musical forms that’s come out of the United States, whether it’s blues, jazz, rock, and we wanted to deliver it so it felt like St. Louis. Chuck Berry, one of the inventors of rock ‘n roll, would come out and play in St. Louis once a month. Ike and Tina Turner. I’m from East St. Louis, my last name is Davis, so ya, Miles Davis was a major influence in my life, and more importantly, who these people were in the world, when it comes to their political stances. My parents were a little older, so this music was what I heard just by proxy coming up that other kids my age didn’t. Musicians were at the forefront of that political era movement, and similarly to what’s happening today, the hip-hop community came out in support for Ferguson.”
Ms. Folayan emphasizes, “It worked that we made the decision not to use temp score because we didn’t want to cut the film with music that wasn’t for the film and I’d attribute that to Damon who came in with such a strong sense of musical identity, so when things weren’t right, we had someone who could definitively say, this is not the tone. We were in the editing stage a long time, and didn’t think maybe we would even use some of the music. Samora said for quite a while, I don’t know if these cues we’re even going to use, then did, so everything added up to what felt like destiny.”
“And we wrote a lot more music than we used in the film, like sometimes we say, ‘oh, this is a dope track but doesn’t work for the movie. So the editing process is as important as the writing…and we had great help,” exclaims Mr. Pinderhughes.
For example, Ms. Folayan gives props to Story Consultant Carol Dysinger, “Carol also spent a lot of time as a Music Editor, so she was able to come in and orient us all to what we needed to be looking for as a way music can function best.”
For many in the Black Lives Matter and Ferguson incident, a solidarity with the Palestinian struggle prevailed. Mr. Davis resonates on this development, “maybe there should’ve been some conversation about incorporating some regional musical elements.”
“I think part of the reason we didn’t use Palestinian instruments is because we made a conscious choice not to write for specific characters or for a little pieces of story because we tried that and it didn’t work, recalls Mr. Pinderhughes.
Ms. Folayan clarifies, “this was always about St. Louis, and while we do stand in solidarity with Palestine, to tell this story, we had to stay focused on St. Louis.”
I suggest that the Ferguson struggle and this film say some poignant stuff not just about the St. Louis area but more globally, about other cultures’ necessity to have their speaking-truth-to-power voice heard, and ask what would this team ideally like for their score to say to other world music regions?
Mr. Pinderhughes offers, “I think the reason the best art speaks to so many people is because it’s so specific, and this film speaks to the Ferguson situation so specifically. But I’m from the (San Francisco) Bay area, and we have had and are having so many similar issues and folks in conversation about it, so I think that it will be a lot of the same thing for people in London, India, South Africa, etc. Number one, they’ll get a snap shot of what this Ferguson thing and this music is, and relate to a group of people that stood up as a collective community…not only that, built their own culture.”
He continues, “A quarter of the music in the film is the community chanting in the streets…that is the music. I learned a lot on this film that language and the way people speak is a form of music.”
Mr. Davis wraps up with, “Samora was talking about Oakland, well the very last song is called, ‘Freedom Song,’ and I produced that song with a Boston songwriter, Natandra Driscoll, who sang and wrote those lyrics. When I was in Boston, she stopped and asked to sing a song for me while we were working on the movie and I said, ‘we have to record this, so she sent the lyrics and I wrote the music around them. That was someone from a completely different community, feeling a lot of the same stuff that we were feeling in Ferguson, and that ended up in the movie.”
Kendrick Lamar’s incomparable civil rights anthem, ‘Alright’ closes the picture over the end credit crawl and Ms. Folayan beams with, “thankfully our Music Supervisor was able to access those licenses for us, and we believe artists deserve to get paid for their work from that side of the community…oh, and I too was very excited Kendrick supported our struggles.
From adolescents escaping a steampunk apocalypse shelter to kids taking on the Olympian gods to a college-age genius going back in time to solve daddy issues, Andrew Lockington is a composer with a fantastical, fresh sense of musical exploration and excitement. Beginning his own musical voyage in Canada alongside Oscar-winning composer Mychael Danna, Lockington had his mentor’s experimental, and often beautifully progressive stardust rub off on him as he progressed from assistant to orchestrator and conductor on such scores as “Felicia’s Journey,” “Green Dragon” and “Monsoon Wedding” finally making his own solo break on indies like “Touch of Pink,” “Saint Ralph” and “How She Move.” But it was through his epically exciting work on Brad Peyton’s 3-D take of “Journey to the Center of the Earth” that Lockington truly thrust himself onto the Hollywood radar. His increasingly notable progress through such genre films as “City of Ember,” “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island,” “Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters” and “San Andreas” showed Lockington’s talent for flexing an exuberantly thematic symphonic muscle – if not exactly the opportunity to combine his multiplex genre chops with romantic character drama, or the ethereal sound that inspired him.
That now changes in a big, beautiful way as Lockington’s talent for spectacle and emotion gets the chance to fully mesh for “The Space Between Us.” A sort of reverse “Martian,” “Space” finds a literal starman (or boy as it were) in Gardner Elliot (Asa Butterfield), The result of an astronaut’s fatally unexpected pregnancy, Gardner has spent his entire life on the red planet, yearning to visit his roots, and find his father on an Earth he’s only dreamt of. The teen makes his great escape, not realizing that his interstellar upbringing will make his visit physically lethal. But perhaps the price will be worth it as Gardner finds adventure, and attraction with Tulsa (Britt Robertson), a girl who helps him go on the run from the well-meaning authorities. It’s an adventure that Lockington captures with a soaring, star-crossed feeling very much in tune with such alt. sci-fi scores as “Wall-E,” “The Martian” and “Passengers” – a stylistic universe where strings and samples thematically forge into a surreal, captivatingly lush sound that’s not of this earth in the coolest ways. Percussion and oddball electronic samples convey a rocket ship future, while majestic strings play the natural, awe-struck wonder of an alien who just happens to be human, conveying the enchant of his first encounters with flying, animals and a girl’s touch – all while the ticking clock of his body’s out-of-place biology places his future in jeopardy. Lockington’s “Space” is a captivating, gorgeously poignant world to explore to both touching and exciting effect, a score that conveys youth appeal as a sense of wonder.
Why do you think you have a particular affinity for scores that feature young characters exploring the unknown like “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island,” “City of Ember” and “Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters?” And do you think that made you an ideal composer for “The Space Between Us?”
What drew me to “The Space Between Us” were two things. One, I’ve been a huge fan of the director, Peter Chelsom, for many years. I remember seeing one of his films in the theater and saying to my wife afterwards that I’d love to work with that director someday. He has a way of putting his audience inside the consciousness of his characters. Somehow he manages to do it without the audience recognizing his methods and somehow he’s completely consistent with it on every project. I love the opportunity that gives the composer – not needing to pry that door open, but to already have it opened for you.
The second thing that drew me to the film was the script. Jason Markey, EVP of Music at STX, challenged me to come up with a way to tell an epic story using more intimate instrumentation in places. We sat in his office and I played him some sketches from my library of music ideas. He fell in love with the instrumentation of a song I wrote and that survived as an element for one of the themes in the film.
I loved that the film was telling a very intimate story within an epic landscape, and I immediately related to the characters despite the sci-fi nature of the story. It was a story everyone could relate to – finding the place you belong in this world. Gardner’s circumstances may take that statement far more literally, since he’s literally born on Mars, but his journey is one the audience will relate to, and helping the audience find their way inside the characters of a film is an important part of scoring a story.
How do you think your score fits into the sound of character-driven sci-fi scores like “Wall-E,” “The Martian” and “Passengers?” especially given that you were dealing with teenage characters?
I didn’t set out to fit in with a “sound” per se, but more to properly reflect the relationships between the characters in this film. Not to say that the sci-fi element didn’t have any influence on the score, but I wanted to follow the main character’s journey as he looks to earth with fresh eyes (and ears). Everything is new to him, and everything is amazing. So I wanted the score to take that idea and run with it. That inspired me to look to more than just traditional music instruments and instead to find other ways of creating music.
I set out to find music in things we regularly overlook. Old ice cream bowls from a flea market in Paris, old trumpet mutes repurposed into a percussion instrument, salvaged rusted metal from old buildings, an old school bell, etc. I walked around with my cello bow, bowing everything and anything. I also armed myself with piano hammers (salvaged from the “San Andreas” piano I’d destroyed) and would strike random things with them. I discovered musical sounds in things I’d never imagined using in a score. Peter loved these ideas and these sounds, and then challenged me to use them in such a way that they wouldn’t sound discarded, and instead sound like they belonged with the orchestral elements they would be merged with.
On that note, how “sci-fi” did you want to make the score?
Well the great thing about this exercise was that it put me in a place I wasn’t comfortable with musically. That’s a good thing for a composer. This process involved getting lost in the wilderness and using the elements around you to get back to a place you recognize. It was fantastic, and a lot of the sci-fi qualities people hear in the score weren’t set out to sound that way, but instead came from this approach. It not only worked well to guide my writing in this score, it’s most definitely affected how I will approach scoring other projects going forward.
In terms of ‘space’ and sci-fi, the only element we ever really discussed in that regard was reverb. When you’re working with music and artificial reverbs, you have the ability to isolate the reverberation of a sound and separate it from the dry source material. It’s not something you can do in nature, but it’s something musicians and engineers are very family with – removing the direct signal and hearing only the reverb. Peter and I started playing around with the idea of introducing a theme or a sound in reverb only, removing the source sound altogether. That idea influenced the “Launch Cue” where we not only used this approach, but also took it even further by using other waveforms in place of the traditional reverb impulses. Now, rather than the reverb just decaying, it follows another sound wave enveloping pattern. The end result was an orchestral element that could sound as natural, or as otherworldly as we wanted at any given time. That ability to choose became an important thematic element in the score.
What do you think creates a musical sense of wonder, especially when it comes to strings and bell percussion?
Music is a combination of so many elements – musical structure, simplicity, complexity, melody, amplitude, and chord progression. For this project, I was most focused on reflecting the innocence of Gardner, and his lack of social defensiveness. I loved that aspect of Asa’s character and of the story. As we look back on our lives, we all have memories where the fear of social judgment prevented us from doing something we wish we’d done or something we wish we’d said. Gardner doesn’t have that. He says what he thinks and does what he wants. It’s not that he doesn’t care what others think, he just hasn’t developed the defense mechanisms the rest of us have. His innocence is ridiculed by others in the story but we come to recognize his handicap as a gift. He’s immune to the paralysis the rest of us get from fear. His only fear is that he’ll die before experiencing what it’s like to be human. This helped me greatly. It gave the score license to do the same for his character and not adhere to the usual emotional filters required to score the other characters. The emotion of the score could follow Gardner and see the world through his eyes. I loved writing with his perspective.
“Space” director Peter Chelsom has had a truly unique career with such movies as “Funny Bones,” “The Mighty” and “Hannah Montana: The Movie.” Given that this was his first movie in the genre, and with this kind of scope, how do you think you helped him meet the challenge?
I love doing a film genre I’ve never done before so I can only imagine directors feel the same way. The hardest projects to do are the ones where they’ve temped your score and fallen in love with it. Those are the projects you need to figure out how to do something brand new for a genre you’ve successfully done before. Creative people don’t like doing the same thing multiple times, and Peter is no exception to that. I think that’s what made this film so perfect for him. I also think it gave him permission to explore humor in a different way than he has before. I love the humor in this film because there are no punch lines, and there’s no ridicule. Instead Peter helps us find the humor behind common slang and social rituals that, when you look at them from an outside perspective, are really quite ridiculous. He presents this in a very clever way such that you never feel sorry or judge Gardner for not understanding these moments, instead you laugh at yourself. You find humor in the understanding that something you’ve always said actually makes no sense. I hope the music was able to help him achieve that as well in some way.
Tell us about your main themes for “The Space Between Us?”
The main theme, and most difficult theme in the film, was Gardner’s. When we meet him for the first time he’s just arrived – this beautiful baby in his mother’s arms – a moment in real life that emotionally only has one color, one element – it’s as pure an emotion as you can get. That really got me, because every other life moment is much more complex. When a loved one passes away, it’s not just sadness, it’s more complicated that that. But the birth of a baby, in that moment, is just pure love. So coming up with something for that moment alone would not have been complicated. But while that theme needed to represent Gardner’s birth, it had to do so much more. It needed to score his mother’s death. It needed to score his longing for finding his father. It needed to exist within completely contrasting emotions and much more complex situations as he journeyed through the story.
The theme I wrote doesn’t just represent Gardner, it represents hope, it represents tragedy, it represents humanity at it’s best and it’s worst. It was a huge challenge. My father is a very gifted painter, and talks often about the importance of mixing colors. The same paint color can project different qualities depending on the context in which you see it. Those complex shades of color need to be there, but be able to be hidden or emphasized by manipulating the context around it. This theme needed to do the same.
I had a similar challenge with the arc for Nathaniel (Gary Oldman). When we first start on this storyline it’s pure optimism. It’s a celebration of the technological achievement of sending a team of astronauts to live on another planet. Nathaniel is giving a speech to investors and introducing the ship and the astronauts to a crowd. It’s a euphoric moment the first time we experience it, but one that we revisit later in the film with the hindsight of the tragic circumstances that followed. This theme very much embodied his storyline and his character – the two were forever intertwined and interrelated, and like Gardner’s theme, it needed to be a chameleon and keep it’s shape while changing it’s color.
Probably my favorite theme in the film we called “Water”. I set out to write a melody that never resolved, that was always in conflict with it’s accompanying chord progression, yet could still feel beautiful. It needed to sound slightly off, yet sure of itself. So I wrote a melody I liked then took the melody and transposed it up a semi-tone while keeping the accompaniment in the same key. The result is a minor second clash between the first note of the theme and the chord. But by then moving the melody up an octave, the theme found a musical place where it almost belonged (a minor 9th sounds more pleasing than a minor 2nd). “Almost” was the operative word, because any resolution in the melody needed to be accompanied by a clash in the supporting chord, and vice-versa. Peter fell in love with it.
The first time we hear it as a piece of Italian Opera that Carla Gugino’s character is working out to in the space station on Mars. Peter speaks Italian and wrote the lyrics to my melody. I found an amazing singer in Toronto, Maeve Palmer, and she did an incredible job performing the source piece. I love finding moments where you can introduce a theme in a way like this as it’s immediately engrained in the consciousness of the characters.
Beyond its “Martian” angle, a drawing point for the youth audience is its seemingly doomed romance. How did you want to play this aspect of the score, and to have the music make you root for its main couple?
What I loved about the story is that the romantic connection happens while they’re on a mission to find Gardner’s father and experience the world before Gardner dies. As such, the music couldn’t be romantic in that way, and instead needed to, on the surface, score the romance of the journey. It’s a play on the famous John Lennon quote “Life is what happens when you’re making other plans”. Their romantic connection happens because she’s helping him experience everything in the world in a short few days. She’s very frustrated with the world and the hand she’s been dealt, so she gets a reset on how she sees the world as she joins him in seeing it through his eyes. As such, it was important that their connection motif only reveal its true meaning after we’d heard it many times before.
Tell us about the race-against-time aspect of “Space’s” score to save Gardner from his own wanderlust?
This is where a lot of the “found” and “junk” instruments became very useful. There is an accordion feel to the pace of the story. There’s definitely a ticking clock as they race to find Gardner before he dies, but that also serves to better show the moments in the story where time stands still and there’s a lack of pace and time. I had fallen in love with the inherent pitches of these instruments and knew I had to use them in their natural form as much as possible. I would play a lot of rhythmic patterns on them and record absolutely everything I improvised. Many of those initial ideas I was able to edit and cut together to become important motor elements in the score.
Could you talk about achieving a balance between the orchestra and the music’s electronic element? And what were the main instruments on both sides of the score?
In addition to the new instruments I mentioned, piano and strings were very significant elements to the score. The piano is never heard in its pure form though. Every time you hear it, it’s doubled with one of the “metallophone’esque” instruments. After playing with the timbre of the piano and even trying prepared piano, I found this method far more successful in achieving an unusual variation on an otherwise familiar instrument.
The strings were treated in many of the cues as described above and later on the film can be heard in their natural form. There’s one cue in particular where Nathaniel’s character starts to reveal his humanity. It was the perfect moment to dial back the reverb manipulation and subconsciously reveal to the audience the true nature of the music they’ve been hearing.
“The Space Between Us’ is one of your most beautiful scores, particularly on the soaring cues “Biplane” and “Ocean.” Was the idea to always make it lush and melodic, as opposed to going for a more “sampled” approach?
Yes I think the lush and melodic aspect came from our first conversations. The majority of my discussions with Peter were about character and story, and finding the beauty in all situations in life, even finding beauty in death and what comes from it. This inspired the melodic and thematic approach.
Given the young audience it’s aiming for, there are some surprisingly cool songs in “Space” that capture an ethereal quality. How did you want your score to fit into their groove, or was it ever a consideration?
The score and songs crossed in a few places, and they needed to sound like they were from the same world for sure. The only real consideration in that regard was the use of piano, because the character Tulsa (Britt Robertson), writes the song “Smallest Light” in the film and plays it on the piano. It was written by the extraordinary Ingrid Michaelson, and is reprised in the film in a few places. Ingrid also wrote another amazing song called “Stay Right Where You Are” for the film from which we used one of the vocal lines over the score cue that followed it. There were some significant hand-offs between songs and score like that, and therefore some last minute challenges when a source song would change and the new song would be in a different key and/or tempo than I planned for. Other than that, we were quite happy with the score and the songs each having their own purpose. This wasn’t one of those soundtracks where you want the audience to never know if it’s song or score they’re hearing.
In that respect, what do you think about the dominance of “hybrid” scores today? Do you think that composers need to keep on top of both their orchestral, and sampling chops to prove effective in that market?
I think most composers don’t think that hard about it. We’re fortunate to have so many other colors in our paint palette than composers have historically had. The biggest challenge is to make sure whatever we’re writing stays relevant and timeless. There’s music from 20 years ago that you can almost date to the month of when it was written. There are films that were edited which used, and over-used, the latest avid features of the day, and they don’t hold up now. The biggest stipulation for me in my writing is that I make sure the medium and the tools never overshadow the message and the emotion. That doesn’t mean overlooking the new technology available to us, but it also doesn’t mean you have to use it. Use what’s appropriate to the story you’re trying to tell.
If “The Space Between Us” has a musical cousin, then it’s in your ethereal score for the time travel drama “I’ll Follow You Down.”
I really love sci-fi, so I was really excited when the filmmaker Richie Mehta told me the concept of the film and asked me to score it. It turned out to be even more interesting than I’d thought, because he made a film focusing on the morality and ethics around altering time. He didn’t focus on the technology. That allowed me to write a much more character driven score, a score that plays with the idea of time, backwards time and time out of order. After our initial conversations about all the cool new tech toys we could use to score the movie, we came full circle to a place that avoided all modern manipulation and used ancient and conventional instruments to score the story. There are some very complex keyboard passages in that score. My keyboarding skill improved greatly because of it.
What can we expect from the giant monster mash videogame adaptation “Rampage,” your next movie with Brad, which also reteams you with The Rock?
As with all Brad projects, we start talking about the music before the script is even finished. I’ve been researching this score and working with Brad to figure out an approach for the past six months and we’ve come up with a palette that I’m incredibly excited about. Music is so embedded in Brad’s plan for storytelling that often ideas we discuss actually influence some of the character and visual aspects of his films. Music is a parallel process for him. He was in Atlanta scouting locations last November and called me down to join him. Over the course of those few days we hatched our approach.
Can you talk about scoring Brad’s Netflix series “Frontier,” which just recently premiered? And what’s the challenge of making score for a “historical” score contemporarily vibrant?
“Frontier” is a treacherous world to write for. The series takes place in the time of the fur trade – late 1700′s in the upper half of North America. The show is centered around Declan Harp (Jason Momoa), a Cree / Irish man who is seeking revenge for the death of his people. Around him are a cast of colorful characters who’ve been drawn to this dangerous world by greed and opportunity, as well as the people who’s land they all descended upon. It’s a power struggle between the British Hudson’s Bay Company, the Metis, the Cree, the French, the Americans and many independent factions vying for a piece of the trade.
I was very encouraged after speaking with Brad and the other producers. They all had an understanding how important the music was in their design the show. Early on I found a music consultant who had written a thesis on “Music of the fur trade”. This moment in history was fascinating because you had all of these different cultures and peoples coming together to trade and share goods. Gold, silver, weapons and fur weren’t the only currency – they also traded culture, rituals and music. As a result, music of the time incorporated elements of the other cultures around them – a perfect opportunity for a unique hybrid score.
While the majority of the instrumentation I use has historical justification, the producers gave me license to use these angles in a modern way. The score isn’t meant to console or encourage the people like the secular or sacred music of the time, but rather to narrate the true feelings and emotions experienced by our characters. There is fiddle, but it’s processed through a bit crusher, ring modulator and multiple filters. There are frame drums and ethnic winds, but they’re layered and manipulated into textures with delays. By combining these elements and manipulating them it gives the score it’s own sound, a set of rules and an identity right out of the gate. From there I wrote some orchestral themes that serve to act anthems for the missions of each group. The strings are the added element instead of the base element of the cues, which is backwards from how I’ve often worked in the past. It’s a very dark world to write for, but I love that we’re not trying to be too historical with the music and have instead lay out our own parameters for the sound of the show.
The best movies like “Hidden Figures” and “The Martian” can make young viewers to reach for the stars. How do you hope that your music for a teen movie like “Space” will help inspire its viewers in that fashion?
I hope the film inspires it’s audience in the same way it inspired the team of us that worked on it. We all need to step back and take a look at our lives through fresh eyes, and with a fresh perspective sometimes. I think the film will resonate with all audiences and I know people will find it quite moving. I’m very proud to have contributed to that.
Take a trip with Andrew Lockington to “The Space Between Us” HERE on Sony Classical Records, and fly with the film when it opens on February 3.” Then travel back in time with Lockington as he says “I’ll Follow You Down on Intrada Records HERE, before rocking out with “San Andreas” on WaterTower Music HERE
Visit Andrew Lockington’s web page HERE
When synth retro is all the rage in today’s scoring scene with the likes of “Stranger Things” and “It Follows,” Paul Haslinger can count himself as one of the O.G. genre gangsters whose exciting music for creatures, gunplay and kick-ass heroes has never stopped mutating. An Austrian bandmate in the seminal progressive synth-rock group Tangerine Dream during such seminal soundtrack likes as “Near Dark” and “Miracle Mile,” Haslinger immigrated to Hollywood with a prolifically successful scoring career. He’d venture from the cool, teen-centric electronic grooves of such scores as “Cheaters,” “Crazy / Beautiful” and “Blue Crush” to a career-making partnership with the vampiric Lycan slayer Selene on the first “Underworld. ”With grooves as darkly enticing and propulsively exciting as the cat-suited death dealer, Haslinger became a prolific gunsmith for such action thrillers as “Into the Blue,” “Crank” and “Shoot ‘Em Up,” as well as rhythm-driven gamework for “Rainbow Six,” Need for Speed” and “Wolverine” among his other “Underworld” entries.
One particular partnership where Haslinger has really been able to apply pedal to metal is with filmmaker Paul W.S. Anderson, a collaboration which roared out of the gate with the gnarled, bloodily exciting industrial music for 2008’s “Death Race,” their music making a left turn with a steampunk approach to Anderson’s enjoyable take on “The Three Musketeers.” But if there’s one franchise that Anderson has made his bones on, then it’s “Resident Evil,” a crazed take of the Konami videogame that’s meshed sci-fi, horror and kill-crazy excitement over the course of five films as Alice (dynamically played by Anderson’s wife Mila Jovovich) has somehow survived every monstrosity thrown at her by The Umbrella Corporation, whose bottom line is humanity’s destruction.
Now the journey that Alice’s began though a hellish wonderland in 2004 conclusively reaches the heart of Umbrella after six films with the “Resident Evil: The Final Chapter.” Taking over the wheel from such previous composers as Marco Beltrami, Marilyn Manson, Charlie Clouser and Tomandandy, Haslinger proves to be his own, ass-kicking musical man for one of sci-horror’s most popular heroines. With a mean industrial edge and reflective piano emotion for a woman who’s suffering had made her stronger, Haslinger blasts his way through the beast-filled Raccoon City with equal parts atmosphere and action, creating an elegiac, epic sense of closure to the most successful game-to-film series. His samples buzz with the evil cyber machinations of Umbrella as organic strings plays the human determination of Alice and her avengers, all roads leading to blazing, darkly heroic climax that gives the ultimate survivor her musical due in style. But perhaps more than anything on his first, and last “Resident” entry, Paul Haslinger continues to prove that he knows his way around the cutting edge of electronic, sample-propelled music – especially when delivering the rocking, heroic hurt to the zombie apocalypse.
As a budding musician, what importance did Tangerine Dream have for you? And what led you play for them?
When I grew up, Tangerine Dream was one of those big, established acts. As a keyboard player, of course I loved all the outlandish equipment they were using, and together with Kraftwerk, they were a major influence on anybody working in music around that time. At the end of 1985, Edgar Froese and Chris Franke were looking to fill Johannes Schmoelling´s spot for an upcoming UK tour. Edgar had a studio in Austria, and he was auditioning various session players from Vienna. I was one of the lucky ones, and apparently made a good enough impression to be asked to join them for the tour and subsequently stay on for the next album (Underwater Sunlight) to become a fulltime member. At the age of 23, it was a dream come true (no pun), allowing me to leave Austria and to see the world, and to make a living making music.
What was the team composing process like with Tangerine Dream? And how would you describe your contribution to such scores as “Near Dark and “Miracle Mile?”
Tangerine Dream in those days already was a modular band: every member had their own studio, and we would develop ideas and sketches, play them for each other and eventually work on overdubs and mixes together. As such, working on an album was no different than working on a film. And it was in this type of collaborative setting, that both “Near Dark” and “Miracle Mile” were created. “Near Dark” was written and recorded in Berlin, with Kathryn Bigelow attending the final mix sessions. I remember her notion of a ‘Vampire Western’, which together with the excellent cinematography and performances, proved to be very inspiring to us. “Miracle Mile” was written and recorded in Edgar’s studio in Austria. This place sat on a lake, in relative isolation. The filmmaker Steve De Jarnatt came to spend a couple of weeks with us there, finishing the score. And I attribute this atmosphere, no distractions whatsoever, for some of the qualities and the peculiarities of this score: a more stripped down, simple approach, which I would consider one of Tangerine Dream’s highlights from this era.
What was it like to strike out on your own and move to LA? And how did you make the break into solo composing here?
I left TD in 1990, mostly because I felt we were getting trapped in predictable patterns and the musical direction of the band wasn’t heading in the right direction. LA was a place I was very familiar with, from being on tour and spending some time scoring films in town. It seemed to have a lower stress level than other cities I had been to (it still does) and I knew a lot of musician friends and like-minded people in town. It was my second musical awakening. Tangerine Dream helped me to get out of Austria, my relocation to Los Angeles helped me to see a larger, musical world. It was during this time I discovered music from around the planet, and the albums I released in the 90s reflect this musical exploration.
On the side, I also did a number of scoring projects, working in the experimental field (with Siggraph and various visual artists: Frank Foster, Brummbaer), and collaborating with my former bandmate Chris Franke on the cult-TV show “Babylon 5.” In 1997 I was introduced by my friend Brian Williams to composer Graeme Revell. Graeme was looking for a programmer to join his team, and we ended up working together for a few years on films such as “Chinese Box,” “The Negotiator,” “The Siege,” “Tomb Raider” and “Blow.” It was during this time, that I started developing a stronger interest in film scoring, seeing how much fun and creative opportunity was at stake in each of Graeme’s projects. Being part of Graeme’s team certainly also helped bringing me to the attention of various studio executives and agents.
You started off with coo, youth-oriented scores for “Cheaters,” “Crazy / Beautiful,” “Blue Crush” and “The Girl Next Door.” Did you particularly enjoy scoring for a “lighter” beat and atmosphere-driven films?
When you start out, you don’t really pick the films you score. You are just happy you get to score one at all. So there was never a conscious decision to score any type of film. Those were just the ones that were offered to me. As with any composer starting out, I had some notions of what I thought could be done differently in film scoring, and in particular the use of musical language – more of a connection between what’s happening in the score and what’s happening with the songs. In simple terms, I was hoping to translate some of my album production studio experience directly into film scoring. And those first films were my first attempt to do so.
How did you like scoring the particularly eccentric action of “Crank” and “Shoot ‘Em Up,” and do you think body count pictures like that lead you down the road to horror?
