The Fantastique Film Music of Simon Boswell

Boswell provided music for HARDWARE (1989)
Boswell provided music for HARDWARE (1989)

British composer Simon Boswell has scored films that span a myriad of genres and styles, but it is his work for horror and fantasy cinema that stands out: the mid ‘80s giallo films of Dario Argento and Lamberto Bava, Clive Barker’s masterful horror film, LORD OF ILLUSIONS, the chilling atonality of INCUBUS, the hybrid cyberpunk riffings of HACKERS and HARDWARE, the epic melodic orchestrations for the 2007 TV miniseries, TIN MAN. In addition, he has scored films for Danny Boyle, Alejandro Jodorowski, Álex de la Iglesia, Tim Roth, and others.

Boswell was born in London in 1956 and started out in rock music, achieving success in the 1970’s power pop band Advertising. Known for combining electronic elements with orchestral instruments, Boswell’s music has ranged in style and tone since the mid 1980s. With more than 90 film and television scores to his credit over the last twenty-five years, Boswell has dabbled in every genre and every timbre.

Boswell grew up attached to a piano keyboard. At the age of 8, inspired by a BBC Radio program about Mozart, Boswell wrote a theme and variations to it in the styles of Chopin, Bach, Mozart, and Rachmaninov. When he was 12, he learned the guitar after being mesmerized by a television broadcast of Jimi Hendrix. Sharing the two mistresses of classical piano and rock guitar, Boswell spent several young years in bands before becoming a record producer. That brought him to Italy during the early 1980s, where he met horror director Dario Argento.

Phenomena (1985)“Dario had seen me play in a club in Rome while I was touring with my band Live Wire, and he asked me if I would contribute to his film PHENOMENA,” said Boswell. “He suggested that I work with two of the musicians from Goblin, Claudio Simonetti and Fabio Pignatelli, on this film. I think he was trying to branch out a bit musically at this point in time.”

The collaboration didn’t go as smoothly as expected; after years of breaking up and getting back together, the two remaining Goblin musicians were barely open to working with each other, let alone with an outsider. The final soundtrack was a patchwork affair, padded out with songs from Motorhead, Iron Maiden, and an instrumental track by former Rolling Stone Bill Wyman.

“We decided to split into separate studios to accomplish the score,” Boswell explained. “I contributed about three themes, plus two rock songs.”

With this, Boswell’s first attempt at film music, he created a collage of what he described as “unlistenable sounds” – feedback guitar, violin harmonics, the scrape of a plectrum down the strings of his Stratocaster, and wailing and moaning voices.

“When Dario first sat down and listened to it, the aural equivalent of running your fingernails down a blackboard, he pronounced it: ‘Beautiful!’ I can’t tell you how many avenues opened up in my head at that point in time!”

Working on PHENOMENON (1985) was a huge learning experience for Boswell. Since he’d had no previous experience in films, he had no idea how to actually write a film score.

“When I feel I’m being manipulated, brazenly, by something really obvious, I cringe,” Boswell said. “Being moved by something powerful, emotional, and original is something else. Sadly, this has excluded me from working very much in Hollywood! I was always inspired by the ending of ‘A Day in the Life,’ by The Beatles and have made it my business to orchestrate some of that kind of chaos into my scores.”

After his valuable experience on PHENOMENON with Argento, Boswell scored DEMONS 2 (1986) for Lamberto Bava, son of Italian horror icon, Mario Bava.

“Lamberto gave me complete freedom to write whatever I liked for his films,” said Boswell, who scored these films electronically in England. “I would go to Rome for a couple of days and sit in the editing suite and go through the film, then take a VHS back to UK where I would compose and perform the whole thing on my own in a bedroom in Clapham, London. Sometimes I would take the music back to Rome and supervise synchronizing it on the movieola. There was very little communication.”

Boswell’s music from DEMONS 2 wound up being recycled in Bava’s THE OGRE (La Casa Dell’Orco, 1988) and BLACK SUNDAY (La Maschera Del Demonic, 1989), which were misleadingly titled in some territories to suggest they were DEMONS  sequels, and he wrote or had music in a number of other Bava movies, including GRAVEYARD DISTURBANCE (1987), DELIRIUM (1987), and DINNER WITH A VAMPIRE (1988).

