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.