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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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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 email@example.com 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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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 email@example.com or check Wu Si’s website for updates (wusinonprofit.org/penka)
© 2017 by Penka Kouneva Studios
About Penka Kouneva:
Penka Kouneva (composer: Prince of Persia, Transformers games with Steve Jablonsky) is a Sundance Composer Fellow and winner of the 2015 Game Audio Network Guild’s Recognition Award. She scored 20 indie features, including the breakout features of Chloe Moretz and Josh Duhamel. She has released two orchestral albums receiving 5-star national press (The Woman Astronaut, on Varese Sarabande, and A Warrior’s Odyssey, on Sumthing Else Music). Her latest scoring job is Heroes and Legends (Astronaut Hall of Fame) at the Kennedy Space Center. She is known in Hollywood as an “exquisite talent,” an industry leader, and one of the hardest working professionals.
During the last decade while raising her family, Penka became a top studio orchestrator for films (Transformers, Matrix, Pirates 3; Lead Orchestrator on Ninja Turtles 2, Elysium, Ender’s Game, Need for Speed) and biggest games (Gears of War 2, 3, Sony’s Bloodborne, all Blizzard games – Overwatch, World of Warcraft, StarCraft II, Diablo III; Sims, Dragon Age 2. As an extraordinary mentor and lead orchestrator Penka has been instrumental in nurturing the careers of many rising talents who have continued to work on studio films, top TV shows, games and trailers.
Born and raised in Bulgaria, Penka was classically trained and received the first-ever Ph.D. in composition from Duke University. In 1999, Penka arrived in Hollywood with one computer, one contact and small savings. In the following decade, she made history as the first woman lead orchestrator on studio blockbusters since Shirley Walker . Penka is passionate about artist growth as she believes that development of one’s voice and mastery (along with cultivating relationships), is the prerequisite for success in today’s overcrowded media scoring business.
Madness and the curse of centuries-old grotesqueries have rarely been as elegantly conveyed as “A Cure for Wellness,” an auspicious entry into the time-honored genre of the sane man trapped in an insane asylum – or in this case a Swiss Alps spa seemingly dedicated to the spiritual, and physical health of its decrepit well-healed clientele. Much like a funeral director with obsessive detail to make an unholy mess spic and span, “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Ring” director Gore Verbinski has ensured that his institute resounds with old world, aristocratic class, all the better to hide the demonic suffering its delightfully twisted fairy tale is constructed upon. Leave it to British composer Benjamin Wallfisch to construct “Wellness’” castle-like foundations upon sturdily beautiful thematic melody. Given a chilling, waif-like voice to spin hypnotic suspense from, Wallfisch’s dazzlingly creepy score is the waltzing, singsong and ragingly mad stuff that classic nightmares are built upon, grandly abetting Verbinski’s cheeky homage to all things Mario Bava, Hammer Horror and passive-aggressive snobbery.
Much as its antihero stumbles upon one astounding wonder after the next while ferreting out a most reluctant executive, as well as a mysteriously sheltered waif, “A Cure For Wellness” continues Wallfisch’s pilgrim’s progress through no end of creative opportunities. Having started as an orchestrator and conductor for Dario Marianelli on the likes of “The Brothers Grimm,” and “V for Vendetta,” Wallfisch made his scoring debut with the gun-obsessed American teens of the Lars Von Trier-produced “Dear Wendy.” Using eccentric rhythms to help “The Escapist,” tunnel out of prison, Wallfisch next heard historical adventure both epic and psychedelic with “Conquest 1492” and “Hammer of the Gods.” He’d excelled with the tunefully evocative human drama of “Hours” and “Pressure,” where the settings of “Bhopal” and “Desert Dancer” let him explore a striking rhythmic mixture of East and West, Recently, his blending of soul and science proved the brilliant equation for a teaming with Pharrell Williams and Hans Zimmer on the Golden Globe nominated score to “Hidden Figures.”
But as of late, Wallfisch is swiftly becoming a go-to ghost whisperer, a voyage begun with “The Thirteenth Tale” and “The Enfield Haunting” (an allegedly true story that served as grist for “The Conjuring 2”). With his seat-jumping talents unleashed in Hollywood with the brightness-averse she-demon of “Lights Out,” Blumhouse berserkness will continue when Wallfisch takes on the killer doll of “Annabelle 2.” Yet for fans of classic, blazingly gothic scores, Wallfisch’s “A Cure for Wellness” will fix what ails them when It seems that unabashed, horror score melody is increasingly being straight jacketed. For refined subtlety and electroshock thrills have rarely danced with such devilish delight as they do in this grand ballroom of fiendishly refinished delights.
You’ve dealt with characters being trapped in claustrophobic situations in scores like “Hours” and “Pressure,” as well as going through catastrophic odysseys in “Hammer of the Gods” and “Bhopal.” How do you think scores like that set you up for “A Cure For Wellness?”
“A Cure For Wellness” is without doubt the most extraordinary, visceral, uncompromising and beautiful movies I’ve worked on to date, and is completely unique both in terms of its storytelling and central message. So whilst every score does in some ways set you up for the next one in terms of constantly refining your writing, I don’t think anything could have truly prepared for the incredible and inspiring journey I went on with Gore for this movie.
Could you talk about collaboration with Gore on “Wellness?” What was your own plunge into operatic darkness like, and how far did it push you as a composer?
It was an extraordinary and fulfilling yearlong process, starting with a waltz to be played on set for the actors to dance to. Soon after that I moved into Gore’s cutting rooms. We spent the next 6-7 months or so crafting the score together. It was a true collaboration, and wonderful to be so close to all the other filmmakers. The editors, sound designers, VFX supervisors, producers, Gore and myself were all under the same roof, working closely together and sharing ideas. I felt like I was being guided by Gore’s genius to discover musical concepts and sounds that I never knew even existed. He would give me vivid and compelling concepts, such as the ones he includes in the album’s liner notes: “There is a sickness inside all of us. A sense of the inevitable. A dark spot on the X-ray of our conscience…The disease is an unseen force, pulling the camera down a long corridor and the protagonist towards his epiphany. It promises absolution but leaves a bitter taste in the back of our throats. It casts its spell. A lullaby. We are the Lotus Eaters. Blindfolded guests of The Great Con: It diagnoses us and then, offers a cure”. It was without doubt the one of the most exciting and inspiring collaborations I’ve ever had.
Given the Swiss Alps setting of “Cure,” do you think that lent a classically “old world” melodic feeling to the score, especially with its use of the violin and grand waltzes?
Absolutely, yes. There was an incredible magnificence to the location, especially the way it was shot, that informed our choices in terms of the scale of orchestration.
For a score that’s mostly orchestral in nature, how did you want to use electronics?
It gave us another color, which was important especially as the truth of the story develops. In fact much of what appears to be electronic sonorities in the score started as warped acoustic recordings: violins, vocals, orchestral textures that were manipulated, stretched and transformed. Sometimes they were used for extremely uncomfortable sonic textures. Other times they were intended to evoke this disconcerting sense of perfection and sterility.
Could you talk about developing Hannah’s “ballerina” theme? And was it a natural that an eerie female voice would fit into this?
Hannah’s theme came very early on in the process, and it’s intended to feel like a lullaby with a dark secret. Something deceptive in its innocence. It was important for it to feel vulnerable, slightly restrained, with a symmetry and simplicity that is both child-like, and with a hidden potential. There’s a good reason why it’s sung by a female voice, but I don’t want to give out any spoilers!
What’s the story behind Mirel Wagner’s unplugged rendition of “I Wanna Be Sedated?”
Gore came across Mirel Wagner’s music and was keen on having her voice featured in the first trailer, performing a down tempo version of the classic Ramones song. Whilst we were recording her vocals, Mirel performed a version of the full song with guitar that just blew us away. We decided to turn it into a track for the soundtrack album.
Take a “Cure for Wellness” when its eely treatments begin in theaters on February 17th, with Benjamin Wallfisch’s score available on Milan Records HERE
Join Benjamin Wallfisch, Pharrel Williams and Hans Zimmer as they count the “Hidden Figures” HERE
Visit Benjamin Wallfisch’s website HERE
“I’m the daughter of a jazz singer and grew up surrounded by music…doing homework in the back of jazz sessions and surrounded by some of the greatest musicians there were. When we were doing a late-night scoring session for the film with bassist Russel Hall from footage (of Ferguson, MO. uprising) that was bringing up so many personal burning questions that we had, it just lined up when it came time to do the score,” reflects WHOSE STREETS? first-time filmmaker Sabaah Folayan.
Whose Streets? is an unflinching look at how the killing of 18-year-old Mike Brown inspired a community to fight back and sparked a global movement.
“I just have to give credit props to Samora (Pinderhughes, Composer) because he came into a situation of first-time filmmakers, and he was able to be so generous and open during the creative process while never letting us go off-track.”
“I’m honored and just feel blessed to be a part of this film. I don’t come from a musical family but just fell into it because it was a calling. Jazz was my first real love…I went to the Julliard School and studied with one of the great pianists, Kenny Baron, then lucky enough to do the Sundance Composer’s Lab, which is when I learned what film music is about. Through the Lab, I was connected with Sabaah and Damon (Davis, co-Director). I had just released an album called Transformations, which is exactly what this film is about…the history of African diaspora protest movements, so I was inspired to write for a piece about Ferguson.”
“At that point (music scoring) in the filmmaking, it was really stressful for me personally,” advances co-Director Damon Davis. “So those recording sessions took me back to something, music, that always took stress away, an organic, cleansing thing. I get super giddy about music and so does he (Samora), so we knew he was our guy for this.”
Filmmaker Ms. Folayan turns to Mr. Pinderhughes to share an anecdote, “I don’t know if you even realized this but when you came on, we were in our edit way past when we should’ve been and stressed, and this was something that was just working, a relief. You had been working on your Transformations Suite for years, and there was that one beautiful, celebratory cue at the end of the film during a wedding that made the scene so gorgeous.”
Mr. Pinderhughes reflects, “The way jazz developed historically and in how it relates to this film, with how jazz is presented now, is that it’s academic, old, or complex, but just like most black art forms, they came from ‘the hood’ first. This film comes from poverty and struggle of the streets, it doesn’t come from schools or academies, so that’s what jazz means to me. So, what we do with jazz music, especially representing iconic folks like Billy Higgins and Max Roach, is the inspirations that were part of this film, those are members that were openly pro-black, about the music speaking in the most freeing way possible, people who are from the streets, not from concert halls.”
Ms. Folayan adds, “Ya, during the scoring process, it was spiritual, and there’s something about jazz improvisation tradition, it’s not like you can do just anything, can’t just be turned out, it has to be felt. It was crazy working with Samora when we both felt it at the same time.”
“Ya, and in order to have those moments, you have to all be in a space to be willing to fail. Because if I was pressured to get it right the first time, I wouldn’t have been able to get to where we got, and that’s why I was so happy to go through that process with them. For this particular project, it was really important that it not be me just doing stuff in isolation, then sending it to them. We would go to each other’s house and work…it was super organic between us.”
I ask Mr. Pinderhughes to talk about what it was like to communicate emotion to both a musician (Mr. Davis) and not a musician (Ms. Folayan)? He suggests, “Ya you know, because they’re clearly both artists, it wasn’t really that different. Even though Sabaah doesn’t play (instruments), she is ‘a musician.’ All her family are musicians and she thinks like a musician. They both knew what they wanted and it was my job to just translate it, like for example, the idea of chapter markings, that came late in the process but was an idea Sabaah had from the beginning. So, we tried a couple things that didn’t work but then we had that time and space and we figured it out. It required the right musicians and me figuring out what they were trying to get to and being able to translate that. Damon is a producer, so we used some of his songs and mine, but a bunch we produced together.”
Mr. Davis elaborates, “St. Louis is a landmark, monumental place but so are every musical forms that’s come out of the United States, whether it’s blues, jazz, rock, and we wanted to deliver it so it felt like St. Louis. Chuck Berry, one of the inventors of rock ‘n roll, would come out and play in St. Louis once a month. Ike and Tina Turner. I’m from East St. Louis, my last name is Davis, so ya, Miles Davis was a major influence in my life, and more importantly, who these people were in the world, when it comes to their political stances. My parents were a little older, so this music was what I heard just by proxy coming up that other kids my age didn’t. Musicians were at the forefront of that political era movement, and similarly to what’s happening today, the hip-hop community came out in support for Ferguson.”
Ms. Folayan emphasizes, “It worked that we made the decision not to use temp score because we didn’t want to cut the film with music that wasn’t for the film and I’d attribute that to Damon who came in with such a strong sense of musical identity, so when things weren’t right, we had someone who could definitively say, this is not the tone. We were in the editing stage a long time, and didn’t think maybe we would even use some of the music. Samora said for quite a while, I don’t know if these cues we’re even going to use, then did, so everything added up to what felt like destiny.”
“And we wrote a lot more music than we used in the film, like sometimes we say, ‘oh, this is a dope track but doesn’t work for the movie. So the editing process is as important as the writing…and we had great help,” exclaims Mr. Pinderhughes.
For example, Ms. Folayan gives props to Story Consultant Carol Dysinger, “Carol also spent a lot of time as a Music Editor, so she was able to come in and orient us all to what we needed to be looking for as a way music can function best.”
For many in the Black Lives Matter and Ferguson incident, a solidarity with the Palestinian struggle prevailed. Mr. Davis resonates on this development, “maybe there should’ve been some conversation about incorporating some regional musical elements.”
“I think part of the reason we didn’t use Palestinian instruments is because we made a conscious choice not to write for specific characters or for a little pieces of story because we tried that and it didn’t work, recalls Mr. Pinderhughes.
Ms. Folayan clarifies, “this was always about St. Louis, and while we do stand in solidarity with Palestine, to tell this story, we had to stay focused on St. Louis.”
I suggest that the Ferguson struggle and this film say some poignant stuff not just about the St. Louis area but more globally, about other cultures’ necessity to have their speaking-truth-to-power voice heard, and ask what would this team ideally like for their score to say to other world music regions?
Mr. Pinderhughes offers, “I think the reason the best art speaks to so many people is because it’s so specific, and this film speaks to the Ferguson situation so specifically. But I’m from the (San Francisco) Bay area, and we have had and are having so many similar issues and folks in conversation about it, so I think that it will be a lot of the same thing for people in London, India, South Africa, etc. Number one, they’ll get a snap shot of what this Ferguson thing and this music is, and relate to a group of people that stood up as a collective community…not only that, built their own culture.”
He continues, “A quarter of the music in the film is the community chanting in the streets…that is the music. I learned a lot on this film that language and the way people speak is a form of music.”
Mr. Davis wraps up with, “Samora was talking about Oakland, well the very last song is called, ‘Freedom Song,’ and I produced that song with a Boston songwriter, Natandra Driscoll, who sang and wrote those lyrics. When I was in Boston, she stopped and asked to sing a song for me while we were working on the movie and I said, ‘we have to record this, so she sent the lyrics and I wrote the music around them. That was someone from a completely different community, feeling a lot of the same stuff that we were feeling in Ferguson, and that ended up in the movie.”
Kendrick Lamar’s incomparable civil rights anthem, ‘Alright’ closes the picture over the end credit crawl and Ms. Folayan beams with, “thankfully our Music Supervisor was able to access those licenses for us, and we believe artists deserve to get paid for their work from that side of the community…oh, and I too was very excited Kendrick supported our struggles.
From adolescents escaping a steampunk apocalypse shelter to kids taking on the Olympian gods to a college-age genius going back in time to solve daddy issues, Andrew Lockington is a composer with a fantastical, fresh sense of musical exploration and excitement. Beginning his own musical voyage in Canada alongside Oscar-winning composer Mychael Danna, Lockington had his mentor’s experimental, and often beautifully progressive stardust rub off on him as he progressed from assistant to orchestrator and conductor on such scores as “Felicia’s Journey,” “Green Dragon” and “Monsoon Wedding” finally making his own solo break on indies like “Touch of Pink,” “Saint Ralph” and “How She Move.” But it was through his epically exciting work on Brad Peyton’s 3-D take of “Journey to the Center of the Earth” that Lockington truly thrust himself onto the Hollywood radar. His increasingly notable progress through such genre films as “City of Ember,” “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island,” “Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters” and “San Andreas” showed Lockington’s talent for flexing an exuberantly thematic symphonic muscle – if not exactly the opportunity to combine his multiplex genre chops with romantic character drama, or the ethereal sound that inspired him.
That now changes in a big, beautiful way as Lockington’s talent for spectacle and emotion gets the chance to fully mesh for “The Space Between Us.” A sort of reverse “Martian,” “Space” finds a literal starman (or boy as it were) in Gardner Elliot (Asa Butterfield), The result of an astronaut’s fatally unexpected pregnancy, Gardner has spent his entire life on the red planet, yearning to visit his roots, and find his father on an Earth he’s only dreamt of. The teen makes his great escape, not realizing that his interstellar upbringing will make his visit physically lethal. But perhaps the price will be worth it as Gardner finds adventure, and attraction with Tulsa (Britt Robertson), a girl who helps him go on the run from the well-meaning authorities. It’s an adventure that Lockington captures with a soaring, star-crossed feeling very much in tune with such alt. sci-fi scores as “Wall-E,” “The Martian” and “Passengers” – a stylistic universe where strings and samples thematically forge into a surreal, captivatingly lush sound that’s not of this earth in the coolest ways. Percussion and oddball electronic samples convey a rocket ship future, while majestic strings play the natural, awe-struck wonder of an alien who just happens to be human, conveying the enchant of his first encounters with flying, animals and a girl’s touch – all while the ticking clock of his body’s out-of-place biology places his future in jeopardy. Lockington’s “Space” is a captivating, gorgeously poignant world to explore to both touching and exciting effect, a score that conveys youth appeal as a sense of wonder.
Why do you think you have a particular affinity for scores that feature young characters exploring the unknown like “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island,” “City of Ember” and “Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters?” And do you think that made you an ideal composer for “The Space Between Us?”
What drew me to “The Space Between Us” were two things. One, I’ve been a huge fan of the director, Peter Chelsom, for many years. I remember seeing one of his films in the theater and saying to my wife afterwards that I’d love to work with that director someday. He has a way of putting his audience inside the consciousness of his characters. Somehow he manages to do it without the audience recognizing his methods and somehow he’s completely consistent with it on every project. I love the opportunity that gives the composer – not needing to pry that door open, but to already have it opened for you.
The second thing that drew me to the film was the script. Jason Markey, EVP of Music at STX, challenged me to come up with a way to tell an epic story using more intimate instrumentation in places. We sat in his office and I played him some sketches from my library of music ideas. He fell in love with the instrumentation of a song I wrote and that survived as an element for one of the themes in the film.
I loved that the film was telling a very intimate story within an epic landscape, and I immediately related to the characters despite the sci-fi nature of the story. It was a story everyone could relate to – finding the place you belong in this world. Gardner’s circumstances may take that statement far more literally, since he’s literally born on Mars, but his journey is one the audience will relate to, and helping the audience find their way inside the characters of a film is an important part of scoring a story.
How do you think your score fits into the sound of character-driven sci-fi scores like “Wall-E,” “The Martian” and “Passengers?” especially given that you were dealing with teenage characters?
I didn’t set out to fit in with a “sound” per se, but more to properly reflect the relationships between the characters in this film. Not to say that the sci-fi element didn’t have any influence on the score, but I wanted to follow the main character’s journey as he looks to earth with fresh eyes (and ears). Everything is new to him, and everything is amazing. So I wanted the score to take that idea and run with it. That inspired me to look to more than just traditional music instruments and instead to find other ways of creating music.
I set out to find music in things we regularly overlook. Old ice cream bowls from a flea market in Paris, old trumpet mutes repurposed into a percussion instrument, salvaged rusted metal from old buildings, an old school bell, etc. I walked around with my cello bow, bowing everything and anything. I also armed myself with piano hammers (salvaged from the “San Andreas” piano I’d destroyed) and would strike random things with them. I discovered musical sounds in things I’d never imagined using in a score. Peter loved these ideas and these sounds, and then challenged me to use them in such a way that they wouldn’t sound discarded, and instead sound like they belonged with the orchestral elements they would be merged with.
On that note, how “sci-fi” did you want to make the score?
Well the great thing about this exercise was that it put me in a place I wasn’t comfortable with musically. That’s a good thing for a composer. This process involved getting lost in the wilderness and using the elements around you to get back to a place you recognize. It was fantastic, and a lot of the sci-fi qualities people hear in the score weren’t set out to sound that way, but instead came from this approach. It not only worked well to guide my writing in this score, it’s most definitely affected how I will approach scoring other projects going forward.
In terms of ‘space’ and sci-fi, the only element we ever really discussed in that regard was reverb. When you’re working with music and artificial reverbs, you have the ability to isolate the reverberation of a sound and separate it from the dry source material. It’s not something you can do in nature, but it’s something musicians and engineers are very family with – removing the direct signal and hearing only the reverb. Peter and I started playing around with the idea of introducing a theme or a sound in reverb only, removing the source sound altogether. That idea influenced the “Launch Cue” where we not only used this approach, but also took it even further by using other waveforms in place of the traditional reverb impulses. Now, rather than the reverb just decaying, it follows another sound wave enveloping pattern. The end result was an orchestral element that could sound as natural, or as otherworldly as we wanted at any given time. That ability to choose became an important thematic element in the score.
What do you think creates a musical sense of wonder, especially when it comes to strings and bell percussion?
Music is a combination of so many elements – musical structure, simplicity, complexity, melody, amplitude, and chord progression. For this project, I was most focused on reflecting the innocence of Gardner, and his lack of social defensiveness. I loved that aspect of Asa’s character and of the story. As we look back on our lives, we all have memories where the fear of social judgment prevented us from doing something we wish we’d done or something we wish we’d said. Gardner doesn’t have that. He says what he thinks and does what he wants. It’s not that he doesn’t care what others think, he just hasn’t developed the defense mechanisms the rest of us have. His innocence is ridiculed by others in the story but we come to recognize his handicap as a gift. He’s immune to the paralysis the rest of us get from fear. His only fear is that he’ll die before experiencing what it’s like to be human. This helped me greatly. It gave the score license to do the same for his character and not adhere to the usual emotional filters required to score the other characters. The emotion of the score could follow Gardner and see the world through his eyes. I loved writing with his perspective.
“Space” director Peter Chelsom has had a truly unique career with such movies as “Funny Bones,” “The Mighty” and “Hannah Montana: The Movie.” Given that this was his first movie in the genre, and with this kind of scope, how do you think you helped him meet the challenge?
I love doing a film genre I’ve never done before so I can only imagine directors feel the same way. The hardest projects to do are the ones where they’ve temped your score and fallen in love with it. Those are the projects you need to figure out how to do something brand new for a genre you’ve successfully done before. Creative people don’t like doing the same thing multiple times, and Peter is no exception to that. I think that’s what made this film so perfect for him. I also think it gave him permission to explore humor in a different way than he has before. I love the humor in this film because there are no punch lines, and there’s no ridicule. Instead Peter helps us find the humor behind common slang and social rituals that, when you look at them from an outside perspective, are really quite ridiculous. He presents this in a very clever way such that you never feel sorry or judge Gardner for not understanding these moments, instead you laugh at yourself. You find humor in the understanding that something you’ve always said actually makes no sense. I hope the music was able to help him achieve that as well in some way.
Tell us about your main themes for “The Space Between Us?”
The main theme, and most difficult theme in the film, was Gardner’s. When we meet him for the first time he’s just arrived – this beautiful baby in his mother’s arms – a moment in real life that emotionally only has one color, one element – it’s as pure an emotion as you can get. That really got me, because every other life moment is much more complex. When a loved one passes away, it’s not just sadness, it’s more complicated that that. But the birth of a baby, in that moment, is just pure love. So coming up with something for that moment alone would not have been complicated. But while that theme needed to represent Gardner’s birth, it had to do so much more. It needed to score his mother’s death. It needed to score his longing for finding his father. It needed to exist within completely contrasting emotions and much more complex situations as he journeyed through the story.
The theme I wrote doesn’t just represent Gardner, it represents hope, it represents tragedy, it represents humanity at it’s best and it’s worst. It was a huge challenge. My father is a very gifted painter, and talks often about the importance of mixing colors. The same paint color can project different qualities depending on the context in which you see it. Those complex shades of color need to be there, but be able to be hidden or emphasized by manipulating the context around it. This theme needed to do the same.
I had a similar challenge with the arc for Nathaniel (Gary Oldman). When we first start on this storyline it’s pure optimism. It’s a celebration of the technological achievement of sending a team of astronauts to live on another planet. Nathaniel is giving a speech to investors and introducing the ship and the astronauts to a crowd. It’s a euphoric moment the first time we experience it, but one that we revisit later in the film with the hindsight of the tragic circumstances that followed. This theme very much embodied his storyline and his character – the two were forever intertwined and interrelated, and like Gardner’s theme, it needed to be a chameleon and keep it’s shape while changing it’s color.
Probably my favorite theme in the film we called “Water”. I set out to write a melody that never resolved, that was always in conflict with it’s accompanying chord progression, yet could still feel beautiful. It needed to sound slightly off, yet sure of itself. So I wrote a melody I liked then took the melody and transposed it up a semi-tone while keeping the accompaniment in the same key. The result is a minor second clash between the first note of the theme and the chord. But by then moving the melody up an octave, the theme found a musical place where it almost belonged (a minor 9th sounds more pleasing than a minor 2nd). “Almost” was the operative word, because any resolution in the melody needed to be accompanied by a clash in the supporting chord, and vice-versa. Peter fell in love with it.
The first time we hear it as a piece of Italian Opera that Carla Gugino’s character is working out to in the space station on Mars. Peter speaks Italian and wrote the lyrics to my melody. I found an amazing singer in Toronto, Maeve Palmer, and she did an incredible job performing the source piece. I love finding moments where you can introduce a theme in a way like this as it’s immediately engrained in the consciousness of the characters.
Beyond its “Martian” angle, a drawing point for the youth audience is its seemingly doomed romance. How did you want to play this aspect of the score, and to have the music make you root for its main couple?
