Monday, 15 July 2013

Top 5 Film Scores: Since The Millennium

Filmmaking has changed considerably since the millennial year; and quite obviously in film music. 2000 marked a shift in how film music was written and perceived, moving from a world divided as lo-fi electronica or evenly arranged orchestra into a palette of sound breaking free of conventional boundaries – where synthetic and orchestral sound intertwine and cinematic music birthed an exclusive identity. In light of that, I’ve penned my top five post-millennium scores, showcasing great music and soundtracks that have impacted on how films are scored thereafter.

1. Cloud Atlas (2012) (Tom Tykwer, Reinhold Heil, Johnny Klimek)

Cloud Atlas Sextet for Orchestra

Snubbed at the Oscars somewhat: Cloud Atlas is probably the best film of the last two years, let alone the best soundtrack. It spans a huge stylistic variety, including lonely and moving piano melodies, fully synthetic glimpses into the future and a breathtaking Schumann-Elgar-esque tone poem – timeless and stirring. Those melodies are revisited in a dozen musical styles that give the film the backbone it needs to link its numerous stories together in a profound way. An absolute must watch.  

2. The Social Network (2010) (Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross)

Hand Covers Bruise

Totally deserving of the academy award for best soundtrack, Reznor and Ross’ score for The Social Network is a portrait of internal struggle and geek-dom. The opening piano cue sits on a fuzz of granular noise that imparts the vibe of the film instantaneously, and the following nerdy electronic pieces give striking clarity to Zuckerberg’s machinations while maintaining a production standard associated with chart-topping tunes. A positive step forward for film music.

3. Casino Royale (2006) (David Arnold)

Miami International

How do you compose something ‘new’ when the original music is as widely appreciated as John Barry’s material? The key is in the ‘new’: Bond opens the film without double-0 status and the music echoes with a new melody and hybrid take on the orchestral sound of Bond, adding techy percussion and synthetic drive. The music gives Bond a serious motive during espionage and a cold, calculated brain by swapping flair for a tension so well constructed that you don’t realize the 12 minutes of continuous music underneath the quandary at Miami International Airport. Probably the best film cue ever recorded, here.

4. Norwegian Wood (2010) (Jonny Greenwood)

Mou sukoshi jibun no koto, kichinto shitai no

Most people will know Jonny Greenwood as the guitarist from Radiohead and be unaware that he’s one of the modern day’s jewels of concert and film composition. His scores for The Master and There Will Be Blood are one-of-a-kind, but the Japanese novel adaptation of Norwegian Wood truly stands out as an unparalleled example of modern film music. It’s as delicate and warming as it is mournful and painful – honestly, there is no better musical description of pain. An eye-opening listen.

5. Gladiator (2000) (Hans Zimmer & Lisa Gerrard)


The score to Gladiator had an unthinkably huge impact on how film music has since been written and on what directors/producers wanted their films to sound like. The music speaks for itself as an emotive and spicy counterpart to a gritty Rome, comprising of Lisa Gerrard’s incredibly passionate vocals, visceral orchestral battles, heroic salutes and dusty atmospheric concoctions of flavourful synth pads and solo performances. Worth the listen by itself: a keystone of modern film music.

It’s a shame that a top five, or list of any number for that matter, means that many other incredible and influential scores won’t be touched upon. I found it particularly difficult not to include Harry Gregson-Williams and David Buckley’s score to The Town (2010) and struggled not to mention another Oscar winner; Dario Marianelli’s Atonement (2007). Both scores use music in interesting ways while cementing new ground for a stylistic type of music unheard anywhere else except in film. The real shame, though, is that The Matrix (Don Davis) was released in 1999, because it would have taken undeniable pride of place at the top of this list as possibly the greatest film score in the last fifty years…


Thursday, 21 February 2013

Reflections of a RCM Composer

Recently I’ve been thinking about ‘modern-classical’ music a lot. Spurred on by two small articles that seem to have caused a little disturbance, as well as the BBC’s ‘The Sound and Fury’ programmes about contemporary music in the 20th century, I’ve decided to pen my thoughts on it all; as an exploration as well as simply a response. The two articles, which I shall leave links for below, are on ‘Considering Your Audience’ as a composer (James McCarthy for Gramophone) and a Telegraph review by Nigel Farndale of the BBC series mentioned above.

