Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Apollo 13: At last, Another Entry

As well as I can remember, America was feeling pretty good about itself in the mid-to-late '90s. The economy was moving along reasonably well, everybody was starting to discover this new "World Wide Web" thing, and the Cold War was over. Of course, that doesn't make for especially dramatic cinema, especially with the biggest adversaries of America for 50 years having fallen by the wayside. Meanwhile, we'd worked our way through much of America's post-Vietnam angst -- cinematically, anyway.

So, Hollywood started seeking dramatic stories elsewhere. James Bond, the archetypal Cold Warrior, limped along in the mostly uninspired Pierce Brosnan era with stories of rogue agents and megalomaniacal businessmen. Some filmmakers tried to get some topical material out with Internet-driven or related plots. It's best not to speak about most of those. Disaster movies started making a comeback, and alien attacks started cropping up in alarming numbers. Even in most of these, there was a distinctly - and fairly cheesy - "Yeah, America!" attitude: Independence Day, Deep Impact, Armageddon, etc. The not-too-deeply buries subtext of those seemed to be: See, all we need to whup menaces from outer space is a little American gumption and talent! Yeee-haw!

Elsewhere, filmmakers looked to the past. Spielberg finally brought his obsession with World War II to glorious fruition with Saving Private Ryan.* Mel Gibson reached all the way back to distort Medieval history - albeit with enormous style and gusto - in Braveheart. And of course, we got cheese on the high seas in Titanic.

Ron Howard seemingly found the perfect combination of all of these with Apollo 13 - history, space, and a crisis with a comfortingly certain conclusion, not to mention a true showcase of Americans at their very best. It's really a masterpiece of a film, one I'm eager to revisit now that it's on Blu-Ray. It's one of Ron Howard's very best films.

In fact, Ron Howard and composer James Horner are both very comfortably in their element with Apollo 13 - the kind of project that lends itself very well to both their talents. Both the film itself and its score are emotionally manipulative, but I mean that as a compliment here -- it's emotional manipulation in the grandest Hollywood tradition. Ron Howard and James Horner in the '90s were two of the best at delivering classic "Hollywood" products.

Horner wrote this the very same year he scored Braveheart, which I also love, for entirely different reasons. Both Apollo 13 and Braveheart follow the general pattern of Horner scores of the '90s: pick a compelling theme and swing for the fences with it in most of the big cues, preferably played on a featured solo instrument (bagpipe in Braveheart, trumpet in Apollo 13), and fill the rest of the cues with driving percussion at whatever pace the scene demands. Orchestration for these other cues often ends up featuring other solo instruments. Sprinkle with emphasis by wordless chorus and you've got a Horner score, circa 1995.

What I appreciate about Horner's score here is actually just how subtle it can be in its emotional manipulation, as funny as that sounds. Beyond the general (and admittedly oversimplified) stylistic similarities, I'm struck by just how different Apollo 13 is from Braveheart. (Horner was justifiably nominated for the Oscar for both scores that year, by the way.) Maybe it's because the style and tone of Apollo 13 are more grounded, starting with the film itself. The music for Apollo 13 is working within the boundaries of reality and a time period that quite a few of the film's viewers would remember directly. There's less room for romantic myth-making here, and perhaps less enthusiasm from the director to go to that mythological territory.

You can easily see how far Horner could have gone in the direction of grand, overblown scoring by listening to the "End Titles" (Track 23). I have to laugh when this track comes up, at the end of the score -- it sounds like every other typical '90s "cut to the pop song" end credits sequence for a few seconds before it gets into gear. There's a lot more synth happening here than elsewhere, and Annie Lennox wails all over the track, in that way that Annie Lennox does. Later, when the music settles back into orchestral mode, we get much more lavishly played, lusty statements of many of the film's main themes that are kept much more restrained for the most part in the film. It's almost as though Horner was just dying to let loose with a grander and more hyperbolic sound, but couldn't let fly until the credits rolled.

To his credit, the remainder of the score is both forthright and sophisticated, making voice, snare, trumpet, and piano the primary tools for creating the aural environment of Apollo 13, and layering in strings and other instruments where they can be of maximum use. It's probably one of the cleanest-sounding scores I own in terms of its production value. It sounds like it was recorded in a cathedral or some other sonic environment that allows a healthy amount of reverb, which makes every instrumental solo ring with a stirring force, beginning with the opening drums and trumpet stating the main theme beautifully. The echoing sound is also exciting when Horner brings the whole orchestra to bear on the grand moments, like the rocket launch cue ("All Systems Go," Track 9) and the final "Re-Entry and Splashdown" (Track 22) -- both presented in wonderful, uninterrupted long cues.

It's some of the individual cues within the action that really excite me, though. I especially love the tense piano and snare that drive the shortest cue, "Main Alarm" (Track 14) - here is one of my favorite little tricks with an instrument in any score. At about 1:00 into the panicked track, the piano just explodes in a series of fast chords that sound like the player is simply mashing his hands all over the keyboard in frustration -- this effect is repeated twice throughout the rest of the track, and it's there that you realize that this was a specifically scored passage that's just meant to sound like utter chaos.

Elsewhere, Annie Lennox's haunting voice is put to much better use in the eerie, quiet track "Darkside of the Moon" (Track 17). Countered with the solo trumpet representing the heroic astronauts, the layered Lennox vocals and Arvo Part-like strings seem to evoke both intense loneliness and the siren call of the enchanting alien landscape of the Moon herself.

This is one of those soundtrack albums that combines music from the original score with popular music selections and dialogue from the film itself - an overzealous bit of album producing that drives film score purists like me nuts most of the time. Here I don't actually mind it much, because the pop songs are all actually featured in the film and are fairly well-chosen, even if a few of them are a little on-the-nose for the subject matter. (The Who's "I Can See for Miles" makes an appearance, for example -- James Brown's rendition of "Night Train," though, is perhaps a bit cleverer.) I only wish they hadn't chosen to try to overlap the dialogue tracks with the score tracks. It's a minor quibble. We still get a great chunk of a great score to enjoy, and the overall construction of the album does undeniably create some pretty good atmosphere. And it's all in order, at least, which pleases the purist in me.

Finally, my apologies for the delay of the appearance of this post. It has been gestating for weeks, and meanwhile the pace of wedding planning has picked up and there's still that pesky "work" stuff. Hopefully I can still crank out a few of these in the chaos of the next month. Stay tuned!

*Of course, the best Spielberg WWII movie is probably still Empire of the Sun.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Amistad: At Last, Melody

And here we are, finally arriving at John Williams. For most people, if they know the name of one film composer, it's Mr. Williams. He's justly famous for the many, many indelible scores he's contributed to the genre, and for his general influence on popular culture.

In fact, his music is probably even more ubiquitous than you suspect. Beyond Jaws and Star Wars and Indiana Jones, he's contributed music to several Olympic games, as I've mentioned before and will again, and composed a new chamber piece for the inauguration of President Obama. He even wrote the theme music for NBC Nightly News that's been in use since 1985! It's called "The Mission" (not to be confused with Ennio Morricone's score to the 1986 film The Mission, or even a wonderful episode of Spielberg's unjustly forgotten TV series Amazing Stories called "The Mission."). Yeah, he can even make a TV news broadcast sound like an epic adventure.

I probably own more film music by Williams than by anyone else, though I haven't subjected that claim to serious scrutiny in several years. There was a time in the mid-90s when I just worshipped John Williams and figured he could do no wrong, so I bought a lot of his stuff. The only reason one of his scores hasn't appeared sooner in this blog is that I don't happen to own the scores to A.I. Artificial Intelligence (great music, but much of it is just too heartbreaking for repeat listening) or Always (remember this one? I didn't think so). Once, when I was a freshman in college (circa 1997), I even expressed to my friend Melanie that I thought he was the greatest composer of the 20th century. Melanie was already an accomplished violinist at age 18, starting a music major at Indiana University, and has likely forgotten more about music than I will ever know. She disagreed with me about as graciously as I imagine anyone could, given such a patently ignorant assertion to shoot down.

My musical palate is somewhat more sophisticated now, and I can place Mr. Williams in a much more realistic context of the whole universe of composers of both film and concert music. Nonetheless, Amistad came along roughly in the prime time of my musical idolatry (in fact, it was the very year I made that assertion) so I picked up this soundtrack.

Over the course of their collaboration, John Williams and Steven Spielberg have aged together like fine wines, and it's fascinating to track their progress as individuals and partners through those years. At any rate, some years of that collaboration created better vintages than others, and 1997 was an odd one.

The '90s were when Spielberg started deliberately making Very Important Films, but still kept one foot solidly in the blockbuster genre. In no year was this better demonstrated than in 1993, when the crushing, beautiful Schindler's List came hot on the heels of the jaw-dropping beasties of Jurassic Park. Between those two films' scores you get every kind of Williams you could hope for, from the gee-whiz grandeur and scary action of JP to the restrained and haunting solo violin of Schindler. Williams' score for Schindler's List won the Oscar, and if Jurassic Park had come along any other year but that, it probably would have been nominated as well. 1997 was a strange mirror image of that year, when Spielberg repeated with the duo of The Lost World and Amistad. Another summer blockbuster/Very Important Film one-two punch, with somewhat less success on both counts.

It is perhaps telling that both of these 1997 scores are currently out of print (or at least not currently in stock at, while Schindler and Jurassic Park are readily available, and even though Amistad received (another) Oscar nomination for Best Original Score. For my own part, I haven't even tried to sit through all of the ill-conceived Lost World yet, and Amistad is pretty good, but not among Spielberg's best films, nor one that demands much repeat viewing.

So, what about the actual music, Brian? Well, like the film, it's a curious balancing act. Spielberg's film is really more about America than it is about the revolt and subsequent trial of the West African people on the titular slave ship, and their leader, Cinque. The story deliberately ties together figures that date from the nation's birth, i.e. John Quincy Adams, and those that would pave the road to the Civil War, like John C. Calhoun. Spielberg tries with varying success to frame the story in its larger American context, while delving into the horrors of the slave trade in Cinque's flashbacks. Likewise, Williams' score flips between exploring African themes and textures and reaching for a Copland-esque "American" sound with dignified horns and sonorous, but restrained strings.

The music actually does a much better job than the editing of the film in tying the whole enterprise together, since Williams has the freedom to interweave his musical themes and vary orchestration to bring together the foreign worlds of Cinque and America. There are extremes here, going from the dark, threatening chants of the brutal "Middle Passage" to the sober nobility of "Adams' Summation," and the "Liberation of Lomboko" cue feels as tacked-on in some ways as the unnecessary sequence in the film that it accompanies. Still, it's fair to say that Williams' music forms a kind of grout between the story components of the film.

I've read several reviews of both the film and the score to Amistad that are less than charitable in their judgment of Spielberg and Williams' tone here. More than a few of the Amistad reviews you can read at Rotten Tomatoes seem to feel that this score is over-the-top and emotionally manipulative. That's sometimes a fair criticism of Williams' work, but I just don't hear that in this score, besides perhaps the triumphant tone of the above-mentioned "Liberation of Lomboko" track -- in which Spielberg thought it fitting to include shots of a British naval vessel destroying a slavers' fortress, which is more or less totally unrelated to the main plot of the story. (Spielberg had an unfortunate habit for a while of tacking on totally unnecessary feel-good sequences to the end of every film.)

No, what I mainly recognize and appreciate about this score is Williams' traditionally grounded use of melody and rich symphonic sounds. After nearly a decade of film scores that drone and grate mostly in brooding minor keys, or provide little but rhythm and texture, hearing a John Williams score - of which there are fewer and fewer these days; he's pushing 80 after all - is a refreshing return to a symphonic tradition that actually makes for an enjoyable experience as music, apart from the film.

He may not be the greatest composer of the 20th century, but there's a good case to be made that Williams is indeed the greatest film composer of all time. We'll have plenty more chances to explore that, though.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Altered States: This is What Scary Music Sounds Like

At the end of my last post, I mentioned the curious Academy Award nomination for James Horner's Aliens. (As it turns out, Herbie Hancock won for best score that year.) Well, that ain't nothin' compared to the travesty that happened in 1981. More on that later.