I never made that connection. But now that you mention it – hmmm!? I think both “Crank” and “Shoot ‘Em Up” were extremely stylized films (just as “Underworld” had been) and they required music writing as much as music design. A rollercoaster can’t be accidental. It has to be planned and structured so the ride can be as much fun as possible. That was the job on these films, and to at least some degree, I believe we succeeded. At the start of the score for “Shoot ‘Em Up,” I booked a studio in LA for a week, hired a group of my favorite musicians and pre-recorded a catalog of general ideas I had developed. It was an intense week, with different ensembles playing every day and night, me yelling out numbers and references and sometime having them play directly against picture. I remember the console was not working very well and the process overall bordered on chaos. But the score found its particular atmosphere and vibe in those sessions, and while not everything got used obviously, it did set the tonal and musical character of the score and parts of these sessions were used across the entire film.
Tell us about working with Paul Anderson on “Death Race” and “Three Musketeers,” and how your sensibilities vibe together, whether it ranged from industrial to making a classical adventure sound hip?
Paul is one of a handful of directors I’ve worked with for some time and have become friends with. We obviously enjoy working together and share what I would call an obsessive streak. Paul invests himself 200% into his projects, and I presume he senses a similar predisposition with me. As a result, the work is always intense and never boring. “Death Race” started out as the musically unwinnable battle against car-engines, tire-squeals and machine gun fire. It was probably the loudest movie anybody ever mixed. My ears are still bleeding. ”Musketeers” was a different story. Part of the appeal was that I had never done anything like this before. And once I started running with it, I really enjoyed where it took me. I recorded and mixed in Berlin, it was quite a ride.
How do you think that scoring many entries of the “Underworld” saga, with its “death dealer” female hero, set you up to handle Alice for “Resident Evil?”
There is an obvious connection between these two franchises. They both started around the same time (2002-2003). They both became extremely popular and successful, despite much critical scorn. And they filled a demand for films that reflect changes in popular culture, specifically the influence of graphic novels and video games. They both feature a female heroine, and make her the centerpiece of the film and the entire series. So yes, I was generally familiar with the turf we were playing on. And yet, part of the appeal to score “Resident Evil” was precisely that it was NOT another “Underworld” film. This was the chance to use technique and skill but to apply it in a different context, and thereby a better chance to mix it up and challenge myself to a different approach.
Given “Resident Evil’s” crazy mythology and mash of genres, did you bone up on the movies, or video games beforehand as well?
I sure did. That’s part of the fun of the job: I get to do “research” and learn the landscape. Paul had already asked me to work on “Resident Evil 5” (which then did not happen due to some tax and scheduling issues) so I was quite familiar with the general landscape and evolution leading up to the final film. But once I saw some of the footage from South Africa, I knew the look and feel of the film would be quite different from the previous installments.
What’s it like to come in for the first time on the long-awaited last chapter of a popular series like this? And does that place greater importance on the score to pay off?
At the end of the day, it’s still a film that needs some music. Yes, there should be a feeling of finality, and yes, it’s important to reflect major character developments, like the re-appearance of the Red Queen. But it is still constructed as a ride, and I am responsible to help make those 90 minutes as engaging, entertaining and moving as possible.
How do you think your music embodies Alice’s attitude as she reaches the end of her quest to destroy Umbrella?
I believe people relate to Alice as a tragic hero who will also kick some ass. And I would describe those two qualities as the starting point for the music. The film has a certain sweep, a ‘final chapter’ atmosphere, which I tried to reflect in the music. She is coming to ‘the end of her story’ with all the fury, fight and emotion that only Alice can muster.
When it comes to the villains, what were your ideas for the high-tech Umbrella Corporation and its minions?
Always fun! Villains are the best! Give me a good villain and the half of the score writes itself! Iain Glen gives such a marvelous performance. I cannot thank him enough! The Umbrella theme has generally been the dark undercurrent of the series. I embraced the opportunity to bring their long developing story to its conclusion in this film.
Could you talk about jumping from the score’s metal energy to its epic orchestrations that capture the scope of Alice’s world?
One of my ideas was to contrast some industrial, harder hitting elements, with more elegiac, choral-type movements. And to drive the tension between these two opposites further than I had done in previous scores.
There are some particularly gnarly, monstrous grooves to your “Resident Evil” score. What instruments and samples went into the score?
There is a lot of programming and studio production that went into the rhythm design on this particular score. We know it had to fit with a lot of sound effects, a cutting style that was based on commercials and a story that was nonlinear in nature. We also did a full day of live percussion recordings. For the processing, I went back to some of the type of dirty/edgy processing I used on the first “Underworld” score. Whenever the fabric of a score becomes too complex, I find it necessary to “dirty up” the sound and make it less pristine.
Having scored movies where the suspense-horror is more front-and-center like “Prom Night” and “Vacancy,” what’s it like to add the demands of the action genre into that equation with “Resident Evil?”
Hopefully the best of both worlds? I think what we are talking about is not limited to a traditional genre, but in a way has created its own genre. These are big films aimed at a demographic whose point of reference are graphic novels and previous films like “The Crow, ”Dark City” and “The Matrix.” “Resident Evil” was not the first of these films, but it was an important step in the development of this particular sub-genre. And the music just needs to fit the particular experience it tries to convey. “Over the top” is part of the fabric.
As a composer who was there for the seminal synth sound of Tangerine Dream, is it surreal to be watching a rebirth for that genre of music with such scores as “It Follows” and “Stranger Things?”
I am good friends with Kyle and Michael and have a lot of respect for Richard Vreeland, who scored “It Follows” as Disasterpeace. They are all music geeks (like myself) and have taken something they love and put their own spin on it. History allows perspective, and we have come far enough with electronic music that this re-imagining of previous territory can become the breeding ground for new ideas and interpretations. All power to them, and I hope many more musicians will follow their lead.
On that note, what’s it like to go back to your old-school rhythmic roots when scoring the show “Halt and Catch Fire?”
There was certainly a time-machine aspect to it, but I also simply liked the show, the story, and welcomed the chance the particular setting offered for inspired music choices. It certainly was fun to dive back in and to mix up the elements a little – leaving out what I’d rather not hear again, and expanding on the nuggets, which I thought, stood the test of time. The music is an essential part of the storytelling on this show, and as such, obviously, it has been and is still is a wonderful opportunity. Much credit goes to the shows creators, Christopher C.Rogers and Christopher Cantwell, the music supervisor Thomas Golubic and the show’s producer, Melissa Bernstein.
You’ve also become part of AMC’s hugely popular franchise with “Fear the Walking Dead.” How important was it for you that the show has its own musical identity that would set it apart from “The Walking Dead?”
It was clear pretty early on that they wanted a different show with a different sound. Yes, there are walkers in both shows and the setting is that of a post-apocalyptic world. But the cast and constellation of characters, the fabric of the show, is fairly distinct from TWD. Therefore my approach was to write music from scratch, as if the other show did not exist. To allow the show to find its own sound and musical setting.
Would you say that scoring movies like “Resident Evil” are like doing rock operas for you in terms of their relentless, metal-powered drive?
The combination of edgy, industrial elements with orchestra is always tricky, but in a general sense I am just fitting music to the landscape the picture provides. If the action gets heavy, the music will reflect that, be it in synchronicity or as a counterpoint. And the choreography of the film, the pacing, the energy and the general flow has to be the starting point for any musical approach.
Having scored so many films full of hybrid creatures, where do you see your own mad experiments at fusing orchestra, orchestral emulation and synth sampling going next?
I guess we’ll have to wait and find out! In all my film/tv/vg work, I always respond to the project, obviously. The project inspires the musical ideas, and part of the fun is to never know where it will take me. The biggest challenge, I believe, is to stop the constant flood of input and options one faces and to decide and stay on a particular approach and idea. We used to face natural limitations. Today we have to create artificial restrictions and limitations, to have a chance at focus and effect.
What do you think makes a “videogame” movie and score like “Resident Evil” work in the end?
They put people on a ride, and if by the end of it they enjoyed this particular ride, then the film was effective. We live by experiences, and these films try to provide one particular experience. The more films and the more rides, the more difficult it is to come up with “yet another ride,” so there will always be this challenge. But with an established fan-base, as with “Resident Evil” and “Underworld” fans, we also owe it to that audience to deliver, to go above and beyond and to let them enjoy the best “Resident Evil” film yet. And that’s what we aim for.
Take on The Umbrella Corporation with Alice and Paul Haslinger when “Resident Evil: The Final Chapter” opens on January 27th, with its score available on Lakeshore Records HERE
Hear another ass-kicking heroine as Paul Haslinger ventures to his “Underworld” scores HERE
“Halt and Catch Fire” with Paul Haslinger HERE
Visit Paul Haslinger’s website HERE
Masked maniacs, ferocious fish, unhinged vigilantes and a wheelman from hell. Reading a list of Michael Wandmacher’s prolific credits feels like a particularly crazed membership drive for The Suicide Squad, a rogue’s gallery that he’s taken out for a spin with a distinctively energetic ability for pounding action where a metal attitude often hits the pedal. Starting his career in the rhythmic company of Jackie Chan with the English version scores for “Armor of God,” “Twin Dragons” and “Once a Cop,” Wandmacher has brought his passion to “Cry_ Wolf,” “The Killing Floor,” “My Bloody Valentine,” “Piranha 3-D,” “The Last Exorcism: Part II” and “Punisher: War Zone” (though with equally pleasant variation for the likes of “Max Keeble’s Big Move,” “Ben 10: Alien Swarm” and “The Goldbergs”).
It seems only natural that given the karate-proficient composer’s genre action chops that werewolves and gun-shooting vampires would be ideal to take a bow in Wandmacher’s company. Now it’s a hybrid of both monsters for the long-running “Underworld” series with “Blood Wars,” an eternal battle between Lycan and vampire that found a darkly beautiful “death dealer” in Selene (Kate Beckinsdale). Over the course of three films (and a Selene-less prequel), the heroine has done her best to ensure her clan’s dominance over the Lycans, a fight that now spawns an all-powerful werewolf clan whose final push for dominance puts Selene to her ultimate test on their frozen home turf.
Though plenty of cinematic kills are notched into Wandmacher’s scoring belt, the composer finds himself a newbie for his biggest genre credit yet for “Underworld: Blood Wars,” – the series’ ground impressively trod by Paul Haslinger and Marco Beltrami. Wandmacher takes up their bloodline using darkly heroic, pounding orchestra rhythms that drive the relentless Selene. Howling winds strike for werewolves as eerie ethnic instruments recount the two sides’ forever war. It’s work that fits into “Underworld’s” musical groundwork as it resounds with sinister heritage and modern, pulsing action that significantly amps up Selene’s dramatic stakes; More so, this “Underworld” score howls to the blood moon for a composer who energetically goes for the throat with musical guns blazing – twin fusillades for the supernatural and action cinema that excitingly mesh for what might be a vampiress’ swan song.
Could you tell us what brought you into film composing?
It was something I aspired to early on, but being in Minnesota at the time, I wasn’t quite sure how to get there. Some music community connections eventually got me started working on TV spots and news music full time. Through these jobs I was able to meet filmmakers in Minneapolis who were doing both shorts and features, some of which I scored. That’s when a completely unreal event occurred. Through a series of email exchanges that started via a film music newsgroup (Yes, newsgroup. Way back in the Jurassic period of the internet!) I met Alan Silvestri, who already was a musical hero to me and is even more so now. He subsequently invited me to LA to see some real scoring sessions and introduced me to a number of people, including YOU, the interviewer, who eventually paved a path for me to move to LA permanently. Just those few trips got my music circulated enough to start working on direct-to-video films for Dimension and also land a job scoring “Modern Vampires” for Richard Elfman, Danny’s brother. Between the two of them, they picked me to do the film! And I was in Minnesota! At that point, there was a resounding chorus around me saying, “If you really want to do this, you have to move.” So I did the classic “throw-everything-in-a-U-Haul and off to the land of movie magic!” To this day, when I truly think of how all that unfolded, especially with the hindsight of knowing just how difficult it is to make a career of scoring, I feel incredibly fortunate.
Having worked with Lexi Alexander on the insane “Punisher: War Zone,” how did the experience compare with Anna Foerster on “Blood Wars?” And what do you think these movies show when it comes to women as being as capable of bloody kick-ass action as male directors are?
I don’t draw comparisons between directors. To me, they are all fascinating people who take on an incredibly demanding task. Each one has their own vision, work methodology and creative process. A big part of what makes my job interesting is adapting and responding to each individual director and what their needs are for a given film. Whether they are male or female makes no difference to me. I am solely focused on the collaboration and delivering the score that’s best for their film and hopefully forging a working relationship that continues into the future.
What do you think made you particularly adept at particularly ferocious genre scoring for such projects as “Piranha,” “Drive Angry,” “My Bloody Valentine” and “Bloodborne?”
After years of playing guitar in rock bands, it seemed natural to me to try to inject that sort of energy into film scores. The metalhead part of me is still alive and well and it helps me formulate high-powered musical passages into something that an orchestra will embrace. For instance, I often work out rhythmic figures for a bass string section on an actual bass guitar. Or I come at it the opposite way and use the legato flow of the celli to guide a moving guitar atmosphere or texture. For these types of projects, the ability to think in terms of symphonic music as it relates to rock or metal or industrial music and also how the two can combine into something even bigger and more aggressive is a great deal of fun! I’ve been experimenting with this sort of intermingling and crossover since the beginning of my career, even before the approach was popularized.
Was the “Underworld” franchise on your radar as a fan? And how did you become part of “Blood Wars?”
Definitely. The idea that a centuries-long battle between the two factions of our folkloric super monsters is waging right alongside, but relatively unknown to, humanity is very cool. And both sides deal with the same sorts of power struggles, corruption, forbidden alliances and emotional discord that humans do. It’s a very interesting, fresh twist on myths and legends that have lived inside a certain box of tricks for a long time.
As for how the job came my way, it was pretty serendipitous. I had worked on “Patient Zero” for Screen Gems and they were very happy with the results. When the time came to find a composer for “Blood Wars,” I expressed my interest in doing the film. It represented a dream project for me. The confidence I had built with the studio on “Patient Zero” led them to facilitate a series of meetings, which eventually led to getting the job. I was ecstatic.
As this is your first entry into the “Underworld” series, how did you bone up on the series, particularly when it came to capturing the musical vibe of the franchise?
