April 2006 Film Music Editorial

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

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Editorial: Recent Music for Film

For lack of another place to introduce myself, this seems to be the spot. My name’s Michael McLennan. I’m an econometrician trying to make a full-time jump to film-making (I’ve made three short films as writer/director), and I’ve been a soundtrack collector since year nine high school in 1995. Firstly, I must apologise for our regular readers that this edition of FMOTW comes a couple of weeks later than expected – I’m still finding my feet as editor, and the choice of update time was poor planning on my part. I intend to make sure the late May update will come closer to running on schedule. Secondly, I’m very honoured that Ian Lace has asked me to edit the site’s updates, and while it’s been an eye-opener to what editing material for publication must be like in the print world, I’ve found it a steep learning curve putting it all together with the (very-patient) Tina Huang. Thirdly, I should thank all our reviewers for all their efforts for this update – I really appreciate your work guys.

Reviewing recent music for film

One of the things I feel is a bit remiss of soundtrack review sites is overemphasis on the soundtrack album as a delivery device for music that otherwise would never be heard in its pure form unsaddled by sound effects and dialogue. Yes, we’re reviewing the product, but it couldn’t hurt I feel to consider the motivations of the music as an element of storytelling through film. So I’m experimenting here with the idea of a column that tries to discuss a soundtrack album as though it was a way to reflect on how the music worked in the originating films.

This is close to the way I treat soundtrack albums to those films I love – as a way to re-insert myself into the experience of a film and capture again the emotions bound to that music via the synchresis of the image and sound. For anyone with a good memory for what music accompanies what image, neither operates on its own anymore – it’s impossible to completely separate the feelings generated by image and music when listening to the music, even if prior to experiencing the film, the music might not have had anywhere near the structural power or emotional content it does after. (Actually, Howard Shore’s Fellowship of the Ring album on Reprise Records back in 2001 didn’t really connect to me at all until I saw the film beyond the pleasant pastoral material for the Shire and the finale.)

Actually, the relationship between the feelings generated by the music and by the artwork as whole is even more connected than that. Like many soundtrack collectors, being attuned to the musical voices of different film composers, I find myself buying their works whether I’ve seen the film or not, and often as a prelude to looking at the film. In this way, a higher proportion of music used in film is familiar to me in a way that the classical or rock standards used in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey or Hopper’s Easy Rider respectively are familiar to the average filmgoer. So for me, unless I’m too overwhelmed by the moment to think clearly, I usually recognise most music when I hear it in the film, even if it’s only having a vague sense of where the next note will be.

This obviously has a radical effect on how music in films seems to me. I’m obviously very sensitive to the work of the music editor – I pick up the deviations from material I know. Also, as the music is the first part of the film I’ve experienced, the other elements of the film-making very much act as contrasting colours to the music, which is of course the opposite reaction to what the end-of-the-film-conveyer-belt position of soundtrack production would suggest. I point this out, because obviously it influences how I experience a film as a whole. Hopefully this column will combine a bit of my own prejudices towards film music for its own sake, and my desire to find out what really does work best for film.

For this time around, I’ve picked a very socially conscious film that left an impression on me: Fernando Mereilles’s adaptation of John le Carre’s The Constant Gardener. I was impressed by the film’s blend of love story and thriller, even if I think at its base, it handled the former element far better than the latter, though it didn’t seem that way at the time.

The Constant Gardener
Music composed and conducted by Alberto Iglesias
Higher Octave Music (EMI 09463-36887-2-8)
See Also: April 2006 Publication Review of The Constant Gardener

Alberto Iglesias’ score for The Constant Gardener, of all the five Oscar nominees for Best Original Score, seemed to encourage the most ambivalence from those who notice film music most. Partly this is the way Oscar trends work, and The Constant Gardener was a surprising inclusion by these standards. At least Brokeback Mountain, for all the relative simplicity of its score, was attached to a film whose technical nominations could be said to be part of the parcel of being the big fish in the Oscar pond – films nominated for Best Picture tend to get many other nominations besides, whether they deserve them or not. But what of The Constant Gardener? What precedent was there for the prestige, when the film was shut out of awards in the most relevant categories – cinematography, direction and acting?

