June 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
Alexandre Desplat, Christopher Gordon, Carl Vine

Partly because of the bi-monthly frequency of our updates at Film Music on the Web, our reviews often include multiple works by a particular composer. In our March update, for example, three albums featuring film scores by Gabriel Yared and Mychael Danna were reviewed. While quantity does not always translate to quality, I am keen to highlight those composers who are doing work at a consistently high level, especially those whose names are not always on everyone’s lips. Two Australian composers – one predominantly a film composer, the other a concert hall composer with occasional forays into films – and a French composer recently active in American cinema are the featured composers for this edition. What’s interesting about all three of these composers is that none of them have ever really written the same score twice so far as I’m aware. Every work feels unique and distinct. The other thing that all three share in common is a distinct musical identity, something that seems increasingly rare as film music becomes more and more an exercise in creative sound design and film-makers continue to rely on temporary music tracks more than ever.

Other composers whose work stands out in this edition are Michael Giacchino (see our reviews of LOST and M:i:3) and Ennio Morricone (see the combined review of Morricone’s recent work). It may seem strange that the latter, with six scores reviewed in this edition, was not the subject of this column, but having already written all that about Morricone, I doubted that anyone really needed much of an introduction to the composer, and that I probably wasn’t the one to do it in any case.

Alexandre Desplat

“When we study the history of film music, we realise that it is nourished by highly varied composers. There is an enormous field of creation that is possible, restricted by the rigorous constraints of running-time. I dreamed that one could create a special set of aesthetics which would espouse those of a director…” (Cannes masterclass 2006)

Born in Paris in 1961, Alexandre Desplat studied flute, trumpet and piano before studying composition in Paris under Claude Ballif, and orchestration in Los Angeles under Jack Hayes. Since scoring his first short film at the age of twenty-one, he has written music for over seventy films, most of them in his native language, including the Schindler’s List-like Les Milles (1995), Patrice Leconte’s Une chance sur deux (1998), Reins d’un Jour (2001), Xavier Giannoli’s Les Corps Impatient (2003), and the feature films of Jacques Audiard: including Un heros tres discret (1996), Sur me levres (2001) and The Beat My Heart Skipped (2005). I know very little of his early career as a writer for film beyond what can be gleaned from press releases from Costa Communications and the occasional English language interviews the composer has given. Accordingly, I can’t really speak for his non-English language work, something I hope to remedy in time.

I first came to know of Desplat via his score for the Nabokov adaptation The Luzhin Defence (2000). The composer fashioned an orchestral score for the Marleen Gorris-directed tale of chess-induced madness and love. The score was a wonderful discovery – richly thematic and acutely dramatic with the same elegant construction that has kept John Williams at the top of the profession for thirty years. Of especial note – the dissonant cues ‘The Dark Side of Chess’ and ‘I Need a Defence’ were written with a flair so rarely found in darker writing for film – making the score a deserved Editor’s Choice (then editor Ian Lace - Nov 2000). Desplat next came to my attention with the Peter Webber adaptation of Girl with a Pearl Earring (2003, Editor’s Choice – then editor Gary Dalkin Feb 2004), the score a rich musical narrative of a young woman’s coming of age – again with echoes of Williams, and also Georges Delerue. The score earned the composer a deserved Golden Globe nomination.

But where Desplat truly arrested my attention was with his music for Birth (2004, Editor’s Recommendation, Gary Dalkin- Nov 2004), the arresting but frustrating Jonathan Glazier modern fairy tale. Frustrating was one thing that certainly couldn’t be said of the score, and I quote the remarks I made when I chose it as the best score I heard in 2005 (Australian releases are sometimes a bit slower):

“Like a cantata for a modern day fairy tale, this abstract but moving score unfolds with both classical elegance and startlingly original choices. ‘Prologue’ lays out the pieces of the board in their most unified statement in the film – a true overture, and that repeated flute ostinato is insanely catchy. ‘The Engagement’ takes some of the same pieces and re-arranges them as a delicate solo piano waltz. ‘The Kiss’ and ‘Birth Waltz’ are deliriously romantic string-lead waltzes. ‘Elegy’ raises the dramatic stakes about as high as they can go with its slow reprises of the principal thematic material… Were it not for Girl with a Pearl Earring, Les Milles, The Luzhin Defence, Hostage, The Upside of Anger, and just about everything else Desplat’s ever done, it would be tempting to call this the breakout of the year. But it’s clear Desplat was always this good. His is the definitive modern symphonic romantic voice among the younger composers.”

