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From its first ethereal tones, Academy Award-nominated documentary filmmaker Matthew Heineman’s (Oscar-nominated CARTEL LAND) CITY OF GHOSTS music score and sound design achieves a hauntingly simultaneous balance of nearly-imperceptible presence and atmospheric poignancy. “I sorta figured if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” reflects Mr. Heineman when expressing why he continues his creative collaboration with composers and personal friends, H. Scott Salinas and Jackson Greenberg.
With Mr. Salinas and Greenberg’s consent, I offer to kickoff our visit with an immediate impression during the start of the film that distinguishes it’s score from Cartel Land’s…it deftly emerges with warm, melodic cello and higher-notes vibraphone progessions from a dreamlike silence, and only registers as a lilting, tender counterpoint to the viscerally intense imagery of ISIS-occupied contemporary Raqqa, Syria in the picture’s opening sequence well after we’re already emotionally all-in invested via what will certainly be a harrowing, yet inspiring cinematic experience. Mr. Heineman recalls, “Cartel Land was an amazing collaboration with Scott and Jackson, and they’re so talented. We all developed a sort of shorthand making Cartel Land and for me, this film was extremely stressful on a bunch of different levels, so I just wanted to keep that band together. I reached out to them about collaborating quite early in the process, which influences the edit, allows them to freshly color the emotions and feelings of the images based on what I was responding to, what felt right or didn’t right away. So, those first sessions were extremely important to developing the language of the film.”
After the aptly assembled opening sequence juxtaposes quick shots of human ingenuity with fierce ISIS challenges, the creative team offers rhythmic marimba and guitar during it’s aural foreshadowing of visceral collective human resilience by showing early-resistance Raqqa uprisings against the anaconda-like noose unleashed upon local residents as the IS fighters descend upon the region from the hallucination-like mirage of surrounding desert terrain.
Integral to this story’s resistance are local members of the resistance platform, Raqqa Being Slaughtered Silently, or RBSS. We first meet hope in the schoolteacher Mohamed and blogger/videographer Hamoud…then immediately witness IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi slowly ascend mosque pulpit stairs. Tension feels temporarily relieved, then abruptly withdrawn as pensive piano accompanies our introduction to the situation’s lethality…the group’s member Moutaz is assasinated, and the team flees Raqqa for sactuary in nearby Gazientap, Turkey to establish a RBSS headquarters and where we meet their partner, Ibrahim, as well as German safehouses where we meet liason, Mouza.
“Raqqa is a nightmare,” whispers Hamoud’s brother, Hassan, one of the “Raqqa 12″ internal/external correspondents early in the film, and Mr. Heineman kindly brings us into their intuitively collaborative musical scoring process. “First, I sent them (composers Mr. Salinas and Greenberg) a few clips because we didn’t have a cut yet, and they delivered 10 – 12-minute ‘concentrates,’ that had a lot of different elements and we’d sit around and talk about what I was responding to.”
I ask about how scene cues felt unique in so far as they ascended from silence, almost imperceptibly. Mr. Greenberg responds with, “I think that’s a testament to the editing of the film. Every cue would start with a single instrument or sound. The opening sequence was so impactful (sic), with every intense moment followed by another even more intense moment, so we wanted to allow each of those to linger with the audience as long as possible while also moving them along in the story. The challenge was, let’s let people feel this but not have the music drag them out of the story, so our solution was to go with really simple opening to the cues, and then they often return to their simplest form at the end of the cue.”
Mr. Salinas expands, “There were a few cues that come in really strong too, so because mostly the cues were simple, so when the few cues that don’t behave that way come in, they feel way more impactful (sic), almost bigger than they actually are because we weren’t overusing that sort of strong. It’s sort of an instinctual tactic, that we can sort of really hit you hard when we need to. You’ll notice we do that with sound too, like when there’s an explosion or a phone suddenly dropping, it feels jarring. So, because before those moments, we’ve been in this interestingly delicate, smooth world, where I imagine your senses haven’t been overloaded yet, so we’re all sensitive to, when we go ‘to 11,’ how many times are you gonna do that and why.”
“When we were mixing with our amazing mixer, Tom Paul, who we worked with on Cartel Land, elaborates Mr. Heineman, “we said to him, ‘we want the film to have breaths but we don’t want them to feel like they’re breathing. So, in the sound mix, we did a lot of work with ‘reverb-ing’ sound in and out to help ease some of these transitions, make them seamless, make them seem like one long poem as opposed to a bunch of starts and stops.”
Case in point, about 3/4 into the picture, there’s a viscerally dynamic sequence elucidating the RBSS crew-in-exile as they emotionally transform from a sort of post traumatic stress detachment after settling into German safe houses, into a gradual fearless, actualized confrontation with German nationalists at an anti-refugee assembly. Tension builds as strings rise from a building bass and acoustic guitar trot that slowly gathers accelerating velocity into an alarming gallop. Mr. Heineman reflects on how he and the team approached music and sound challenges here with, “that scene was so chaotic and loud…there was a natural rhythm to the protests, and I feel that cue of Scott and Jackson’s is one of my favorite cues, so powerful. If you take away the ‘nat’ (natural) sounds, it’s pretty large and complicated but you just feel the emotion when you’re watching that scene. It’s really subtle in how it plays in the mix.”
Mr. Greenberg adds, “One of the things that happens in that cue is that at times, all the sounds get stripped away and we’re left only with music, and you can become aware that, ‘oh, wait a minute, the music was doing that the whole time,’ that creates a kind of whiplash impact.”
“It was similar to what we did sometimes in the Cartel Land mix, when we stripped away all nat sounds at the end of a cue and let the music bring it out,” Mr. Heineman recalls. “As a filmmaker, what I love is not going to a film with any preconceived notions or script in mind but letting it evolve naturally. If you’d talked to me a year ago when we started, would I ever think that we could include a scene of neo-Nazis marching through Berlin to somehow fit into this film. And while the film is sort of about this war of ideas, propaganda, information from these citizen journalists and ISIS’ slick propaganda, it’s also a story of immigrants, an exodus story, of Man’s understanding, coming to terms, and dealing with the cumulative effects of trauma…also, rising nationalism both in Germany and around the world. It’s about finding one’s own identity in a new place. So, what was beautiful about their music, is that nothing feels heavy-handed…it’s not like we get to Germany, Turkey, or Raqqa and suddenly the whole score changes. There’s a real sort of elegance to it, it’s so emotive but you’re not always aware of how the score is making that happen.”
Mr. Salinas chuckles at having utilized “that crazy precussion instrument – a ‘pocket piano’ I found at a luggage store in San Francisco” for that scene. It sort of sounds like an rhythmic organ but it’s made out of wood and makes really interesting sounds.”
Mr. Greenberg expands with, “It felt kind of like making an album where we felt free with Matt to experiment with shaping larger movements from those original stems. So, instead of aiming for a perfect cue, we did a subtractive rather than additive process, of a quickly freeing mashup approach. We also collaborated with a Syrian classically-trained musician, a well-known revolutionary songwriter who played over a dozen instruments…weird, distorted synths. We just did it and it worked very effectively because we all like similar source material and pushing the boundaries of what’s possible.”
Mr. Salinas adds, “I’d send in stuff, just as a jumping off point, and when it worked, it ended up in the movie.
In closing, I offer that the score maintains a organically-consistent vibe continuity flow throughout, to which Mr. Heineman generously lauds, “Yes, and I think that’s a huge testament to Scott and Jackson. One of the things I love about our collaboration is that we’re all sort of ego-less in the collaboration, there’s a trust that we’ve developed. For example, them delivering between 6 – 10 ‘stems’ for each cue, which allowed us the option to fine-tune everything. We played a ton with the stems.”
He kindly wraps to race after his next interview with, “I really appreciate your feedback on the film and our music process, it means a lot. Some people get the film and some don’t, and you get the intricacies of what we were trying to do.”
Soundtrack Picks: “LOGAN” is the top soundtrack to own for March, 2017
Also worth picking up BEFORE I WAKE, BEVERLY HILLS COP, FRANKENSTEIN, THE LAST VALLEY, PLANETARIUM, PLANET EARTH II, SILENT RUNNING TINA GUO: GAME ON! and many more!
To Purchase the soundtracks from this list, click on the CD cover
THE TOP PICKS
1) DUCK TALES / SKY HIGH
What is it?: Intrada has often mined musical treasure from the Disney vaults. But perhaps none are shinier than the treasure that results from composers with a taste for fantastical adventure, be it involving waterfowl or teen superheroes in training.
Why should you buy it: Not every funny animal star to grace Disney came from film or television, one case in point being Scrooge McDuck, a feathered spin on Ebenezer created by comic book artist Carl Barks in 1947. His money-making schemes providing no end of perilous trouble for nephew Donald Duck and his kids in a series of popular adventure stories, and later a syndicated TV show that provided the gist for 1990’s “Duck Tales: The Movie.” But when listening to Scrooge’s musical quest for the treasure of the lost lamp, you might assume you’re listening to the score for a long lost Indiana Jones picture, if given a somewhat lighter spin. Few composers gave that era’s kid-friendly comedy-adventures the kind of energetic rambunctiousness like David Newman. With lush orchestrations that shifted to new ideas at a moment’s notice, Newman’s scores for the likes of “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” “Galaxy Quest” and “The Brave Little Toaster” came across like a fusion between his dad Alfred Newman and Warner Brother’s toon king Carl Stalling. “Duck Tales” is a prime cut of his seamless ability to jet between cheerful rhythm and cliffhanging peril, a silly symphony by way of the lost Ark as Newman inflects Arabic exoticism into a constantly thrilling sense of discovery. Newman embodies Scrooge and company as a hardy band of explorers boldly facing death-defying traps, as well as a few pratfalls. It’s exactly the kind of dynamic scoring that makes the listener take cartoons all the more seriously, especially given the composer’s dynamic use of strings and brass, given a constant sense of melodic excitement and wonder that plays one of the composer’s best “Tales” where the real treasure within is robustly cliffhanging music that plays Scrooge as anything but a McDuck.
Extra Special: Michael Giacchino was fresh off Disney’s “The Incredibles” when the studio’s “Sky High” flew his way in a welcome case of superhero typecasting. Where Giacchino had taken a stylized, hep John Barry 60’s approach for that animated movie’s spandex-clad family, the composer’s approach for “Sky High” was all about his love for John Williams. Giacchino confidently responded to his first live action movie leap with a stupendous theme whose trumpeting melody was practically emblazoned with a big red “S,” Giacchino’s score immediately nails the lofty nobility of this power pack, while also capturing the underdog emotion of a son trying to fill his crusader dad’s cape. Like David Newman, Giacchino’s use of his formidable orchestral resources was serious, if not exactly life or death stuff given the villain’s plan to reduce her foes to kindergarten size. With numerous genre franchises that the composer would conquer on the horizon, Giacchino’s affection for the material rings through the theme-rich score, from the dastardly bell-ringing brass of evil to swirling, save-the-day orchestrations, a symphonically grand approach whose climactically suspenseful string and choral power would only grow to Oscar winning heights, not to mention the brilliant John Williams’ emulation of “Rogue One.” Yet “Sky High” is certainly a match for Giacchino’s most enjoyable work to come, a comic book-colored score that again showed him as being to the superhero manor born.
What Is it?: Marco Beltrami has always been a composer to find a uniquely dark sound in nihilistic subject matter, whether it’s onboard the twisted samples of a train to a frozen apocalypse in “Snowpiercer,” or using a distorted metal to defuse ticking Iraqi bomb death in his Oscar nominated score with Buck Sanders for “Hurt Locker.” He’s also been to the twisted well once or twice for Marvel, teaming with Philip Glass for a cool modernistic take on the disastrous revamp of the “Fantastic Four,” and journeyed with director James Mangold for a Japanese take on everyone’s favorite berserker Canuck mutant with “Wolverine.” If you want to hear the inspiration for “Logan,” then go back to the old, twisted west for Beltrami’s first Oscar nomination in service of Mangold’s “3:10 To Yuma.” Or better yet, listen to the psychologically perverse score to “The Homesman,” and you’ll get the tantalizingly doomed basis for “Logan’s” ride into the sunset as Beltrami lays the saga to rest with his creative claws blazing.