As a fan, I understood the “Underworld” universe and its components going into the job. Although I knew the score would be incredibly challenging, I was confident that I could find the place that the music needed to be in for this particular film. After some discussions about the tone and shape of the score, I started building custom templates of sounds, thematic ideas and rhythmic pulses that I thought were appropriate. That’s what I call “mad scientist mode”. In that space of time, I don’t limit myself. It’s pure experimentation and always yields elements that will make the score unique. In the case of this film, I started with some single scenes, trying different combinations of instruments and sounds, and filled out the rest from there. The process of refining the all the programming, recording myself playing various instruments and orchestration continued all the way up to recording.
How did you want to put your own personal mark on the “Underworld” music?
It was certainly a daunting to enter into a beloved franchise and want to add my spin to it – while, at the same time not stepping on the toes of what came before me! I was very aware that I was contributing to a larger whole, but that “Blood Wars” had to have a distinct musical personality. The themes, motifs, ideas and sounds in the score are all new, but they still had to latch into the overall “Underworld” universe in way that wouldn’t throw off audiences. The key for me came from the fact that the story swirls around Lycan/Vampire hybrids, both existing and those characters that are attempting to achieve hybridization. I let that narrative point spill over into the music and built a palette that was hybrid on a grand scale, utilizing both a very large orchestra and hundreds of tracks of electronics. The two sonic sides of the score push and pull and combine right along with the plot as it unfolds. How I mixed all these elements up compositionally allowed my own voice to emerge in the music.
How do you musically see the character of Selene, especially when it comes to the new abilities she gains?
She is the thematic, emotional and stylistic core of the film. The best metaphor I can muster right now is that if the movie is a solar system, she is the sun. Even if other themes or elements arise in the score when she is not onscreen, they still tie back into her character somehow. Over and over, I would always look to her character for inspiration while working on the film to find a fresh angle for new sequences or narrative twists. A great deal of the momentum in the film is derived from her performance or the performances of others as they seek to interact with her somehow. She was a musical well to constantly draw from. As for how the music relates to the new abilities she gains, it also ties directly into new motifs and colors as they become appropriate.
Is it particularly hard bringing emotion to a character whose survival depends on being a stone-cold killing machine?
I don’t think so. While everyone loves watching her battle onscreen, I’ve always recognized Selene as the reluctant warrior queen-type, not the merciless conqueror-type. She fights when she has to, but never for the sport of it. The key word you use in the question is “survival”. That’s why she does what she does. There is nothing nefarious at work, even when she’s clearing a room. Action has a purpose. She is actually awash in emotion through all of the films she appears in and in a constant state of internal conflict. Emotional pain and longing are what drives her at her core and she seeks to do what she feels is right, even when it appears counter to her kind’s existence. Ultimately, she seeks peace, but it constantly eludes her. I believe these things are what make her most compelling to audiences. Ironically, even though undead, there is humanity in her. Drawing from that construct, I see making the music that surrounds her introspective and emotional moments as being part of her true essence.
Did you want to musically differentiate the Lycans and Vampires?
In a broad sense, yes. But I was more concerned with maintaining a presence of this whole universe of beings that exist among us. The music palette, as a sum, is what acts as the backdrop for that world. In terms of differentiation, the vampires are often underscored with dark, gothic string movements and a heightened sense of drama and intrigue to highlight their old-school hierarchical ways and in-fighting, while the Lycan underscore, especially under the leadership of Marius, takes on a distinctly militaristic tone. He is a general leading his troops to battle. Most important was a feeling of propulsion and forward motion, to give the sense that these two factions are headed for a climactic showdown on a scale that neither side has ever seen.
This is definitely one of the icier “Underworld” movies. How did the setting inform the score? And could you talk about making particularly cool use of eerie, ethnic winds as well as voices?
“Blood Wars” introduces us to The Nordic Coven. It is a fortress set far to the north and houses a whole different breed of vampire. The coven is old (and cold!), sequestered and its inhabitants are steeped in lore, ritual, and a monastic-type existence. Finding the music for this locale and population was probably the biggest musical challenge in the entire movie. We (the director, producers and myself) all knew we wanted something that both spoke to being Nordic and fit within the “Underworld” sound, but we weren’t sure was that was at first. For battle scenes it was relatively straightforward as primitive war drums and war horns were utilized alongside the orchestra, but the dramatic scenes were a different nut to crack. After researching and experimenting with various traditional Nordic and Scandinavian instruments, I found that they weren’t quite fitting into the fabric of the score. Many of the instruments, like the nyckelharpa, hardanger fiddle, kantele, or various dulcimers and zithers didn’t convey the mysterious, dangerous and exotic feeling that the director was looking for. The solution lay in another instrument: the flute, of which there are many varieties throughout the whole of Northern Europe. By mixing and manipulating different flute types down into registers that are un-naturally (or supernaturally?) low, I landed on a sound that was unique to the coven in terms of mood and character. It is the undead’s brand of Nordic winds – dark, airy and evocative, with deep vibrato and strange overtones. Vocal chanting is layered with these flutes to heighten the ritualistic nature of these vampires. In addition, I added bowed crotales playing intentional dissonance against the melodic elements, and various bells and ceremonial percussion, like frame drums, zills, and chains.
There’s also the striking use of metallic effects in the score. What made you go for an industrial sheen of sorts, yet one that never makes the jump into that full-on territory?
Mainly, I like using those types of sounds to add aggressiveness to the music. They have an edge to them that slices through a cue, no matter how dense the orchestration or layering, that provides harsh definition and rhythmic clarity that you can’t find with other types of sounds. They are the fangs and claws and teeth in the music. As effects and ambiences, metallic textures call forth a danger and ferocity that warns the audience that unexpected events, unforeseen threats or a sudden bloody outburst could happen at any time, even in moments where everything seems calm.
Going all the way back to my TV commercial days, I’ve always been fascinated with sound design and how that can integrate with score. The use of metallics and other non-traditional or organically sourced sounds is always a consideration to further enrich the textures in the music. For instance, some people see might see a box of nails sitting the garage. I see an instrument! That idea of music design, as people are calling it now, is always something I try to bring to a score that utilizes ambiences and moody atmospheres like the ones in “Blood Wars.”
People may not realize you create much lighter fare for “The Goldbergs” and the upcoming “Imaginary Mary”. Is it difficult shape-shifting into a whole different composing mode, and do you try to mix up your projects when possible?
I get asked the “shift” question a lot and the answer is, truthfully, no. I think it’s because of my entertainment input as a kid. It was pretty eclectic. Cartoons, genre films of all kinds, classic films, TV shows (especially comedies I watched with my dad), video games, comic books, whatever records came along, novels, etc. No one thing in particular. I was always paying attention to the music or making it up in my head if I was reading something. I carried that mental kaleidoscope of stuff with me into adulthood and use it set my mind in motion when approaching any type of score. I think a lot of composers can do the same. We’re a much more creatively flexible lot than people might think!
I like to mix things up because it keeps work challenging and interesting and opens up doors to new relationships that can lead to future work that may stretch your creative boundaries even further. And those varied relationships are the key to keeping things fresh. It’s a tough thing to do, though, because if you find success in a particular genre, you can get pigeonholed very fast within the industry and that can cause a career to stagnate. For that reason, I’m very grateful that I can work on projects across genres. In looking at the careers of people I respect and admire the most, they all have resumes that span many musical styles and approaches.
Tell us about your score for the unusual “zombie talker” pandemic movie “Patient Zero” that will be hitting in February?
I can’t say much about that yet. It would actually give too much away! Only that it’s not what you would expect for a movie of this type. The atypical approach is what made the project so interesting.
Given the amount of savagery you score, do you think movies are going to get even darker now, and their scores along with them?
Not necessarily. It’s all about filmmakers and musical trends in the marketplace. A good scary movie will always have an audience, as will a fun animated film. People are always looking for a variety of different things, especially in this internet-driven age of the short attention span. If everything moved towards being progressively darker, my guess is that the moviegoing public would eventually tire of it and look for something light. The converse is probably, true, too. So, it leads to a kind of equilibrium. People expect a movie like “Blood Wars” to be dark and stylish and aggressive, but not so for latest comedy or drama.
Are you Team Lycan, or Team Vampire?
I’m Team Selene. So, given she’s a hybrid, I guess that makes me a bit of both.
“Underworld: Blood Wars” opens in theaters on January 7th, with Michael Wandmacher’s score available on Lakeshore Records HERE
Wreak energetic musical mayhem with Michael Wandmacher as he deals death for “The Punisher: War Zone” HERE, unleashes a pack of “Piranha 3D” HERE and gets behind the wheel with madman Nicolas Cage to “Drive Angry” HERE
For The Month of November 2016
- Record Label
1Berlin Station OST Lakeshore Records Reinhold Heil
2Before the Flood OST Lakeshore Records Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, Gustavo Santaolalla, Mogwai
3Stranger Things V.1 &2 OST Lakeshore Records Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein
4Bilial: A New Breed of Hero OST Atli Orvarsson Lakeshore Records
5Moonlight OST Lakeshore Records Nicholas Britell
6The Nine OST Ever Studio Steven Emerson
7Allied OST Sony Classical Alan Silvestri
8Hacksaw Ridge OST Varese Sarabande Rupert Gregson-Williams
9The Girl On A Train OST Sony Classical Danny Elfman
10The Accountant OST WaterTower Music Mark Isham
11Black Mirror: San Junipero OST Lakeshore Records Clint Mansell
12A Street Cat Named Bob OST Sony Classical Various
13Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children La-La Land Records Mike Higham & Matthew Margeson
14Arrival OST Johann Johannsson Deutsche Grammophon
15Mr. Robot V1&2 OST Lakeshore Records Mac Quayle
16Planet Earth II OST Silva Screen Records Hans Zimmer, Jacob Shea Jasha Klebe
17The Magnificent Seven OST Lakeshore Records Alex Wurman
18Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them OST WaterTower Music James Newton Howard
19The Light Between Oceans OST Lakeshore Records Alexandre Desplat
20Sully OST Varese Sarabande Clint Eastwood, Christian Jacob, The Tierney Sutton Band CineRadio is produced by Krakower Polling PR. For more information about CineRadio or Krakower Polling PR contact Beth Krakower at cinemediapromo (at) yahoo.com
The chart is composed of music played during the month of November on soundtrack music specialty shows. This month’s reporters include WPRK, CFMU, KUCI, WRTU, WFMU, KSJS, KMFA, KFJC, KSPC, WHFR, A Fistful of Soundtracks, Cinematic Sound, The Score, Urgent.fm/Supercalifragilistic, BBC Radio 3 “Sounds of Cinema,” SoundtrackAdventures.blogspot.com, ABC Classic FM Australia, Secklow Sounds, and Soundtrax.fm.
* denotes new reporters
Death and transfiguration are two themes that have often accompa-nied the scores of Fernando Velazquez. Powerfully embodying a new generation of orchestrally rich Spanish composers to steadily take root in Hollywood, Velazquez rose from numerous shorts in his na-tive country to impress Hollywood with his lush, alternately creeping and raging sense of old school melody for “Devil,” “Mama,” singing with a romantic sense of aristocratic doom for “Crimson Peak” and “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.”
A particularly resonant ferryman for Velazquez when coming to grips with the inevitable, as well as the potential radiant light afterwards, is filmmaker J.A. Bayona. Creating a haunting orchestral tapestry for 2007’s “The Orphanage,” Velazquez heard just as much emotion as fear from a woman’s return to the old haunts of her childhood with a collaboration that truly put modern Spanish horror on the map. The director and composer next travel to Thailand with 2012’s “The Impossible,” the devastating loss of thousands of lives from it tsunami enabling Velazquez to embody a one family’s anguished and tender struggle to survive and reunite.
Now Bayona and Velazquez draw on all of their Gothically emotional power for a story steeped in equal parts tragedy, fantasy, anger and acceptance with “A Monster Calls.” Hearing the resounding cry of a score steeped in chilling majesty dark enchantment and tearful disbelief is Conor (Lewis MacDougall), a boy facing the imminent loss of his Mum (Felicity Jones) and a future spent with a seemingly evil Grandma (Sigourney Weaver). Calling upon his brutalizing anger, Connor summons the tree-like Monster (Liam Neeson), who regales the youth with seemingly disparate animated stories, all of which will finally combine for Connor to truly face the reality of his sad situation. It’s a coming to terms that Velazquez plays with a devastating, beautiful power rooted as much in the monstrous musical tradition of the organ, thunderous brass and angered strings as it draws from the lyrical power of piano harmonies, angelic voices and a poetic or-chestra. “A Monster Calls” is Velazquez’s most powerful stride yet from Spain into a Hollywood, swinging with astounding might that plays the seeming supernatural and the all-too real heartstrings with equal, impressive passion.
Your first English language score was for the thoroughly creepy incest drama “Savage Grace.” What are your memories of it?
It was a wonderful movie that had great performances by Julian Moore and Eddie Redmayne, who got really big after this movie. For the score, I just had some strings. People say it’s the old-fashioned way, but I would say it’s a classical way that always works in good movies. It was dark and a little bit romantic, which addressed what the director Tom Kalin (“Swoon”) wanted in this movie.
How did you begin your collaborations with J.A. Bayona? And how do you think “The Orphanage” set the tone for his running theme of coming to terms with death?
We started in short films before anything else. We did “El Hombre Esponja,” a really nice short. You can still listen to the music, as I recorded it last year for Quartet. “The Orphanage” set the tone of his running theme of coming to terms with death.
What was it like to score the epic, real-life tragedy of “The Impossible” with J.A.?
Even though these movies all have themes of death, love and moth-erhood they are all also quite different, along with my scores for them. “The Impossible” is the most intense and film of our collaborations. “The Orphanage” was very dramatic with the neo-romantic old orchestra. “A Monster Calls” is really different for me, because the approach is really minimal and inspired by the three stories the monster is telling. It scope is smaller in a way, and not so sad as “Monster” is commenting on a story outside of the story. “The Orphanage” is a story within itself.
You made a pilgrim’s progress through such Spanish thrill-ers as “Shiver” before your first Hollywood horror film with the elevator-set “Devil.” What do you think are the biggest differences between both countries’ approach to genre films?
There aren’t many differences between horror movies from country to country, but rather movie to movie. One Spanish horror film can be completely different from another Spanish horror film, and the same thing goes for American films. Nowadays, directors can do great things and make fantastic movies without a large budget. You can still have that big orchestra sound in a low cost movie. It’s just about what the story needs. The difference comes from the director and how he wants to portray the movie. In that way, “A Monster Calls” very intense because we want the audience to feel what the characters are feeling. We want to address this so the music was in-tense, not epic. It’s their emotion, as opposed to the story, that gets epic. If you listen to the music without the movie, you might think it’s over the top. But when you watch the movie, you know the music is exactly how you’re feeling during it, which fits the film perfectly.
