June 2006 Film Music Editorial

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

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Editor’s Introduction and Music in the Film (Part 1/2)

You Can’t Push The River (1993, Vine) and Syriana (2005, Desplat)

Hello again. Two months have rolled around again, and this column, which tends to be the last thing I do in each update, is being put together again at the last minute. Intially I’d planned to look into some of the films I’d seen in the last three months that I’ve liked, and the role music played in each of them – those films including Munich, Syriana, The New World and A History of Violence. It was not intended to be a study of each score to the same length as say, what I wrote on Alberto Iglesias’s The Constant Gardener score last time, but the idea was to burrow a bit deeper into the filmic function of the music than the typical soundtrack review allows. It seems most of those thoughts will have to wait for a better time, as other things have prevailed.

What other things? Well, firstly you may have noticed we’re carrying a LOT of reviews this edition. Our reviewers have put in a lot of hard work, and I want to thank them. (And what better time to note that we’ve updated our contributor’s page – so you can learn more about them, and put their opinions in context.) I’ve tried to put a bit more emphasis this time round on featuring reviews of titles that would normally slip past the radar of soundtrack fans, ranging from past film scores from Australian composers Christopher Gordon and Carl Vine, more non-film score works of interest, and scores for art house and foreign language films – the last category having a surprising number of entries this time round. If you’ve despaired of finding lengthy appraisals of John Foulds’ orchestral works or Christopher Gordon’s Commonwealth Games score, the soundtracks to art house fare as broad as Seven Swords, De Battre mon Coeur s’est Arrete, and The Proposition, or even the deluxe FSM presentation of Goodbye, Mr Chips, you’ll find them in this month’s update, along with many other things.

Accordingly, there are many titles recommended this month. Our featured composers are Alexandre Desplat, Christopher Gordon and Carl Vine. (For the sake of exercising some restraint, I could not also include Michael Giacchino, whose LOST and M:i:3 are reviewed, strong works though they are.) My editor’s choice titles include the Bernard Herrmann Essential Film Music Collection from Silva Screen (reviewed by Gary Dalkin), Goodbye Mr Chips (reviewed by David Wishart), a recent recording of some of John Corigliano’s film and non-film work I was taken with, and just about anything Ennio Morricone has composed of late. Our recommended titles include works by our featured composers, as well as works by Marvin Hamlisch, and names relatively uncommon in film scoring like John Foulds and Nick Cave. This was a hard list to narrow down, and it could have been twice as long. (My thanks to web designer Tina Huang for putting up with my volatile preferences here, as in all other things.)

Getting back to this column… with all that to take care of, I couldn’t quite see the time to write this piece. So I’ve decided to take another column I was going to introduce, called ‘Unreleased, unseen and unheard’. As the title suggests, this would involve me looking at the soundtrack to a film that had largely gone unseen, whose soundtrack was consequently unheard, and almost certainly unreleased. For this edition, this was to be the 1993 Australian film, You Can’t Push the River, scored by Carl Vine and directed by Leslie Oliver – a film that unfortunately met all three criteria. The idea would be to give some exposure to fine music that might otherwise not see the light of day – perhaps drawing it to the attention of people who might make a soundtrack release possible in this day when it seems nothing is too insignificant to fetch a price on the soundtrack market. However, it occurred to me though that this sort of situation – where I’m in a position to comment on something ‘unreleased, unseen and unheard’ – was likely to be a very occasional one at best, since the opportunity to discuss this film arose from knowing the people involved. And since it was essentially a discussion of the music in the film and on its own, why not put it here?

Also featured here are my thoughts on the soundtrack of Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana as it featured in the film. Those reading reviews of Firewall and The Beat My Heart Skipped in the current update will probably know how taken I am with Alexandre Desplat’s oeuvre, and I believe this is the probably the best of his scores in the context of an English-language film, even if Birth and Girl with a Pearl Earring are probably more compelling albums.