For now, let's consider the marvelous piece of orchestral and cinematic insanity that is Altered States, delving deeply into the mind and primordial ur-being of a man relentlessly seeking a different experience of reality. It's one of those relatively rare instances of a composer who mostly works in the "classical" world of orchestral music coming over and scoring a film -- and it was an inspired choice in this case. I specifically waited to order this CD before going on with the blog, because I didn't want to leave out this masterpiece of (post?)modern, nerve-jangling, completely transformative music by John Corigliano. It's out of print, too, so it wasn't the usual two-day Amazon turnaround, either. I know you've just been on pins and needles waiting for this entry, too, haven't you?

My friend Richard introduced me to this film and music eight or nine years ago, and I haven't been quite the same since. If you're not famililar with the film, the first thing you need to know is that it's directed by Ken Russell. That goes a long way toward telling you what you're in for. Russell is a filmmaker who's totally unafraid to venture into risky, bizarre, outlandish territory, and happens to know quite a bit about music to boot. He's directed operas, music documentaries, and several biopics about famous composers, most notably about Mahler. According to the liner notes for Altered States album, Russell discovered John Corigliano at an LA Philharmonic performance of one of his pieces in 1979. Russell says:

Reading from my program that he was a contemporary composer I braced myself for thirty minutes of plinks and plunks that pass for music these days. I was in for a shock, a surprise, a revelation.
. . . .
If only he could compose the music for Altered States instead of some commercial Hollywood hack we directors are usually saddled with, I thought wistfully.

He got his wish. Altered States is one of just three film scores Corigliano has written. I have one of the others, The Red Violin, which in many ways could hardly be more different from what this disturbing score delivers. Richard knew I was interested in Corigliano because of his Red Violin score, and he had run into the composer himself at some point during his professional development - can't remember exactly how. (Yes, Richard, unlike myself, is a trained musician and composer, among his many other talents.)

Since I am assuredly not a trained musician, I can't hope to express in any useful way the structural and tonal sophistication of Corigliano's work for Altered States, except in very vague impressions. This is a score that perpetually keeps the listener off-balance but never loses its grip by delving too far into the atonal chaos that swirls around its melodic - dare I say, sometimes lyrical - core.

Those chaotic sounds have a lot in common with the kinds that audiences are used to hearing in many of the better thriller and horror scores: A throbbing, undulating miasma of dissonant strings, occasionally jarring electronic effects, harsh percussion intruments like ratchets. Many film composers will dip into this more modern, complex style of writing from time to time for dramatic effect, but seldom as the core of a score. John Williams, for example, excels at peppering his scores with these kinds of off-putting effects when he wants to punch up something scary, before returning to more familiar Romantic territory.

Corigliano's score, on the other hand, turns that model on its head. It lives in the unsettling, bizarre territory and hooks us in with occasional appeals to familiar melodic places we might rather go. Pretty appropriate for a film about a man venturing deep into the grip of mind-and-body-altering substances.

For example, in the first track, in the midst of swirling, menacing strings and low brass and oddly squawking woodwinds, a piano emerges playing a tune that could be derived directly from a Chopin nocturne. An especially rich, lyrical theme recurs throughout, a dramatic and romantic love theme that's featured most prominently in the tracks "Love Theme (natch, Track 2)" and "The Final Transformation (Track 9)."

Even in the grip of the chaos, though, Corigliano maintains a sense of melodic forward motion, even in the absence of anything a layman's ear (like mine) could pick out as a clear melody. It's not just a bloody mess, or deliberately ear-shattering noise. Within the swath of disturbing sonic soundscapes, Corigliano finds grandeur in deep, crashing chords and clear, lonely-sounding horns. It reminds me very much of the absolute apotheosis of rage he achieves in a non-film composition, the first movement of his Symphony #1 from 1990. Oddly enough - or perhaps perfectly naturally - that movement also features the eventual intrusion of a sentimental melody on a piano, played against the primal scream of the orchestra. I say "naturally," because Altered States itself seems like it would suit a contemporary concert hall just as well as a film. The only film composer I can think of who can spend as much time comfortably and competently exploring this dark territory is Howard Shore.

Despite the concert hall cred, Altered States clearly benefits from having this score specifically written for the film. When other contemporary non-film composers have their music used in films, for some reason, it seems simply to be appropriated and stuck in at moments that the director feels appropriate. Kubrick did this quite a lot, and other instances of it can be heard in works like There Will Be Blood, in which Arvo Pärt's "Fratres for Cello and Piano" makes a brief dramatic appearance in the midst of Jonny Greenwood's unconventional score. If you're going to use music by a living contemporary composer, why not try to get him to do something new for the film? Clearly it can work.

So, at the top I mentioned a travesty that happened at the Academy Awards in 1981. Travesties at the Oscars are nothing new or uncommon, but here's one that just boggles the mind. For the film scores of 1980, the nominations field included both Corigliano's Altered States and John Williams' score to The Empire Strikes Back -- which is perhaps the polar opposite of Altered States but still an indisputable masterpiece, a contender in my mind for the slot of Greatest Film Score of All Time. So, with two amazing powerhouse scores in contention, what score took home the Oscar?


That's all I have to say about that.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Aliens: Copy-Paste Saves the Day!

I've been there. It's down to the wire on an important project. I have to produce something for the client, since the contract clearly says the report is due tomorrow. But there's precious little to use as the basis for said report. Survey results are anemic, the client hasn't provided any support for our research, and nobody's answered our phone calls for interviews. We've got publicly available statistics, a few analytical tricks up our sleeve, and not a lot to write that will be particularly insightful or even interesting about the client's situation. I know that we've had other clients in similar situations that have produced more successful reports. So, what do I do?

Yep. Copy-paste.

It's not a crime. If you have a backlog of usable material that's worked before, and your back is against the wall, why reinvent the wheel? Chuck in the pieces you can use, adapt as necessary to fit the information at hand, rinse, repeat until you have something resembling a respectable document.