Why Should You Buy It?: Right from the “Wolverine” recall of a western-style harmonica that signals a blade-slinger who doesn’t want to be pulled back in, and the lovely, lonely piano theme of his melancholy existence with the last tatters of his X-life, Beltrami (along with his composing team of Sanders, Marcus Trumpp and Brandon Roberts) embody a savage, wounded animal who’s nonetheless a warrior poet. A seething berserker rage, along with the villainy of the hapless cyber-enhanced reavers become gnarled, electric guitars that paint a bleak, hypnotic landscape replete with melancholy and sudden death. The crazed musical violence is balanced with a poignant, Zen calm that gives the score a nicely modulated impact, eerily enhanced by the crystalline sound of a glass armonica’s water bowls. Mostly defying the kind of big orchestra that could potentially recall a sunnier Marvel superhero film, Beltrami pays off those big moments nonetheless as he crafts perhaps Marvel’s most distinctive score yet.
Extra Special: While “Logan” makes no bones about being a bloody update of “Shane” (excepting that the kid attached at the hip to the gunslinger is no shrinking violet), the biggest musical surprise here is how Beltrami’s score is way more of a throwback to Gene Hackman than Alan Ladd, employing some of the nuttiest use of jazz rhythms to the hard-broiled action genre outside of Don Ellis and David Shire’s scores for “The French Connection” and “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three.” Beltrami puts piano runs into the jagged adrenalin frenzy of “El-Limo Nator,” where the brass impalement fiesta of “Forest Fight” kicks it with a seeming improv drum solo that might have come from “Whiplash,” as kept pace with wildly rhythmic brass. Electric guitar also leaps into Beltrami’s mayhem, really given a chance to shine in an album that reveals the intricacy of the score. It’s the sound of pure, savage creativity that uses low key emotion to rips out fans’ hearts, laying bare a wounded soul and a hell of a post-apocalyptic western-jazz score at that.
3) THE RED BALLOON / PARIS WHEN IT SIZZLES
What is it?: A label that’s often shown a love of foreign soundtrack, or delightful Hollywood froth that just happens to take place overseas, Kritzerland now puts out two Parisian soundtrack delights, one about the tender relationship between a boy and helium, and the other using, swinging jazzy hijinks to bring dialogue to a screenplay in the city of lights.
Why should you buy it?: A classic to schoolchildren of a certain age, Albert Lamorisse’s 1956 short film “The Red Balloon” featured the wordless interplay between a young boy and a puppy-like balloon, winning an Oscar for Best Screenplay in the process. Following him around the streets, into school and dancing out of the popping desires of bullies, the lovely little score by Maurice Leroux is a magical thing of wonder, shimmering bells conjuring the enchantment of a special friend, as sweet orchestrations become the blissful sound of youth, all while painting the balloon as a flesh and blood playmate. Thematically buoyant, Leoroux’s playfully suspenseful score seems like the music of a lost Disney animated feature from the 40’s, capturing a sense of natural wonder that might befit a “Bambi” sequel, a vintage quality enhanced by the archival sound. Lamorisse followed up “The Red Balloon” with “Le Voyage en Balloon” (aka “Stowaway in the Sky”), a far grander1960 feature that finds “Red’s” balloon-fascinated boy soaring over France with his grandfather. This time the score was by Jean Prodromides (who’d go on to score adult fare like “Spirits of the Dead” and “Danton”). Far more dance hall and a bit less “childish” in approach, Prodromides’ score is a delight, given a theme that dances from waltz to lullaby as it captures the sights below with sumptuous orchestral enchantment. While not “French” as such in approach, there’s no mistaking the Gallic countryside in the joie de vivre of its music, which floats on the magic of where the air takes you, as its soaringly melodic dance rhythms escalate with excitement, and finally a stirring chorus worthy of an epic. Both “Balloons” add up to a real charmer, showing how music and imagery remain aloft together to convey the magic of both flight and boyhood wonder.
Extra Special: Way more in jazzy key with a 1964 American bachelor pad, Nelson Riddle is in full, swinging bloom with “Paris When It Sizzles.” William Holden played another screenwriter on the make, though with Audrey Hepburn making for far more agreeable company than Gloria Swanson as the temp trying to break his mental block in gay Paree. As the idea girl segues his stream of consciousness from one nutty scenario to the next. Riddle was Frank Sinatra’s go-to arranger when not scoring TV and film assignments like no one’s swinging business. By the time he sizzled, Riddle already had such hep credits as “Ocean’s 11,” “Lolita” and “Come Blow Your Horn” to his credit. “Paris” particularly sings with the fun variety of premises offered here, from aping stormy Dracula music to cliffhanging cowboy and Indian action. Musical movie-movie stereotyping has rarely been this delicious as Heft’s talent for “serious” drama meets his jazz chops, given a quite lovely theme for the two eye-catching stars who’d previously proven their chemistry in “Sabrina.” Hefti also pays ode to “Paris” with a can-can inspired chase and the waltzing brass and accordion, while also globe hopping with an Argentinian tango and Italian mandolin. “Paris’” delights are only enhanced with a second CD, featuring copious alternates as well as the original soundtrack release from back in the day. But given an artist whose sweet cocktail touch remains as fun as ever, Riddle’s “Paris” is le jazz hot at its finest, as it delightfully, and purposefully run though any number of clichés, as given new vibrancy by Hefti’s boundless imagination.
4) SPLIT / FRANKENSTEIN
Price: $8.99 / $9.49
What is it?: From a psychopath with submerged multiple personalities to the violently misunderstood creation of Mary Shelly, two new, distinctive horror scores create music that’s’ as much about inner psychology as body terror scares.
Why should you buy it?: M. Night Shyamalan is the master of surprise twists, the latest of which is his almost shocking return to form with a super villain who has many of them, the most intoxicatingly evil of which is the new music identity of West Dylan Thordson. With Shyamalan having used the robust symphonic sound of James Newton Howard for his way higher budgeted films (with the music ultimately becoming the best thing about one disappointment after the other), the filmmaker’s retreat to indie world brought has now brought him the relatively unknown Thordson, no doubt having a light shown on his talent with his score for HBO’s documentary series “The Jinx,” which detailed the murderous guises of the money-hungry killer Robert Durst. Now given a multiple identity murderer with a bit more of a sympathetic background, Thordson creates a singularly unique horror score, beginning with a metallic, growling effect that seems to come from the bowels of hell, signaling a “Beast” gnawing to break free from a kidnapper’s jumbled personas. Yet there’s a melodic measure of sympathy for a man / woman / child who isn’t of his own making, even as the score’s more lyrical moments become inevitably distorted. For all of the identities at play, Thordson keeps the score at a subtle, spare pitch, gradually unnerving the listener with each new revelation of a captor, seizing the grown, unholy anticipation of the emergence of his inner Beast. It’s a mixture of sympathy and fear that encourages any number of interesting samples that seem to come from a steam pipe-filled jungle lair, nicely balancing melody with growing savagery in way that signals the emergence of a musical talent determined to take the percussive brutality of the genre in his own direction – a contrast of styles that makes the JNH reappearance of an old Shyamalan theme (as heard in the movie itself) all the more effective in this ear-catching, fear-inducing soundtrack that makes us eagerly await the next sound that will jump out of Thordson.
Extra Special: The cinematic body parts that comprise Frankenstein’s monster have been given innumerable mix-and-matches for well over a century, some dressing Mary Shelley’s classic tale in blood-splattered Victorian finery, while others have sought to garb him the baleful creature in futuristic clothing. But rarely has a hoodie given such new, impressive life to the undead as “Candyman” genre auteur Bernard Rose with this excellent, woefully unrecognized modern-day spin on the story as old as time – its hopelessly disfigured mother’s boy strikingly electrified from its score by Halli Cauthery. Composing additional music for the likes of “The Chronicles of Narnia,” “Hellboy II” and “King Kong: Skull Island,” Cauthery made a strong feature debut with the eco-guerillas of “The East.” For “Frankenstein,” he paints a portrait of weird, brutal science run amuck, as driven by a tender, doomed heart. A plaintive piano lets us know that the escaped, patchwork man “Adam” only wants to belong, even as harsh, industrial samples wreak unintentional havoc. It’s a experimental nightmarishness that’s genetically spliced with poignancy, the music trying to resolve into melody before being swept away by some bizarre, angry effect in Cauthery’s effective mesh of sound design and score. But there are also strong themes at his “Frankenstein’s” core, the most effective of which is a mournful, monk-like chorus, its string emulation marching him to inexorable tragedy. Like Rose’s astonishing, determinedly ragged take on the legend, Cauthery’s work is as raw as a barely stitched-together wound, raging against a Los Angeles to distinguish both film and score from its ancestors, who’ve perhaps never dared as much to break a familiar mold.
5) TWISTER / CLIFFHANGER
What Is it?: Action films began to get truly outrageous in the 90s as one testosterone-fueled picture tried to beat the other out in terms of the sheer, epic scale of logic-destroying insanity. The same might be said of their scores that reached new heights of awesome bombast, and manliness – two prime music cuts of that decade being Mark Mancina’s “Twister” and Trevor Jones’ “Cliffhanger,” a tornado of orchestral players now fully unleashed in the new millennia via La La Land’s ultimate editions.
Why Should You Buy It?: Probably the 90’s most seminal action score belonged to “Speed,” Jan De Bont’s ingenious, time-ticking elevator to bus to subway triathlon that truly introduced the percussive talents of Mark Mancina to Hollywood with this thrilling fusion of thematic tradition and then state-of-the-art sampling. For their next venture, De Bont and Mancina traded off mechanical carnage for nature’s fury with the barnstorming music of “Twister.” One might expect they’ve mistakenly put on the score for a bucking bronco western when hearing the rollicking Americana theme that opens the score, though the tip of the hat that we’re in modern times comes from the ripping guitar solos by no less than Eddie Van Halen, showing that the horse these heroes are riding is in fact a town-tossing string of hurricanes with a temper worse than any red-maddened bull. With the string-driven orchestra more pronounced this time, Mancina’s delightful hoedown conveys the fun of the death-defying, mind-boggling profession of storm chasing. It might be crazy, but it’s also heroic given Mancina’s bold approach that conveys the characters fearlessly barreling into the CGI weather events, their swirling majesty conveyed with towering brass and a foreboding chorus that might as well the voice of God giving warning. It’s big, unabashed fun that conveys director Jan De Bont’s way of throwing the kitchen sink, as well as a cow, at the screen, an unabashed enthusiasm for multiplex thrill rides that Mancina boisterously embodies with a category 5 score, driving hell-bent for rhythm into the kind of throttling, thematic percussion that distinguishes his action scoring for one of his most delightfully gonzo projects.
Extra Special: Bruce Willis’ skyscraper-mountaineering battle for survival against Eurotrash criminals inspired a wave of “’Die Hard’ in a….” movies of varied ambition and originality. But leave it to explosive “Die Hard 2” director Renny Harlin to try to summit the most breathtakingly outlandish of them all with Sylvester Stallone for 1993’s “Cliffhanger.” Michael Kamen’s score (also just re-issued on La La Land) had pretty much chiseled the orchestral path up for these pictures, but Trevor Jones took the approach to swaggering heights with his biggest blockbusters score. Certainly buffed up to take on villains in the great outdoors after his stint on “Last of the Mohicans” the year before, Jones composed a sweeping, horn driven theme that captured both the heroic majesty of nature, and Sly’s rescue ranger who finds himself in world of hurt, and heroism while taking on nasty John Lithgow’s gang of thieves, wiping them out one by one with a cunning that Jason would admire. Meshing his own distinctive sound with the kind of swirling action orchestrations that were the rage in the summiting days of James Horner and Alan Silvestri, “Cliffhanger” has a solid, multi-thematic base and rhythms to spare, but always with a keen sense of desperate, noble emotion of a man alone. The music lives up to its title with a thrilling, near-continuous sense of peril. Embodying the percussion of a ticking time bomb, dastardly brass for the bad guys and even calling back to the hymn from his breakthrough score to “Excalibur,” Jones truly opens up the lush vastness of the massive, near-Wagnerian orchestra at his disposal, while also applying his distinctive touch for eerie, voice-like electronics for the mountains’ icier recesses. And action cues don’t get more exciting than in the spectacular, helicopter-hanging finale, as Jones’ unleashes a punishingly exhilarating series of orchestral punches that work the listener to sweaty exhaustion. A composer who could pour on fun, balls-out rhythmic excitement like few others in scores like “Dark City” and “Desperate Measures” (and whose touch is dearly missed now in the multiplex), “Cliffhanger” trumpets its back into the CD market, peaking on this new presentation that features both the complete score, along with the original album presentation, whose remastered sound has never been more thrillingly majestic
ALSO FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION:
While his videogame music has aggressively let the blood flow for “Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate” and “The Banner Saga,” Austin Wintory is in even more demand as a composer who stretches the ethereal, imaginative boundaries of the genre. It’s a talent for gorgeously drifting melodies that brought him worldwide acclaim with the Grammy-nominated music for “Journey,” its angular figure making his puzzle-solving way across the desert. Where those sands were full of exotica, Wintory has taken the plunge into the oceans of “ABZÛ” in a way that strongly swims to that ultimate example of wave-swept tone poems. Indeed, one can imagine Claude Debussy being enchanted by this latter-day, interactive “La Mer” as gossamer flutes and strings gently push the quest of a lone diver, the music floating, and playfully dancing among fish, whales and mysterious structures to be unlocked. His chorus wraps itself around the listener, the harmony venturing from playfulness to melancholy and enchantment with a flowing effect that is nothing less than hypnotic throughout, the symphony as lush as water itself. One not only comes away with the majesty of the ocean from listening to “ABZÛ,” but also with the transformative power of game scoring to truly submerge the listener in a magical world that gives them appreciation for the real wonders of the sea outside of their living room. After “ABZÛ,” one looks forward to the gaming elements that Wintory has yet to conquer.
. ASSASSIN’S CREED
At the least, filmmaker Justin Kurzel attempted to break the game-to-movie curse with this adaptation of Ubisoft’s long-killing franchise, even if the results were pretentiously muddled and visually muddy. Yet it certainly didn’t lack for ambition, especially when it came to the music of his partner, and brother in crime Jed Kurzel. Having given minimally unbearable tension to Justin’s serial killing “Snowtown Murders” and percussive grunge to an ultra realistic bloodbath of “Macbeth” (while also delivering memorably unique scores for “The Babadook” and “Slow West” outside of the family circle), the Kurzels entered the animus of intended multiplex blockbuster here. But those expecting the usual orchestral-synth fusion action stuff here definitely don’t know Kurzel’s resume, as the composer delivers a surprisingly thoughtful and interesting score that’s one of the few things that survives “Creed” untarnished. With an antihero who jumps between centuries with the air of a gene-travelling machine, Kurzel creates a haunting, dream-like ambience that flows well with the segues from past to present, creating an eerie sense of myth for the creed’s bloodline, if not a holy sense of purpose. But while “Assassin’s” has atmosphere to spare, fans check into something like this for the action. On that note, Kurzel also delivers with unique ferociousness, amping up his rhythm into a head-bashing mix of age-old ethnic instruments and a rocking adrenalin attitude. Sure “Creed” dies on the sword of its noble ambitions, but Kurzel’s consistently interesting, and sometimes thrilling music soars with much promise ahead from one of the more unique composers to arise from Down Under.
. BEFORE I WAKE
“Before I Wake” stands as one of the best studio-made movies you’ve never seen. That’s because the studio was Relativity, whose botched near-releases numbers Mike Flanagan’s superb fantasy thriller among them, a tale of a boy’s ability to materialize dreams that stands tall in a genre of youthful chillers that includes the likes of “The Lady in White” and “Paperhouse.” But just because you have to get an all-region player to see it (certainly worth the purchase), that doesn’t mean the exceptional co-score by The Newton Brothers and Danny Elfman can’t escape Relativity’s vault of horror, courtesy of a limited edition from Varese Sarabande Records. Taking a lo-fi approach to high concepts, Flanagan is certainly the most impressive genre filmmaker on the rise with “Oculus’” killer mirror, stalking a deaf woman in “Hush” and providing a creepy retro beginning for “Ouija: Origin of Evil” – all films distinctively scored by the non-sibling team of The Newton Brothers (aka Taylor Newton Stewart and Andy Grush). Given his most ambitious picture at the time with a youth’s somnambulant conjurations of boogeymen and butterflies (hence “Wake’s” original title of “Somnia”), one can see how Danny Elfman was brought on board to add his own distinctive approach to the score. But as opposed to three voices creating a stylistically clashing morass of fear, Elfman and the Newtons seamlessly play off of each other to create an atmosphere that’s both uncanny and empathetic. Given an ersatz mutant boy who’s an object of terror through no fault of his own, “Before I Wake” uses a poignant theme for piano and strings, leaving no doubt for still-grieving foster parents to take him in, even if the eerie melody tells us their decision is unwise to say the least. It’s in these sections where Elfman’s music shines, leaving no doubt as to who’s behind the aching violin and boy’s chorus that’s embodied so many misunderstood monsters, his music beautifully soaring as it appears the kid has the magic to heal his new parents’ hearts. But if “Wake” eerily lulls you into thinking it’s going to be a nicely understated feel-fest, The Newtons arrive with a jolt to bring the nightmarish, surreal terror to the table as caffeine becomes a way better idea than sleeping pills. With the Newtons conveying jump-scares and uncanny atmospheres, The Newtons create a powerful sound for night terrors, in turn making “Before I Wake” powerfully work on two levels between wanting to hug an innocent child, and running away from him. With moving, emotional poetry and seat-jumping shocks, “Before I Wake” paints a gripping, meeting of the musical minds that conjures equal measures of abstract fear and lyrical redemption. Now if only we could properly see this movie, which would truly be a dream come true.
. BEVERLY HILLS COP 1 and 2
Few composers embodied the hip synth action attitude of 80’s Hollywood like Harold Faltermeyer. Riding the wave of such dance floor-to-score pioneers as Giorgio Moroder (“Midnight Express”), Faltermeyer evolved the disco-pop groove into peppy musical bullets for smart-ass heroes from “Top Gun’s” Maverick to “Fletch” and “Kuffs.” But when it came to bouncy sass, no character that Faltermeyer played has the decade-defining hipness of “Beverly Hills Cop’s” Axel Foley. His iconically bouncy theme was a perfect match for Eddie Murphy’s career-defining role, that of an authority-flaunting prankster, yet a guy who’s also packing utterly confidant coolness as he delivers one-liners alongside banana and bullets. Like a great song hook, Axel F.’s melody never wore itself out through any number of iterations, which is mostly the case for the first “Beverly Hills Copy” soundtrack. Alex’s theme drives a lion’s share of the score, as joined by cool, Calypso-esque, finger-snapping suspense motifs as Murphy takes the smug out of the upscale hood. It’s pretty much all play and no danger, a nearly always-lightweight approach to action that made “Cop” all the more agreeably fun. Even though Faltermeyer could have easily coasted on the sequel score given an unmistakable theme and sound, “Beverly Hills Cop II,” took an essentially new direction back to the glitzy hood, showing off a darker complexity alongside the Murphy funk. For if director Tony Scott’s take on the franchise was way more violent, and far less successful than Martin Brest’s, the way more stylized testosterone of “II” nonetheless gave Faltermeyer far more playing ground to work with. Vocal effects now join the snappy percussion as new themes mix it up with the cop’s lightweight takedowns with cool, sleekly sinister heist grooves for keyboard and mean electric guitar. Low rhythm even means the possibility of Axel actually getting shot. Having released a complete set of “Lethal Weapon” scores, La La Land Records does a similarly fine job with these electro-icons of 80’s action grooviness, including numerous alternates, and just as importantly for fans, the songs as well from Glenn Frey’s “The Heat is On” to The Pointer Sisters’ “Neutron Dance” and Bob Seger’s “Shakedown.” It’s great having Foley and Faltermeyer truly on the beat at last, music as inseparable as a fish out of water who schooled the snobs with rhythm.
. CEZANNE ET MOI
Cinematic portraits of raging European artists often involve tormented, impressionistic scores, a la Miklos Rozsa’s swirling orchestral colors for Vincent Van Gogh in “Lust for Life.” Yet even as Paul Cezanne swears a river at society (when not punching through canvases or defacing them with black paint), Eric Neveux takes an approach for the artist that’s positively soothing in the face of his anguish. A fine picture (opening Stateside on March 31) that details the tormented bromance between one of France’s great artist and Emile Zola, the country’s man of letters, “Cezanne et Moi” is awash in beautiful, poignant melody that takes a dramatically universal approach as opposed to one that’s Gallic. It’s all the better for two creative geniuses whose work has risen above nationality, even as a friendship begun in boyhood hits increasingly rocky, self-loathing paths through the decades that this movie traces. Neveux, a longtime composer whose work has ranged from the stark “Intimacy” to the gossamer magic of “Hideaways” comes up with a striking theme for lush strings and piano, love music for the often punishing bond between two geniuses that’s full of admiration and sadness In its often sweeping power, Neveux communicate the allure of the countryside that’s drawn artists since time immemorial, in this case one who paints it with a brilliantly eccentric eye. Also eschewing a period approach as Cezanne and Zola’s ties ebb and recede through the latter 1800’s and into the new century, Neveux’s traditional, yet contemporarily vibrant music gets across the kind of passion that drives the frenemies. Yet it also has the restraint that embodies one man who explodes with passion, while the other is emotionally constricted in spite of his explosive political writing. It’s gorgeous, haunting work that stands as one of the truly impressive musical etchings of the power of creativity, and the lyrically romantic bromance of a wayward bond between two geniuses whom you’d wish could just hug it out.
. THE FOUNDER
Carter Burwell has spent much of his career traveling the byways of America for a host of dreamers and losers in such eccentric scores as “Raising Arizona,” “Fargo” and “The Rookie” a highway of oddball rhythms and portentous strings and piano that’s sped down no more effectively than with his score for this Oscar movie that should have been, if not for the Weinstein Company switching its release dates around more confusingly than a garden salad on a McDonald’s menu. That fast food behemoth’s real birth by the avaricious idea man Ray Kroc is the subject of “The Founder,” a terrific American success story where greed is one tasty whopper. There’s a delicious homespun quality as this milk shake maker salesman ventures from one dead-end drive in to the next, a wistful flute and guitar creating a rustically woeful atmosphere with the potential of something big around the horizon. But there are ideas bubbling in the head of this entrepreneur upon encountering two hamburger makers happy to stay put where they are. Krock’s desire to think way out of the wrapper is heard with the ethnic rhythms of the Indonesian gamelan, joined by equally offbeat percussion, or sturdy, militaristic percussion that paint Kroc as the fast food General Patton, with a similar scorched earth attitude. Any number of fun montages take “The Founder” from one McDonald’s franchise to the next, with Burwell’s talent for wistful irony tipping us off to the sad, nearly ignominious string fate of two all-beef patty suckers at the rhythmic, winner-take-all hands of Kroc. There’s a wry, thrillingly bitter taste to “The Founder” from a composer who consistently defies the ordinary with a sound as distinctive as the taste of McDonald’s fries, though way more wonderfully tangy in his continued, oddball journey through the American dream. Further adding to “The Founder’s” fun is any number of diverse song pit stops from 60’s blues pop to kitsch, including stars Michael Keaton and Linda Cardellini doing a charming duet of “Pennies from Heaven,” as well as The Penguin Cafe Orchestra’s “Music for a Found Harmonium,” a signature, wacky instrumental tune that’s sure after Burwell’s own whimsical heart.