Truly I’ve heard nothing since then that has diminished my opinion of him. Rather, his scores since then:  the frenetic Hostage (Editor’s Choice Summer 2005), the effusive The Upside of Anger (2005), the austere Syriana (2005), and the scores reviewed in this edition, have confirmed both his dramatic instincts and his musical talent. And thankfully, also his popularity as a composer, as he’s the one of the few truly gifted young composers that can count commercial films, potential Oscar bait, and foreign cinema among his projects at any given moment.

Over the course of his career, Desplat has also conducted the London Symphony Orchestra and a number of other orchestras in his own work and others. He also gives master classes at La Sorbonne in Paris and London’s Royal College of Music. He recently conducted a Masterclass at the Cannes Film Festival with regular collaborator Jacques Audiard (quotes from the class available at the Festival’s website), where he made this fascinating remark about his process of composition:

“To compose is to reflect on the harmonious, rhythmic and cultural architecture of an object. Then, at some point, it is necessary to add colours: a piano on its own, a string quartet, a symphony orchestra or strange instruments. This choice is primordial, for it is they which are going to ring, resonate, even more perhaps than the melody in itself. I was always highly attentive to such choices. With Hermann, he's always full of inventions and risks, as in The Torn Curtain ... In every film, I like reflecting, wondering what exactly is the sound of this film ... Sometimes, I compose without the image, just by listening to the dialogues. Listening to the voices of the actors is very important; what instrument should be used when Nicole Kidman's voice whispers? The more there is organic fusion between the tones of the instrumentation and the soundtrack, the more it serves the film. Even more than composing the best melody in the world.”

This edition of Film Music on the Web features pieces on three of Desplat’s recent works. Gary Dalkin reviews the composer’s score for the recent Harrison Ford film Firewall (2006), a thrilling score in quite a different mode to Hostage. Among my recommendations for this update is Desplat’s score for his latest collaboration with Jacques Audiard, The Beat My Heart Skipped (2005), a short but riveting work that has deservedly netted Desplat a Cesar Award and a Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. Also featured is Desplat’s recent score for Syriana (2005), a work I considered in my ‘Music in the Film’ editorial. They’re three very different works from this fascinating composer –indicative of the blend of commercial product and art house material in his recent resume.

    Naive (ND-68527)

    Varese Sarabande (VSD-6715)

    RCA Red Seal (82876-76121-2)

  • Desplat’s forthcoming works include the Somerset-Maugham adaptation The Painted Veil, the Paul Auster film The Inner Life of Martin Frost, Xavier Giannoli’s recent Cannes success Quand j'étais chanteur, Francis Veber’s Le Doublure and the fascinatingly-titled Mr Magorium’s Wonder Emporium. I hope to feature reviews of these and Desplat’s French-language scores in future (especially the previous Jacques Audiard collaborations), the latter a rich vein of material of which little has been said in the English language. For further information on the composer, I recommend the discography and interview links at this fan-site - most biographical details above come from here), the page on him at Movie Music UK and a recent ‘Buyer’s Guide’ to Desplat’s discography that appeared at Film Score Monthly’s daily column. Costa Communications handles the composer’s publicity.

    For those interested in reading additional reviews of Desplat releases, we also have a range of reviews of previous titles, including Hostage, Birth and Girl with a Pearl Earring: C-D Reviews

    Christopher Gordon

    Born in London some time in second half of the last century, Christopher Gordon was a member of the Australian Boys Choir (having moved to Australia as a child). Despite this foundation in music, like our featured composer from our last update, Gabriel Yared, he received no formal musical training, a fact that is amazing considering his skill in writing for orchestra. (And inspiring.) The composer’s first works in film included the Australian feature Sanctuary (1995), and various works for television (This Time Next Time, What’s the Difference), but it wasn’t until Hallmark’s Moby Dick (1998), composed, orchestrated and conducted by Gordon, that his work was released as an album by Varese Sarabande.

