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The guy problems of fawn-eyed rom-com star Anne Hathaway in the American big city and nowhere town. Asia’s pesky buildings that get in the way of a man in a big monster suit (or at least in the good old pre-CGI days). Never shall these two movie worlds, or protagonists meet – especially in the case of a composer whose lovers usually get split asunder by Cylons, Walkers or nasty British soldiers. But there’s got to be a first for everything for Hollywood, and Bear McCreary. In this case, it’s “Colossal,” wherein Hathaway’s woman on the edge of a nervous breakdown through a series of bad luck relationships goes back home to sort her wreck of a life out – only to discover that her angst is controlling a major, monstrous wrecking ball in the form of a creature terrorizing Korea’s capital of Seoul. Gradually breaking through her alcoholic, guy-fueled haze, Gloria takes control of her life by making the beast half a planet away do some unexpectedly silly things (or at least the kind of wincing stuff Godzilla did back in his drunken, dancing Elvis period).
However, when you at first listen to Bear McCreary’s glorious, city-stomping score, you might think he’s playing the continuing adventures of the can-do heroine who just blew up a space invader at the end of “Ten Cloverfield Lane.” Such is the rousing orchestral weight and emotional mystery of “Colossal,” which gradually tips its hand to the more intimate, ironically dramatic story at hand from the eccentric mind of director Nacho Vigalondo. But then, the idea of taking a small view at a gigantic genre twist is often a spin on Nacho’s offbeat Spanish films as “Timecrimes,” in which a time paradox unwinds in someone’s home, and “Extraterrestrial,” where an invasion is waited out in an apartment. McCreary’s score for “Colossal” makes you realize the scope is just a bit bigger, and intimate at that. Alt. score faves like acoustic and rock guitars blend with bombastic symphonic foot-smashing, an angst-ridden cello finds an accompaniment in blasting brass, and tender piano builds to cosmic revelation worthy of Gozer the Gozerean. It’s witty and emotionally stratospheric scoring that has it both ways, often playing the straight, musical creature to a wacky, well-realized idea in a way that only expands McCreary’s catalogue of genre music, while showing the different, dramatic paths he’s equally capable of.
Indeed, it’s likely that the collected works of this protégé of Elmer Bernstein would stack higher than Godzilla if you put together the likes of “Battlestar Galactica,” “Black Sails,” “Outlander,” “Agents of SHIELD,” “The Walking Dead” and all of the other hit shows to his credit. Yet it’s McCreary’s forays into movie theaters that provide some of his best work, from the wondrous “Europa Report” to the metalhead demon busters that comprise the “Knights of Badassdom” or the eerily haunted beauty of “The Forest” and “The Boy” (we can even throw in some dance moves of a “Step Up” picture in there). But given its own tonal connection to the riveting, exceptionally constructed bomb shelter break out of “Ten Cloverfield Lane,” “Colossal” comes across like the tip of an iceberg to just how many genres McCreary is capable of in a movie, and score that delightfully, and movingly has its way with two unlikely ones.
What’s your for the giant monster films of yore, and how do you think their scores played into that?
I have always loved a good giant monster movie, and have tremendous respect for the legacy of the genre. “King Kong” was certainly the first giant monster movie on a large scale, and featured one of the first recorded scores in the history of film. So, in a way, every film with music owes a debt of gratitude to giant monster movies!
What was it like working with Nacho, especially given how unique his genre films are?
Nacho quickly proved himself to be as distinct as his films. I was inspired by his film, and even more inspired by his creative leadership. His grasp of the story, the themes, and their interaction, was as detailed as any filmmaker I’ve ever collaborated with. He was fun, funny and clear in articulating his vision.
We’ve never quite seen a “Kaiju” movie like “Colossal.” How would you say it subverts the genre? And was that a big appeal for you to do the score?
It subverts the genre by being a different film entirely that happens to take place within that world. I think the film is character drama, wrapped up in a love letter to the “Kaiju” genre.
How much did you want to emulate the sound of “Kaiju” movies with “Colossal?”
It was not a concern of mine in the slightest, to be honest. I did not revisit any classic monster movies scores before scoring this film. I focused on the character arcs and the tension. There certainly are big moments in my score, but those were not the focus of my creative energies.
Given Korea is the setting of its monster rampage, how much of an Asian quality did want to bring to “Colossal?”