How did you want to draw on your horror scoring, and general full-blooded gothic scoring in musically depicting The Monster?
The stories are kind of different. They are big and the orchestra is big with big harmonies. The choir is there. There is a feeling of adventure and story telling which works very well with tales. It works beautifully with the watercolors we see in the movie. Whereas, the music for reality is quite small, probably the smallest you get for the purpose because it’s a little piano and some strings. Only in the end, they come together in a metaphorical way because the choir paints a reality and accompanies Connor and his mother.
How did you want to draw on your horror scoring, and general full-blooded gothic scoring (complete with organ) in musically depicting The Monster?
Well the music for the monster, of course, includes the organ at some point. We looked for many different sounds of woodwind and bagpipes. The woodwinds in the orchestra and a lot of wooden things that we thought would work with the monster. But in the end, we realized that the monster is more ominous, like the wood it-self. This ominous threat we feel is more from the bass, strings, the bass brass and the woodwinds, than everything else. But as we worked on the movie we realized that we didn’t need the tree to be felt as a threat. We tried with the choir, it worked really well, but we realized the choir would work better with other things in the movie like the end and when Connor is desperate and the times when it seems mankind is telling Connor that everything is going to be all right.
How did you want to score Conor, given a hard shell where him dealing with his mother’s deterioration becomes a sadomasochistic need for punishment?
I think this was really well depicted by the movie itself. It didn’t need a lot of music for suffering. We tried to make things even worse with the bullying and the hard feelings he put on himself. But this music was not needed at all, because really small music was already making the audience feel sorry for Connor. There is a moment in the piece “Break Things” when he destroys everything, which is even more brutal with abstract noises more than the music itself. It’s a cue I’m very proud of.
Given the tendency of many genre scores to use some form of sampling or electronics, why did you want to go for an old school orchestral feeling here?
I never thought about it. You know my first approach was orchestra with this movie because we thought it was best. We never thought about electronics. You could, of course, score this movie with elec-tronics. It might be good, but we think that for the movie, it wouldn’t make sense, or at least I like it better with strings.
Everyone goes through loss. Did you have any such instances in your own life that you particularly drew on for this score?
Not really. But it’s funny, because our own experience with “The Im-possible” was used because we wanted to do the opposite in a way. And of course you know music is like a magnet. You get all of the emotions you put in it. Of course, in the last cue called “The Truth,” there is a lot of my life, but also the players’. A lot of them can put their experiences and heart into the music they play, listen or com-pose.
Conversely, how did you want the score to reflect the ten-sion and beauty of the mother-father-“evil stepmother” relationships with Connor, especially with the pain they all endure?
From what I’ve seen, this is something that works very well in the movie without music. The stepmother doesn’t have her own theme, even when she’s kind of depicted as the queen in the tale, which is not obvious. It’s not the direct connection you can talk about. We have the idea that the stepmother looks evil and cruel, we know she’s not. At first we tried to do that with the music. But that didn’t turn out to be a good idea because it was too obvious.
Given the understandably heightened emotions of “Monster Calls,” how important was it for you and J.A. to avoid overt manipulation, and to honestly earn tears, even while using such devices as piano and a heavenly chorus that practically guarantee them?
I think with this movie, practically anything would guarantee tears, even the synthesizer woodwinds, a piano, singing, a flute, organ… anything what would cause the same thing. I think sometimes emo-tions come by themselves very naturally, so we didn’t spend much time trying to see how far we could go with the music. It’s opposite to “The Impossible” where you have feelings, but you won’t necessarily be crying while watching the film. In the end, what makes you cry is the story itself and how you relate to the storyline.
While kids might be enchanted by the creature in the trail-er, “A Monster Calls” is far more of a film for adults in how dark and disturbing it is. How did that affect your scoring?
Well, we could have done a fairy tale or something more for children, but the music itself is kind of somber. I wouldn’t say “adult” because this is something that is difficult to address. We needed to play with the cards we were dealt, the ones that we were working with. Now, for some moments we thought the tales were a bit lighter and they work faster in the movie, But then we realized many details would be missing. You know sometimes you’re afraid the movie feels slow. But we thought it was good for this movie to have this pace, which is a little far away from a movie for kids.
Conversely, how did you want your music to provide a sense of acceptance and emotion, especially for kids who might want to see this as some form of therapy? In that respect, would you say that this score itself goes through “the five stages?”
I read the five stages. It’s just some therapy thing, but you don’t necessarily need to go through all the five stages. The music is more about accepting. There is no denial or rage in the movie, ex-cept there is a little bit of rage where the music is more literal. Honestly, for the most part, it feels as though it is more about humankind and ancestry, as we can see in the tree and the grandfather and grandmother. I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that the main sce-ne in the movie happens in a cemetery, where ancestors were buried. I think this scene goes directly with the collective consciousness way of thinking, which is what art connects us with. The movie itself is a huge metaphor about how we can deal with reality. The music is the ultimate stage of this metaphor. The music tells you that with melodies not words.
In the end, do you think horror films, and their music is a way of dealing with death?
Well not really, because horror films deal with death in a very precise way. They are usually not serious films about death. “The Orphanage” is not a horror movie, or “The Sixth Sense.” They are scary, but they are not “horror” movies. Of course, I think many films and many works of art are a way of dealing with death.
Where do you see J.A.’s movies as going from here, or do you think he’ll keep returning to the same thematic material of grief and loss, as often given a supernatural twist?
Well, now he’s doing “Jurassic World” and it doesn’t seem to be about grief and loss! I know nothing about this movie. Juan Antonio has all the talent to do all these different things. He wanted to bring out these particular feelings for “A Monster Calls,” because he’s had loss and grief. But these movies are also about love which the emo-tion that remains in all of his movies.
You had a particularly busy year in 2016, with Quartet Records representing your Spanish releases. One impres-sive score was “Gernika,” which dealt with the awful bombing in Spain’s Civil War that also became Picasso’s most famous painting.
“Gernika” was a great opportunity to do a historic drama with really wonderful acting and great storytelling by my director friend Koldo Serra. It was just a big gift to have an opportunity to do this score. It is old fashioned in a way, because it is classical, big and orchestral. It is one of these scores that we are not allowed to do very often because they don’t want these big melodies or orchestrations. Many filmmakers think that things need to be small. I’m particularly proud of the end of the movie, which is the big and long cue.
You also composed two delightful children’s’ scores for the animated dog comedy “Ozzy” and the live action ad-venture “Zipiy Zape and the Captain’s Island.” What was it like working on the scores, especially when it came to giv-ing both a big orchestral sound?
I feel very passionate about orchestra and the big classical way of composing with themes and orchestra, because we aren’t able to do it often. I was very happy that I had both opportunities, because I’m a big fan of all the John Williams, Alan Silvestri and James Newton Howard scores. I’m just a little sorry these movies didn’t get that much attention, but the scores are there. They’re very rich and I hope people realize they’re out there on one day and get to listen to them. Even “Zip and Zap” gets big and emotional in the end. With melodies and themes, you will remember the theme if you listen to scores and watch the movie. This makes me happy. In electronics, there is another movie coming out that was just in the Austin festival called “The Invisible Guest.” This is the complete opposite, because it is a lot of electronics and orchestra, which was also a lot of fun to do because the music works in a different way. It was also really fun doing this.
Given that you’re one of Spain’s busiest composers when it comes to Spanish-funded, or director-made English language films like “Hercules,” “Mama” and “Crimson Peak,” how do you hope that “A Monster Calls” might finally, and fully propel you into the realm of Hollywood? And do you hope to continue your lush, orchestral approach to scoring there, particularly when it comes to chilling subject matter?
Well, I think nowadays Hollywood is everywhere. You don’t really know where a film is being made. For example, “Mama” got huge. It was a Spanish movie, mostly shot in Canada and scored in Spain. So, I don’t think Hollywood is necessarily the center of all film anymore. I think we have a lot to say from Spain. Of course, I’m very happy to do American movies. The studio movie world is a little tricky and I hope I will find a place without being forced to be very conservative and try to copy other music and composers. Honestly, I think voices are needed, not only in music but in filmmaking itself. I’m a composer, not an “orchestra guy.” I do electronics, which I love, and sometimes I do massive orchestral things. You know my first movie was scored with a chamber trio and I was very happy with it. It had nothing to do with big orchestras. The second movie I did was really only songs. So It’s not about doing only orchestra. The business can pigeonhole you, but I think that if I’m lucky I will be able to do different things.
Pick up Fernando Velazquez’s score when “A Monster Calls” on Back Lot Music and Quartet Records HERE
Listen to “The Impossible” HERE
Special thanks to Gabby Belzer, Jana Davidoff and Amanda Greenbaum for arranging and transcribing this interview
A distinctive, and prolific voice in Hollywood since arriving from his native Brazil, Marcelo Zarvos has created any number of musically explosive dramatic incidents – among them “Cell’s” zombie-making phone calls, the murderous bad cop behavior of “Brooklyn’s Finest” and “Beastly’s” groovily hip take on a fairy tale as old as time. A frequent collaborator with director Barry Levinson from the found footage parasitic horrors of “The Bay” to “Phil Spector’s” record producer gone mad, as well as a go-to composer for Showtime series like “Ray Donovan,” “The C Word” and “The Affair,” Marcelo Zarvos’ eclectic resume is no busier than when dealing with relationships in all of their humor, passion and pain. Starting out on such indies as “Tully” and “Kissing Jessica Stein,” Zarvos has brought comic quirk to such dramedies as “Please Give,” “The Beaver” and “Friends with Kids.” But it’s in his often gently affecting way with strings, piano and rhythm that Zarvos cuts to the heart of the matter in such moving scores as “Door in the Floor,” “Remember Me” and “The Words.”
Where Zarvos has often dealt with the strains of family ties, perhaps none of his work in that playing field has felt the angry, anguished weight of “Fences,” or required as much delicate restraint to express those emotions. While it marks the first studio adaptation of an August Wilson Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Fences” multi-hyphenate Denzel Washington certainly knows the territory of a writer who chronicled America’s working class black experience for the stage like no other, especially having played “Fence’s” volatile family matriarch Troy on Broadway. A baseball star that could have been somebody before ditching his dreams to become a garbage man clawing his way up a dead-end ladder, Troy seethes with anger for everyone in his Pittsburgh orbit. Facing the brunt of his rhapsodizing on life’s brunt realities is his hapless wife Rose (Viola Davis) and son Cory (Jovan Adepo), taking as much emotional, and sometimes physical abuse as they can bear, all while Troy’s battle-scarred, bugle-playing brother Gabriel (Mykelti Wilson) receives what tender mercies can be bestowed by Troy when not draining a government paycheck earned from his head injury.
While filled with impressive, and likely Oscar-nominated performances, the true star of “Fences” are August Wilson’s virtually non-stop words, monologues on philandering, fate and misery that are a music all their own. Subsequently, “Fences” isn’t a movie that requires non-stop scoring to say the least, let alone music that will rise above its harsh, sometimes screamed utterances. It’s a requirement that brings out Zarvos’ expertise in broken characters at its most impactfully hushed – all the better to contrast the verbal heat for scenes that border on exploding into outright violence. Yet it’s a score that yearns for something better in its soft piano and string melodies, an approach that’s unexpectedly lyrical, given the anger on hand. Troy’s madness at evading “Mr. Death” also comes across in eerie percussion, where not allowing the sadness that permeates the film to plunge into outright musical depression. For when Zarvos’ score does show up, however briefly, his work powerfully opens up August Wilson’s world to the big screen – showing off Zarvos as a musical wordsmith who knows here that nothing is more impactful than keeping his voice at a hushed, poetic whisper.
Tell us about what brought you to film scoring?
My first loves were stories and literature. I was an avid reader at a very young age, a real bookworm and it was a very natural transition from written stories to filmed ones, even before I was into music at all. Actually it was the movies that first awakened my interest in music. I remember the score for “The Sting” in particular pretty much being the catalyst for me wanting to learn to play the piano. All that marvelous ragtime music somehow really captured my imagination and I became obsessed with learning that music and played Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” for my first piano recital when I was 9. Film scores from the 70s and 80s were also a big source of inspiration for me. I fell in love of course with all the Spielberg/ Williams stuff. “Blade Runner” was another big one. I think by the time I was 13 I knew film scoring was what I wanted to pursue and basically bid my time playing in rock bands and studying classical music and jazz until I was ready to go to college.
I attended Berklee College with the intention of studying Film Scoring but felt it was too soon too specialize so much and decided to transfer to CalArts where I immersed myself in World Music, Experimental Jazz and 20th Century Classical music. After graduating from CalArts I moved to NYC and it was not until 10 years after I came to the U.S that I had my first actual scoring experience. Somehow during those 10 years I trusted film would come to me, I kept my ears open, watched A LOT of films and I spent my time performing my work with my group in downtown venues like the Knitting Factory as well as various art galleries and basically any space that would have me. I also recorded three albums for a Japanese label called MA Records that really allowed me to find my voice as a composer. The style was a mix of classical, jazz and world music and I would say it formed the basis of what I do to this day.
You scored quite a few independent movies like “Tully,” “Kissing Jessica Stein” and “The Mudge Boy” before drawing the ear of bigger films like “The Door in the Floor,” “Brooklyn’s Finest” and “The Good Shepard.” What was that journey like, and how do you think you finally made it to the prolific place you are now?”
I can pretty much trace everything I’ve done to the very first short film I did which was called “A Soccer Story” and was a real success in the festival circuit – starting with the Brasilia Film Festival where I won an award for Best Score and going all the way to an Academy Award nomination in the Short Film Category. My first feature came via a fellow Brazilian editor, Affonso Goncalves, who was cutting “Tully” and had heard my score for “A Soccer Story” and also had watched me perform on Brazilian TV some of my compositions. He suggested that the director Hillary Birmingham should meet me. We really hit it off and that was my entrance into the indie film world that has been a really big part of my career to this day.