I’ll start with this…

Admitting you find modern music, by which it is meant mid 20th century orchestral music, unlistenably random and jarring is not easy, because it is tantamount to acknowledging that you are a thicko.’

Now, I’m sure there are many musical people out there that will be quick to defend the simplicity, the processes and the merits of intelligence in music. But for a moment consider the otherwise ‘non-musical’ audience of the music, who must choose between being intimidated or ignorant to a whole world of art.  Do we ever ask ourselves why a listener doesn’t enjoy this area of music or why it seems to be so inaccessible? Have we reached a point of no return for contemporary classical material, and if so, why?

In the early 20th century, orchestral music took a turn towards becoming a cognitive art form. It seemed that a deprivation of the sensory pleasures of music ensued and that composers became scientific instead of spontaneous and intuitive. This came about as the escape from tonality, the move away from known harmony and melodic idioms that make up our world of more familiar music. The result of an escape from the tonal world is the emancipation of dissonance, as put by Arnold Schoenberg: without whom our world of music would surely be a different creature altogether.

Consonance: a harmony, chord or interval that is considered stable, perhaps comfortable.

an unstable tone combination; its tension demands a move towards a stable chord – to resolve.

This inclusion of dissonance is one unlike the kind found in music by Wagner, (a type that the definition above categorises) of which we are nearly subconsciously familiar with, in the same way as Beethoven.  It is unrelated to consonance entirely: atonal and explicit, the use is not intended to resolve into a consonance. It all started with an eight-note chord in Richard Strauss’ Salome, at the climax of the finale, and one that resolved quite awkwardly still into a consonant coda. To think that such a simple augmentation could get a work banned (which it was, akin to Beethoven’s ninth symphony) is laughable now, but the sound was groundbreaking alongside a rather sordid affair in the opera. It begs the question, if we now see such things as primitive, to what end do we accept dissonance as listeners in the present day?  I like to think, especially as I occupy most of my time with it, that film music can at least help with the answer. Film soundtracks, as a guide, usually stick to dealing with music that an audience is familiar with: reason being that in order to convey an idea or emotion appropriately, you must utilise the idioms that have been accepted and understood by the audience. It’s why Hollywood took to the orchestral sound to begin with, and it’s evident in scores to films such as The Matrix, Gladiator and V for Vendetta.

If, for sake of argument, then, we say that film music, by way of assimilation, represents the current state of audience-acceptance of dissonance, then we can start to draw a line in the sand and find the point at which it all just becomes too much. The point at which the intellectual input results in the ear’s quest to make sense of the jumbled pieces before it; The point at which we need to know the process in order to appreciate the music; The point after which it’s all just noise…  I draw that line firmly at Schoenberg

When Farndale writes ‘what I liked most about this new series was the permission it gave us to dislike Schoenberg’, I can only hope he was keeping the significance of the music in mind. He is correct in that modern music at that point was ‘anti-music’. John Adams mused that the only way to be original was to do the opposite of what is a ‘big deal’ at the time. In that, the aversion to consonance becomes clear, but when Eric Whitacre says ‘Poor Schoenberg… He carries the great weight of causing the terrible rot that happened in classical music’, he is not attacking the composer. The context implies that as being the point-man on the front lines of listenability, it is inevitably his shoulders that are stood on by the generations after him. They adopt his ideals, and arguably still do, but I think the reason we still cannot accept them in society is because they now seem to lack any necessary or explainable reason. 

When Schoenberg escaped tonality it was to not to evade, but to pursue a different, a new way of describing emotions with music. The world at the time was changing rapidly; there were wars, atrocities, new regimes and industrial uprising. Debussy said that composers had a duty to evoke the progress of modern days, and in this climate it seems more than appropriate that something ‘unlistenable’ might come out of it all. Were Schoenberg and his student successors simply reflecting acts of the 20th-century? In this way it seems easy to compare modernist art of the period with the surge of misunderstood music that we’re referring to. When we want to conjure pictures of other planets, should we not have non-gravitational music? While this all lends a hand to Schoenberg’s defense, it does so because it all had such clear rationale. When we think of ‘modern’ contemporary classical music, the kind that is a couple of generations on from Schoenberg, I fear the reason for the emancipation of dissonance subsides (give thought to the temperament of the world we live in today compared to 1945…).

It seems that there has been growth from the great emancipation towards the reasonless combination of knowingly uncommon sounding orchestral techniques, or search for new sounds to make up a piece of contemporary classical music. Where Stravinsky was cubism, modern music is like modern art, a constant search for the unique or for originality. I find the current situation baffling given that the futurist movement had essentially written the orchestra off as a way of perpetuating a new sound in contemporary music, and that was over fifty years ago. Composers still write pieces hitting instruments as Xenakis did nearly thirty years ago when people moved away from the replication to the augmentation of recorded sounds even earlier. Academia has left us with the notion that art is not for all, and if it is for all then it is not art.  I’d say that if a work is so intellectual that it couldn’t be, or wasn’t allowed to be enjoyed by a listener, or any audience for that matter, then who is left to judge it’s value?

This brings me in a roundabout way to the matter of considering your audience when you write music. Now, while I may have an opinion of my own on the particular style of current contemporary classical music of late, I must retain that it is only my opinion. I couldn’t say how it should be otherwise, nor how to get there. In a rather contradictory way, all I can say is that whatever you do as a composer, don’t think about it, just do it. Don’t write music a certain way because you have to, or because other people do. As an artist of any kind, the only way forward is to do something that is wholly yours, which you believe in, and that you love, rather than seeking out originality for the sake of it. The current state sees composers writing music for peer-review in academia, for originality’s sake, and failing to grasp that it doesn’t work as entertainment.  James McCarthy writes:

‘If the composer is writing music as an academic pursuit then they should go into it fully aware that this is what they are doing, and not be crushed when the world doesn’t want to storm the concert hall demanding to hear their music. If they are writing music to say something about themselves and the world we live in today, then they need to be aware that what they say needs to be a least partly intelligible to the average concert-goer.’

Although the article at times is too attacking towards composers, meaning it is unlikely to be taken seriously by those who it applies to most, I agree with the overall sentiment. If you write in this particular, post-Schoenberg language, you should be aware that the style exists to accommodate to and impress a very small group of individuals, and they are not, surprise, surprise, the group that buys concert tickets to hear music that, yes is altogether usually more tonal, but more importantly it is more accessible. When Schoenberg set aside to free music from the rules that had been built around it, he didn’t do so that you might use his methods as guidelines once more. I think there’s some unrest in the community, and the audience is certainly waiting: it seems apparent that the direction of contemporary classical composition isn’t moving forward, and can’t while it moves in the same circles as music of sixty years passed. Like Schoenberg escaping tonality, it seems more than appropriate given the progress of modern days that we escape from our purely dissonant world. Noise based music has integrated into other more popular styles and is accepted by huge audiences; maybe there’s something to learn from that?

Whatever such a shift may be or require, it’s about time composers did something a little different.  20th-century artists have moved away from being popular, as if the popular is less serious. When Gershwin asked to study under Stravinsky, he was asked how much he earned. His reply was in the millions, to which Stravinsky replied ‘then I should be studying with you’. When he asked Schoenberg the same question he was denied again. The response: ‘Right now you are a great Gershwin, and under me you would merely be a mediocre Schoenberg’.  I think it’s about time contemporary music was popular again. We might see some more diversity in the concert scene at the very least.

Gershwin wrote some film music too, just sayin’…


What do you think - Do you find that modern classical music can be unlistenable? Or are you on the other side of the fence?

The Sound and the Fury: A Century of Modern Music, BBC Four, review.

Composers – consider your audience
James McCarthy – Feb 7 2013 – Gramophone

Thursday, 12 July 2012

John Williams: Ten Best Scores

Some of the best music in the world is film music. It manages to take a life outside the film, whether we hum James Bond to conjure a suave take on gun-in-the-air infiltration, or whistle Indiana Jones while we flamboyantly throw spatulas like swords whilst cooking our meals (just me…); it often exists as music independent of it’s visuals. We quietly ‘ba-dum’ as if we were a manifestation of mobile double bass-shark hybrid when we strafe towards our friends, as if to evoke the same sense of fear that the audience feels in Jaws. I think we all take this music for granted, so I want you think about how many movies you can actually hum to yourself right now. The incredible thing is that at least 90% of what you come up with, when you put aside Pirates Of The Caribbean/Gladiator, Up, perhaps Toy Story and of course James Bond, will have been written by one man: John Williams.