What I loved about the story is that the romantic connection happens while they’re on a mission to find Gardner’s father and experience the world before Gardner dies. As such, the music couldn’t be romantic in that way, and instead needed to, on the surface, score the romance of the journey. It’s a play on the famous John Lennon quote “Life is what happens when you’re making other plans”. Their romantic connection happens because she’s helping him experience everything in the world in a short few days. She’s very frustrated with the world and the hand she’s been dealt, so she gets a reset on how she sees the world as she joins him in seeing it through his eyes. As such, it was important that their connection motif only reveal its true meaning after we’d heard it many times before.
Tell us about the race-against-time aspect of “Space’s” score to save Gardner from his own wanderlust?
This is where a lot of the “found” and “junk” instruments became very useful. There is an accordion feel to the pace of the story. There’s definitely a ticking clock as they race to find Gardner before he dies, but that also serves to better show the moments in the story where time stands still and there’s a lack of pace and time. I had fallen in love with the inherent pitches of these instruments and knew I had to use them in their natural form as much as possible. I would play a lot of rhythmic patterns on them and record absolutely everything I improvised. Many of those initial ideas I was able to edit and cut together to become important motor elements in the score.
Could you talk about achieving a balance between the orchestra and the music’s electronic element? And what were the main instruments on both sides of the score?
In addition to the new instruments I mentioned, piano and strings were very significant elements to the score. The piano is never heard in its pure form though. Every time you hear it, it’s doubled with one of the “metallophone’esque” instruments. After playing with the timbre of the piano and even trying prepared piano, I found this method far more successful in achieving an unusual variation on an otherwise familiar instrument.
The strings were treated in many of the cues as described above and later on the film can be heard in their natural form. There’s one cue in particular where Nathaniel’s character starts to reveal his humanity. It was the perfect moment to dial back the reverb manipulation and subconsciously reveal to the audience the true nature of the music they’ve been hearing.
“The Space Between Us’ is one of your most beautiful scores, particularly on the soaring cues “Biplane” and “Ocean.” Was the idea to always make it lush and melodic, as opposed to going for a more “sampled” approach?
Yes I think the lush and melodic aspect came from our first conversations. The majority of my discussions with Peter were about character and story, and finding the beauty in all situations in life, even finding beauty in death and what comes from it. This inspired the melodic and thematic approach.
Given the young audience it’s aiming for, there are some surprisingly cool songs in “Space” that capture an ethereal quality. How did you want your score to fit into their groove, or was it ever a consideration?
The score and songs crossed in a few places, and they needed to sound like they were from the same world for sure. The only real consideration in that regard was the use of piano, because the character Tulsa (Britt Robertson), writes the song “Smallest Light” in the film and plays it on the piano. It was written by the extraordinary Ingrid Michaelson, and is reprised in the film in a few places. Ingrid also wrote another amazing song called “Stay Right Where You Are” for the film from which we used one of the vocal lines over the score cue that followed it. There were some significant hand-offs between songs and score like that, and therefore some last minute challenges when a source song would change and the new song would be in a different key and/or tempo than I planned for. Other than that, we were quite happy with the score and the songs each having their own purpose. This wasn’t one of those soundtracks where you want the audience to never know if it’s song or score they’re hearing.
In that respect, what do you think about the dominance of “hybrid” scores today? Do you think that composers need to keep on top of both their orchestral, and sampling chops to prove effective in that market?
I think most composers don’t think that hard about it. We’re fortunate to have so many other colors in our paint palette than composers have historically had. The biggest challenge is to make sure whatever we’re writing stays relevant and timeless. There’s music from 20 years ago that you can almost date to the month of when it was written. There are films that were edited which used, and over-used, the latest avid features of the day, and they don’t hold up now. The biggest stipulation for me in my writing is that I make sure the medium and the tools never overshadow the message and the emotion. That doesn’t mean overlooking the new technology available to us, but it also doesn’t mean you have to use it. Use what’s appropriate to the story you’re trying to tell.
If “The Space Between Us” has a musical cousin, then it’s in your ethereal score for the time travel drama “I’ll Follow You Down.”
I really love sci-fi, so I was really excited when the filmmaker Richie Mehta told me the concept of the film and asked me to score it. It turned out to be even more interesting than I’d thought, because he made a film focusing on the morality and ethics around altering time. He didn’t focus on the technology. That allowed me to write a much more character driven score, a score that plays with the idea of time, backwards time and time out of order. After our initial conversations about all the cool new tech toys we could use to score the movie, we came full circle to a place that avoided all modern manipulation and used ancient and conventional instruments to score the story. There are some very complex keyboard passages in that score. My keyboarding skill improved greatly because of it.
What can we expect from the giant monster mash videogame adaptation “Rampage,” your next movie with Brad, which also reteams you with The Rock?
As with all Brad projects, we start talking about the music before the script is even finished. I’ve been researching this score and working with Brad to figure out an approach for the past six months and we’ve come up with a palette that I’m incredibly excited about. Music is so embedded in Brad’s plan for storytelling that often ideas we discuss actually influence some of the character and visual aspects of his films. Music is a parallel process for him. He was in Atlanta scouting locations last November and called me down to join him. Over the course of those few days we hatched our approach.
Can you talk about scoring Brad’s Netflix series “Frontier,” which just recently premiered? And what’s the challenge of making score for a “historical” score contemporarily vibrant?
“Frontier” is a treacherous world to write for. The series takes place in the time of the fur trade – late 1700′s in the upper half of North America. The show is centered around Declan Harp (Jason Momoa), a Cree / Irish man who is seeking revenge for the death of his people. Around him are a cast of colorful characters who’ve been drawn to this dangerous world by greed and opportunity, as well as the people who’s land they all descended upon. It’s a power struggle between the British Hudson’s Bay Company, the Metis, the Cree, the French, the Americans and many independent factions vying for a piece of the trade.
I was very encouraged after speaking with Brad and the other producers. They all had an understanding how important the music was in their design the show. Early on I found a music consultant who had written a thesis on “Music of the fur trade”. This moment in history was fascinating because you had all of these different cultures and peoples coming together to trade and share goods. Gold, silver, weapons and fur weren’t the only currency – they also traded culture, rituals and music. As a result, music of the time incorporated elements of the other cultures around them – a perfect opportunity for a unique hybrid score.
While the majority of the instrumentation I use has historical justification, the producers gave me license to use these angles in a modern way. The score isn’t meant to console or encourage the people like the secular or sacred music of the time, but rather to narrate the true feelings and emotions experienced by our characters. There is fiddle, but it’s processed through a bit crusher, ring modulator and multiple filters. There are frame drums and ethnic winds, but they’re layered and manipulated into textures with delays. By combining these elements and manipulating them it gives the score it’s own sound, a set of rules and an identity right out of the gate. From there I wrote some orchestral themes that serve to act anthems for the missions of each group. The strings are the added element instead of the base element of the cues, which is backwards from how I’ve often worked in the past. It’s a very dark world to write for, but I love that we’re not trying to be too historical with the music and have instead lay out our own parameters for the sound of the show.
The best movies like “Hidden Figures” and “The Martian” can make young viewers to reach for the stars. How do you hope that your music for a teen movie like “Space” will help inspire its viewers in that fashion?
I hope the film inspires it’s audience in the same way it inspired the team of us that worked on it. We all need to step back and take a look at our lives through fresh eyes, and with a fresh perspective sometimes. I think the film will resonate with all audiences and I know people will find it quite moving. I’m very proud to have contributed to that.
Take a trip with Andrew Lockington to “The Space Between Us” HERE on Sony Classical Records, and fly with the film when it opens on February 3.” Then travel back in time with Lockington as he says “I’ll Follow You Down on Intrada Records HERE, before rocking out with “San Andreas” on WaterTower Music HERE
Visit Andrew Lockington’s web page HERE
When synth retro is all the rage in today’s scoring scene with the likes of “Stranger Things” and “It Follows,” Paul Haslinger can count himself as one of the O.G. genre gangsters whose exciting music for creatures, gunplay and kick-ass heroes has never stopped mutating. An Austrian bandmate in the seminal progressive synth-rock group Tangerine Dream during such seminal soundtrack likes as “Near Dark” and “Miracle Mile,” Haslinger immigrated to Hollywood with a prolifically successful scoring career. He’d venture from the cool, teen-centric electronic grooves of such scores as “Cheaters,” “Crazy / Beautiful” and “Blue Crush” to a career-making partnership with the vampiric Lycan slayer Selene on the first “Underworld. ”With grooves as darkly enticing and propulsively exciting as the cat-suited death dealer, Haslinger became a prolific gunsmith for such action thrillers as “Into the Blue,” “Crank” and “Shoot ‘Em Up,” as well as rhythm-driven gamework for “Rainbow Six,” Need for Speed” and “Wolverine” among his other “Underworld” entries.
One particular partnership where Haslinger has really been able to apply pedal to metal is with filmmaker Paul W.S. Anderson, a collaboration which roared out of the gate with the gnarled, bloodily exciting industrial music for 2008’s “Death Race,” their music making a left turn with a steampunk approach to Anderson’s enjoyable take on “The Three Musketeers.” But if there’s one franchise that Anderson has made his bones on, then it’s “Resident Evil,” a crazed take of the Konami videogame that’s meshed sci-fi, horror and kill-crazy excitement over the course of five films as Alice (dynamically played by Anderson’s wife Mila Jovovich) has somehow survived every monstrosity thrown at her by The Umbrella Corporation, whose bottom line is humanity’s destruction.
Now the journey that Alice’s began though a hellish wonderland in 2004 conclusively reaches the heart of Umbrella after six films with the “Resident Evil: The Final Chapter.” Taking over the wheel from such previous composers as Marco Beltrami, Marilyn Manson, Charlie Clouser and Tomandandy, Haslinger proves to be his own, ass-kicking musical man for one of sci-horror’s most popular heroines. With a mean industrial edge and reflective piano emotion for a woman who’s suffering had made her stronger, Haslinger blasts his way through the beast-filled Raccoon City with equal parts atmosphere and action, creating an elegiac, epic sense of closure to the most successful game-to-film series. His samples buzz with the evil cyber machinations of Umbrella as organic strings plays the human determination of Alice and her avengers, all roads leading to blazing, darkly heroic climax that gives the ultimate survivor her musical due in style. But perhaps more than anything on his first, and last “Resident” entry, Paul Haslinger continues to prove that he knows his way around the cutting edge of electronic, sample-propelled music – especially when delivering the rocking, heroic hurt to the zombie apocalypse.
As a budding musician, what importance did Tangerine Dream have for you? And what led you play for them?
When I grew up, Tangerine Dream was one of those big, established acts. As a keyboard player, of course I loved all the outlandish equipment they were using, and together with Kraftwerk, they were a major influence on anybody working in music around that time. At the end of 1985, Edgar Froese and Chris Franke were looking to fill Johannes Schmoelling´s spot for an upcoming UK tour. Edgar had a studio in Austria, and he was auditioning various session players from Vienna. I was one of the lucky ones, and apparently made a good enough impression to be asked to join them for the tour and subsequently stay on for the next album (Underwater Sunlight) to become a fulltime member. At the age of 23, it was a dream come true (no pun), allowing me to leave Austria and to see the world, and to make a living making music.
What was the team composing process like with Tangerine Dream? And how would you describe your contribution to such scores as “Near Dark and “Miracle Mile?”
Tangerine Dream in those days already was a modular band: every member had their own studio, and we would develop ideas and sketches, play them for each other and eventually work on overdubs and mixes together. As such, working on an album was no different than working on a film. And it was in this type of collaborative setting, that both “Near Dark” and “Miracle Mile” were created. “Near Dark” was written and recorded in Berlin, with Kathryn Bigelow attending the final mix sessions. I remember her notion of a ‘Vampire Western’, which together with the excellent cinematography and performances, proved to be very inspiring to us. “Miracle Mile” was written and recorded in Edgar’s studio in Austria. This place sat on a lake, in relative isolation. The filmmaker Steve De Jarnatt came to spend a couple of weeks with us there, finishing the score. And I attribute this atmosphere, no distractions whatsoever, for some of the qualities and the peculiarities of this score: a more stripped down, simple approach, which I would consider one of Tangerine Dream’s highlights from this era.
What was it like to strike out on your own and move to LA? And how did you make the break into solo composing here?
I left TD in 1990, mostly because I felt we were getting trapped in predictable patterns and the musical direction of the band wasn’t heading in the right direction. LA was a place I was very familiar with, from being on tour and spending some time scoring films in town. It seemed to have a lower stress level than other cities I had been to (it still does) and I knew a lot of musician friends and like-minded people in town. It was my second musical awakening. Tangerine Dream helped me to get out of Austria, my relocation to Los Angeles helped me to see a larger, musical world. It was during this time I discovered music from around the planet, and the albums I released in the 90s reflect this musical exploration.
On the side, I also did a number of scoring projects, working in the experimental field (with Siggraph and various visual artists: Frank Foster, Brummbaer), and collaborating with my former bandmate Chris Franke on the cult-TV show “Babylon 5.” In 1997 I was introduced by my friend Brian Williams to composer Graeme Revell. Graeme was looking for a programmer to join his team, and we ended up working together for a few years on films such as “Chinese Box,” “The Negotiator,” “The Siege,” “Tomb Raider” and “Blow.” It was during this time, that I started developing a stronger interest in film scoring, seeing how much fun and creative opportunity was at stake in each of Graeme’s projects. Being part of Graeme’s team certainly also helped bringing me to the attention of various studio executives and agents.
You started off with coo, youth-oriented scores for “Cheaters,” “Crazy / Beautiful,” “Blue Crush” and “The Girl Next Door.” Did you particularly enjoy scoring for a “lighter” beat and atmosphere-driven films?
When you start out, you don’t really pick the films you score. You are just happy you get to score one at all. So there was never a conscious decision to score any type of film. Those were just the ones that were offered to me. As with any composer starting out, I had some notions of what I thought could be done differently in film scoring, and in particular the use of musical language – more of a connection between what’s happening in the score and what’s happening with the songs. In simple terms, I was hoping to translate some of my album production studio experience directly into film scoring. And those first films were my first attempt to do so.
How did you like scoring the particularly eccentric action of “Crank” and “Shoot ‘Em Up,” and do you think body count pictures like that lead you down the road to horror?
I never made that connection. But now that you mention it – hmmm!? I think both “Crank” and “Shoot ‘Em Up” were extremely stylized films (just as “Underworld” had been) and they required music writing as much as music design. A rollercoaster can’t be accidental. It has to be planned and structured so the ride can be as much fun as possible. That was the job on these films, and to at least some degree, I believe we succeeded. At the start of the score for “Shoot ‘Em Up,” I booked a studio in LA for a week, hired a group of my favorite musicians and pre-recorded a catalog of general ideas I had developed. It was an intense week, with different ensembles playing every day and night, me yelling out numbers and references and sometime having them play directly against picture. I remember the console was not working very well and the process overall bordered on chaos. But the score found its particular atmosphere and vibe in those sessions, and while not everything got used obviously, it did set the tonal and musical character of the score and parts of these sessions were used across the entire film.
Tell us about working with Paul Anderson on “Death Race” and “Three Musketeers,” and how your sensibilities vibe together, whether it ranged from industrial to making a classical adventure sound hip?
Paul is one of a handful of directors I’ve worked with for some time and have become friends with. We obviously enjoy working together and share what I would call an obsessive streak. Paul invests himself 200% into his projects, and I presume he senses a similar predisposition with me. As a result, the work is always intense and never boring. “Death Race” started out as the musically unwinnable battle against car-engines, tire-squeals and machine gun fire. It was probably the loudest movie anybody ever mixed. My ears are still bleeding. ”Musketeers” was a different story. Part of the appeal was that I had never done anything like this before. And once I started running with it, I really enjoyed where it took me. I recorded and mixed in Berlin, it was quite a ride.
How do you think that scoring many entries of the “Underworld” saga, with its “death dealer” female hero, set you up to handle Alice for “Resident Evil?”
There is an obvious connection between these two franchises. They both started around the same time (2002-2003). They both became extremely popular and successful, despite much critical scorn. And they filled a demand for films that reflect changes in popular culture, specifically the influence of graphic novels and video games. They both feature a female heroine, and make her the centerpiece of the film and the entire series. So yes, I was generally familiar with the turf we were playing on. And yet, part of the appeal to score “Resident Evil” was precisely that it was NOT another “Underworld” film. This was the chance to use technique and skill but to apply it in a different context, and thereby a better chance to mix it up and challenge myself to a different approach.
Given “Resident Evil’s” crazy mythology and mash of genres, did you bone up on the movies, or video games beforehand as well?
I sure did. That’s part of the fun of the job: I get to do “research” and learn the landscape. Paul had already asked me to work on “Resident Evil 5” (which then did not happen due to some tax and scheduling issues) so I was quite familiar with the general landscape and evolution leading up to the final film. But once I saw some of the footage from South Africa, I knew the look and feel of the film would be quite different from the previous installments.
What’s it like to come in for the first time on the long-awaited last chapter of a popular series like this? And does that place greater importance on the score to pay off?
At the end of the day, it’s still a film that needs some music. Yes, there should be a feeling of finality, and yes, it’s important to reflect major character developments, like the re-appearance of the Red Queen. But it is still constructed as a ride, and I am responsible to help make those 90 minutes as engaging, entertaining and moving as possible.
How do you think your music embodies Alice’s attitude as she reaches the end of her quest to destroy Umbrella?
I believe people relate to Alice as a tragic hero who will also kick some ass. And I would describe those two qualities as the starting point for the music. The film has a certain sweep, a ‘final chapter’ atmosphere, which I tried to reflect in the music. She is coming to ‘the end of her story’ with all the fury, fight and emotion that only Alice can muster.
When it comes to the villains, what were your ideas for the high-tech Umbrella Corporation and its minions?
Always fun! Villains are the best! Give me a good villain and the half of the score writes itself! Iain Glen gives such a marvelous performance. I cannot thank him enough! The Umbrella theme has generally been the dark undercurrent of the series. I embraced the opportunity to bring their long developing story to its conclusion in this film.
Could you talk about jumping from the score’s metal energy to its epic orchestrations that capture the scope of Alice’s world?
One of my ideas was to contrast some industrial, harder hitting elements, with more elegiac, choral-type movements. And to drive the tension between these two opposites further than I had done in previous scores.
There are some particularly gnarly, monstrous grooves to your “Resident Evil” score. What instruments and samples went into the score?
There is a lot of programming and studio production that went into the rhythm design on this particular score. We know it had to fit with a lot of sound effects, a cutting style that was based on commercials and a story that was nonlinear in nature. We also did a full day of live percussion recordings. For the processing, I went back to some of the type of dirty/edgy processing I used on the first “Underworld” score. Whenever the fabric of a score becomes too complex, I find it necessary to “dirty up” the sound and make it less pristine.
Having scored movies where the suspense-horror is more front-and-center like “Prom Night” and “Vacancy,” what’s it like to add the demands of the action genre into that equation with “Resident Evil?”
Hopefully the best of both worlds? I think what we are talking about is not limited to a traditional genre, but in a way has created its own genre. These are big films aimed at a demographic whose point of reference are graphic novels and previous films like “The Crow, ”Dark City” and “The Matrix.” “Resident Evil” was not the first of these films, but it was an important step in the development of this particular sub-genre. And the music just needs to fit the particular experience it tries to convey. “Over the top” is part of the fabric.
As a composer who was there for the seminal synth sound of Tangerine Dream, is it surreal to be watching a rebirth for that genre of music with such scores as “It Follows” and “Stranger Things?”
I am good friends with Kyle and Michael and have a lot of respect for Richard Vreeland, who scored “It Follows” as Disasterpeace. They are all music geeks (like myself) and have taken something they love and put their own spin on it. History allows perspective, and we have come far enough with electronic music that this re-imagining of previous territory can become the breeding ground for new ideas and interpretations. All power to them, and I hope many more musicians will follow their lead.
On that note, what’s it like to go back to your old-school rhythmic roots when scoring the show “Halt and Catch Fire?”
There was certainly a time-machine aspect to it, but I also simply liked the show, the story, and welcomed the chance the particular setting offered for inspired music choices. It certainly was fun to dive back in and to mix up the elements a little – leaving out what I’d rather not hear again, and expanding on the nuggets, which I thought, stood the test of time. The music is an essential part of the storytelling on this show, and as such, obviously, it has been and is still is a wonderful opportunity. Much credit goes to the shows creators, Christopher C.Rogers and Christopher Cantwell, the music supervisor Thomas Golubic and the show’s producer, Melissa Bernstein.
You’ve also become part of AMC’s hugely popular franchise with “Fear the Walking Dead.” How important was it for you that the show has its own musical identity that would set it apart from “The Walking Dead?”
It was clear pretty early on that they wanted a different show with a different sound. Yes, there are walkers in both shows and the setting is that of a post-apocalyptic world. But the cast and constellation of characters, the fabric of the show, is fairly distinct from TWD. Therefore my approach was to write music from scratch, as if the other show did not exist. To allow the show to find its own sound and musical setting.
Would you say that scoring movies like “Resident Evil” are like doing rock operas for you in terms of their relentless, metal-powered drive?
The combination of edgy, industrial elements with orchestra is always tricky, but in a general sense I am just fitting music to the landscape the picture provides. If the action gets heavy, the music will reflect that, be it in synchronicity or as a counterpoint. And the choreography of the film, the pacing, the energy and the general flow has to be the starting point for any musical approach.
Having scored so many films full of hybrid creatures, where do you see your own mad experiments at fusing orchestra, orchestral emulation and synth sampling going next?
I guess we’ll have to wait and find out! In all my film/tv/vg work, I always respond to the project, obviously. The project inspires the musical ideas, and part of the fun is to never know where it will take me. The biggest challenge, I believe, is to stop the constant flood of input and options one faces and to decide and stay on a particular approach and idea. We used to face natural limitations. Today we have to create artificial restrictions and limitations, to have a chance at focus and effect.
What do you think makes a “videogame” movie and score like “Resident Evil” work in the end?
They put people on a ride, and if by the end of it they enjoyed this particular ride, then the film was effective. We live by experiences, and these films try to provide one particular experience. The more films and the more rides, the more difficult it is to come up with “yet another ride,” so there will always be this challenge. But with an established fan-base, as with “Resident Evil” and “Underworld” fans, we also owe it to that audience to deliver, to go above and beyond and to let them enjoy the best “Resident Evil” film yet. And that’s what we aim for.
Take on The Umbrella Corporation with Alice and Paul Haslinger when “Resident Evil: The Final Chapter” opens on January 27th, with its score available on Lakeshore Records HERE
Hear another ass-kicking heroine as Paul Haslinger ventures to his “Underworld” scores HERE
“Halt and Catch Fire” with Paul Haslinger HERE
Visit Paul Haslinger’s website HERE
Masked maniacs, ferocious fish, unhinged vigilantes and a wheelman from hell. Reading a list of Michael Wandmacher’s prolific credits feels like a particularly crazed membership drive for The Suicide Squad, a rogue’s gallery that he’s taken out for a spin with a distinctively energetic ability for pounding action where a metal attitude often hits the pedal. Starting his career in the rhythmic company of Jackie Chan with the English version scores for “Armor of God,” “Twin Dragons” and “Once a Cop,” Wandmacher has brought his passion to “Cry_ Wolf,” “The Killing Floor,” “My Bloody Valentine,” “Piranha 3-D,” “The Last Exorcism: Part II” and “Punisher: War Zone” (though with equally pleasant variation for the likes of “Max Keeble’s Big Move,” “Ben 10: Alien Swarm” and “The Goldbergs”).
It seems only natural that given the karate-proficient composer’s genre action chops that werewolves and gun-shooting vampires would be ideal to take a bow in Wandmacher’s company. Now it’s a hybrid of both monsters for the long-running “Underworld” series with “Blood Wars,” an eternal battle between Lycan and vampire that found a darkly beautiful “death dealer” in Selene (Kate Beckinsdale). Over the course of three films (and a Selene-less prequel), the heroine has done her best to ensure her clan’s dominance over the Lycans, a fight that now spawns an all-powerful werewolf clan whose final push for dominance puts Selene to her ultimate test on their frozen home turf.
Though plenty of cinematic kills are notched into Wandmacher’s scoring belt, the composer finds himself a newbie for his biggest genre credit yet for “Underworld: Blood Wars,” – the series’ ground impressively trod by Paul Haslinger and Marco Beltrami. Wandmacher takes up their bloodline using darkly heroic, pounding orchestra rhythms that drive the relentless Selene. Howling winds strike for werewolves as eerie ethnic instruments recount the two sides’ forever war. It’s work that fits into “Underworld’s” musical groundwork as it resounds with sinister heritage and modern, pulsing action that significantly amps up Selene’s dramatic stakes; More so, this “Underworld” score howls to the blood moon for a composer who energetically goes for the throat with musical guns blazing – twin fusillades for the supernatural and action cinema that excitingly mesh for what might be a vampiress’ swan song.
Could you tell us what brought you into film composing?
It was something I aspired to early on, but being in Minnesota at the time, I wasn’t quite sure how to get there. Some music community connections eventually got me started working on TV spots and news music full time. Through these jobs I was able to meet filmmakers in Minneapolis who were doing both shorts and features, some of which I scored. That’s when a completely unreal event occurred. Through a series of email exchanges that started via a film music newsgroup (Yes, newsgroup. Way back in the Jurassic period of the internet!) I met Alan Silvestri, who already was a musical hero to me and is even more so now. He subsequently invited me to LA to see some real scoring sessions and introduced me to a number of people, including YOU, the interviewer, who eventually paved a path for me to move to LA permanently. Just those few trips got my music circulated enough to start working on direct-to-video films for Dimension and also land a job scoring “Modern Vampires” for Richard Elfman, Danny’s brother. Between the two of them, they picked me to do the film! And I was in Minnesota! At that point, there was a resounding chorus around me saying, “If you really want to do this, you have to move.” So I did the classic “throw-everything-in-a-U-Haul and off to the land of movie magic!” To this day, when I truly think of how all that unfolded, especially with the hindsight of knowing just how difficult it is to make a career of scoring, I feel incredibly fortunate.
