Category Archives: Film Composer

Soundtrack Review: Ben-Hur (1959)

Longtime readers of this blog know that I am a huge fan of composer Miklos Rozsa’s film scores. Rozsa (1907-1995) was a titan of film music and his epic score for Ben-Hur (1959) remains a benchmark that few have ever equalled (let alone surpassed).

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I am pleased to announce that Tadlow Music is releasing a completely new recording of this 157 minute score on October 3rd, one that will feature previously unrecorded music. The music has been recorded by the City of Prague Philarmonic and is conducted by Nic Raine.

If you haven’t seen the 1959 epic, it is NOTHING like the travesty that came out in 2016 (in fact, forget that movie even exists). The 1959 version of Ben-Hur is still considered to be one of the greatest films ever made, winning a record 11 Academy Awards (a feat that has only been equaled twice and NEVER surpassed) as it tells the story of a Judean prince (played brilliantly by Charlton Heston) whose life is thrown into turmoil at the same time that a strange carpenter begins preaching a new message to the people.

When you listen to this soundtrack, I highly recommend starting with the Overture. While it may seem strange now for a film to have an “overture” like an opera, back in the day it was fairly common for an epic film to start with a musical overture of some kind (there was also intermission music and exit music) that would play as the audience took their seats.

Another track that I absolutely recommend is the “Parade of the Charioteers” (this is usually preceded by a series of fanfares). This is the music that precedes the climactic chariot race (where Ben-Hur and Messala settle their differences once and for all) and is rightly considered one of the greatest sequences ever put on film. Curiously, the race itself has no music, something I’ve talked at length about.

Another track that I must recommend is the music that accompanies the “Lepers!” scene. As I’ve said previously, this scene features some amazing musical work, as Rozsa must convey with music alone that something terrible has happened to Ben-Hur’s mother and sister without the audience actually seeing what it is.

Truthfully, I could recommend this entire soundtrack, as it is a beautiful masterpiece, whose importance to film music cannot be overstated. In fact, parts of the score were used as temporary music for Star Wars (1977) (and it is said you can still hear its influence in certain places). If you want to hear some fantastic music, please pick up this new recording when it comes out in October. My thanks to The Krakower Group for making this information available.

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Soundtrack Review: American Assassin (2017)

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I was fortunate enough to be able to experience the soundtrack for the upcoming film American Assassin, due to be released next week in theaters. Directed by Michael Cuesta, American Assassin follows the rise of Mitch Rapp, a CIA black ops recruit, after losing his parents in a car accident and his girlfriend to a terrorist attack shortly after they were engaged.

The soundtrack was composed by Steve Price and is simply amazing. This review will look at several pieces from the soundtrack, to give you an idea of what is to come. The opening track is titled “The Proposal” and begins with a quiet melody, partially played on piano. This is later mixed with a cello; it is simple but romantic at the same time. The twist comes halfway through the track: the music suddenly turns dark (emphasized by very low tones on the piano) and the tension is slowly turned up as the mood turns from light and happy to dark and unsure. Even though the film hasn’t come out yet, the music allows me to visualize what is likely happening: Mitch has just proposed to his girlfriend (or maybe he is getting ready for it), when, according to the music, something terrible happens.

The fifth track is titled “Plutonium” and is not so much a melody as it is a cluster of sound  waves that rise and fall in volume. The opening moments are dripping with menace (appropriate for plutonium, which can be deadly in the wrong hands), and for most of the track there is no motion in the sound, but this begins to change toward the end. I don’t mean to imply that lack of motion is a bad thing because it isn’t. Sometimes the soundtrack just needs to convey the threat of something, it doesn’t necessarily have to move the audience along, so to speak.

The tenth track is titled “I Trusted You” and it might just be my favorite in the soundtrack. The first minute is pure frenetic energy, but then it slides back into a contemplative mode, as if the scene began with a burst of action and then tapered off, perhaps into dialogue. I loved the mix of energy between the different instruments, and how seamlessly it transitioned from action to drama (fast-paced to slow-paced, it’s a slight oversimplification, but it gets my point across).