“My main recollection is that Lamberto made four films in one summer using the same set – so I can be forgiven for confusing some of them! There’s a rock song on the opening titles of GRAVEYARD DISTURBANCE which I wrote called ‘Imagination.’ This song has never been released but has been used in at least 8 movies –on the radio, in the background in a café, etc. I’m still fond of that track.”

After the first five or six Italian films, Boswell would get phone calls from filmmakers he had never met asking, “We’re making a film. Can you write a tension theme? Make it five minutes long. And an action theme – make it five minutes long. And a love theme – ditto.”

Boswell would send this music to people he had never met for movies he has never seen. “One month a horror film, the next a RAMBO rip-off – then a romantic comedy followed by a Kung Fu movie,” said Boswell. “Amazing training for a composer! On average, it took about four weeks to deliver the finished score. On one occasion I was asked to do a whole film in three days! Sometimes I would take the music out to Rome and I have watched editors put it against picture and when it stopped working for them, they would cut to another piece! It had the effect of propelling the viewer through the movie with very broad strokes, like a Picasso painting.”

These Italian horror/giallo films afforded Boswell the opportunity to experiment, musically, just at the time when developments of early synthesizers, samplers, and sequencers were at the same time revolutionizing electronic music and affording new means to make music for films.

“These were the basis of those early scores,” Boswell said. “I pretty much lived in a musical vacuum, but I became interested in producing slowly changing ambient sounds – and also what is, to modern ears, very mechanical, sequenced music.”

Boswell considers the finest film he’s been involved with to be 1989’s SANTA SANGRE (“Holy Blood”), a surrealist fantasy thriller for director Alejandro Jodorowski (EL TOPO), which was was produced by Dario Argento’s brother, Claudio.

“There is a scene where one of the characters has her arms cut off,” Boswell recalled. “I asked Alejandro if he would like this to be a violent piece of music. He said: ‘No! It must be wonderful! Heavenly!’ It was Alejandro who taught me that you can write beautiful music for violent images and, in so doing, establish a resonance between what you see and what you hear. This can give great depth.”

Over his career, Boswell has maintained an ongoing collaboration with director Richard Stanley, a specialist in short films, whose features included the 1990 TERMINATOR-like science fiction thriller, HARDWARE.

“Richard is such an undiscovered genius,” said Boswell. “I’ve written music for everything Richard has done. In HARDWARE we wanted to create an atmosphere for a post-apocalyptic world that was hi-tech but infused with the dirty reality of life stripped of its comforts. I came up with the idea of combining Paris Texas-esque slide guitar with electronic ambience and Stravinsky-ish orchestral madness.”

One of Boswell’s most pervasive scores was for the 1995 horror film, LORD OF ILLUSIONS, written and directed by Clive Barker.

“Clive wanted to make the hero a Philip Marlowe type cop immersed in a world of bizarre horror,” Boswell explained. “So the score is a mixture of cool sax and atonal nastiness.”

Apart from Boswell’s noir-ish saxophone melody for the detective, he concocted all manner of intriguing sound textures, furious surging orchestral measures, and frighteningly strange sounds that gave the film an especially evocative and spooky atmosphere.

“Much of the score consisted of atonal clusters and disturbing textures,” said Boswell. “Orchestrator William Kidd and I worked up some deliberately unplayable sketches for the orchestra in Seattle. We wanted to record the chaos of musicians slowly realizing that their parts were technically impossible. Much amusement was had by all!”

In addition to Boswell’s hybrid score, Barker had asked Greek performance artist Diamanda Galas to provide a song for the soundtrack, and Boswell asked her for some additional vocal weirdness, which she was pleased to provide. “This was woven into the orchestral score,” said Boswell.

Boswell’s score to 2006’s INCUBUS provided a very interesting and spooky assemblage of windy synth tonalities, atonal shuffling, and eerie voicings, which gives Tara Reid’s interminable flashlight-lit wanderings through the dark cavernous hallways a very frightening ambience. It’s a kind of “sound mass” atmosphere, yet Boswell keeps it musical, coherent, and interesting.