Having worked with Lexi Alexander on the insane “Punisher: War Zone,” how did the experience compare with Anna Foerster on “Blood Wars?” And what do you think these movies show when it comes to women as being as capable of bloody kick-ass action as male directors are?
I don’t draw comparisons between directors. To me, they are all fascinating people who take on an incredibly demanding task. Each one has their own vision, work methodology and creative process. A big part of what makes my job interesting is adapting and responding to each individual director and what their needs are for a given film. Whether they are male or female makes no difference to me. I am solely focused on the collaboration and delivering the score that’s best for their film and hopefully forging a working relationship that continues into the future.
What do you think made you particularly adept at particularly ferocious genre scoring for such projects as “Piranha,” “Drive Angry,” “My Bloody Valentine” and “Bloodborne?”
After years of playing guitar in rock bands, it seemed natural to me to try to inject that sort of energy into film scores. The metalhead part of me is still alive and well and it helps me formulate high-powered musical passages into something that an orchestra will embrace. For instance, I often work out rhythmic figures for a bass string section on an actual bass guitar. Or I come at it the opposite way and use the legato flow of the celli to guide a moving guitar atmosphere or texture. For these types of projects, the ability to think in terms of symphonic music as it relates to rock or metal or industrial music and also how the two can combine into something even bigger and more aggressive is a great deal of fun! I’ve been experimenting with this sort of intermingling and crossover since the beginning of my career, even before the approach was popularized.
Was the “Underworld” franchise on your radar as a fan? And how did you become part of “Blood Wars?”
Definitely. The idea that a centuries-long battle between the two factions of our folkloric super monsters is waging right alongside, but relatively unknown to, humanity is very cool. And both sides deal with the same sorts of power struggles, corruption, forbidden alliances and emotional discord that humans do. It’s a very interesting, fresh twist on myths and legends that have lived inside a certain box of tricks for a long time.
As for how the job came my way, it was pretty serendipitous. I had worked on “Patient Zero” for Screen Gems and they were very happy with the results. When the time came to find a composer for “Blood Wars,” I expressed my interest in doing the film. It represented a dream project for me. The confidence I had built with the studio on “Patient Zero” led them to facilitate a series of meetings, which eventually led to getting the job. I was ecstatic.
As this is your first entry into the “Underworld” series, how did you bone up on the series, particularly when it came to capturing the musical vibe of the franchise?
As a fan, I understood the “Underworld” universe and its components going into the job. Although I knew the score would be incredibly challenging, I was confident that I could find the place that the music needed to be in for this particular film. After some discussions about the tone and shape of the score, I started building custom templates of sounds, thematic ideas and rhythmic pulses that I thought were appropriate. That’s what I call “mad scientist mode”. In that space of time, I don’t limit myself. It’s pure experimentation and always yields elements that will make the score unique. In the case of this film, I started with some single scenes, trying different combinations of instruments and sounds, and filled out the rest from there. The process of refining the all the programming, recording myself playing various instruments and orchestration continued all the way up to recording.
How did you want to put your own personal mark on the “Underworld” music?
It was certainly a daunting to enter into a beloved franchise and want to add my spin to it – while, at the same time not stepping on the toes of what came before me! I was very aware that I was contributing to a larger whole, but that “Blood Wars” had to have a distinct musical personality. The themes, motifs, ideas and sounds in the score are all new, but they still had to latch into the overall “Underworld” universe in way that wouldn’t throw off audiences. The key for me came from the fact that the story swirls around Lycan/Vampire hybrids, both existing and those characters that are attempting to achieve hybridization. I let that narrative point spill over into the music and built a palette that was hybrid on a grand scale, utilizing both a very large orchestra and hundreds of tracks of electronics. The two sonic sides of the score push and pull and combine right along with the plot as it unfolds. How I mixed all these elements up compositionally allowed my own voice to emerge in the music.
How do you musically see the character of Selene, especially when it comes to the new abilities she gains?
She is the thematic, emotional and stylistic core of the film. The best metaphor I can muster right now is that if the movie is a solar system, she is the sun. Even if other themes or elements arise in the score when she is not onscreen, they still tie back into her character somehow. Over and over, I would always look to her character for inspiration while working on the film to find a fresh angle for new sequences or narrative twists. A great deal of the momentum in the film is derived from her performance or the performances of others as they seek to interact with her somehow. She was a musical well to constantly draw from. As for how the music relates to the new abilities she gains, it also ties directly into new motifs and colors as they become appropriate.
Is it particularly hard bringing emotion to a character whose survival depends on being a stone-cold killing machine?
I don’t think so. While everyone loves watching her battle onscreen, I’ve always recognized Selene as the reluctant warrior queen-type, not the merciless conqueror-type. She fights when she has to, but never for the sport of it. The key word you use in the question is “survival”. That’s why she does what she does. There is nothing nefarious at work, even when she’s clearing a room. Action has a purpose. She is actually awash in emotion through all of the films she appears in and in a constant state of internal conflict. Emotional pain and longing are what drives her at her core and she seeks to do what she feels is right, even when it appears counter to her kind’s existence. Ultimately, she seeks peace, but it constantly eludes her. I believe these things are what make her most compelling to audiences. Ironically, even though undead, there is humanity in her. Drawing from that construct, I see making the music that surrounds her introspective and emotional moments as being part of her true essence.
Did you want to musically differentiate the Lycans and Vampires?
In a broad sense, yes. But I was more concerned with maintaining a presence of this whole universe of beings that exist among us. The music palette, as a sum, is what acts as the backdrop for that world. In terms of differentiation, the vampires are often underscored with dark, gothic string movements and a heightened sense of drama and intrigue to highlight their old-school hierarchical ways and in-fighting, while the Lycan underscore, especially under the leadership of Marius, takes on a distinctly militaristic tone. He is a general leading his troops to battle. Most important was a feeling of propulsion and forward motion, to give the sense that these two factions are headed for a climactic showdown on a scale that neither side has ever seen.
This is definitely one of the icier “Underworld” movies. How did the setting inform the score? And could you talk about making particularly cool use of eerie, ethnic winds as well as voices?
“Blood Wars” introduces us to The Nordic Coven. It is a fortress set far to the north and houses a whole different breed of vampire. The coven is old (and cold!), sequestered and its inhabitants are steeped in lore, ritual, and a monastic-type existence. Finding the music for this locale and population was probably the biggest musical challenge in the entire movie. We (the director, producers and myself) all knew we wanted something that both spoke to being Nordic and fit within the “Underworld” sound, but we weren’t sure was that was at first. For battle scenes it was relatively straightforward as primitive war drums and war horns were utilized alongside the orchestra, but the dramatic scenes were a different nut to crack. After researching and experimenting with various traditional Nordic and Scandinavian instruments, I found that they weren’t quite fitting into the fabric of the score. Many of the instruments, like the nyckelharpa, hardanger fiddle, kantele, or various dulcimers and zithers didn’t convey the mysterious, dangerous and exotic feeling that the director was looking for. The solution lay in another instrument: the flute, of which there are many varieties throughout the whole of Northern Europe. By mixing and manipulating different flute types down into registers that are un-naturally (or supernaturally?) low, I landed on a sound that was unique to the coven in terms of mood and character. It is the undead’s brand of Nordic winds – dark, airy and evocative, with deep vibrato and strange overtones. Vocal chanting is layered with these flutes to heighten the ritualistic nature of these vampires. In addition, I added bowed crotales playing intentional dissonance against the melodic elements, and various bells and ceremonial percussion, like frame drums, zills, and chains.
There’s also the striking use of metallic effects in the score. What made you go for an industrial sheen of sorts, yet one that never makes the jump into that full-on territory?
Mainly, I like using those types of sounds to add aggressiveness to the music. They have an edge to them that slices through a cue, no matter how dense the orchestration or layering, that provides harsh definition and rhythmic clarity that you can’t find with other types of sounds. They are the fangs and claws and teeth in the music. As effects and ambiences, metallic textures call forth a danger and ferocity that warns the audience that unexpected events, unforeseen threats or a sudden bloody outburst could happen at any time, even in moments where everything seems calm.
Going all the way back to my TV commercial days, I’ve always been fascinated with sound design and how that can integrate with score. The use of metallics and other non-traditional or organically sourced sounds is always a consideration to further enrich the textures in the music. For instance, some people see might see a box of nails sitting the garage. I see an instrument! That idea of music design, as people are calling it now, is always something I try to bring to a score that utilizes ambiences and moody atmospheres like the ones in “Blood Wars.”
People may not realize you create much lighter fare for “The Goldbergs” and the upcoming “Imaginary Mary”. Is it difficult shape-shifting into a whole different composing mode, and do you try to mix up your projects when possible?
I get asked the “shift” question a lot and the answer is, truthfully, no. I think it’s because of my entertainment input as a kid. It was pretty eclectic. Cartoons, genre films of all kinds, classic films, TV shows (especially comedies I watched with my dad), video games, comic books, whatever records came along, novels, etc. No one thing in particular. I was always paying attention to the music or making it up in my head if I was reading something. I carried that mental kaleidoscope of stuff with me into adulthood and use it set my mind in motion when approaching any type of score. I think a lot of composers can do the same. We’re a much more creatively flexible lot than people might think!
I like to mix things up because it keeps work challenging and interesting and opens up doors to new relationships that can lead to future work that may stretch your creative boundaries even further. And those varied relationships are the key to keeping things fresh. It’s a tough thing to do, though, because if you find success in a particular genre, you can get pigeonholed very fast within the industry and that can cause a career to stagnate. For that reason, I’m very grateful that I can work on projects across genres. In looking at the careers of people I respect and admire the most, they all have resumes that span many musical styles and approaches.
Tell us about your score for the unusual “zombie talker” pandemic movie “Patient Zero” that will be hitting in February?
I can’t say much about that yet. It would actually give too much away! Only that it’s not what you would expect for a movie of this type. The atypical approach is what made the project so interesting.
Given the amount of savagery you score, do you think movies are going to get even darker now, and their scores along with them?
Not necessarily. It’s all about filmmakers and musical trends in the marketplace. A good scary movie will always have an audience, as will a fun animated film. People are always looking for a variety of different things, especially in this internet-driven age of the short attention span. If everything moved towards being progressively darker, my guess is that the moviegoing public would eventually tire of it and look for something light. The converse is probably, true, too. So, it leads to a kind of equilibrium. People expect a movie like “Blood Wars” to be dark and stylish and aggressive, but not so for latest comedy or drama.
Are you Team Lycan, or Team Vampire?
I’m Team Selene. So, given she’s a hybrid, I guess that makes me a bit of both.
“Underworld: Blood Wars” opens in theaters on January 7th, with Michael Wandmacher’s score available on Lakeshore Records HERE
Wreak energetic musical mayhem with Michael Wandmacher as he deals death for “The Punisher: War Zone” HERE, unleashes a pack of “Piranha 3D” HERE and gets behind the wheel with madman Nicolas Cage to “Drive Angry” HERE
For The Month of November 2016
- Record Label
1Berlin Station OST Lakeshore Records Reinhold Heil
2Before the Flood OST Lakeshore Records Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, Gustavo Santaolalla, Mogwai
3Stranger Things V.1 &2 OST Lakeshore Records Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein
4Bilial: A New Breed of Hero OST Atli Orvarsson Lakeshore Records
5Moonlight OST Lakeshore Records Nicholas Britell
6The Nine OST Ever Studio Steven Emerson
7Allied OST Sony Classical Alan Silvestri
8Hacksaw Ridge OST Varese Sarabande Rupert Gregson-Williams
9The Girl On A Train OST Sony Classical Danny Elfman
10The Accountant OST WaterTower Music Mark Isham
11Black Mirror: San Junipero OST Lakeshore Records Clint Mansell
12A Street Cat Named Bob OST Sony Classical Various
13Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children La-La Land Records Mike Higham & Matthew Margeson
14Arrival OST Johann Johannsson Deutsche Grammophon
15Mr. Robot V1&2 OST Lakeshore Records Mac Quayle
16Planet Earth II OST Silva Screen Records Hans Zimmer, Jacob Shea Jasha Klebe
17The Magnificent Seven OST Lakeshore Records Alex Wurman
18Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them OST WaterTower Music James Newton Howard
19The Light Between Oceans OST Lakeshore Records Alexandre Desplat
20Sully OST Varese Sarabande Clint Eastwood, Christian Jacob, The Tierney Sutton Band CineRadio is produced by Krakower Polling PR. For more information about CineRadio or Krakower Polling PR contact Beth Krakower at cinemediapromo (at) yahoo.com
The chart is composed of music played during the month of November on soundtrack music specialty shows. This month’s reporters include WPRK, CFMU, KUCI, WRTU, WFMU, KSJS, KMFA, KFJC, KSPC, WHFR, A Fistful of Soundtracks, Cinematic Sound, The Score, Urgent.fm/Supercalifragilistic, BBC Radio 3 “Sounds of Cinema,” SoundtrackAdventures.blogspot.com, ABC Classic FM Australia, Secklow Sounds, and Soundtrax.fm.
* denotes new reporters
Death and transfiguration are two themes that have often accompa-nied the scores of Fernando Velazquez. Powerfully embodying a new generation of orchestrally rich Spanish composers to steadily take root in Hollywood, Velazquez rose from numerous shorts in his na-tive country to impress Hollywood with his lush, alternately creeping and raging sense of old school melody for “Devil,” “Mama,” singing with a romantic sense of aristocratic doom for “Crimson Peak” and “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.”
A particularly resonant ferryman for Velazquez when coming to grips with the inevitable, as well as the potential radiant light afterwards, is filmmaker J.A. Bayona. Creating a haunting orchestral tapestry for 2007’s “The Orphanage,” Velazquez heard just as much emotion as fear from a woman’s return to the old haunts of her childhood with a collaboration that truly put modern Spanish horror on the map. The director and composer next travel to Thailand with 2012’s “The Impossible,” the devastating loss of thousands of lives from it tsunami enabling Velazquez to embody a one family’s anguished and tender struggle to survive and reunite.
Now Bayona and Velazquez draw on all of their Gothically emotional power for a story steeped in equal parts tragedy, fantasy, anger and acceptance with “A Monster Calls.” Hearing the resounding cry of a score steeped in chilling majesty dark enchantment and tearful disbelief is Conor (Lewis MacDougall), a boy facing the imminent loss of his Mum (Felicity Jones) and a future spent with a seemingly evil Grandma (Sigourney Weaver). Calling upon his brutalizing anger, Connor summons the tree-like Monster (Liam Neeson), who regales the youth with seemingly disparate animated stories, all of which will finally combine for Connor to truly face the reality of his sad situation. It’s a coming to terms that Velazquez plays with a devastating, beautiful power rooted as much in the monstrous musical tradition of the organ, thunderous brass and angered strings as it draws from the lyrical power of piano harmonies, angelic voices and a poetic or-chestra. “A Monster Calls” is Velazquez’s most powerful stride yet from Spain into a Hollywood, swinging with astounding might that plays the seeming supernatural and the all-too real heartstrings with equal, impressive passion.
Your first English language score was for the thoroughly creepy incest drama “Savage Grace.” What are your memories of it?
It was a wonderful movie that had great performances by Julian Moore and Eddie Redmayne, who got really big after this movie. For the score, I just had some strings. People say it’s the old-fashioned way, but I would say it’s a classical way that always works in good movies. It was dark and a little bit romantic, which addressed what the director Tom Kalin (“Swoon”) wanted in this movie.
How did you begin your collaborations with J.A. Bayona? And how do you think “The Orphanage” set the tone for his running theme of coming to terms with death?
We started in short films before anything else. We did “El Hombre Esponja,” a really nice short. You can still listen to the music, as I recorded it last year for Quartet. “The Orphanage” set the tone of his running theme of coming to terms with death.
What was it like to score the epic, real-life tragedy of “The Impossible” with J.A.?
Even though these movies all have themes of death, love and moth-erhood they are all also quite different, along with my scores for them. “The Impossible” is the most intense and film of our collaborations. “The Orphanage” was very dramatic with the neo-romantic old orchestra. “A Monster Calls” is really different for me, because the approach is really minimal and inspired by the three stories the monster is telling. It scope is smaller in a way, and not so sad as “Monster” is commenting on a story outside of the story. “The Orphanage” is a story within itself.
You made a pilgrim’s progress through such Spanish thrill-ers as “Shiver” before your first Hollywood horror film with the elevator-set “Devil.” What do you think are the biggest differences between both countries’ approach to genre films?
There aren’t many differences between horror movies from country to country, but rather movie to movie. One Spanish horror film can be completely different from another Spanish horror film, and the same thing goes for American films. Nowadays, directors can do great things and make fantastic movies without a large budget. You can still have that big orchestra sound in a low cost movie. It’s just about what the story needs. The difference comes from the director and how he wants to portray the movie. In that way, “A Monster Calls” very intense because we want the audience to feel what the characters are feeling. We want to address this so the music was in-tense, not epic. It’s their emotion, as opposed to the story, that gets epic. If you listen to the music without the movie, you might think it’s over the top. But when you watch the movie, you know the music is exactly how you’re feeling during it, which fits the film perfectly.
How did you want to draw on your horror scoring, and general full-blooded gothic scoring in musically depicting The Monster?
The stories are kind of different. They are big and the orchestra is big with big harmonies. The choir is there. There is a feeling of adventure and story telling which works very well with tales. It works beautifully with the watercolors we see in the movie. Whereas, the music for reality is quite small, probably the smallest you get for the purpose because it’s a little piano and some strings. Only in the end, they come together in a metaphorical way because the choir paints a reality and accompanies Connor and his mother.
How did you want to draw on your horror scoring, and general full-blooded gothic scoring (complete with organ) in musically depicting The Monster?
Well the music for the monster, of course, includes the organ at some point. We looked for many different sounds of woodwind and bagpipes. The woodwinds in the orchestra and a lot of wooden things that we thought would work with the monster. But in the end, we realized that the monster is more ominous, like the wood it-self. This ominous threat we feel is more from the bass, strings, the bass brass and the woodwinds, than everything else. But as we worked on the movie we realized that we didn’t need the tree to be felt as a threat. We tried with the choir, it worked really well, but we realized the choir would work better with other things in the movie like the end and when Connor is desperate and the times when it seems mankind is telling Connor that everything is going to be all right.
How did you want to score Conor, given a hard shell where him dealing with his mother’s deterioration becomes a sadomasochistic need for punishment?
I think this was really well depicted by the movie itself. It didn’t need a lot of music for suffering. We tried to make things even worse with the bullying and the hard feelings he put on himself. But this music was not needed at all, because really small music was already making the audience feel sorry for Connor. There is a moment in the piece “Break Things” when he destroys everything, which is even more brutal with abstract noises more than the music itself. It’s a cue I’m very proud of.
Given the tendency of many genre scores to use some form of sampling or electronics, why did you want to go for an old school orchestral feeling here?
I never thought about it. You know my first approach was orchestra with this movie because we thought it was best. We never thought about electronics. You could, of course, score this movie with elec-tronics. It might be good, but we think that for the movie, it wouldn’t make sense, or at least I like it better with strings.
Everyone goes through loss. Did you have any such instances in your own life that you particularly drew on for this score?
Not really. But it’s funny, because our own experience with “The Im-possible” was used because we wanted to do the opposite in a way. And of course you know music is like a magnet. You get all of the emotions you put in it. Of course, in the last cue called “The Truth,” there is a lot of my life, but also the players’. A lot of them can put their experiences and heart into the music they play, listen or com-pose.
Conversely, how did you want the score to reflect the ten-sion and beauty of the mother-father-“evil stepmother” relationships with Connor, especially with the pain they all endure?
From what I’ve seen, this is something that works very well in the movie without music. The stepmother doesn’t have her own theme, even when she’s kind of depicted as the queen in the tale, which is not obvious. It’s not the direct connection you can talk about. We have the idea that the stepmother looks evil and cruel, we know she’s not. At first we tried to do that with the music. But that didn’t turn out to be a good idea because it was too obvious.
Given the understandably heightened emotions of “Monster Calls,” how important was it for you and J.A. to avoid overt manipulation, and to honestly earn tears, even while using such devices as piano and a heavenly chorus that practically guarantee them?
I think with this movie, practically anything would guarantee tears, even the synthesizer woodwinds, a piano, singing, a flute, organ… anything what would cause the same thing. I think sometimes emo-tions come by themselves very naturally, so we didn’t spend much time trying to see how far we could go with the music. It’s opposite to “The Impossible” where you have feelings, but you won’t necessarily be crying while watching the film. In the end, what makes you cry is the story itself and how you relate to the storyline.
While kids might be enchanted by the creature in the trail-er, “A Monster Calls” is far more of a film for adults in how dark and disturbing it is. How did that affect your scoring?
Well, we could have done a fairy tale or something more for children, but the music itself is kind of somber. I wouldn’t say “adult” because this is something that is difficult to address. We needed to play with the cards we were dealt, the ones that we were working with. Now, for some moments we thought the tales were a bit lighter and they work faster in the movie, But then we realized many details would be missing. You know sometimes you’re afraid the movie feels slow. But we thought it was good for this movie to have this pace, which is a little far away from a movie for kids.
Conversely, how did you want your music to provide a sense of acceptance and emotion, especially for kids who might want to see this as some form of therapy? In that respect, would you say that this score itself goes through “the five stages?”
I read the five stages. It’s just some therapy thing, but you don’t necessarily need to go through all the five stages. The music is more about accepting. There is no denial or rage in the movie, ex-cept there is a little bit of rage where the music is more literal. Honestly, for the most part, it feels as though it is more about humankind and ancestry, as we can see in the tree and the grandfather and grandmother. I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that the main sce-ne in the movie happens in a cemetery, where ancestors were buried. I think this scene goes directly with the collective consciousness way of thinking, which is what art connects us with. The movie itself is a huge metaphor about how we can deal with reality. The music is the ultimate stage of this metaphor. The music tells you that with melodies not words.
In the end, do you think horror films, and their music is a way of dealing with death?
Well not really, because horror films deal with death in a very precise way. They are usually not serious films about death. “The Orphanage” is not a horror movie, or “The Sixth Sense.” They are scary, but they are not “horror” movies. Of course, I think many films and many works of art are a way of dealing with death.
Where do you see J.A.’s movies as going from here, or do you think he’ll keep returning to the same thematic material of grief and loss, as often given a supernatural twist?
Well, now he’s doing “Jurassic World” and it doesn’t seem to be about grief and loss! I know nothing about this movie. Juan Antonio has all the talent to do all these different things. He wanted to bring out these particular feelings for “A Monster Calls,” because he’s had loss and grief. But these movies are also about love which the emo-tion that remains in all of his movies.
You had a particularly busy year in 2016, with Quartet Records representing your Spanish releases. One impres-sive score was “Gernika,” which dealt with the awful bombing in Spain’s Civil War that also became Picasso’s most famous painting.
“Gernika” was a great opportunity to do a historic drama with really wonderful acting and great storytelling by my director friend Koldo Serra. It was just a big gift to have an opportunity to do this score. It is old fashioned in a way, because it is classical, big and orchestral. It is one of these scores that we are not allowed to do very often because they don’t want these big melodies or orchestrations. Many filmmakers think that things need to be small. I’m particularly proud of the end of the movie, which is the big and long cue.
You also composed two delightful children’s’ scores for the animated dog comedy “Ozzy” and the live action ad-venture “Zipiy Zape and the Captain’s Island.” What was it like working on the scores, especially when it came to giv-ing both a big orchestral sound?
I feel very passionate about orchestra and the big classical way of composing with themes and orchestra, because we aren’t able to do it often. I was very happy that I had both opportunities, because I’m a big fan of all the John Williams, Alan Silvestri and James Newton Howard scores. I’m just a little sorry these movies didn’t get that much attention, but the scores are there. They’re very rich and I hope people realize they’re out there on one day and get to listen to them. Even “Zip and Zap” gets big and emotional in the end. With melodies and themes, you will remember the theme if you listen to scores and watch the movie. This makes me happy. In electronics, there is another movie coming out that was just in the Austin festival called “The Invisible Guest.” This is the complete opposite, because it is a lot of electronics and orchestra, which was also a lot of fun to do because the music works in a different way. It was also really fun doing this.
Given that you’re one of Spain’s busiest composers when it comes to Spanish-funded, or director-made English language films like “Hercules,” “Mama” and “Crimson Peak,” how do you hope that “A Monster Calls” might finally, and fully propel you into the realm of Hollywood? And do you hope to continue your lush, orchestral approach to scoring there, particularly when it comes to chilling subject matter?
Well, I think nowadays Hollywood is everywhere. You don’t really know where a film is being made. For example, “Mama” got huge. It was a Spanish movie, mostly shot in Canada and scored in Spain. So, I don’t think Hollywood is necessarily the center of all film anymore. I think we have a lot to say from Spain. Of course, I’m very happy to do American movies. The studio movie world is a little tricky and I hope I will find a place without being forced to be very conservative and try to copy other music and composers. Honestly, I think voices are needed, not only in music but in filmmaking itself. I’m a composer, not an “orchestra guy.” I do electronics, which I love, and sometimes I do massive orchestral things. You know my first movie was scored with a chamber trio and I was very happy with it. It had nothing to do with big orchestras. The second movie I did was really only songs. So It’s not about doing only orchestra. The business can pigeonhole you, but I think that if I’m lucky I will be able to do different things.