    And what an album it was. The score was a rich operatic score for the Melville classic, translating the seafaring aspirations of Ishmael, the fury of Ahab, and the tragic end of the Pequod into a leitmotif-based work for orchestra. The IMAX film Sydney: Story of a City (1999) and the Hallmark adaptation of Nevil Shute’s On the Beach (2000), the latter offering occasion for a more sensitive dramatic score. The beautifully melancholy score for orchestra and occasional choir (Editor’s Recommendation, Ian Lace then editor, Sept 2000) remains Gordon’s finest work to date from the perspective of the standalone listen, with an incredible final act of scoring comprised of ‘Flight through the Apostles and Elegy’, ‘Final Farewells’, ‘Lacrimosa’, ‘Lux Aeterna’ and ‘From the Beach, Silently Weeping’. Gary Dalkin wrote of the score:

    “By modern standards this is an enormously diverse and complex score. It is beautifully crafted in every detail and gorgeously romantic in the best possible sense. It has the epic melodies so beloved of fans of Williams and Goldsmith, the corrosive, implacable power of Herrmann, and a personality, despite my noting possible influences, all its own… Though living in Australia, Christopher Gordon is an English composer, and it is clear he is following in the very best British film music tradition, that of Vaughan-Williams, William Alwyn, John Scott, Christopher Gunning. This is real film music. This is real music. Quite simply, a score to take its place not just as the best of this year so far (and I can't imagine anything bettering it out of what is still to come), but as one of the all time film music greats.”

    Gordon’s work the following year included conducting duties (and presumably also some orhestration) on Craig Armstrong’s acclaimed score for Moulin Rouge, Mario Millo’s Changi (a fine orchestral score worth looking into), as well as original scores for the TV movie When Good Ghouls Go Bad, and the Mike Rubbo documentary Much Ado About Something. Those intrigued by the latter, a documentary that explored the ‘Did Marlowe write Shakespeare’s plays?’ question, can learn more in an interview on the composer’s website and listen to sound clips. Suffice to say it’s an impressive score rich in the techniques and aesthetics of late Renaissance composition. It also features the single most beautiful theme Gordon has written, showcased in a variety of madrigal settings. That the documentary score is unreleased is unfortunate, and it makes one wonder what kind of score Gordon might have written for the Jocelyn Pook scored The Merchant of Venice (2005). (Pook’s score a fine eclectic work in its own right.)

    There have been three scores since then that have all been equally distinct. The claymation short Ward 13 (2003) features an unreleased score where the composer vigorously pastiches the John Williams of Raiders of the Lost Ark, but retains his own identity. It’s a great little film and score, and Stephen Sommers should take note if he ever wishes for a score of the order Goldsmith’s The Mummy again. Peter Weir’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003) reunited Gordon with Iva Davies (singer, songwriter, composer) and Richard Tognetti (violinist, concert master – Australian Chamber Orchestra) – whom he had previously worked with on the Sydney Harbour Milennium Celebration composition Ghost of Time (1999). Their collaborative score for the Patrick O’Brian adaptation was as far removed from the operatic drama of Gordon’s Moby Dick score as possible – texturally modern and propulsive. His most recent score, the Emmy nominated Salem’s Lot, reunited Gordon with Pro Musica Sydney (of Much Ado), and featured Gordon’s most textural writing for film yet.

    In addition to his work for film, the composer often writes for concert hall and for public events. Besides Ghost of Time, his public event scores include the Australian Centenary of Federation (2001), the Opening Ceremony of the Rugby World Cup (2003), and the Opening Ceremony of the 2006 Melbourne Commowealth Games. For concert hall, his recent compositions include a Bass Trombone Concerto for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra (2004), ‘Spin Globe’ for the Australian Children’s Choir, and ‘Loose Canon’ for the Tucana Flute Quartet. I’ve heard very few of these works, and wish I could I’ve heard more.

