February 26, 2009 | Comments ()

By TK | Music | February 26, 2009 |


Like many (if not all) of my fellow Pajiba Music writers, I’ve had not only a voracious appetite for not only all things music for approximately forever, but also for movies. Look at the site’s banner - what do you think brought us all here in the first place? Our collective hatred for Bono? No, that was just a convenient coincidence after we bandied about like the rest of you over the greatness (and the opposite of greatness too, of course) of film along with Dustin and the gang. Now the soundtrack link between movies and music has been tackled in this daily section here before, but not the film score in particular.

The score often unfairly (but understandably) takes a backseat to a film’s acting, directing, script, etc. when discussing the art of filmmaking. It’s almost always in the background of the consciousness when watching the more obviously visual medium, rendering it a mere ignorable flourish or decoration in a package where the meat is in the story, the camerawork, or the pretty faces. What many don’t realize (or at least don’t explore and reflect on) is that because of its subconscious leanings, the film score actually leaves way more of an impact on the viewer listener than one may ever want. Instrumental melodies can cloy through the soul without notice, causing emotional manipulation (see the eponymous composers mentioned above) or adding to a film’s triteness with its stockpile of swelling orchestration. One of my favorite gags in Forgetting Sarah Marshall comes in the form of Jason Segel’s occupation - composing the same dour notes with the same ominous effect on the keyboard every week on the CSI-esque Crime Scene: Scene of the Crime. It was funny because it was true, you see. Don’t even get me started on TV scores.

But in the deep recesses of film there lay an elite set of directors and producers who realize that all film scores should not sound the same. And while some of the bigger names do sometimes break out of the monotonous shell that Hollywood has forced them to be in throughout the years (James Newton Howard’s score for Michael Clayton was robbed at the Oscars last year, while Gustavo Santoallala rightfully won two years in a row), and recent years also include amazing soundtracks from post-rock bands like Mogwai (The Fountain, songs written by Clint Mansell) and Explosions in the Sky (Friday Night Lights), there also seems to be a new class of film composers that I wish with all my might to take over the industry in one fell swoop. The songs featured in/composed for their respective films combine a contemporary flair much needed in the otherwise rote genre with the kind of subtle and mood-drenched nuances that traditional scorers know how to execute to pull at the heartstrings. Whether they plan to continue composing music for films beyond what they’ve done in 2008 I don’t know, but a boy can dream, can’t he? Isn’t that what the movies are all about?

maxrichter.jpgSongs From Before by Max Richter
[FatCat, 2006]

Back in the year of this record’s release (his best album in my estimation), two tracks from German composer Richter’s previous effort The Blue Notebooks were used in the Will Ferrell dramedy Stranger Than Fiction. Their inclusion lent the film some much needed weight and intimacy, as the rest of the soundtrack, arranged by Britt Daniel of Spoon, tended to make things a little too quirky for its own good. Luckily, someone heard Richter’s natural placement as tender and minimalist-minded film musician and brought him aboard for his first proper duty as scorer of last year’s brilliant and understated Waltz With Bashir. Richter’s albums tend to sway more toward the organic and piano-led end of things, but he daringly added many electronic textures to his pieces for the boldly animated yet meekly executed documentary on one man’s search for his memory of a fateful day during the 1982 Lebanon war. The results are as eerily traumatizing and affecting as the film itself, causing both to wriggle their way into your consciousness like a half-remembered dream world.

