Saturday, November 30, 2013

Quick Review: The Book Thief

The Book Thief
Music composed by John Williams
Music conducted by John Williams
Recorded at Newman Scoring Stage, 20th Century Fox
Album time: 53 minutes
Available on Sony Classical



Returning to the screen after scoring 2012's Lincoln, the announcement of John Williams scoring The Book Thief came as a surprise to many. It is also notable that this film is Williams' first non-Spielberg or Lucas film since Memoirs of a Geisha (2005), another film in which he personally sought out scoring. This film isn't really a departure from material Williams has worked on before - a World War II set story, and based on a novel (albeit young adult). One listen and you will instantly recognize some of the composer's idioms, which in this case certainly aren't a bad thing.

Here's my track-by-track rundown, spoiler warning for track titles only.

The album opens with "One Small Fact", starting right off with a melancholic piano solo. As the strings pulse underneath, woodwinds begin their first rendition of the main theme. The strings respond back and forth a bit, with the piano included as well.  The Journey to Himmel Street begins with an plaintive oboe solo, before the piano taking over with a scale-like motif.  New Parents and a New Home is a bit more tender and warm. The same scale-like motif in piano appears in Ilsa's Library (fitting with the main character Liesel's love of books), before another appearance of the main theme with a lighter orchestration. [I'll call that motif the reading motif for this rundown.]

The Snow Fight is a scherzo similar to those found in his Harry Potter scores, The Terminal, and The Adventures of Tintin. Phrases pass between instruments - woodwinds, strings and celeste. Learning to Read begins with the bare harp solo before shifting to a lush reprise of the main theme and reading motif. An solo oboe takes over with interjections from the strings, until they arrive with harp utilizing the melody heard from the oboe earlier. Book Burning uses a bit more close dissonance in the strings to give a sense of dread and suspense with a repeating chord.

"I Hate Hitler!" begins with a simple-sounding harp solo, but the real beauty appears as the solo clarinet enters and other instruments unfold. This track is one that shows off the deceptively simple and stark approach to scoring the film.  Max and Liesel begins with a lovely new melody presented by the oboe, showing another sweeter moment of the score. The Train Station is full of gentle string writing, allowing them to to crescendo with a splash of percussion and supporting woodwinds before coming back down.

Revealing the Secret is one of the lengthier tracks on the album, with an opening similar to the lilting rhythms heard earlier. A solo clarinet and flute have moments in a more mysterious section, still melancholic even as the orchestra crescendos.  Foot Race is another brief scherzo, and the sweet ending is a welcome change to the pace of the album.

The Visitor at Himmel Street begins with an oboe taking over the theme first heard in "One Small Fact", eventually adding strings and harp. A stand-out track. Learning to Write starts off with a cello solo, before the main theme gets another sweeping rendition. Departure of Max is a tender track, featuring the theme for Max and Liesel (heard earlier in that track). The theme is transferred to piano as well.

"Jellyfish" features more of the reading motif, before a return of the main theme on harp, another sweet moment of the album. Rescuing the Book begins with a repetitive string pattern, giving the music momentum as melodies soar over.  Writing to Mama begins with a magical sounding opening section and a return to the main theme.

Max Lives is another highlight of the album. The brief clarinet moment in the middle really shines as it reprises the theme for Max and Liesel, without getting too sappy.  Rudy is Taken is the flip side of the previous track, a somber and dark track that could easily fit into Munich (2005). Finale begins with Max and Liesel's theme, before the piano and harp share a beautiful moment, moving and sweet before ending with an optimistic tone. The longest track is The Book Thief, a suite of themes with more room to expand. The themes benefit from the expansion and different orchestration, letting each have more time to shine.

The film score really touches upon many emotions, never lingering on one for too long. I give credit to Williams for the understated scoring style for this film. It is more intimate that some of his recent scores, with no broad strokes or large sweeping moments (like War Horse). The stark and tender solos really bring the score to life. It wouldn't be fair to not acknowledge the solos led by Jessica Pearlman (oboe), Don Foster (clarinet) and Randy Kerber (piano). 