I think my score, with its folksy strumming electric guitars and solo cello melody, has a distinctly rural American sound. The large orchestra represents the giant monster and the stakes of the danger, but the iconic sounds of the score are intimate and indie-rock in nature.
How did you want to thematically contrast the characters of Gloria and the monster, then have the music gradually bring them together with their symbiosis – especially give how different the worlds are of the “indie comedy’ and “giant monster” scoring are?
Gloria has a theme that stands out pretty frequently in the film. Her solo cello melody is often supported by strumming electric guitars. Those elements definitely come from the “indie” film world. I used an orchestra to achieve a larger “blockbuster score” sound when appropriate. In fact, the opening Main Title cue is actually a bit of a musical joke: a tense ostinato in the low strings and mounting huge brass fanfare build tension that sounds like it will reveal an epic monster, and instead, we cut to Gloria sheepishly opening a door to her boyfriend’s apartment after having been out drinking all night. At the end of the film, I brought the two sounds together, putting the “indie cello” melody in the soaring full orchestra. It was an epic, fun moment.
Usually films follow on storyline. But what kind of challenge did it pose given “Colossal’s” intercutting between Gloria and the monster?
I chose to focus the music entirely on Gloria. We witness the fantastic events through her eyes, so I generally chose to score her reaction to the events, rather than the events themselves.
Two instruments in “Colossal” that are particularly featured with the orchestra are the guitar and cello. Could you tell us about the score’s ensemble?
The guitars and solo cello were my way of rooting the score in an “indie film” persona. I wanted the score to feel almost schizophrenic for the first hour of the film. Like, some edgy indie rock band scored half of it, and a classically trained orchestral composer scored the other half. Then, as the film progresses, the two musical styles merge to form a coherent vision.
Colossal doesn’t quite prepare for you for its most massive subtext about abusive relationships involving men. As a male composer, did that affect you emotionally, and make it all the more challenging to play the score from a female perspective?
The themes of abuse, both in substances and relationships, run deep in this story, and those themes inspired me to give the score a sense of emotional weight and importance. The film is about how relationships can become imbalanced, with dominance overtaking vulnerability. This is represented in the score with the acoustic solo cello struggling to hold its own against a relentless and overpowering synth pulse. I suppose in that regard, the feminine voice of the score is represented by an acoustic instrument, and the masculine voice is represented by a synthetic instrument.
In its way, minus its indie vibe, “Colossal” plays as a sequel score to “Ten Cloverfield Lane,” one of last year’s best films, and scores, especially in how the music “opened up” a movie that could have been claustrophobic. Could you talk about scoring it, and how you hope to remain part of the “Cloverfield” universe?
I wouldn’t have thought of it until you mentioned it, but there is a musical structure that’s similar to both films, I guess. Both films start off very contained, and build to a huge finale that’s bigger than what you’re anticipating based on the first hour of the film. That story structure obviously has an impact on the requirements of the scores for those films. As for the “Cloverfield” universe, I am always up for whatever JJ Abrams wants me to do.
There’s a fun, bombastic quality to your score. How important was it to give “Colossal” that extra, astounding push without overwhelming it?
This was a huge question, and the first thing I tackled in scoring the film. It was vitally important that the score deliver an epic, soaring finale, without overpowering or destroying the tone of the film. The last 12 minutes of the film, were the first thing I wrote (in fact, I scored the entire 12 minute last reel on spec as a demo to land the job!). Once the final reel was approved by the director and studio, it was an easier process to reverse engineer the rest of the score.
Conversely, how important was it for you to give an insane story like this emotional weight?
Giving a story emotional weight is truly the only thing I am ever concerned about when doing a film, regardless of genre. Without an emotional connection, plots ultimately lose my interest after about 30 minutes. It was the intensely satisfying emotional arc of this film that made me want to do it in the first place.
You’ve been upfront about how you use a team of composers given your insane workload something that’s been commonplace in the industry for years now, though not talked about as candidly as you do. How do you retain quality control, and are there projects where you are determined to be the sole composer on?
Working in modern television requires a composer team to keep up with the massive amount of minutes necessary every week. Because all my television scores feature live players, most with full orchestra every episode, my team at Sparks & Shadows also includes orchestrators, engineers, music editors, copyists, session producers, and employees dedicated to coordination, logistics, project management, sample development, and tech support. Everything is in-house. The operation is massive, but allows me the creative support to spend my every waking minute involved with the creative concerns of my projects.