The Score Concept

I believe there’s something more than politics to the ambivalence with which this music is regarded. It is written by a European composer (no problems there), but with the intention of serving as a voice for the people held victim to pharmaceutical amorality, the people of Kenya in the literal space of the film, but as these are surrogates for the economically-disadvantaged all the world over, so too the music is straining to be the voice of a globally disadvantaged people. To suggest the specificity of the film’s fanciful application, Iglesias works with musical structures that are very specifically sub-Saharan African in origin –polyrhythmic counterpoint, with a wide array of rhythmic timbres to create discernible coincident layers of rhythm. (Those who do not fear the wisdom of wikipedia and want to know more should check it out: here.) The story thus gives Iglesias his musical form – one that is geographically true.

But his choice of colouration involves far more lateral thinking, and speaks to the bilateral drama of the film – English people in Kenya – and the global subtext of the story (that people in all disadvantaged countries are disposable life for the wealthy). There’s an orchestra of strings back there somewhere – an old Iglesias weapon of choice that he uses sparingly, but effectively, here. There is of course a carefully selected percussion section (Paul Clarvis), and a variety of culturally appropriate instruments for Africa – the plucked nyatiti and voice of Ayub Ogada. Unsurprisingly there are more standard western colours – things like the marimba standing in for the local equivalent of the xylophone, but also western instruments with no local equivalents, piano, harp, clarinet, viola, cello – these are the white Anglo-Saxon protagonists whose interactions in local affairs are the subject of the story.

And then there’re instruments that don’t have anything to do with the English protagonists or their Kenyan hosts: the baritone sax, zumara, kawala, Turkish clarinet, ronroco (a Brazillian charango), and an accordion. These colours, noticeable throughout the score, are where Iglesias draws a connection between the plight of the sufferers in the story, and the economically deprived all-the-world over. The ronroco takes us to Brazil, and the slums of Mereilles’s previous film City of God. The duduk-like Turkish clarinet, and the shriller timbres of the single-reed zumara and the kawala flute put us in the proximity of the Middle East, and populations on the edge of political existence. And the accordion? It’s a stretch, but perhaps Iglesias included that one for himself. (His scores for Carne Tremolo and The Dancer Upstairs also showcase accordion.)

It should have sounded like John Barry…

So you have music based on dense polyrhythmic counterpoint, featuring an array of colours from all corners of ‘world music’. Now among soundtrack aficionados, there is a strong, you could almost say a stubborn, preference for minimal deviation from theme-and-variation structure, voiced in romantic idioms by, of course, an orchestral voice. Automatically, Iglesias’s score, which must seem like a strange blend of world music and pop music (polyrhythmic forms being familiar from jazz and blues of course), is discounted. Because to an ear given over to orchestral works in non-contemporary forms, world music difficult to access, and pop music about as far from what they want their film music to be as possible. (By contrast, Santaolalla’s music for Brokeback Mountain is quite melodic, but with minimal variation from the core material, prompting the response ‘Is that all?’) And while I can appreciate the reasons for this, I do think we limit our appreciation of music for film by not allowing ourselves to be affected by forms of music that we regard as beneath our attention. Iglesias’s score for The Constant Gardener isn’t pop music or world music – it’s film music, by a capable and intuitive dramatist.

The perfect score for a film set in Kenya in the preferred approach would seem to be John Barry’s beautiful orchestral score for Out of Africa. Now Barry rightly reasoned in his scoring of Sydney Pollack’s film that he was scoring the feelings of a European woman, not a sense of place, and that his lilting string themes were emotionally more appropriate to smooth a western audience into the world of Karen Blixen than any concessions to local cultural reality. And it’s a classic, and understood to be one. It’s no coincidence that the most popular sections of Gabriel Yared’s subtle English Patient score, and Niki Reiser’s score for Nowhere in Africa, are those that follow Barry’s example – where scoring the setting does not involve extensive use of traditional music styles.

