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 2/2)

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

Syriana (dir: Stephen Gaghan, 2005)

Music composed, conducted, and produced by Alexandre Desplat
Performed by The Hollywood Studio Symphony, with Mahshid Mirzadeh (santour), Lilit Khojayan (qhanoon), Pedro Eustache (ethnic wind instruments), Armen Ksajikian (cello solo), Djivan Gasparyan (duduk), George Hamad (Middle Eastern violinist), John Bilezikjian (oud), Brian Pezzone (piano), Richard Grant (Auricle operator), Joann Turovsky (harp) and Katie Kirkpatrick (harp).
Available on RCA Red Seal (82876-76121-2)
Reviewed by Demetris Christodoulides and Ian Lace here.

The Film

Stephen Gaghan’s Syriana was based on a script the director had written based partially on institutional concepts and incidents recounted in Robert Baer’s See No Evil, as well as numerous other resources. Contrary to much of the critical commentary on this film, I think the film it most aspires to be is not Stephen Soderbergh’s Traffic (an Oscar-winning script by Gaghan), but Michael Mann’s The Insider. The Mann film is a riveting study of the journey of the integrity of two men and a promise one of them makes through the intersecting worlds of cigarette marketing, litigation, and corporation-owned investigative journalism.

Gaghan’s film tries to achieve the same compelling dramatic exploration of the institutions surrounding another addictive commodity – oil. Corporate litigation, US Justice Dept. scrutinisation of mergers, bribing foreign nationals, succession processes in the Middle East, the conversion of impoverished migrant workers into suicide bombers, the sourcing of terrorist cells by an unwitting American intelligence network, and the politics that drive bureautically-funded intelligence networks are among the many, many issues that the film casts it eyes over in two very packed hours.

To even begin to summarise seems folly – those who have seen the film will know it is another of those non-linear narratives following the classic model of Robert Altman’s Nashville. Characters are distinct to each narrative thread of the film – sometimes intercepting, but generally in the dark about the full context of their actions on others. In each of the stories, the structure of the broken family unit – poor fathering, dismayed sons – shows up in some form, as does the motif of idealism and common sense being blunted by institutional forces and vested interests. The title refers to, as the director puts it, both “a hypothetical redrawing of the boundaries of the Middle East” to serve American economic interests, and also the universal idea of man struggling to re-arrange nations to meet his own needs.

The connections with Mann’s film are also aesthetic. Robert Elswitt’s lensing is a fine approximation of Dante Spinotti’s work on The Insider, and the emphasis on location work gives the film a refreshing feeling of taking place in a real world. If Syriana isn’t quite as strong a film as The Insider, it comes down to the nature of the story being told and the teller. Of the teller: Mann is a master filmmaker, with an eye for the metaphoric potential of imagery making his mise-en-scene among the richest you’ll find in contemporary American cinema. Of the story: Syriana spreads itself so thin over its running time that the emphasis is well and truly on the ideas, the many characters undergoing so much between the scenes that we miss a lot of their development. It’s an interesting way to make the viewer as disoriented as they are (the same effect that the bombardment of information in the first half hour is intending), but when things come to their tragic end, that last half hour doesn’t quite feel as rich a culmination as the film could have had. This possibly also comes down to the fact that Syriana is hypothetical in its resolution – it end is a thesis to be thought over, requiring a relatively detached attitude. Mann’s story on the other hand is history, and its resolution more emotional – the final sequences delivering much-delayed audience satisfaction.

I like the film though. If it isn’t a great film, it’s certainly a very good one, and hopefully is a sign of things to come with Gaghan, especially if he continues to work with…

‘The Dandy Maestro’

Gaghan names Alexandre Desplat as ‘The Dandy Maestro’ in his brief contribution to the sleeve notes of the Sony album. Wherever that name came from, it’s clear that the director had the composer in mind early on, Desplat’s acclaimed score for Birth making up most of the film’s temp-track as early as June 2005 test screening. That Desplat was subsequently confirmed as composer for the film was music to my ears for two reasons. Firstly, Desplat has proven to be, both dramatically and musically, the strongest new composer for American films since Elliot Goldenthal appeared. Even disregarding his extensive filmography in French cinema – an array of titles like The Luzhin Defence, Girl with a Pearl Earring, Birth, Hostage and The Upside of Anger surely make for one of the most impressive resumes in modern film scoring. He’s also a composer highly literate in the tradition of film music and the way it works, as comments made by the composer at his recent masterclass at Canne 2006 demonstrate.