. THE LAST VALLEY
Both writer-director James Clavell and composer John Barry were students of epic, haunted history – one man a specialist in penning rugged, manly sagas like “King Rat,” “Shogun” and “Tai Pan,” and the other a musician who brought romantic sweep to such period scores as “Out of Africa” and “The Scarlet Letter.” Clavell and Barry fatefully met over the course of the Thirty Years War, cinematically speaking, with 1971’s “The Last Valley.” In this unsung, 17th-century spin on “Lost Horizon,” Michael Caine’s ruthless, German-accented merc clashes with Omar Shariff’s humanistic teacher, both having fled to a seemingly peaceful village in the midst of the mindless, religious warfare that’s burning the world around them. However, the seemingly quaint hamlet reveals itself as its own lethal hotbed of intolerance as soldiers and peasants uneasily mingle. Barry had fought with militaristic heroism with Caine in “Zulu,” then dealt with the affairs of ancient royalty in his Oscar-winning score for “The Lion in the Winter.” It’s to that soundtrack which “The Last Valley” owes its own heritage in the use imperious military timpani, voices that range from ghostly wordlessness to sing-song chants, and most importantly a bold, brass-driven orchestra conveying torrid emotion and life and death stakes. Blessed with a typically great Barry theme, the steel-swinging anger of the holy warriors is embodied in church gongs, male choral marches and Germanic and Latin song, music vaingloriously convinced of might making right, while bucolic lyricism for flute and strings is given to doomed romantic respite. There’s considerably more suspenseful action to “The Last Valley” than “Lion in the Winter,” with a rhythmic, time-ticking orchestra very much in the tradition of Barry’s Bond classics (he’d score “Diamonds Are Forever” the same year) that will make this equally exciting to 007 fans. Issued as a rare LP, then on CD as both a re-recording and original track presentation, “The Last Valley’s” latest emergence on Spain’s Quartet label is the last word on Barry’s powerhouse score given its spectacularly remastering from the original LP, bringing out all of the passion, and tragedy of this darkly poetic, and angry work on how no land can stay untarnished in the face of the intolerance waging war around it.
. A PALACE UPON THE RUINS
Certainly one of film’s most intellectually-minded composers, Howard Shore’s prolific work also includes any number of concert and opera pieces – much in the same way that previous musicians like Jerry Goldmsith and James Horner sought to write music utterly free of visual constrictions (let alone studio notes). Given that Shore has written no more rigorous scores than for David Cronenberg with the likes of “Naked Lunch” and “Dangerous Method,” those fans will likely appreciate the haunting expressions of “A Palace Upon the Ruins.” This compilation of Shore’s tonal works begins with the titular chamber piece, a meditation on loss, with Elizabeth Cotnoir’s lyrics of bereavement and healing given beautiful, German-sung expression by Jennifer Johnson Cano. The somber choir of St. Alban’s National Cathedral School make a poignant plea for “Peace,” their voices joined by a resounding organ- the group then given the elegiac melody of Shore’s interpretation of Robert Penn Warren’s poem “The Garden.” But the most Cronenbergian, and score-like of the selections within are Shore’s “6 Pieces,” with the darting, slicing pianos and strings conjure an uneasy, impressionistic tapestry, the movement’s sting power feeling like the onset of madness before Cotnoir’s lyrics once again try to sooth the unbalanced beast with pleading lyricism, and some sense of twisted peace. The album ends on the blissful piano notes of Lang Lang’s “Cantania,” a delicate melody written for a wedding of all things, “A Palace” gives much for the adventurous listener to ruminate on in terms of Shore’s “serious” music, a realm that can often be uninviting, but here made entrancing as the composer showing a powerfully stripped-down side to his expressionistic cycle outside of the rings one.
Rob (aka Robin Courdert) has mainly been heard in the states with unique works of mayhem, from the throwback Giallo electronica of “Maniac” to the full-blooded, if somehow tender demonic revenge of “Horns” (and one of these days as well for the perpetually unreleased, no doubt horrifying score of “Amityville: The Awakening”). Those film’s viewers entranced by Rob’s work will likely have the feeling there’s even more variety to him. Now thanks to a double CD from France’s Music Box label, American listeners can get an earful of a stunning, way more lushly melodic side of this ingenious composer than we’re used to, beginning with “Planetarium.” Natalie Portman and Lily-Rose Depp are two sisters with seeming talents to contact the dead, an illusionary act that catches the eye of a Nazi-era Jewish filmmaker in a movie that has yet to orbit theaters here. But given Rob’s beautifully evocative score, one can imagine much of their sensual, ghostly duet in troubled times given his use of rich, eerily romantic string melody that would have Bernard Herrmann swooning, or Philip Glass’ ears tantalized by hypnotic, repeating rhythms. Eerie voices rise as well in a score that brings to mind the score for the soundtrack for “Perfume” in all of the right ways, along with exotic, Arabic music, Spanish guitar and tender violins also sensuously evoke a sisterly bond beyond the material world. It’s rapturous, evocative “Planetarium” that will likely have spellbound listeners asking what realm of existence Rob has come from. Far more familiar to fans of “Maniac” is the second disc’s start with “Belle Epine” (released here as “Dear Prudence”), an earlier film from “Planetarium” director Rebecca Zlotowski with latter Bond girl Lea Seydoux as a teenager throwing herself head first into the wild life. Given a Goblin-rific use of electric organ, voices and synth beats, “Belle” is even more hardcore Giallo than “Maniac” often playing like the soundtrack of a great Dario Argento movie that never was. Cool keyboard melodies evoke the kind of haunted, young female innocence that usually met at the end of a killer’s blunt instrument back in the 70’s / 80’s synth score heyday that Rob captures par excellence. His Ziotowski triptych is rounded out with 2013’s “Grand Central,” wherein Seydoux’s character falls for a fellow nuclear plant worker to tragic results. Given the protagonist’s Arabic ethnicity, Rob uses an ethnic approach to powerful, stripped down effect, conveying the bleak lives that lead to very bad decisions. With solemn flutes, percussion and the eerie whistle of the glass armonica and haunted female voice, Rob finds the poetry, and uneasy, toxic atmosphere of an ill wind blowing for their relationship. But whether the scores are orchestrally sweeping, prog-rock or ethnically intimate, the approaches of Rob’s work for Ziotowski make for a singularly gripping double-CD that reveals Coudert cresting in a new wave of unique French composers, whose soundtracks I’m glad to have land on our shores.
. PLANET EARTH II
Spanning the globe from “Frozen Planet” to “Wild Arabia,” and “Yellowstone, England-based Silva Screen Records is seemingly the migration point of all BBC documentary scoring. Few are as formidable in scope as their newest release “Planet Earth II,” a sequel to the 2006 nature series whose camera gets even more in the face of all creatures great and small. Shows of this sort allow music to run wild, becoming tone poems for viewers who tune in to see shadows of themselves in the “human” behavior of bears, birds and big cats. And who better to launch “Earth” than a majestic main theme from “The Lion King’s” Hans Zimmer (who’d play it on Stephen Colbert’s show no less). But the lion’s share of the scoring belongs to Jacob Shea and Jasha Klebe for Bleeding Fingers Music. Fresh talent in the Zimmer music brain trust who’ve contributed to “The Dark Knight,” “Man of Steel” and “Inception,” the duo have their own, strong voice here in giving beasts the musical personalities of human beings. Komodo dragons rage with the percussive fury of Batman, ethereal voices accompany a singing indri and butcher birds and bee eaters a quirky rhythm that’s straight out of Italy. And in what might be the most nightmare-inducing segment ever on a nature documentary, the sight of swarms of razor snakes engulfing desperately running baby iguanas hammers with tribal drumming, hissing samples and terrifying, spine-chilling builds as lizards evade the coils of death, or not. Such is the size that Shea and Klebe give to the score that it could easily accompany a zebra evading a lion or Jason Bourne running through the streets of Tangier, as opposed to the Langurs of Jodhpur. Where other documentaries take a more traditional symphonic approach, Shea and Klebe’s blend of lush strings, ethnic instrumentation and often eerie atmospheres bring a contemporary vibrancy to this genre that propels the music from one continent to the next, impressively evoking a sense of wonder, excitement and emotional identification for beasts that could care a whit about the music transforming them into human beings
. REALITY CHECK
In an electrified universe where everything 80’s is new again, one of the most interesting composers to ride the retro wave previously surfed by Tangerine Dream and John Carpenter is Poland’s Wojciech Golczewski. Where he created distinctively chilling soundscapes with “Late Phases,” “We Are Still Here” and “Beyond the Gates,” his concept album “Reality Check” really takes off on his synth-ified sci-fi score to “400 Days.” But where his music for astronauts emerging from a mission into a terrifying new world had smooth, sampled edges, “Reality” adds a distinctively cool rudeness to that keyboard polish. Conceptual cues blend with prog-rock electric guitars, bell percussion on top of drum machine beats, while other pieces take on a more meditative progression. It’s a cool universe that cleverly warps about sounds that scream of old-school synth soundtracks into a dark, groovy salute that will no doubt please fans from the Tangerine Dream day, let alone viewers of “Stranger Things” seeking to expand their fannish listening horizons. “Reality Check” is an album that unleashes throwback imagination to a time when banks of computers were weird orchestras unto themselves.
. ROCK DOG
There’s been no prime mover at bringing world music kicking, screaming and laughing into mainstream comedy scoring like Englishman Rolfe Kent. Musically reinventing the genre with the wonderful likes of “Election’s” tango, “About Schmidt’s” mopey African rhythm and the catty tribal rage of “Mean Girls,” Kent’s soundtracks are a constant source of inventive delight, even as he’s continued to explore new dramatic sides of his inimitable sound with “Vampire Academy” and “Labor Day.” There’s no kind of movie to bring out a composer’s wild side like kid-friendly animation, especially one about a funny animal following the power of music. While it had the misfortune of following the similarly themed “Sing” at the box office, “Rock Dog” certainly didn’t lack for enthusiasm, especially in its underscore. Given that its bright-eyed and bushy-tailed hero hails from Tibet, Kent launches his wanna be a pop star’s journey in a Kung Fu Panda way with far East instrumentation and funky percussion, an Asian inflection that carries through the score with Kent’s trademarked use of such ancient wind instruments as the erhu and shakuhachi. As Bodi ventures to the big city and meets the pitfalls of music biz, Kent brings in a plethora of energetic styles from spy jazz to squelched chorus and Koto-esque drumming, all nicely held together by a richly melodic orchestra. Where “Sing’s” delightful score was all about pop, “Rock Dog” basically leaves that to the source cues, succeeding on its own sweetly dramatic journey. It’s full of peppy bits to be played by the Hammond organ and dulcimer, as nicely balanced by emotional moments for piano, strings and samples. Like its star, “Rock Dog” is continually engaging trip of musical discovery by a composer who just can’t wait to get one eccentric, ethnic instrument off of his wall and play the heck out of it. No musical mutt for sure, “Rock Dog” nicely joins the pack with Kent romping at the top of his delightfully oddball game.