Pick up Fernando Velazquez’s score when “A Monster Calls” on Back Lot Music and Quartet Records HERE
Listen to “The Impossible” HERE
Special thanks to Gabby Belzer, Jana Davidoff and Amanda Greenbaum for arranging and transcribing this interview
A distinctive, and prolific voice in Hollywood since arriving from his native Brazil, Marcelo Zarvos has created any number of musically explosive dramatic incidents – among them “Cell’s” zombie-making phone calls, the murderous bad cop behavior of “Brooklyn’s Finest” and “Beastly’s” groovily hip take on a fairy tale as old as time. A frequent collaborator with director Barry Levinson from the found footage parasitic horrors of “The Bay” to “Phil Spector’s” record producer gone mad, as well as a go-to composer for Showtime series like “Ray Donovan,” “The C Word” and “The Affair,” Marcelo Zarvos’ eclectic resume is no busier than when dealing with relationships in all of their humor, passion and pain. Starting out on such indies as “Tully” and “Kissing Jessica Stein,” Zarvos has brought comic quirk to such dramedies as “Please Give,” “The Beaver” and “Friends with Kids.” But it’s in his often gently affecting way with strings, piano and rhythm that Zarvos cuts to the heart of the matter in such moving scores as “Door in the Floor,” “Remember Me” and “The Words.”
Where Zarvos has often dealt with the strains of family ties, perhaps none of his work in that playing field has felt the angry, anguished weight of “Fences,” or required as much delicate restraint to express those emotions. While it marks the first studio adaptation of an August Wilson Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Fences” multi-hyphenate Denzel Washington certainly knows the territory of a writer who chronicled America’s working class black experience for the stage like no other, especially having played “Fence’s” volatile family matriarch Troy on Broadway. A baseball star that could have been somebody before ditching his dreams to become a garbage man clawing his way up a dead-end ladder, Troy seethes with anger for everyone in his Pittsburgh orbit. Facing the brunt of his rhapsodizing on life’s brunt realities is his hapless wife Rose (Viola Davis) and son Cory (Jovan Adepo), taking as much emotional, and sometimes physical abuse as they can bear, all while Troy’s battle-scarred, bugle-playing brother Gabriel (Mykelti Wilson) receives what tender mercies can be bestowed by Troy when not draining a government paycheck earned from his head injury.
While filled with impressive, and likely Oscar-nominated performances, the true star of “Fences” are August Wilson’s virtually non-stop words, monologues on philandering, fate and misery that are a music all their own. Subsequently, “Fences” isn’t a movie that requires non-stop scoring to say the least, let alone music that will rise above its harsh, sometimes screamed utterances. It’s a requirement that brings out Zarvos’ expertise in broken characters at its most impactfully hushed – all the better to contrast the verbal heat for scenes that border on exploding into outright violence. Yet it’s a score that yearns for something better in its soft piano and string melodies, an approach that’s unexpectedly lyrical, given the anger on hand. Troy’s madness at evading “Mr. Death” also comes across in eerie percussion, where not allowing the sadness that permeates the film to plunge into outright musical depression. For when Zarvos’ score does show up, however briefly, his work powerfully opens up August Wilson’s world to the big screen – showing off Zarvos as a musical wordsmith who knows here that nothing is more impactful than keeping his voice at a hushed, poetic whisper.
Tell us about what brought you to film scoring?
My first loves were stories and literature. I was an avid reader at a very young age, a real bookworm and it was a very natural transition from written stories to filmed ones, even before I was into music at all. Actually it was the movies that first awakened my interest in music. I remember the score for “The Sting” in particular pretty much being the catalyst for me wanting to learn to play the piano. All that marvelous ragtime music somehow really captured my imagination and I became obsessed with learning that music and played Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” for my first piano recital when I was 9. Film scores from the 70s and 80s were also a big source of inspiration for me. I fell in love of course with all the Spielberg/ Williams stuff. “Blade Runner” was another big one. I think by the time I was 13 I knew film scoring was what I wanted to pursue and basically bid my time playing in rock bands and studying classical music and jazz until I was ready to go to college.
I attended Berklee College with the intention of studying Film Scoring but felt it was too soon too specialize so much and decided to transfer to CalArts where I immersed myself in World Music, Experimental Jazz and 20th Century Classical music. After graduating from CalArts I moved to NYC and it was not until 10 years after I came to the U.S that I had my first actual scoring experience. Somehow during those 10 years I trusted film would come to me, I kept my ears open, watched A LOT of films and I spent my time performing my work with my group in downtown venues like the Knitting Factory as well as various art galleries and basically any space that would have me. I also recorded three albums for a Japanese label called MA Records that really allowed me to find my voice as a composer. The style was a mix of classical, jazz and world music and I would say it formed the basis of what I do to this day.
You scored quite a few independent movies like “Tully,” “Kissing Jessica Stein” and “The Mudge Boy” before drawing the ear of bigger films like “The Door in the Floor,” “Brooklyn’s Finest” and “The Good Shepard.” What was that journey like, and how do you think you finally made it to the prolific place you are now?”
I can pretty much trace everything I’ve done to the very first short film I did which was called “A Soccer Story” and was a real success in the festival circuit – starting with the Brasilia Film Festival where I won an award for Best Score and going all the way to an Academy Award nomination in the Short Film Category. My first feature came via a fellow Brazilian editor, Affonso Goncalves, who was cutting “Tully” and had heard my score for “A Soccer Story” and also had watched me perform on Brazilian TV some of my compositions. He suggested that the director Hillary Birmingham should meet me. We really hit it off and that was my entrance into the indie film world that has been a really big part of my career to this day.
From there on it was a pretty steady and gradual progression with “Mudge Boy” and “Kissing Jessica Stein.” Somehow I managed to just keep getting these indie jobs at a time when real breakouts were very much possible, like in the case of “Kissing Jessica Stein.” My real “big” break came with “The Door In the Floor,” once again courtesy of editor Affonso Goncalves, who put me in touch with the director Kip WIlliams. That was a big jump for me and also the beginning of a very fruitful collaboration that still continues to this day with all the folks from the former Good Machine film company. James Shamus, Ted Hope, Anthony Bregman and Anne Carey were all responsible for that project and opened more doors for me than I could count. James Shamus who at that time was the head of Focus Features brought me back to work on several of their projects like “Sin Nombre” and also additional music for “Brokeback Mountain.” “The Good Shepherd” came from Robert De Niro falling in love with my score from “Hollywoodland,” which was also a Focus Features project.
In the times that you’ve seen stage plays, what struck you about how music was used in them?
Having lived on and off in NY for a long time I’ve had the opportunity to watch many plays. I think in general the music in plays tends to be about transitions. Whether physical, psychological or chronological, music tends to work best in that way as far as I can tell. I did write a few scores for plays but the area that really interested me more was always dance and my scores for modern dance companies like Pilobolus and DanceBrazil were a really important part of my musical development.
How were you brought onto “Fences?” And were you familiar with August Wilson’s plays before taking the gig? If not, did you dive into them?
I had read his work in college but can’t say I was that familiar with it. And yes, of course I read “Fences” and really tried to imagine what music could do for this incredible piece of drama. My involvement really came the old-fashioned way from me putting a reel together and sending it to the producer Todd Black and Denzel. They really liked the music and asked me to meet with them after screening an early cut. It’s been a real series of pinching myself moments ever since I walked into the cutting room and meet Denzel in person.
Having worked with actor-directors like Robert De Niro for “The Good Shepard” and Jodie Foster on “The Beaver,” what do you think they bring to the process that a singularly occupied filmmaker might not? How was your collaboration with Denzel unique?
What these actor/ directors have in common is how they bring their mastery of performance into the director’s chair. With De Niro and Denzel in particular their aversion to anything that smells of over acting very much informs how they would direct me to score their films. Both demanded A LOT of restraint from the scores. One of the unique things about Denzel was that he was also the lead of the film and his performance could not have been more under a microscope. I consider it to be one of the great privileges of my life to have been able to watch him sculpt this incredible performance while remaining very faithful to the words and calmly and methodically do some of the hardest things one can attempt in film. Number one, adapting a successful play and number two creating a screen performance that is equal or better to the many roles we have seen from him, which by all means would be a superhuman effort to begin with when you think of “Training Day,” “Philadelphia” or “Glory.” His commitment to the film was 200%. He knew the material inside out having performed it and been awarded a Tony for the “Fences” revival in NYC a few years ago. It just was a marvel to watch an amazing actor being directed by an incredible director and they just happen to be the same person.
Did Denzel have any particular philosophy as to how the music needed to work in “Fences?” And how did the score evolve through the process?
He knew there would not be a lot of music and that the score would have to fight its way into the movie and really deliver where it counts. He also was very focused on the idea of “less is more” and forced me to really look at the totality of a scene, including the sound effects and most importantly the words to figure out how music could fit in. When we first met he said the score was the August Wilson text and music was there to enhance and support it. He also set a very high bar to everyone involved in the production. We had to be as good as August and either the work elevated the play or it has no place being there at all.
How do you think your score helped Denzel “open up” the play into a film?
I think it helps a lot to suggest the passing of time. To give it an epic and cinematic quality. I also think at times it can work as an ultra-focusing device so we pay even more attention to the words. It helps the emotional arc of the film. We don’t have score until the middle of the second reel about 30 minutes into the film. The score becomes increasingly present as we approach the climax of the film in the later reels. In a way one could almost say the score doesn’t peak until the very last scene of the film when as per August Wilson’s words “The sky opens up as wide as God’s closet”. So it really was all about restrain and just giving enough but never an inch more and to make sure music was never leading and always supporting and staying out of the way of the performances.
Your score isn’t “black” in terms of bringing in jazz and ethnic elements. Did you and Denzel want to go for a universally emotional approach as such?
Denzel had zero interest in having the score be overtly African American in any way. In his own words August Wilson IS the blues and we don’t need any more of it in the score. His vision was that “Fences” is a universal story that transcends all cultures and ethnicities. I happen to agree and when we first met that was one of the first things I told him about my own vision for the score.
How did you and Denzel want to place the score into the film, especially given how impactful nearly all of August Wilson’s dialogue is?
For me the dialogue in “Fences” is really like Shakespeare. You live, breath and die by the words. Denzel always said the score was the text and the music should always be looking to support it as much as possible. Interestingly enough both Denzel and Viola’s voice range were quite low and he became very fond of high violin textures that would hover well above their range and provide a subtle counterpoint to the complexity of the words without getting in the way.
Given how many scenes are on the edge of physical violence, the score is unusually lyrical. Was that a contrast you strove for?
Yes, very much so. We were not interested in ever mimicking or replicating what was on the screen already. The idea, and this is a big one for me in general, is that you don’t want to “double” anything – especially in the case of “Fences” The performances are so layered and nuanced that you are always better off staying out of the way and trying to provide a new dimension that may not be apparent to the naked eye.
There’s a real “love” – hate relationship with Troy in the film. How did you want to capture such a conflicted, often abusive character?
I always try to make things personal on any score I work on. So I really try to draw from my own experiences. We all have one or more Troys in our lives – people who both hurt and inspire us. And I was very much thinking of that as I wrote the music to so many of these scenes that make you cringe. But here is the thing. I believe we, as filmmakers, must love all the characters no matter how flawed they might be and withhold any form of contempt or prejudice. It is up to the audience to decide how they feel about them.
How did you want to play Troy’s increasing, heartbeat-like madness when it came to fighting “Mr. Death?”
For those scenes the trick was to keep it internal and avoid at all costs giving into any kind of “genre” type sound. The struggle for Troy is a spiritual one and I tried to make the music inform that, but again, not replicate the almost savage elements of the performance in the music. A heartbeat was very much a part of it. Interestingly enough those scenes were the only places in the score where I used any form of electronics to create this otherworldly heartbeat feel.
How did you want to play the character of Gabriel, especially when it came to his flawed, but heavenly note that ends the film?
Gabriel is the musical soul of the film. I believe August Wilson certainly thought that by naming Troy’s brother Gabriel, and the fact that he played the trumpet. We first hear the score when he appears and as a matter of fact he hears it before we do. And needless to say the final cue also comes literally out of his trumpet playing. A miracle happens there, and from a strained trumpet note, out comes this heavenly sound that becomes our final cue. I was frankly terrified of writing that cue but we were all very happy with how it came out in the end. After Denzel first heard that cue he said now it was up to Visual Fx to match the transcendent quality of the music. It really does open up the movie and takes us to this miraculous place that Rose, Cory and the family find themselves in.
Is it hard to compose such a restrained score that also has to communicate a tremendous amount of emotion, while dancing around so much dialogue?
You bet. I’ve done my fair of dialogue heavy dramas but this one is really at a very different level due to both the complexity and musicality of the dialogue and also the immense restraint Denzel wanted from the score. It really was a case of how much musical bang for the buck can you get from beginning to end. As a matter of fact while I was working on “Fences,” I made a large sign than hung just below the screen in my studio that said “LESS IS MORE” and often would sit and stare at it for long periods of time while trying to crack the heart and soul of Troy Maxin.
Perhaps the most listened-to project you’ve scored is for Showtime’s “Ray Donovan,” which essentially updated the “Hollywood fixer” you scored for “Hollywoodland” to the modern day. What’s your fascination for these industry enforcers, and why do you think that “Ray Donovan” has caught on like it has?
Ray Donovan, like the detective Louis Simo (Adrien Brody) in “Hollywoodland” is a modern day super hero. With all his flaws the one constant is that Ray always delivers in the end, no matter what. I feel the cat and mouse element of the story is the heart of the show’s success. The other element of course is the incredible group of ever evolving, crazy and lovable characters like Mickey Donovan (Jon Voight) whose charm and humor work as such a perfect balance to Ray’s serious and brooding performance. My personal fascination is the whole anti-hero thing and the ability to tap on that dark side of the characters.
You’ve done particularly impressive work for HBO “real life” telefilms like the financial collapse of “Too Big To Fail” and the Al Pacino biopics “You Don’t Know Jack” and “Phil Spector.” What draws you to these often troubling subjects?
The thing hat attracts me the most to all of these HBO films has always been the excellence in filmmaking. The projects you mentioned were directed by the late Curtis Hanson. Barry Levinson and David Mamet. I mean, these are heroes of mine whose body of work has not only been incredibly influential for me personally but I would say to the entire world of filmmaking. Another fun element in those projects are the HBO folks themselves. Both the head of HBO films Len Amato and music supervisor Evyen Klean are not only immensely talented and filmmaker friendly but also have become good friends over the years. So it really is always a no brainer when one of those projects come up.
Two other impactful Showtime series you’ve scored have been for “The Big C” and “The Affair.” What have those experiences been like?
“The Big C” was my first foray into episodic television and was quite a steep learning curve. But we really had a blast creating that unique blend of humor and pain in equal measures. As for “The Affair,” all I can say is the show has been like a creative paradise for me. Show runner Sarah Treem has from the beginning given me so much freedom and trust to do what I feel is right. She’s created a situation that is the antithesis of the “too many cooks” syndrome that can affect so many TV shows. I consider “The Affair” to be as true an expression of my artistic soul as anything I have ever done and probably will ever do.
Your score for the Stephen King adaptation “Cell,” which finally came out this year, is particularly creepy in capturing the killer signal of technology. Tell us about how you created that particularly unnerving sound?
Everything started with “The Pulse” in that one. At first we wanted to score everything electronically but it became clear the music needed to emphasize more the savagery of the “phoners” who had been infected and in the end the score is very much a blend of electronics and late 20th century extended orchestral techniques. One of the challenges was how to navigate a very thick soundscape that was created by sound design team. In the end I was very happy with the result and felt it was very much a stretch out of my comfort zone.
Would you like to do more scores that draw on your Latin heritage like “Sin Nombre,” especially given the rising prejudice towards immigrants, and foreign citizens the world over?
Oh yes. I would really love to do that. I have also have a fruitful, ongoing collaboration with Brazilian director Bruno Barreto on “Last Stop 174” and “Reaching for the Moon.” Having the opportunity to incorporate the sound of my native land into my work is always both a blast and a tremendous privilege.
Why do you think you have a particular talent for intimate dramas like “Fences,” “Remember Me” and “The Words?”
I believe it goes back to my love of words and literature. These projects all have one element in common which is a real devotion to the spoken word. They’ve taught me how to write around complex dialogue and be expressive and nuanced. A lot of the times when I write for films like “The Door in the Floor,” I will literally turn off the video and just write to the rhythm of the words, letting the text itself be the clock and guide to the music at all times.
What do you think that “Fences” will show Hollywood in terms of its play adaptations?
I think there have been amazing play adaptations. Mike Nichols alone did so many iconic ones. I do think it’s always a challenge as the medium is so close to film to begin with, as opposed to a book adaptation for instance, but in the hands of a passionate director, whether he or she may come from theater or not, plays will always be a rich source of material. I just feel so lucky to be a part of such a special one.
Given that the score for “Fences” is relatively short in the film, do you think the music is more impactful for its restraint, or would you have wanted more of it? On that note, do you think there’s something to be said for shorter-running scores when many movies seem to have too much music?
I think “Fences” has exactly the amount of music it needs. At first I kept trying to find ways to add more but as it’s often the case the more I saw the movie through the eyes of the director the more I realized the music had to be incredibly subtle and just the right amount. Remember, there is NO music in the play so whatever we ended up with is already a big addition to a play that frankly needs very little to begin with. And yes, I do believe less music does tend to value the importance of the score more. That is not to say there should be a “one size fits all” approach to spotting films. As a matter of fact I feel as composers out job is to always find the perfect balance. Not more and not less than what is needed for any particular film. As Barry Levinson would say to me, if you listen carefully the movie will spit out all the music it does not want or need.
“Fences” opens on December 25th, with Marcelo Zarvos’ score available on Sony Classical Records January 6th HERE
Visit Marcelo Zarvos’ website HERE
Click on the CD covers to purchase from this list
(Johann Johannsson / Deutsche Grammophon)
An Icelander whose intensely psychological, yet still melodically accessible modernist scores like “Prisoners” and “Sicario” speak in alien languages of subsonic strings and nerve-chilling brass at last gets his actual close encounter as he translates the Rorschach Test language of obelisk / monolith dwelling inter-dimensional deities here. Johannsson brilliantly captures both a sense of wonder and fear with beholding the mind-boggling, verbally-scrambled unknown as whale cry motifs join with alternately moaning and chattering voices, backed by a strong orchestral sound that serves as a powerful universal musical translator in a way that’s both harmonically understandable, and profoundly strange in a soundtrack that now elevates Johannsson to level of film scoring’s Gyorgy Ligeti with the score equivalent of “2001’s” climactic head rush into the experimental unknown.
(Michael Giacchino / Hollywood Records)
Michael Giacchino is the Composer Supreme when it comes to being the hardest working musician in the genre multiplex realm this year, keeping up a consistent sense of symphonic wonder with the likes of “Zootopia,” “Star Trek: Beyond” and a little prequel called “Star Wars: Rogue One.” But it’s Giacchino’s first franchise venture into The Marvel Universe that casts a particularly beguiling spell with “Doctor Strange,” not only for summoning up all the thematically heroic orchestral forces at his command, but also drawing up the musical mystical arts of way-out reverse sampling, the harpsichord and the sitar, creating a crazy-quilt melodic universe that’s the equivalent of a mind-bending Steve Ditko splash page from the original comics, a devotion to the source material that makes Scott Derrickson’s movie such a particularly joyous adaptation. Giacchino’s admiration for this kind of colorfully iconic stuff always brings out a real sense of fun and excitement well suited to each blockbuster, here conveying a particular excitement of a very talented fanboy romping about a fantastical playing ground he’s always longed to be a part of – in this case a constantly morphing, topsy-turvy cosmos he zooms about with groovily psychedelic panache.
GODS OF EGYPT
(Marco Beltrami / Varese Sarabande)
Having played “Knowing’s” apocalypse and “I Robot’s” mechanical revolt for all of its wonderful orchestral bombast in the service of Egypt-born filmmaker Alex Proyas, Marco Beltrami really gets to go to cosmically symphonic town for this wonderful exercise in throwing any semblance of restraint to the winds as he pays tribute to these “Gods,” as well as his mentor Jerry Goldsmith with enough sweepingly memorable, Middle Eastern-style themes to fill Set’s treasure vault, It’s the stuff that bold Saturday matinee thrills are made of in service of giant beings with a habit of transforming into metallic beasts, or a flat Earth being guarded against an equally gigantic demon – waved off with music that’s a terrifically fun exclamation point to wonders within Proyas’ unsung vision of “Planet Egypt.”
(Benjamin Wallfisch & Pharrell Williams & Hans Zimmer)
The uniquely suited team of Wallfisch, Williams and Zimmer more than have the right stuff to musically chronicle the below-the-line black women whose math-magician skills truly got the space race off the ground. It’s a combination of soul, futuristic percussion and symphonic pride that seamlessly rockets with an inspirational vibe, never failing to hear melodic optimism in the face of almost unbelievable prejudice, finally uniting in a common, movingly melodic goal that’s greatly empowered by Williams’ sense of energetic vocalese – though his vocal beat box stylings stop understandably short of a chorus of “Happy,” given the less-than gleeful era its heroines’ music nobly gains its determined respect from.
(Mark Mancina / Walt Disney Records)
An animated scoring ethnomusicologist second to none for Disney with his ventures to Africa in “Tarzan” and Alaska for “Brother Bear,” Mark Mancina sails, and soars higher than ever as he hits Polynesia’s south seas for “Moana.” Already a rhythmatist of note with “Speed,” Mancina combines drum percussion with the sounds of instruments as old as the island gods, then puts them in league with the west’s Hollywood tradition of a rollicking symphony orchestra for a respectfully thrilling adventure score that hears a universal language of heartfelt Disney Princess emotion, along with The Rock’s brawny antics for a thoroughly fun, culturally heroic splash.
(Cliff Martinez / Milan Records)
As the composer who not only helped launch indie films and their often-corresponding electric sound with “Sex Lies and Videotape,” Cliff Martinez has used his distinctive, crystalline voice to push the surreal boundaries of synths, making it only natural that the similarly transgressive vision of filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn would choose Martinez to play the darkly rhythmic voice of “Drive” and “Only God Forgives.” But it’s the gamine innocence of “Neon Demon’s” model that brings out Martinez’s electric LSD like never before. Sparkling with slick, sick musical colors, Martinez conjures the artificiality of a realm where looks are everything, an all-consuming wall of knowingly hip sound that’s utterly hypnotic in its little girl lost fairly tale feel, gnarled samples and unnerving atmospheres that perfectly complement Refn’s truly sick sense of humor while creating a memorable, plastic musical realm all its own.
(Abel Korzeniowski / Silva Screen Records)
If Bernard Herrmann’s music was about resurrecting the ghosts of Straus and Wagner, then Poland’s Abel Korzeniowski has re-incarnated himself as that most darkly romantic of all American movie composers in service of the impeccable, Hitchcockian spirit of fashion designed-turned-filmmaker Tom Ford. Now they move together from the positively demure “Single Man” to the cunning sordidness of “Nocturnal Animals,” as done up in the height of LA art chic-meets white trash murderousness, Given a multi-story enigma of a film, Korzeniowski’s ultra-lush themes beautifully dress up unspeakable behavior, a rapture of erotic orchestral melody whose contrast with the onscreen grotesqueries is exactly the point as his music shivers with anticipation towards the next shocking chapter. Scores rarely get this operatic in their unrestrained string and piano passion, an unabashed approach that I’m sure Herrmann himself would be beguiled by as he might hear Korzeniowski raising his ghost in the height of style.
THE RED TURTLE
(Laurent Perez Del Mar / Quartet)
Having done the animated soundtracks for the transcontinental boy’s adventure “Zarafa” and the distinctly adult horror anthology “Fears of the Dark,” French composer Laurent Perez Del Mar gets marooned on a desert island with beautifully poetic results in “The Red Turtle.” For what’s essentially a cartoon version of “Castaway” that’s even more movingly profound, Del Mar draws upon an elemental spirit of flowing, gentle melody and rhythmic danger, his score all the more vital in serving as storytelling, given that barely a word is uttered in this movie. With a haunting theme that’s often accompanied by female voice, Del Mar’s flowing orchestral melody captures a lyricism that’s worthy of Debussy’s “La Mer” in communicating the literally transformative effect of nature on man, his lovely themes for aching violin capturing despair and acceptance, playful pizzicatos embodying a renewed sense of hope (as well as endearingly comic crabs) and exotic percussion hearing the mystery of an island and its outlying sea. Like Michael Dubo de Wit’s remarkable film that draws upon the pastel naturalism of Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli for what might be their best film in a line of classics, Del Mar’s music is the equivalent of those soft brushstrokes on a big screen canvas of visual poetry, a score that profoundly captures a life at first seemingly lost at sea, only to soar under, and above it though its graceful music that touches the silent tides of nature’s life force.
(Clint Eastwood & Christian Jacob & Tierney Sutton & The Tierney Sutton Band / Varese Sarabande)
An accomplished jazz musician and connoisseur of America’s musical art form well beyond his other gigs of directing and acting, Clint Eastwood’s scores have always been about memorable thematic simplicity, memorable melodies that other artists have helped him expound upon in such scores as “Unforgiven” and “Flags of Our Fathers.” But never has Eastwood’s restrained jazz approach proved so unusual, or impactful than in the place of what’s essentially a disaster film with “Sully,” whose cockpit is comfortably filled in by artists Christian Jacob, Tierney Sutton and her band. With the score never overplaying the already heightened drama of the most miraculous crash landing ever, “Sully’s” uses the cool of jazz to represent the spirit of a captain who remained the height of calm under pressure. It’s an unexpected, tuneful approach that proves tremendously moving, particularly when Sutton gives turns the theme into song with “Flying Home.”
10 CLOVERFIELD LANE
(Bear McCreary / Sparks & Shadows)
A composer who certainly knows his way around sci-fi scoring with the likes of “Battlestar Galactica” and “Europa Report” gets to enter The Twilight Zone in the confines of a crazed survivalist’s bunker. Leave it to McCreary’s cat-and-crazy symphonic suspense for its heroine to explore the nooks and crannies of his “Lane’s” confines when the composer isn’t rushing for the escape hatch, finally opening up the score’s impressive thematic structure to take on space invader proportions worthy of John Williams. It’s an A-plus lesson in how to exhilaratingly milk a potentially claustrophobic soundtrack situation for all of its big reveal worth.