As always, if any questions or issues or thoughts arise from these musing, please feel free to email me: mclennan.michael@gmail.com

You Can’t Push The River (dir: Leslie Oliver, 1993)

Music composed, conducted, and produced by Carl Vine
Performed by Geoffrey Collins (flute), Marshall McGuire (harp), Daryl Pratt (percussion), Nicola Lewis (violin), Georges Lentz (violin), Anne-Louise Cornerford (viola), David Wicks (viola), Peter Morrison (cello), Pat Lyons (uillean pipes) and Carl Vine (sampler, programming, keyboard)
Except: ‘Wir Wandelton’ (Brahms), performed by Eliza Eggler and Patricia Wooldridge; ‘My Lagan Love’(traditional), performed by Nollaig O’Flannabhra, orchestrations by Carl Vine

Life seems to take us to unusual places, and so after completing degrees in various sensible things and working for a while as a sensible person, I found myself sitting in classes filled with fellow drifters at the Sydney Film School. The class on the dramatic use of sound design and music in film was just about to begin, and the teacher – Leslie Oliver – and I, were talking about film music. He may have been surprised at my familiarity with Elmer Bernstein, Jerry Goldsmith and others, but not as much as I was to learn in that class that the feature film he had directed over a decade before had been scored by one of the giants of Australian classical music: Carl Vine.

The Film

I later saw the film that semester – November, 2004. It’s a short feature film with a small scope but big ideas, based around a day in Sydney primary school classroom where both the teacher – Joe Glass (Nollaig O’Flannabhra) – and one of his many students – Tony (Antonio Punturiero) – have a lot on their mind. Both think back on their recent circumstances, flashbacks fluidly intercut with the small moments of a day. Tony is overwhelmed by the city surroundings – he doesn’t want to be here. Forced by financial circumstances, his family moved to Sydney from the farm country of southwest NSW, and he feels alone and disconnected in the urban school. His teacher, is a literate Irishman, but something of a wanderer in life – looking for something he hasn’t found yet. He reflects on his relationship with an Armenian woman – Kohar (Kathryn Chalker) – a librarian who recently returned to her homeland to find her parents. The film builds to a moment that will be familiar to anyone who has taught children – when a teacher realises the pain one of his students is in, yet can only help so much.

A central idea in the film is a metaphor of the merging of watercourses into ever-larger bodies water as representative of the confluence of cultures in Australian society – Italian, Irish and Armenian in the film, as well as Aboriginal, Iraqi, Chinese, Thai and many more. The water cycle is always there, whether in the dialogue – e.g. a classroom discussion of how the water cycle works – or in the imagery – e.g. dripping taps, rain on classroom windows, the spray of sprinklers, the rivers of Tony’s home, the ocean in Joe’s childhood.

It’s very much the product of its maker – gentle, nostalgic, attentive to detail, optimistic. The cast of non-actors, the beautiful location photography, and Carl Vine’s score all strengthen the piece. Despite being picked up by a number of international film festivals, and receiving some positive reviews, the film was never released. That it was never seen more widely is a shame, and I hope it is rediscovered. Possibly the personal connection makes me more inclined to like the film, but it feels very real – as though this was a film about a day I’d lived through and all the life story that lay behind it.

Score Concept and Carl Vine

The director related to a class some time ago that his score concept for the film was based on Van Morrison’s music. The strange confluence of musical traditions in the Irishman’s music mirrored the film’s confluence of different cultural backgrounds. Nor would Van Morrison merely inform the underscore. A lifelong fan of musicals, the director even went to the point of scripting in the performance of a Van Morrison song by leading man Nollaig O’Flannabhra, though the song featured ultimately became the Irish traditional ‘My Lagan Love’. (Interestingly, the director’s Oscar-selected short – Tennis Court Opera – also featured a character breaking out into song, there by Kurt Weill.) Van Morrison did have one critical input to the final film – the title is based on of one of his lyrics: ‘You don’t pull no punches, and you don’t push the river.’

The score for the film, the subject of this column, was the first feature film score of Carl Vine, a composer whose non-film compositions drew the attention of the director. (Oliver particularly glad to learn that Carl Vine was not a dead German who’d written music at the turn of the century, a mistake I admit I once made myself before I realised he released a lot of premiere recordings for a dead man.) The director felt that Vine’s writing would be both emotionally true in its interpretation of the ‘confluence’ concept, but also angular in its relationship to the visual narrative of the film. The audience would feel, but not be coddled into such feelings.

Some music was largely written in pre-production, with the larger part of the material written in post-production. (The material written in pre-production was the backing track for the lead character’s rendition of ‘My Lagan Love’, and one other sequence – a section of ‘Story to Date’ – where students in the class room would tap along to a piece for light percussion written by the composer.) The scoring process involved cues being written with suggestive hit points, the editor editing to those pieces, and then the cues being revised as the demands of the film dictated. The ensemble is appropriate for the film’s small scale – a string quartet, harp, percussion, as well as solo parts for flute, violin (played ‘Armenian’) and uillean pipes. The musicians included some players from the Sydney Symphony Orchestra (including composer Georges Lentz) and other ensembles.