. SILENT RUNNING
Sci-fi’s green revolution began with the lyrical strains of folk singer Joan Baez, and the impressive orchestral music of her sometime arranger Peter Schickele (better known under the name of his classical novelty act “P.D.Q. Bach”) with 1972’s “Silent Running.” “2001’s” effects whiz Douglas Trumbull also made his directorial debut as Bruce Dern’s eco warrior piloted away Earth’s last ecosystem from corporate destruction, abetted by the adorable droids Huey, Dewey and Louie. Given the all-consuming love of the environment, having Baez perform the theme song “Rejoice in the Sun,” and “Silent Running” gave major hippy street cred to this quite moving space opera, her lilting voice carrying potent, rhythmic imagery of children running through the grass, earth between their toes to reap a cosmic harvest, especially when these tunes’ potent moral message is given gossamer orchestrations for the guitar and piano. The bigger musical heavy lifting of “Running’s” gigantic crafts are well done by Schickele, who incorporates militarist pomp and circumstance with more unusual, rock-folk instrumentations for flute and percussion as Dern’s character is moved to violent revolution when his bosses order the gardens destroyed. But it’s a beautifully tender, meditative score for crotale cymbal, organ and electric guitar vibe, as graced with lush strings and Medieval rhythm, that’s “Silent’s” most effective thematic voice. Schickele’s music conveys a man truly alone in the universe, an unlikely messiah for the forests communing with holy nature in the company of cute robots. As graceful a sci-fi metaphor score as there ever was one, listening to the beauty of “Silent Running” makes it even more impactful knowing that this would be Schickele’s only true film score to date, one that remains as uniquely resonant as ever at turning the often dark sounds of space music into a vibrant tree-hugging message score worthy of Woodstock. Jeff Bond, himself an insane collector of model spacecraft (even winning an award for his own Valley Forge), does a very nice job of detailing this very 70’s soundtrack in his liner notes, which features down to earth quotes by Schickele about conjuring his folksy, sci-fi magic.
. A SUMMER STORY
Few composers wore emotion on their vest like Georges Delerue, but then again maybe that’s a French thing, especially given his country’s wealth of musical masters. His venture to the English countryside with 1988’s “A Summer Story” stands as one of his most heartbreakingly lovely works in a long line of tearjerkers that’s included the handkerchief-grabbing likes of “Steel Magnolias,” “Beaches” and “Jules and Jim.” The tragic events here are very much class conscious, as a handsome posh is attracted to the local farm girl, with results inevitable for any fan of “Far from the Madding Crowd” and “Howard’s End.” A sort of cousin to the Phillipe Sarde-scored “Tess” in its tale of a servant girl whose trust leads her terribly astray, “A Summer Story” gave Delerue lush fields of poignant romance to till. With its a lovely main theme, the composer rolls up his sleeves with boundless melody at his disposal. As this “Story” begins with the bliss of first love, Delerue starts off with similarly poignant optimism using the flute with utmost delicacy as his orchestrations that convey the ebb and flow of the verdant countryside. Yet there’s the danger of the social mores that will break the couple apart in the air, the score becoming ever more beautifully sad, if sometimes dangerous, with the violin heard at its most anguished. Few of Delerue’s scores sing with the weeping poetry of “A Summer Story,” whose new release from Music Box adds fifteen minutes to a gorgeous presentation that stands as an ode to the kind of classically inspired, gorgeous anguish that was Delerue’s stock in trade as he heard the universal musical laments of lovers torn asunder, a siren cry especially well examined in Gergely Hubai’s liner notes.
. THE THIEF OF BAGHDAD
Where Austrian émigré Max Steiner made an indelible, score-setting imprint with his fantastical adventure for 1933’s “King Kong,” it was Hungary’s Miklos Rozsa who’d set a gorgeously romantic tone for many lost cinematic worlds to follow – among them “The Jungle Book,” “The Golden Voyage of Sinbad” and “Time After Time.” But the genie in the bottle for his rapturous sound was 1940’s “The Thief of Baghdad,” producer Alexander Korda’s remake of the Douglas Fairbanks 1924 Arabian adventure, complete with flying carpet. And if black and white had become glorious Technicolor, then silence turned into the exotically swirling orchestra under Rozsa’s command. Like Steiner, Rozsa was a classical wunderkind back in the old country, now having fled its darkness to establish the operatic language of Hollywood scoring. Given the tongue of a Middle Eastern Neverland, Rozsa wove Arabic rhythms into a sumptuously melodic orchestral score. But whether given the pounding film noir of “Double Indemnity” or the holy crusade of “El Cid,” Rozsa’s suspense and action stylings had a mad, whirling dervish quality to them, an escalating, swashbuckling fury that “Baghdad” really put on the map with cliffhanging joy. Conversely “Baghdad” has a simpler, innocent quality to it to orchestrations that would sometimes border on the frenetic. It’s a little thief’s wide-eyed view of an opulent, danger-filled kingdom that he’s thrust into along with a lovestruck prince that makes this score so effortlessly charming during its formidable length, a joy of discovering the next giant jewel, evading an enormous, skittering spider, the clockwork sounds of the bad guy’s villainous inventions, or rubbing a lamp that sweeps over “Baghdad.” Also bringing sparkle to his epic score is its fun song interludes, with a chorus joining with a heroic symphony. Where Rozsa would later have the honor of creating the first real soundtrack album for Korda’s “The Jungle Book,” the iconic “Thief of Baghdad” has begged for decades for a sonic lamp polishing. And leave it to album producer James Fitzpatrick and The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra & Chorus under conductor Nic Raine that really let “Baghdad” out of its sonic bottle. Having done yeoman work on such Rozsa re-performances as “Quo Vadis” and “The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes,” their beautifully performed “Baghdad” is a real jewel in the crown for these collaborators, given fine liner notes by Frank K. De Wald that help bring this classic score to new, radiantly fun life.
. TINA GUO: GAME ON!
One of the most alluringly fierce players to ever pick up a cello, Tina Guo has graced such film scores as “Inception,” “Iron Man 2” and “Sherlock Holmes.” Her distinctive sound as much of a character as the underscore itself, perhaps no more than in her bold signature that embodied Wonder Woman for “Batman Versus Superman” and her own upcoming film. Just as busy touring with the likes of Hans Zimmer as she is performing at scoring stages, Guo’s beyond passionate cello voice is spotlighted for her nifty concept album “Game On!” Those lucky enough to have seen Tommy Tallarico’s dearly missed Videogames Live! concerts in LA from a while back will get an idea of the thunderous collaboration between solo artist and a full orchestra and choir both exploding with colorful rapture as game footage flashes behind them. Guo’s evocatively explosive playing of themes from “The Legend of Zelda,” “World of Warcraft,” “Metal Gear Solid” and “Halo” make these hugely popular melodies her own. But as opposed to hitting everything at a thunderous, warrior woman peak she’s well capable of, Guo nicely balances her approaches for these cleverly arranged suites. “Final Fantasy VII” starts off with positively angelic stings, harp and sweeping cello, only to turn into a head banging electric guitar prog rock jam. “Skyrim” begins with Orc-like chanting as Guo gets quietly medieval, only to rise with battle-ready power. A native of China, Guo’s beautiful erhu playing gives powerful oriental emotion to Nate’s theme from “Uncharted,” while a suite from “Journey” is especially haunting. And if everything seems a bit serious, there’s a playful bit from Super Mario Brothers to show Guo is equally capable of mushroom-jumping levity. Showing just how well the cello has evolved from its classical origins to becoming the battle cry of the PS4 generation, Guo’s “Game On!” is a thoroughly fun listen, a fusion of rock concert and score tribute that lets her cello evocatively sing with passion in the midst of epic, controller-pressing accompaniment.
. TREASURE OF THE YANKEE ZEPHYR
Aussies seem to have a natural swagger that comes with hardy, very reluctant emigrants thrust into the wilds down under – no more so than when it comes to their boisterous, often brassy film music. The first composer from the continent to make a big splash was Brian May, with his dark, rip-roaring music for the first two adventures of Mad Max (as well as a series of genre scores for “The Day After Halloween,” “Patrick” and “Harlequin” that can be heard on Dragon’s Domain’s release of his “Fantasy Film Collection”) Yet just as big a chase the same year as May put orchestral pedal to “The Road Warrior’s metal was 1981’s way more light-hearted music for “Treasure of the Yankee Zephyr.” A hunt for gold directed by “Deep Red” English-actor-turned filmmaker David Hemmings, and not managing to star one Australian in a leading part (which is why the movie ended being shot in New Zealand), the delightful score is likely the closest thing that May got to doing a live-action cartoon (not that Max wasn’t). Given way over-the-top characters battling for bullion and booze, May unapologetically engages in Carl Stalling-esque pratfalls and villainous lurching about. Over-the-top, Teutonic militaristic villainy effortlessly segueing to madcap classic music rhythms. But then as Ernest Gold proved with “It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World,” nothing brings out treasure hunting fever like blazing waltz rhythms, though May’s trumpeting, adrenalin-fueled orchestrations, every bit as intense (if a bit lighter) than Max Rocketansky’s. Just call it his Bugs Bunny score, as done with the exuberant energy that he used to propel an apocalyptic V8 interceptor to glory, here with a wonderfully berserk classic swing in the fuel line.
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ON THE SCORE is sponsored by La-La Land Records
If any animated-centric studio could claim its soundtracks as eternal, then it would be Walt Disney Pictures, whose many fairy tale-based classics owed as much to their wondrous scores and songs as their animation. Yet for all of their memorable tune-filled pictures like “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves,” “Cinderella” and “The Jungle Book,” the studio’s animation department was nearly underwater in 1989. But then, two energetically melodic hands belonging to Alan Menken and Howard Ashman rescued an adrift studio with one of the most memorable endearing cartoons in memory with “The Little Mermaid.”
Versed in the off-Broadway man-eating plant hit “Little Shop of Horrors,” the duo pulled Disney into a whole new world of critical and financial success. Indeed, a generation of fans knows the Disney songbook by verse as created by Menken and Ashman, whose winning duet of lushly romantic, adventurous instrumentals and beyond-catchy tunes won repeated Oscars – a joyful spirit that Menken continued after Ashman’s after “Aladdin” with “Hercules,” “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” “Pocahontas,” “Tangled” and “Enchanted,” further showing his own live action chops with “Noel,” “The Shaggy Dog” and the decidedly R-rated title toon of “Sausage Party.”
Yet the undeniable jewel in Menken and Ashman’s crown remains 1991’s “Beauty and the Beast.” Their charmingly revisionist take on the classic French fairy tale dared see Belle as the bookworm heroine, whose courage and romance never wilted in the face of a bellowing prince charming in the furry rough. Blessed with earworm songs and a gloriously romantic underscore, “Beauty” not only won Oscars for score and song (the second of the eight underscore awards that Menken would receive with Disney), but also became the first animated film in history to receive a Best Picture nomination.
The “Beast’s” popularity was enough to transform him into a long-running Broadway show (a Disney hat trick that the NYC-born Menken also saw with the Great White Way adaptation of “Sister Act” and “Newsies”). Now given the hit live action versions of “Cinderella” and “The Jungle Book,” it’s a given that “Beast” has morphed again into a flesh and blood film, albeit with a kitchen’s worth of CGI. But rather than rest on his original score’s laurels, Menken’s new “Beauty and the Beast” does it one better, adding lush, spellbinding attraction, emotional depth and rousing adventure into a familiar mix of instantly recognizable song riffs. It’s a lavish new affair between an unlikely couple that stands as a work both familiarly profound and energetically revitalized, continuing Menken’s classic collaboration with Ashman onto new, singular heights.
Now on a new episode of “On the Score,” Alan Menken talks about putting a new bloom on a tale as old as time, told for the first in live, musical action for Disney
Click above to Listen Now or Click Here to DownloadBuy the Soundtrack: BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (Live Action) Buy the Soundtrack: BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (Animated) Buy the Soundtrack: BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (Broadway) Go see A BRONX TALE: THE MUSICAL on Broadway Visit Alan Menken’s website
Of all of the instruments given to an orchestra, few evoke poignancy like the cello. When given to the hands of a master, it becomes a weapon of devastating power – both on its own and as part of the Middle Eastern-tuned ensemble that conveys the “Cries from Syria.” Wielding both strings and score is Swiss-born musician Martin Tillman, whose talents as soloist and composer bring explosive, sad light to a world-shattering conflict, and refugee crisis created by Syria’s unending Civil War.