 The main theme has many resemblances to past works, mainly Angela's Ashes (1999) and Jane Eyre (1970) and several Williams-isms a throughout the score. He really tells a story in the music, something John Williams has always been a master at. Don't listen to the score if you're looking for the bombastic Star Wars moments, but if you're looking for an intimate, emotional underscore with lovely theme transformations - this is the score for you.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Quick Review: Thor: The Dark World

Thor: The Dark World

Music composed by Brian Tyler
Music conducted by Brian Tyler, Allan Wilson
Score performed by the The London Philharmonia Orchestra and The London Philharmonic Orchestra
Score recorded at Abbey Road Studios
Album time: 78 minutes
Available on Hollywood Records/Intrada Records


Following his score to Iron Man 3, composer Brian Tyler seems to be the young, hip voice the Marvel Cinematic Universe was looking for.  I enjoyed the musical world created by Patrick Doyle for Thor (2011), with a rousing theme and strong heroic material.  I was a bit confused with the original announcement of composer Carter Burwell at the helm, but thankfully Tyler stepped in around June.  Here's a rundown of the newest Marvel score.

No spoilers ahead, and track names don't spoil much.   


The album begins with Thor: The Dark World, a charging track with a bombastic theme complete with choir.  This serves as the main theme for the film.  This track sets up the score on the rest of the album, and for Tyler's composing style.  Lokasenna features a lamenting solo voice (sung by Azam Ali), with a slower variation of the main theme with a gentle orchestral accompaniment.  Those familiar with Tyler's score to Rambo (2008) will find this technique familiar, but that isn't obtrusive.  Asgard sets up another main theme, certainly cut from the same cloth as the main Thor theme.  The pounding rhythm motif appears throughout the score as it relates to the onscreen action.  The swirling strings and anthemic horns are a holdover from Doyle's Thor (or just about any epic film score in the last decade).


Battle of Vanaheim contains more choir with a nice reprise of the Thor theme. Origins represents the villain Malekith and features the low brass and strong percussion. The motif features a bit of electronics and hints at an ethnic sound.  While not entirely defined, this motif appears through other action cues later in the score.  The Trial of Loki begins with a minor lullaby-like theme in the celeste and harp before being passed to the low strings.  This mysterious motif serves as Loki's theme.  It reminds me a bit of Michael Giacchino's John Carter theme.  Into Eternity begins with the vocal solo heard in Lokasenna, this time more developed and expanded.  Escaping the Realm starts right off with the Thor theme and fits well in this action setting.

A Universe from Nothing is a more dramatic track, mainly focusing on strings.  Untouchable brings back the electronics and ethnic percussion for Malekith and Dark Elves.  This track brings the ostinato and brass work of Hans Zimmer to mind, certainly moments from The Dark Knight (2008).  Thor, Son of Odin naturally features Thor's theme over heavy percussion with subtle variation from the last.  Shadows of Loki begins with a great horn motif before reprising Loki's mysterious theme for most of the track with some rising changing.  Just because it hasn't been heard in a few minutes, Thor's theme comes back charging in with Sword and Council.  Much like Doyle's theme, each iteration makes the theme more memorable and identifiable within the score.  


Invasion of Asgard features more of the villain music with the brass showing off and adding dissonance to the score.  Electric guitars show up more and more feature dramatic choir moments near the end.  Betrayal contains some nice dramatic string and choir writing with Loki's theme within the orchestral layers.  The orchestra then crescendos to a brief snippet of Thor's theme.  A slightly slower version of Thor's theme starts Journey to Asgard before the louder rendition enters.  As the orchestra drops out, the vocal solo takes over.  I don't remember hearing the Thor theme so much in the film, but you certainly get your money's worth within each track.  


Uprising is more percussion-led action with low strings with an appearance of Loki's theme and a burst of Thor's theme.  Vortex fits between the sweet and menacing sound before the orchestra rises for a brief lovely moment.  An Unlikely Alliance plugs Loki's theme a bit more in more mysterious settings, with some low strings plodding.  About halfway through, the theme is put in more of military style before Alan Silvestri's Captain America theme appears for a brief cameo.  It doesn't last long, but it's nice to see a bit of musical consistency in the Marvel Universe.      