James Horner is a composer known, and notorious, for repeating himself. I think there's fair cause to criticize him in many circumstances for recycling material. He seems to coast on the same ideas for a few years until he hits upon a new, intriguing innovation - like building the sound of the score around a particular ethnic instrument (or set of them), as he began doing with the terrific score to Braveheart, and then continued doing with Titanic, The Mask of Zorro, etc. I was prepared to take him to task for a particularly egregious instance of score-by-collage in Aliens, until I did a little more digging to figure out the circumstances of that score. As it turns out, Horner was thrown into a situation of unbelievable pressure with no time:

. . . So I feel the need to cut him a little slack here. (If rumors are true, he was literally up against a wall at least once, courtesy of an enraged James Cameron.) With just days to put something together, it's not surprising that Horner ended up with a patchwork score that features scraps of material from half a dozen other sources. It is surprising to hear those pieces if you're familiar with their sources, though, because he does very little to disguise them. Several action cues use his belligerent "Klingon" theme from Star Trek III without alteration, and there's at least one nearly verbatim quote of a fanfare from Star Trek II in the cue "Going after Newt." Plenty of the score consists of atmospherics that echo - literally and figuratively - the themes and techniques Jerry Goldsmith used in the original Alien: Trumpet sounds and clacking low strings bounce around the sonic environment, and solitary horns cut through the desolation in ways that somehow evoke both Goldsmith and Horner's own prior work.

The score obviously owes a debt to 2001: A Space Odyssey as well. (Hooray, I've reached a point where I can link back to my own previous blog entries. Let the self-reference begin.) Horner opens the film with a quoted phrase of the "Adagio" from the Gayane ballet suite by Aram Khachaturian, the very same piece with which Kubrick opened the "Jupiter Mission" segment of 2001, as Frank and Dave go about their mundane business. It's clearly an homage, as the spacecraft bearing the frozen Ripley slides into view -- but what Horner does with this theme throughout the film is more interesting.

Most of Aliens is decidedly lacking in thematic consistency, but the one thread that seems continuous throughout is the use of the borrowed Gayane Adagio theme as an unofficial theme for Ellen Ripley and later, her protection of Newt. It appears several times in its gentler incarnation, reminiscent of the original -- but then it reappears later in the relentless action of the film's second half, blasting forth in a stressed-out and strident form on horns and strings in the cue "Futile Escape." (I'm not including specific track listings for the album here because there are so many different versions of the Aliens album. I don't actually have the deluxe edition pictured above; I've not felt a compelling need to acquire more of this music.) It's perhaps the most interesting and inventive thing Horner does with the music for Aliens - and one of the most controversial, since Horner apparently didn't bother to provide attribution for his stolen theme.

Ultimately, the measure of a score is how well it serves the film, and Aliens gets a pass there, undoubtedly. From a functional standpoint, this score needs to set up the scary atmosphere, then keep its foot on the gas for the whole third act, stopping a few times to act as accomplice to the inevitable Cameron multiple fake-out ending sequence. It serves its purpose admirably in all respects, and the frenzied second half of the score is even pretty fun to listen to on its own.

As a footnote, it is especially ironic that this score, pasted together, artistically inconsistent, and messy as it is, produced Horner's first Oscar nomination for Best Original Score, though they had passed up several worthier candidates by that point. Copy-paste is a pretty handy trick - especially when you get away with it!

Friday, July 23, 2010

Brief Interlude: Tron: Legacy Music Surfaces Online

One of my geeky childhood film obsessions was Tron, and I'm discovering this year just how many people shared that obsession with me. I only had it on a VHS copy taped from TV, but I loved every weird, dark, absorbing, and stylish moment of it. It embraced computer geekery when computer geekery wasn't cool, and of course it's famous for breaking the digital animation barrier in film special effects -- even though there were just a few minutes of full CGI in the final film; the rest was done with traditional animation trickery and some complex photographic processes.

I never knew it was beloved by so many others until the word of a sequel started to spread online sometime last year. That sequel, Tron: Legacy will be in theatres on December 17. It will be a record for the longest time between an original film and a direct sequel featuring the original cast members: 28 years, for those of you keeping score.

Tron: Legacy is all over Comic-Con in San Diego right now. The new trailer premiered yesterday, and provides fodder for geeking out for an agonizing five more months before we can actually see this in the theatre. I'm getting more excited for this than for any movie since The Phantom Menace . . . and I'm hoping that this will not be another Phantom Menace-sized disappointment. This is one franchise from the '80s that's being mined hopefully for good and not evil.

Anyway . . . this is a film music blog, right? So, here's the interesting part. Some tracks from the score by Daft Punk have now hit the Internet, and I'm pretty fascinated by what I'm hearing so far.

First of all, Daft Punk was a pretty inspired choice for the scoring of this film. It's a perfect reflection on the current state of electronic music compared to where it was in 1982, when digital pioneer Wendy Carlos scored the original Tron. Carlos was a fringe personality, a maverick who'd been reinventing classical music with a synthesizer and turning in bizarre soundscapes for the avant-garde likes of Stanley Kubrick for a while. Geeks knew her, folks in the mainstream mostly didn't -- just about the same way that personal computers were mostly a geek hobby at the time. Now computers and digital technology are ubiquitous, and an electronic music group like Daft Punk are international megastars.

I'm hoping that the new film will also delve somewhat into the different position computers have in our lives now than in 1982, but anyway, this is about the music. So, several paragraphs in, here's the bloody link already, courtesy of a Seattle radio station called The End:

Daft Punk Tron music Go listen to this now. I'm not asking.

A few of these tracks bring to mind a somewhat cynical thought: "I guess the Dark Knight soundtrack was playing in the editing room a lot." But there's a lot more here beyond the generally Zimmer-esque brooding style and rhythm. Layered underneath is a gratifying texture of retro-electronica -- intentionally more primitive sounding synth riffs and soundscapes that call to mind some of the mood of Carlos' original score, and the nascent digital era of Tron 1.0. The second and third tracks shared here on The End's little collection of music really bring the retro-synth style to the fore. (Yes, in my last entry I was just complaining about how out of date the synth sound was for Vangelis in 1992 -- but here it's entirely appropriate. It's all about context. In fact, there's more than a little Vangelis influence in these tracks here as well -- more Vangelis, perhaps, than Carlos.)

The last couple of tracks simply are the compositions you'll hear in the two theatrical trailers tha have been released so far. I especially like the selections for the first trailer, once we're over the rainbow and into the Tron-scape. The intentional incorporation of a glitch in the score toward the end, when the digital pulse seems to fragment and stutter, is just cool. It's perhaps the 21st-century equivalent of the record scratch that's been a staple of DJ performances for thirty years, and it's not the first time that effect has been used, but it speaks to the notion that not all is well in the digital underground. (Sorry, I couldn't help it.)

I'm still excited. If you talk to me on December 18, I might tell a different story, but I have a feeling I'll be buying this soundtrack album when it's released anyway.

Soon, back to our regularly scheduled programming.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

1492: Re-Hash of Paradise

Okay, let's get some business out of the way:

1. Yes, this blog is back! I took some time off to direct my show in May, as it was clear that I could not continue to fire on all cylinders as a new homeowner, director, and martial artist and still keep doing my "real" job to a reasonably high level of quality -- let alone write a blog that requires some measure of my cognitive faculties. And May became June and most of July. So, now Music From and Inspired By is making its triumphant return, and it's gonna be bigger, uh . . . bloggier, and more consistent than ever.

2. Yes, for the first entry after my return, I'm backtracking in the alphabetical order. I recently acquired the soundtrack to 1492: Conquest of Paradise, along with a bunch of others, thanks to the newly expanded catalog of soundtrack offerings at emusic, where I've had a membership since 2006. I promise this whole order-violation thing won't happen again. Or at least not much.

I had a high-minded notion to write this entry about the influence of Progressive rock on all aspects of modern music, using Vangelis as my jumping-off point. I quickly realized, though, that about two paragraphs would probably exhaust my ability to say anything interesting about Prog. Oh, sure, I can rattle off names like King Crimson and Yes and even Porcupine Tree, or maybe talk about early Genesis or Wishbone Ash . . . but what's the point? You probably know as much about them as I do.

I had a much different entry point for this album in the first place. I happen to own a great album called Summon the Heroes, produced for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta and containing a bunch of Olympic music performed by John Williams and the Boston Pops. It includes all of Williams' own Olympic themes (from the '84, '88, and '96 games) as well as many other compositions from the classical or film music realms that evoke the pomp and circumstance of the games. Vangelis' 1492 theme is among them, in a bombastic arrangement for full orchestra and chorus. It's always been one of my favorites on the album.

Based on that track, I decided to pick up the full album from emusic, even though I haven't actually seen the Ridley Scott film. I adore Vangelis' music for Scott's Blade Runner, and I really do appreciate much of Vangelis' other work, especially his experimental electronica from the '70s. (Albedo 0.39 is still an amazing album, and I had "Pulstar" on my iPod running mix for a long time.) He was a true pioneer of electronic music, and popularized it in ways that paved the way for more adventurers to come. (He may also have played a part in spawning the 'New Age' sound movement. Jury's out on whether that's a good or bad thing. On the one hand, you have Dead Can Dance and Enigma. On the other, you have Yanni and John Tesh. It's probably about 50-50.)

What I didn't expect was that this album, written and produced in 1992, would sound so much like its predecessors in the late '70s and early '80s. I kept listening to this album, thinking it sounded so primitive and cheesily (I know it's not a word) synth-heavy. "Maybe it just sounds dated because of the period," I thought. But a moment's more reflection brought to mind the similarly synth-reliant score to The Last of the Mohicans, which came out the very same year, and hardly sounds dated now. The Last of the Mohicans - another adventure in the (not-quite-as) early years of the New World - often sounds satisfyingly rich and deep and organic, despite the synthesizers, in ways that 1492 just doesn't.

I can appreciate Vangelis' albums from the Seventies, and other similar period electronica, because I know that it represented the state of the art of the time, and they're just musically interesting. But in 10-15 years, you expect a musician to evolve and change somewhat. That's what I love about great artists, and in some ways, even demand of them. If I were interested in music that didn't change or evolve in a decade, I'd listen to Top 40. Or Hans Zimmer. (Geez, that Teutonic dummkopf irritates me. He's most of the reason why film music in the '00s was so boring. But more on him later, as I actually own several of his scores, for reasons I cannot consciously identify.)

But for some reason, most of this album just sounds like Vangelis isn't really trying -- which is odd, since he's usually a pretty obsessive composer. There were parts of this album that actually reminded me of The Princess Bride, of all things, and that just isn't good. The Princess Bride, while one of my very favorite films of all time, has possibly the most annoying score ever recorded.

1492 does exemplify - and maybe originated - one trend of '90s scoring: Tossing in "ethnic" instrumentation over the top of whatever you're doing. This was used most often, with varying effectiveness, by James Horner in the '90s. More on him later, too. Here, atop the dated synth, it's just an added dimension to a truly wrong choice for a period piece about a navigator from the late Middle Ages.

At any rate, the full orchestral recording on Summon the Heroes retains all of its power, and stands as a true improvement on the original. That's probably the version that will get the most play in the future.

Don't worry, some much better Vangelis music is on the way pretty soon, once I get to Blade Runner anyway. Until then, maybe I'll throw Albedo 0.39 or La Fete Sauvage on the Hi-Fi.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Alien: In Space, No One Can Hear Your Score

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Oh, The Internet. If there's something obscure, unreleased, suppressed, or otherwise hard to find, and more than one person is interested in seeing it, it's a guarantee that somebody has dug it up and put it on the Internet. And if you know where to look, you can find where it's been posted and share in the unique joy of having stuff others don't have.

I was lucky enough to land with a roommate in college who knew where to look. He introduced me to MP3s -- in 1997, before most people even had CD burners. He found lots and lots of interesting stuff out there online, well before even Napster came along and made illicit sharing of materials accessible even to the AOL-using crowd (a.k.a. the short bus on the Information Superhighway). I still have some music on my hard drives that iTunes had a hell of a time categorizing when I installed it, since it isn't tagged with any of the information that helps catalog music now that there are procedures for that kind of stuff. Just filenames.