A Thriller, and a Love Story

But if music is to be emotionally appropriate, the needs of the film must come into account. A glib reading of The Constant Gardener is that it is the same situation as Out of Africa: white people running around Kenya acting as surrogates for a Sunday afternoon crowd. But they’re very different films – Pollack’s film is a travelogue and feminine-discovery-of-independence story – wonder and loneliness are the preferred expressions. Mereilles’ film is a thriller delving in conspiracy theories, dark deeds, unexplained actions, and unexpected revelations – shock, mystery, and finally, love, are the key ideas here. The prevalent mode should be one of discomfort. Holding back satisfyingly coherent tonally-centred themes until those one or two moments in the film where they really pay off, moving musical ideas around in short motif form, playing with the tension-inducing power of polyphony and the emotional power of colour – this is what Iglesias’s score does to perfection.

I believe his success is in avoiding a more typical score structure and idiom. He catches us off guard and yet his less recognisable music is no less effective in achieving its results. I’ve become used to figuring out how a score is working as I’m seeing a film, but in the case of The Constant Gardener, I couldn’t really get a handle on the structure of the music, only its effects. It’s only with repeated viewings that I’ve been able to get a better understanding of the structure of the score, and I think it’s to his credit that Iglesias subverts comfortable approaches to music for film. The spotting is subtle for the most part, and the gratifying thematic cues never trump the story as a result – they feel like they’ve been earned, much like John Williams’s score for Munich. (Which is not to say that the music doesn’t play well on its own, more that you won’t remember it specifically for a given scene of the film, because chances are it was working too subtly for you to notice it was even there. You only felt the effects of it being there.)

So how is this score put together? For reasons mentioned above, it’s a hard score to talk about in terms of themes. They’re there for those who look for them, but they’re so associated with particular colours that it’s more useful to talk about the score in terms of timbre. And attention to the dramatic effect of texture is what distinguishes the writing here, showcased in impressive set pieces for special instrumentation. I’m going to look at the relationship between ideas and colours throughout the film.

Grief – ethnic woodwinds and choir

A great deal of the story concerns grief, and the slow way it overcomes. The Turkish clarinet opens with a melancholy ascending theme over solemn low strings in ‘Tessa’s Death’. Both the theme and the string writing (a slow rhythmic dirge) are recognisably the work of the composer of The Dancer Upstairs and the Almodovar films. The ambivalence of the single reed instrument here is like Justin’s grief – it comes slowly. The bird-like kawala (an Egyptian short end-blown cane flute) takes up the cue at the halfway mark, with light guitar and percussion accompaniment. A bass flute motif closes the cue. (Remarkably, all these winds and flutes are played by the same musician – Javier Paxarino – a composer in his own right.) The turkish clarinet returns in ‘Justin returns to the house’, but the grief here is undercut by suspicion of Tessa’s fidelity, voiced by ambivalent clarinet and guitar motifs.

In ‘Funeral’, Justin visibly starts to show his grief as gravediggers attempt to encase his wife’s coffin in cement. In the score’s first genuinely emotional piece, a spare piano theme with African male choir accompaniment renders the sadness intimate (the piano) and connects it to a history of human experience of grief (the choir). The climax of the album, coming about halfway through the film, is ‘Justin’s Breakdown’. A grief stricken dialogue for Turkish clarinet and kuwala leads into a haunting choral reprise of the ‘Funeral’ theme. Combined with Fiennes’s passionate devastation, it’s a heartbreaking scene. Trilling dissonant kawala writing over accelerating overlapping percussion and string rhythms bring the cue to a climax as a flood of images bring the past back to the Fiennes character. Sadly the ‘Dropped Off at Lake Turkana’ cue is not the film version – the film featuring a haunting cello solo where this cue highlights the Turkish clarinet in a manner almost identical to ‘Justin returns to the house’.

The choir is only used in one other prominent place in the score, the Sudan sequence, as aid workers are evacuated and locals left to defend for themselves when horseback bandits come to raid the town for slaves and goods. (Were it not for its climactic place in the film, you wouldn’t necessarily buy the scene – it one of the more fanciful le Carre setpieces.) After a strident percussion and strings piece that lends suspense to the arrival of the bandits, Iglesias scores against the frantic action drives the suspense preceding the band’s arrival, Iglesias scores against the frantic action with less thematic writing for choir (similar to some vocal ideas in John Williams’s Amistad) to capture the loss of life in the ‘Raid’. The grief here is intended to be the viewer’s – the main character is not privy to this view, it is something shown to the western audience to shame them for indifference. (The mournful Turkish clarinet solo of ‘Destruction’ works in a similar way.)