    This update of Film Music on the Web features something of a Gordon restropective – three reviews of titles I’ve only recently had the chance to look into. Salem’s Lot (2004) – co-composed in parts with Lisa Gerrard, but for the most part of Gordon’s devising, is a brilliant score, opening up opportunities for the composer’s most textural writing to date. When Good Ghouls Go Bad (2001) is a fun score for a Halloween themed film, alive with mischief – not the least of which is the score’s playful evocation of Bernard Herrmann. Most recent is the non-score album containing music from the recent Commonwealth Games Opening Ceremony, and this is a different type of work again from a composer who seems never to repeat himself – exhuberant and celebratory. Though only Salem’s Lot was included among my Recommendations for the month, the other two are equally fine, and could easily have occupied that space themselves, had Gordon not exceeded himself in the Stephen King adaptation.

    Sony-BMG (82876820592)

    Varese Sarabande (VSD-6586)

    Varese Sarabande (VSD-6281)

  • In future I’d like to fill out our collection of reviews on Gordon’s back-catalogue, including Moby Dick and Sydney: Story of a City. Until then, for further information on Christopher Gordon, his website contains interviews and soundclips from many of his scores. Jon Broxton’s short profile at Movie Music UK is also recommended. For those interested in reading more on Gordon, we also have reviews in our archives of On the Beach and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.

    Carl Vine

    Born in Western Australia in 1954, Carl Vine is the composer among these three that I’ve known of the longest, which is ironic as it’s probably the name dedicated film score collectors will be least likely to recognize. But in 2006, with six symphonies, seven concerti, over twenty dance scores, four string quartets, multiple concept albums, albums of chamber music, and more on the way – it’s fair to say that Carl Vine is the leading light of Australian classical music. And it’s work that would probably appeal to film score collectors who don’t mind the extended development of ideas in a concert setting – particularly for people with a glum vision of the concert hall as an endless cycle of popular classical perennials and esoteric avante-garde works. There’s immense feeling to Vine’s music (and an overall sense of optimism too, wonder of wonders), and immense skill too in its construction. And there’s certainly plenty of it available on disc.

    But this is more about Vine’s music for film, a medium he has occasionally worked in. Firstly, he has conducted many of the film scores of Nigel Westlake, including Antarctica, The Edge, Babe and Children of the Revolution, the latter two scores also orchestrated by Vine. More interesting are Vine’s scores as composer. His debut feature score was for Leslie Oliver’s feature film You Can’t Push the River (1993) – a small ensemble score that I discuss in my ‘Music in the Film’ editorial in this update. This score was shortly followed by the more experimental beDevil (1993) and The Battlers (1994), the latter a particularly beautiful collection of themes for strings, horn, oboe, soprano, and timpani. In addition to these, Vine has also scored a number of short films, including an eleven minute work for the Melbourne SymphonyOrchestra to be played in synchornisation with Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. Probably his richest tapestry to date for film is the mini-series adaptation of Bryce Courtenay’s The Potato Factory (1998). The series features an orchestral score, the CD release of that score reviewed in this edition, and included in my Recommendations in this update.

    Tall Poppies (TP-148)

  • I also highly recommend the recent two disc compilation of Vine’s complete symphonies to date, reviewed at the below link by Rob Barnet for our parent site Musicweb. Disc two in particular, containing ‘The Microsymphony’ (Symphony 4.2), ‘Percussion Symphony’ (Symphony 5) and ‘Choral Symphony’ (Symphony 6) is epic concert hall composition at its best.
    ABC Classics 476 7179
  • I hope in future to feature reviews of Vine’s other commercially available scores – particularly The Battlers, as I think it would be appreciated by those who favour a romantic orchestral approach to film music. For further information on Vine and links to purchase his titles, I recommend his well-maintained website. Hopefully it won’t be too long to wait before we see another score from this fine composer, who seems to succeed in whatever medium he works in.

    Michael McLennan

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