And that is my brief preview into the music for American Assassin. I absolutely loved everything I heard and I believe Steve Price has done a magnificent job. I apologize deeply for not getting these music reviews out sooner, the dissertation has taken over a large chunk of my life and I was forced to place these reviews on the back burner. But now I promise that if I blog on nothing else for the near future, I will get some reviews out to you every week. I hope you enjoyed this one, there’s plenty to come I promise. My thanks to The Krakower Group for making the soundtrack of American Assassin available. Have a good weekend everyone!

 

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The magic of James Horner: Casper (1995)

Thanks to everyone who has participated in the blogathon so far. Today is the last day and here is my contribution. Enjoy!

It’s been two years since James Horner was ripped away from us, his passing left a void that may never be filled. He had a gift for creating magical themes that stuck in the head for hours after the movie was over. And one of my favorite examples from the mid-90s was the main theme from Casper (1995).

Loosely based on the comics character Casper the Friendly Ghost, Casper follows a paranormal therapist, Dr. James Harvey (Bill Pullman) and his daughter “Kat” as they travel from state to state in an attempt to make contact with the spirit of Harvey’s deceased wife Amelia. The pair come to Casper’s former home when the spoiled heiress who inherited the home wants the ghosts (Casper and his uncles) removed so she can claim the “treasure” hidden inside.

Casper’s Lullaby

Casper’s theme, listed on the soundtrack as “Casper’s Lullaby”, is a haunting piano melody that comes to the forefront particularly when Casper remembers the events of his death, and also during the Halloween dance when Kat realizes she’s dancing with Casper (who’s alive for one night).

How Casper Died

It’s such a haunting melody, one that highlights the tragedy of Casper’s short life, and the fact that he “didn’t go where he was supposed to” but stayed behind instead. Actually, ever since Horner passed away, I’ve had a hard time listening to this theme, as it reminds me that one of the greatest film composers is gone before his time. I hope you enjoy listening to Casper’s Lullaby, and I hope you enjoy the rest of the blogathon today.

Composer Interview with Scott Doherty

Scott Doherty is a lifelong musician, though some might say a reluctant composer. After moving from his hometown of Maine to Los Angeles at the age of 18, Scott’s early musical pursuits included playing live music to large audiences at venues like the House of Blues and the El Ray and performing in the South Coast Repertory Theatre production ‘Against Oblivion’, among other productions. He was led to study and pursue sound and music composition and since then, has composed music for numerous film and TV projects, including ‘Weeds’, ‘Orange is the New Black’ and most recently, ‘The Holdouts’. We sat down to talk with Scott about his career as a musician and composer.

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How did you get into composing for television?
Looking back, I feel like it was something I didn’t directly aim to do. I was in the band world playing keys for other bands and I hit a point with where I felt somewhat stilted, which moved me away from the record format and more into instrumental music. From there I dove into the recording studio and was just fascinated by everything. It was over the course of a year that I was asked to write a couple of score-based projects. I was asked to direct a few shows, music for a documentary called ‘Becoming Santa’, and these projects felt more like a perfect fit, using music to tell stories. Not long after, I ran into a friend who was a music supervisor and she’d become the head of music for the E! Network. I began to work on a string of shows for them, doing theme songs for different shows. I was still craving writing music to picture,  and about that time is when the opportunity for ‘Orange is the New Black’ came in. I was asked to join in the series that would be on Netflix, and at the time, digital wasn’t what it was today – so it was really a leap of faith.

 

Yeah, I remember at the time it was announced it seemed really weird like, television on Netflix? How does that even work?  *laughs* Yeah, people were really unsure of the platform, but I saw the entire first season of ‘Orange’ before the rest of the world did and I fell in love with it:  the story, the characters, the incredible actors. I just had no idea how lucky we would become with this series.

 

With each season (of Orange is the New Black’) being released all at once, what is the schedule for creating the score for each episode, compared to a regular television series? Has everything already been shot?  There are a lot of similarities actually, in the way that we have a similar production schedule to a regular show on network cable. There’s about a week to do each episode, and production is usually about three to four episodes ahead of us, but it is still the same production flow. The difference is that we’re not getting feedback week to week from audiences. Because all thirteen episodes are available at once, Netflix encouraged us (in fact they sent a note about it about halfway through the first season) to think of it really as a thirteen hour-long movie, rather than a normal, episodic TV show. And that changed the way that I look at the character theme arcs and making sure that whatever happens in episode one, that same day the audience could be watching episode eight, so the continuity needed to be there.