“It’s very vagueness allows the audience their own interpretation and it gives the impression of hanging in space, being cut adrift from regular time signatures or pitch,” Boswell said. “So there’s no comfort in it. Ambient sounds fascinate me but I always make sure that there’s some musical element or repetition in there that distinguishes it from pure sound design and in which the listener can take some refuge – or be manipulated by the expectation of something which doesn’t always happen when they think it will. To make the score to INCUBUS, I just experimented with some of the weirder sounds I had collected over the years.”

Boswell’s latest broad fantasy score was for TIN MAN, a two-part Sci-Fi channel miniseries from 2007. The film was a vibrant re-imagining of L. Frank Baum, offering an alternate telling of The Wizard of Oz in which we follow a girl named DG (Zooey Deschanel) into the world of Oz some 500 years after Dorothy’s original visit, and for it Boswell has provided one of his most vivid and expressive scores.

“I was instructed that I could not go within a million miles of any of the music from the original film,” Boswell said. “The music ranges from epic sci-fi to grand, sweeping romantic themes, with a lot of fantasy and tension in between.”

Boswell created a sweeping, bold melody for French horn and other brasses with a flourishing countermelody from violins and a constantly chugging rhythm to evoke Central City, the metropolis that is at the heart of the Outer Zone (OZ). Boswell’s theme is energetic and melodically very interesting, yet fraught with danger. When a storm whisks DG away from her small town home and into the clutches of OZ, Boswell’s Central City Theme blisters for full orchestra amidst a progressive, windblown cadence of choir and rolling percussion.

In contrast to this motif, Boswell’s “Theme from Tin Man” is a yearning melody for strings, captivating in its tangible sense of desire; the music is intensely and emotively romantic, and an effective contrast to the film’s fairly predominant darkness. These two themes form the score’s central core, while other motifs appear during the characters’ journey and set their own statement upon the score’s own progressive journey, from haunting chorale motifs to a mesmerizing musical calligraphy of swirling synths and echoing tonalities, vaporous, reverbed flutes and synths, and rustling percussions.

“When they mixed the movie, my own slight irritation is that they took one particular piece of the main theme and stuck it everywhere,” said Boswell. “This is the fate for many composers. We are not in control of the final outcome and pieces written for different scenes are often transposed to other places. In this instance it made it appear that I had run out of ideas. But it’s a minor quibble and I’m generally very pleased with the thing. Rich Walters, the music editor did a phenomenal job!”

Simon Boswell [Photo: Bryan Adams]
Simon Boswell - Photo: Bryan Adams
While Boswell has scored many different types of films over the two dozen years he has been active in film scoring, he seems to have especially demonstrated an affinity for fantasy-horror films. It’s a genre he enjoys and finds numerous opportunities for musical invention.

“Clearly I have a dark side and find it easy to express this in ever changing ways, so perhaps my excursions into horror were not pure coincidence,” Boswell said. “Fantasy films allow you to be more experimental. I get bored doing the same thing over and over and relish new territory. But being versatile is clearly a disadvantage in the film world. People want to hire ‘that horror guy’ or ‘that action guy.’”

Fortunately, Boswell has done enough in many different genres to keep from being pigeonholed. He is currently looking forward to reuniting with director Richard Stanley on the latter’s new feature, currently in pre-production, a post-apocalypic science fiction thriller called VACATION.

The Score: Symphonic Giallo – Marco Werba scores Dario Argento’s new thriller

The composer discussions his musical collaboration with the Italian master of horror.

Dario Argento &
Dario Argento & Marco Werba

Dario Argento has been a legend in Eurohorror cinema since the 1970s, and in many ways his films of that era, which include DEEP RED (1975), SUSPIRIA (1977), TENEBRAE (1982), PHENOMENA (1985) and others, define the giallo form – that uniquely Italian style of horror characterized by stylish camera work, graphic gore, liberal nudity, and particularly stylish musical accompaniment, from rock to orchestral to lounge, often shifting forms in the same film.

The Italian word “giallo” actually means “yellow,” and the terms origin refers back to the series of pulp novels with trademark yellow covers. So it’s rather unique that Argento’s latest film, currently waiting release later this year, is in fact titled GIALLO, referring both to its sub genre and its main villain, who assumes that moniker during his onslaught of gruesome serial murder.