How do you think “The Walking Dead” has changed in the way where it’s now featuring scenes that rely entirely on music? And given the epic war that’s coming in the next season, how do you see your music for the show growing?
I have been fortunate to be a part of “The Walking Dead” since day one. My score has evolved as rapidly as the show itself, now nearing the end of its seventh season. I am just completing my fourth season with showrunner Scott Gimple, who really appreciates the value and emotional impact of music, and envisions sequences where score will be featured prominently. I am eager to see what happens next season!
With all of the film and television work you’ve done, it’s almost a surprise that you’ll be scoring your first non-genre dramatic movie with the upcoming “Rebel in the Rye,” about J.D. Salinger. What was that experience like, and do you hope to get more “straight” assignments like this?
Working with Danny Strong, creator of “Empire” and an accomplished actor / writer, on his directorial debut was a remarkable experience. It felt like a feat to land a film without time travel, robots, aliens, zombies, pirates, or demons. Scoring “Rebel in the Rye” was one of the best experiences of my life, yielded one of the best scores of my career, and I hope very much to do more films like it in the future.
You’ve also scored your first feature documentary “Unrest,” about a Harvard PHD who’s suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome. Could you tell us about your approach for it, and the big difference you’ve discovered between writing for features and non-fiction here?
I learned a lot working with Jennifer Brea on “Unrest.” Her film is a chronicle of her personal journey suffering with CFS (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome), telling both her intimate story and that of people like her around the world. For Jennifer, this film is literally her life. So, approaching it as I would a fiction film proved to be pointless. I rewired my thinking so that I was scoring her life, and thought of the film as a byproduct. The music had to be as intensely personal and intimate as her filmmaking. I am really proud of the film, and excited that people will get to see it on PBS in the near future.
Another forthcoming project is the Blumhouse production of “Half to Death,” a “Groundhog Day”-like movie about a heroine learning how to get to the bottom of her multiple deaths. What’s the trick of scoring a film with repeated scenes, and how do you want to repeat, and the change the music for it?
Oh my, word gets around fast. I’m just getting started on this one. It’s too early to say, but I am looking forward to tinkering with this. I am attracted to the idea of using similar music for repeated sequences, but ultimately, my motto is always “Follow the Character.” It’s more important for me to adapt with the character’s POV. I have some ideas crazy ideas that I’m looking forward to pitching the director soon.
With “Colossal,” how do you think you’ve contributed to movies about giant monsters, as well as millennial relationship problems? And when you think about it, are they the same thing?
I’d love to think that my score checks both of those boxes. That was certainly my goal. We’ll have to see how people respond when the movie comes out.
Colossal is another atypical genre film, and score for you. Do you find these films more interesting than a far bigger, cookie-cutter opportunity that might come your way?
I always enjoy working on projects that challenge me, and make me a better composer for having done them. I like to think that even a “cookie cutter” gig might present cool musical opportunities. But, for now, I just keep my eye out for interesting projects that push me out of my comfort zone.
“Colossal” rampages in theaters April 7th, with Bear McCreary’s score available on Lakeshore Records. Pick up your copy HERE
Visit Bear McCreary’s website HERE
Hollywood is a town of the young when it comes to the composers who get all of the cool gigs (perhaps excepting that 85 year-old duffer John Williams). On that note, there are few creatively hotter, hipster commodities than Rob Simonsen at finding unique, vibrant groove that speaks for a new sound of film scoring. Simonsen began his career as an assistant, arranger and then addition composer to Mychael Danna on such brilliantly non-conformist scores as “Where the Truth Lies,” “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” and the Oscar-wining “Life of Pi,” Making his solo feature debut with the knightly drama “Westender” (in which he played a role as well), Simonson has since amassed dozens of credits, with a particular emphasis on quirky, character-driven films. Tapping into an alt. rock sound so preferred by Gen X’ers and millennial audiences yet with a strong, old school sense of orchestral melody, Simonsen has chronicled their romantic angst for “(500) Days of Summer,” “The Way Way Back” and “The Spectacular Now,” as well as a rhythmic addiction to the net with “Nerve.” He’s heard the creepily symphonic sound of true crime with “All Good Things” and “Foxcatcher,” as well as using impossibly lush strings and electronics to mesmerizingly embody eternity in “The Age of Adeline,” or even hell’s kitchen with a cool, cutting-edge sample sound for “Burnt.”
