June 2006 Film Music CD Reviews

Film Music Editor: Michael McLennan
Managing Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster: Len Mullenger

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Everything is Illuminated  
Music composed by Paul Cantelon
Performed by Unnamed Orchestra
Conducted by Ted Sperling
Orchestrated by Sonny Kompanek, except ‘River of Collections’ and ‘War is Over / eta-Ya’, orchestrated by Eric Hachikian ‘Odessa Medley’, ‘Prologue’, ‘Valse de Suzana’, ‘et-Ya’ and ‘Inside-Out’ features the Illuminated Gypsy Band
Featuring songs by Leningrad (‘Zvezda Rok-n-Rolla’, ‘Dikiy Muzhchina’, ‘Malen ‘kiy Mal’chik’), Gogol Bordello (‘Bublitschki’, ‘Start Wearing Purple’), Czokolom (‘Amari szi Amari’), The Con Artists (‘Ya-takoy’), Tin Hat Trio (‘Fear of the South’)
  Available on TVT Soundtrax (TV-6740-2)
Running Time: 62:24
(Cantelon score: 38:47)
Amazon UK   Amazon US

See also:

  • Frida
  • The directorial debut of actor Liev Schrieber, and an adaptation of an acclaimed novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything is Illuminated was one of those projects where nothing about the credentials of the project can be faulted, but no-one went to see it anyway. The story follows a young American who shares the name of the author (coincidence?). The fictional Jonathan Safran Foer (Elijah Wood) travels to the Ukraine to uncover his family history; and in particular, to find the woman without whose compassion, his family would have perished in anti-Semitic violence in the wartime Soviet Union. The book has been described as a perfect blend of biting humour and deep tragedy, the film (by those who saw it) as an imperfect but sweetly nostalgic approximation of this tone, and it seems until now, almost no-one has described the score by Paul Cantelon at all.

    Casting the Composer

    I bought this score out of curiosity. I’d missed the film’s brief circuit at my local cinema, and a couple of months later, I noticed the soundtrack album at a special import store, picking it up because of the interesting blend of gypsy band and orchestral ensembles detailed in the liner notes. So I bought it, intrigued what kind of score Paul Cantelon would write. I assume he’s the same Paul Cantelon that releases albums of solo piano music (the recent Point no Point) and was formerly part of The Wild Colonials, though I can find no evidence of it on the internet. Whatever his background, he’s a newcomer to feature film scoring. About all I know about him is what the director says in his liner notes:

    “When I began thinking of choosing a composer for the film, (the producer) suggested a mutual friend of ours, Paul Cantelon ... Paul had been in a terrible car accident as a teenager that left him with significant amnesia. Before his accident, Paul was well on his to becoming an accomplished classical musician, having proved himself a prodigy on both the piano and the violin. After his accident, Paul had to start over. He relearned his instruments and began composing.

    “What I think I admired most about Jonathan’s novel was the poignant and humorous way in which he was able to reinvent his own past. The idea that a past lovingly imagined could be as valuable as past remembered suited me fine…What impressed me most about Paul’s compositions were his melodies, and the achingly beautiful sense of nostalgia they seemed to emanate, almost as if he were trying to evoke a past that he was no longer in possession of…. It became immediately apparent to me that I had found the composer for Everything is Illuminated.

    I like this idea of a composer being cast in the way an actor might be for a project – his personal empathy for the ideas of the film, and how that affects his craft, motivating his casting.

    The Gypsy Band

    Cantelon’s score nicely moves between the black comedy of the film and genuine drama. He takes his cue from the film’s Ukrainian setting to write a score rich in influences from Eastern European folk music. There are two major ensemble approaches. The black comedy is largely scored with the lusty roar of a gypsy ensemble incorporating accordion, clarinet, balalaika, violin, trumpet, tuba, guitar and marxophone. In the suite of main themes, the ‘Odessa Medley’, accordion and violin (played like a fiddle) introduce a wistful theme over a guitar rhythm before a clarinet enters with the main theme. The tightly strummed balalaikas, the earthy violin sound, the rollicking percussion beat accented with a rolling tuba rhythm and almost mariachi style trumpet – it all adds up to a moving and enjoyable piece, especially if you like your Eastern European folk music. (And who doesn’t?)