If John Williams isn’t a household name then it’s our responsibility to make him one. Superman, Indiana Jones, Jaws, Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, Jurassic Park, Home Alone, Schindler’s List, Harry Potter, Star Wars (all six), E.T., and Saving Private Ryan – All by the same pen: The second most nominated man in history, recipient of the Olympic Order – the highest individual honour of the International Olympic Committee – Recipient of the National Medal Of Arts, the highest U.S individual honour for arts, presented by the President. When you Google him, the second entry as you type his name is ‘John Williams is the man’.

Yes, he is the man. He is my greatest inspiration as a composer and an international treasure to anybody who’s ever watched a film. So I’ve decided to make a ‘top ten’ list of John Williams’ best film scores. Here’s the thing though, the Internet is full of them – so I figured I’d try something a bit different with this…

I want to make a list that embodies the soundtracks that do the most for the picture; the ones that have the greatest music underneath the brilliant melodies, but above all, the music that has the greatest effect on the film and how we perceive it when we walk away: when we close our eyes and fill our heads with image and sound to remember what the film was like. You’ll see a lot of lists on the internet that look remarkably similar to each other, here’s one I came up with below.
  1. Star Wars IV: A New Hope
  2. Jaws
  3. Indiana Jones
  4. E.T. The Extra Terrestrial
  5. Jurassic Park
  6. Superman
  7. Saving Private Ryan
  8. Schindler’s List
  9. Close Encounters Of The Third Kind
  10. Harry Potter and The Philosophers Stone (Sorcerer’s to the U.S market that presumably couldn’t understand what a philosopher was…) 

A good list – it’s the one I’d make if I were judging the score on how successful the film was. That’s why it’s so prevalent among all the John Williams’ top-tens out there. Some more inventive editions may include Hook or Star Wars Episode VI, but they really do look very similar nonetheless. My list might seem surprising at first, but just press play on the music I put beneath each number and I’m sure you’ll come round to my way of thinking – here are my favourite soundtracks by my favourite composer. In descending order, of course.

10. Minority Report

This soundtrack is in the minority (sorry) of Williams’ scores that I’ve seen that has received a bit of bad press – not that I can think of any reason why. It’s a great example of how John Williams can move into a more modern style of film-scoring quite effortlessly. The theme is unlike any that he’s written before, not melodic, but motivic. It’s short, snappy and repetitive, and it’s really what minority report is all about; it’s judders and stutters and keeps on you the edge the whole way through. To accomplish something so successfully with such a simple fragment is a testament to Williams’ prolific understanding of film music that can be easily overlooked in the sea of incredible melodies that cause people to cast him in a singular, albeit distinguished, light.

9. Stepmom

I don’t think I’ve ever seen this in a list, I would bet that many people haven’t seen the film either, or just flicked channels when they came across it on TV as if it were something wishy-washy and dull. Watch it if you haven’t, you’ll be surprised. It’s heartbreaking and solemn, romantic and gripping, and without the music it would be nothing. The music portrays grief and love simultaneously almost throughout and is benevolent and emotional all by itself – but with the picture it’ll have you in tears. That’s why it’s up here for me, it’s so seamless that even watching at chance on a rainy day can catch you off guard an hour and a half in and make you well up. Not much film music can so easily impact upon the audience.

8. E.T. The Extra Terrestrial

This is my childhood right here. And it’s one of the first films to really do it all: it’s childish, scary, mysterious, sad, joyous, serious and playful all in one sitting, and the same is true of the music. It still retains a cohesive identity from the scary and otherworldly opening up until the moment that E.T lifts the bike into the sky and we finally hear the melody that has been hinted at for the entire score before it. It’s the ultimate release of music, and my word, is the orchestration good! This is the auditory guide on how to do it if anybody is interested, and it’s almost continuous music. There’s also that little hint at Yoda that I mentioned in one of my earlier blogs… Genius.