During my college years, though, Alex gave me access to all sorts of stuff that found its way onto the intertubes, or Teh IntarWeb, or whatever stupid hipster label you want to apply. Software, music, games . . . you name it. I even have, on a hard drive somewhere, scans of some of the early drafts of Star Wars. I have no idea where the heck those came from, but they're fascinating -- and it's lucky that none of them were ever filmed.

One of these little treasures was a bootleg of Jerry Goldsmith's original score to Alien.

If you can't remember the music from Alien, don't worry. You've probably never heard it. Much of the original score that Goldsmith composed was altered, replaced, or dumped in the final film. Ridley Scott and company were fairly merciless with the music, tracking in some of Goldsmith's material from other films, and even throwing in some stuff from another composer. Various soundtrack releases over the years have included some of the music as Goldsmith wanted it heard - but never quite all of it. Leave it to somebody to find that stuff and put it on The Internet. And man, is it unsettling.

The material that was left in the movie - and there still is a fair bit of it - is mostly atmospheric, atonal stuff that gets under your skin without causing you to take notice of it. It works very well in that context. Can you hum anything from the score to Alien? Do you remember hearing music in it at all? Nah, probably not.

Do you remember being really, really creeped out for most of the film?

But Goldsmith did write a lot of unused original material that had more of a sweep and emotional heft. Why, there are even scraps of melody, like the haunting solo trumpet that plays the main theme -- which was never heard in the film, re-recorded with a sequence of rhythms and noises that are more . . . well . . . alien. It's really interesting that, two years after Star Wars, the producers actually resisted a big orchestral score to this space-based film very strongly.

Personally, I like the lonely sound of that unused main melody. The filmmakers ultimately thought it was too much. Some of this score may indeed have been too much, like great honking cacophonies of orchestral instruments and hard-to-identify sounds for Ripley's battles with the full-grown alien warrior at the end of the film. It sounds weird and scary and awful, as it should but together with that moment in the film, it may have been like dumping ketchup all over a great steak. I do wonder, though, how this nearly-perfect film might play differently with the original Goldsmith version of the music. Could it have been even better?

Unfortunately, this being a bootleg taken from multiple sources, most of them old and analog, it sounds mushy and rotten. Over the years, I've replaced a lot of the music I had originally obtained illegitimately with the real McCoy, and I will probably do that with this score - since now there's apparently a fully restored CD version of the complete score, both original material and what ended up in the film. That's what the cover is at the top, from which you'll find a link to the album's page on Amazon. Bootlegs prod the owners of the real music to release a better-quality official version. So I'm happy to have had the bootleg for so long, and maybe now I'll hear all of what I've been missing.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Alexander Nevsky: How to Score a Big Honking Battle Scene

I stumbled across Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky at just the right time in my teenage love affair with big, bombastic, epic movie scores. I had just bought the Leonard Slatkin/St. Louis Symphony Orchestra recording of Carmina Burana - still the best version yet recorded - and inside the disc was another CD, a sampler of classical offerings on the RCA Red Seal Label. I've never seen packaging like that before or since, though of course I've heard plenty of sampler discs.

It was a date with destiny. I'd bought Carmina Burana in the first place because of the quintessential choral bombast of the O Fortuna movements. We had used those in our high school production of Frankenstein, to great effect. Park Tudor had a terrific theatre department, one that was able to pull off a pretty impressive scene of the destruction of Frankenstein's lab while blasting that trademark Carl Orff vocal apocalypse. I still remember the tech director shouting, "More Carmina! More Carmina!" during one of the dress rehearsals.

So, after plunging my way through Carmina Burana's outlandish vocal landscape of vulgar Medieval bawdry and fatalism, I threw on the sampler disc and discovered the music for "The Battle on the Ice" from Nevsky in the very first track. From the eerie, hesitant strings at the beginning, all the way to the all-out choral frenzy at the end, I was hooked. By the time the track dissolved into audio from the 1938 Sergei Eisenstein film, clanking swords and horses and shouting men above howling winds . . . I knew that I had to track down both the film and the soundtrack.

I discovered both, eventually. The re-recorded soundtrack album fulfills the potential of Prokoviev's massive score and detailed orchestration, subtleties that were completely obliterated by '30s Soviet recording technology. In the same year that Hollywood released Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, with beautifully recorded soundtracks, the score to Alexander Nevsky in the original print sounds like it was recorded through a tin can from the other side of a thick wall. The 1996 re-recording by Yuri Temirkanov and the St. Petersburg Symphony Orchestra rectifies that, and then some. I absolutely love it.

The film itself is mostly a disappointingly one-dimensional piece of thinly veiled Soviet agitprop, a tale of a medieval Russian hero who smacked down a Teutonic invasion. Obviously, it was designed to psych up the Russian people for the storm that was a-brewin' with the Nazis in the late '30s. (Nothing unique or even wrong with that, necessarily; Olivier did almost exactly the same thing with his WWII-era production of Henry V, though Shakespeare has to be given credit for creating some slightly more well-rounded characters.)

Nevsky is remarkable in its imagery and editing, though, as you probably don't need to be reminded if you're familiar at all with Eisenstein. The man literally wrote the book - several, actually - on the marriage of sound, image, and editing in film. What Eisenstein created in his scene of the battle on the icy Neva river created the template for big cinematic battles. Check out the scene here with some observant commentary on the construction of tension leading up to the battle . . .

Look familiar? That's because nobody has yet figured out how to do it better. Just about every big, old-fashioned frontal army battle ever filmed has followed this pattern visually, and often musically: Shot of the "good" army, shot of the "bad" army, shots of the leaders of the armies and close-ups of the troops, back and forth and back and forth, faster and faster until the moment when it all hits the fan and the two armies collide. You can see it in everything from Gladiator to Braveheart to Spartacus, and even the stupid Gungan battle in The Phantom Menace. (All of those are video links for comparison . . . and yes, you really should click on the Phantom Menace video link. It's been "improved" with some fan editing.)