Convergence begins with a lovely horn theme, backed with the strings before turning a bit more nasty and combining the Malekith material, bits of Loki's material, and Thor's theme with orchestral and percussion outbursts.  Beginning of the End slowly simmers until the dissonant strings and brass enter.  The electric guitar of Malekith is split by a reference to Thor's theme.  The string ostinato of modern film scores appears and the action keeps moving, but rarely goes over the top.  Deliverance is a moving track, utilizing the slower Thor variation and the vocal soloist.  

Battle Between Worlds is the action cue that begins with a bang.  The momentum of the music keeps the track alive, with pounding percussion as the brass crescendos.  There are some brief moments of breathing space before it jumps back in.  The orchestra rises to the finish.  As the Hammer Falls builds to another version of the Thor theme.

Legacy features more slower-moving strings, reminding me of some of Howard Shore's Lord of the Rings music.  Thor's theme appears as the music seems uplifting before a reprise of Loki's theme in it's most majestic (if villainous) rendition.  Thor's theme gets the ultimate reprise with swirling strings and the choir as the album ends.  Basically a bonus track, the Marvel Studios Fanfare is brief logo music composed by Tyler, and used for the first time on this film.  It'll be nice to see (and hear) this updated logo for the upcoming Marvel films.  

Similar to Iron Man 3, the track titles seem fairly vague and don't give much away to the film.  Just like most Tyler albums, the album track order doesn't fit the film order, but doesn't change the overall flow.  I'm sure more adept listeners will be diligently putting the soundtrack in film order, so have fun.  If you enjoyed the main themes for this film, Tyler's Children of Dune (2003) might be on your mind as well.  Even the vocal soloist, Azam Ali, sang on that film.     

Tyler's Thor score is a nice followup to Doyle's score to Thor, while not embodying his themes or specific style.  If you had trouble keeping the similarly written themes apart, that doesn't change the listening experience.  The main theme is stronger than Tyler's for Iron Man 3 and certainly fits with the many heroic moments in the film.  There are many standout moments in the score and worth listening to if you aren't the ardent Tyler listener. 

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Marco Beltrami: The Intensity

Born in 1966 in New York, Marco Beltrami began his musical career by taking piano lessons at a young age.  He slowly began to make up his own music, or change the pieces he was supposed to be practicing.  He found his way into various rock bands in high school playing keyboard.

Instead of following his musical path, Beltrami entered Brown University to study urban planning.  While at Brown, Beltrami began experimenting with the school's electronic music studio and discovering all the techniques available with the 1980's synthesizers.  His compositions at the time were a combination of electronic styles and the 'traditional orchestra'.  After graduating from Brown, Beltrami traveled to Venice, Italy and studied with Luigi Nono, a prominent avant-garde composer.  In 1993, he won the Charles Ives Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.  With that, he returned to the US and entered Yale University, writing concert works as a classical composer.

In 1992, Beltrami swapped coasts, and began a fellowship at University of Southern California (USC) with legendary composer Jerry Goldsmith.  His first glimpses of the film scoring business came with Goldsmith, as he learned the craft and artistry of the medium.  At the same time, Beltrami composed several commissions for various orchestras throughout the country.  He also started getting film work, including the short The Bicyclist (1995), cheap thrillers Death Match (1994) and The Whispering (1995).  He also worked on the television series Land's End (1995), composing the main titles and score.

In 1996, Beltrami's big break happened with Scream (1996).  Asked by director Wes Craven to score the opening scene, his take eventually led him to score the entire film.  Using his 20th century orchestral techniques, his music fit with the horror genre.  The film also led to larger films, many in the thriller/horror genres like Mimic (1997) the first with director Guillermo Del Toro, Scream 2 (1997) which featured tracked music by Danny Elfman and Hans Zimmer and adding music to Halloween H20: 20 Years Later (1998).  This same streak also led to him scoring The Faculty (1998).                     

Expanding his horizons, Beltrami scored the TV movie David and Lisa (1998), and was nominated for an Emmy award.  The next year, he also scored the TV movie Tuesdays with Morrie (1999).  In 2000, he also began composing music for the series The Practice, scoring 85 episodes from 2000 to 2004.  It was his thriller scores that provided more opportunities, scoring films like The Crow: Salvation (2000), Craven-produced Dracula 2000 (2000), The Watcher (2000), the obligatory sequel Scream 3 (2000), which featured a more experimental orchestral sound and even a throwback to Zimmer's tracked music from the previous installment.