The score for River was never released commercially, this review being based on viewings of a non-commercial DVD recently made of the film, and a CD put together by the composer from a DAT master of the slightly over forty minutes of score. The track listing of this CD is as follows, the track titles clearly not refined for release:

1. Opening Titles (1:30)
2. Tony tilts his head back after pee (5:51)
3. Kids chanting in school-room (1:20)
4. Short Bike Ride (0:43)
5. “All Life Depends on Water” (2:53)
6. Tony’s Head Drops (0:38)
7. “The Po, the Don, the Diniper” (1:14)
8. “IRAQ” (not used?) – teaching music (1:08)
9. “Out to Sea” (0:26)
10. Just after Tony drags Bicycle (1:41)
11. Magic Water (1:09)
12. Over the Ocean (0:14)
13. Luscious Library (2:31)
14. “River” Music (3:19)
15. Irish harp music (1:37)
16. “Armenia” Melisma (0:10)
17. Hand drum jig (0:38)
18. The Denouement (3:31)
19. Wind and Water (0:31)
20. Cut to Cows (0:11)
21. A Little Prayer (1:07)
22. Story to Date (2:24)
23. My Lagan Love  - song (3:16)
24.  End Credits (2:33)

Overall, a good forty-two minutes of score, which could probably be edited into a good thirty-five minute album, double with some of the composer’s chamber writing.

Score Structure

The score is structured on a number of ideas, the main one being themes and instruments for the characters of Joe and Tony. As an Irishman who would break out into song before the film’s end, Joe’s theme was to be the song he would sing - ‘My Lagan Love’ - an Irish traditional interpolated by Vine into the film’s score. The composer notes of the song: “the entirely distinctive nature of ‘Lagan Love’, used throughout as its signifier, is the four-note rising scale (with a crescendo) that starts its melody.” This signifier appears for uillean pipes in short bursts throughout the score, and also for other instruments in the ensemble intermittently – the full theme appearing in the score also on a couple of occasions. (Remember, this is before Braveheart, Far and Away, etc – the uillean pipes were actually a novel touch at the time, if performed a little stiffly.)

Tony’s theme would speak less to his Italian identity than to the pastoral associations of his rural upbringing, with a lilting flute melody. There was also to be a theme for Kohar – the director was interested in the duduk (again, these are early days for this instrument in scoring) – but that writing that did reference her was ultimately for violin in melisma mode, discussed in greater detail below. There are other recurring ideas – e.g. the oppressive piano idea that appears about halfway through track 2 ‘The Denouement’, but these are the main ones.

Track-by-track Analysis

‘Opening’ accompanies the opening image of a river, with resonant drum hits and an uillean pipe statement of ‘My Lagan Love’ setting up expectations of a bigger film than what follows. More indicative of what is to come is ‘Tony tilts his head back after a pee’ (a great title), which begins with a flute in pastoral reflection on Tony’s country home. Gentle harmonies from the quartet accompany flute variations on Tony’s theme, and a cello theme briefly appears for the montage of Tony in his element. The scene is revealed to be wishful thinking on the boy’s part as we’re taken to morning in a grey Sydney where Tony prepares for school, a piano ostinato and light percussion enveloping the flute theme. The ostinato captures both the images of rushing traffic and busy city life, as well as the emotional significance of these images for Tony. Like Joe, who is also seen on his way to work, the boy is as daunted by this space as his theme is daunted by its new accompaniment.

The music interacts quite boldly with action throughout the score – sometimes counterpointing the visuals, sometimes underlining them in unexpected places. Especially towards the end of the lengthy second cue, where percussion bursts underline key on-screen actions – Joe trying to get his noisy class’s attention. Towards the end of ‘Kids chanting in school room’, a harp, played with celtic inflections, dances over a hesitant eight-note string melody as the children recite for their teacher. As Tony’s mind wanders from his teacher’s talk of rivers to the rivers near his home, a nine-note rhythm in the strings underpins his theme as he reflects on a ‘Short Bike Ride’. In ‘All Life Depends on Water’ (whose opening might have been a better opening title for the film), a flute reading of ‘My Lagan Love’ leads into a beguiling passage for harp, strings and flute that suggests how entranced the children are by their teacher’s voice.