(Alex Somers / Lakeshore)
More proof that those in touch with Iceland’s musical spirit animal are blessed with an ability to capture profound emotion through unusual means, American-born Alex Somers’ work with the band Sigur Ros (and its essential continuation with its bandmate as Jonsi and Alex) now yields a score of singular spirituality as Somers tracks a family of ultra liberals who’ve have truly gone off society’s reservation. His soundtrack’s beautifully ethereal melodies are a unique mix of alt. rock sampling, angelic choruses, Native American winds, accordion and the music box percussion all resonating with the gently troubled vibrations of normal childhood lost, along with the, lyrical nature of mad individuality. It’s a truly “Fantastic” road trip of reckoning and reconciliation that lights a soulful funeral pyre for alt. scoring.
EDDIE THE EAGLE
(Matthew Margeson / Varese Sarabande)
In a year where 80’s retro electronics are all the rage when it comes to the sci-fi throwback realms of “Stranger Things,” leave it to Matthew Margeson to salute to the era’s days of sports-ready synth glory with this run down the slope of power-pop electro artists like Harold Faltermeyer, Bill Conti and Vince Di Cola Margeson also layers on inspirational strings for his tribute to The Day’s most unlikely Olympic ski champion of them all. “Eddie” is not only spot on with its glorious throwback beats and Eddie Van Halen rock swagger, but also the defiant underdog attitude of Margeson’s work on the “Kick-Ass” series to boot, making for a score that plays the retro thrill of victory with wonderful smile with just a bit of awesome computer keyboard cheese on its goggles after the big run.
(Rupert Gregson-Williams / Varese Sarabande)
Rupert Gregson-Williams delivers a devastating war score that plays both parts emotional inner peace and the terror of one of the Pacific’s most devastating WW2 battles, a potent segue from melodically soothing, rustic nobility to the overwhelming, Asian-inflected darkness of waves of suicidal Japanese troops. Far from a musical time capsule, the rhythmic talent that flows through the musical lifeblood of Williams and his brother Harry make for the stirring, rhythmically contemporary heroism of a conscientious object as he rappels our boys from the heart of darkness. Yet always at “Hacksaw’s” center is a rousing sense of near-angelic nobility that hears hope amidst war’s instinctual need to kill.
THE JUNGLE BOOK
(John Debney / Walt Disney Records)
One might say it was his Disney family birthright that made John Debney one of the Mouse House’s most reliable composers with the likes of “The Emperor’s New Groove” and “”Hocus Pocus,” let alone a reliable collaborator of director Jon Favreau on “Zathura” and “Iron Man 2” – all ensuring that Debney would get the plum assignment of that filmmaker’s live action remake of a charmingly carefree cartoon classic. That Debney’s muscularly exotic score doesn’t play like symphonic kid’s stuff is emblematic as to why “The Jungle Book” exceeded just about everyone’s wildest expectations, as Debney’s majestic score that proudly swings through the jungle with Max Steiner’s “King Kong” in terms of chest-beating, old-school symphonic power. For while the charm of the Sherman Brother’s songs might make an appearance here and there, Debney’s often scary score sings with the danger and excitement that make for a great, exotic boy’s adventure, blending choral majesty with drum-pounding savagery, yet in a way that’s firmly on the studio’s musical reservation as they terrifically expand their horizons with robustly flesh and blood scoring.
LA LA LAND
(Justin Hurwitz / Interscope)
While referencing 80s synth scores is all the cool millennial rage now, it’s also nice to see their soundtrack tastes can go way back as well to the 50’s and 60’s singing and dancing days of George and Ira Gershwin and Michel Legrand, as embodied by the composing-directing partnership of Justin Hurwitz and Damien Chazelle. Ditching the drum-smashing darkness of their brilliant “Whiplash,” the duo create an effervescent updating of “An American in Paris” and “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” by way of Technicolor throwback LA. Working with lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, Hurwitz comes up with a truly wondrous tune in “City of Stars,” using it to form a beautifully thematic basis for the surprising amount of underscore here, his excellent, spot-on retro arrangements going from the simplest guitar and piano to swooning, planetarium-elevated orchestral melody. There’s also more than enough reason to convert jazz haters as well as Hurwitz effortlessly segues from O.G. improvisation to the electronically hip in this engaging slice of musical LA dream life and its myriad musical styles, turning a seemingly lost golden age of musical storytelling into the hippest tune around.
THE MONKEY KING 2
(Christopher Young / Intrada)
As a master of unabashed, epic sci-fi and supernatural scoring with the likes of the world-shattering “Core” and the Asian-accented “Grudge,” Christopher Young is an ideal travelling companion for a legendary Chinese manimal trickster god, whose second outing with him is even more spectacular than their first journey to the west. With the morally uncertain “Monkey King 2” battling mountain-sized skeleton demons and flying witches, he’s the closest thing that China has to a superhero (and likely one of the oldest in the world at that), Young jumps off such robust Marvel scores as “Spider-Man 3” and “Ghost Rider” for a series of hellzapoppin orchestral battles, as a battery of millennia-old Asian instruments like the erhu are skillfully blended with raging electric guitars, the score’s numerous themes bursting with the honor of eternal warriors and choruses thundering from the heavens. The score is given extensive action workouts that draw on Young’s rousing magical powers where the symphonic sky is literally the limit. Yet his score is just as grounded in the calming, melodic lyricism of the Buddhist Sutra as it is spectacular, magic-powered musical action that Dr. Strange would be envious of.
(Nicholas Britell / Lakeshore Records)
An urban, down low relationship forged in equal parts tenderness and violent self-hatred receives a contrastingly refined, classical chamber treatment from Nicholas Britell, who last dealt with race in the somberly effective “Free State of Jones,” Upon hearing the refined strains of “Moonlight,” you might mistakenly think you’re listening to a costume drama, the kind of music that accompanies emotionally constricted aristocrat. Yet that might be the ironic point of Britell’s hauntingly beautiful score for two urban men’s potentially punishing relationship through the years. Beyond its delicate string and piano approach, Britell also affects the instrumentation through a hip-hop “chopped and screwed” technique that only adds to the score’s poignantly anguished emotion.
THE SECRET LIVES OF PETS
(Alexandre Desplat / Backlot Music)
Sure French composer Alexandre Desplat had no shortage of big, serious work this year like “American Pastoral” and “The Light Between the Oceans” (while not forgetting his affectionate score for the seriously bad singing of “Florence Foster Jenkins”). But the most exuberantly enjoyable soundtrack in any composer’s talking animal realm goes to the Gershwin-accented “The Secret Lives of Pets.” It’s a sort of “Rhapsody in Blue” for the CGI toon set as 30’s-style swing mixes it up with bouncy poodle cuteness and bridge-hanging adventure that manages to hit every pet nationality to boot – all cohesively playing the madcap toon humor without Mickey Mouse’ing the comedy. For a composer often beset with tragedy, “Pets” proves that nothing can be as enervating or fun as hearing the pure joy of being unleashed. The result is Desplat’s pure, lushly sweet imagination on an outing with a big, tail-wagging, jazzily nostalgic heart.
STRANGELY IN LOVE
(Austin Wintory & The Controversy / T-65b Records)
Amin Matalqa’s beguilingly quirky updating of Dostoyevsky’s “The Idiot” plays like a Buster Keaton silent that somehow has a literary master’s dialogue in it, all the better to get the most wonderfully eccentric score this side of Jon Brion’s “Punch-Drunk Love” in depicting the fitful relationship between two even more eccentric characters – courtesy of composer Austin Wintory and the LA indie group The Controversy. Way more French than Russian in nature, Wintory’s music casts its romantic charm with accordion, harp, harmonica and any number of styles that range from Spaghetti western to whimsical waltzes, pirate jigs and tango It’s the score equivalent to opening Felix the Cat’s magic bag and having all sorts of amazingly inventive wackadoo music jump out of it with unexpected grace that’s as absurd as it is lovely.
THE COMPOSERS TO WATCH
Having helped create an all-singing serial killer tuner for “London Road,” Adam Cork uses his instrumental voice to capture the despair and ebullience of North Carolina author Thomas Wolfe for “Genius,” (Milan Records) his Americana-accented score capturing the unique, orchestral spark of literary inspiration along with the jazz bounce of a copious writer’s enthusiasm on the loose in The Big City.
Writer-director Paul Dalio devastatingly autobiographical “Touched With Fire” (Lakeshore Records) also shows him sparking with musical talent as his score rises with the chiming, child-like wonder of impossible optimism, then plunges to surreal despair in his score’s entrancing mood swings that conveys lives gone askew with mental illness, his haunting, religious-like musical portrait making us understand the price that comes with artistic inspiration born from bipolar enthusiasm.
The dregs of society become industrial music zombies running through an NYC tenement, driven to madness by Daniel Davies and Sebastian Robertson in “Condemned” (Lakeshore Records). Chips off the angered, experimental rock block in their relations to Dave Davies and Robbie Robertson, Davies and Robertson fuse a grungy, 80’s exploitation synth style along with glowhead techno bounce and bebop jazz to create an electrified, eerily pulsating sound right in retro-line with the likes of “It Follows” and “Stranger Things,” but with a effective, raw murkiness befitting the evil low-rent surroundings that allowed “Condemned” to carve out its own, effectively evil horror score identity.
There’s a true, lived-in lyrical poetry to Steven Emerson’s surreal approach to “The Nine” (CD Baby), a dream-like score for a documentary about the down-and-out of Modesto California, their lives embodied with raw guitar chords, industrial samples, lost soul voices and hallucinatory vibes that make for the most interesting and poetic garage rock trip through through the American wasteland since Sonic Youth’s soundtrack for “Made in USA.”
After hearing England’s knightly magic for the series “Merlin,” James Gosling impressively segues to the big screen with far darker, Irish faerie folk that inhabit “The Hallow” (Movie Score Media). Beautifully verdant strings soon give way to the truly frightening string and sampled moss that fuses together with the real science-based reason for the once-human things chasing our frightened scientist family through the woods, terrifically effective horror-action and atmospheric scoring that not only plays eco body horror, but also a beautiful sense of choral tragedy for a clan that really should have listened to locals’ warnings to not go into the Emerald Isle’s forbidden woods.
The “Final Fantasy” movie saga has come a long, technical way from the game-changing, Elliot Goldenthal-scored film of 2001. Now after an even longer musical history of handling action films and trailer soundtracks form “Full Contact” to “Dishonored 2,” composer John R. Graham impressively carries on the saga’s epic musical tradition with “Kingsglaive,” matching its astonishing mo-cap visuals with a score that captures both the characters’ emotional stakes as well as the furiously drumming symphonic fury of its hellzapoppin mash-up of steampunk, sword and sorcery and giant monsters. It’s music that hits every aspect of a video game mythos unlike any other with impressively sweeping, metal-clanging devotion that turns CG into musical flesh and blood with a true sense of choral majesty.
Alt. singer and songwriter Julia Holter turns the introspective sound of such albums as “Tragedy” and “Ekstasis” into the indie-score grit of an upstart fighter refusing to stay down, becoming one of the few female composers to step into the boxing movie ring as she captures a stripped-down and ultimately orchestral inspirational spirit for the terrifically unsung drama “Bleed For This” (Milan Records)
One can easily imagine voices appearing in the head of anyone who’s been marooned on an island for a suicidal amount of time, but Andy Hull and Robert McDowell take that idea to a whole other thematically multi-faceted level with “Swiss Army Man” (Lakeshore Records) with a score that’s entirely based around vocals, from whimsical humming to joyful, drum-sailing shouts and hilariously profane songs (with even an a capella “Jurassic Park” theme thrown in) – music that also helps to bring to life a farting corpse for extra, eccentric measure.
Patrick Watson gets to the bottom of why a child made a seemingly suicide plunge for the “9th Life of Louis Drax” (Varese Sarabande), and in turn opens up a captivating, surreal world of musical possibilities as he enters an enchanted, subconscious realm of eerie voices and hallucinogenic samples, as coming back to reality with suspense-thriller stylism, as well as waltz-like rhythms. They’re two equally effective music realms that together unlock the film’s mystery for an enthralling listen.
East meets west in the sumptuous teaming of Chinese composer Ye Xiaogang (“Shower”) and the scoring debut American Chad Cannon (an orchestrator for Howard Shore and Alexandre Desplat) with “The Cairo Declaration”(Movie Score Media), an gorgeously soaring, red-flag waving WW2 score about the Allies teaming with China to stop the Japanese advance in the South Pacific. From the sweeping, Oriental rhythms of its main theme to the dark brass of enemy invaders, the patriotic march of Chairman Mao’s resistance and the heart-rending melody of love sacrificed to protect the motherland. Above all, it’s an impressively epic score that firmly declares its love for sweeping melodies a la John Barry, let alone any Hollywood film from the WW2 era worthy of its nobly symphonic salt for two composers signaling their thematic talents.
Composer Jay Wadley creates an elegant sense of anguish for “Indignation” (Nettwerk), a Philip Roth adaptation, set in the day when heavy petting was an unimaginable college crime. With passion bursting at the seam, and hopelessly hemmed in by not-so book smart intellect, Wadley creates a score of devastating, elegant subtlety, using the naturally sorrowful violin for all of its Ivy League tortured worth, along with a gently regretful piano. It’s a subtle requiem for a young love affair that should have been, if only not for over-intellectualization and the very real, primitive brutality of war.
As an invigorating wave of “modern classical” scores like “Indignation,” “Moonlight” and “Arrival” now take film music in uniquely interesting directions, the utterly bizarre and hypnotic originality of 2013’s “Under the Skin” was the equivalent of an alien landing in arthouse land to broadcast its musical language. Weirdly pitched strings, sound masses and unearthly metallic samples created the equivalent of a seductive hive mind, its heartbeat eerily slithering with just enough melody to keep the listener from Kafka-esque madness.
“Under the Skin’s” sonic shock of the new was created by the kind of avant-garde composer who could only come from nowhere. However, the earthly, pleasantly unpretentious English-accented form of Mica Levi is most definitely known to indie music fans under her stage name of “Micachu.” With her group evolved from Micachu & The Shapes to Good Sad Happy Band, Levi’s boundary-pushing tastes were insured by growing up with similarly eclectic musician parents. DJ’ing, commissioning classical symphonic pieces and playing alt. festivals the world over in the service of such albums as “Never” and “Jewellery,” Levi honed the kind of unconventional voice perfect for breakout first score efforts, especially given such well-fittingly esoteric subject matter like “Skin.”
That chilling, gut-wrenching spirit pervades Mica Levi’s next score for “Jackie” in feeling, though without quite as much musical confrontation given that she’s scoring a First Lady, as opposed to an E.T. succubus. Yet don’t expect harmony as beautifully fitted as the costumes Jackie Kennedy used to put the nation under the spell of Camelot. Instead, the somber direction of Pablo Larrain (“Nasty Baby”) and the devastating performance by Natalie Portman assist Levi in creating a gut-punch of a soundtrack. Following the shell-shocked Jackie through her husband’s assassination, LBJ’s inauguration and her planning a potentially dangerous public funeral for JFK, Levi’s music resounds with melancholy. Told in an elegiac, neo-classical style, “Jackie” is full of strong, yet melodically hesitant themes, strings never quite coming together to make a grand statement. Dark military percussion conveys the continued threat of assassination, weirdly descending strings a White House world breaking apart, while somber piano confronts children asking where their father is. It’s shell-shocked, neo-chamber music that’s full of dark heartbreak, yet powerfully conveys a woman who’s far less fragile than her public image as she rises from unimaginable grief to self-determination and worth.
Once again getting inside a character who’s unconventional in spite of their beautiful appearance, “Jackie” is striking proof once again that there’s likely no composer on earth like Mica Levi.
What was it like growing up with musicians for parents, particularly given their passion for record collecting?
There was lots of music, particularly devout classical music, as well as jazz, funk and prog-rock records. My dad also played a lot of music that was banned by The Third Reich and really obscure, far-out compositions from that time. As for me, I didn’t like all of the pop music that was about when I was young. I preferred The Beatles and Michael Jackson, which was a bit older.
Audiences, and critics had truly never heard a score like “Under the Skin.” Were you surprised by the enthusiastic reaction it got, especially considering how experimental the score was?
Ummm… yeah! I think I was surprised. It was a totally new, life-changing thing. But I knew when I was on the film that something good was going to come out of it. I felt that we had a bit of a guarantee, because we’d worked on it day and night for ten months. And they’d been working on it before I came in even longer than that. So I thought, “there’s got to be something good about this!”
People at first might ask what the composer of “Under the Skin” is doing scoring a movie about Jackie Kennedy. But then, you realize that “Jackie” is far from a typical biopic. Did that strike you when they asked you to score it?
It didn’t, because I guess I’ve always thought of Jackie Kennedy, as having these fucked up moments, so I thought a film about her could be quite dark. I also think that Jackie Kennedy and JFK had a situation that wasn’t entirely ordinary anyway.
There might not seem to be any connections between “Under the Skin” and “Jackie.” But when you think about it, they both deal with a woman who’s an enigma to the public around her. They’re completely mysterious subjects.
I think for me there was a moment when I thought, “Oh yes. It’s another movie about another woman with brown hair!” But other than that, the musical process of these two films felt very different.
Right from the start, “Jackie’s” score disorients you with this plunging musical effect. How did you achieve that?
It’s actually a really easy “effect” that I’ve always been drawn to for two reasons. One is that it used to be a really romantic thing to do, a rich, lush, indulgent musical move to sweep you away somewhere. It’s really easy to achieve with a guitar that has frets, which separates all of the pitches. Within the traditional orchestral string family in the orchestra, there aren’t any frets, so you just have a continuous glissando that hits all of the frequencies in between each note, so it’s very natural if you ever pick up a violin, cello or a base that you just keep your finger on it and slide it up. It’s a characteristic string sound that’s a player’s instinctual first move on the instrument. It’s almost like a grotesque dance move that seems “elastic,” if that makes sense. There was a period of time when people played classical music in that way, with a lot of stylistic “slides,” which felt like the era of “Jackie.” It’s kind of a warped thing that happens if you slow something down – like equipment before it becomes a drawn-out, viscous sound. I’ve always been interested in distorting music in that way with speed, as opposed to loudness.
Usually, themes have a “straight,” flowing line in scores, but here everything is hesitant, almost in pieces, much like Jackie, who’s in shock through a great deal of the film.
What happened was that I wrote a lot of the music before I saw the film. I sent it to Pablo, saying this is kind of what I’ve come up with so far as I thought about what Jackie might like, what her musical tastes might be from my point of view in this period of time. And a lot of that ended up in the film. So scoring “Jackie” wasn’t quite as to picture as what films usually are. But I tried to link the music key-wise as much as possible so that it was all subconsciously connected somehow. I didn’t always manage to do that, because sometimes when I transposed things, Pablo said, “That sounds different. I liked it before!” And I was like, “Ok. Fine. I’ll put it back!”
You really capture the gut punch of a person going through an awful event. Did you draw on any personal, nightmarish experiences to create that musical sensation?
I think I have felt like that. I’ve always wondered about people who really suffer. I don’t suffer like some of the people in this world do. Far from it. But I wonder if humans’ capacities are different. So if someone is in a very life-threatening, desperate situation somewhere, do they have a wider thermometer than someone who is in a not-very desperate situation? Can they still inflict the same amount of highs and lows?
You also manage to capture a “classical” sound akin to the composer Arvo Part in “Jackie.”
I think Jackie listened to a lot of classical music. While I wouldn’t cite Arvo Part as a specific influence on my score, “Jackie” draws from the older Baroque stuff that surely influenced him.
Because the film is so dark, I imagine that your music couldn’t be depressing all of the time, especially when there’s a witty pizzicato theme between Jackie and her press handler Nancy.
Yeah, for sure. I thought the music needed to lift the film up a little bit more, so I sent a lot of lighter stuff to Pablo actually, but it didn’t end up on the soundtrack. But then you don’t want to be contrived and write something that ends up being freaky, which is very easy to do, especially when it’s accompanying older looking footage. The more chirpy the music is underneath it, the more psychotic and terrifying it ends up sounding!
There’s also a powerful march theme that taps into the unspoken “conspiracy” aspect of JFK’s assassination.
It’s military, almost like gunshots. Jackie’s whole situation is very official. She’s almost never, ever alone in the film. There are always two guys standing around to chaperone her, and she’s “kicked out” very quickly at Lyndon B. Johnson is sworn in on the airplane in Dallas. Suddenly some guy has taken her husband’s job. So it’s all very much like “Next!” So that regimented thing felt like a no-brainer to me. Someone just gave me the CD of John Williams’ score to “JFK.” I’ve never seen that film, or heard its score. But someone told me he used snare in it, so apparently I wasn’t wrong in that approach!
When people hire you, do you think they realize they’re going to get something really out of the ordinary?
Yeah. I guess they presumably want the sound of something I’ve done of a film before. But if they asked me to repeat a score, then I’d probably find that hard to do. Not on principle, but it’d be hard to do intentionally. So they shouldn’t ask that of me. They should trick me into doing it! But funnily enough, I never think any music is “weird.” Sometimes it just works! But that’s just me. I went on this film music-judging thing once, which I have very minimum experience with. I didn’t want to do it, but felt like I should take the opportunity. I got there, and sure enough, I couldn’t do it! That’s because I think you’ve got to respect anyone writing music and their point of view. It wasn’t my place to judge them, because I don’t have a very firm hold on what’s good, bad, weird or normal. I felt like I wasn’t very good at that role. I was clueless in that.
It strikes me that there’s a whole new wave of modern classical composers who are now changing the face of film music to create something very intellectual and demanding in a medium that’s about serving up mostly “understandable” music.
I think there’ve been trends and styles of films, which means that it’s easier for people to process them. I’m not a “film composer” in that sense though, as I’ve just written pieces of music. But there’s clout in trying to write fully formed music to picture, because then it’s generally better. There’s a real skill to that. And then there’s a whole phase now of people putting pre-existing songs into movie soundtracks, which changes up the game a lot
You have an utterly unique voice as a composer that accompanies absolutely original films. But do you think you could score a Will Ferrell movie to picture?
Cool! I’d certainly be up for trying. I would love to do a comedy.
Travel to a mournful White House with Mica Levi’s score for “Jackie” on Milan Records HERE
Go “Under the Skin” with Mica Levi’s alien score HERE
ON THE SCORE is sponsored by La-La Land Records
Mark Mancina is a composer who often calls upon the musical heavens to deliver the elemental, exhilarating rhythm of “Speed,” “Twister’s” thunderous Americana and the morally clouded “Training Day” amidst the dozens of impactful scores this one-time rocker with Yes and Phil Collins has performed in his Hollywood career. But the one studio that’s continually sent out a call for Mancina’s exotic talents is Walt Disney, who’ve determined to be culturally correct when it comes to ethnically-accent feature animation. First arranging the soaring Elton John hits for “The Lion King,” Mancina’s music would next go fully swinging with a man-ape through the drum-filled jungle of “Tarzan” while also producing more Oscar Gold with Phil Collins’ songs. Then with “Brother Bear,” Mancina went to the native rhythms and winds of Alaska’s Inuit people as cosmic forces transformed one tribe member into an ursine.
But among Mancina’s powerful way of capturing centuries-old music within the bigger body of contemporary symphonic scoring, “Moana” stands tall with demigod energy in conveying wondrous Polynesian adventure. Its heroine is descended from a long line of empowered studio princesses, here determined to find personal liberation while navigating the South Seas to rescue her people. Offering wisecracking help is Maui, a transforming, hook-holding deity with a personality even more outsized than his powers. For Mancina, it’s a brash opportunity to explore a tropical musical culture like never before, filling the soundtrack with driving drums, excited chanting and enchanted flutes – a veritable tribal counsel of instruments as old as the gods. Together, they meet a wave of thrilling orchestral sound that conveys Disney scoring at its most exciting, from the danger of battling diminutive beasts to the comedy of buddy-god bonding and a feeling of celestial power. As conjured with as much cultural respect as symphonic magic, “Moana” is another rousing musical travel map brought back by Mancina.
Now on a new episode of “On the Score,” the culturally animated composer talks about playing the rousingly fun musical ego and ethnicity of “Moana.”
Click above to Listen Now or Click Here to DownloadBuy the Soundtrack: MOANA Buy the Soundtrack: THE HAUNTED MANSION Buy the Soundtrack: BROTHER BEAR Buy the Soundtrack: TARZAN Mark Mancina’s website
Flowing with melodic grace from classical to electronic music, Canadian-born composer Lesley Barber is often an inward traveler when it comes to her character portraits. Amongst her numerous, and eclectically-styled scores, Barber has played the music of a woman trying to break out of corseted English society in “Mansfield Park,” the heartfelt poetry of two women engaging in the tentative love affair for “When Night Falls,” found the inner courage within the Hebraic rhythms of a Hasidic wife discovering that she has “A Price Above Rubies,” or discovering the intoxicating darkness within a potential girls school while suspensefully reading “The Moth Diaries.”
Given Lesley Barber’s unique way of playing relationships, perhaps her most rewarding, if too long apart collaboration is with writer-director Kenneth Lonergan. For the film debut of this truly unique voice of indie American cinema, Barber found classically-inflected rhythms in upstate New York while depicting the tumultuous relationship between a bank teller and her wayward brother in 2001’s Oscar-nominated “You Can Count On Me.” Now, fifteen years later, Barber renews that elegant, sad bond with Lonergan in the Massachusetts’ town of “Manchester by the Sea.”
As with Lonergan’s bitingly ironic works that somehow manage to find wit within the depths of melancholy, “Manchester” finds the downcast Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) pulled back to the place, and people that caused him to retreat into a silent shell. But with his brother dead, Lee must now assume unlikely guardianship of his nephew, and become human again in the slow bonding process. Just as much as a youth draws him out, Barber uses her gently lyrical powers of classical persuasion to bring out Lee’s emotional epiphany. Joined by numerous Handel pieces, Barber employs a beautiful A Capella voice she knows well to give “Manchester” an elegiac quality. A sharp, rhythmic theme swirls about with ennui, where gentle strings cast a pastoral spell from the seaside. Lyrically flowing from self-pity to grief and rebirth, Barber’s solemn, yet finally enervating score again shows her subtle, psychological mastery of scoring, no more so than in the presence of a deeply humanistic filmmaker who brings out her poetic tenderness.