The music for giallo cinema has played a significant role, from the early days when Ennio Morricone contributed some of his most inventive – and difficult – scores for Argento’s early films like BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMAGE (1970), and CAT O’ NINE TAILS (1971), and FOUR FLIES ON GREY VELVET (1971),  Giallo films tended to have lush scores contrasting beautiful, sonorous melodies, often sung by female sopranos like Edda Dell’Orso, with harshly atonal and very chaotic musical phrasing. The results reflected the film’s sensuality and aesthetic beauty, placing the viewer somewhat at ease until shifting into severe disturbiana during the murder scenes. The approaches were not always the same, and there were some composers who scored against the grotesquerie of the violence by using very beautiful melodies even over the scenes of grue and gore. What is clear is that giallo films maintained very conscious stylistic flavors in their visual and musical directions.

With Argento’s latest film, GIALLO, composer Marco Werba, assumes responsibilities formerly held by Morricone and many other composers. Werba, winner of the prestigious Italian award “Colonna Sonora” in 1989 for his first score, ZOO, is classically trained. He thus brings to GIALLO a somewhat more symphonic sensibility that the largely rock-based composers of many of Argento’s previous films.

“There are two ways of writing the music for a horror film,” said Werba. “One is by following the classical orchestral style of Bernard Herrmann – for example, using only strings (as in PSYCHO) to scare the audience. The other way is following the mood of the modern electronic music, such as that of EXORCIST by Mike Oldfield, which influenced the music of John Carpenter in HALLOWEEN and Goblin for Dario Argento’s PROFONDO ROSSO and SUSPIRIA. Personally, as a composer, my musical sensibility is more in line with the classical orchestral approach when writing music for thrillers and horror films. But this doesn’t mean I don’t like the electronic scores of Carpenter and Goblin!”

Since ZOO, Marco Werba has worked sporadically in film music during the 1990s, concentrating on classical works, including a “Canto al vangelo,” which he had dedicated to the Pope and which was performed in his presence during a Celebration in 1999. During the mid 2000’s Werba segued from holy to horror, demonstrating an affinity that has allied him with the genre ever since. Perhaps his chamber composition to the Pope has given him a unique understanding of the nuances of good and evil as it plays out in the films he enhances musically.

Werba scored Giovanni Pianigiani’s DARKNESS SURROUNDS ROBERTA, a 2008 tribute to the giallo films of the 1970s, about a weallthy politician’s philandering wife who is kidnaped and blackmailed by a masked killer. The film evoked flavorings of the giallo genre and gave Werba the chance to express his himself in a particularly dark setting.

“The music for DARKNESS SURROUNDS ROBERTA was recorded with electronic orchestral samplings because the budget was very small,” said Werba.

The special effects for that film were done by German filmmaker Timo Rose, who was impressed with Werba’s work and brought him in to score his own film, FEARMAKERS (2008), a horror-comedy about two friends trying to solve a woman’s murder, only to be confronted by a vengeful ghost.

“I didn’t accentuate the humor of the film but emphasized the darker moods because I wanted to build the dramatic tension without the risk of turning it into something ridiculous,” Werba said.

Marco Werba reunited with Rose again earlier this year for the director’s werewolf thriller, BEAST.

“I wrote a symphonic composition for choir and orchestra,” said Werba. “Timo gave me the freedom to compose in the style I thought would fit the mood of his film.”

Rather than synchronizing his music to specific moments in the film, Werba wrote his music “wild” and allowed Rose to place the music into the film as he chose.

“I sent him various versions of the main theme and Alex’s theme (the main character), plus a few suspence compositions, and he then cut and edited the music to fit the images,” said Werba.

He also provided music for Ivan Zuccon’s Lovecraftian horror film, COLOUR FROM THE DARK (2008), a classical-styled atmospheric horror score. All of this experience gave Werba a significant genre pedigree, making him a perfect choice to give genre legend Dario Argento’s latest visual terror tale a powerful and provocative musical underbelly.

Adrian Brody (left) stars in Dario Argentos thriller.
Adrian Brody (left) stars in Dario Argento's thriller.

Produced by Richard Rionda Del Castro and Rafael Primorac of Hannibal Pictures, GIALLO stars Adrien Brody as a police inspector investigating the disappearance of a woman, who he suspects has been kidnapped by a sadistic serial killer known as “Yellow.” Emanuelle Seigner, Elsa Pataky, Robert Miano, and Byron Deidra co-star.

