April 2006 Film Music Editorial

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

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Editorial: Composers of the Month
Mychael Danna, Gabriel Yared

Partly because of the almost bi-monthly frequency of our updates at Film Music on the Web, our reviews often include multiple works by a particular composer. Our February update, for example, focused heavily on John Williams, with strong reviews of three of his albums. I feel it’s worth making a point when a situation like this arises, because it means in the medium term that we have an opportunity to assess the various contributions of a composer to modern film music. We won’t necessarily be doing this every update (quantity does not always translate to quality for one), but more often than not there’s a name or two that stand out from the pack in a given month, and it’s a fortunate coincidence that two of my favourite modern composers were remarkably prolific of late.

Mychael Danna

Born in 1958, this Canadian-born composer has continually impressed with his work in international arthouse cinema. Danna’s background in music began as a student of composition at the University of Toronto, followed by a stint at the McGlaughlin Planetarium as composer-in-residence. His ongoing creative relationship with fellow national Atom Egoyan is legend, having recently resulted in their tenth feature film score together, Where the Truth Lies (reviewed in this edition). And it is in the high tide of Egoyan’s work – Exotica, The Sweet Hereafter, Felicia’s Journey, Ararat – that Danna’s work seems mostly skillfully bonded to the tone and arc of film narrative. Probably the most effective scene produced by the two is the final scene of Exotica, where the mystery at the heart of the damaged characters is revealed to an emotionally-crushing reprise of Danna’s opening theme. The scene and its score work because of the superb structure of the film and score prior to that conclusion. Informed by aesthetics from Middle Eastern and Indian music, the theme is typical of Danna’s lateral thinking in terms of what comprises the ideal film ensemble – it depends of the film, an orchestra is by no means chosen by default, and instrumental ideas from outside the western canon are a frequent feature of his work, whether motivated by the setting of the story or not.

Though the Egoyan collaboration initiated Danna into film scoring, another collaboration equally contributed to the development of his status as an arthouse composer. Ang Lee chose Danna as collaborator for The Ice Storm, where the composer blended minimalist orchestral ideas with gamelan textures for an allegorical reading of the failure of family structures in the Nixon era. The two also collaborated on Danna’s most exciting score, Ride with the Devil, part-Civil War sideshow, part-Western, part-bildungsroman. (The banjo never sounded so thrilling.) And while I don’t know the score, I’ve heard great things about the mixture of baroque and Tibetan styles (!) Danna created for Lee’s contribution to the BMW short film series starring Clive Owen. Though his work for Lee’s Hulk never reached fruition, his demo ideas showcasing Middle Eastern vocals and duduk as colours became a credited part of Danny Elfman’s score for that film.

Other collaborators are a proverbial who’s-who of world arthouse cinema, and an astonishing catalogue of Danna’s versatility of style. Directors Danna has worked with include Scott Hicks (the ‘American transcendentalism’ of Hearts in Atlantis), James Mangold (the glass-based ensemble of Girl, Interrupted), Mira Nair (the idiomatic Indian classical sound of Kama Sutra, the more pop-oriented Indian sound of Monsoon Wedding, the Mozart aesthetic of Vanity Fair), Istvan Szabo (Being Julia), Gilles Mackinnon (early 20th century British chamber composition in Regeneration), Tony Bui (the ethnic Vietnamese solos with orchestral backing of Green Dragon, with brother Jeff Danna) and forthcoming work for Terry Gilliam (Tideland, again with Jeff Danna). Though the composer has flirted with more commercial material – Joel Schumacker’s 8MM, and Denzil Washington’s Antwone Fisher – he seems to have deliberately steered clear of films that are less likely to accommodate his eclectic approach to scoring. (And those two assignments certainly did.)

Though Danna is often labeled something of a ‘chameleon’ among those who prefer less subtle scoring, he has a voice that is distinct and runs through all these works. The phrasing of his melodies, their subtle relationship to screen action, the genuine adoption of foreign musical aesthetics and not merely strong-arming exotic colouration into an otherwise western romantic approach – these are all characteristics that give away a work as being penned by Danna. (And I accidentally tested it once – I recognized themes from both Monsoon Wedding and Vanity Fair as Danna’s work without knowing he had composed them.) Worth noting in any discussion of Danna’s career is his ongoing professional relationship with orchestrator Nicholas Dodd, who collaborates with Danna on the orchestration of the scores, and conducts the work himself.

This month we present three soundtrack albums, cut from the scores of three recent films by directors of interest. Ian Lace reviews the album mixture of Danna score and Truman Capote narration from the acclaimed Bennett Miller film Capote. Amer Zahid considers Water, Danna’s score for the long-delayed final work in Deepa Mehta’s trilogy about Indian society. Also reviewed is the most recent collaboration with Atom Egoyan, Where the Truth Lies, an arthouse approach to potentially-potboiler material. While all three of these reviews were positive in their reflections on Danna’s score as a dramatic work, I have decided to pick out the latter score in my Recommendations for the month, simply because it feels like new territory for its composer, and he traverses it impressively.

For further information on Mychael Danna, I recommender his website (http://www.mychaeldanna.com) and the page on him at Movie Music UK (a valuable resource as ever). The archived interviews with Doug Adams on the composer’s own website are good reading for those interested in the composer’s process.