Tell us about your musical background, and what attracted you to both modern classical, and film composing?
I was a self-taught musician as a kid and started improvising and writing music at that age. Later, when I was 11 or 12, I started taking formal piano lessons and continued to compose as well. I studied composition at the University of Toronto – with a fairly intense focus on electronic music and orchestration. During that time, while I was completing my Master’s degree I was really drawn to the independent theatre and film scene in Toronto, and began actually working at a theater. Later I began scoring theatre productions, which quickly led me to scoring feature films. When I scored my first feature, Patricia Rozema’s “When Night Is Falling” I felt like I found my niche – - I loved the collaboration process and the power of music in the story telling.
Were you surprised that you’d start out scoring an animated series with Maurice Sendak’s “Little Bear?”
Working with Maurice and scoring “Little Bear” was a great experience — although not my first. I had already worked on features and this was more of a fun thing that I thought I would try. Maurice Sendak had called me and we talked a lot about music – especially the music of some of his favorite composers – Shubert and Mozart, and how we could do something special and different with the show. We wanted to do a score with only live players – quintets, and sometimes octets of strings, piano and winds – completely rare in the world of animation series these days. Maurice had a deep knowledge of classical music and so it was a complete pleasure to work with both Maurice and his producing partner John Carl. I was turning around a show each week and thoroughly enjoyed the collaboration.
You’d followed up “Mansfield Park” with “The Real Jane Austen.” Do you have a particular affection for that author and her work? And were you ever worried about being pigeonholed into becoming a “costume drama” composer?
“Mansfield Park,” again, seemed like a wonderful project. The script was extremely absorbing. I had worked with the director and writer Patricia Rozema before, and had just completed another Miramax project. I knew it would be an interesting scoring experience. Also, I wasn’t concerned about the costume drama aspect, as Rozema wanted a score that avoided the conventions of period dramas. She was not interested in a pastiche approach — She wanted something different – a gorgeous score that reflected the era but also felt contemporary and felt more present in the film than the genre often asks for. The orchestration for instance reflected instruments that may have been found on an estate like Mansfield Park at that time – not only instruments from the 19th century but also instruments that may have been left from eras past – viols, glass harmonica, hurdy-gurdy. It was great to live and work in London during that time and record with the musicians in London at Abbey Road and Air Studios. I was also scoring “Luminous Motion”, “A Price above Rubies” and “You Can Count on Me” around that same time and loved the diversity of the films I was scoring.
Another notable score you did was for Mira Nair’s telefilm “Hysterical Blindness.” How was that experience?
Mira Nair is a really wonderful director to work with. Like Kenny Lonergan, she brings the composer into the collaboration early in the process and there’s the time and space to create really specific thematic material as well as develop a palette of ideas, sounds, rhythms and themes that can be developed in the score. Mira’s feedback and comments always felt spot on and helped take the music to the next level. We scored a lot of it in New York and mixed at Sony Studios. The score was a real hybrid — and included a multi-tracked combination of bass/ 3 cellos/1 viola/4 violins to create a really particular string sound, in combination with programming and percussion loops and some atmospheric guitar work that feels almost like the weather in the piece, or a source of light or shadow in some of the scenes.
What do you think drew Kenneth Lonergan to your work? And what was your first collaboration with him like on “You Can Count On Me?”
I’m not sure what drew Kenneth to my work. A mutual colleague had given him a copy of some of my music and Kenny liked it. We were in touch, and then later met up in New York and started the collaborative process. With “You Can Count On Me,” we were both just beginning our filmmaking careers, and we were both learning the process of bringing the right score and sound to a story — creating a strong score. We both like to hold off on being decisive about our themes until we are sure we have the right one — and we’re sure the themes really work and bring the scenes to a new level. With “You Can Count on Me” for instance, we also worked together to get the right sound in the cello duet in the main theme and even rerecorded some of the pieces when we felt the performance approach wasn’t exactly what we were looking for. In some collaborations getting the recording right might be a smaller detail but for Kenny and I we both want to bring the right emotional sound quality to the score and take the time with the performers to get what we’re looking for. Both scores are highly thematic and in both films we often revisit a theme in a way that deepens the meaning of each musical recurrence and the scene as well.
Given your classical background, was “Manchester by the Sea” an opportunity you were particularly drawn to, especially given its contemporary setting?
When I read the script for “Manchester by the Sea” I was immediately drawn in to what Kenny had written and the character of Lee Chandler. I wanted to score the film. Between the films “You Can Count On Me” and “Manchester by the Sea”, Kenny and I have both evolved. We both have had the strength of working with other people and then coming back to work together again on “Manchester.” Over that time, we’ve grown as filmmakers and artists and that could be felt in the collaboration, and in the film and scoring, and it allows us to make some strong choices about how we’re going to score the film. Those are choices like the use of the a capella voices, or the particular strings sound — deliberate choices about sound and score design that fell into place quickly. I think we’ve developed a somewhat of a shorthand in this regard.
Did your creative collaboration with Kenneth differ on this film?
In both “You Can Count On Me”, and again in “Manchester by the sea”, Kenny includes borrowed pieces from the classical era. In “You Can Count On Me” we worked with the Bach Unaccompanied cello suites and a Cantata amongst others, and in “Manchester” mainly Handel as well as the blues standards and other on screen music. The original score is the music that returns and creates the recurrent musical themes in the movie, and blends and supports and unifies all the pieces in the film. The composed pieces needed to have a kind of strength in their design to work alongside the classical pieces so they couldn’t simply be a narrative, traditional score. It’s a really specific approach that Kenny and I have used in our collaborations but has evolved and strengthened over the time working together.
How did the numerous selections by Handel influence your score? And were their modern classical composers that impacted your approach as well?
I wrote the first themes for “Manchester” after receiving the script. I always like to put together a collection of pieces, almost like a musical suite of thematic ideas, to share with Kenny and discuss. One of the first pieces was the piano solo that we hear as Lee looks for a job midway through the film after he considers staying in the small Massachusetts’s town that he returned to. This became an active theme in the score, which then influenced the harmonic progressions we hear in many of the cues. The other piece that I recorded as a first demo was the “Plymouth Chorale” that we hear during Lee’s drive to Manchester and also while Patrick walks to his father’s funeral. Kenny had my first recordings with him while he was editing and found that the a cappella pieces were really working well with their harmonies, simple melodies and vocals.
After the themes started falling in place, I scored the rest of the music after seeing a fine cut of the film. For the opening piece, I recorded a choral piece – an a capella piece, in a concert hall in Montreal. The vocals in the first piece, and the recording approach work with the epic opening shots of the ocean, the boat with the boy and man seen from the distance, and the weather and atmosphere of that shot. With the string theme there is a kind is a transformation of the sound over the course of the film. In the opening cue the strings are barely there — with a kind of simple starkness, big, slightly dark sound. Over the film the string sound evolves and opens up into a much bigger sound — the string writing becomes more active. Then, in the final cue, we’re in a new place. We can feel that in the scoring and string arrangements, performance, and recording style.
The choice of themes was originally very intuitive — just an idea that I felt was right. For the A Capella themes, I wanted to do something simple, almost hymn like, but in a way that the theme and phrases can loop and move and progress almost infinitely with a kind of elliptical repetition that you sense but can’t define. I looked at the early hymns – psalmody — that were sung by the Puritans and Pilgrims when they settled in that same area of the small Massachusetts’s town that Lee has returned to. There was something in the melodies and harmonies that I felt was a great inspiration for where I wanted to go compositionally for this film. As the themes developed and I chose to multi-track record one vocalist — Jacoba Barber Rozema on all the vocal lines. She has a really gorgeous clear voice – a lyric soprano with a lot of control over vibrato and color. The orchestra was recorded later – in the last few weeks before the mix and added in as another layer to the scoring.
How did you have the idea of using your daughter for the female voice of “Manchester?”
While I was working on the theme I really wanted to hear the vocal arrangement in performance and Jacoba has a beautiful voice that seemed exactly right for this. She is a trained opera singer and performed as a child in several productions at The Canadian Opera Company. We recorded the first piece via Skype so she could record in her dorm room at McGill where she is studying opera performance. Later, we recorded some of the additional a cappella pieces in a large concert hall to get a more expansive sound that works with some of the exterior shots in the film.
You’ve often played characters struggling to find their voice in movies like “When Night Is Falling” and “A Price Above Rubies.” Is that something you look for, especially now when you have such a withdrawn person like Lee in “Manchester By the Sea.” What’s the importance of the music in drawing him out of his shell?
In most stories and films, we meet a central character that is longing for something, and for whom a great deal is at stake. There is often a sense that there is the potential for possible violence – either psychological or physical, so there is this central pull of character and story that needs to be reflected and lifted in the music. We meet Lee Chandler after he experienced the unimaginable, and he can’t leave it behind. His tragedy hangs over his head no matter what he does or doesn’t do and the music had to get inside this place.
Was it important not to make the score too depressing? To have it reflect a ray of hope, even when Lee might not?
This wasn’t really something I thought about consciously when I was writing. The themes have a kind of “moving forward” quality to them. Momentum in the harmonies that travel forward almost inevitably and perhaps this was something in the back of my mind when I was writing. Kenny just described the score like this – - “The music skips your brain and goes straight to your emotions.” The a capella piece had an almost angelic quality, a simple melody with complicated harmonies. It’s the aural equivalent of including the sky in a shot. You see a street and you tilt up to reveal this big sky over it. Music does that. It changes the perspective and adds color.
What strength do you think being a conductor and an orchestrator add to your work as a composer?
I think it helps to understand the communication part of music and what works and doesn’t work for performers – and how much the musicians and performers bring to the music — what’s essential in the orchestration — and also to come up with a specific orchestral approach for each film score. With “Manchester by the Sea,” I just had a week to turn around the orchestral pieces in the film – compose, orchestrate, record, produce and deliver. The timing was tight and I think knowing what I want from the orchestra and how things will sound helps me write with a kind of confidence that I know what I’m looking for. I also often also work with the fantastic orchestrator James Shearman, who has become an important collaborator in my work as we move the music from score to the recording stage.
Why do you think Kenneth is so seemingly reclusive as a filmmaker? And do you hope the success of “Manchester by the Sea” might encourage him to make more films?
Kenny’s actually really prolific — he has written many award-winning plays and written scripts for a number of projects at the same time, he’s developing his own films and scripts. The three films he made over the last ten years are just stellar films, from the script to the direction to the finished edit and finished film. I would imagine he’ll have many more great films ahead of him. We can certainly hope that “Manchester by the Sea” makes that real.
Do you think that film scoring is essentially what’s become of classical music, and do you think there’s a renaissance now for film composers who come from the world of “serious” music?
Cinematic writing is a great opportunity for a composer. It gives the composer an opportunity to work with orchestra and performers and a scale of writing that is rare in the classical and opera world these days.
I think for filmmakers who are looking for a next level kind of scoring they are often looking for a composer who can write orchestrally and build significant melody and harmony into the thematic of the score. My own approach is more hybrid and really film specific. It’s combining atmospherics, synth tracks, loops, beats, sampled orchestra, building specific sound palettes for each film and then combining that with orchestration. Sometimes it’s also breaking that out into a tight edgier intimate chamber sound against a more lush orchestral bigger sound.
As a Canadian in an industry that can often be sexist in the kinds of movies that female composers get, when they are hired, how do you look upon what’s happened politically in America? And do you think it will have any impact on the entertainment industry, especially in regards to women?
The female composer aspect is something I haven’t thought that much about over the years. Recently it’s become obvious in the industry that it hasn’t been inclusive enough. We need diverse voices as they add fresh language to cinematic writing. It’s the same issue faced by female directors and cinematographers. It feels like things are definitely changing. There’s more visibility, more awareness, and a consciousness that we’re moving in the right direction.
What kinds of films are you personally motived to do? And having done so many unique scores for intimately dramatic films like “Manchester by the Sea,” what kind of movies, or genres would you like to explore musically?
I love the kind of films I’ve been working on, and would love to work on a futuristic or large scale animation film — I would like to work on some kind of science fiction / futuristic sci-fi like “Blade Runner,” or something more contemporary like “Hurt Locker.” That would be great.
Visit Lesley Barber’s score for “Manchester by the Sea” on Milan Records HERE.
Visit Lesley Barber’s Website HERE
For The Month of October 2016
- Record Label
1Stranger Things V.1 &2 OST Lakeshore Records Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein
2The Magnificent Seven OST Lakeshore Records James Horner and Simon Franglen
3Mr. Robot OST Lakeshore Records Mac Quayle
4American Pastoral OST Lakeshore Records Alexandre Desplat
5Film Fest Gent: Ryuichi Sakamoto Silva Screen Records Ryuichi Sakamoto
6Sully OST Varese Sarabande Clint Eastwood, Christian Jacob, The Tierney Sutton Band
7Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children La-La Land Records Mike Higham & Matthew Margeson
8Bates Motel OST Lakeshore Records Chris Bacon
9Snowden OST Deutsche Grammophon Craig Armstrong and Adam Peters
10Captain Fantastic OSR Lakeshore Records Alex Somers
11The Girl On A Train OST Sony Classical Danny Elfman
12The Night Of OST Lakeshore Records Jeff Russo
13The Light Between Oceans OST Lakeshore Records Alexandre Desplat
14Morgan OST Milan Records Max Richter
15Denial OST Howe Records Howard Shore
16The 9th Life of Louis Drax OST Varese Sarabande Patrick Watson
17Supergirl Season One OST La-La Land Records Blake Neely
18Ben-Hur OST Sony Classical Harald Kloser and Thomas Wander
19Inferno OST Sony Classical Hans Zimmer
20I.T. OST Lakeshore Records Timothy Williams CineRadio is produced by Krakower Polling PR. For more information about CineRadio or Krakower Polling PR contact Beth Krakower at cinemediapromo (at) yahoo.com
The chart is composed of music played during the month of October on soundtrack music specialty shows. This month’s reporters include WXOX*, WRTU, KDRT, KSJS, WFMU, WHFR, KSPC, KFJC, WPRK, KMFA, KUCI, A Fistful of Soundtracks, Radionowhere.org, Cinematic Sound, The Score, Urgent.fm/Supercalifragilistic, BBC Radio 3 “Sounds of Cinema,” SoundtrackAdventures.blogspot.com, ABC Classic FM Australia, CityLights, Secklow Sounds, Celluloid.no, and Soundtrax.fm.
* denotes new reporters
Soundtrack Picks: “SHIN GODZILLA” is the top soundtrack to own for November, 2016
Also worth picking up: FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF, FRIGHT NIGHT, HACKSAW RIDGE, HORROR CASTLE, LUKE CAGE, THE NIGHT OF, NOCTURNAL ANIMALS, THE SERPENT, THE TEN COMMANDMENTS and many more!
To Purchase the soundtracks from this list, click on the CD cover
THE TOP PICKS
1) FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF / LESS THAN ZERO
What Is it?: Whether spread onto the whitebread upper class suburbs of Chicago or the exclusive mansions of Beverly Hills, two impactful 80’s soundtracks showed that they could rock youthful ennui with alt. pop music and mature symphonic sweep. Now La La Land, a baby boomer label if there ever was one, releases these two superior classes in youthful musical contrast with the long-awaited, ageless albums of “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and “Less Than Zero,”
Why Should You Buy It?: Writer-director John Hughes may have been a positively over-the-hill 34 year old when he made the first of his teen classics with 1984’s “Sixteen Candles,” but as evinced by the songs by The Stray Cats, Annie Golden and Patti Smith on that film’s still-to-be CD-ized mini LP, few directors working in the bubblegum genre had as much good bubblegum movie taste in being simultaneously old-school and cutting edge. Hughes’ subversiveness reached its apex with 1986’s ultimate hooky player, a wonderful wise ass represented by his decade-defining mix tape of classic kitsch and British-centric new wave energy. It was certainly a tangled cassette ribbon of rights to get the likes of Sigue Sigue Sputnik, Yello, Wayne Newton and The Dream Academy that took three decades to unravel, but the inventive energy of these trend-setting tunes are just as much catchy fun with the long-awaited CD premiere of “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” But most importantly, they embody a musical character in the same way (if less seriously) in the same way that director Mike Nichols’ used Simon and Garfunkel to define the angst of “The Graduate’s” Benjamin Braddock. Except “Ferris’” whitebread WASP is totally assured of his future and just wants to kick it, an energy to outwit adult authority that’s captured in the hyperbeat, insanely sampled “Love Missile” and the Yello’s hilariously suggestive “Oh Yeah.” New wave 1950’s energy runs through The Flowerpot Men’s “Beat City” and Zapp’s “Radio City.” But for all of the kinetic energy of Ferris’ English beat accented escapades, my personal favorite tracks are The Dream Academy’s “”Please, Please Please Let Me Go” and “The Edge of Forever.” With gentle guitar rhythms and organ guiding the truants through The Chicago Museum of Art, and the other tune promising that Ferris will indeed mature into Sloane’s husband-to-be, these song touchingly reach into the trio’s vulnerability and hopes for the future. But the instrumental importance of Hughes’ frequent composer Ira Newborn’s work also can’t be understated in its often over-the-top hilarity. For if the songs are Ferris’ fun time, then Newborn is the manipulative schemer. His work has the knowing orchestral lushness of a sunny TV family sitcom from the days of black and white. Segueing at a Carl Stalling minute from alarmed, principal-on-hold suspense to militaristic marches, swaggering Vegas big band, Bugs Bunny pizzicatos, doo wop and polka, Newborn captures “Ferris’” pop culture humor like a stream or channel-changing consciousness, with the overall bombast he’d soon give to the “Naked Gun” features. Most importantly, Newborn is equally adept at creating his own distinctive pop rhythms to effortlessly jam with the songs. Filled with nearly every tune that “Ferris” cult following has been salivating for, including snooty restaurant source, baseball organ and the marching band version of “Twist and Shout,” “Bueller’s” soundtrack day is finally here in terrific style, exceptionally produced by Dan Goldwasser and Neil S Bulk, with Tim Grieving’s extensive, excellent liner notes featuring new, insightful interviews from such soundtrack band mates as music supervisor Tarquin Gotch to editor Paul Hirsch and Hughes’ son James on how the DJ filmmaker put together the ultimate soundtrack mix tape.
Extra Special: No mainstream Hollywood composer has so beautifully balanced experimental funk with soaring, lush orchestration as Thomas Newman, the scion of a film scoring family whose humble musical beginnings were spent in bands and writing the funky beat-driven scores of such youth-oriented comedies as “Revenge of the Nerds” “Desperately Seeking Susan” and “Real Genius.” Newman’s way of combining his hip 80’s rhythms and his father Alfred’s 50’s symphonic swoon never met more beautifully than in 1987’s “Less Than Zero.” Ostensibly a time-old don’t do drugs fable, “Zero’s” predestined fate was told with uncommon, color-gelled visual style and somber maturity by “Another Country” director Marek Kaneivska, who should have had a far bigger career after his Hollywood debut. For a film with inexorable tragedy, Newman created haunting romantic themes full of sweeping regret, an approach perfect for hopelessly rich and jaded brat packers who fill their lack of parental love with cocaine and fast cars. It’s richly melodic despair that makes for some of Newman’s most strikingly heartbreaking themes. Yet as opposed to a straight-up string sound, Newman instills his distinctive way of blending futuristic electronics into a mesmerizing wall of sound, fashioning samples that are every bit as cool as the Beverly Hills architecture and its neon streets. Set at Christmastime, Newman employs bell percussion that only captures the hollowness of the holiday, but the sound of little children lost for all of their hip affectations. Given “Zero’s” memorable soundtrack filled with the likes of The Bangles take on “Hazy Shade of Winter” and Public Enemy’s “it’s Christmastime in Hollis Queens,” Newman draws on his own progressive rock background to give the score a dreamy, guitar vibe that casts a U2-like spell as it drives into the desert of lost innocence. Few “teen” movies were so haunting, or emotionally impactful during the era, and Thomas Newman’s gorgeously wrenching, soothingly anguished score for “Less Than Zero” is a thing of haunted beauty.
2) FRIGHT NIGHT (Song Soundtrack)
What is it?: After too long an absence, Perseverance Records rises back to life with the first-ever CD release of one of the 80’s cheekiest, and most delightfully fanged horror soundtracks for 1985’s “Fright Night.” Sure the decade offered such great rock-and-pop fueled song albums “A Nightmare on Elm Street 4,” “The Lost Boys,” “Maximum Overdrive” and “Trick or Treat,” but few were as well tailored to the tastes of Jerry Dandridge, a vampire who loved the nightlife, as well as the oddball rock rhythms of the teen horror geeks out to prove his existence.
Why should you buy it?: The enduring appeal of “Fright Night” comes from how nimbly writer-director Tom Holland, along with music supervisor David Chackler, walked the tightrope between humor and horror, an effectiveness that its song album exemplified right off the bat with the J. Geils Band’s spooky-ooky title track. Already a band with a sense of humor from such songs as “Love Stinks” and “Freeze Frame,” the Boston-based group was a perfect choice, with its howling, syncopated chorus, gnarly synths and catchy beat carrying lyrics that represent the hapless voice of Charley Brewster, the kid who cried vampire. But then, just about every song in “Fright Night” was written for the actual movie, which gave its tunes the power of actually commenting on the action and characters. Spark’s catchy, devilish chorus reminds Brewster that “The Armies of the Night” are coming for him, while 80s fixture Devo’s always playfully ironic beat further compounds his girl troubles. Proving heroic, romantic energy is White Sister’s Journey-like ballad “Save Me Tonight,” while jukebox 50’s energy blasts through the Fabulous Fontaine’s “Boppin’ Tonight.” But “Fright Night’s” musical centerpiece belongs to its club seduction scene as Jerry puts the Studio 54 moves on Brewster’s ammorata Amanda, her dance with an invisible man given burning cool new wave licks with Ian Hunter’s “Good Man in a Bad Time,” a sort of more accessible Bauhaus-styled, if way peppier Goth-rock number, brilliantly cut to Dandridge’s dance moves. Disco sensation Evelyn “Champagne” King provides the electric groove of the continuing dance, and rising passion of “Give It Up” as Jerry and Amanda’s moves veer into dirty dancing territory, only to be followed by Dandridge’s hair metal fury of having Charlie cut in to his dance floor seduction with Steve Plunkett’s “You Can’t Hide the Beast Inside.” They’re songs whose apropos lyrics sing out the intense combination of terror and attraction that marks for one of the era’s coolest choreographed scenes that gets down with a vampire’s rhythmic allure.
Extra Special: Where most of these song-driven albums would relegate one instrumental cue to the end of the “B” side (and you’ll need to unearth Intrada’s “Fright Night” score album from Ebay to hear its score), composer Brad Fiedel was able to perform his love theme “Come To Me,” adding his voice, and lyrics to Dandridge’s memorably seductive theme. Perseverance’s mastering truly swings for the undead cult of “Fright Night,” with horror music specialist Randall D. Larson showing that he has as much flair for describing song albums as he does score ones with his new interviews with Holland and Chackler on creating an album that was thoughtful fang drop as opposed to a cash-in needle one when it came to its songs.
3) LUKE CAGE
What is it?: Where the mainly PG13 Marvel movie Universe has a rousing orchestral-electric sound that’s most definitely super heroic, their non-costumed cousins on Netflix help to make up for what they might lack in an epic music budget with an edgier, R-rated vibe, John Paesano has applied captivatingly bleak, radar-sharp percussion to “Daredevil,” while Sean Callery just won an Emmy for his neo-noir approach for “Jessica Jones.” But leave it to a brother Defender to call on the most tunefully audacious outfit of them all when it comes to the team of Ali Shaheed Muhammed and Adrian Younge’s take on “Luke Cage.” Sure the show has gone to great pains to transform Harlem’s comic book Hero for Hire into a way more altruistic, non-charging good guy who goes so far as to throw shade on his original costume during his origin story episode. But if this show is going out of its way to avoid the character’s Blaxploitation heritage (although throwing in a “Sweet Christmas” for fans’ sake), Muhammed and Younge go full 70’s with a throwback, funky approach that at first might be WTF, but then grows on Luke Cage’s exploits with all of the soul brother power of the yellow jacket and metal headband he refuses to wear.
Why should you buy it?: Muhammed’s movie and TV street cred is as a copious songwriter for “Crooklyn,” “Beverly Hills Cop III” and “Notorious,” while Young was both the picture editor, and composer of the hilarious spoof “Black Dynamite.” Except in “Luke Cage,” he’s playing those John Shaft-isms for real in a show that’s loud and proud about being unapologetically African-American, while still appealing to a way broader Marvel demographic. But beyond just breaking out the Hammond organ, wah-wah guitar and cooing voices, the musical duo have gone for something even crazier in their instrumentations. It’s rare that you get any superhero score so firm in its retro intentions when just about everything is a muscular fusion of samples, strings and brass. But Muhammed and Young stick to their guns for a bulletproof cat that refuses to carry a piece, and the effect is just a bit jarring. But soon enough, “Luke Cage” fits comfortably into those stylistic duds, which turn out have way many colors beyond “Shaft,” “Superfly,” “Trouble Man” and Younge, including Spaghetti Western showdowns, lush, John Barry-esque 007 strings and Eric Serra “La Femme Nikita” beats as mixed with wacky 80’s action-exploitation synths. Much like The RZA’s martial arts-inspired take on “Ghost Dog” and “The Man With the Iron Fists,” Muhammed and Younge are soulfully hipping up a bow down before seemingly unbeatable odds makes him way better suited for George Reeves’ Superman costume than Luke Cage might want to admit.