7. Catch Me If You Can

People scorn Williams for all those enormous action-epics that he’s so famous for, so he comes up with something reminiscent of 40s jazz for Catch Me If You Can. It’s here because I don’t think there is anybody else out there who would have seen this music in this film – but it’s great. It’s exciting, full of suspense and humour, and in a strange way has that kind of office-fraud smirk to it all. The orchestration is always mocking and carefree, and when you think of the film you can’t help but feel the same way. When people ask what music does to a film you should ask them to watch this without the score: then they’ll know.

6. Jurassic Park

Knock Knock, it’s childhood here again. I was obsessed with dinosaurs because of this film: Until I was 16, I was unswayed on my ambition to become a palaeontologist, and would have been had it not been for the Music Technology A-level at my college and Michael Kamen’s score to Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves. When Lord Richard Attenborough speaks ‘Welcome to Jurassic Park’ we literally cannot continue imagining the picture without Williams’ iconic theme rushing in like another line of dialogue. This is yet another one that we take for granted, that lives an equally rich life outside of the film and carries with it the unmistakable imagery of roaring Tyranosaurs and gargantuan Brachiosaurs. We all know the theme but I’d recommend getting the soundtrack and listening to ‘Hatching Baby Raptor’ as well; see if you’re not transported back to that incredible moment.

5. Hook

This is one of the most magical and manic scores ever written. I think it’s even easier to see with this type of film how much the music adds, without ever going over the top. The orchestration is again, incredible, but I really think in this case that it may just be one of the best examples of orchestration among all music. You may think a claim of that gravity doesn’t seem fitting for a kid’s film – but it’s this high on the list for more than that: it’s the melody that’s really transcendental. One of my all time favourites, it really is just magic to listen to and it serves the action perfectly whilst maintaining a boyish perspective and not becoming too epic or too serious.

4. Harry Potter

Anybody who’s grown up in the last 20 years grew up with J.K Rowling’s books, their films and John Williams’ themes. There are quite a few memorable melodies to pick from the three films that William’s scored, but it’s Hedwig’s theme that we all hum when we think of Harry Potter. I don’t specify a film here for a good reason, although William’s only penned three of the eight chapters, his music endured throughout them all. It is inescapably the image of Harry Potter and his world of witchcraft and wizardry, so much so that it was engrained in the scores of the 3 composers that took up the mantle afterwards. Even when they wanted to steer away and alter the theme to make something unique, it remained. Music that is that definitive to the identity of a film is what every composer dreams of writing and is the embodiment of what I spoke of earlier: music that has it’s own identity in popular culture. It could easily be on a par with the following entries.

3. Star Wars IV: A New Hope

It had to be here really, didn’t it? There’s no denying how great it is and how much it deserves to sit so highly on this list and everybody else’s. I’m sure there still a few of you out there yelling as to why it’s not right at the top – all I can say to you is that it was a very hard decision. The opening fanfare to Star Wars is one of the most famous and most appreciated pieces of film music of all time. Where Harry Potter may be the music of my generation, this is the music of another, and it has stood the test of time, engulfing everybody else’s hearts as the years go by. Wall-to-wall music again, and worth mentioning because it came at a time when film music was moving away from the giant and constant, melody lead orchestral tour de force that we’re quite happy with now. Film music had started in a similar, yet slightly more stratified way and had probably become quite boring until Williams’ slammed this into the faces of the audience, knocking something so prolific into them we haven’t been able to forget it for 35 years. He couldn’t really write a bad note after could he?

2. Jaws

This is the reason why Star Wars is third. It’s here for the same reasons but on a bigger scale. Where Star Wars is engrained into our society, Jaws is engrained into our psyche. ‘Da-num, da-num’ is an everyday thought to people that haven’t even seen the film, and where it makes an audience shudder in anticipatory fear in the cinema, it becomes a comedic cliché on how to define a scary moment in our lives outside of the darkened theatre. I don’t hear people saying ‘are you humming Dvořák’s 9th?’ when I sneak up behind them, and if I did I might do to them what the shark in the films is famous for. The entire score to Jaws is another brilliant example of Williams’ understanding of how to make the most simple and convincing musical idea have the strongest possible impact upon a film; turning spectators into participators and leaving a remarkable mental and emotional image of a film that can be conjured with just two notes.