Solo vocal – the spirit of activism

The main theme of the score of sorts is ironically a piece of pre-existing music by the performer of vocals in the Iglesias score. The Ayub Ogada song ‘Kothbiro’, an elegiac vocal piece with piano and guitar support that serves as a musical theme for the compassionate activism that arises from personal loss. When Tessa’s baby dies, it underscores her immersion into exposing the underbelly of pharmaceutical companies. When Justin continues her work after her death, it underscores the sense he has of getting closer to her by continuing her work. When both lovers lie dead at the end of the film, the use of ‘Kothbiro’ over the end credits suggests that Tessa and Justin have connected through their martyrdom – that they leave the world together. (It is also almost a call for people who would give their lives to make a difference, an uncompromising pacifism.)

Fragments of the song appear for solo guitar and piano throughout the score, the closest thing to a driving theme. I suspect it was tracked over some of Iglesias’s original writing for the film, and while the spotting is well executed, the piece comes with a feeling of being faded in and out rather than being tailored to the scene – never quite finishing. (The price of using music for film that isn’t written exactly for the image.) Parts of ‘Hospital’ and ‘Destruction’ seem to be replaced by this piece. While ‘Kothbiro’ is beautiful in context, it would have been interesting to hear the more subtle score cues in their place. Fortunately the instrumental base of the song and the vocalist are integrated into the whole score, and the pieces don’t sound out of place at all.

There is another Ayub Ogada song ‘Dicholo’, with vocals, nyatiti, and kawala. If ‘Kothbiro’ is elegiac, this is sprightly, underscoring Tessa’s initial unblinkered foray into activism in the slums.

Guitar, ronroco, harp – marital bliss

The guitar and the ronroco are used so prevalently through the score, that it may seem foolish to assign it a dramatic function, but I believe this colour has a lot to do with relationship of Justin and Tessa – whether it is passionate love or the awkward ennui of early marital blues. Opening for harp, accompaniment in the form of guitar and nyatiti gently interplay in a beautiful simple theme in ‘Tessa in the Bath’, a scene of marital bliss that is unsettled by the intrusion of an email that suggests Tessa’s infidelity (dissonant kawala vibrato). Over tenser overlapping rhythms for marimba with dissonant flute interaction, the gentle timbre of the ronroco recalls this theme in ‘Hospital’. After the death of her baby, the tension between the two undercuts the bond of the couple, and the guitar writing here reflects that.

Question-shaped ascending guitar motifs raise doubts on Tessa’s fidelity after her death in ‘Justin Returns to the House’. The same motifs return in ‘Dropped off at Turkana’ as Justin crosses the salt lake to the site of her death, those questions resolved, but with doubts in his mind as to how he can get closer to her now her work is complete. And in the film’s most extraordinary cue, a masterpiece of subtlety, the second half of ‘Justin’s Death’ is a piece for ronroco and guitar that underscores Justin’s wait for the men who killed his wife. It almost sounds like aleatoric writing, though it hits too many marks in the scene to have been anything other than carefully composed counterpoint for two skilful players. The little motifs for guitar from the earlier cues return, speeded up, tumbling over each other towards the inevitability of the main character’s death.

The extreme of Justin’s love in this scene is such that he will give his life to see her work succeed (he seems to be a fatalistic sort) – and the music is the culmination of the music that has accompanied their love throughout, plucked and strummed timbres. The dramatic effect of the piece is not of coming death, though there is an ominous passage dovetailing the rounding-the-corner of the assassin’s car. Rather it’s one of coming ascension, and of the nervous heartbeat of a committed man as he waits for the martyrdom he’s actively sought. And at the end, the guitarists simply stop playing, as though they were distracted from their dialogue – the final space of silence before the credits, thankfully not punctuated by gunshots, is magical.