Marco Werba had become acquainted with Del Castro, who had asked to hear some of the composer’s previous horror film music. Werba sent some samples from DARKNESS SURROUNDS ROBERTA and COLOUR FROM THE DARK, which impressed the producer. Werba was asked to provide a specific musical demo for GIALLO, which was then going into post-production.

“I wrote ‘Giallo’s theme’ in two versions, one for piano and orchestra and one for violin and orchestra,” said Werba. He recorded the music electronically using high quality orchestral samplings and sent them off to Del Castro. A week later he received a message from the producer saying he’d been chosen to write the music of the film. “He told me that he sent a copy of my music demos to actor Adrien Brody, who liked the version of ‘Giallo’s theme’ for violin and orchestra, and he organized a first meeting with me and Dario Argento.”

Marco Werba met with Dario Argenco several times to discuss the music style that would best fit the needs of the film.

“I thought that the film had equal qualities to the Hitchcock and De Palma masterpieces,” said Werba. “For this reason I suggested to the director that I write a symphonic film score that would increase the quality of the film to a first class level – usually thrillers are considered B movies. I thought that this film, just like SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and other accredited films, had higher qualities, due also to the presence of Oscar winning actor, Adrien Brody.”

When Marco Werba saw the final cut of GIALLO, Argento had dubbed it with a few temp-tracks of other composers – mostly electronic pieces in order to give the idea of where he wanted to have music and what kind of mood the music should have.

“I thought that this electronic temporary music was not the right one for this film,” Werba said. “I said to him that his film needed something closer to Herrmann than to Goblin, and he agreed.”

Argento gave Werba the freedom to compose the music that he felt was best, asking only for a specific music theme to be played during the early scenes where a taxi is driving through the city like a shark searching for prey.

“I tried to create a theme that had the same aura as the John Williams, JAWS theme,” said Werba. “I only used it for the main titles and the taxi scenes.”

Marco Werba conducts a recording session for GIALLOMarco Werba’s music is primarily orchestral, with a pleasing symphonic base that grounds the film in a classical elegance and a provocative sense of mystery and suspense. Werba went to Sofia, Bulgaria, to record the music with the Bulgarian Symphony Orchestra. “I just had one day – three sessions of three hours each – to record all the music!” Werba recalled.

Werba then returned to Rome and mixed the music in Dolby Digital 5.1 at the Forum Music Village (the same recording studio where Ennio Morricone records his film scores and where Jerry Goldsmith had recorded his music for LEVIATHAN). Sound engeneer Marco Streccioni recorded and mixed the final film score.

Werba’s score is a departure from the electronic rhythm-based music of some of Argento’s earlier films. But the classical style fit the style of suspense and shock that Argento had displayed in GIALLO.

“I worked very hard to syncronize the music with the film. While the director of the film is Italian, the film itself shows many American influences. This is why I wanted to write an American-style film score in which the movements of the film and the music were perfectly syncronized. Even though one might recognize the influences of Herrmann, Williams, or Elfman, my own music style came out in the more melodic compositions.”

Marco Werba’s GIALLO compositions are richly thematic, although developed so that none of the themes wears out its welcome as the score develops. Besides the specific music requested for the prowling taxi scenes, he composed a “Love Theme” for Emmanuelle Seigner’s character which is used in two scenes, a motif for a scene in which inspector Enzo Avolfi (Brody) has a flashback, and another one for the killer’s childhood memories.

Victims of a serial killer - who goes by the moniker of Giallo (i.e. Yellow).
Victims of a serial killer - who goes by the moniker of "Giallo" (i.e. "Yellow).

“I composed delicate and mysterious music for harp, cello, violin, and chamber orchestra used in one scene in which Enzo and Linda are interacting,” said Werba. “There’s also a long, dramatic sequence in which a woman tortured by the killer walks out of the killer’s house in search of freedom. In this sequence I wrote an epic music motif, starting with strings and harp, going to a large orchestra with the horns playing the main theme.”

For the various scenes involving the killer, Marco Werba chose to use different compositions for each individual scene. “In order to do this I chose to emphasize specific instruments,” he said. “For example in one scene I used a solo flute with a few percussions. In another I used strings with glissandos etc. The final theme is called ‘Giallo’s theme,’ which was used in only two scenes and in the end titles. This is the music that I sent to the producers as a demo, which led to my getting the job!”