Their tears are chronicled by Russian documentarian Evgeny Afineevsky who’d previously revealed the brutal, valiant battle for Ukrainian freedom with “Winter on Fire.” But where that film ended on a note of tenuous hope, “Cries from Syria” has no such optimism as it details the seemingly insurmountable fight for freedom of a people against a brutal dictator. With nothing spared to the audience to show them the truth about a situation that’s killed thousands and displaced millions, it’s all the more important for Tillman’s score to draw viewers to the hope of its victims, as well as their horror.
Mixing the lethally cold music of torture and wanton murder, Tillman nevertheless hears the optimism of their spirit in the human voice and an ancient, aching Middle Eastern ensemble. Filled with melodic irony, Tillman gives “Syria’s” score a powerful, unforgettable truth that will perhaps move listeners to shock, and tears as they wrap their minds around an unfathomable situation that’s often being met with a cold-hearted response the world over.
Martin Tillman has long been able to create his own well of emotions with his distinctly evocative use of the cello, his virtuoso contributions heard to suspenseful, eerie effect in such scores as “The Pledge,” “Hannibal,” “Phone Booth” and “Constantine.” It became the sinisterly humorous voice of undead brigands in numerous “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies, became an aging cad for “Something’s Gotta Give” and the dark heart of Hans Zimmer’s superhero-scoring changing “Batman Begin.” It was his frequent contributions to the work of Zimmer and his compatriots that have yielded some of Tillman’s most frighteningly unique work, no more so than with the electrified sound of a girl’s vengeful ghost in “The Ring” and its sequels, the second of which Tillman co-scored.
Continuing to play with any number of stadium acts while adding his instrumental voice to the likes of “Man of Steel,” “Rush” and “The Martian,” Tillman’s own scoring star is on the rise with his work (along with percussionist Satnam Ramgotra) for the doomed, moody heroism of “Last Knights,” as well as documenting the repressive cultural killing of women with “In the Name of Honor.” Yet even as Tillman scores his most powerfully bleak project yet for “Cries from Syria,” the soft spoken composer has found a soaring, rocking sense of optimism with his acclaimed concept album “Superhuman,” embodying the stylistic voice that tells us to rise for the stars above one’s own situation – a dream he desperately hopes for when it comes to an intractable crisis for the millions of innocent people inhabiting Syria, or desperately hoping for a safe haven from it.
What inspired you to pick up the cello above all other instruments? And how did you make its sound your own?
I was surrounded by cellos as a kid. My parents had a boarding school. During the summer they opened our house to 30 kids and teachers and organized music camps. I loved the deep human sound of the instrument, and it became my dream to be a rock guitarist. However, I had no talent on the guitar whatsoever! I then decided to study the cello professionally and perform with it in orchestras. But did not like it as much. That changed a few years later when I basically electrified my cello and started to emulate the guitar with it. In the very first view years of doing that, I played along to Peter Gabriel’s soundtrack for “Passion,” along with albums by Toto, Supertramp and many more…all alone in my basement.
What interested you about film soundtracks, and was a move to Hollywood always in the cards?
I was far more into rock and roll than movie soundtracks. But I enjoyed scores like “White Nights,” and the scores to Fellini films. My favorite score was Morricone’s “Cinema Paradiso.” What really what made me interested in going to Hollywood was when my cello teacher, Lynn Harrell, accepted me here at USC. He’s a fantastic artist and teacher. Also, most of the recordings I listened to in the 80s all came out of LA. So I had a vision that one day I would meet all of the musicians and writers I admired, and I did! I met Sting, Elton John, BB King, Shaka Khan, T-Bone Burnett Alison Krauss. I also met many great session Players like Michael Landau, Vinny Colajuta, Steve Lukather and Leland Sklar.
How did you come to Hans Zimmer’s attention? And what do you think he particularly liked about the sound of the cello in relation to his scores?
I think he heard me on some TV shows. I was working a lot at that time with Jeff Rona, which connected me to him. Hans couldn’t figure out what I was doing in the beginning, nor did I. But eventually we came up with a plan how to use the electric cello in his scores. It blends really well in the hybrid world of the modern soundtrack. I was literally one of the first on the Hollywood score scene with the cello. Hans called it “the secret weapon,” because you never could see its sound coming. Sometimes the cello would be percussive. Sometimes it sounded like an Armenian instrument called the Duduk. Then it could sound like The Edge’s guitar in U2. Fun, literally unlimited voices can come from the cello, even wind and whale sounds.
Tell us about your first experiences playing on scores as an instrumentalist? How much of your own personality could you bring to your role as part of an orchestra?
In the very beginning I was a session player in Hollywood orchestras, but I felt a little bit that I wasn’t really meant for that. I needed artistic freedom. So I eventually ended up playing more and more solos for various composers, adding my own spin to their scores, whether they were classically influenced or more modern. Eventually I borrowed from the technique of the fabulous session players I’d worked with about how to be in the moment and come up with unique ideas within the framework of a score.
How did you go from player to composer on such scores as “An Everlasting Piece,” “The Pledge” and “Pearl Harbor?”
It was just a natural progression for me. I always composed, even as a player, but more for my own CDs. I eventually worked as a co- writer, and now doing my own scores. But deep down I’m still that “rocknroller.” It’s a lot of years of me having worked with Hans Zimmer, Harry Gregson-Williams, Mark Isham, Steve Porcaro, Jeff Rona and many more. They provided me with the tools and inspiration.
Your real breakthrough as a cellist and composer was on “The Ring” and its sequel, where you received a full co-composer credit. What do you think it was about the electric cello that made it so suited for horror scoring, especially this story?
Hans and I came up with some unplayable parts for both the electric and acoustic cello, which we then sampled. There was the “human” sound, and then the electric. It became the dark distortion of horror and suspense.
What was the challenge of becoming a solo composer, especially when it came to orchestrating what instruments you wanted to favor?
Since I am not a “proper” composer, I started in the early days with riffs and little melodies on the cello. But piano is still, and always will be my instrument of choice to write on. I do love small simple scores, where I normally do my own acoustic cello parts. Then Christine Wu adds her one-woman orchestra, which sounds tremendous! I keep experimenting with new sounds all the time.
You teamed with fellow Hans’ percussionist Satnam Ramgotra on “Last Knights.” What was that meeting of the “session player-turned composer” minds like, especially given your different specialties?
It was perfect. We are great friends and love to improvise, which you can hear a lot throughout the score, where I concentrated on doing the love scenes and the action bits.
You recently created the concept album “Superhuman,” which you could say plays as a diverse “soundtrack” of its own. Tell me about what inspired the album, and what you hope to accomplish from it.
My wife’s horrible MS inspired me to come up with a project which is inspiring to me, her and hopefully the listener. The dream is to tour the world with it. Having a blast is my goal!
How did the experience of scoring such documentaries as “Brave Miss World” and “In the Name of Honor” teach you about the different approach the genre has from fiction. Or is the dramatic goal the same?
I am a big fan of great documentaries because of their subjects and storylines. They always open your eyes to new stories that are real and need desperate attention. Sometimes documentaries have a dynamic that is similar to fiction, though I suppose the feel of the music is less melodramatic and action-oriented. I tremendously enjoy composing music for them.
What were your thoughts about the situation in Syria before “Cries” came your way?
I did not know much, just what I saw on the news. This film obviously changed my life by getting to know some of the people who are a part of the story, like Kholoud Waleed, who is so amazing as she talks about the civil war.
How do you think playing cello on such scores as “Black Hawk Down” helped set you up for “Cries From Syria?” And how would you describe how film music plays the war-torn Middle East?
I was in a Persian band here in LA called Axiom of Choice, so I already had my appreciation for Middle Eastern music On my first Album “Eastern Twin,” I used some of its influences with the player Tom Vedvik. Playing on “Black Hawk Down” was my first approach of making new groves with the electric cello. It was a very “open-minded” world music score that had bits of Middle Eastern and African approaches in it. I suppose that played a part in Kathy Nelson introducing me to Evegeny Afineevsky for this film.
Could you talk about your collaboration with Evgeny? What do you think drew him to your music, and what did he want the score to achieve here?
I think he really got the sound of my cello in a cerebral way. The film is about a human tragedy of crazy proportions and it was important to give it a human, hopeful element despite all the horror. I came up with themes and started placing them. Also my conversations with the editor Aaron I. Butler during the writing process were very fruitful. As I only had 9 days to do the score of 1 hour 37 minute film, it just happened so quickly that I only remember the hours left to meet the final deadline!
Tell us about the instruments used in the score, and the players.
I had Mamak Khadem for voice, Satnam Ramgotra on percussion, Christine Wu for the string orchestra and additional music, orchestration and electronics by Joerg Huettner and by William V Malpede. I played on the keyboards and various acoustic and electronic cellos. We also recorded with Alaa in Berlin via Skype. He performs beautiful instrumental versions on an Arabic instrument called the Oud, and sang in the street demonstrations by the Freedom Fighters
How did you want to use the female voice?
We used it as an expression of humanity, and the represent the Syrian motherland. The voice is The Mother, the comforter of all, especially the children.
What things about the documentary particularly moved or shocked you, and how do you think that translated to your score?
The loneliness of the children as they experience on horrific moment after another, with absolutely no future in sight. I tried to give them a comforting sound of hope
When you work on a documentary like this, does it have a psychological effect on you?
Yes. Immense sadness.
Did you distort instruments, or samples to create a sustaining sense of unease?
I distorted many of them. I sampled my own cellos and had Joerg Huettner create amazing sounds with it. He layered 60 of them to create a “wall” of cellos, which we used in scenes where the Russians attack with chemical weapons.
Given how brutally powerful the documentary is. How did you want to balance subtlety with the bigger emotional moments?
I just went with my intuition, always letting the story come first. I’d also counterbalance the terror with hopeful themes.
Another impactful musical sequence is where the documentary shows the “white hats” saving people from rubble, a squad of rescuers who’d win Best Documentary short this year. How did you want to score them?
They provide “Cries from Syria” with one of the most optimistic moments of the film, which I hoped my music helped.
Could you talk about scoring the ending of the film, which is essentially a plea to stop the war? How can you imagine it being stopped though?
I hope and I hope. But it does not look good at the moment.
When it seems that many Americans could care less about what the people in Syria are going through, how do you hope your music will make viewers empathize with them?
I pray the music helps them to hear it even more as an international problem, to make the civil war and the refugee crisis not only about Syria, but about what’s happening all over the globe, which made me score “Cries from Syria” as contemporarily as possible.
Tell us about your forthcoming scoring and film session work.
I am preparing Superhuman Shows in Europe. I’m glad to now be doing a fun project with a rock band, an orchestra and a lightshow. And there is always a next movie popping up from nowhere! After “Cries from Syria,” I know that I can handle any nine-day deadline!
Visit Martin Tillman’s website HERE
A sinister, hypnotic score with a racially satirical difference, “Get Out” creeps up on you with a lulling power until whipping forth the musical equivalent of deer antlers. It’s a soundtrack full of the kind of lethally cunning assurance that can only come from a composer schooled in suspense. But like this film that reveals comedian Jordan Peele as a master of metaphoric horror, listeners will be shocked to discover that this is actually the movie composing debut of Michael Abels, a composer whose background lies in a not-so lily white world of concert and performance work.
Growing up on a farm in South Dakota, Abel took up the piano at the age of four, a musical exploration that grew to include jazz, gospel and African drumming. His cultural influences would be reflected in work that encompassed the life of Martin Luther King, fall of The Berlin Wall and global warming. With his orchestral skills growing through commissions by the Richmond Symphony, The National Symphony and the Los Angeles Opera, Abels composed music for children’s fables narrated by the likes of James Earl Jones and Garrison Keillor, wrote a hip-hop ode to The Watts Tower and explored the operatic tunes of Giuseppe Verdi.