 

Right, so if each season is like a movie, does that mean there is more there in terms of character motifs?
Yes, and with ‘Orange’ there is such a diverse cast, with so many “lead” actors and actresses, so we really try and focus in on a specific melodic theme or sonic world that is created to support each character, and some of that makes its way into their flashbacks. Some of those themes are in fact born in flashbacks because with some characters we don’t get to really know them until those moments. But it really does feel more like scoring a film than a television show in that regard.

 

So with Season 5 coming on June 9th, have any of the (musical) themes changed over the years?
Oh most definitely. One of the biggest would be Dayanara’s theme, which started as her and Bennet’s love theme and as their relationship went on the rocks, it created a flipped version of the same theme, but more dark. Suzanne’s (“Crazy Eyes”) theme starts off more aggressive, but as we get to know her, the innocence comes out. And then there’s a hybrid of the two, and also there’s some situational themes that come back over time. I really feel the prison itself has a real character to it, there’s an “essence” of what prison sounds like.

 

 

Definitely. What about Piper? Because she’s the one who’s really thrown headlong into all of this at the start.
I feel like the way we’ve worked with Piper through the seasons is more situational in terms of themes. Some of them have been more whimsical, a theme to reinforce the isolation she was feeling (in the SHU), then in – I think it was season three –  there was the “Piper 2.0” theme with an aggressive Piper finding her voice and that carried over into season four. There really isn’t one central theme for Piper, it really changes from season to season for her.

 

I actually misunderstood what this show was going to be about. Because when the preview for the pilot came out, I saw that Piper was being sentenced to this relatively short time in prison, so I thought ‘Orange is the New Black’ was meant to be a one-off, a one season and that’s it sort of deal. And then I saw articles about season two, three and I’m like “why is this show still going?” And that’s when I read the summaries and realized this show was a lot more complex than I imagined.
*laughs* Oh yeah, but it’s really something like ’24′, which plays out in real time. And it’s also hard to gauge how much time is actually passing in these seasons. We’ve seen one Christmas and one Valentine’s Day so far. But it really does feel like we haven’t even covered a year yet. No one is too specific with covering sentences. But this latest season (season 5) will cover exactly three days. That was the story motif for this season.

 

Wow, so there’s a lot of stuff packed in to this season?
Yes! It starts off with a bang and keeps on going, I wish I could talk about it but there’s only a week to go now. What’s great about the first season though, is it uses Piper to introduce us to prison, to what it would feel like to have something from your past that you may have forgotten come back and affect you. And also what it would feel like to be one of those people outside of the walls and suddenly find themselves inside it. And so I think they were able to use her story to get us into prison, and as soon as the 2nd season started, the focus is now on every other inmate. It’s no longer about the singular struggle of this woman, it’s now more about the life of women in prison.

 

So in theory this show could run indefinitely?
Absolutely!

 

So, one last question, you said it was the same production flow as a regular television show. So is recording the music anything like film where you have the footage playing out in front of you?
Yes, it’s exactly the same. The way it breaks down is, we go to a spotting session where we sit down and watch the editor’s cut with temporary music put in. And we discuss it and say, “what do we like? Are there any character themes missing? Does it need to be funny or sad?”  And then we have about five to six days to complete twenty-five to thirty pieces of music for the show. We go to a music review and watch the cues one by one, and it’s usually “love it”, “change this one thing” or “try again”. Then we have another day to review it before we start all over again. I tend to write and record the music at the same time. The best-case scenario for me when writing is to turn the music off and watch the same scene five or six times to see if a natural pace or rhythm comes through. And a lot of times the performer’s work is so strong that I begin to hear the music in my head straight away. I try to capture that emotional reaction as quickly as possible.

 

Wow, that is so amazing! Well thank you very much for sitting down to talk with me about Orange is the New Black
No problem! Thank you.

Brian Tyler conducts The Mummy (2017)

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One thing that never fails to get to me is when a wonderful film score is attached to a terrible film: a recent case in point being the most recent box office bomb, The Mummy (which I ripped to shreds earlier this month).

Despite the film being an abysmal failure (and hopefully the death knell of the Dark Universe before it really gets going), the score, composed and conducted by Brian Tyler, is really beautiful. An amazing thing about Tyler is that on his Facebook page he will release footage of himself conducting pieces from his film scores (I have a confession, that’s where I find most of Tyler’s material to share with you). And when I saw that he had posted video of himself conducting the score at a special premiere, I had to watch.