With all of Simonsen’s credits, it’s ironic that one of his most clever, and thoroughly fun scores is a throwback jazz heist soundtrack with a hip, mature feel for “Going In Style.” It’s a hundred-and-eighty (plus thousands of more dollars) turn for both Simonsen and actor-director Zach Braff after their collaboration on “Wish You Were Here.” Gentle whimsy gives way to a rollicking, fat brass section, whistles, and a suspenseful orchestra that might befit the golden days of Steve McQueen barreling down the streets of San Francisco. But in this case, it’s the dream team of Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Alan Arkin as three seniors who are mad as hell as their corporate mistreatment, and decide to take on a bank for the retirement robbed from them. Far more optimistic than the sad, gritty 1979 original, this “Style” is feel-good multiplex entertainment that gets the goods with well-weathered chemistry and symphonically jazzy flourish to spare, especially in Simonsen’s fresh retro grooves.
If these thieves might do their best not to get a rap sheet, Simonsen himself is getting labeled for comedy for good reason. At year’s end, he’ll be going on the lam with Owen Wilson and Ed Helms for “Bastards.” As their two man-children try to find their father in a series of screwball incidents and verbal squabbles, Simonsen provides an instrumentally eccentric take on a free spirit vs. stuck-up sibling. It’s a winning score that takes Simonsen on a road trip that’s familiar for its stripped down sound, but like “Going in Style,” offers the composer the chance to go for new, broader musical punch lines.
Certainly nothing if not prolific with the often musical chairs release dates of the many movies he’s scored, Simonsen also has the distinction of having another film scored by him on “Going in Style’s” April 7th opening date. And it couldn’t be for a more different movie, if beautifully familiar Simonsen score, than “Gifted.” Returning him to the company of “(500) Days of Summer” director Marc Webb, if in way more grown up surroundings, “Gifted” finds a math-magician little girl whose gifts are closely guarded by her single dad, who’d rather have her find a winning formula in life than becoming a guinea pig savant. At first depicting their relationship with ethereal magic, Simonsen introduces a more serious, symphonic sound for grown ups trying to tear them apart, yet with a subtlety that distinguishes the composer’s dramatically melodic instincts in a rich grab bag of distinctively vibrant, and stylistic scores.
How did you first connect with Zach Braff, and why do you think you were in tune as a composer and director?
Zach discovered me through an Apple commercial that I scored. He said he was watching TV and the “Photos Everyday” ad came on, which has no voice over or dialogue – just music accompanying all these beautiful shots of people taking photos on their iPhones. He loved the music on the ad and thought it was perfect for his film “Wish I Was Here,” so he did a Google search to find out who did the music and then found me. It was only after the fact that he found out I had done a fair bit of work with his editor and producers, so it all came together happily.
Not only is “Going in Style” Zach’s first “mainstream” film as it were, but it’s also a whole new, broader orchestral comedy sound for you, one very different from the kind of alt scores you often do. What were your mutual challenges like?
Zach has never made a film that was scored to this degree, so there was a lot of discovering about how to make the film work with score, which was achieved through a wonderful team Zach had with his editor, Myron Kerstein, music editor Andrew Silver, his producer Donald DeLine and music executive Erin Scully. Everyone wanted the same thing, but it took us time to figure out how to get there. Zach was very trusting of me and the process and we faced all the challenges together.
On my side, the initial challenge faced by all composers, is how to do something that hasn’t already been done – and done so well by the greats. In the journey of a working film composer, there isn’t always the opportunity to invent something new, so then it’s a question of how much fun to have with the genre and established approaches.
For me, this was a great opportunity to have a bigger, broader sound that harkened back to the 80’s and so many films I saw growing up. The fun, orchestral approach to “Back to the Future” was something we discussed in terms of how that score plays to the film. So really, it was trying to find unique musical material with melodies, motifs, etc, and then having fun.
This is definitely not your grandfather’s “Going In Style,” which was a very good, but downbeat movie. How important was it for you to establish a tone that was dramatic, but also played the lighthearted nature of the film?