Abels’ impressively prolific body of work outside of the movie screen only makes for the kind of seemingly come-from-nowhere debut that dazzles with a wealth of ideas. Yet perhaps you might expect Jerry Goldsmith to actually be under his skin, as Abel’s superb, subtle use of deceptively bucolic strings, delicate harp, old scratch fiddle and demonic chanting bring to ear such classic scores from the seemingly dead maestro as “The Other” and “Poltergeist,” let alone “The Omen.” Abels is indeed to the old school manor born, beginning “Get Out” with a catchy, skin-crawling version of the 1930’s song “Run Rabbit,” brilliantly re-configured to sound like some doom-laden spiritual. The banjo-like Kora, an ancient, African instrument, along with gasping voices, tell us that the movie’s happy liberal home is in fact a southern plantation of the damned. Sucking our seemingly placid hero into mind slavery is the sound of percussive bowls, becoming the ersatz metronome of a stirring teaspoon. Even an emulated orchestra, usually the bane of horror scoring, is used to terrific, effect as it slowly reveals a silent garden party to be a human auction in the score’s most striking moment.
But when the chorus practically sings “Amen!” it’s time for Abel to really claw out of his lulling melody and deliver the kind of stabbing terror right in line with a climactic body count, though with the big difference here being a black hero that doesn’t make the stupid, dooming mistakes of his genre forbearers. There’s a thrilling sense of discovery from Abel’s subtle, slow burn score that helps Peele wield his darkly satirical edge, showing a composer who can play The Man’s horror scoring expectations while at the same time subverting them into something even scarier. “Get Out” is a breakout score for Abels in more ways than one.
Tell us about your musical beginnings, and what styles interested you. Was the influence of film music ever part of that equation?
Yes, from the beginning. The first film I remember seeing was “The Sound Of Music.” I think I must have been 3 years old. Rogers & Hammerstein’s Do Re Mi influenced me profoundly. “One word for every note, by mixing it up, like this!” The perfect and essential music composition lesson.
Tell us about how you explored various cultures, and historical figures and events through your musical education?
Like every passionate music student, I explored them as I discovered them. Tchaikovsky, Ravel, Duke Ellington, Stevie Wonder. After college I made an effort to study West African music for a semester. There was more separation between classical, popular and world music in the way it was taught back then, but I tend to be fascinated by any music that is well written and performed.
What were your first experiences with a symphony orchestra like?
Great. I actually got to hear the first piece I ever wrote performed. Little did I know how lucky I was! There is nothing like the sound of so many great musicians playing together, it’s just magical and always will be.
If you’d watched horror films before “Get Out,” did anything strike you about the fate that usually met black characters in them?
Come on. Everyone knows the black guy gets it in the first reel. If not, everyone’s got a stopwatch on him to see just how long he lasts. Obviously that’s one of many stereotypes this film sets out to turn on its head with humorous and terrifying results.
Were you familiar with Jordan’s sketch comedy show with Keegan-Michael Key?
Yes, ever since “Obama’s Anger” went viral. But I hadn’t seen a full episode until I was scheduled to meet Jordan. Then of course I watched some so I wouldn’t seem like a complete idiot. But I didn’t watch too much, I didn’t feeling intimidated would help.
Given that you had no movie credits, what drew Jordan Peele to you for “Get Out?” And do you think your mutual bond was being in uncharted territory, as he’d never directed a film before?
Jordan was looking for someone who had the harmonic language for horror who could also bring an African-American perspective. Yeah, there was some first-timer bonding because of that. But a director’s job is much different than the composer’s, and deals with so many other competing considerations. So I was focused on delivering a score he could be proud of, one that honored all the hard work he’d put in on this film.
Do you think your own background in orchestral, black-themed performance and orchestral pieces make the transition easier? Or do you think the freshest film scores are done by people who are unexpectedly thrust into that world?
I had some experience scoring to picture doing commercials and short TV projects right out of college. So I wasn’t in entirely uncharted waters. The difference is that Jordan chose me because he liked the music I had written purely for the joy of it, and had decided that was the voice he wanted for the project. If the score is fresh, it’s because that’s what he wanted and allowed me to do.
What were your biggest challenges adapting from free-form music to composing that has to play with picture?
The deadline. Every project has one, but the film post-production schedule is particularly demanding. The compositional challenges are not as daunting because the assignment is so specific that the creative choices you need to make seem clear. At least that’s how it was for me.
Did you immerse yourself in horror films, and scores to bone up on the genre’s music?
No but I did listen to particular pieces that Jordan said he found scary.
Could you talk about your creative collaboration with Jordan?
Essentially, he told me what types of music and which scores he found particularly scary, and why. There was a temp track for the rough cut, and so I asked him “what emotions does this music evoke that made you choose it?” and took careful notes. He is excellent at communicating about that, so I had very clear direction. But he also enjoys collaborating, so I felt free to try things and experiment.
Both you and Jordan come from multi-cultural parents. Do you think that gave you an added bond, especially given the theme of mixed couples in “Get Out?”
Believe it or not, we’ve never talked about that. Maybe because it was obvious? We have similar backgrounds, as we’re both in interracial relationships. None of our in-laws are trying to kill us. Or are they?
“Get Out” has a very calculated, slow burn to its pay off. How did you want to keep the kind of self-doubting suspense up, while gradually unraveling this family’s secrets?
The script is so brilliantly paced, all I needed to do was provide the correct emotional temperature in any given moment. I did some subtle things to reinforce that, i.e. I held off using any brass or low percussion instruments until midway through the film. But mostly it was “score the moment, score the film.”
Just in the way that “Get Out” handles its racial satire, your score handles its African elements in a subtle way. How ethnic did you want to make the score with its banjo-like strings, or was it important to “bury” those elements, much like the black characters themselves who are consumed within their own bodies?
A great question, but extremely hard to answer. The main title, “Sikiliza Kwa Wahenga” — that’s clearly meant to sound exotic and African in the way that we Americans imagine it. In the body of the film, it was important to make the score straddle genres as successfully as the script does. So I was trying to make it feel Hitchcock-ian, but with added rhythmic elements to bring a contemporary, African-American influence. “Sikiliza Kwa Wahenga” emerges in the score in a couple scenes, but without the vocals.
“Get Out” starts with the incredible creepy use of the 1930’s song “Run Rabbit.” Who had the idea of using it, and how did you so effectively distort it?
My guess is that it was the choice of Chris Moliere, the music supervisor. Jordan loved the implication that the song could be referring to black people in its lyrics “Run, Rabbit, Run!” even though I’m told it was actually written to demean German soldiers in World War II. Regardless, it’s a perfect choice for the abduction scene. I can take no credit.
How did you want to create the sound of hypnosis, especially given its particular form here?
That was the first scene I scored because I knew if I could get Jordan’s approval it would give me some themes I could use throughout. The scene is mesmerizing, it actually hypnotizes the audience along with the main character. The music had to match, had to draw the audience into a hypnotic pattern without them noticing. So that’s exactly how I approached it. There is a harp phrase that evolves into a pattern gradually.
You have a striking use of voices here that not only suggest the cult’s victims trying to claw their way out of the black pit they’ve been thrown into, but also the suggestion of the oppressed ghosts of the past. Could you tell us about that choral approach?
The black voices represent the souls of black slaves or lynching victims. They are trying to warn Chris, the protagonist, just like his friend Rod the TSA Agent does. Ghosts speak in dreams and metaphors, so the voices sing and whisper in Swahili, which forces us English-speakers to hear the foreboding in their voices, rather than the actual words. They are saying, “Brother, run! Listen to the elders. Listen to the truth. Run away! Save yourself.”
One of the most effective scenes is the ersatz “slave auction.” How did you want to handle the moment where we finally realize there’s a conspiracy afoot?
That moment is scoring with the same four descending chords we first hear when Chris sinks into “the sunken place.” It’s laced with the tense, rhythmic pattern first heard when Chris comes upon the deer in the woods. There’s another repeating melody of depressing finality that happens over the shots of each of the family members’ faces.
How did you want to play the unusually cheerful villains, as well as to create a bucolic sense of upstate suburbia?
I found the cheerful garden party guests to be quite funny, and wrote a baroque concerto in the style of Vivaldi for that scene. It was the type of music those characters would party at a garden party. Jordan hated it, saying, “It’s Chris’s story. The audience has to see the situation through his eyes.” Chris was feeling uncomfortable and on display. He was right of course, so I went back and wrote some unsettling, creepy, on-display music. The only comedy is in the dialogue, and in the embarrassment we feel watching the awkwardness of the situation.
There’s some particularly delightful sinister music as we get to see their training films. How did you want to handle these sunny, evil explanations of their technique?
There is one piece of comedic music. It’s the underscore for the orientation video that is played for Chris. Jordan said he wanted that music to sound “like an erectile dysfunction commercial.” (Point of fact, whoever scores those commercials is actually pretty skilled.) His meaning was, “Give me your most horrible saccharine happy music ever.” It’s so terrible I actually hesitated to put it on the soundtrack! But if you’re listening closely, the melody is the hypnosis theme that is heard in very creepy moments in the film, played on a cheesy jazz guitar sample over the most obvious banal chord changes. But that’s the only comedic music in the soundtrack. All the true comedy scenes are dry because they represent reality, and a break from the tension. The score is used to help create the sense of isolation and hopelessness that surrounds Chris as he gets deeper into his predicament.
How much of a horror score did you want to make “Get Out,” especially given that a genre film has to pay itself off by releasing the bloody tension it’s built up? And what was it like going for those musical shocks?
Jordan’s first direction to me was that, above all, the music had to be “seriously scary.” The film had to work as a legit psychological thriller, aside from any comedic or satirical aspects. So where the story was scary, the music had to deliver the shock. Creating the music that makes an audience jump is fun! It’s like lying in wait for your little sister to come around the corner.
Why do you think “Get Out” has become such a hit with both audiences and critics? And what do you think it says about the future of black-themed thrillers?
I think it’s a hit because it’s just so interesting to watch. The characters are interesting, they say believable things, the actors are each masterful in their portrayals, you care about what happens to the protagonist. It works as a thriller, as a comedy, as a satire. And if you don’t like the film, you want to talk to your friends for an hour about what you didn’t like about it! It’s a great entertainment, even if it rubs you the wrong way.
Many black composers peers can get pigeonholed into doing “black” scores, what’s your key to continuing onward as a composer suited to all stylistic colors. Or do you want to continue exploring scores with those ethnic elements?
I’m interested in doing any good creative project, regardless of what sonic colors the story calls for. I’m choosing projects based on whether they are well written and musically interesting. Projects that meet those definitions will likely include diversity. But it’s not a prerequisite.
If you could imagine a sequel to “Get Out,” what would the story be, and how would you like to develop your sound for it?
In my opinion, a composer shouldn’t develop a sonic palette before listening carefully to what the director is hearing in his/her mind. It’s their film, their vision. Composers are there to bring the music the director is hearing in his/her mind into reality. So regardless of the story, I’d begin by asking the director, “What are you hearing when you listen to this film? What emotions does the score bring up for you? What messages do you want the music to convey to the audience?” There’s your sonic palette right there.
Designed for early-career media composers, orchestrators, composer assistants, interns, recent graduates, and all interested.
CULTIVATING a CAREER & ARTIST GROWTH for media composers
Saturday, MARCH 4, 2-6 PM
ORCHESTRATION and MIDI TRANSCRIPTION
Saturday, March 11, 2-5 PM
The classes will take place in Los Angeles but will also be videotaped and released online in late March. Info below.