From there on it was a pretty steady and gradual progression with “Mudge Boy” and “Kissing Jessica Stein.” Somehow I managed to just keep getting these indie jobs at a time when real breakouts were very much possible, like in the case of “Kissing Jessica Stein.” My real “big” break came with “The Door In the Floor,” once again courtesy of editor Affonso Goncalves, who put me in touch with the director Kip WIlliams. That was a big jump for me and also the beginning of a very fruitful collaboration that still continues to this day with all the folks from the former Good Machine film company. James Shamus, Ted Hope, Anthony Bregman and Anne Carey were all responsible for that project and opened more doors for me than I could count. James Shamus who at that time was the head of Focus Features brought me back to work on several of their projects like “Sin Nombre” and also additional music for “Brokeback Mountain.” “The Good Shepherd” came from Robert De Niro falling in love with my score from “Hollywoodland,” which was also a Focus Features project.
In the times that you’ve seen stage plays, what struck you about how music was used in them?
Having lived on and off in NY for a long time I’ve had the opportunity to watch many plays. I think in general the music in plays tends to be about transitions. Whether physical, psychological or chronological, music tends to work best in that way as far as I can tell. I did write a few scores for plays but the area that really interested me more was always dance and my scores for modern dance companies like Pilobolus and DanceBrazil were a really important part of my musical development.
How were you brought onto “Fences?” And were you familiar with August Wilson’s plays before taking the gig? If not, did you dive into them?
I had read his work in college but can’t say I was that familiar with it. And yes, of course I read “Fences” and really tried to imagine what music could do for this incredible piece of drama. My involvement really came the old-fashioned way from me putting a reel together and sending it to the producer Todd Black and Denzel. They really liked the music and asked me to meet with them after screening an early cut. It’s been a real series of pinching myself moments ever since I walked into the cutting room and meet Denzel in person.
Having worked with actor-directors like Robert De Niro for “The Good Shepard” and Jodie Foster on “The Beaver,” what do you think they bring to the process that a singularly occupied filmmaker might not? How was your collaboration with Denzel unique?
What these actor/ directors have in common is how they bring their mastery of performance into the director’s chair. With De Niro and Denzel in particular their aversion to anything that smells of over acting very much informs how they would direct me to score their films. Both demanded A LOT of restraint from the scores. One of the unique things about Denzel was that he was also the lead of the film and his performance could not have been more under a microscope. I consider it to be one of the great privileges of my life to have been able to watch him sculpt this incredible performance while remaining very faithful to the words and calmly and methodically do some of the hardest things one can attempt in film. Number one, adapting a successful play and number two creating a screen performance that is equal or better to the many roles we have seen from him, which by all means would be a superhuman effort to begin with when you think of “Training Day,” “Philadelphia” or “Glory.” His commitment to the film was 200%. He knew the material inside out having performed it and been awarded a Tony for the “Fences” revival in NYC a few years ago. It just was a marvel to watch an amazing actor being directed by an incredible director and they just happen to be the same person.
Did Denzel have any particular philosophy as to how the music needed to work in “Fences?” And how did the score evolve through the process?
He knew there would not be a lot of music and that the score would have to fight its way into the movie and really deliver where it counts. He also was very focused on the idea of “less is more” and forced me to really look at the totality of a scene, including the sound effects and most importantly the words to figure out how music could fit in. When we first met he said the score was the August Wilson text and music was there to enhance and support it. He also set a very high bar to everyone involved in the production. We had to be as good as August and either the work elevated the play or it has no place being there at all.
How do you think your score helped Denzel “open up” the play into a film?
I think it helps a lot to suggest the passing of time. To give it an epic and cinematic quality. I also think at times it can work as an ultra-focusing device so we pay even more attention to the words. It helps the emotional arc of the film. We don’t have score until the middle of the second reel about 30 minutes into the film. The score becomes increasingly present as we approach the climax of the film in the later reels. In a way one could almost say the score doesn’t peak until the very last scene of the film when as per August Wilson’s words “The sky opens up as wide as God’s closet”. So it really was all about restrain and just giving enough but never an inch more and to make sure music was never leading and always supporting and staying out of the way of the performances.
Your score isn’t “black” in terms of bringing in jazz and ethnic elements. Did you and Denzel want to go for a universally emotional approach as such?
Denzel had zero interest in having the score be overtly African American in any way. In his own words August Wilson IS the blues and we don’t need any more of it in the score. His vision was that “Fences” is a universal story that transcends all cultures and ethnicities. I happen to agree and when we first met that was one of the first things I told him about my own vision for the score.
How did you and Denzel want to place the score into the film, especially given how impactful nearly all of August Wilson’s dialogue is?
For me the dialogue in “Fences” is really like Shakespeare. You live, breath and die by the words. Denzel always said the score was the text and the music should always be looking to support it as much as possible. Interestingly enough both Denzel and Viola’s voice range were quite low and he became very fond of high violin textures that would hover well above their range and provide a subtle counterpoint to the complexity of the words without getting in the way.
Given how many scenes are on the edge of physical violence, the score is unusually lyrical. Was that a contrast you strove for?
Yes, very much so. We were not interested in ever mimicking or replicating what was on the screen already. The idea, and this is a big one for me in general, is that you don’t want to “double” anything – especially in the case of “Fences” The performances are so layered and nuanced that you are always better off staying out of the way and trying to provide a new dimension that may not be apparent to the naked eye.
There’s a real “love” – hate relationship with Troy in the film. How did you want to capture such a conflicted, often abusive character?
I always try to make things personal on any score I work on. So I really try to draw from my own experiences. We all have one or more Troys in our lives – people who both hurt and inspire us. And I was very much thinking of that as I wrote the music to so many of these scenes that make you cringe. But here is the thing. I believe we, as filmmakers, must love all the characters no matter how flawed they might be and withhold any form of contempt or prejudice. It is up to the audience to decide how they feel about them.
How did you want to play Troy’s increasing, heartbeat-like madness when it came to fighting “Mr. Death?”
For those scenes the trick was to keep it internal and avoid at all costs giving into any kind of “genre” type sound. The struggle for Troy is a spiritual one and I tried to make the music inform that, but again, not replicate the almost savage elements of the performance in the music. A heartbeat was very much a part of it. Interestingly enough those scenes were the only places in the score where I used any form of electronics to create this otherworldly heartbeat feel.
How did you want to play the character of Gabriel, especially when it came to his flawed, but heavenly note that ends the film?
Gabriel is the musical soul of the film. I believe August Wilson certainly thought that by naming Troy’s brother Gabriel, and the fact that he played the trumpet. We first hear the score when he appears and as a matter of fact he hears it before we do. And needless to say the final cue also comes literally out of his trumpet playing. A miracle happens there, and from a strained trumpet note, out comes this heavenly sound that becomes our final cue. I was frankly terrified of writing that cue but we were all very happy with how it came out in the end. After Denzel first heard that cue he said now it was up to Visual Fx to match the transcendent quality of the music. It really does open up the movie and takes us to this miraculous place that Rose, Cory and the family find themselves in.
Is it hard to compose such a restrained score that also has to communicate a tremendous amount of emotion, while dancing around so much dialogue?
You bet. I’ve done my fair of dialogue heavy dramas but this one is really at a very different level due to both the complexity and musicality of the dialogue and also the immense restraint Denzel wanted from the score. It really was a case of how much musical bang for the buck can you get from beginning to end. As a matter of fact while I was working on “Fences,” I made a large sign than hung just below the screen in my studio that said “LESS IS MORE” and often would sit and stare at it for long periods of time while trying to crack the heart and soul of Troy Maxin.
Perhaps the most listened-to project you’ve scored is for Showtime’s “Ray Donovan,” which essentially updated the “Hollywood fixer” you scored for “Hollywoodland” to the modern day. What’s your fascination for these industry enforcers, and why do you think that “Ray Donovan” has caught on like it has?
Ray Donovan, like the detective Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) in “Hollywoodland” is a modern day super hero. With all his flaws the one constant is that Ray always delivers in the end, no matter what. I feel the cat and mouse element of the story is the heart of the show’s success. The other element of course is the incredible group of ever evolving, crazy and lovable characters like Mickey Donovan (Jon Voight) whose charm and humor work as such a perfect balance to Ray’s serious and brooding performance. My personal fascination is the whole anti-hero thing and the ability to tap on that dark side of the characters.
You’ve done particularly impressive work for HBO “real life” telefilms like the financial collapse of “Too Big To Fail” and the Al Pacino biopics “You Don’t Know Jack” and “Phil Spector.” What draws you to these often troubling subjects?
The thing hat attracts me the most to all of these HBO films has always been the excellence in filmmaking. The projects you mentioned were directed by the late Curtis Hanson. Barry Levinson and David Mamet. I mean, these are heroes of mine whose body of work has not only been incredibly influential for me personally but I would say to the entire world of filmmaking. Another fun element in those projects are the HBO folks themselves. Both the head of HBO films Len Amato and music supervisor Evyen Klean are not only immensely talented and filmmaker friendly but also have become good friends over the years. So it really is always a no brainer when one of those projects come up.
Two other impactful Showtime series you’ve scored have been for “The Big C” and “The Affair.” What have those experiences been like?
“The Big C” was my first foray into episodic television and was quite a steep learning curve. But we really had a blast creating that unique blend of humor and pain in equal measures. As for “The Affair,” all I can say is the show has been like a creative paradise for me. Show runner Sarah Treem has from the beginning given me so much freedom and trust to do what I feel is right. She’s created a situation that is the antithesis of the “too many cooks” syndrome that can affect so many TV shows. I consider “The Affair” to be as true an expression of my artistic soul as anything I have ever done and probably will ever do.
Your score for the Stephen King adaptation “Cell,” which finally came out this year, is particularly creepy in capturing the killer signal of technology. Tell us about how you created that particularly unnerving sound?
Everything started with “The Pulse” in that one. At first we wanted to score everything electronically but it became clear the music needed to emphasize more the savagery of the “phoners” who had been infected and in the end the score is very much a blend of electronics and late 20th century extended orchestral techniques. One of the challenges was how to navigate a very thick soundscape that was created by sound design team. In the end I was very happy with the result and felt it was very much a stretch out of my comfort zone.
Would you like to do more scores that draw on your Latin heritage like “Sin Nombre,” especially given the rising prejudice towards immigrants, and foreign citizens the world over?
Oh yes. I would really love to do that. I have also have a fruitful, ongoing collaboration with Brazilian director Bruno Barreto on “Last Stop 174” and “Reaching for the Moon.” Having the opportunity to incorporate the sound of my native land into my work is always both a blast and a tremendous privilege.
Why do you think you have a particular talent for intimate dramas like “Fences,” “Remember Me” and “The Words?”
I believe it goes back to my love of words and literature. These projects all have one element in common which is a real devotion to the spoken word. They’ve taught me how to write around complex dialogue and be expressive and nuanced. A lot of the times when I write for films like “The Door in the Floor,” I will literally turn off the video and just write to the rhythm of the words, letting the text itself be the clock and guide to the music at all times.
What do you think that “Fences” will show Hollywood in terms of its play adaptations?
I think there have been amazing play adaptations. Mike Nichols alone did so many iconic ones. I do think it’s always a challenge as the medium is so close to film to begin with, as opposed to a book adaptation for instance, but in the hands of a passionate director, whether he or she may come from theater or not, plays will always be a rich source of material. I just feel so lucky to be a part of such a special one.
Given that the score for “Fences” is relatively short in the film, do you think the music is more impactful for its restraint, or would you have wanted more of it? On that note, do you think there’s something to be said for shorter-running scores when many movies seem to have too much music?
I think “Fences” has exactly the amount of music it needs. At first I kept trying to find ways to add more but as it’s often the case the more I saw the movie through the eyes of the director the more I realized the music had to be incredibly subtle and just the right amount. Remember, there is NO music in the play so whatever we ended up with is already a big addition to a play that frankly needs very little to begin with. And yes, I do believe less music does tend to value the importance of the score more. That is not to say there should be a “one size fits all” approach to spotting films. As a matter of fact I feel as composers out job is to always find the perfect balance. Not more and not less than what is needed for any particular film. As Barry Levinson would say to me, if you listen carefully the movie will spit out all the music it does not want or need.
“Fences” opens on December 25th, with Marcelo Zarvos’ score available on Sony Classical Records January 6th HERE
Visit Marcelo Zarvos’ website HERE
Click on the CD covers to purchase from this list
(Johann Johannsson / Deutsche Grammophon)
An Icelander whose intensely psychological, yet still melodically accessible modernist scores like “Prisoners” and “Sicario” speak in alien languages of subsonic strings and nerve-chilling brass at last gets his actual close encounter as he translates the Rorschach Test language of obelisk / monolith dwelling inter-dimensional deities here. Johannsson brilliantly captures both a sense of wonder and fear with beholding the mind-boggling, verbally-scrambled unknown as whale cry motifs join with alternately moaning and chattering voices, backed by a strong orchestral sound that serves as a powerful universal musical translator in a way that’s both harmonically understandable, and profoundly strange in a soundtrack that now elevates Johannsson to level of film scoring’s Gyorgy Ligeti with the score equivalent of “2001’s” climactic head rush into the experimental unknown.
(Michael Giacchino / Hollywood Records)
Michael Giacchino is the Composer Supreme when it comes to being the hardest working musician in the genre multiplex realm this year, keeping up a consistent sense of symphonic wonder with the likes of “Zootopia,” “Star Trek: Beyond” and a little prequel called “Star Wars: Rogue One.” But it’s Giacchino’s first franchise venture into The Marvel Universe that casts a particularly beguiling spell with “Doctor Strange,” not only for summoning up all the thematically heroic orchestral forces at his command, but also drawing up the musical mystical arts of way-out reverse sampling, the harpsichord and the sitar, creating a crazy-quilt melodic universe that’s the equivalent of a mind-bending Steve Ditko splash page from the original comics, a devotion to the source material that makes Scott Derrickson’s movie such a particularly joyous adaptation. Giacchino’s admiration for this kind of colorfully iconic stuff always brings out a real sense of fun and excitement well suited to each blockbuster, here conveying a particular excitement of a very talented fanboy romping about a fantastical playing ground he’s always longed to be a part of – in this case a constantly morphing, topsy-turvy cosmos he zooms about with groovily psychedelic panache.