Brian Tyler conducts The Mummy (2017)

It was beautiful!! Brian Tyler is a very talented composer and it shows in this excerpt. The music begins relatively subdued, with an iteration of a particular theme (I suspect it is Ahmanet’s). But as the music goes on, this theme gains intensity and power, until the full orchestra and chorus is backing it.

Unfortunately, I fear the abysmal reviews of the film will prevent many people from experiencing the beauty of this film score (a similar thing happened with Gods of Egypt; Marco Beltrami composed a great score, but the bad reviews meant that many people never heard it). Thus, I am sharing this performance with all of you and I hope you enjoy it. On a side note, when I commented on Facebook that I loved how the theme built in power, Brian Tyler liked the comment!!

If you feel that I should give this film a chance when it’s available to rent on Redbox, let me know in the comments below (I’ll consider it if enough people think so). Don’t forget that the Remembering James Horner Blogathon begins Friday, this is the absolute last day to sign up, after midnight tonight I will consider the submissions area closed.

If you’d like to learn more about the film scores of Brian Tyler, see here

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Coming up: two composer interviews

Hey everyone, so as of yesterday I have completed two composer interivews, the first was with Scott Doherty, the composer for Orange is the New Black (an enlightening experience) and the second was with composer/orchestrator/performer Paul Henning, who, among other things, orchestrated The Force Awakens, performed in the orchestra that recorded Moana, Frozen and Rogue One and is currently scoring a documentary about George Foreman.

I learned SO much from these two composers and my appreciation of the film scoring process has risen to an entirely new level. I also learned a lot more about the actual recording process, and for the first time I think I thoroughly understand the scoring process from beginning to end.

Hopefully the first interview will be up early next week, as I will be spending this week transcribing the audio. But for now, here’s a little tid-bit that I learned from Paul Henning that blew my mind: when orchestras record for film scores? They’re completely sight-reading, which means no rehearsals, they’ve never seen this music before.

I can’t wait to share everything I’ve learned with you, until then, have a great Monday!!

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Bernard Herrmann talks The Bride Wore Black (1968)

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Bernard Herrmann talks The Bride Wore Black (1968)

Normally when I share composer interviews, it’s for a relatively current film. But when I found an interview for the 1968 film The Bride Wore Black that was given by composer Bernard Herrmann, I just knew I had to share it with you.

The Bride wore Black (released in France as  La Mariée était en noir) is a revenge film directed by Francois Truffaut. It tells the story of a woman named Julie Kohler, whose husband is killed on her wedding day as they’re leaving the church. The crime occurred because five men were horsing around with a loaded rifle in a building across the street and it went off, fatally striking the newly married groom. After learning the identities of the men responsible, Kohler sets out to kill every last man responsible.

The new widow is completely ruthless in her pursuit of vengeance:

  • victim #1 is pushed off a balcony
  • victim #2 is poisoned
  • victim #3 is locked in a small closet where he suffocates to death (she sealed the door shut with duct tape
  • victim #4 would’ve been killed with a handgun but the police arrested him before she could get him
  • victim #5 is shot in the back (fatally) with an arrow as she posed for a painting of Diana, Goddess of the Hunt. After noticing that he’s painted her on the wall in a mural, Julie decides to leave the painting as is, knowing the evidence will lead to her arrest. After arriving at jail (where still-alive victim #4 is also serving time), she ends up working in the kitchen where she is last seen taking a food cart towards the men’s side of the prison (a scream implying she’s completed her task of vengeance).

The music for this film was written by the legendary composer Bernard Herrmann (perhaps best known for his collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock on four of his films, including Psycho). I haven’t found many interviews with Herrmann thus far, so it is fascinating to hear him talking about his work with any film. I admit I haven’t actually seen The Bride Wore Black (not yet anyway), but after watching this interview and reading more about the plot, I definitely need to check this film out.

What do you think of Bernard Herrmann talking about The Bride Wore Black? Have you seen the film? And if you have, what did you think of it? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below, have a great Monday!!

If you’d like to learn more about the film scores of Bernard Herrmann, see here

The 2nd Annual Remembering James Horner blogathon is coming in June, check out the sign up page here

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