Also, for comparison, here's a video of the same scene with the original soundtrack recording of the score: Nevsky Battle on the Ice The full score is a revelation compared to that tinny mess.

Man, do those Teutons look mean with their big, face-obscuring helmets, and their creepy hooded priests. Speaking of Star Wars, take a look at those guys and tell me they didn't influence the likes of George Lucas when he was creating his stormtroopers and Sith lords. Just sayin' . . .

As for Prokofiev's score, it's emotionally manipulative, epic scoring at its very best, and you can hear its influence clearly in many, many scores that have come since -- including a few that are in my collection. You can be sure I'll make a note of it when the time comes.

Monday, April 5, 2010

The Abyss: A Score out of Water

Context is everything. A clown at a kid's birthday party or at the circus is harmless and sometimes even entertaining. A clown at a bus station is scary. A penguin at the zoo is a delightful attraction for children. A penguin in Antarctica is just another flippin' penguin. Ringo Starr as drummer for the Beatles was just peachy. Solo Ringo Starr is . . . well, kinda pathetic.

You get the picture.

And when you don't get the picture, sometimes a soundtrack just doesn't sound like much. This is what keeps The Abyss from getting a lot of rotation on my playlist. I really like the movie; I think it's every bit as good as Aliens or the first two Terminator flicks and full of everything that James Cameron excels at doing. I just haven't seen it for a very long time, which leaves me with the problem of not having very specific visual anchors for a lot of Alan Silvestri's soundtrack album, and on its own, it doesn't have enough to hook me.

I used to think of Silvestri as a poor man's John Williams. That may be unfair; I think he clearly has his own strengths, especially after a good 20 years more of development. But listening to this, one of his earlier efforts, you can tell the vast difference between their styles. This is all stuff that works gloriously when you're watching the movie: complex rhythms, wild brass flourishes, ominous clunking sounds from the very lowest note on the piano, wordless chorus, and tinkly strings and flutes for emotional moments. Outside the film, it's all a little disjointed. A Williams cue from the same era would tell a whole story musically all by itself. Both are perfectly valid approaches to film scoring, but one is a whole lot more fun to listen to.

So, there's not a lot to say about this album. (I'm not even quite sure how I ended up with a copy.) It's just fine, but if I want to listen to a Silvestri score, I'll probably go for something with a more consistent through-line, like the manic cartoonishness of Back to the Future, the lyrical schmaltz of Forrest Gump, or the sheer testosterone binge of Predator.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

2001: A Space Odyssey/Alex North's 2001: Triumph of the Temps

If film composers have the equivalent of the "actor's nightmare" - you know, where you're supposed to be putting on a show but don't know your lines/don't have your props/are naked, etc. - I imagine they'd go something like what Alex North went through in 1968 at an early screening of 2001: A Space Odyssey . . . .

The story is legendary in film music circles: North went to the screening expecting to hear the hour or so of music he'd been asked to compose, with the rest of Stanley Kubrick's three-hour epic unscored or accompanied with classical selections. What he heard was all the classical temp tracks that Kubrick had used to edit the film, and none of his own work.

I find this version of events a little hard to believe. North was a veteran of many film scores by that time - including at terrific contribution to Kubrick's Spartacus, presumably how he came to work on 2001. He must have suspected something fishy when he was just asked to stop working on a half-finished score. But the grievance of the director who's a little too in love with his temp score is a common one among film composers, so it's no surprise that North's unused score became something of a cause celebre for the film scoring world.

North's 2001 became a mythical, Grail-like object for film music aficionados, since the original tapes were lost and very few people had ever heard it, let alone seen the score. It's down to North's friend Jerry Goldsmith and Robert Townson, a producer for Varese Sarabande records, that we have the re-recording of the unused North score available today, since Goldsmith recorded it in 1993 with the National Philharmonic Orchestra.

This segment is supposed to be about both the official soundtrack album and North's version. Honestly, the selections present in the official recording of the 2001 score need little comment. They work for me, and for the film, on a visceral and intellectual level that is nearly impossible to imagine differently. I could write an essay about the use of music in 2001 and its revelation of the thematic content of the film . . . actually, I have, but I'll spare you those ten or twelve pages. They're full of stuff about Nietzsche and other people that undergraduates like to talk about to seem super-smart.

With this score CD, though, it is possible to imagine how different some scenes may have sounded, with a little bit of creative manipulation of a home entertainment system and a quick finger for the "play" button -- a little more DIY than the Wizard of Oz/Dark Side of the Moon experiment, but do-able.* We did just this one day in the class on Stanley Kubrick's films that I took (fittingly enough, in 2001) from James Naremore at IU. (That's the class for which I wrote the essay.) I told Prof. Naremore that I had a copy of this recording, and he proposed that we do a little experiment in class with some of the scenes and North's score. The verdict was nearly universal: Stanley Kubrick made the right choice.

You only have to listen to North's proposed substitute for the Richard Strauss Also Sprach Zarathustra theme over the opening credits (Track #1) to realize that it just isn't quite right. Maybe that's unfair, since Zarathustra is so thoroughly embedded in our synapses as the "theme from 2001." But North's fanfare, while structurally similar - right down to the lingering pipe organ in the last few instants - and actually more musically sophisticated, just seems too courtly and refined for that awesome and soul-shaking shot of planetary alignment. Strauss' primal C-G-C is just impossible to top.

Prof. Naremore was perhaps a little unkind to the shreds of score that we attempted to match to the picture in 2001. Of the drum-heavy, Stravinsky-esque score that North wrote for the "Dawn of Man" sequences (Tracks #2-6), he remarked, "it sounds like Spartacus II." I think the music deserves a little better than that. It's good stuff, really. (It's a little similar to what Goldsmith himself did that same year on Planet of the Apes, actually.) It's just not the right stuff (ahem) for Kubrick's magnum opus.

Some people in the world of film score buffs - including Jerry Goldsmith himself, apparently - insist that North's score would have worked better for the film, since it's more thematically and stylistically unified, while still capturing the essence of the musical ideas in the temp tracks that eventually became the score for 2001. (Goldsmith knew a thing or two about having scores rejected, so he may understandably have been a little bitter about the whole business.) Even the liner notes sound pretty defensive. For Track #9, "Moon Rocket Bus," the notes state that "North's music would have underscored thee scene just as effectively while being more interesting as music."

I'll concede the fact that North's composition is more consistent. But again, watch the space station docking sequence with North's cue "Space Station Docking" (Track #7). North's music shimmers prettily, but Kubrick's choice of The Blue Danube waltz shows a sly sense of humor, marrying the trite with the miraculous. Kubrick was up to something with music as metacommentary, and he never did go back to using an entirely composed score in the rest of his film career - not always with such great results. (Just think of that stupid repetitive piano in Eyes Wide Shut. Or don't, actually.)

As with the deleted scenes and often-way-too-long "directors' cuts" of movies themselves, I can understand why cuts and deletions were made, including entire scores like this. I love having them to see and hear what might have been, but ultimately I think they end up justifying the choices of film editors -- and in this case, its director.

*Gee, speaking of this, the plot thickens -- Somebody has discovered that Floyd's song "Echoes" lines up nearly perfectly with the "Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite" sequence in 2001. It's on YouTube, of course: Judge for yourself. Personally, I think this may just be proof that it's easy to convince stoners of nearly anything.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

3:10 to Yuma: the Enni-Phant in the Room

. . . But first, let's talk about Ennio Morricone. How can you avoid it? The modern notion of a "Western" movie has been wrapped indelibly in Morricone's musical signature - not to mention the imagery of the Spaghetti westerns of Leone and others - for forty years now. The eerie whistle from the main theme of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is perhaps the most widely recognized cinematic motif, behind only the infamous Jaws ostinato. (Yeah, I deliberately linked you to the cheesy Hugo Montenegro pop version of the TGTBTU theme.)

Morricone's Western music is in our collective unconscious, just as big a cliche now as Clint Eastwood's flinty eyes and unshaven jaw. Film and popular music alike were rocked by Morricone -- I don't know if bands like Calexico or Devotchka would exist if he had never written a note. Quentin Tarantino has slathered his last few films with liberal dollops of Morricone, whether they needed it or not. I even went to a show by a new Indy burlesque company over the weekend, in which a dancer's "cowgirl" routine was set to the theme from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly - and there she was, with a serape, wide-brimmed flat hat, and cigarillo (and little else).

Okay, I've made my point. Every Western movie made since the '60s must confront Leone's legacy somehow, and every Western score must deal with Morricone. You have to make a decision to embrace or resist the Morricone sound if you want to score a Western -- which is why it's so interesting that Marco Beltrami appears to have chosen to do both with his score to 3:10 to Yuma. (Even Eastwood himself, and his composer Lennie Niehaus, consciously chose to push against the Morricone style with Unforgiven.)

James Mangold's 2007 version of 3:10 to Yuma reaches back past the "spaghetti" tradition to an older Western story, a morality play with black hats and white hats, about the choices that men make, and that make men. Beltrami's score, for most of the film, follows along with the clenched jaws and husky whispers of its two "Westerners" by way of Australia and England. You can hear echoes of a spaghetti-ish style in the restrained guitars in the background of the opening two tracks . . . At 2:34 of Track #2, "Ben Takes the Stage/Dan's Burden," the film's main theme makes a statement on electric guitar that's still chastely held back from the rock-operatic style that it echoes.

Beltrami's instrumentation tells the real story of where he's going with this score. Along with the strings, brass, and guitar, he throws in a hammered dulcimer to accompany quieter moments, and embraces all kinds of unorthodox percussion. The very brief but intriguing Track #4, "Bisbygliando," begins with percussion that sounds like some object scraped across a wood floor, and later throws in crazy rhythms punctuated by a Jew's harp. These folk instruments and improvised sounds are simultaneously older and newer musical choices than the '60s spaghetti style. The music of the 21st century is wildly open to pastiche -- you'll hear sampling from a surprising variety of sources coming from producers of Top 40 music, let alone the kooky niche genres like gypsy punk or 8-bit techno -- and this is a 21st-century Western score.

So, Beltrami throws a wild bunch of very well-selected instruments and styles to throw into the base of Morricone's spaghetti sauce . . . then he boils it all waaay down, into a sound that jangles and echoes and swirls dissonantly, with occasional bursts of percussive violence and glimmers of vintage badassery. Even when the trumpets blaze into the action track "Chinese Democracy*," (Track #8) they're offset from one another in a strangled echo. Beltrami has made a new kind of Western score out of the old, by reducing it to its essence. I won't call it "minimalist," since that's a label only properly applied to people like Steve Reich and early Philip Glass and anything else that induces seizures after the 14th minute of hearing the same three notes. But it's "minimal" in its choice not to exert itself too obviously upon the film.

I won't say that this is my favorite score album, though. Beltrami's music does make a terrific accompaniment to the film - which I have not seen for a few years now and don't own - but as a stand-alone album it has a tendency to fade into the background. (As I listen to it right now, it's lending an unusually suspenseful air to my office work, despite the cheerful, sunny day.) That's somewhat typical of the trend of action film scoring in the '00s, actually. (We'll get to my love/hate relationship with the new Batman scores soon enough.) Seriously, how many movie themes from the last ten years can you hum from memory?

All the tension and restraint does pay off, though, when Beltrami finally builds to an action-packed climax in the two penultimate tracks, "Bible Study," and "Who Let the Cows Out*?" and the denoument in "The 3:10 to Yuma." When a big, bold trumpet melody comes soaring in over the end of "Bible Study," my goose bumps tell me, "Yeah! That's what we've been waiting for!" (Clearly, my reflexive sensory reactions to film scores have been primed by the musical collective unconscious. Thanks, Ennio. And Carl Jung.)

Now I return to another exciting day of email-slinging . . .

*One thing I love about certain contemporary composers is their sense of humor in naming cues. Chinese Democracy is, of course, the long-delayed Guns 'n' Roses album that was finally released in 2008, for which Beltrami provided orchestral arrangements. I haven't heard that album, but I bet John has.