CULTIVATING a CAREER & ARTIST GROWTH for media composers
Saturday, MARCH 4, 2-6 PM,
at the Courtyard-Marriott (Brentwood Conference Room),
15433 Ventura Blvd (at Hwy 405), Sherman Oaks, CA 91403
Hours 1 and 2:
• Why is it vital to write unique, distinctive music for film, TV and games
• How to get scoring jobs in film and games
• How to stay relevant to your contacts and grow your client base
• How to get top industry professionals to actually listen to your demo
• The self-teaching composer: methodology of reading orchestral scores
• The self-teaching composer: methodology of film score analysis (harmony, form, thematic development, emotional arc, arrangement, style, aesthetics)
• “In betweeb jobs” – composing self-designed assignments, and expanding one’s skill set
• How to compose masterful and imaginative music when bound by a temp score and “temp love”
• Q and A
Hours 3 and 4:
DEMO CRITIQUE of 24 curated tracks submitted by the attendees
All are invited to submit one track only, however my team and I will select and curate 24 tracks that lend themselves to most substantial learning and discussion for the entire class.
The tracks (mp3s) will be played anonymously (by my assistant) to ensure unbiased critique / discussion. I will offer constructive suggestions and honest feedback. You will understand how directors, producers, reviewers, music supervisors, other composers “hear” and perceive your demo. During my 18 years in Hollywood I have heard over 5000 demo CDs by aspiring and working composers and have observed firsthand how directors and producers listen and respond to composers’ pitches. I’ve also been married to a music editor for 14 years who listens to one soundtrack every morning (that’s about 5100 film and game soundtacks).
PRE-REQUISITE: Reading Penka’s Six Blogs on Cultivating a Career published online by Designing Music Now (free content). Upon registration, you will receive the links for reading.
If you like to submit a demo for consideration: By submitting a demo, you agree that your composition will be presented and discussed publicly, although your name will not be mentioned. Email one track (mp3) file, with duration between 1:00 and 1:40 to penkakouneva[at]earthlink.net with the subject: MASTER CLASS DEMO CRITIQUE.
Please remove paddy intros, vamps, etc. The focus of the critique will be on how memorable is your theme and “sound” are, thematic development, form, production, arrangement, and cinematic / emotional arc.
The Demo Critique is limited to 24 tracks only. Please submit only mp3. No videos.
Early-career and aspiring media composers, orchestrators, composer assistants, interns, recent graduates, and all others interested.
COST AND REGISTRATION.
The cost is $70 per Master Class (All class materials are included.) The space is limited and the class will fill up fast.
Send payment via PayPal to email@example.com
Be sure to write in the PayPal memo: “CAREER MASTER CLASS” or “ORCHESTRATION MASTER CLASS” and your email
(Or email if you’d like to mail a check.)
For all colleagues unable to attend in person:
The Master Classes will be professionally filmed and made available online to all interested, via Wu Si. Estimated date of release: Late March.
If interested, please sign up at firstname.lastname@example.org or check Wu Si’s website for updates (wusinonprofit.org/penka)
ORCHESTRATION and MIDI transcription
Saturday, March 11, 2-5 PM,
Location TBA depending on enrollment
This 3-hour Master Class will examine the workflow, challenges, and best practices of a media orchestrator in Hollywood. It will demonstrate the skill set required for transcribing MIDI mock-ups into a Finale or Sibelius score, be it for 5 instruments or 125.
We will examine:
• workflow & procedures for error-free MIDI transcription and flawless scores from MIDI
• rethinking the MIDI for live ensemble
• orchestration techniques (balance, voicing, mass, texture)
• the difference in orchestration for film, TV, games, trailers
early- and mid-career composer assistants, orchestrators, media composers. A zipped Folder of MIDI files, scores, list of textbooks, methodologies for score analysis, blogs, and study materials will be given to all attendees.
PREREQUISITE: Some experience with transcribing MIDI sequences into a professional score for live musicians.
COST AND REGISTRATION.
The cost is $70 per Master Class (All class materials are included.)
Send payment via PayPal to email@example.com
Be sure to put in the PayPal memo: CAREER MASTER CLASS or ORCHESTRATION MASTER CLASS and your email
(Or email if you’d like to mail a check)
For all colleagues unable to attend in person:
The Master Classes will be professionally filmed and made available online to all interested, via Wu Si. Estimated date of release: Late March.
If interested, please sign up at firstname.lastname@example.org or check Wu Si’s website for updates (wusinonprofit.org/penka)
© 2017 by Penka Kouneva Studios
About Penka Kouneva:
Penka Kouneva (composer: Prince of Persia, Transformers games with Steve Jablonsky) is a Sundance Composer Fellow and winner of the 2015 Game Audio Network Guild’s Recognition Award. She scored 20 indie features, including the breakout features of Chloe Moretz and Josh Duhamel. She has released two orchestral albums receiving 5-star national press (The Woman Astronaut, on Varese Sarabande, and A Warrior’s Odyssey, on Sumthing Else Music). Her latest scoring job is Heroes and Legends (Astronaut Hall of Fame) at the Kennedy Space Center. She is known in Hollywood as an “exquisite talent,” an industry leader, and one of the hardest working professionals.
During the last decade while raising her family, Penka became a top studio orchestrator for films (Transformers, Matrix, Pirates 3; Lead Orchestrator on Ninja Turtles 2, Elysium, Ender’s Game, Need for Speed) and biggest games (Gears of War 2, 3, Sony’s Bloodborne, all Blizzard games – Overwatch, World of Warcraft, StarCraft II, Diablo III; Sims, Dragon Age 2. As an extraordinary mentor and lead orchestrator Penka has been instrumental in nurturing the careers of many rising talents who have continued to work on studio films, top TV shows, games and trailers.
Born and raised in Bulgaria, Penka was classically trained and received the first-ever Ph.D. in composition from Duke University. In 1999, Penka arrived in Hollywood with one computer, one contact and small savings. In the following decade, she made history as the first woman lead orchestrator on studio blockbusters since Shirley Walker . Penka is passionate about artist growth as she believes that development of one’s voice and mastery (along with cultivating relationships), is the prerequisite for success in today’s overcrowded media scoring business.
Madness and the curse of centuries-old grotesqueries have rarely been as elegantly conveyed as “A Cure for Wellness,” an auspicious entry into the time-honored genre of the sane man trapped in an insane asylum – or in this case a Swiss Alps spa seemingly dedicated to the spiritual, and physical health of its decrepit well-healed clientele. Much like a funeral director with obsessive detail to make an unholy mess spic and span, “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Ring” director Gore Verbinski has ensured that his institute resounds with old world, aristocratic class, all the better to hide the demonic suffering its delightfully twisted fairy tale is constructed upon. Leave it to British composer Benjamin Wallfisch to construct “Wellness’” castle-like foundations upon sturdily beautiful thematic melody. Given a chilling, waif-like voice to spin hypnotic suspense from, Wallfisch’s dazzlingly creepy score is the waltzing, singsong and ragingly mad stuff that classic nightmares are built upon, grandly abetting Verbinski’s cheeky homage to all things Mario Bava, Hammer Horror and passive-aggressive snobbery.
Much as its antihero stumbles upon one astounding wonder after the next while ferreting out a most reluctant executive, as well as a mysteriously sheltered waif, “A Cure For Wellness” continues Wallfisch’s pilgrim’s progress through no end of creative opportunities. Having started as an orchestrator and conductor for Dario Marianelli on the likes of “The Brothers Grimm,” and “V for Vendetta,” Wallfisch made his scoring debut with the gun-obsessed American teens of the Lars Von Trier-produced “Dear Wendy.” Using eccentric rhythms to help “The Escapist,” tunnel out of prison, Wallfisch next heard historical adventure both epic and psychedelic with “Conquest 1492” and “Hammer of the Gods.” He’d excelled with the tunefully evocative human drama of “Hours” and “Pressure,” where the settings of “Bhopal” and “Desert Dancer” let him explore a striking rhythmic mixture of East and West, Recently, his blending of soul and science proved the brilliant equation for a teaming with Pharrell Williams and Hans Zimmer on the Golden Globe nominated score to “Hidden Figures.”
But as of late, Wallfisch is swiftly becoming a go-to ghost whisperer, a voyage begun with “The Thirteenth Tale” and “The Enfield Haunting” (an allegedly true story that served as grist for “The Conjuring 2”). With his seat-jumping talents unleashed in Hollywood with the brightness-averse she-demon of “Lights Out,” Blumhouse berserkness will continue when Wallfisch takes on the killer doll of “Annabelle 2.” Yet for fans of classic, blazingly gothic scores, Wallfisch’s “A Cure for Wellness” will fix what ails them when It seems that unabashed, horror score melody is increasingly being straight jacketed. For refined subtlety and electroshock thrills have rarely danced with such devilish delight as they do in this grand ballroom of fiendishly refinished delights.
You’ve dealt with characters being trapped in claustrophobic situations in scores like “Hours” and “Pressure,” as well as going through catastrophic odysseys in “Hammer of the Gods” and “Bhopal.” How do you think scores like that set you up for “A Cure For Wellness?”
“A Cure For Wellness” is without doubt the most extraordinary, visceral, uncompromising and beautiful movies I’ve worked on to date, and is completely unique both in terms of its storytelling and central message. So whilst every score does in some ways set you up for the next one in terms of constantly refining your writing, I don’t think anything could have truly prepared for the incredible and inspiring journey I went on with Gore for this movie.
Could you talk about collaboration with Gore on “Wellness?” What was your own plunge into operatic darkness like, and how far did it push you as a composer?
It was an extraordinary and fulfilling yearlong process, starting with a waltz to be played on set for the actors to dance to. Soon after that I moved into Gore’s cutting rooms. We spent the next 6-7 months or so crafting the score together. It was a true collaboration, and wonderful to be so close to all the other filmmakers. The editors, sound designers, VFX supervisors, producers, Gore and myself were all under the same roof, working closely together and sharing ideas. I felt like I was being guided by Gore’s genius to discover musical concepts and sounds that I never knew even existed. He would give me vivid and compelling concepts, such as the ones he includes in the album’s liner notes: “There is a sickness inside all of us. A sense of the inevitable. A dark spot on the X-ray of our conscience…The disease is an unseen force, pulling the camera down a long corridor and the protagonist towards his epiphany. It promises absolution but leaves a bitter taste in the back of our throats. It casts its spell. A lullaby. We are the Lotus Eaters. Blindfolded guests of The Great Con: It diagnoses us and then, offers a cure”. It was without doubt the one of the most exciting and inspiring collaborations I’ve ever had.
Given the Swiss Alps setting of “Cure,” do you think that lent a classically “old world” melodic feeling to the score, especially with its use of the violin and grand waltzes?
Absolutely, yes. There was an incredible magnificence to the location, especially the way it was shot, that informed our choices in terms of the scale of orchestration.
For a score that’s mostly orchestral in nature, how did you want to use electronics?
It gave us another color, which was important especially as the truth of the story develops. In fact much of what appears to be electronic sonorities in the score started as warped acoustic recordings: violins, vocals, orchestral textures that were manipulated, stretched and transformed. Sometimes they were used for extremely uncomfortable sonic textures. Other times they were intended to evoke this disconcerting sense of perfection and sterility.
Could you talk about developing Hannah’s “ballerina” theme? And was it a natural that an eerie female voice would fit into this?
Hannah’s theme came very early on in the process, and it’s intended to feel like a lullaby with a dark secret. Something deceptive in its innocence. It was important for it to feel vulnerable, slightly restrained, with a symmetry and simplicity that is both child-like, and with a hidden potential. There’s a good reason why it’s sung by a female voice, but I don’t want to give out any spoilers!
What’s the story behind Mirel Wagner’s unplugged rendition of “I Wanna Be Sedated?”
Gore came across Mirel Wagner’s music and was keen on having her voice featured in the first trailer, performing a down tempo version of the classic Ramones song. Whilst we were recording her vocals, Mirel performed a version of the full song with guitar that just blew us away. We decided to turn it into a track for the soundtrack album.
Take a “Cure for Wellness” when its eely treatments begin in theaters on February 17th, with Benjamin Wallfisch’s score available on Milan Records HERE
Join Benjamin Wallfisch, Pharrel Williams and Hans Zimmer as they count the “Hidden Figures” HERE
Visit Benjamin Wallfisch’s website HERE