Extra Special: While a CD release would have been nice for old time’s sake, this 51-track digital album offers a dazzling amount of listening cool that pretty much covers the thirteen-episode run. Songs are very much part of this Power Man’s fabric, and “Luke Cage” offers choice tracks that sing with a soulful, old school spirit, including Raphael Saadiq’s “Good Man” and Charles Bradley’s “Ain’t it a Sin, with Aiden Younge’s “Stop and Look” creating a cool, criminal burn for Cottonmouth’s ersatz Cotton Club. Given how often the old school urban groove is played for cheeky humor, it’s nice to have Muhammed and Young stand up tall for the real, super-powered soul deal in “Luke Cage,” a Power Man with a musical identity as distinctive as any God of Thunder or super rich Iron Man.
4) SHIN GODZILLA
What is it?: Since he (or some say she) first rose from the sea off Japan, Godzilla has laid waste to Tokyo and its environs with extreme prejudice in thirty films (and counting) over thirty plus years. In that time, The Big G has fought equally giant moths, dragons, cicadas and a prawn. Numerous composers captured his homegrown battles with an equally impressive range, from the lumbering marches that Akira Ifukube first defined “Godzilla” with to Riichiro Manabe’s 60’s psychedelia for “Godzilla vs. Hedorah to gaijin Keith Emerson’s prog rock rhythms in “Godzilla: Final Wars.” But perhaps no musician has faced the truly unique challenge of Shiro Sagisu when looking up at “Shin Godzilla” (aka “Godzilla Resurgence”). For the first time in a franchise that’s continually rebooted itself, Godzilla is imagined as a massive public nuisance in a satirical, realpoliitk approach that might define a Japanese version of “The Office,” with an epic cast of indecisive bureaucrats running from one meeting to the next to figure out how to solve a problem like Godzilla. From the monster’s decidedly un-Godzilla like first appearance as a kind of cute turkey thing befitting a Hyao Miyazaki film, this is definitely not your typical Godzilla picture, especially given its insanely talky structure that starts off as energetic fun before becoming stupefyingly boring. Yet leave it to a constantly mutating score that’s unusual in all of the best ways to work throughout – perhaps the most memorable B.G. soundtrack at that since Akira Ifukube raised him marching from the depths.
Why should you buy it: Shiro Sagisu is best known for his work on the phenomenally successful anime series “Neon Genesis: Evangelion,” from which “Shin Godzilla’s” dramatic co-director Hideaki Anno hails – though one wishes his viz effects other half Shinji Higuchi (“Attack on Titan”) would have been way busier behind the camera here. Colorful, explosive spectacle is something that Sagisu is certainly familiar with, especially given his awesomely batshit scores for the unfortunately maligned live action “Titan” movies (whose music has also been put out by Milan Records). But if the sight of Godzilla-sized naked man things cannibalizing people made “Titan” particularly outrageous, “Shin’s” great effort to play the reality of a city-stomping lizard encourages a more artistic approach from Sagisu, his music conjuring the sheer, terrifying majesty of staring up at a skyscraper-sized behemoth as it slowly struts past you on a nonchalant walk of utter destruction. Urgent, bongos and a rocking electric guitar driven themes befitting a 70’s Action Team News report slam home civilian panic as contrasted with sleepy jazz for a city about to get a rude awakening, But it’s in the epic, orchestral cues where “Shin Godzilla” truly takes on a mythic majesty worthy of The King of Monsters,” as “Persecution for the Masses” rises with lush, elegiac power. Dire, brass rhythm and vocals pit “Black Angels” against the monster, with the full, gnarly weight of the brass section crashing down with a monstrous roar of seeming invincibility. It’s the dire, excited sound of Armageddon that really keeps the film’s momentum in spite of its continuous cutting back from the creature we really want to see to those damn boring bureaucrats, “Shin Godzilla” enters a far more elevated concert hall realm, given the intimate lyricism of piano and violin or the frenzied excitement trying to give Godzilla the ultimate brain freeze. Through it all, there’s an almost astonishing sense of artistry and daring to Sagisu’s work, especially given how motif-driven the score is. And at it’s best, “Shin Godzilla’s” score is transcendent, especially in the beautiful “Who Will Know.” Given the angelic presence of a female voice and sorrowful strings, Sagisu’s piece builds with the tragic power of the orchestra and a male chorus, making for a devastating contrast as Godzilla nukes Tokyo.. It’s music that you might expect to hear in a drama about The Holocaust, which is exactly the point as its melody sinks home the metaphor of a walking A-bomb like never before in the series, or its scores for one of the best singular cues I’ve heard in any movie this year.
Extra Special: While “Shin Godzilla” takes gigantic pains to re-invent the green-scaled wheel, there’s no doubt its creators are fans of the series, especially when contrasting Sagisu’s brashly unique scoring with any number of classic Godzilla tunes, Hearing Ifukube’s lumbering marches, rapid-fire rhythmic theme, frenetic military action from such scores as “King Kong Vs. Godzilla,” “Invasion of the Astro Monster” and “Battle in Outer Space” makes “Shin Godzilla” a terrific exemplar of the music that started Godzilla strutting decades ago with this high art scoring, their energy resounding off each other in a cool battle between O.G. Godzilla music and Shinjuro’s concert hall shock of the new.
5) THE TEN COMMANDMENTS
What Is it?: A composer who hailed from the Jewish Mecca of Manhattan, Elmer Bernstein found the cinematic savior to deliver him to Hollywood’s promised land like never before when Cecille B. De Mille, the grand pharaoh of the epic, assigned this young Turk to write a truly monumental score for 1957’s “The Ten Commandments.” An instant perennial classic that still endures in network TV airings to coincide with Easter and Passover, Bernstein’s score has often be re-recorded by the maestro himself. Yet its original tracks have seemingly been as hidden as the lost ark of the Hebrews. Now at last, Intrada Records uncovers this Holy Grail of heroic Jewish-themed scores with an exhaustive box set that can stand in good company with Varese’s “Spartacus” in the vaunted peaks of biblical scoring. But if “Spartacus” composer Alex North’s music was about the human spirit, Bernstein’s is most definitely about the holy one as he expedite several thousand Jews out of Egypt, With such bible spectacle scores of “The Robe’s” Alfred Newman already behind him for inspiration, Bernstein knew the well of massive, trumpeting brass and strings to draw from, imbuing themes with the kind of larger-than-life orchestrations that he’d later turn to comedic ends. Here, it’s about the utter heroism and commitment of The Bible’s prophet, who’s given special musical interest by his segue from “villain” to hero” as Moses shirks his luxurious Bernstein draws on Hebraic rhythm to define Moses and his chosen people, as well as a Shofar to launch The Exodus, or the exotic rhythms of Egyptian and desert tribe dances. His score is replete with thrills that gallop with western-like romance, romantically swoon at attempted seduction, or sparkle with the presence of The Almighty, while playing the plagues with a creeping Theremin right out of a horror film. There’s practically nothing that’s subtle about Bernstein’s awe-commanding approach of “The Ten Pharaoh’s army with all of the angry wrath of “The Ride of the Valkyries.” But it’s in this approach that Bernstein touches upon the raw, emotional power that’s made a mythic story last the test of time, let alone television reruns, while clueing in listeners to the many westerns, action films and period epics whose muscular tunes this score contained,
Extra Special: Intrada has done an impressive job of mastering the original “Commandments” tracks on the event of the film’s fiftieth anniversary, with the original score heard over the course of three CD’s. On top of that, Intrada includes three more iterations that the smash popularity of Bernstein’s score demanded. An hour-long compilation of Bernstein’s themes would be put out at the time of the film’s release. Then given far better recording techniques in the ensuing decade, the composer returned to the mountain to re-record a sonically impressive, and well-chosen “best of” album, then further reduced it a 30-minute presentation, all the while making his orchestrations lusher, and more interesting. It’s an odyssey of a composer enthusiastically dipping into his best-loved well that Intrada captures magnificently through the “Commandment’s” varied presentations. The set also offers numerous alternate tracks, the most notable being a slow exodus track that played its slow pace before Bernstein wisely sped up the musical movement at DeMille’s wise command. Just as memorable is hearing an “audition” session of Bernstein playing his treasure’s worth of themes. An equally lavish good book of the soundtrack’s history is presented with entertaining classic score authority by liner note write Frank K. DeWald, accompanied by Joe Sikoryak’s colorful layout that shows the label pulling out the stops with all of the worship bestowed upon The Golden Calf. It’s taken decades to reach the promised land of what’s likely the last soundtrack grail, a major release that finally, greatest accomplishment.
ALSO FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION:
. AMERICAN PASTORAL
When it comes to the universal language of melancholy, France’s Alexandre Desplat is one of the best composers in the world when it comes to speaking in beautifully sad and tender melodies, using all the emotional resonance of a flowing orchestra in such heartbreaking scores as “Suffragette,” “The imitation Game” and “Coco Before Chanel.” Where his recent soundtrack for “The Light Between Oceans” (also on Lakeshore Records) was awash in giant, romantic gestures, Desplat’s turn to an “American Pastoral” is a gorgeously downbeat score. But then, actor Ewan McGregor’s directorial debut isn’t a romance, but rather the pilgrim’s passage of an ordinary citizen Joe trying to live the middle class dream, only to see his small ambitions destroyed when his errant daughter turns to misguided, and deadly radicalism at the 60’s height of it. In a similar way that Jay Wadley accompanied this year’s other Philip Roth adaptation “Indignation,” Desplat conjures a spellbinding tone of solemnity as he accompanies a distraught family’s search to see where their child went so wrong. If there’s one sound that conjures Americana, then it’s brass, which Desplat uses in a way that’s all about mournfulness, as opposed to the kind of blank check patriotism the young woman is rebelling against. With dark, conflicted chords that bring to mind such shimmeringly dramatic Jerry Goldsmith happiness, Desplat’s horns are is always sure to bring it low, or bring in the dark suspense of Feds on the hunt. Yet opposed to a downer of a listen, “American Pastoral’s” score is nothing less than spellbinding, tapping into the American dream gone wrong in a way that’s lyrical as opposed to judgmental, marking for another low key triumph when it comes to Desplat’s universally keen dramatic instincts.
. DAY OF THE LOCUST (Expanded)
Beyond writing for the high class of England’s secret agents or star-crossed lovers, John Barry also had an affection for a particularly American brand of losers when teaming with fellow English director John Schlesinger – from the dark, scummy Time Square streets of “Midnight Cowboy” to Hollywood wannabe freakshow of “Day of the Locust.” Where the first 1969 film contrasted the lonesome blues of a hopeful Texan gigolo with the period psychedelia of NYC, “Locusts” was steeped in 1930’s jazz, all the better to convey moral collapse in a romantically ironic way. But then, jazz was also a natural for a composer who got his start with “Beat Girl,” and would go on to romance the 20’s and 30’s with the likes of “The Cotton Club” and “Chaplin.” Always important to Barry was creating a memorable main theme that could be used over and over again without becoming tiresome. For “Locusts,” he came up with a melody that resonates with a tenderness for the hopelessly deluded, always finding infinite variations that range from rhumba to a poignant Spanish guitar that builds with psychosis, as well as the glitzily lush orchestra that’s the composer’s trademark. Given “Locust’s” black, mocking heart for those locked behind the ropes of the era’s gala movie premieres, Barry’s music has a seditiousness as well, no more so than in his silent movie comedy way of playing Burgess Meredith’s desperate, way-too old vaudevillian doing the soul-crushing salesman rounds, ukulele, and “soft shoe” music mocking his pathetic efforts. And just as he played a sci-fi adventure for a movie unreeling in “Midnight Cowboy,” Barry re-scores a scene from an Arabian adventure comedy with cleverly affected audio to get across the dustiness of the film its bored patrons are watching. The score’s underlining darkness and frustration finally rises from the pit in “Locusts’” climactic explosion of movie premiere mob violence, with Barry’s dissonant, stromach-wreching sustain building with rattlesnake-like percussion, showing the ultimate end of the fans need to consume their idols. Indeed, it’s one of the composer’s most disturbing cues, especially as it reveals romance for the Hollywood illusion it is. Previously released on CD by Intrada with its original LP program, the label now terrifically expands on both Barry’s beautifully unnerving score and the film’s re-performed and original period songs, revealing the three 1930’s pitch-perfect tunes written around the main theme by “Goldfinger’s” Don Black. Intrada also powerfully re-sequences the score and song presentation, with its stripped down, instrumental solo alternates at first, followed by a wealth such period songs and source tunes as “Jeepers Creepers,” “Isn’t It Romantic,” Hot Voodoo. Barry even provides the patriotic newsreel march of a Paramount movie night. It pulls the listener into a depraved 1930’s Hollywood awash in swing, sin and madness, with John Barry the bandleader of the deluded and the damned finally clash for one of the composer’s his most haunting scores, if not his most disturbing film at that, given a superb liner note recollection by Barry expert Jon Burlingame.
As a composer with a shine to the pursuit of justice, particularly when it comes to the abuse of The Church in such riveting scores as “Spotlight” and “Doubt,” Howard Shore is a musician who offers a melodically reasoned and passionate approach for advocacy. Now he’s on the stand again with his powerful score for “Denial,” defending a female author whose mission it is to cement The Holocaust’s reality in the face of a blowhard denier of the Jewish genocide. But as opposed to viscerally detailing its horrors in music, “Denial” takes a very British approach to its defamation trial, a restraint that’s particularly well suited to Shore’s writing. Never a composer to outrightly hit dramatic incident as opposed to seeing its case a whole, Shore provides a strong, emotional flow to his melodic score that truly gets inside the determined, never-say-surrender headspace of its heroine, captivatingly playing the defendant’s need to put the survivors on the stand, all while her defense team expresses their dire concern of having The Holocaust’s truth invalidated for the world to see. It’s a strongly built case that rings with concern and outright devastation, yet has a sonorous optimism as well in its flowing, complex orchestrations (always a hallmark of Shore’s work) that are finally allowed to rise with elation in justice, and truth done. But for a movie that takes a subtle, gentlemanly approach to the unthinkable, Shore’s strongest moment is when visiting the ruins of Auschwitz, as a single, angelic voice becomes the plea of six million not to be forgotten, or outrightly killed again by an evildoer who knows how to play the media. Shore might have brought on the symphonic thunder in his battle against Sauron. But in this devastating, poignant moment, it’s music that’s about a very real, and international battle racist going on the world over for victims that sinister forces would deny existed, or would hope to kill again.
. THE GREAT WALDO PEPPER
If Henry Mancini’s cheerful, barnstorming score for Robert Redford’s coulda-been WWI fighter pilot has vainglorious period pomp, then it’s for bittersweet show in this wonderfully ironic score. George Roy Hill, fresh from Redford gambling hit “The Sting” sought to recreate that period charm for this dramedy that crashed at the box office due to its shocking character plummets to earth and a sad, mythic finale – a feeling of wry, unavoidable fate that’s wonderfully captured by Mancini. With his last WW1 flying ace movie being the loftily scored Blake Edwards’ box office disaster “Darling Lili,” the composer certainly know how to play the romantic exuberance of flight and valorous battle, even if Waldo Pepper happens to have missed The Great War. Given a theme full of rousing pomp and circumstance that captures a charming ego going full speed into the days of Hollywood stunt barnstorming, Mancini’s daredevil marching band orchestrations do cheerful loop-de-loops worthy of John Philips Sousa, much like the players in the bandstand as they marvel at feats of derring-do just before the crash they know they’ve really come to witness. A former band player himself, Mancini is clearly in his joyful element here with his rousing tunes. Given Waldo’s rivalry with an actual German flying ace with a thirst for real battle, Mancini composes a wonderful, melancholic Blue Danube-esque waltz for the air. Another lovely theme comes for the melancholy duet between trumpet and piano, while said instrument energetically becomes a silent movie accompanist. Trumpet-led waltzes also help give “The Great Waldo Pepper” heft, while an exuberant orchestra conveys Tinsel Town’s lure to the pilot. There’s even a bit of Scott Joplin-esque ragtime to bring back fond musical memories of “The Sting.” But if there’s a real daring to Mancini’s score, then it’s how it essentially works as the source music playing in its hero’s mind. For a composer best known for exuberantly lush comedy scores, there’s a nice, fatefully stripped-down quality to “Waldo’s” surfeit of waltzes and bandstand hoopla that marks one of Mancini’s more unique, and pleasurable soundtracks. Now Waldo flies for the first time on CD from Quartet Records, given extra lift by Jeff Bond’s liner notes that details the history of a flyer-turned-director Hill’s unsung, bittersweet gem.
. HACKSAW RIDGE
Mel Gibson has fashioned a beyond powerful old school war film with modern bloodletting effects that would be unimagined back in the black and white days when the Hollywood action of our fighting boys was positively antiseptic in comparison. And it’s the ability to capture the rousingly emotional power of a time when good and evil were well-defined the also distinguishes Rupert Gregson-Williams’ rousingly emotional score – as told with a contemporary combination of orchestra, samples and rhythm that brings an immediate emotional reaction with far more subtlety than an outrightly flag-waving soundtrack would have. Williams begins with a tender, elegiac quality that conveys both the rustic, fiddle and guitar beauty of conscientious object hero Desmond Doss’ upbringing in rural Virginia, a joyful roughhousing youth that’s contrasted with a miserable, violence-plagued home life that fuels his moral determination. Full of the lyrical, innocent beauty of first love, “Hacksaw Ridge” soon enough plunges into a brutalizing military experience. Williams conveys the quiet nobility and tension of an aw-shucks gentle kid who won’t change his non-killing principles, no matter how much crap gets kicked out of him, a plaintive, earnest approach that’s a hallmark of actor Andrew Garfield’s approach for a role that would have been filled with Jimmy Stewart – had a studio back in the day had the guts to make a movie about a medic who refused to kill. But make no mistake that this is a guts and terror-filled war movie that will give Doss the chance to prove his faithful mettle, as far more nightmarish use of samples and brass transport him to Okinawa’s hell on earth. Fierce, tribal percussion, breathless rhythm and blaring brass become waves of suicidal Japanese soldiers. Williams levels up his war scoring considerably here from his work on the “Battlefield” video games for this way more realistic portrait of all-out savagery and valor as heard in the same musical passage. “Hacksaw Ridge” explodes into full-on heroic writing as Doss runs back and forth in his rescue of dozens of soldiers – a miraculous feat the has all of the adrenalin that Williams brought to the excitement of his work on the way-better-than-expected “Legend of Tarzan,” while also carrying the evocative, surreal passages of synth and sting stillness that’s also marked the work of his brother Harry. Given the stunning impact of “Hacksaw Ridge,” it’s that kind of career which Rupert will hopefully find as much as director Mel Gibson in the comeback In the end, Williams’ “Hacksaw Ridge” is a stirringly thematic score that has as much lyricism as it does blood and thunder, conveying the poignant angelically voiced, bell-ringing spirit of an unassuming man who refused to violate his peaceful principals in the midst of hell on earth. It’s a soaring respect for inner fortitude that Rupert Gregson-Williams waves with incredibly moving pride for a real non-violent American hero if there ever was one.
. HORROR CASTLE
You might not think you’re in a English shag pad as opposed to a mad fiend’s domicile when you hear the lush, John Barry-style jazz that opens the door to 1963’s “Horror Castle” (aka “The Virgin of Nuremberg”). And that kind of bat in the belfry stylistic madness is a big part of the charm of cult composer Riz Ortolani (“Mondo Cane,” “Cannibal Holocaust”) for this Italian horror movie. As a musical mad doctor for genres from Giallo to Spaghetti westerns and hep swing, Ortolani injects “Horror Castle” with the stuff of pure, crazily lurching Frankenstein’s monster stuff – though in this case it’s understandable as the evil heralds from Nuremberg’s Nazi past, Brass screams as wild, throttling percussion treats this castle like a repository of horror scoring on fire in the midst of a massive lightning storm. Theremin, singing saw, and the creepiest funereal organ this side of “Phantasm’s” Morningside Cemetery compliment the none-too subtle scares that make this score a pure delight, while also finding some more unexpectedly subtle secret passages. It’s unhinged melody doing the stuff of fear that many of today’s horror scores would handle with dissonance, But then, there’s nothing quite as delightful as running for dear life through Ortolani’s fire-swept passages to bumble into the midst of a then modern-day hip jazz swing party. Quartet Records, which has done a fine job releasing any number of wacky 60’s and 70’s horror scores from Italy and Spain, brings out “Horror Castle’s” resounding power for the first time in a two CD set, offering both the original LP program and the full swaggering madness of its complete score. Foreign score expert Gergely Hubai gives another comprehensive liner note journey through one of the more stylistically insane scores to accompany Christopher Lee’s bad behavior in particularly atmospheric surroundings.
Hans Zimmer has spent a decade playing history’s greatest hits with professor Robert Langdon as he’s tracked down Jesus’ descendants for “The Da Vinci Code” than pulled the white rug out from under a false Pope for “Angels and Demons.” Director Ron Howard’s adaptations of author Dan Brown’s series of religion-based thrillers are certainly interesting for offering a decidedly non-Jason Bourne-esque academic hero who’s constantly on the run between offering fascinating lessons on Catholicism’s greatest mysteries, affording Zimmer the opportunity to capture myth and excitement in the same musical breath. Now a composer who’s risen to composing godhood on the strength of his rhythmic wiles gets his most furiously strange workout as Langdon gets down the bottom of a viral Dante’s “Inferno.” Given a hero whom right at the beginning is hallucinating from a head wound’s fever pitch, Zimmer pours on warped effects, rock percussion and piercing sustains to deliberately disorient the listener with uncompromising effect. But if the music, and film do their best to throw the viewer with maddening, nerve-ripping hallucinatory effects, one’s fears that this will completely be the stuff of nightmarish madness are gradually tamed as both Langdon and Zimmer regain their harmony in this insanely plotted chase. The music rarely, if ever lets up, which gives Zimmer all the more fun in pouring on the rhythmic adrenalin, though no doubt the most eerie, and interesting passages belong to the music of Langdon deciphering hellish Easter eggs. And it’s the most interesting Langdon score as well as Zimmer goes for an approach that’s way more about being at a techno rave than a religious college conference, Zimmer lets loose with a thematically booming, apocalyptic fusion of electronics and orchestra with some of the craziest adrenalin he’s displayed since the nuke pursuit of “Broken Arrow,” which will certainly be a Godsend to fans who particularly love the composer when he’s trashing in the percussion Thunderdome where it’s a breathless chase to the apocalyptic finish. But given the exciting relentlessness of “Inferno,” one of the album’s most effective piece belongs to the love theme between Langdon and his Beatrice that could have been, a love theme, music that’s both emotional and haunted with loss, delivered with an exceptional, still simplicity as powerful as the composer’s craziest chase through Dante 101.
. JOHNNY QUEST
Aside from their adult-friendly cartoons like “The Flintstones,” “The Jetsons” and their kiddie-cloying limited animation ilk, Hanna Barbera did manage to create some truly gonzo sci-fi cartoons like “Space Ghost” and “The Herculoids.” With enough adult danger to debut on Prime Time as opposed to Saturday morning, “Jonny Quest,” was a delightfully un-PC textbook in western imperialism and child endangerment as a boy genius, his professor dad, a brawny man of action, adorable pet dog and Indian friend battled an astonishing array of beyond stereotypical super villains, killer robots, dinosaurs, giant one-eyed blobs and jungle savages. Where later kid’s shows would have these opposing forces settle their differences with lots of talky, moral lessons, “Jonny Quest” would have none of that – piling on bullets, punches and actual death along with beyond goofy pre-school jokiness – an outrageous combo that “The Venture Brothers” would mercilessly spoof. Jonny may have been a kid, but his music was pure manly stuff, as meted out with cool, jazzy brass power by composers Hoyt Curtin and his musical manservant Ted Nichols. But then, Barbera favorite Curtin was clearly ready for more macho stuff than such positively sedate animals like Huckleberry Hound, Yogi Bear and Magilla Gorilla. Given a spin on the spy craze shows that were sweeping the nation (along with a healthy dose of sci-fi pulp), Curtin and Nichols (who’d go onto score the equally dangerous Hanna Barbera spy feature “A Man Called Flintstone”) were given the chance to travel across the globe to take on an array of would-be world conquerors. The result as heard on La La Land’s delightful two-CD collection is just about every bit as fun, and exotically diverse as such prime time fare as “Mission: Impossible,” “The Man From U.N.C.L.E” and “I Spy.” Traversing the rhythms of India, South America, Asia and all ports of dangerous stereotypical call, the composers created a dizzying, punch-drunk variety to “Jonny Quest’s” music that fueled its comic book fun, especially when it came to the shrill, brass punchiness of their action scoring, lurching monster music or the foggy suspense of scurvy pirates. But where “Jonny Quest” truly swings is in its terrific jazz stylings. Curtin and Nichols are shaken and stirred as they cover every 60’s idiom of the form from coffee house beat to swing and exotica. It’s a hep vibe that goes through such collected episodes as “The Curse of Annubis,” “The Fraudulent Volcano” and “The Quetong Missile Mystery,” suggesting way more of a show set in a swinger’s bachelor pad than anything involving a bunch of kids fighting adult evil, music that beckons for an extra olive to woo a luscious female visitor as opposed to a laser gun to shoot down a monstrosity. That swing alone is more than enough reason to make this terrific-sounding album a delight for baby boomers whose manliness was more than inspired by the music of a kid getting into completely inappropriate situations. TV music ace Jon Burlingame provides a look back this memorably unique entry in Hanna Barbera’s cannon, while Jeff Bond offers an appreciation from such current fans as Fred Dekker and Robert Rodrigues of a cartoon show that they’ve tried to turn into live action, appreciations accompanied by a graphically enticing booklet by the equally nostalgia friendly artist Joe Sikoryak.
