February 2006 Film Music CD Reviews

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

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La Puta y La Ballena  
Music composed by Andres Goldstein and Daniel Tarrab
Except “Danzarin” (composed by Julian Plaza), “Flores Negras” (composed by Francisco de Caro/ Mario Gormilla) and “Bailarin Compadrito” (composed by Miguel Bucino).
Performed by members of The National Symphony Orchestra, the National Philharmonic Orchestra of the Republica Argentina, and by the Cuarteto de Tango.
With violin solos by Luis Roggero and viola solos by Gustavo Massun. Bandoneon performed by Nestor Marconi.
  Available on Mellowdrama Records (MEL 104)
Running Time: 46:12
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This new soundtrack by Andres Goldstein and Daniel Tarrab came to me with the highest recommendation not just for the album, but also for the Luis Puenzo film that it accompanied. Quoting from the excellent liner notes from Glen Aitken and Film Music on the Web’s Associate Editor, Gary Dalkin:

“Almost entirely neglected and unknown in the English speaking world, La Puta y la Ballena was not just the most hauntingly beautiful, intelligent and imaginative film of 2004. It was, quite simply, the best film of the year.”

Strong praise. Sadly I haven’t seen this unsung masterpiece. The plot reads like a summary of a Julio Medem film (writer/director of Sex y Lucia, Lovers of the Artic Circle, Tierra, The Red Squirrel), and that can only be a good thing. Key plot points involve a novelist in search of a story in the far reaches of Patagonia, an unpowered-yet-illuminated lightbulb, and a whale that washes up on the same beach again and again. The liner notes elaborate connections to Jorge Luis Borges and Manuel Puig. It sounds like my kind of film.

Certainly it is my kind of score. This is a rich orchestral effort from two composers whose names I have not heard of before. Argentinian composers Andres Goldstein and Daniel Tarrab collaborated previously for a documentary by the director of this film – Some who Lived. For this follow-up collaboration, the two were nominated for Best Soundtrack and for Best Discovery of the Year at the World Soundtrack Awards in 2004. Their work here has a romantic life that combines the lushness of Gabriel Yared and John Barry with strong tango writing. The warm mix Jorge Moralos has constructed strengthens the connection to those romantic composers for film.

The score is based on two tango themes – one by Goldstein (“Matilde La Iniciacion”) and the other by Tarrab (“La Lamparita”). Both were intended to sound organic to a year crucial to the film’s plot – 1934 – with principal instruments in the composition the indelible bandoneon (performed beautifully by Nestor Marconi), solo violin, piano and contrabass. “Lamparita” is the lustier of the two – the major-key melody speaks of possibilities, and in the film serves as a march for an aging brothel owner. “Matilde” is the more romantic of the two – a minor-key melody played in duet by violin and piano at first before the bandoneon enlivens proceedings. In their feel and arrangements, both carry a heavily nostalgic feel. Both are performed by Nestor Marconi’s Tango Quartet (along with compositions from other contemporary composers) at the end of the album. The liner notes indicate the dramatic importance of the use of the pieces in the film, and the difficulties in writing for the single-reed bandoneon. The performances are lusty, and are reminiscent of Astor Piazzola’s compositions.

While the main themes arise from these tangos, the bulk of the score is a more traditional romantic orchestral score, with themes performed by soloists over warm diatonic harmonies in the strings akin to Gabriel Yared’s Cold Mountain or John Barry’s The Scarlet Letter. The tango melodies are embedded in the compositions, such as the viola solo of “La Lamparita” in ‘Prelude’, or the full orchestral arrangement of that tango with bandoneon solo in ‘La Lamparita – End Credits’. Less commonly used, presumably for dramatic reasons, is “Matilde”, first heard in ‘Paja Brava / Lola – The Baptism’, an arrangement for strings against solo oboe that is also one of the more complex harmonic passages on the album. The theme, my preferred of the two tangos, is brought to a lovely climax in ‘Emilia – Farewell’. The tunes, which may have leaned towards a particular tone in their tango arrangements (eg. The ebullience of “Lamparita”) are manipulated to suggest a range of emotions in the underscore.

There are also themes exclusive to the underscore that serve only an extra-diegetic function – ‘Main Title’ and ‘An Argument’ both show-case a minor-key piano theme with a repeated descending phrase that appears throughout the score in various forms. ‘The Journey’ has a lovely expansive motif that appears throughout. A delicate clarinet theme opens ‘Tale of the Whale’, .and the flute motif that leads into ‘Buoy / Call at the Beach’ is lovely. And there are more little themes throughout. There is an amazing consistency to the score throughout – those who argue that multiple composer projects rarely achieve a memorable consistent throughline (a criticism hurled at the unjustly maligned recent Newton-Howard/Zimmer collaboration Batman Begins) will find very little to complain about here: Goldstein and Tarrab’s aesthetics are very much cut from the same cloth.

Possibly the only reservation I might express is that the harmonic writing here is mostly of a simple nature. More involved contrapuntal relation of the main themes is one thing that, were this a classical work, would have been necessary for the music to truly be completely absorbing. But as this is a film score, with musical needs dictated by the dramatic needs of the edit, the liner notes probably have to be taken at their word when they hint at the dramatic explanation of this musical choice:

“What could have been dark in nature is played delicately, reinforced more by poignant soli and well-placed dynamics, than by complex harmonies which would have spurned the particulars of Lola’s era in favour of tipping-the-nod to the audience.”

All that remains to comment on are the production values of this release. Mellowdrama’s third release is as impressive as its predecessors. The liner notes by Glen Aitken and Gary Dalkin are erudite – both informative as to the role of the music in the film and the production process. It would be a greedy person that would ask for more, but I would’ve liked a track-by-track analysis in these liner notes as well a la Film Score Monthly, if only because I’m curious about the role this music plays in specific scenes. (For example – I never really got it into my head as to why Matilde, who seems a fairly minor character in the plot summary, merited her own tango. It’s implied that ‘Lamparita’ was for the Borges-surrogate Suarez. Similarly, what did the many themes in the underscore actually represent in the film?) Still, I suppose there’s an argument for seeing the film before asking those questions. If the company that has given us Roque Banos’ The Machinist (MEL-100) and Zbigniew Preisner’s The Beautiful Country (MEL-102) continues to release quality scores like this, they will have no trouble establishing themselves as an invaluable distributor in the film music market.

Michael McLennan


NOTE: An earlier Argentinian release of this score was reviewed in 2004 by Gary Dalkin and was among the Editor Commendations for November. The Mellowdrama release omits some source cues from the earlier release, and features a resequencing and remastering of the score. That review may be read here: http://www.musicweb.uk.net/film/2004/Nov04/la_puta_y_la_ballena.html

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