(Another nice aspect of ‘Justin’s Death’ is the first half – while mixed below dialogue in the film’s penultimate sequence, the three sections – the delightfully ambivalent clarinet over jazzy cymbal-snare hits, the flute solo, and the guitar solo – all perfectly underline the emotional needs of that speech. It’s a bit on-the-nose in the film, but so is the scene, and the film has possibly earned it by this stage.)

Polyrhythmic writing – the travelogue and the thriller

As a story of latter day colonialists in Africa, there is unavoidably a travelogue aspect – and Mereilles lifts it by showing us an Africa we haven’t really seen before. For Justin’s first investigations into his wife’s death, Iglesias wrote ‘Roadblock I’, an allegro travel montage cue with multiple rhythmic lines in a number of unique colours – including accordion, guitar, ronroco, staccato African male vocals, marimba and nyatiti – while David Daniels’ cello arcs a beautiful melody through the piece. The melody is passed between the various participating instruments, creating a piece fluid in its separation of rhythmic and melodic voices. Sadly it wasn’t used in its complete form in the film. (Nor was ‘Roadblock II’ for that matter, another polyrhythmic piece presumably written for the same scene with similar instrumental base and prominent vocals by featured vocalist Ayub Ogada and the Turkish clarinet.)

As the film progresses, the journeys take Justin further into the mystery behind his wife’s death and the knowledge of wrongdoing, and the travelogue aspect becomes less significant. Rather than packaging the landscape, Iglesias counterpoints the images with motion and tension. ‘To Airport’ is dense polyphonic percussion writing as Justin is packed back to England. Just as Justin lacks clarity in his search for the truth, so too the music confounds the western ear by withholding a melodic through-line. ‘Jomo gets an HIV test’ and ‘Motorcycle’, with their dissonant jazzy interchanges for zumara, kawala and baritone saxophone, work in much the same way – chaotic dissonant mystery.

Everything changes after ‘Justin’s Breakdown’, and these travel cues are increasingly centred around string soloists – a device Iglesias used equally effectively in The Dancer Upstairs. Armed with the knowledge that Tessa truly loved him, Justin travels ‘To Germany’, his intent underscored with a cello solo over over-lapping string orchestra and ethnic percussion rhythms, a pattern reprised in the more intense if shorter ‘To Loki’. Though it is more adagio than allegro in style, ‘Kindergarten’ (which I don’t remember hearing in the film) is an extended solo for viola over subtle bass guitar, flute and marimba accompaniment. It’s a tremendously effective sound for the strength of Justin’s love for Tessa, and I suspect it was written for (and partially used in), the scene following Justin’s beating in the German hotel. As noted before, the climax of the use of the cello comes in the film version of ‘Dropped off at Lake Turkana’, where the film’s opening theme for Turkish clarinet is given a cello reading.

Besides the travel scenes, there are many cues throughout where Iglesias uses multiple rhythmic layers and a blend of instrumentation to give suspenseful arcs to scenes or to suggest a sense that a darker structure of motivations lies behind facades. Examples include: ‘Kenny Curtis’ (the keyboard and bass flute at the start before the Dancer Upstairs-style piano comes in is chilling), ‘We’ll both be dead by Christmas’ (drums and marimba set the stage here – it’s beautifully mixed, as is Iglesias’s work in general, here done by Jose Luis Crespo), and ‘Three Bees Testing’ (furiously kinetic).


I hope I’ve done some justice here with my makeshift musicology to the architecture of Iglesias’s very fine score for the Fernando Mereilles film. It’s organic to the film, and a departure of sorts for its composer, though his voice is never too far away. Unlike our reviewer elsewhere in this edition, who found the music intrinsically interesting, I believe it is also a fine film score. The subtle consistencies of the work probably aided the strangely-plotted film considerably towards its emotional power.

I should note this survey only scratches the surface of the writing throughout the score. The thing that’s great about film music is that it is a very subtle thing – capable of achieving multiple effects at any given moment. This is a rich ensemble score by a very distinct musical voice – I would take it over what many have claimed is a similar effort, the Black Hawk Down soundtrack, good as that score by Hans Zimmer was. Hopefully this will not be the last collaboration between this director and composer.

(c) 2006 Michael McLennan

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