The tones and arrangements that Richter assembles are slight, but when the notes swell or bubble, it’s truly haunting and beautiful. Unlike so many action or war scores, it doesn’t retreat to the background and chug along stereotypically to remind you there’s chaos all around. Rather, it lunges in the foreground in slow motion to grab you by the collar and make you sit in the hurt that protagonist and filmmaker Ari Folman (and others) are forced to recollect as they attempt to swim back to a past better left forgotten. Richter does this kind of musical aching just as well when he’s releasing albums on his own, and if you dig this cut from Songs From Before, be sure to check the miniature epics on his latest disc 24 Postcards In Full Colour.

nicomuhly.jpgSpeaks Volumes by Nico Muhly
[Bedroom Community, 2007]

Even though he’s not even in his 30s, Muhly always seemed like a prime candidate for the position of film composer. He’s worked closely with Bj√∂rk, whose own musical foray into film is of course the astonishing Dancer In The Dark as well as Phillip Glass, who while not perfect in his discography as film scorer, remains much respected because of his coalescing of the avant-garde and the traditional in modern classical music. Listen to The Truman Show next time you watch it, for example. So it was surely inevitable that the NYC wunderkind Muhly, whose first album is a masterwork even featuring wordless vocal contributions from Antony Hegarty (of & The Johnsons fame), would get the royal film treatment. Not only that, but he got on the fast track, similar to Richter, getting on board for “that Winslet Holocaust flick” that too many people dismiss without seeing, The Reader. Debate about the film’s worth aside (I was pleasantly surprised how well a period romance was able to hold my attention), Muhly’s spritely take on the common film sound was just different enough to give the film a shock to the gut when it needed it, but also remaining stately like director Stephen Daldry clearly wanted throughout. It ebbs and flows in all the expected places as the tension mounts throughout the film, but Muhly’s passionate use of the piano and liberal application of atmosphere make the score stick in your ears and help land the blows as swiftly and traumatically as Kate Winslet’s character puts together and tears apart the protagonist’s life.

Conversely, Muhly also put out a wildly experimental record in 2008 called Mothertongue that while I can’t whole-heartedly recommend, is definitely an adventurous and rewarding listen for those up for the challenge. But Speaks Volumes is definitely where it’s at, acting as the perfect synthesis of the accessible and the unconventional. It’s plucky and somber all at once, rambunctious and relaxing, making it both unforgettable and instantly enjoyable.

ethanrose.jpgOaks by Ethan Rose
[Holocene, 2009]

Now here’s where things get different.

Richter and Muhly are a little out there in terms of what they’ve offered the film music community, but when I pressed play on Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park from early last year and heard the airy ambient music of Ethan Rose, I nearly shat myself. I would have never expected a modest Portland man’s interest in ancient piano samples and broken music boxes would have translated to the cinematic format, but it did - ingeniously. Like the stark sprinkles of classical piano in Van Sant’s devastating film Elephant, Rose’s fussy-yet-quiet music from his 2006 release Ceiling Songs offers gorgeous respites during his lesser seen movie of 2008, which follows a teenager dealing with an accidental death nearby a notorious skate park. Drifting atop slow-motion sequences of skateboarding, Rose’s music both breaks us away from the main dramatic event that the movie hinges on and the everyday interactions that our main character has to get through in order to find another opportunity to skate again. The sequences make the film simultaneously more intimate and universal, as music often does so well, demonstrating with full force the power that a film score can have when it has more than just one function: make the audience feel the expected way.

Like Muhly and Richter, Rose’s music is so abstract and unique that it could be interpreted many ways. And his newest album, Oaks, is no exception. For those uninitiated to ambient music, Rose is the perfect avenue. Also getting his experimental pop fix in the band Small Sails, he knows how to keep things pleasant, hushed, and only a little bit bizarre. His soundscapes are made to dive into when you only want a tickle in your ear instead of full-fledged explosion of rock. He finagles a mood with his keyboard so austere and warm that it sounds more like an aural massage than music. And perhaps this is where we should be looking for the future of film score music.

Anyone else got other favorite budding film scorers? Barring that, any film score composers out there that don’t bore you to tears?

Chris Polley teaches high school English, often with his hair disheveled and a glint of crazy in his eye, in the Midwest’s greatest city, Minneapolis. He rambles on and conducts discourse with friends and strangers about the horrific beast that is pop culture over at The Blogulator.

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