Secondly, the casting of Desplat’s romantic-minimalist sensibility for a film of this sort runs very much against the trend of under-using the power of originally composed material to lift film of serious intent. For so many years films leaning heavily on social commentary have leaned on scores so basic in their construction that they rarely play well at all outside the film, some of the best composers confined to score films beneath their skills. That a composer, and one of Desplat’s sensibility, was brought onto a film specifically on the strength of his finest American score – Birth – was hope-unlooked-for.

What stands out about Desplat’s final score throughout the film is its austerity. It’s almost an independent narrative in the film, so rarely enforcing the familiar codes of film scoring. The music very often counterpoints the action – contrasting violence with formal beauty (‘Something Really Cool’ or the duduk solo of ‘Torture’), and under-cutting the film’s few celebratory moments (e.g. the opulent splendour of an Emir’s party scored with ‘Electricity’) with near-subliminal electronic pulses that forebode violence. It’s a score that follows its own rules – ‘The Abduction’, ‘The Commute’, the kinetic ‘Beirut Taxi’, and many other cues are cleverly spotted to the action, enriching the paranoid atmosphere of the film. The music is thrillingly textural in emphasis – from the solo timpani of ‘I’ll Walk Around’ to chaotic free-for-all ethnic instruments at the climax of ‘The Abduction’, there’s a purity to the dramatic effect of this music. It feels so immediate in the film, and yet also distanced.

What follows are some thoughts on what makes it such a special score. If they seem slightly sketchy, I should point out they have been fairly hurriedly compiled from notes I used in a class I prepared recently where scenes from the film were shown. There are many spoilers here – there is an assumed familiarity with the film.

The Score Concept

The score features more traditional orchestral forces – string, woodwind and percussion players of the Hollywood Studio Symphony – combined with specialised ethnic instrumentation, including duduk, ney, santour, qhanoon (an Iraqi zither). The score also includes extensive use of electronic samples sourced from the Distorted Reality sample libraries – including an electronic bass pulse familiar to those who know the composer’s Birth.

The resulting texture is beautifully recorded and mixed by Dennis Sands (who also worked on the composer’s recent Firewall, a mixer’s masterpiece) into a fragile landscape. Ethnic instruments are not mixed front and centre as the celebrity solo parts often are (e.g. Memoirs of a Geisha, The Village), but are located more distantly in the recording space. Gasparyan’s duduk is there in ‘Driving in Geneva’, but it’s an obscured voice – it’s emotion dulled by the racing string ostinato that envelops it. So too with Eustache’s ney flute in the beautiful vision of ‘Fields of Oil’ - the harp and timpani parts have almost equal weight, and all parts are obscured beneath an electronic layer. Neither ney or duduk sound entirely like themselves in either passage.

Rather, we are always conscious of the overall texture – a blend of strings, electronics, and percussion, with more fragile timbres lost in those fatter sounds. It’s a dramatically astute choice – yes, the ethnic instruments are there because the many Middle Eastern countries visited in the film suggest those instruments. But their signal is corrupted – we don’t recognise them for their beautiful timbres, instead being subtly onfused by their voices. Subtle is the key word. It’s a musical translation of the film’s primary emotion – confusion. Syriana’s characters ultimately lack context for their actions – each agent pushes towards their own end without empathy or information of the others in the cycle. Desplat has commented in interview on this:

“The concept was to blend all the sounds, so that no single sound would be too clear or defined. Because the movie is like that, I wanted to the music to be almost like an echo of what the movie is talking about: everything is connected, and you don't know what is happening. So you don't know who is playing what - you don't know if it's a cello, or an Armenian duduk; if it's a string orchestra, or an electronic sound. That was the idea of the score - to blur and hide everything …almost all of the string patterns are doubled by synthesized electronic sounds that blur the strings.” (from Soundtrack.Net)

It’s a simple idea, but I love the way that this composer extracts a musical approach from the ideas at the core of the film. He doesn’t score the location, he doesn’t score the action, and he doesn’t score the identities of the characters. He scores with an aim to reinforce audience empathy with the confusion of the characters.