    This chaotic semi-klezmer sound dominates the first half of the score – ‘Prologue’ passes a waltz melody throughout the instruments of the Gypsy ensemble before a fuller (and more subdued) orchestral layer appears towards the end of the cue. Probably Cantelon’s strongest gift as a composer is his ability to incorporate cue changes and maintain the feel of a through-composed piece of music, mostly through continuing the development of the established theme but by altering the solo instrument. ‘Little Jonathan’ takes the main theme from a child-like marimba statement through violin and accordion, all the time feeling like it could have been written as an independent piece of music, and the film edited to it rather than the other way round. The ‘Valse de Susana’ – placed in the centre of a more subdued cue – is a radiant folk waltz with a nice accordion melody. ‘Sunflowers’ adds a vocal performance of the main theme as a traditional style folk song, with superb violin accompaniment. As with the following violin-led ‘eta-Ya’, this piece gathers weight unexpectedly with a slow-but-strident brass and percussion rhythm.

    The Source Cues

    For those who don’t fancy source cues, the balance is truly in favour of Paul Cantelon, who has forty minutes of the one hour album, a great deal of his score playing uninterrupted. But for those who are interested… the Gypsy Band sound blends well with the source cues scattered throughout the album, for once these songs feel like an indispensable part of the message. The Leningrad rock tracks – especially ‘Zvevda rok-n-rolla’ – are feisty and engaging, the backing ensemble to the gorgeous Slavic-accented English very similar to Cantelon’s Gypsy Band. ‘Dikiy Muzhchina’ features heavily treated vocals set in amongst a raucous small brass ensemble – it feels like Xavier Cugat at times. ‘Amari szi Amari’ is a traditional folk song. I actually thought Tin Hat Trio’s ‘Fear of the South’ - a small ensemble instrumental based on a theme that reminds me of Goldsmith’s Papillon - was one of Cantelon’s score cues. My favourite of the songs is the last of them – Gogol Bordello’s ‘Start Wearing Purple’. The lyrics could mean anything – I have my own theory, but the insane harmonising chorus together with lines like “all your sanity, and wit, they will all vanish, I promise, start wearing purple for me now” is an unbeatable combination.

    Orchestral Underscore

    Cantelon’s second ensemble – a moderately-sized orchestra augment with balalaika, duduk, accordion and other specialised instrumentation – handles the more tragic aspects of the story. ‘River of Collections’ is heavy in sadness, with arpeggiated violin over strings and a brief duduk part. In ‘Tank’s Graveyard’, an intense violin part and haunting cello strokes build the cue to its climax. ‘Dee-yed’ is far more delicate – a work for flute, harp and strings that anticipates ‘Trachimbrod’.

    Speaking of which – the penultimate score track is the highlight of the album: a twelve-minute journey through ‘Trachimbrod’, ‘Resurrection’ and the ensuing ‘Requiem’. There are many nice moments in that lengthy cue, but the extended harp solo of a theme specific to this cue is the one that stands out in my mind most, particularly when solo violin re-enters like a vocalist towards the end. In its subtlety and drawn out development, it reminds me of ‘Discovery of the Camp’ from Michael Kamen’s Band of Brothers. Though initially respectful of the solemnity of the preceding material, ‘Inside-Out’ closes with a restoration of the whimsical mood that opened the album, now with greater orchestral backing.

    This score works on a listener in an unusual way. The first listen is mostly drawn to the beautiful melodic qualities of the score, which are more apparent in the Gypsy Band cues. But subsequent listens awaken to just how powerful the orchestral sections of the score are. And how integrated the whole score is – there are many themes and motifs here, and though the harmonic writing remains fairly straightforward throughout, the structuring of those themes is careful and assured, and probably is even more apparent to someone who knows what images accompany the score. (The hinting at the harp solo of ‘Resurrection’ throughout the score is one nice little detail.)

    Exhortation

    Paul Cantoleon is hopefully a voice we’ll be hearing more of in films to come. I would recommend this album to people who liked Elliot Goldenthal’s album for Frida. It may seem strange in that there’s not a Mexican influence here at all, but it’s more the way a powerful score that blends small and large ensembles and effective source cues that brings that comparison to mind. Gary Chester’s recording is beautifully balanced between individual players and the overall sound. Even in the cues where larger forces are at play, there is a strong sense of the dramatic power of individual instruments. Timbre is not forgotten even though a sizable texture was achievable, and the score is the better for it.

    This one’s for those who love their folk music – particularly the Eastern European variety. For them, it’s a real treat. If you’re not a fan of Eastern European rock, perhaps take a star away from my rating, but keep an open mind. I wouldn’t have thought I would have liked this album as much as I did if you’d described it to me. But I do like it, and I recommend it.

    Michael McLennan

    Rating: 4

    Review copy donated by reviewer.

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