June 2006 Film Music CD Reviews

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

index page/ monthly listings/ June/

Music composed, arranged and produced Johan Soderqvist
Performed by members of the Philharmonia Orchestra, London, with Mattias Torell (guitars), Mikael Augustsson (bandoneon), Ahmet Tekbilek (jura/oud), and Leo Svensson (additional cello)
Conducted by James Sherman
Orchestrated by Joakim Milder and Johan Soderqvist
‘When I’m coming home’ performed by Andrew Strong. Music and lyrics by Jesper Winge Leisner. Produced by Boe Larsen.
  Available on Milan (M2-36121)
Running Time: 40:24
Amazon US

See also:

  • The Constant Gardener
  • The Weeping Meadow
  • The Beautiful Country
  • This score, winner of the inaugural 2006 UMCF award for Best Original Film Music performed by non-classical ensemble, marks the fifth collaboration of Danish film composer Johan Soderqvist with director Susanne Biers. Biers is mostly known in international cinema for her Dogme Manifesto film Open Hearts, and following the guidelines of Dogme, that acclaimed film played without any underscore. It was one of the better films to come out of the movement, though I suspect that was more in spite of the strictures of Lars von Trier than because of them. Some films benefit from the conscious rejection of underscore – Michael Haneke’s Cache being a recent case – but in the case of Dogme it always seemed that whether the storytelling benefited from music or not wasn’t the point. It was the politics of cinema, and while Biers’s film was strong enough to stand without music, it’s worth wondering what could have been achieved if the rulebook had been put away, and her collaborator Johan Soderqvist had scored the film.

    Thankfully, in her follow-up film Brodre (Brothers) –Dogme now being a thing of the past – Biers can once more do what a good director should: tell a story through compelling and uncensored crafting of what is seen and heard. This film follows a journey of moral reversal between two Danish brothers. Michael (Ulrich Thomsen) is the good brother, son, father and husband – the one who always apologises for the mistakes of his brother Jannik (Nikolaj Lie Kaas). Jannik is just out of gaol – returning from imprisonment to a life of feeling inferior to his sibling. A trip to Afghanistan as a UN peace-keeper leaves Michael imprisoned and presumed dead by his family. In his absence, his wife Sarah (Connie Nielsen) draws closer to Jannik, the latter rising to the occasion and growing in responsibility in his brother’s absence. Though Michael is not dead, the price he pays for his freedom leaves him as socially marginalized on his return to Denmark as his brother was on his release from prison. And with both brothers living under the same roof again, the unstable Michael increasingly feels jealous of his redeemed brother.

    Soderqvist’s score avoids the standard classical ensemble approach to film scoring, favouring an eclectic mix of selected classical and specialized instrumentation. The sparse texture includes cello, clarinet, harp, celeste, and small string ensemble, as well as electric guitar, oud, bandoneon, steel string guitar, Turkish jura (a three-stringed strummed relative of the Greek bouzouki), hammered dulcimer and mandolin – all played with nervous tremolo for vaguely unsettling effect. Some instruments are there for their associative power – the use of the oud and jura a nod to the film’s partial Afghanistan setting. Other instruments are there simply for their distinct colour, the bandoneon for example. Particularly interesting is the use of electric guitar – guitarist Mattias Tremble put loud gain on the guitar and barely touched it, the resulting sounds then looped almost as an ‘atmospheric’ base track for many of the score cues (as in ‘The Murder’, ‘Two Worlds’ and many others).

    The result is a sparse and melancholy score that recalls more than anything else the austere film music of Zbigniew Preisner (Double Life of Veronique, The Beautiful Country), and especially that great synthesist of classical and Greek folk music, Eleni Karaindrou (The Weeping Meadow, Eternity and a Day, Ulysses’ Gaze). Other moments recall the ambiguity of Alberto Iglesias (Lovers of the Artic Circle, The Dancer Upstairs), especially the haunting clarinet solos over electric guitar tremolo in ‘The Cigarette’ and ‘The Murder’. Occasionally synthetic instrumentation recalls the minimalist film scoring of Gustavo Santaolalla (21 Grams, Amores Perros) and Cliff Martinez (Solaris, Traffic), as in ‘Missing Him’ and ‘Aftermath’.

    It’s not a score of themes so much as moods, though there are melodies here. Most noticeable is the theme that runs through ‘Brothers’, ‘Letters’ and ‘Afghanistan’ – a piece incorporating oud and jura (its tightly strummed-sound reminiscent of Santaolalla’s ronrocco from ‘Iguazu’), with gentle string support and a memorable bandoneon line that lingers on the last echoing electric guitar chord. The other main melody is based on descending phrases bridged by a large ascending leap, and represents the woman that becomes a source of jealousy between the brothers – Sarah. The theme is initially presented on clarinet in ‘Sarah’s Theme’, and its simple shape is passed through the ensemble – oud, harp and bandoneon each perform it before the cue’s end. While the ‘Brothers’ theme is more occasional, Sarah’s theme is present in some form in almost every track – in the high strings in ‘The Message’ with cello emphasis; in counterpoint to the ‘Brothers’ theme in ‘Time Passing’; in bandoneon and cello in the more positive ‘Ice’; for celli in the moving concluding score track ‘He Had a Little Son’.

    But one gets less of a sense of the melody of this score than the sound of it. Though the tracks are generally short, the stop-start motion of the music (another similarity to Preisner) makes the track divisions relatively unnoticeable. And the album is well sequenced – both dramatically and musically, communicating the arc of the story to someone who knows only the bare essentials, and also maintaining interest in a score that is more textural than melodic. The highlights of the album, intense pieces for solo cello (‘Remembrance’ and ‘Repentance’), sit nicely amongst more ambiguous cues, their dramatic effect enhanced by the sonic variety of the whole. Another cello highlight is ‘Sarah at Night’, the player suggesting an Eastern European style of melody, and the brief but dramatic bandoneon appearance in ‘Sarah and Michael part 2’.

    Only the slightly saccharine song by Jesper Winge that bookends the score breaks the mood. Naturally Milan was uncomfortable releasing a half hour score without some filler, but even if the song had only been included once (at the end of the album it seems to work better), it would have made for a less jarring experience. I grimaced on my first listen to this disc on hearing the song, fearing Soderqvist’s score might be along similar lines. Thankfully this award-winning score is quite a way beyond that, but it could have stood on its own I believe.

    Compelling and deserving of its acclaim. If this is an indication of the kind of subtle scoring that would result, I would that more film composers would choose small ensembles comprised of distinct voices over the thick symphonic textures so arbitrarily laid over many films. My thanks to the composer for answering questions on his approach to scoring the film. The composer can be contacted through his website: johansoderqvist.com

    Michael McLennan

    Rating: 4

    Return to Reviews Index

    Reviews from previous months

    You can purchase CDs, tickets and musician's accessories and Save around 22% with these retailers: