Saturday, July 23, 2011

Quick Review: Cars 2

Cars 2
Music composed by Michael Giacchino
Orchestrated by: Tim Simonec, Michael Giacchino, Andrea Datzman, Marshall Brown, Ira Hearshen, Chris Tilton, Brad Dechter, Peter Boyer, Mark Gasbarro, Cameron Patrick
Conducted by: Tim Simonec
Album time: 60 minutes
Available on Walt Disney Records

Michael Giacchino continues his takeover of Pixar scoring with Cars 2, replacing Randy Newman, who wrote the original Cars (2006).  Similar to the Cars soundtrack, the album starts with the pop songs.  This one only has 5 songs, and the first Cars had 9 songs on the album.  That leaves 21 tracks of Giacchino score left, which is what I’ll focus on.

First off, the score itself isn’t bad.  It isn’t spectacular as the other Pixar/Giacchino works.  His other scores really can’t be topped.  The best parts of this score were his action cues, which is probably why he was there to begin with.  This film solved a lot of the problems of the first film and had a more focused story, but compared to the other Pixar achievements, it fell flat.  I appreciated that as the film traveled over the world; the music didn’t just rely on musical clichés but seem to go beyond that.

The most obvious reference is a Bond-style theme for the spy aspect of the film.  This theme goes through the entire film.  I don’t mind the Bond-style guitar sections, although it seems to have taken over the album.  I’m still not quite sure how spies got mixed up in this movie.  It’s like they made a spy film, crammed in Cars characters and lots of car puns.  And Mater became the film’s main character.  He must be more popular than Lightening McQueen, but even the kids in the theater weren’t laughing that much.  But I digress.

The next section of the score is really the Radiator Springs music, portrayed with a twangy bluegrass sound.  This music is what Randy Newman brought so excellently to the original film, but Giacchino’s music is more lively and bubblier.  There are a few gentle moments in the score which aren’t really represented on the album.  I’ll mention here that the orchestration of the film really works.  It really makes the score enjoyable to listen to.  Both the spy and bluegrass themes mix in The Radiator Springs Gran Prix.

As always with Michael Giacchino soundtracks, the track titles are goofy.  I know of people that hate these, but it’s honestly the smallest deal in the world.  (Although these aren’t as pun-filled as the titles for Lost). 

So listen to the score if you enjoy the spy sound since it is the large part of the score.  It's certainly not the best or worst score of the year and it is an enjoyable listen. 

And remember, Michael Giacchino has 5! films coming out in 2011, so they can’t all be great…but this score didn’t have the spark that his other Pixar ventures did.

It's Finn McMissile! (click here to listen)
Radiator Reunion (click here to listen)
Porto Corsa (click here to listen)
The Lemon Pledge (click here to listen)
The Radiator Springs Gran Prix (click here to listen)

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Classical Music in Film

In previous posts I’ve written about classical composers writing film scores, film score composers writing concert works, but this post discusses classical music in film.  Some of these works are so intertwined with the film; many viewers only know the music from that film and consider them the themes of the film.  Many directors have used classical pieces extensively, and their work is brought up a few times throughout.  These directors include Stanley Kubrick, Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese and Terrence Malick, among many others.

One of my favorite uses of classical music over the years is the music for screen villains.  I’m not sure when this trend started, but it certainly is one great villain cliche.  Some of my favorite moments are:
Die Hard (1988) - Beethoven - Symphony no. 9, 4th movement
Dracula (1931) – Tchaikovsky: Swan Lake
Fatal Attraction (1987) – Puccini: excerpts from Madama Butterfly
M (1931) – Grieg: Peer Gynt Suite - In the Hall of the Mountain King
Shadow of a Doubt (1943) - Lehár: Waltz from The Merry Widow
The Silence of the Lambs (1991) - Bach:  Aria and Variation 7 from Goldberg Variations
The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) - Bach: Air on the G String, Mozart: Piano Concerto
While not completely fitting, A Clockwork Orange's use of Henry Purcell, Gioachino Rossini and Ludwig van Beethoven’s music is absolutely chilling. 

Now I can’t list every film that has used Wagner or Mendelssohn for their wedding scenes.  Same goes with the Boccherini quartet which gets used in almost every formal dinner scene.  I also don’t want to list classical biopics since they obviously use way too much music to list (see Amadeus, Shine, Immortal Beloved).  There are some other great movies that feature a ton of music like An American in Paris and Fantasia, but those seem very obvious. 

Here are some of my favorite uses of classical music in films.  Films mentioned earlier are repeated only by name. 

Alien (1979) Hanson: Symphony no. 2, 2nd mvt
Apocalypse Now (1979) Wagner: Ride of the Valkyries
The Big Lebowski (1998) Korngold: Glück das mir Verlieb from Die Tote Stadt
Breaking Away (1979) Mendelssohn: Symphony no. 4, 4th mvt
A Clockwork Orange (1971)
Death in Venice (1971) Mahler: Symphony no 5, Adagietto
Die Hard (1988)
Dracula (1931)

­The Elephant Man (1980) Barber: Adagio for Strings
Excalibur (1981) Wagner: Siegfried's Funeral March, Orff: O Fortuna from Carmina Burana
Fatal Attraction (1987)
The King’s Speech (2010)
Beethoven: Symphony no 7, Piano Concerto no 5
M (1931)
Shadow of a Doubt (1943)
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)
Trading Places (1983) Mozart: Overture to The Marriage of Figaro
Manhattan (1979) Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue, among others
Master and Commander (2003) Vaughn Williams: Variations on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, among others
Minority Report (2002) Schubert: Symphony no. 8, 1st mvt
Ordinary People (1980) Pachelbel: Canon in D
Philadelphia (1993) Various arias by Mozart, Giordano, et al.
Platoon (1986) Barber: Adagio for Strings
Raging Bull (1980) Mascagni: Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana
The Shawshank Redemption (1994) Mozart: Che soave zeffiretto from The Marriage of Figaro
The Shining (1980) Bartok: Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, Ligeti: Fontana, several pieces by Krzysztof
Somewhere in Time (1980) Rachmaninoff: Variation 18-Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini
The Spy Who Loved Me (1977)
The Sting (1973) Jopin: various Rags
10 (1979) Ravel: Bolero
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) Strauss: Also Sprach Zarathustra, Strauss: Blue Danube Waltz, Ligeti: Lux Aeterna, et al.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsody no 2
X2: X-Men United (2003) Mozart: Dies Irae from Requiem

So that begs the question, why is classical music used so often in films?  I know with Kubrick many of these pieces began as the "temp track" - the temporary music used until the original score is placed in.  This tends to be the reason behind the film score sounding like classical works, i.e. Holst and Prokofiev.  The villain listening to classical music has to go way back, and the same with using classical music to contrast the scenario.  And one last thing -- Kubrick did it best, so let's stop using references to Also Sprach Zarathustra.  It's becoming the Wilhelm Scream of classical music. 

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Spotlight On: Harry Potter

It is no surprise that the Harry Potter franchise has been so popular around the world.  It is hard to believe that the films have been 10 years in the making and using 4 different composers.  Each brought their own style and magic to the adaptations of the best-selling books by J.K. Rowling.  As the last installment comes to theaters, here’s a look back to the past scores.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001)
Music by John Williams
This score is obviously one of the best in the series.  Williams’ score is just as familiar for so many people around the world.  It all started with the simple melody composed for the first trailer, eventually becoming Hedwig’s Theme used throughout the series.  His contribution to the series has not been topped.  Oscar nominated score.  Just listen to: Harry’s Wonderous World, The Quidditch Match, Leaving Hogwarts, Hedwig’s Theme.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)
Music by John Williams

Williams returns to Hogwarts along with all the characters, albeit with a little help from William Ross’ adaptations.  The music in this film got darker as the film did.  There are some great themes, including the theme for Fawkes, Dobby, a reoccurrence of the Voldemort motif, and Gilderoy Lockhart’s Last Crusade-esque theme.  Just listen to: Fawkes the Phoenix, The Chamber of Secrets, The Dueling Club, Reunion of Friends.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
Music by John Williams

Just when you think John Williams didn’t have to add anything new to the series, he changes as the films switch to director Alfonso Cuaron.  Mainly not using the themes used (and sometimes overused) in the past installments, Williams almost starts fresh.  The standout new material includes the Double Trouble song which is featured throughout the film.  This film includes the somber theme for Harry’s parents and the impressive Patronus music.  This ranks as my favorite score in the series for its connection to the film and the material used.  Also Oscar nominated.  Just listen to: Aunt Marge’s Waltz, Double Trouble, Buckbeak’s Flight, A Window to the Past, Saving Buckbeak.  (Mischief Managed is a fantastic suite of themes from the film.)

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)
Music by Patrick Doyle
As John Williams left the series, Patrick Doyle took over.  Many people gave him flak for abandoning such rich melodies by Williams, but Doyle began to take the score in new directions.  His score manages to be light when it needs to be and also incredibly dark in other sections.  His waltzes and romantic music are perfect for the teen bits of the film.  In Voldemort’s official film visit, Doyle’s theme fits well.  Just listen to: The Quidditch World Cup, Foreign Visitors Arrive, Golden Egg, Harry in Winter, Voldemort.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)
Music by Nicholas Hooper

I remember the reaction when the next composer was announced for ‘Phoenix’.  I certainly didn’t know Nicholas Hooper.  His results weren’t as strong as the previous films, but he did compose some great underscoring for the students rebelling against the tyrannical rule at Hogwarts.  One my favorite cues is the new theme for their new headmistress, Dolores Umbridge.  There are some other nice moments, but unfortunately once the movie stops, the music doesn’t stay with you.  Just listen to: Professor Umbridge, The Room of Requirements, The Ministry of Magic, Fireworks.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (2009)
Music by Nicholas Hooper

Nicholas Hooper returned for the next film, which isn’t as strong as his last.  The highlight of the score is his choral piece called In Noctem.  Its theme appears a few times throughout the score.  The theme for Harry and Ginny is another highlight.  I remember the music for Aragog was moving.  Much of this score is mellow and somber, which do fit the film quite well, but the overall music listening is average.  The important confrontations at the end of the film would have had a more dramatic punch if the music was stronger.  Just listen to: In Noctem, Ginny, Farewell Aragog, Malfoy’s Mission, Dumbledore's Farewell, The Friends.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part 1 (2010)
Music by Alexandre Desplat

Joining the Potter team for parts 1 and 2 was Desplat, whose work typically right on and generally great.  Desplat displays his typical style of unique instrumentation and rhythm in the score.  The film itself is a bit strange with most of the action in part 2.  There are some great moments in the score and some really emotional music.  Desplat has a keen sense of when underscoring could get in the way – which this never does.  His music really stays in the background for most of the film, which is completely fine for this film.  The beginning of the film is where you really notice someone new has stepped in.  We’ll see what he does with part 2.  I hope he ends Harry Potter with the same magic as when it was started.  Just listen to: Obliviate, Sky Battle, Detonators, Godric’s Hollow Graveyard, Farewell to Dobby, The Elder Wand. 

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows part 2 (2011)
Music by Alexandre Desplat

Hard to believe the great series is at its end.  Desplat continues from part 1 and gives an overall solid score.  His score adds dramatic tension, adding booming percussion and churning strings.  The female soloist added an enjoyable texture not really heard in these films.  Desplat really hit the emotional core of several scenes without being over the top, one moment being the highlight of his score for me.  Surprisingly, Neville's theme is one of the most memorable cues Desplat has done for the films.  His action improved since part 1, and this score features the most throwbacks to the original film scores (included is many! repeats of Hedwig's Theme, cues from Chamber of Secrets and Hooper's Dumbledore's Farewell), which don't really appear in the album, except the Hedwig references.  I wish they did include the true film ending on the album, which seemed to end abruptly.  Overall, an effective score and a fine way to end the series.  Just listen to: Lily's Theme, Neville, Broomsticks and Fire, Severus and Lily, Harry's Sacrifice.

Check out the others!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Alex North: The Complex

Alex North was born Isadore Soifer to Russian immigrants in 1910.  North received scholarships and studied piano at the Curtis Institute and compositions at the Julliard School.  Upon studying the Russian composers, he traveled to Moscow as a telegrapher and studied composition at the Moscow Conservatory from 1932-1935.  In 1936 he returned to America and studied with Ernest Toch and Aaron Copland (both composed classical and film music).  In this time, he composed and arranged music for Martha Graham and her dance company.  He also wrote incidental music to plays and became music director for Anna Sokolow’s dance company.  While on tour in Mexico with Sokolow, North studied with Silvestre Revueltas (another classical composer who wrote several film scores in the 1930s).

During the war North composed scores for many documentaries for the Armed Forces.  Also around this time, North composed many concert works, including Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra (1941), Symphony # 1 (1947) and his Revue for Clarinet and Orchestra (1947) which was premiered by Benny Goodman.  He also continued his underscoring of plays, but one is particularly of note – 1949’s Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller and directed by Elia Kazan.  Their relationship continued in the 1950s as North scored Kazan’s version of A Streetcar Named Desire in 1951.  This is one of the first jazz-inspired scores possibly his most acclaimed scores.  In 1951 he also composed the music to the film adaptation of Death of a Salesman.  His entry into film music started with a bang, using a jazz sound unheard in most movie scores.  He continued to write modern sounding scores compared to the average romantic sounding scores.  He worked again with Kazan on Viva Zapata! in 1952, but they didn’t work together after that, perhaps because of Kazan’s HUAC testimony.  He also scored movies like Les Miserables (1952), The Rose Tattoo (1955), The Rainmaker (1956), Hot Spell (1958) and The Sound and the Fury (1959). 

The 1960s brought North bigger budgeted films, and none of the films sound the same.  Films from this time include Spartacus (1960), The Misfits (1961), The Children’s Hour (1961), Cleopatra (1963), The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965) and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966).  In many instances, North connected to the character problems, just as he had done in the theater.  North employed many different techniques into his film scores which weren’t used often, such as jarring dissonance and exotic instruments.  Spartacus and Cleopatra remain his most popular works.

His score to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) was unused in the film, and replaced fully by the classical music.  His unused score was rerecorded and released by Jerry Goldsmith in 1993, and in 2007 the original recordings were released in a limited edition.  

North’s non-film works include the theme to 77 Sunset Strip, Playhouse 90 theme for CBS, several episodes of Gunsmoke, The Man and the City, and Rich Man, Poor Man.  He continued to do several scores in the 1970s and 1980s, along with some of the television shows mentioned.  Scores include Bite the Bullet, Dragonslayer, Prizzi’s Honor, The Dead and 1987’s Good Morning, Vietnam.  One of his last hits was his song Unchained Melody (music written for the 1955 film Unchained) used in the 1990 film Ghost

Alex North died at the age of 80 in Los Angeles on September 8th, 1991.  His scores included jazz and modernist techniques when most composers and directors wanted the more traditional Hollywood sound.  This makes North one of the most original and innovative film composers.     
He was nominated for 3 Grammy Awards, won a Golden Globe, won an Emmy Award.  His record for Oscars is legendary - 15 Academy Award nominations with no wins.  In 1986 he did receive an honorary Oscar “
In recognition of his brilliant artistry in the creation of memorable music for a host of distinguished motion pictures.”            

A Streetcar Named Desire – Main Title (click here to listen)
Spartacus – Main Theme (click here to listen)
Cleopatra – Anthony and Cleopatra’s Love (click here to listen)
2001 A Space Odyssey Unused - (click here to listen)    

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Screen Credit Quiz!

Often the main titles and end titles are the best parts of the film score.  But can you identify these films by the composer's screen credit?  Put your answers in the comments.

1.  _____________
2.   ____________
 3. ____________

4. ____________

5. ____________

6. ____________

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Film Composer in the Concert Hall

It has not been uncommon for film composers to write music for the concert stage.  The line between film and concert stage have always been blurry.  As said before, composers have come from both sides of the aisle and several have straddled both sides equally.  It is also not uncommon for large symphony orchestras to play excerpts of film music, or in some occasions mentioned later, the whole film score.

Here are some predominantly film-oriented composers that have written concert music.

One of the composers who has crossed over (and back) extremely well is John Williams.  His concert music seems to be recorded and performed more than any other.  No surprise that he peppers his concerts with these works.  John Williams has written a concerto for just about every instrument.  His commissions have come from players to symphony orchestras.  They include concerti for flute, violin, tuba, clarinet, bassoon (The Five Sacred Trees), cello, trumpet, TreeSong for violin, Heartwood for cello, horn, viola, harp (On Willows and Birches) and most recently oboe. 

Some of his other concert works include:
Air and Simple Gifts (2009) – Composed for the inauguration of Barack Obama
Soundings (2003) – Composed for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall
American Journey (1999) – Composed for a millennium celebration in Washington DC
Variations on Happy Birthday (1995) – For the birthdays of Seji Ozawa, Itzhak Perlman and Yo-Yo Ma. 
Sound the Bells! (1993) – Composed for the Japanese royal wedding
For New York -Variations on a theme by Leonard Bernstein (1988)
Liberty Fanfare (1986) – Composed for the centennial of the Statue of Liberty
Sinfonietta for Wind Ensemble (1968)
Symphony No. 1 (1966)
Essay for Strings (1965)

Like Elmer Bernstein, Williams composed a musical, Thomas and the King (1975), which premiered in London.  While not exactly for the concert hall, it also wouldn’t be acceptable to not mention his Olympic compositions, from the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta and 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.  All of this music can be heard on most Olympic broadcasts.     

Jerry Goldsmith wrote a few concert pieces over his industrious film career.  They have been recorded on the album Christus Apollo.  His works are Christus Apollo (1974) with narrator, Music for Orchestra (1974) and Fireworks, a Celebration of Los Angeles (1999). 

Bernard Herrmann wrote many concert works, unfortunately not often performed.  Many of his film scores were adapted into suites and they are performed regularly.  His underperformed opera Wuthering Heights (1951) was recently performed in Minneapolis, Minnesota. 

Miklós Rózsa’s concert works include many pieces for solo piano, violin and cello including Variations on a Hungarian Peasant Song (1929) and Tema Con Variazioni (1966).  Most of his works have been released.

Franz Waxman is another composer who wrote for soloist and orchestra.  He wrote a Tristan and Isolde Fantasy and his most popular concert work, the Carmen Fantasie for violin and orchestra.

Maurice Jarre also wrote many concert works before his rise to popularity with Lawrence of Arabia, including works like Passacaglia to the Memory of Arthur Honegger and Three Dances for Ondes Martenot and Drums.  The latter features the electronic instrument featured in many future film scores.

Ennio Morricone has written many concert works throughout his career.  Many feature string orchestra, voice, electronic sounds, harpsichord and other instrument soloists.

Lalo Schifrin continues to get commissions to this day, and has written pieces like Fantasy for Screenplay and Orchestra, Concerto for Jazz Trumpet and Piano and Three Pieces for Percussion and Strings. 

Leonard Rosenman started as a concert composer, studying with Arnold Schoenberg and Roger Sessions until convinced to compose for films.  He continued to write avant-garde music throughout his film career including a violin concerto and chamber music.

Thomas Newman composed a piece titled It Got Dark in 2009 for the Kronos Quartet and orchestra, which was premiered and commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Danny Elfman was commissioned to write a piece by the American Composers Orchestra in 2005.  The result was Serenada Schizophrana, which premiered at Carnegie Hall, and subsequently recorded at the Newman scoring stage with the Hollywood Studio Symphony. For the Hollywood Bowl, Elfman wrote a piece in 2006 called the Overeager Overture. 

Many composers’ works have been performed in concert halls as part of film music series.  John Williams among others continue to conduct concerts of their concert music with film music mixed in.  Even now live orchestras are performing to an entire film.  Composer John Debney turned his score for Passion of the Christ into the Passion of the Christ Symphony and eventually into a Passion Oratorio.  Howard Shore similarly transformed his music from epic Lord of the Rings trilogy into a symphony, which has been performed all over the world.

For some recordings, I recommend the Jascha Heifetz’s recording of Korngold’s Violin Concerto, Rozsa's Violin Concerto and Tema con Variazioni and Waxman’s Carmen Fantasie. 
For a compilation of John Williams film and concert works, the Music of America: John Williams is a great start.