Our rule was to never take away permission to laugh. Even though our heroes face real consequences, we were careful to never go dark. Zach’s films tend lean in with emotion so we also knew upfront that we needed warm fuzzy melodies.
When so many fun, jazzy “heist” scores have been done, what’s the challenge of finding something new for the genre?
As I was saying before, I think it’s about having fun with an existing genre. Not all films can handle experimentation, and they need to feel connected to their predecessors. So for me this was a chance to get into scores and records that I’ve loved for a long time, a love letter to Lalo Schifrin, Roy Budd, CTI Records…it’s musically referencing 60’s and 70’s but the approach and production is more of an 80’s, almost Amblin kind of thing.
How important was it to bring a youthful vibe to the score, while at the same time playing the particular challenges that reflect these characters’ ages, as well as their distinct personalities?
Zach wanted the youthfulness of the granddaughter character to come through in her scenes, so we needed something with energy there. And with our three main characters, despite their physical age, were playful and fun with each other. We never wanted to make their situation seem sad, we always wanted to lean into the fun and excitement.
A retro element would definitely come with aging characters like this who were in the primes of their youths in the 60s and 70s (as well as the 40s in one cue). How did that determine what kind of vibe did you want to explore for them, and how to incorporate that into a big orchestral sound?
I was definitely inspired to go retro, but not too much. Recording/mixing engineer Alan Meyerson was a brilliant partner in finding ways to give nods to the music we were referencing, while still staying modern.
What are your own favorite “heist” movies and scores, and why? How did you want the score to “track” the big, climactic robbery?
“Bullit” by Lalo Schifrin is one of my favorite scores of the genre (and films). John Barry’s stuff with the Bond franchise. Anything Roy Budd was doing in the 60’s-70’s like “Get Carter.” Quincy Jones, Deodato, Morricone. Even Sam Spence’s NFL Films stuff. I love the sound of electric bass and drum kit with orchestra.
There’s also a fun, subtle tropical flavor to “Going in Style,” as well as whistling and swinging flutes. How did those ideas come into play?
The whistling was actually an idea that Zach had, I think. It seemed like a fun idea so we went with it. There’s some body and mouth percussion in some spots as well. There’s a carefree playfulness to that stuff so it seemed like something to try and work in. The tropical vibe wasn’t intended, but maybe that’s just inherent with bongos and congas, of which there are a lot. We did a lot of Latin percussion, headed up by Pete Korpela, who is a fantastic player and brought a lot of groove to the whole score.
As fun as “Going in Style” is, does scoring a film like this make you reflect on your own mortality, and challenges that you’ll be face a few decades down the pike, especially in a composing industry known for its ageism. And if so, did that emotion play into the score’s more heartfelt moments?
You mean, was my own sadness about aging channeled into the score? Yes. Yes, it was.
“Bastards” is more in tune with other eccentric comedy scores you’ve done like “Girl Most Likely” and “The Way Way Back,” especially with its unplugged acoustical sound. How did you hit on this approach here, which also uses a more subdued orchestra?
“Bastards” needed something plucky and I wanted to find a way to get pluck without using plucked strings. I ended up using them a bit, but they’re 1:1 blended with palm-muted acoustic guitar plucks most of the time, so it makes it a little bit of a smaller, more intimate and hopefully unique sound. It still sounds like plucks I think, Ha! But the story for “Bastards” is really about a couple of brothers who are still trapped in their childhood selves in a lot of ways, and they reconcile by going on an adventure to find their father. So there needs to be a spirit of adventure driven by emotion, but big orchestra just felt too big and adult for that. It was the softer, quieter tones of acoustic guitar and upright piano seemed to match their characters.
It seems like just about any eccentric instrument is possible in “Bastards.” How did you pick which ones to use, whether it’s a dulcimer, a ukulele or a fuzz guitar?
Fumbling around until it felt right, pretty much. We used cimbalom, which is a fantastic instrument that I first heard my friend Chester Englander play with the LA Phil. It’s got a unique sound that can blend so interestingly with other things that we’re really used to hearing. It’s a fairly intuitive thing I think, just wanting something different and hunting for the right sound. I spend a fair bit of time at the outset just thinking about and experimenting with the palette.
How do you want to hit the difference between one brother who’s hopelessly wound up, and the other who’s a free spirit?
One is loose and goes with the flow, so we have something that’s laid back and relaxed, whereas the other one is uptight and needed something angular that is a little tense and also melancholic.