The music is for the most part gently descriptive of the film’s ideas, contributing the overall optimistic tone of the film: the string solo in ‘The Po, the Don and the Diniper’, the harp of ‘IRAQ’, and the elated reading Tony’s theme in ‘Just after Tony finds the bicycle’ all lilting and beguiling. In the latter cue, one final piano chord sours a happy memory as Tony reflects on his discovery that he would be moving to the city. There’s a feeling to the music that at times seems like water gathering in puddles and percolating down – in ‘Magic Water’ for example, the film’s imagery of water dropping is nicely described by a dialogue between light percussion and piano.

Not all is gentle however. To depict the third member of the film’s central triangle of characters, Joe’s lover Kohar, the composer used the same ensemble and asked them to play his writing ‘Armenian style’, in reference to Kohar’s country of origin. ‘Luscious Library’ (Kohar works at the State Library in Sydney) opens with the low shimmering tones of a bowed vibraphone before a solo violin enters – soon to be doubled, the players making their instruments sound almost like specialised ethnic instrumentation for Vine’s melismatic writing. (The bowed vibraphone involves metal vibraphone keys stroked with a double bass bow instead of being struck with mallets. The sound is not unlike glass harmonica, only much lower in pitch.) So too, the harp is played to sound like an oud. These ideas emerge later in the all-too-brief ‘Armenia Melisma’ and ‘Wind and Water’ (again featured the bowed vibraphone). As with her character in the film, it’s an aspect of the score that feels like there was more to be said, not quite feeling integrated into the rest of the score nearly so well as the other material.

As with the music for the unusual library scene, ‘River Music’ has a darker feel to it, and is probably the highlight cue of the score. As Joe’s mind wanders during the class, he remembers the last time he returned to his home, after farewelling Kohar. Putting on a Brahms liede, he wanders his garden, talking to himself. He imagines himself transported through the Australian bush and down a river, his feet resting on the surface of the water, and this is where Vine’s cue begins. Vine meets this powerful imagery with a piano figure that works like a chaconne – subtle spotting of the harp, light percussion and string quartet (particularly effective in the film when it comes in) corresponding to shifts in the on-screen action. (The entry of the string quartet was an element added to the piece in a revision to strengthen the dynamics of the scene.)

Joe’s thoughts then wander to a night spent in the library with Kohar where they recited poetry to each other. ‘Irish Harp Music’ (self-explanatory) and ‘Armenian Melisma’ underscore the metered phrasing of both characters in turn. It’s a sign of the variety of the ways music works in this film that three successive sequences are so different in their use of music – the garden scene is based on source music within the scene; the river sequence is a heavily edited sequence driven by underscore; the library scene is performance-driven, no cuts in the scene, and music subtly interacting with those performances.

‘The Denouement’ brings the various ideas of the score together as both Tony and Joe feel the pressure of the school day peaking. Vine brings back the aggressive piano ostinato heard in ‘Tony tilts his head back after a pee’, snatches of Kohar’s violin, and introduces shrill flute blasts and percussion to raise the stakes. In the quiet that follows, rain starts to fall outside the classroom, a beautiful simple sound design moment. Joe notices Tony’s distress in the ‘Little Prayer’, and a lovely string passage follows. Tony’s theme appears one last time at the outset of ‘Story to Date’, which is dominated by a flute reading of ‘My Lagan Love’ and variations on that traditional theme. In the middle of the cue is a strange passage for light percussion and pizzicati which closely corresponds the on-screen tapping of hands and feet of different students around the class room.

Finally, as the classroom is calm again and the students work, Joe turns to camera and begins singing ‘My Lagan Love’. O’Flannabhra’s honest performance of the traditional and Vine’s orchestration make it an attractive, if slightly protracted, conclusion to the film. The interpolation of the melody throughout the score ensures the song is organic to the score, rather than disruptive of it. For the ‘End Credits’, the composer was finally given free reign to write an Irish jig (partly suggested in the score in ‘Hand Drum Jig’) that brings the work to an optimistic conclusion.

End Note

My hope with this column is to put forward a work that would normally be welcomed by those who like small ensemble scores. The film’s relative anonymity has made it a work that even fans of the composer will likely never hear. If this title becomes a name in people’s minds, and somewhere down the track it does get a release, this column will have done its job. My thanks to the director and composer for their willingness to answer my questions about this work, and to the composer for rescuing a really nice score from some aged DAT tapes. As the film has never been commercially released, the director can be contacted for those interested in obtaining a copy of the film – please email me for contact details.

Go to Part 2 of "Music in Film".

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