  • Capote
    RCA/Legacy BMK678151

  • Water
    Varese Sarabande VSD-6695

  • Where the Truth Lies
    Varese Sarabande VSD-6696

  • For those interested in reading more on Danna as well, we also have a range of reviews of previous titles, including Bounce, Monsoon Wedding, Regeneration, Ride with the Devil, and Ararat: C-D Reviews

    Gabriel Yared

    I’m always amazed when I hear that Lebanese-born French composer Gabriel Yared (born in 1949) never underwent formal study in composition. His background was as a songwriter and orchestrator for popular performers in the 1970s before he turned to film scoring. I’m surprised, because his voice as a film composer is very classical in its influences. (To the extent that he has written a number of ballet scores – including Clavigo most recently.) It’s something of an inspiration that someone can reach those sorts of heights without the obvious starting points that are generally considered essential.

    Whatever his beginnings, Gabriel Yared has found a niche in European and American film scoring that encourages expressive music for orchestra. His early European films are probably his most artistically ambitious, featuring titles by auteurs Jean-Jacques Beneix (Betty Blue, La Lune dans de Caniveau), Jean-Jacques Annaud (L’Amant, Wings of Courage), Bruno Nuytten (Camille Claudel) and Costa-Gavras (Hanna K). Though his work for western directors preceded Anthony Minghella’s The English Patient (Vincent Ward’s Map of the Human Heart stands out), it was the deserved acclaim and Oscar sweep of the Ondaatje adaptation that put Yared in demand in the west.

    Initially this acclaim resulted in frustrating assignments. Those who anticipated great things on seeing Yared’s name connected to Bille Auguste’s Les Miserables and Iain Softley’s Wings of a Dove were also among the frustrated, as they went to cinemas to hear scores (however fine) by replacement composers Basil Poledouris and Ed Shearmur respectively. (Though to be fair, in the case of the latter, it has come to light in recent interviews that Yared was the replacement composer.)

    Though Yared’s work with Minghella continued to accrue Oscar acclaim and test his range (the tragic thriller modes of The Talented Mr Ripley, the hymnal style of Cold Mountain), more often that not his assignments were melodramas. Much like Georges Delerue, another romantic voice relegated to genres beneath his considerable talents, Yared’s expressive orchestral writing was used for a series of assignments that betray the typecasting – City of Angels, Autumn in New York, Message in a Bottle, The Next Best Thing are among the many. However varied the composer’s scores were for these films, the homogenous inspiration must have been a frustration.

    And so in recent years, Yared has increasingly taken on European-set or financed projects. Australian director Samantha Lang’s L’Idole produced one of his finest scores, a subtle work for a strange film, with a small ensemble incorporating Chinese instrumentation to represent one of the film’s main characters. Neil Labute’s adaptation of Byatt’s Possession and Christine Jeff’s awkward poetry-less film Sylvia also stand out among recent assignments for their scores. Surely the most radical genre shift for the composer would have come with Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy, and his score for it seems comparable to Profokiev’s Alexander Nevsky cantata in its self-contained power. Sadly the score was rejected, despite the music Yared wrote for the execrable film being substantially more interesting than just about any other contribution in the sword-and-sandals genre since perhaps Miklos Rozsa.

    Unlike Danna, Yared has been rather quiet of late in American cinema. Likely the fallout of the personal and professional disappointment of the Troy incident, there are no American titles in the immediate future, and his scores of late have been for Cedric Kahn’s L’Avion (available on Colosseum Records) and the German film Das Leben der Anderen (also on Colosseum), with forthcoming scores for David Leland’s Decameron and Anthony Minghella’s Breaking and Entering.

    What we feature this month is something of a retrospective on Yared. Kindly, French company Cinefonia Records has supplied us with review copies of three titles in their six CD collection on Yared’s 1980s work in film, titles that have long been out-of-print and are now available again for online purchase. So I’m pleased to include reviews of these titles in the current update, the three titles showing off Yared’s impressive dramatic range. Camille Claudel, for Bruno Nuytten’s film, is an essential work – stern, dramatic, passionate, erotic. His divisi writing for strings is recorded beautifully in one of our Editor’s Choice selections for this update.

    La Lune dans de Caniveau comes from the near forgotten Jean-Jacques Beneix film, and its eclectic timbres are about as far as you could get from the textures of Camille Claudel, but the contrast is more exciting than jarring. Thirdly, Yared’s emphasis on Middle Eastern colours in his writing is covered in Tim Lines’ review of the compilation Les Orientales. All three albums are reviewed positively – despite recent turns in Yared’s Hollywood fortunes, it seems there’s never been a better time to access his rich body of work. (And it is to the credit of Cinefonia that they collaborated with Yared in releasing them.)

    I’m looking forward to featuring an article in the near future on Yared’s score for Troy, based on observations derived from synchronizing the music on the promotional album of Yared’s rejected score to the Wolfgang Peterson film. Until then, as with Mychael Danna, for further information on Gabriel Yared, his website (also that of his publishing company, Yad Music - http://www.gabrielyared.com) and Jon Broxton’s page at Movie Music UK are good places to start with this exceptional romantic composer.

  • Camille Claudel
    Cinefonia-Yad CFY-002

  • La Lune dans de Caniveau
    Cinefonia - Yad CFY-004

  • Les Orientales
    Cinefonia - Yad CFY-003

  • For those interested in reading more on Yared, we also have a range of reviews of previous titles in our archives, including The English Patient, The Talented Mr Ripley, Sylvia, Possession and Message in a Bottle among others: W-Z Reviews

    Michael McLennan

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