GODS OF EGYPT
(Marco Beltrami / Varese Sarabande)
Having played “Knowing’s” apocalypse and “I Robot’s” mechanical revolt for all of its wonderful orchestral bombast in the service of Egypt-born filmmaker Alex Proyas, Marco Beltrami really gets to go to cosmically symphonic town for this wonderful exercise in throwing any semblance of restraint to the winds as he pays tribute to these “Gods,” as well as his mentor Jerry Goldsmith with enough sweepingly memorable, Middle Eastern-style themes to fill Set’s treasure vault, It’s the stuff that bold Saturday matinee thrills are made of in service of giant beings with a habit of transforming into metallic beasts, or a flat Earth being guarded against an equally gigantic demon – waved off with music that’s a terrifically fun exclamation point to wonders within Proyas’ unsung vision of “Planet Egypt.”
(Benjamin Wallfisch & Pharrell Williams & Hans Zimmer)
The uniquely suited team of Wallfisch, Williams and Zimmer more than have the right stuff to musically chronicle the below-the-line black women whose math-magician skills truly got the space race off the ground. It’s a combination of soul, futuristic percussion and symphonic pride that seamlessly rockets with an inspirational vibe, never failing to hear melodic optimism in the face of almost unbelievable prejudice, finally uniting in a common, movingly melodic goal that’s greatly empowered by Williams’ sense of energetic vocalese – though his vocal beat box stylings stop understandably short of a chorus of “Happy,” given the less-than gleeful era its heroines’ music nobly gains its determined respect from.
(Mark Mancina / Walt Disney Records)
An animated scoring ethnomusicologist second to none for Disney with his ventures to Africa in “Tarzan” and Alaska for “Brother Bear,” Mark Mancina sails, and soars higher than ever as he hits Polynesia’s south seas for “Moana.” Already a rhythmatist of note with “Speed,” Mancina combines drum percussion with the sounds of instruments as old as the island gods, then puts them in league with the west’s Hollywood tradition of a rollicking symphony orchestra for a respectfully thrilling adventure score that hears a universal language of heartfelt Disney Princess emotion, along with The Rock’s brawny antics for a thoroughly fun, culturally heroic splash.
(Cliff Martinez / Milan Records)
As the composer who not only helped launch indie films and their often-corresponding electric sound with “Sex Lies and Videotape,” Cliff Martinez has used his distinctive, crystalline voice to push the surreal boundaries of synths, making it only natural that the similarly transgressive vision of filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn would choose Martinez to play the darkly rhythmic voice of “Drive” and “Only God Forgives.” But it’s the gamine innocence of “Neon Demon’s” model that brings out Martinez’s electric LSD like never before. Sparkling with slick, sick musical colors, Martinez conjures the artificiality of a realm where looks are everything, an all-consuming wall of knowingly hip sound that’s utterly hypnotic in its little girl lost fairly tale feel, gnarled samples and unnerving atmospheres that perfectly complement Refn’s truly sick sense of humor while creating a memorable, plastic musical realm all its own.
(Abel Korzeniowski / Silva Screen Records)
If Bernard Herrmann’s music was about resurrecting the ghosts of Straus and Wagner, then Poland’s Abel Korzeniowski has re-incarnated himself as that most darkly romantic of all American movie composers in service of the impeccable, Hitchcockian spirit of fashion designed-turned-filmmaker Tom Ford. Now they move together from the positively demure “Single Man” to the cunning sordidness of “Nocturnal Animals,” as done up in the height of LA art chic-meets white trash murderousness, Given a multi-story enigma of a film, Korzeniowski’s ultra-lush themes beautifully dress up unspeakable behavior, a rapture of erotic orchestral melody whose contrast with the onscreen grotesqueries is exactly the point as his music shivers with anticipation towards the next shocking chapter. Scores rarely get this operatic in their unrestrained string and piano passion, an unabashed approach that I’m sure Herrmann himself would be beguiled by as he might hear Korzeniowski raising his ghost in the height of style.
THE RED TURTLE
(Laurent Perez Del Mar / Quartet)
Having done the animated soundtracks for the transcontinental boy’s adventure “Zarafa” and the distinctly adult horror anthology “Fears of the Dark,” French composer Laurent Perez Del Mar gets marooned on a desert island with beautifully poetic results in “The Red Turtle.” For what’s essentially a cartoon version of “Castaway” that’s even more movingly profound, Del Mar draws upon an elemental spirit of flowing, gentle melody and rhythmic danger, his score all the more vital in serving as storytelling, given that barely a word is uttered in this movie. With a haunting theme that’s often accompanied by female voice, Del Mar’s flowing orchestral melody captures a lyricism that’s worthy of Debussy’s “La Mer” in communicating the literally transformative effect of nature on man, his lovely themes for aching violin capturing despair and acceptance, playful pizzicatos embodying a renewed sense of hope (as well as endearingly comic crabs) and exotic percussion hearing the mystery of an island and its outlying sea. Like Michael Dubo de Wit’s remarkable film that draws upon the pastel naturalism of Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli for what might be their best film in a line of classics, Del Mar’s music is the equivalent of those soft brushstrokes on a big screen canvas of visual poetry, a score that profoundly captures a life at first seemingly lost at sea, only to soar under, and above it though its graceful music that touches the silent tides of nature’s life force.
(Clint Eastwood & Christian Jacob & Tierney Sutton & The Tierney Sutton Band / Varese Sarabande)
An accomplished jazz musician and connoisseur of America’s musical art form well beyond his other gigs of directing and acting, Clint Eastwood’s scores have always been about memorable thematic simplicity, memorable melodies that other artists have helped him expound upon in such scores as “Unforgiven” and “Flags of Our Fathers.” But never has Eastwood’s restrained jazz approach proved so unusual, or impactful than in the place of what’s essentially a disaster film with “Sully,” whose cockpit is comfortably filled in by artists Christian Jacob, Tierney Sutton and her band. With the score never overplaying the already heightened drama of the most miraculous crash landing ever, “Sully’s” uses the cool of jazz to represent the spirit of a captain who remained the height of calm under pressure. It’s an unexpected, tuneful approach that proves tremendously moving, particularly when Sutton gives turns the theme into song with “Flying Home.”
10 CLOVERFIELD LANE
(Bear McCreary / Sparks & Shadows)
A composer who certainly knows his way around sci-fi scoring with the likes of “Battlestar Galactica” and “Europa Report” gets to enter The Twilight Zone in the confines of a crazed survivalist’s bunker. Leave it to McCreary’s cat-and-crazy symphonic suspense for its heroine to explore the nooks and crannies of his “Lane’s” confines when the composer isn’t rushing for the escape hatch, finally opening up the score’s impressive thematic structure to take on space invader proportions worthy of John Williams. It’s an A-plus lesson in how to exhilaratingly milk a potentially claustrophobic soundtrack situation for all of its big reveal worth.
(Alex Somers / Lakeshore)
More proof that those in touch with Iceland’s musical spirit animal are blessed with an ability to capture profound emotion through unusual means, American-born Alex Somers’ work with the band Sigur Ros (and its essential continuation with its bandmate as Jonsi and Alex) now yields a score of singular spirituality as Somers tracks a family of ultra liberals who’ve have truly gone off society’s reservation. His soundtrack’s beautifully ethereal melodies are a unique mix of alt. rock sampling, angelic choruses, Native American winds, accordion and the music box percussion all resonating with the gently troubled vibrations of normal childhood lost, along with the, lyrical nature of mad individuality. It’s a truly “Fantastic” road trip of reckoning and reconciliation that lights a soulful funeral pyre for alt. scoring.
EDDIE THE EAGLE
(Matthew Margeson / Varese Sarabande)
In a year where 80’s retro electronics are all the rage when it comes to the sci-fi throwback realms of “Stranger Things,” leave it to Matthew Margeson to salute to the era’s days of sports-ready synth glory with this run down the slope of power-pop electro artists like Harold Faltermeyer, Bill Conti and Vince Di Cola Margeson also layers on inspirational strings for his tribute to The Day’s most unlikely Olympic ski champion of them all. “Eddie” is not only spot on with its glorious throwback beats and Eddie Van Halen rock swagger, but also the defiant underdog attitude of Margeson’s work on the “Kick-Ass” series to boot, making for a score that plays the retro thrill of victory with wonderful smile with just a bit of awesome computer keyboard cheese on its goggles after the big run.
(Rupert Gregson-Williams / Varese Sarabande)
Rupert Gregson-Williams delivers a devastating war score that plays both parts emotional inner peace and the terror of one of the Pacific’s most devastating WW2 battles, a potent segue from melodically soothing, rustic nobility to the overwhelming, Asian-inflected darkness of waves of suicidal Japanese troops. Far from a musical time capsule, the rhythmic talent that flows through the musical lifeblood of Williams and his brother Harry make for the stirring, rhythmically contemporary heroism of a conscientious object as he rappels our boys from the heart of darkness. Yet always at “Hacksaw’s” center is a rousing sense of near-angelic nobility that hears hope amidst war’s instinctual need to kill.
THE JUNGLE BOOK
(John Debney / Walt Disney Records)
One might say it was his Disney family birthright that made John Debney one of the Mouse House’s most reliable composers with the likes of “The Emperor’s New Groove” and “”Hocus Pocus,” let alone a reliable collaborator of director Jon Favreau on “Zathura” and “Iron Man 2” – all ensuring that Debney would get the plum assignment of that filmmaker’s live action remake of a charmingly carefree cartoon classic. That Debney’s muscularly exotic score doesn’t play like symphonic kid’s stuff is emblematic as to why “The Jungle Book” exceeded just about everyone’s wildest expectations, as Debney’s majestic score that proudly swings through the jungle with Max Steiner’s “King Kong” in terms of chest-beating, old-school symphonic power. For while the charm of the Sherman Brother’s songs might make an appearance here and there, Debney’s often scary score sings with the danger and excitement that make for a great, exotic boy’s adventure, blending choral majesty with drum-pounding savagery, yet in a way that’s firmly on the studio’s musical reservation as they terrifically expand their horizons with robustly flesh and blood scoring.
LA LA LAND
(Justin Hurwitz / Interscope)
While referencing 80s synth scores is all the cool millennial rage now, it’s also nice to see their soundtrack tastes can go way back as well to the 50’s and 60’s singing and dancing days of George and Ira Gershwin and Michel Legrand, as embodied by the composing-directing partnership of Justin Hurwitz and Damien Chazelle. Ditching the drum-smashing darkness of their brilliant “Whiplash,” the duo create an effervescent updating of “An American in Paris” and “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” by way of Technicolor throwback LA. Working with lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, Hurwitz comes up with a truly wondrous tune in “City of Stars,” using it to form a beautifully thematic basis for the surprising amount of underscore here, his excellent, spot-on retro arrangements going from the simplest guitar and piano to swooning, planetarium-elevated orchestral melody. There’s also more than enough reason to convert jazz haters as well as Hurwitz effortlessly segues from O.G. improvisation to the electronically hip in this engaging slice of musical LA dream life and its myriad musical styles, turning a seemingly lost golden age of musical storytelling into the hippest tune around.
THE MONKEY KING 2
(Christopher Young / Intrada)
As a master of unabashed, epic sci-fi and supernatural scoring with the likes of the world-shattering “Core” and the Asian-accented “Grudge,” Christopher Young is an ideal travelling companion for a legendary Chinese manimal trickster god, whose second outing with him is even more spectacular than their first journey to the west. With the morally uncertain “Monkey King 2” battling mountain-sized skeleton demons and flying witches, he’s the closest thing that China has to a superhero (and likely one of the oldest in the world at that), Young jumps off such robust Marvel scores as “Spider-Man 3” and “Ghost Rider” for a series of hellzapoppin orchestral battles, as a battery of millennia-old Asian instruments like the erhu are skillfully blended with raging electric guitars, the score’s numerous themes bursting with the honor of eternal warriors and choruses thundering from the heavens. The score is given extensive action workouts that draw on Young’s rousing magical powers where the symphonic sky is literally the limit. Yet his score is just as grounded in the calming, melodic lyricism of the Buddhist Sutra as it is spectacular, magic-powered musical action that Dr. Strange would be envious of.
(Nicholas Britell / Lakeshore Records)
An urban, down low relationship forged in equal parts tenderness and violent self-hatred receives a contrastingly refined, classical chamber treatment from Nicholas Britell, who last dealt with race in the somberly effective “Free State of Jones,” Upon hearing the refined strains of “Moonlight,” you might mistakenly think you’re listening to a costume drama, the kind of music that accompanies emotionally constricted aristocrat. Yet that might be the ironic point of Britell’s hauntingly beautiful score for two urban men’s potentially punishing relationship through the years. Beyond its delicate string and piano approach, Britell also affects the instrumentation through a hip-hop “chopped and screwed” technique that only adds to the score’s poignantly anguished emotion.
THE SECRET LIVES OF PETS
(Alexandre Desplat / Backlot Music)
Sure French composer Alexandre Desplat had no shortage of big, serious work this year like “American Pastoral” and “The Light Between the Oceans” (while not forgetting his affectionate score for the seriously bad singing of “Florence Foster Jenkins”). But the most exuberantly enjoyable soundtrack in any composer’s talking animal realm goes to the Gershwin-accented “The Secret Lives of Pets.” It’s a sort of “Rhapsody in Blue” for the CGI toon set as 30’s-style swing mixes it up with bouncy poodle cuteness and bridge-hanging adventure that manages to hit every pet nationality to boot – all cohesively playing the madcap toon humor without Mickey Mouse’ing the comedy. For a composer often beset with tragedy, “Pets” proves that nothing can be as enervating or fun as hearing the pure joy of being unleashed. The result is Desplat’s pure, lushly sweet imagination on an outing with a big, tail-wagging, jazzily nostalgic heart.
STRANGELY IN LOVE
(Austin Wintory & The Controversy / T-65b Records)
Amin Matalqa’s beguilingly quirky updating of Dostoyevsky’s “The Idiot” plays like a Buster Keaton silent that somehow has a literary master’s dialogue in it, all the better to get the most wonderfully eccentric score this side of Jon Brion’s “Punch-Drunk Love” in depicting the fitful relationship between two even more eccentric characters – courtesy of composer Austin Wintory and the LA indie group The Controversy. Way more French than Russian in nature, Wintory’s music casts its romantic charm with accordion, harp, harmonica and any number of styles that range from Spaghetti western to whimsical waltzes, pirate jigs and tango It’s the score equivalent to opening Felix the Cat’s magic bag and having all sorts of amazingly inventive wackadoo music jump out of it with unexpected grace that’s as absurd as it is lovely.