Thematic Development

The themes of Desplat’s Syriana score are used strengthen the links between the many narrative threads of the film, rather than highlight individual stories. The effect on the film is the sense of an all-knowing musical narrative, objective and detached in relation to the action. Each character is left to define themselves and sink-or-swim in the dense non-linear narrative, melodic ideas linking moments in each story with the other threads.

The Main Theme

The main theme is very simple – a six-note idea for harp over a sustained string chord, with subtle electronic and oud support. It has a feeling of fragility about it, some would even say an air of melancholy, but it’s restrained emotion. On the album, it makes up first eighty seconds or so of ‘Syriana’ – appearing over the opening images of migrant workers lining up for jobs on the outskirts of an oil field. Elswitt’s handheld imagery is busy, as is the cutting, but a sound design centred on Desplat’s scoring counterpoints this energy with focused empathy. The theme appears in identical form as migrant workers are beaten later by security guards, carrying into the next scene Matt Damon’s energy analyst character stands by his son’s grave with what remaining family he has. Desplat makes a connection between the fragility of the affluent grieving family and the migrant workers that proves surprising and sensitive.

Later the theme is tense in the violins of the ‘Truce’ as events rush to their culmination at the film’s climax – the melody also carried in duduk, its clear timbre again obscured by violins carrying the same melody and frantic rhythm. The cue’s urgent allegro supports the action literally as George Clooney’s character tries to stop the motorcade of the Saudi Prince. It also raises emotional stakes - the use of the theme strengthening the notion that the grief we’ve seen associated with this theme in the past is approaching again.

The theme’s final appearance is the complete ‘Syriana’ album cue under the closing montage, and explicitly connects all the characters in the cycle of violence – the spy (Clooney), the economist (Damon), the litigator (Jeffrey Wright) and the suicide bomber. The harp theme underscores a suicide bombing, and the subsequent viewing of the bomber’s suicide video letter. An interlude for strings follows, accompanying the reunion of Damon’s character with his estranged family – Desplat risks a brief moment of emotional release here with restrained lyricism. The harp theme returns one last time as Clooney’s CIA office is cleaned out, and the Wright character brings his father in from the cold. It’s a sign of the restraint throughout the score that the album’s most beautiful cues, the concert arrangements of this theme – ‘Syriana (piano solo)’ and ‘Fathers and Sons’ – are not part of the film’s action, though the latter appears over the second half of the film’s end credits.

Secondary Theme

‘Driving in Geneva’ introduces the score’s secondary theme over a racing string ostinato, a piano theme of similar construction to the main theme that attaches most closely to Matt Damon’s character, but probably more because the economic issues of oil most often come up in connection with his character. I suspect the theme is intended to plot a journey of understanding the economics of the oil industry over the course of the film – from energetic participation (‘Driving in Geneva’) to an loss of capacity to be indifferent to the indirect effects of prosperity (‘Mirage’).

The theme first appears under that information-heavy sequence when Damon drives to work in Geneva – the audience bombarded with energy price analysis. On the album, the theme is heard again in ‘Falcons’, a cue I don’t remember hearing in the film, and which I assume was meant to accompany Damon’s drive to the Prince’s residence after the death of his son, Damon’s savvy intact, but thrown into negative relief by his loss. Stripped from the busy ostinato of the earlier cue, the piano theme on its own is filled with pathos and vulnerable. (The driving sequence was tracked with ‘Driving in Geneva’, lending the driving scene more a sense of busyness than pathos.)

