Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Man behind the rock - Graeme Revell

Graeme Revell was one of the first movie composers I could name other than John Williams, mostly because of The Craft. I bought the soundtrack, not the score, and it included a track from the score and so his name was on the track listing. Around the same time I learnt he wrote the score for Spawn, another soundtrack I bought and listened to excessively. So the name stuck but until now I didn’t know much else about him.

Turns out he’s a kiwi who worked in Australia for a while – in a psychiatric hospital. His first film score was actually the Australian thriller Dead Calm, for which he won an AFI. Here's a selection from it, it features some operatic singing and even rhythmic breathing all with drum machine and electronic sounds which are quite evocative.

His music is often electronic and quite dark but he’s got some orchestral scores in there too. A quick look at his film credits shows mostly action films and horrors, which works with the darker side of things. A good example of all that is this music from Aeon Flux. Also see the opening music to - The Crow, Spawn and Tomb Raider

He certainly demonstrates great versatility and a willingness to experiment with instrumentation. The first piece I knew of his – Bells, Books and Candles from The Craft – is quite esoteric. Then there's the theme for Elektra as a character in Daredevil (as in not the theme to the movie Elektra) which is stripped back, no electronic stuff, just piano and acoustic guitar until synth and voice section comes in with a string section. It is utterly haunting and captivating.

As both those examples and the stuff from Dead Calm shows, the use of voice as instrument is something Revell is interested in and he took this further in the score for Red Planet which made extensive use of the voice of Emma Shapplin. The opening of the movie doesn't but here's a bit anyway because it's piano and strings and truly beautiful. I can't actually find a good example of the use of her voice under the score sadly but here's a song she sings for the movie - The Fifth Heaven.

So while he seems stuck in a particular oeuvre, his music is emotionally rich and explores many ways of making music itself. So Revell is well and truly worth checking out. The trick is most of his best work is hidden behind the rock soundtracks it works with.

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

Eloquently Put - The Music of Carter Burwell

The first time I heard the name Carter Burwell was when my then fiancee said she wanted to walk down the aisle to Bella's Lullaby from the Twilight soundtrack. At first I had the whole dubious feeling about it, I didn't hate Twilight as some did but this seemed a big call. I played it once and never doubted again. Bella's Lullaby is a truly beautiful piece for solo piano and was perfect for the magical moment my bride walked down the aisle.

I have now learnt he is a highly successful film composer who has a particular relationship with the Coen Brothers, having scored all but one of their movies and contributing music to the one he didn't (O Brother Where Art Thou?). So I discover he is responsible for the suitably unnerving music for the uncomfortable masterpiece Barton Fink. Just listen to this track, Fade Out - End Titles, and you get an idea of the feel of the film.

Compare that to the opening of Fargo, which is grand against the stark landscape and uses percussion to introduce the sense of dread and menace. Or again the opening of Miller's Crossing, which I haven't seen, a piece that reminded me of the romance of Delius.

But possibly I like his 'simpler' stuff best. The small number of instruments playing intimate music, like Bella's Lullaby and this piece I just discovered, Lost Fur from Where the Wild Things Are.

Whatever he's doing though he does it with eloquence and beauty. His music is yet one more thing my wife has introduced me to and enriched my life with. Do me a favour, play Bella's Lullaby one more time and thank her for me.

Monday, 6 May 2013

Quirkily Macabre Master - Danny Elfman

I would have to say Danny Elfman is one of my favourite composers for film, undoubtedly this has something to do with some of the films he’s written for but the music really stands alone too. He has a long-standing relationship with Tim Burton – one of my favourite directors – and much of his music has the sort of darkness and quirky charm that would imply.

Sadly, when I was adding to the voting list I forgot Sleepy Hollow, which is a wonderful example of what I mean, and no-one else added it either or at least it wasn't put up. Here’s the theme tune anyway - delightfully creepy. Not to forget the bewitching yet slightly eerie score for Edward Scissorhands, the ghostly main title perfectly sums up the dark yet quirky fairytale feel of the film.

One of my immediate votes went to his score for Alice in Wonderland though. Okay, so I’m a huge Alice fan and am guilty of choosing scores for more than their musical value – however, I do love the music very much and this is a popularity contest so I guess it makes sense anyway. Finally on his Burton scores, here's a sample from The Corpse Bride where he uses the theme to help tell the story, the piano duet.

Outside his work with Burton , Elfman has scored some blockbuster action flicks including several Sam Raimi films and the second Hellboy for del Toro. His earliest work with Raimi was the Darkman score which I'm not too familiar with. He then did the March of the Dead for Evil Dead 3: Army of Darkness, which is a fairly traditional march in many respects but obviously a bit macabre too.

This all led to the first two Spiderman movies. The theme for Spiderman is aptly heroic, has an underpattering percussion at points reminiscent of spiders walking and swings through in the strings just as the titular hero swings through NY to save the day.

Danny Elfman - you already know his hits, check out the rest.

Friday, 3 May 2013

Under-rated Epic Composer, Basil Poledouris

With voting now open for the Music in the Movies countdown I figure it’s time to look at some composers. I won’t worry about John Williams, his genius is well known and widely discussed.

Who I will worry about and start with is Basil Poledouris. He was conspicuously absent from the initial list but I was happy to see he’d been added before I made my additions. Poledouris was a Greek-American composer highly regarded for his epic scores and intimate themes.

My first two samples for you should show that, the opening of Conan the Barbarian and the closest thing Conan gets to a love theme, known on the soundtrack as Wifeing. I will point out the love theme is very gentle and a sweeping romantic variation on a theme, with gorgeous instrumentation. If you're thinking 'it's for a mindless action film it can't be any good' listen to this and you'll soon change your tune, but not this one.

Conan the Barbarian is probably his best known work and it will be getting one of my votes for sure. But he did more than that of course. His other major works were The Hunt for Red October, which has some awesomely moody Russian-style music (like this) and Robocop, which sees the epic grandeur of Conan given a modern kick. Here's the main theme.

In the interest of discovering new music I’ve looked into some of his other soundtracks care of YouTube. I hadn't realised he did the score to Starship Troopers, giving it more drama than it probably deserved but living up to his name. This piece is called Klendathu Drop and it has the militaristic themes matched with heroism and a tinge of humanity and sadness - not an easy mix.

In a completely different mood, here's a suite from his score for The Blue Lagoon. It has what I'm starting to see as characteristic strings and brass, but here they are soft and welcoming, although it shifts easily into threatening mode for the dangerous parts. I've not seen the movie so I don't know what. There's also a charming piano piece partway through.

I think there's much more great music to find by Poledouris, including from many films that probably aren't worth worrying about so it's a bit more of an effort but well worth it.