THE COMPOSERS TO WATCH
Having helped create an all-singing serial killer tuner for “London Road,” Adam Cork uses his instrumental voice to capture the despair and ebullience of North Carolina author Thomas Wolfe for “Genius,” (Milan Records) his Americana-accented score capturing the unique, orchestral spark of literary inspiration along with the jazz bounce of a copious writer’s enthusiasm on the loose in The Big City.
Writer-director Paul Dalio devastatingly autobiographical “Touched With Fire” (Lakeshore Records) also shows him sparking with musical talent as his score rises with the chiming, child-like wonder of impossible optimism, then plunges to surreal despair in his score’s entrancing mood swings that conveys lives gone askew with mental illness, his haunting, religious-like musical portrait making us understand the price that comes with artistic inspiration born from bipolar enthusiasm.
The dregs of society become industrial music zombies running through an NYC tenement, driven to madness by Daniel Davies and Sebastian Robertson in “Condemned” (Lakeshore Records). Chips off the angered, experimental rock block in their relations to Dave Davies and Robbie Robertson, Davies and Robertson fuse a grungy, 80’s exploitation synth style along with glowhead techno bounce and bebop jazz to create an electrified, eerily pulsating sound right in retro-line with the likes of “It Follows” and “Stranger Things,” but with a effective, raw murkiness befitting the evil low-rent surroundings that allowed “Condemned” to carve out its own, effectively evil horror score identity.
There’s a true, lived-in lyrical poetry to Steven Emerson’s surreal approach to “The Nine” (CD Baby), a dream-like score for a documentary about the down-and-out of Modesto California, their lives embodied with raw guitar chords, industrial samples, lost soul voices and hallucinatory vibes that make for the most interesting and poetic garage rock trip through through the American wasteland since Sonic Youth’s soundtrack for “Made in USA.”
After hearing England’s knightly magic for the series “Merlin,” James Gosling impressively segues to the big screen with far darker, Irish faerie folk that inhabit “The Hallow” (Movie Score Media). Beautifully verdant strings soon give way to the truly frightening string and sampled moss that fuses together with the real science-based reason for the once-human things chasing our frightened scientist family through the woods, terrifically effective horror-action and atmospheric scoring that not only plays eco body horror, but also a beautiful sense of choral tragedy for a clan that really should have listened to locals’ warnings to not go into the Emerald Isle’s forbidden woods.
The “Final Fantasy” movie saga has come a long, technical way from the game-changing, Elliot Goldenthal-scored film of 2001. Now after an even longer musical history of handling action films and trailer soundtracks form “Full Contact” to “Dishonored 2,” composer John R. Graham impressively carries on the saga’s epic musical tradition with “Kingsglaive,” matching its astonishing mo-cap visuals with a score that captures both the characters’ emotional stakes as well as the furiously drumming symphonic fury of its hellzapoppin mash-up of steampunk, sword and sorcery and giant monsters. It’s music that hits every aspect of a video game mythos unlike any other with impressively sweeping, metal-clanging devotion that turns CG into musical flesh and blood with a true sense of choral majesty.
Alt. singer and songwriter Julia Holter turns the introspective sound of such albums as “Tragedy” and “Ekstasis” into the indie-score grit of an upstart fighter refusing to stay down, becoming one of the few female composers to step into the boxing movie ring as she captures a stripped-down and ultimately orchestral inspirational spirit for the terrifically unsung drama “Bleed For This” (Milan Records)
One can easily imagine voices appearing in the head of anyone who’s been marooned on an island for a suicidal amount of time, but Andy Hull and Robert McDowell take that idea to a whole other thematically multi-faceted level with “Swiss Army Man” (Lakeshore Records) with a score that’s entirely based around vocals, from whimsical humming to joyful, drum-sailing shouts and hilariously profane songs (with even an a capella “Jurassic Park” theme thrown in) – music that also helps to bring to life a farting corpse for extra, eccentric measure.
Patrick Watson gets to the bottom of why a child made a seemingly suicide plunge for the “9th Life of Louis Drax” (Varese Sarabande), and in turn opens up a captivating, surreal world of musical possibilities as he enters an enchanted, subconscious realm of eerie voices and hallucinogenic samples, as coming back to reality with suspense-thriller stylism, as well as waltz-like rhythms. They’re two equally effective music realms that together unlock the film’s mystery for an enthralling listen.
East meets west in the sumptuous teaming of Chinese composer Ye Xiaogang (“Shower”) and the scoring debut American Chad Cannon (an orchestrator for Howard Shore and Alexandre Desplat) with “The Cairo Declaration”(Movie Score Media), an gorgeously soaring, red-flag waving WW2 score about the Allies teaming with China to stop the Japanese advance in the South Pacific. From the sweeping, Oriental rhythms of its main theme to the dark brass of enemy invaders, the patriotic march of Chairman Mao’s resistance and the heart-rending melody of love sacrificed to protect the motherland. Above all, it’s an impressively epic score that firmly declares its love for sweeping melodies a la John Barry, let alone any Hollywood film from the WW2 era worthy of its nobly symphonic salt for two composers signaling their thematic talents.
Composer Jay Wadley creates an elegant sense of anguish for “Indignation” (Nettwerk), a Philip Roth adaptation, set in the day when heavy petting was an unimaginable college crime. With passion bursting at the seam, and hopelessly hemmed in by not-so book smart intellect, Wadley creates a score of devastating, elegant subtlety, using the naturally sorrowful violin for all of its Ivy League tortured worth, along with a gently regretful piano. It’s a subtle requiem for a young love affair that should have been, if only not for over-intellectualization and the very real, primitive brutality of war.
As an invigorating wave of “modern classical” scores like “Indignation,” “Moonlight” and “Arrival” now take film music in uniquely interesting directions, the utterly bizarre and hypnotic originality of 2013’s “Under the Skin” was the equivalent of an alien landing in arthouse land to broadcast its musical language. Weirdly pitched strings, sound masses and unearthly metallic samples created the equivalent of a seductive hive mind, its heartbeat eerily slithering with just enough melody to keep the listener from Kafka-esque madness.
“Under the Skin’s” sonic shock of the new was created by the kind of avant-garde composer who could only come from nowhere. However, the earthly, pleasantly unpretentious English-accented form of Mica Levi is most definitely known to indie music fans under her stage name of “Micachu.” With her group evolved from Micachu & The Shapes to Good Sad Happy Band, Levi’s boundary-pushing tastes were insured by growing up with similarly eclectic musician parents. DJ’ing, commissioning classical symphonic pieces and playing alt. festivals the world over in the service of such albums as “Never” and “Jewellery,” Levi honed the kind of unconventional voice perfect for breakout first score efforts, especially given such well-fittingly esoteric subject matter like “Skin.”
That chilling, gut-wrenching spirit pervades Mica Levi’s next score for “Jackie” in feeling, though without quite as much musical confrontation given that she’s scoring a First Lady, as opposed to an E.T. succubus. Yet don’t expect harmony as beautifully fitted as the costumes Jackie Kennedy used to put the nation under the spell of Camelot. Instead, the somber direction of Pablo Larrain (“Nasty Baby”) and the devastating performance by Natalie Portman assist Levi in creating a gut-punch of a soundtrack. Following the shell-shocked Jackie through her husband’s assassination, LBJ’s inauguration and her planning a potentially dangerous public funeral for JFK, Levi’s music resounds with melancholy. Told in an elegiac, neo-classical style, “Jackie” is full of strong, yet melodically hesitant themes, strings never quite coming together to make a grand statement. Dark military percussion conveys the continued threat of assassination, weirdly descending strings a White House world breaking apart, while somber piano confronts children asking where their father is. It’s shell-shocked, neo-chamber music that’s full of dark heartbreak, yet powerfully conveys a woman who’s far less fragile than her public image as she rises from unimaginable grief to self-determination and worth.
Once again getting inside a character who’s unconventional in spite of their beautiful appearance, “Jackie” is striking proof once again that there’s likely no composer on earth like Mica Levi.
What was it like growing up with musicians for parents, particularly given their passion for record collecting?
There was lots of music, particularly devout classical music, as well as jazz, funk and prog-rock records. My dad also played a lot of music that was banned by The Third Reich and really obscure, far-out compositions from that time. As for me, I didn’t like all of the pop music that was about when I was young. I preferred The Beatles and Michael Jackson, which was a bit older.
Audiences, and critics had truly never heard a score like “Under the Skin.” Were you surprised by the enthusiastic reaction it got, especially considering how experimental the score was?
Ummm… yeah! I think I was surprised. It was a totally new, life-changing thing. But I knew when I was on the film that something good was going to come out of it. I felt that we had a bit of a guarantee, because we’d worked on it day and night for ten months. And they’d been working on it before I came in even longer than that. So I thought, “there’s got to be something good about this!”
People at first might ask what the composer of “Under the Skin” is doing scoring a movie about Jackie Kennedy. But then, you realize that “Jackie” is far from a typical biopic. Did that strike you when they asked you to score it?
It didn’t, because I guess I’ve always thought of Jackie Kennedy, as having these fucked up moments, so I thought a film about her could be quite dark. I also think that Jackie Kennedy and JFK had a situation that wasn’t entirely ordinary anyway.
There might not seem to be any connections between “Under the Skin” and “Jackie.” But when you think about it, they both deal with a woman who’s an enigma to the public around her. They’re completely mysterious subjects.
I think for me there was a moment when I thought, “Oh yes. It’s another movie about another woman with brown hair!” But other than that, the musical process of these two films felt very different.
Right from the start, “Jackie’s” score disorients you with this plunging musical effect. How did you achieve that?
It’s actually a really easy “effect” that I’ve always been drawn to for two reasons. One is that it used to be a really romantic thing to do, a rich, lush, indulgent musical move to sweep you away somewhere. It’s really easy to achieve with a guitar that has frets, which separates all of the pitches. Within the traditional orchestral string family in the orchestra, there aren’t any frets, so you just have a continuous glissando that hits all of the frequencies in between each note, so it’s very natural if you ever pick up a violin, cello or a base that you just keep your finger on it and slide it up. It’s a characteristic string sound that’s a player’s instinctual first move on the instrument. It’s almost like a grotesque dance move that seems “elastic,” if that makes sense. There was a period of time when people played classical music in that way, with a lot of stylistic “slides,” which felt like the era of “Jackie.” It’s kind of a warped thing that happens if you slow something down – like equipment before it becomes a drawn-out, viscous sound. I’ve always been interested in distorting music in that way with speed, as opposed to loudness.
Usually, themes have a “straight,” flowing line in scores, but here everything is hesitant, almost in pieces, much like Jackie, who’s in shock through a great deal of the film.
What happened was that I wrote a lot of the music before I saw the film. I sent it to Pablo, saying this is kind of what I’ve come up with so far as I thought about what Jackie might like, what her musical tastes might be from my point of view in this period of time. And a lot of that ended up in the film. So scoring “Jackie” wasn’t quite as to picture as what films usually are. But I tried to link the music key-wise as much as possible so that it was all subconsciously connected somehow. I didn’t always manage to do that, because sometimes when I transposed things, Pablo said, “That sounds different. I liked it before!” And I was like, “Ok. Fine. I’ll put it back!”
You really capture the gut punch of a person going through an awful event. Did you draw on any personal, nightmarish experiences to create that musical sensation?
I think I have felt like that. I’ve always wondered about people who really suffer. I don’t suffer like some of the people in this world do. Far from it. But I wonder if humans’ capacities are different. So if someone is in a very life-threatening, desperate situation somewhere, do they have a wider thermometer than someone who is in a not-very desperate situation? Can they still inflict the same amount of highs and lows?
You also manage to capture a “classical” sound akin to the composer Arvo Part in “Jackie.”
I think Jackie listened to a lot of classical music. While I wouldn’t cite Arvo Part as a specific influence on my score, “Jackie” draws from the older Baroque stuff that surely influenced him.
Because the film is so dark, I imagine that your music couldn’t be depressing all of the time, especially when there’s a witty pizzicato theme between Jackie and her press handler Nancy.
Yeah, for sure. I thought the music needed to lift the film up a little bit more, so I sent a lot of lighter stuff to Pablo actually, but it didn’t end up on the soundtrack. But then you don’t want to be contrived and write something that ends up being freaky, which is very easy to do, especially when it’s accompanying older looking footage. The more chirpy the music is underneath it, the more psychotic and terrifying it ends up sounding!
There’s also a powerful march theme that taps into the unspoken “conspiracy” aspect of JFK’s assassination.
It’s military, almost like gunshots. Jackie’s whole situation is very official. She’s almost never, ever alone in the film. There are always two guys standing around to chaperone her, and she’s “kicked out” very quickly at Lyndon B. Johnson is sworn in on the airplane in Dallas. Suddenly some guy has taken her husband’s job. So it’s all very much like “Next!” So that regimented thing felt like a no-brainer to me. Someone just gave me the CD of John Williams’ score to “JFK.” I’ve never seen that film, or heard its score. But someone told me he used snare in it, so apparently I wasn’t wrong in that approach!
When people hire you, do you think they realize they’re going to get something really out of the ordinary?
Yeah. I guess they presumably want the sound of something I’ve done of a film before. But if they asked me to repeat a score, then I’d probably find that hard to do. Not on principle, but it’d be hard to do intentionally. So they shouldn’t ask that of me. They should trick me into doing it! But funnily enough, I never think any music is “weird.” Sometimes it just works! But that’s just me. I went on this film music-judging thing once, which I have very minimum experience with. I didn’t want to do it, but felt like I should take the opportunity. I got there, and sure enough, I couldn’t do it! That’s because I think you’ve got to respect anyone writing music and their point of view. It wasn’t my place to judge them, because I don’t have a very firm hold on what’s good, bad, weird or normal. I felt like I wasn’t very good at that role. I was clueless in that.
It strikes me that there’s a whole new wave of modern classical composers who are now changing the face of film music to create something very intellectual and demanding in a medium that’s about serving up mostly “understandable” music.
I think there’ve been trends and styles of films, which means that it’s easier for people to process them. I’m not a “film composer” in that sense though, as I’ve just written pieces of music. But there’s clout in trying to write fully formed music to picture, because then it’s generally better. There’s a real skill to that. And then there’s a whole phase now of people putting pre-existing songs into movie soundtracks, which changes up the game a lot
You have an utterly unique voice as a composer that accompanies absolutely original films. But do you think you could score a Will Ferrell movie to picture?
Cool! I’d certainly be up for trying. I would love to do a comedy.
Travel to a mournful White House with Mica Levi’s score for “Jackie” on Milan Records HERE
Go “Under the Skin” with Mica Levi’s alien score HERE