Like “Going in Style,” “Bastards” is a “caper” film of sorts, in that the mission is to do whatever it takes to discover who their real dad is. Tell us about capturing that kind of alt. jazzy sneaking about, as well as the idea of a multiplicity of potential, woefully flawed dads?
I think in the end I’m just tried to do what sounded sneaky to me. We knew there needed to be sneak in the score, but I think the discovery of the score was a theme that had a bit of hope and adventure. I imagined two young boys playing in the forest, setting out on a quest to find their lost father, the king. Waving a flag as they march into the unknown. There’s something sweet and earnest about that, and inevitably they get into shenanigans.
Is it particularly fun to play a road trip where bantering dialogue is as big a part of the physical comedy?
It’s quite different. Again, this was a bit of a broader film and score than I’m used to. But it was fun to play that up.
Despite its shenanigans, there’s an emotional core to “Bastards” about dealing with parental rejection, and wanting to be loved. How did you want to hit that without being overly sentimental?
Exactly as you said – to hit it without being overly sentimental. I was just trying to serve the scenes, which director Larry Sher did a wonderful job with. There’s some real emotion in that film. I get misty eyed every time I see it.
How was it for you to reteam with director Marc Webb on “Gifted,” this time as the sole composer?
It was great. I love Marc and he’s someone I’ve had a friendship with since we all did “(500) Days of Summer.” He’s a wonderful filmmaker.
Do you think there are instruments that naturally convey the innocence of children? And how did you want to play them here, especially given that this girl is super smart?
Anything small and bell-like seems to ring true for the sound of children. The main theme for the girl in “Gifted” is very simple. Elemental. She’s a normal kid in many ways, but a genius in others so we needed a more adult, complex sound from the orchestra that could keep up with that.
How did you want to play her bond with a dad of normal intelligence?
I would say he’s above average intelligence. But the life he is trying to give her is one of normalcy. He wants her to have a chance at developing without the pressure from the world to juice a mind like that. There are some interesting questions about the morality, ethics and responsibility of genius there.
There have been many kid’s “courtroom” movies that have gone wrong, especially given scores that tended to be treacly. Was that a concern here, especially as the score grows increasingly solemn with its dramatic stakes?
Yes, we never wanted to be too cute. McKenna Grace, the young actor that plays the lead is extraordinarily funny, smart, and entertaining and we didn’t want it to turn into cuteness.
You’re part of an “Echo Society” that stages new works from composers in Downtown Los Angeles. Tell us about the group, and what kind of creative outlet it gives you?
The Echo Society is a group of like-minded friends who gather to create new works of art, and share that with the greater LA arts community. This city is so rich with artists of all disciplines. We wanted to connect with other artists that we may not have a chance to work with in our “day jobs” of film composers, etc. For us it’s really important to make art for art’s sake – to see what’s possible and to cast a vision for something that moves us. We try to execute that with as much passion and commitment as we can in a way that will hopefully move others. It’s been wonderfully rewarding as a composer. I’m just as excited to be there to experience it as an audience member as I am to share it as a co-creator.
You’ve got quite an interesting film coming called “House of Tomorrow,” which mashes architectural legend Buckminster Fuller with the story of two punk teens trying to get laid. What can we expect from that score?
The score is all analog synths and glass flutes. The idea was to capture the sound of the future from the past. So there’s a ‘science documentary’ from the 60’s kind of vibe. It was wicked fun.
When you hear “Going in Style,” “Bastards” and “Gifted,” what do you think they say about your range as a composer? And where do you want to go in terms of exploring uncharged musical areas?
What it says about my range is a statement for probably for someone else to make, as I’m always just doing my best with any assignment. For me, a film score is always a chance to do something new. Maybe it’s just new for me, but that’s worthwhile. I’m always looking for ways to grow and develop as a composer and human being, and doing things I haven’t done before is always an opportunity for that. I’m also finishing up my first solo record and that will hopefully open me up more to making more music for music’s sake.
“Going in Style” and “Gifted” open in theaters April 7th, with “Style’s” soundtrack on WaterTower Music HERE and “Gifted” on Lakeshore Records HERE
Join the “Bastards” on their road trip at year’s end in theaters
Find out about the Echo Society’s latest LA performances HERE
Visit Rob Simonsen’s website HERE
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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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