The secondary theme’s most haunting use comes in ‘Mirage’, a cue that accompanies the inter-cutting of the aftermath of the bombing of the Prince’s motorcade and Oil Businessman of the Year dinner. In Saudi Arabia, Damon struggles out of the ruin of a car. Carnage everywhere, frantic camerawork, the hot desert sun, the imagery makes it seem almost like a mirage. Back in Washington DC, fat-cat oil moguls pat each other on the back for their prospective profits as a result of the re-opening of their access to Saudi Arabian markets, indifferent to the assassination that enabled this coup. The music is a delicate four note piano theme stated over-and-again, hesitantly, as though the pianist is dazed. It’s the first four notes of the secondary theme, a theme that we’ve heard earlier in the film as this Damon character confidently touted his knowledge of the way the world worked. But now the cause he’d invested himself in, a Saudi prince, has been evaporated in an explosion. The music is less about the chaos of the moment, and more about the loss of all hope in life. He staggers into the desert, the music like a mirage offering redemption, but never satisfying. Meanwhile, businessmen celebrate with the new Emir of Saudi Arabia, and in that context the theme is a chilling meditation on the costs of the industry’s progress.

Other Ideas

And this is how thematic development is approached throughout Desplat’s score. The connections made by the themes are more universal than simple character coding. Here are some other examples, which are by no means exhaustive of this score’s breadth of ideas:

  • ‘Something Really Cool’ - with its gentle harp and flute arpeggios, this beautiful cue appears throughout as characters entertain a sense of redemption from their unfortunate circumstances, usually a misguided one. It accompanies scenes as distinct as Clooney’s character lying on blood-stained tiles after torture (misguided relief – as he will suffer psychological torture at the hands of his own people), one of the migrant workers admiring the American weapons kept secretly in the oasis-like Muslim school he receives charity from (actually a training ground for suicide bombers), and Matt Damon’s economist burying himself in the cause of a Saudi prince to the neglect of his family;
  • ‘Fields of Oil’ – this cyclical theme, with its hypnotic solo for ney flute over plucked qhanoon, percussion and electronic pulses, sets up the arc of coming violence. Its appearance of aerial wide shots of oil fields in the Persian Gulf is a magical moment, and the cue as it develops keys us into the emotions of the recently-dismissed oil field migrant worker whose prospects are bleak. As the man returns to his (unwitting) father for a bus fare to carry out his suicide bombing towards the end of film, the theme returns, the harmonies more stressed and the percussion building towards the cut. (A cue not included on album.) The theme appears for the last time at the start of the end credits, breaking in over the silence of the final image with the implication that the cycle depicted in the film continues.

Not an Easy Listen

Possibly it’s a sign of my madness that the cues I find most riveting on playing this score lately are the ones that probably most people will find the most abrasive: ‘The Commute’, ‘Electricity’, ‘Take the Target Out’, and ‘The Abduction’. The use of the electric bass pulses take the idea in a thoroughly new direction from the way the composer used it in Birth. The accelerated sequencer pulses contrasted with the recurring four note bass pulse in ‘Electricity’ is a nice realisation of the intangible electricity unseen yet very present in that sequence, but it also the atmosphere of corruption the Damon character has wandered into in that party. The same material (with duduk added to the mix) characterises the literal and figurative firewall thrown up against Clooney by his own people in ‘Access Denied’. The cues are such powerful accompaniment for the film that they cannot but summon the images they accompany after the fact. As a lesson in spotting and scoring suspense, ‘The Abduction’ is likely to feature strongly in any future classes on film music I do.

I also love the emphasis on dynamics as a dramatic device. The timpani solo in ‘I’ll Walk Around’ is possibly the most original cue for that kind of scene I can remember hearing in quite a while – effectively building tension, but focused and sparse enough instrumentally to leave plenty of room for the rest of the sound design – dialogue, effects and all. The sustained violin chords with electronic punctuation in ‘Take the Target Out’ are another arresting idea – it’s little wonder Desplat’s score for The Beat My Heart Skipped (2005) elaborated on the possibilities of creating tension from this simple idea. And the throbbing bass motives of ‘The Commute’, both the slow two-note motif and the pop-like eight-note ostinato, interspersed with synthetic screeches, are a similarly effective sound.

End Note

Of all the Oscar bait released in the last mad rush of 2005, this film best embodied what good music can really do for a film. It evades a lot of scoring clichés, and defines the film’s austerity. The Hollywood Foreign Press Association recognised this with a Golden Globe nomination. But if those awards are meant to be about how music works in a film, I would have given Desplat his first Oscar. If he keeps it up, I doubt he’ll have long to wait.

© Michael McLennan 2006

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