1. Memoirs Of A Geisha

I bet you’ve never seen that at number 1 before. Before you manifest any physical rage, I’d best tell you why it’s there for me. If you’ve read the book you may have an idea of just how beautiful this film and story is: well, Williams’ music is perfect. I don’t know how it could have been any better suited, any more emotional or better crafted. Again, a simple idea blossoms into something infinitely more compounding: Sayuri is the ‘Cello. She’s also being played by Yo-Yo Ma, who has to be, undisputed, the best cellist alive today. The soundtrack creates something that holds within it the purest form of innocence, with a deep and rapturous love that takes the audience far into third-person memoirs and pushes them around like a geisha learning to dance. It has taken me well over an hour to write this paragraph because I couldn’t play the soundtrack without being completely absorbed for what must be the 100th time of listening. It’s worldly, another example of why we should never think of John Williams as ‘the action guy’ when it comes to scoring films. It’s worldly but it’s not cliché, it’s so well written for a delicate blend of western and eastern timbres that it surpasses all of our preconceptions about what a foreign culture sounds like; something Hollywood is all to well-known for accommodating. It takes us to a place where we become immersed in the culture; we desire what Sayuri desires and we feel what she feels. There’s a reason why, even against the pathetic etiquette Hollywood seems to have developed for not awarding John Williams awards for his nominations, that it won the Golden Globe, BAFTA and Grammy awards for best score in 2007. I don’t think I’ve heard a melody that works as well in 7/8 as it does in 4/4 before, let alone a melody as beautiful as the one that flows through this score. I would recommend that you listen to my last offering from this soundtrack, one of my favourite pieces of music, full stop. I hope it makes a convert out of you.

Now I’d like to quickly mention a couple of scores that didn’t make it into this top ten. John Williams has written so much great music that he’d make a top twenty hard to write, and we’re obviously missing Indiana Jones and Saving Private Ryan from this list, both incredible scores, particularly the latter. The Witches Of Eastwick and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind deserve special mentions as well for being scores that had huge impacts on the way people listen to, write and perceive film music, not to mention the effort on Star Wars Episode I, for bringing something new to an old horse and capturing another generation with it. Munich for it’s opening, The Terminal for it’s ingenuity and Born On The Fourth Of July for it’s sheer captivating and emotional movement.

Anything missing? ah, Schindler’s List. There’s a reason for that though…

Now, Williams’ score for Schindler’s List is amazing as a soundtrack CD, the themes, the performances and the care taken with orchestral balance are all breath-taking, but I have a bit of an issue with it when it comes to the film, which is why it doesn’t make the cut for me when it usually does quite well for others. Watching the film, I often feel that the music is extremely independent to the picture. I even struggle to imagine how it was conceived based on the image, on the action and on what seem like the evident on-screen emotions. If this were not somehow glued together with whatever it is that makes John Williams’ music incredible, I really don’t think it would work at all for the film; I certainly don’t think anybody else could have accomplished a score like it. That might be the only bad thing I ever say about John Williams’ music, and it’s not exactly like it’s a chink in the armour, it’s still great music. It just means that I don’t watch that film very often. He did win one of his few academy awards for it though, so maybe I’m just wrong about everything!

What do you think about Schindler’s List? And what’s the one score that really has to make it into your top ten?

There are so many more films I could and should list below just because they all have great music by Williams’ on them, instead, however, I’d like to leave you with a way to find them yourselves. If you don’t already own the CD, go and buy the 2-disc ‘John Williams – Greatest Hits 1969-1999’ album. It’s not expensive and there’s a lot of music for the money, a lot of great music that you’ll wonder how you ever did without. To finish off, I offer up this little trivial gem…

Another reason Stepmom gets into my top ten is because of the circumstances in which it was written; Patrick Doyle was originally selected to score the film, and did, but as is in Hollywood, the score (being the last thing that could be changed) was rejected. Williams was brought in at very short notice to write an entirely new score and bear the burden of fixing the film – he did more than fix it, he made it. To this day, he has only won 5 of his 47 Oscar nominations from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences: a travesty, don’t you agree?