With Resident Evil (2002), rocker Marilyn Manson added to the electronic-heavy score.  For the action/sci-fi Blade II (2002), Beltrami reunited with director Guillermo Del Toro.  Working with producer/writer Kevin Williamson, Beltrami scored his television series Glory Days, a short-lived thriller in 2002.  He also returned with a massive orchestra for the percussion-led Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003).

He exercised more of his blockbuster chops with I, Robot (2004), which featured some great action writing, and Flight of the Phoenix (2004).  It was Hellboy (2004) - another collaboration with Del Toro that Beltrami hit the scene with one of his best scores.  2005 saw the Wes Craven films Cursed (2005) and Red Eye (2005), and expanding his horizons with the western The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (2005), directed by actor Tommy Lee Jones.

Taking over the series from composer Paul Haslinger, Beltrami composed the score to Underworld: Evolution (2006) with solid rhythms and plenty of synthesized sounds.  For the remake of The Omen (2006), Beltrami reworked a few selections of the original 1976 Jerry Goldsmith score.  With Live Free or Die Hard (2007), he used more intense rhythms and blaring brass into another blockbuster action score.  On the flip side, his score to James Mangold's 3:10 to Yuma (2007), evoked another western atmosphere.  This top score gave Beltrami his first Oscar nomination.          

2008 saw a wider variety of styles, having moved further from his horror roots.  With director John Moore (previously working together on Flight of the Phoenix and The Omen) collaborated again with Beltrami on the action score Max Payne (2008).  Another departure from his norm, was for the 2-part French film Mesrine: Killer Instinct (2008) and Mesrine: Public Enemy #1 (2008).  Similar to 'Yuma', his minimal score to The Hurt Locker (2008) caught the critics attention and he shared an Oscar nomination with composer Buck Sanders.

For Knowing (2009), Beltrami re-teamed with Alex Proyas, the director of I, Robot for a majestic fantasy/sci-fi score.  Other scores around this time were Del Toro-produced Don't Be Afraid of the Dark (2010) and Jonah Hex (2010), scored with the band Mastodon.  Again with Tommy Lee Jones in the director's chair, he scored the TV movie The Sunset Limited (2011).  On the television front, Beltrami scored 22 episodes of the reboot series V from 2009-2011.

Not a stranger to sequels and reboots, he returned for Scream 4 (2011) with Wes Craven again in the director's chair, and provided a dissonant horror score for The Thing (2011).  Yet it was his moving and dramatic Hawaiian themed score to Soul Surfer (2011) that remains one of Beltrami's top recent achievements.  2012 saw the thriller The Woman in Black (2012), the very understated Trouble with the Curve (2012).  2013 was an even busier year, utilizing large orchestras with intense rhythms.  There was the horror comedy Warm Bodies (2013), and the next Die Hard - A Good Day to Die Hard (2013) with director John Moore.  Continuing his string of blockbusters, Beltrami's scores to World War Z (2013) and The Wolverine (2013) featured more ambient and dissonant sounds.  Keeping close to the horror norms, Beltrami also scored the remake of Carrie (2013).        

Beltrami's future looks just a busy.  Collaborating again with director Ole Bornedal, Beltrami is working on the Danish TV series 1864 for 2014.  Future scores also include The Homesman (2014) with Tommy Lee Jones directing, and the adventure fantasy Seventh Son (2014).  There may also be another Die Hard movie in the pipeline, and with Beltrami scoring the previous two installments, he may return yet again.  

Using his compositional background, the transition to film scoring fit nicely.  His orchestral techniques fit into the thriller tropes, making him an ideal composer.  Beltrami has also developed a knack for intense action writing, showing off in several action films.  His sound is also defined by his collaborators - notably co-composers and producers Buck Sanders and Marcus Trumpp.  While not all of Beltrami's scores have risen above the films, several have stood out as his top scores.  He often provides a unique take on his films, no matter what the genre is, or even if it's a reboot/remake/or continuation of a franchise.  Given his ability to compose several scores a year, there'll be lots more to listen to.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Glimpses of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

As scoring continues for The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, here are some glimpses into Howard Shore's score with the recording sessions, this time performed by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Conrad Pope.