. LE SERPENT
Italy’s Ennio Morricone effortlessly conjured a Russian on the run from his Kremlin overseers for this French Cold War thriller from 1973, a score that at first might think of as run-up to his “Exorcist: The Heretic,” given its awesomely groovy theme for fuzz guitar, eerily chanting vocalese and organ. But for the most part, “The Serpent” is a far more level-headed and disturbingly weird as Yul Brynner’s defector is given a beautifully mournful theme for strings, the haunting voice of “One Upon a Time in the West’s” Edda Dell’Orso and a balalaika-like dulcimer to create a memorable portrait of a man without an Iron Curtain country. Again pairing Morricone with his “Sicilian Clan” director Henry Verneuil, “The Serpent” plays very much in the fashion of the composer’s crime and policier scores, carrying a lyrical sense of mortality as the agents its antihero fingers find a way of ending up dead, their fate enhanced by the use of a funereal organ. Silken, eerie metallic percussion and snake hiss-like musical gestures also enhance the composer’s talent for fusing melody and dissonance into a seamless whole, while the relentless grilling that Brynner gets is reflected in harsh, computer-like electronics. Other surreal cues come across like a bad LSD trip, using string sustains and nerve-ripping metallic percussion to sustain the tension to an almost unbearable third degree. “The Serpent’s” powerful combination of wild experimentalism and poignant melody makes for one of Morricone’s more deliciously oddball and poignantly thematic scores, especially when pompous Russian marches and groovy jazz-funk cues are factored into its mindgames and assassinations. Music Box’s does a sonically great job of expanding on the score’s LP release to 73 minutes, where each cue offers a new, striking surprise.
. LITTLE BOX OF HORRORS
Varese Sarabande is in a terrifying special edition frame of mind lately with expanded releases of Jerry Goldsmith’s “The Omen” and Marco Beltrami’s “Hellboy” and “Scream 2” as follow-up’s to their formidable box set of every original “Nightmare on Elm Street” score. While their new “Little Box of Horrors” might not be suited up with a miniature version of Freddy Krueger’s green and red sweater, its seemingly plain black surface holds within a plethora of 80’s-centric horror soundtrack goodness, many of them never before released on CD. Certainly the prime jewel in the crown to puncture Ebay prices swifter than a finger glove is a re-issue of Brad Fiedel’s barely released “The Serpent in the Rainbow.” The composer of “Fright Night” and “The Terminator” applied his distinctive synth sound to create a hauntingly exotic, and thematic voodoo ceremony for director Wes Craven, complete with drum percussion that conjures the feeling of being in an undead trance. Where Charles Bernstein’s classic, original score for “A Nightmare on Elm Street” is back for another lullaby here, the composer’s “Deadly Friend” hits CD to re-animates a robot-possessed girl next door with equal components creepiness and absurd humor, with the end title droid chants of “Bee Bee, Bee Bee” certainly one of the nuttiest vocal pieces heard that decade. Marco Beltrami’s combo of Spaghetti Western stylings and crashing shocks for Ghost Face is familiar company with a special edition of “Scream,” where the composer’s wacky creativity also heard with the giant cockroach tango of “Mimic.” But Beltrami truly got to bring out his thunderous, Gothic best with the Craven-produced “Dracula 2000,” making its debut as the vampire’s musical tropes were powerfully rejuvenated. Killers human and supernatural rampage through this impressive black box, as Jay Chattaway’s gritty “Maniac” brings 80’s NYC synth sleaze to Joe Spinell’s sweaty mannequin lover, while Michael Convertino’s strikingly original score to “The Hidden’s” body jumping alien slug still stands as one of the genre’s most bizarrely percussive and effective soundtracks, samples creating a sound that’s violently otherworldly, which also capturing the haunted spirit of the relentless E.T. cop out to bring him in. Jerry Goldsmith’s Old Scratch violins had a devilish field day playing “The Mephisto Waltz,” where “The Other” used rustic instrumentations to bring out fiendish child’s play in a seditious “Waltons”-like setting. Backwoods eeriness became the folksy spirit of vengeance for Richard Stone’s “Pumpkinhead,” another notable score premiere within that created a foggy, bayou atmosphere and rampaging presence for director Stan Winston’s fearsome creation. Old school musical scares also swirl out the box with its debut of Bob Colbert’s “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” a score that should please the composer’s “Dark Shadows” fans in his telefilm work for its Goth-obsessed creator Dan Curtis. But the most operatic score is saved for Howard Shore’s “The Fly.” For a movie that he’d actually turn into all-singing variation, Cronenberg gave wrenching emotion to David Cronenberg’s Kafka-esque heartbreak, conjuring music that’s about the creeping horror and emotional devastation of a transformation that no love can repair. Put on a spider’s web of twelve discs, Varese’s “Box” (exceptionally produced by the label’s retro specialists Peter Hackman, Bryon Davis and Cary Mansfield) is certainly one of the most formidable collections of genre scores in many a blood moon that will delight both uninitiated, and hard-core fans. Be sure to scare up a copy of this limited edition at this link now.
If the interracial couple of “Loving” has an unbreakable bond in the midst of racist adversity, then we can be thankful that director Jeff Nichols has a similar attachment to composer David Wingo. Beginning with playing a Twilight Zone-esque apocalypse to “Take Shelter,” Wingo has created a unique sound of southern gothic for the turbulent familial relationships of “Mud” and “Joe” before going to outright otherworldly realms with the unsung “Midnight Special.” “Loving” is a somber return to earth for many of the team that have graced Nichols impactful films. But where many righteously aggrieved social just pictures of this genre understandably raise their musical fists high, “Loving’s” couple has a relationship based in nearly silent respect and admiration – leaving it to Wingo to speak volumes for their courage in taking down prejudice that we’d only like to think of as in the past. It’s an affecting simplicity that’s heard in a memorable two-note theme that tells us of the emotion that keeps the couple together through unimaginable adversity – the fear that any second cops will be pulling up their dirt road to throw them into prison for the crime of cohabitation. Wingo comes up with unbearable, near horror film electronic textures for that dreadful tension, the crushing weight of an institutionally racist state (and country) slamming at them with samples that sound like steam presses. But these are people who won’t break so easily, as determined, even playful rhythms take their fight to the Supreme Court. It’s a fortitude that movingly comes across in long, poignant string melodies as Wingo recalls the dramatic work of Ennio Morricone, sustaining strings conveying both hope with the melancholy realization that it will be a long road to musical victory in this devastating, yet restrained film and score that truly gets to the emotional heart of a couple going through the trials of Job all to achieve their tiny, unbothered place in the world. It’s a tremendously moving achievement in Nichol and Wingo’s most intimate exploration of rural identity yet.
. MAFIA III
Not since “Johnny Handsome” sought payback in the mean streets of New Orleans, or Judd Nelson went to clean up “Blue City” for that matter, has a rock-blues score strutted with such mean-ass Ry Cooder attitude onto the southern-accented soundtrack scene like the one emblazoned by Lincoln Clay in “Mafia III.” That this harmonica blowing and angry Cajun strumming is meant for a video game sandbox as opposed to a Walter Hill movie says a lot for the energetic payback put into the score by James Bonney (“Mortal Kombat: Armageddon”) and Jesse Harlin (“Star Wars: Battlefront II”). What makes this title’s continuation even more interesting given its goombah “Grand Theft Auto”-ish origins is “Mafia III’s” late 60’s setting, wherein a black Vietnam Vet assembles a team of criminals to wage war against the white mob at the height of the Civil Rights movement. No one musically figured a consciousness given an orgy of gun-blasting behavior, but it’s a depth of conflicted feeling that you can hear through the raucous, electrified tracks that cover driving about and doing crime in the very recognizable city of “New Bordeaux.” There’s a sizzling, vengeful energy that Bonney and Harlin invest into the cool r & b sets which bring a real character to this thematic soundtrack, musical rides that pack high octane guitar riffs, organs and harmonica licks to the low, melancholy cello of regret for a road of betrayal Lincoln can’t get off of, a sound very much tied into the game’s unique African-American identity for a people under siege. Expanding beyond its New Orleans roots to crime jazz vibes and somber passages that could befit a doomed western gunman, “Mafia III” has a rocking, period-centric power that’s as sinister as it is sad, getting across the joy of crime with the price that will be paid through its energetic, Cajun-flavored tracks.
. THE NIGHT OF
A veteran of numerous TV shows from “The Returned” to “Extant” and the recently renewed Satanic jollies of “Lucifer,” Jeff Russo is perhaps best know for his concurrent Emmy nominations for TNT’s brilliant spin on “Fargo,” a show often delighting in dramatically over-the-top music for its unbelievably labyrinthine, ill-fated crime capers. To hear Russo’s subtler, yet equally impactful range, then you should enter the quagmire of the justice system on HBO’s equally acclaimed “The Night Of,” wherein the ne’er do well son of Pakistani immigrants makes one bad decision after the other after a one-night stand gone wrong. As he’s relentlessly sucked into the soul-destroying prison system and legal jockeying that will destroy a likely innocent man, Russo paints a haunting, neo-classical picture of morality that’s chipped away bit by violent bit. Led by a Baroque theme for cello and strings, Russo’s delicately melodic score is suffused in sadness, yet not suffocated by it. Instead, “The Night Of” is full of transfixing gloom as Russo combines the uneasy sampling of a prison world trying to eat a young man alive before he may ever see freedom with aching, emotionally muted tenderness. String percussion takes the slow march of trial after trial, where elegant, rhythmic writing might lead one to believe this is a costume drama. But if this certainly isn’t the groovy pop irony of “Fargo’s” second season, there is some humor to be found in “The Night Of’s’” haughty, tea garden violins and mocking female chorus, or the oddball feel of spare percussion. Where many procedural dramas of this sort might resort to “the drone,” (a style so hilariously explained by the hapless cop show composer in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”), “The Night Of” takes a musically humane and mysterious approach that’s poetic in evoking a trial where no will come off clean, or innocent. That Russo evokes the process with tremendous, yet incredibly subtle humanity is more than enough evidence of a composer with a powerful range when it comes to crime both funny, and sad.
. NOCTURNAL ANIMALS
Fashioned designer-turned filmmaker Tom Ford couldn’t have found a composer better suited to his cinematic brand of high art elegance than Abel Korzeniowski – a man as awash in delirious melodic beauty as Ford is in beyond perfect photograph and design. But then, there’s a certain romantic rapture to composers hailing from Poland, with Korzenoiwki’s own lush style emigrating to such scores as “W.E.,” “Escape From Tomorrow,” “Romeo & Juliet” and of course his true breakthrough with his co-score for Ford’s “Single Man.” Where that film was about the impeccably tailored, and closeted lifestyle of a social leaper, Ford’s new picture is an infinitely more sordid, yet even more beguilingly gorgeous look at sordid high society. His plot is an enigma wrapped within a fortune cookie as the pathetic, jilted nice guy ex of an artist awash in grotesqueries show’s he’s indeed become a macho man as he enthralls her with a story of rape and revenge that’s only a few highfalutin’ steps from “I Spit on Your Grave.” It’s Korzeniowski’s utterly gorgeous score that’s the very ironic window dressing on the depravity within the multiple stories of “Nocturnal Animals.” The knowing contrast between ugliness and beauty begins as Korzeniowsk’s lovely main theme graces the most aghast title sequence of an image-conscious Hollywood film within memory. In his shivering, haunted strings, one can positively hear the ghost of Bernard Herrmann, particularly his score to “Vertigo” (and even Philip Glass). with Korzeniowski orgasmically surrendering to female breaths. His exceptional symphonic writing helps to tie Ford’s narratives into a cohesively thematic whole, the score positively trembling with anticipation of the next awful chapter to come, The effect is spellbinding, a shining red ribbon wrapped around a golden box of sleaziness with a strong, thematic bow, as done with equal operatic and melodic restraint, Indeed, Korzeniowski seems transported from as much of an resplendent old-school scoring world in the same way that Ford’s pays fashionable tribute to a time and place when glamour was everything, even in the midst of unimaginable sin and payback.
Legendary director Akira Kurosawa was at his international height with 1985’s “Ran,” an inadvertent take on “King Lear,” that translated Shakespeare’s woeful tale to a ruler gifting his fiefdom to a bunch of disagreeable children in feudal Japan. Musically conveying a sense of timeless, tragic majesty was composer Toru Takemitsu, who’d last worked with Kurosawa for the contemporary setting of 1970’s “Dodes’ka-den,” which detailed the blighted lives of far lower caste Tokyo residents. Takemitsu had certainly commanded his country’s respect with such scores as “Woman in the Dunes,” “Kwaidan” and “Empire of Passion,” before going Hollywood one time with the international thriller “Rising Sun.” With one hand steeped in playing the ancient percussion and winds of his homeland, while the other evoked the sumptuously melodic orchestral style of the west, Takemitsu was as much of a modern classicist as he was a movie composer, writing evocative, challenging scores that fused modernism, jazz and melody. “Ran” epically conveys that talent with the powerful, shivering themes of a seemingly all-knowing ruler cast into pathetic, penniless exile by his hubris, with his court jester along to taunt him. Using ominous sustains, along with wind machines, Takemitsu conveys the elemental wrath for a shamed ruler’s hubris in his powerful use of Japanese instruments, the lyrical intimacy of the shinobuei flute, as contrasted with the furious percussion of warring troops to convey a militaristic country state torn asunder by grievously flawed judgment. Tension is cut with a sword in Takemitsu’s rumbling use of strings and woodblock percussion. But what’s most memorable about “Ran’s” score is its gorgeously ominous theme, and lush, tempestuously tragic power. Beautifully devastating in its funereal march to Shakespearean devastation, “Ran” is masterwork from a composer steeped in his own, richly melodic and emotional tradition. England’s Silva Screen does a terrific job at re-presenting the score’s original CD release in two extensive suites, followed by Takemitsu’s original score that more than ever grips us with a timeless sense of grand, lyrical tragedy.
CLICK on the album covers to make your hardcopy or download purchase, and find the soundtracks at these. com’s: Amazon, Intrada, iTunes, Moviescoremedia and Screen Archives Entertainment
Maybe it’s something in the water in Iceland that’s produced an invasion of mournfully beautiful and stylistically innovative musicians, each setting out to revolutionize the word with a tonal language of ear-opening, futuristic art. In much the same way that Bjork has caught the world’s attention with her mind blowing take on pop, Johann Johannson has been terraforming a sometimes typical landscape of film scoring into a thing of haunting beauty. Listening to such works as “Prisoners,” “McCanick,” “Free the Mind” and his Oscar-nominated “The Theory of Everything” and “Sicario” are haunting journeys into humanity at its worst, and best. Low, nearly sub-sonic tones dance with subtle, yet memorable themes, his melodies journeying into the depths of hell or the highest reaches of scientific and spiritual heaven with striking originality. In that way, Johannson hasn’t diluted his indie street cred honed on any number of strange art music albums, operas and exhibition pieces. He’s made that rare segue from high-minded music to the more plebian demands of the big screen, spearheading a music revolution shared by such high art composers as Max Richter (“The Congress”), Jay Wadley (“Indignation”) and Mica Levi (“Under the Skin”).
Levi created a brilliantly confrontational “Skin” score that was as extra-terrestrial as film music could get with the buzzing tonalities of its black oil seductress, Now Johannson has initiated a scoring close encounter that’s just about as strangely memorable with “Arrival” – his latest tour into the extremes of human endurance with Quebecois director Denis Villeneuve. On the pitch black surface of its alien orbs, this tale of linguist trying to find common, grammatical ground for the sake of the planet’s survival might not seem to be made of the same unholy moral quagmire stuff of “Prisoner’s” psycho child-napper or “Sicario’s” ruthless drug war assassin. But those expecting ultimately happy Spielbergian wonder don’t know Villeneueve very well, as the translator finds herself moving through time and ponders visions of motherhood, all the while desperately trying to bridge the communication gap with creatures that would give Cthulu pause.
It’s a sense of dread, and wonder that Johannson conveys with icy, ominous strings, unearthly brass, tribal percussion, emotionally resonant melody and a dialogue between chirping women, moaning males and the approximation of alien whale cries Much in the same way we might not makes sense of the visitors’ Rorschach Test language, Johannsson’s score is its own wonderfully trippy and beautiful language that doesn’t spell itself out, yet remains thematically hypnotic throughout. Like this striking, challenging film, Johannsson’s “Arrival” evolves a musical conversation where Johannsson again proves himself as a composer driven to push the outer limits of the art form – yet in a way that multiplex movie audiences will want to understand, and hear more of.
In a way, do you think that you come from an alien planet given Iceland’s rugged environment? And do you think its wild, strange nature was an influence on your musical voice?
That’s a question I get asked frequently, to which I would respond both yes and no. I think any artist is influenced by the surroundings and geography of his upbringing. So it’s inevitable in a way. But living in Berlin, and having lived abroad for 10 years, I have a more romantic view of Iceland than I had when I was living there. I miss the light and the harshness and variety of the winter weather. So yes, it’s an influence, but no more than any other artist’s place of origin.
What kind of training do you think your concept albums gave you to become a film composer?
I think of my solo work and the film music as being very related. My first major film scoring commissions were the result of the filmmakers hearing my solo work. I try to keep the ratio of solo work and film work at 50/50, but this has been difficult in the last years as bigger, more time consuming film projects have come my way. I recently released a solo album, “Orphée” and there are more solo projects on the way that I have been working on over the last few years. I like the cross-pollination between the score work, theatre work and my solo work. For me it’s one body of work and I try to choose projects where I feel that my voice will bring something to the table.
What was your own experience like learning the English language, let alone the “Hollywood” language of scoring?
I learned English when I lived in France as a child and went to an American Middle school, which catered to the children of diplomats and English speaking ex-pats. So I became fluent quite quickly and I have a strong affinity for the English language because it’s so rich and full of nuances. I learned French also, which I still speak and read, but have fewer occasions to use. Iceland has quite a small population, with its own language, but only 350.000 speakers. This makes it very important for us to learn international languages, as so many people are fluent in other languages in Iceland.
I think your question about the “Hollywood language of scoring” is a bit reductive and generalizes an entire industry, which is very varied and full of talented people with original voices. So I can’t really answer it. I was writing in the style of my score for “Prisoners,” both for my own albums and for small European documentaries and art films for years before Denis got in touch and hired me for his film. Denis Villeneuve has always encouraged me to experiment and to seek out new sounds and this approach, plus the luxury of having a great deal of time to find the sound and the voice of the film has helped us in our endeavor to expand the palette of film music and to look for new horizons. Whether we have achieved that goal is for others to decide, but it is certainly what we’re trying our best to do. I think filmmakers seek me out because my sound is not the typical sound you hear in movies.
Given Denis’ utterly bleak world vision in “Prisoners” and “Sicario,” was it a pleasant surprise to score a film with hope for the human race, if with a big caveat here?
“Arrival” has a different tone than “Sicario” for example, but it is very much representative of Denis’ visual style and pace of storytelling, while remaining very compelling throughout. I have been waiting for an opportunity to score a science fiction film for a long time and it was a great pleasure to work with a script with such strong and bold ideas, a true piece of speculative fiction. And I knew that Denis would give it his own very special touch so it was a very exciting project to me from the start.
As you score Denis’ movies before he even begins shooting them, what kind of freedom did that give you to discover the sound of “Arrival?” Was this process of collaboration any different?
I began writing the music for “Arrival” almost as soon as we laid down the script. The concept art that Denis and Patrice were very generous to share with me was also a big source of inspiration. Denis and I discussed the score in only very general terms before I started. He likes to leave me alone to experiment in the beginning and I am free to generate a lot of material, which I then shape, and mold and present to him. Then there begins a back and forth process between Denis, myself and the editor, Joe Walker. Denis cuts without temp music, so I have to have a head start on him and have material ready for when they start editing. This requires time and a good rapport and communication between the three of us. I don’t accept many offers of scoring films, despite many very tempting offers from directors I’d love to work with for this reason: this approach requires time, so I can only do a certain number of films per year. Denis and I share certain sensibilities and tastes in music and has a good sense for where to place music and where not to do so, which is almost as important.
There’s a “2001”-feel to the score, and film in regards to encountering an unknown, all-powerful race. Were you inspired by Kubrick’s use of modern classical music, or for that matter the other “hard sci-fi” head trip movies and scores of the past?
I knew as soon as I read the script that voices would have to feature prominently in the score. And as I was using vocals, I tried to stay as far away from Gyorgy Ligeti as possible, as his vocal works are very much associated with “2001” and the monolith scene, a sign of alien intelligence (“2001” is one of my favorite films and I know it inside out). So in contrast to Ligeti, who used sustained cluster chords and micropolyphony, I’m using staccato polyrhythms, irregular and arrhythmic patterns of short notes which start small and are then layered to create a kind of cloud of short staccato polyrhythmic voices. I was also influenced by Stockhausen’s Stimmung and his use of overtones and harmonic singing and his aleatoric approach to performance. I worked with the vocal ensemble Theatre of Voices, led by Paul Hillier and they have a great command of extended vocal techniques. But I also worked with singers from very different backgrounds, who have developed their own sound and use the same techniques but in their own very unique way. So there is a combination of trained and untrained but very unique voices in the score. The voices were kept mostly pure, i.e. not processed in any way, except for some pitch shifting. For the orchestral and choral writing I was also influenced by composers like Giacinto Scelsi, Michael Gordon, Georg Friedrich Haas, Gerard Grisey and Meredith Monk.
What kind of impetus does the idea of doing a “real” science fiction movie, let alone one about aliens, place on your scoring? Or does the genre itself give one a license to be surreal in a way more true-life movies can’t?
The ideas in the short story by Ted Chiang and the script itself are fascinating and struck a chord in me. It is a film about communication and language and how to find common ground with an intelligent species that shares no points of reference with us. But it is also about how language affects our perception of time and space. And how learning a different language might change that perception. This is an old hypothesis in linguistics called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which I studied when I was at University, so the themes were right up my alley.
How did you want to strike a balance between the score and the sound effects of the alien vocalizations so each would be distinct?
There was a lot of communication between the music and sound design departments in this film, through Denis and Joe. They made sure I was constantly updated with the latest version of the sound design, and they also sent the music demos to the sound designers, so I was always aware of what they were doing and vice versa.
You’ve often taken music to its lowest, sonic registers. What is it about that utter bass vibe that attracts you, and how did you want to apply it to “Arrival?”
I like the extremes, so I often work with the lower end of the spectrum. It’s been a feature of my non-film work for ages, so it comes very naturally to me. Applying it to film came very naturally.
Given the unknown of encountering aliens, were you careful not to stray too far into horror music territory?
Yes, I was conscious of that – the music had to provide tension and a sense of awe and a degree of fear, but also of fascination, which is very distinct from the idea of “scary music”.
When your mission is to create a truly unique score, how important is it to give the audience some harmonic idea they can grasp onto, to not get musically “strange” for its own sake?
I don’t use an idea unless it at some point makes my hair stand on end and gives me a sense that it merges with the images and adds something to them. I think there are quite a few memorable musical statements in the score, even though they are not “melodies” in the traditional sense.
In that sense, did you want the audience to put as much work into deciphering the score, and film, as much as Louise has to in her effort to communicate with the aliens? And how did you want the score to evolve with each step she makes in being able to “talk” with them?
I didn’t want to create a score that is hard to listen to or difficult – far from it, I wanted to write something that evokes the strangeness, the otherness and the sense of awe that an encounter with an intelligent alien species might evoke. However, “Arrival” is a subtle score and although my music is often put together using quite simple elements, there are subtleties in there and layers upon layers and relationships between cues that often don’t become apparent at first listen. Which is good, I think – it keeps the listener interested and intrigued and it fits the atmosphere of the film – which is the primary purpose of the music of course.
You’ll next be teaming with Denis for the “Blade Runner” sequel. What’s that kind of responsibility like to follow in the shadow of an iconic score, especially given that you have a style distinctly apart from Vangelis’?
I’m a great admirer of Vangelis and listened to him a lot back in the day and I think he was an influence, especially in the very early part of my musical upbringing. I think we share an affinity for strong and distinct statements and an ability to create atmosphere. I also share with him an interest in placing sound in a space and in creating music that is epic while somehow remaining subtle. One of the many composers I learned some of these qualities from is Vangelis. Everyone who is working on this film is very aware of the legacy of the first “Blade Runner”, so I think everyone on the film feels this huge challenge of creating a film that exists in the world of “Blade Runner,” but is still its own thing.
Do you think you, along with such composers as Max Richter and Mica Levi are riding a vanguard of bringing “art” music to the multiplex with the studio exposure of “Arrival?”
I just write music that I think is interesting and keeps me challenged and makes me feel something. I’m a very visceral composer – I like music that affects the listener emotionally, whether it’s in a tense, disturbing way or a more emotional and emotive way. I just released a solo album on Deutsche Gramophon, “Orphée”, which is quite different in tone to “Arrival,” much quieter, emotional and very personal – but there are threads that bind these works together if you analyze them closely enough. I’m lucky enough to work with directors who encourage me to be bold, individual and to experiment. I think hiring the composer early in the process, like you hire the DP or the editor or the costume designer and giving them time to work and experiment and try new things is very important. If the composer is hired early, and can compose while or even before the film is shot, you can start editing immediately to original music instead of temp music, so the new music can grow organically with the film as its being shot and edited – this is an approach that has worked very well for my collaborations with Denis.
Would you like to get back into the more traditionally emotional scores like “The Theory of Everything?” And could you ever imagine yourself scoring a pure popcorn movie at that?
I love writing melodies and given the right project I would love to do that. My score for James Marsh “The Mercy”, which comes out next year, is more melodic, but it also grows darker as it goes along.
If you were only able to communicate in music or “words,” which would it be? And on that note, do you think that music is the ultimate universal language?
As long as an exoplanet has an atmosphere and things can be made to vibrate so that the air moves and be perceived by ear-like organs as sounds, then there will probably be a form of music on said planet, provided the beings in question have evolved to the level of producing and appreciating these movements of air as music. But intelligent life might also exist in conditions that do not allow this physical phenomenon to occur, so music might not be perceived at all by beings existing in such conditions. So it is difficult to say if music is the universal language. It unites us sometimes here on Earth and we desperately need something to unite us, so let’s consider ourselves lucky to at least have that!
“Arrival” arrives in theaters on November 10th, with Johann Johannsson’s score available on Deutsche Gramophone Records HERE
Buy “Orphée” ” target=”_blank”>HERE
Buy “Sicario” HERE
Buy “Prisoners” HERE
Visit Johan Johannsson’s website HERE
Johann Johannson photographs by Jónatan Grétarsson