In addition to the score’s pervasive orchestral measures, Werba added a few electronic sounds to make it distinctive.

“I created a sound for a few suspense scenes that is something between an electric bass and a heart-beat,” he said. “I also used an electronic vibration mixed with a female voice used in three scenes.” Werba also recorded the sound of a knife to be used as a percussive element in the sore, but Argento decided against using that.

“I had a very good collaboration with Dario,” said Werba. “He is a very intelligent person and he respects the composer. He does not try to impose his ideas. If the solutions that the composer is proposing are good, he will accept them at once. For example, there was a scene in the film in which Linda is taking a shower. Dario wanted to start the music from the begininning of the scene. I suggested to Dario, ‘Let’s start the music only when we see Linda inside the shower and leave a few seconds of silence at the beginning.’ When he saw that my proposal worked with the scene he accepted it.

“To me, silence is very important,” Werba continued. “Directors tend to use too much music. They are scared of using silence. Silence can help to create tension and emphasize the film score. If a director uses too much music, he will diminish its value. With an experienced and talented director such as Dario Argento, it is possibile to discuss the score in order to find the best solutions. I am very proud of the music in a scene in which a butcher is killed. It starts with the strings playing glissandos and then, after two seconds of silence, a very violent music starts with orchestral chords over a melodic line played by violins. Every orchestral hit is syncronized with the strokes that the killer gives to his victim.”

With GIALLO completed, having made its debut at Cannes last week, and its British premeire scheduled for July, Werba is now composing the music for a science fiction action thriller called BRAINCELL, for first-time director Alex Birrell, who had been the cinematographer on DARKNESS SURROUNDS ROBERTA. Werba said that the score will be more electronic, “with a John Carpenter and Goblin touch.” A number of other genre films are also in the offering, and it looks like Werba will be a mainstay in science fiction and horror scoring for some time now.

“Music in thrillers and horror films is very important and can help the film involve the audience emotionally,” Werba said. “The tension comes from the silence, the sound effects and the music.”

Werba said that his goal for the next five years is to be able to work on higher budgeted American film productions.

“I am no more interested in collaborating with productions that have difficulties in financing the recording of a symphonic film score,” Werba said. “I would like to record one of my next scores in London with members of the London Symphony Orchestra, one of the best orchestras in the world.”


The Score: Bruno Coulais and the Musical Magic of Coraline

Bruno Coulais’ score for Henry Selick’s 3D-animated film, CORALINE,  is an enchanting enactment for orchestra and choir, which brings to wonderful life the magical environment and story concocted by the brilliant author Neil Gaiman. The music features a perfectly appropriate blending of unusual instruments (mechanical piano, electric bass guitar, jazzy flutes, what sounds like a child’s xylophone, squeaks and squeals and all manner of bells and percussion oddities) with both adult and children’s choirs and a pervasively eloquent harp which is liberally spread throughout the length and breadth of the movie. The inclusion of a cute if very short song by the band They Might Be Giants fits nicely within the overall sensibility of Coulais’ music. This is a wondrous score, melodically intriguing, instrumentally engaging, and completely intoxicating.

Coulais, 55, was trained in classical music in Paris but gravitated toward film music through the suggestion of several acquaintances. He was asked to compose music to a documentary film by director François Reichenbach in 1977, but his first foray into feature films was in Sébastien Grall’s film, LA FEMME SECRÈTE, released in 1986. He had scored more than fifty films and television works when his music for the 1996 documentary film, MICROCOSMOS, brought him to international attention. His ability to provide music of eloquent grace and beauty for this new breed of artistic documentary with limited narration was further solidified with WINGED MIGRATION (2001), GENESIS (2004), and THE WHITE PLANET (2006).

Bruno Coulais has been equally adept in scoring dramatic subjects, such as 2001’s horror-fantasy, BELPHÉGOR – PHANTOM OF THE LOUVRE (2001), VIDOCQ (2001), and SECRET AGENTS (2004). His nearly 150 film scores to date have covered nearly every genre and embraced all manner of musical styles. Known for his use of ethnic instrumentation and human voice, Coulais is among the new breed of French composers – Alexandre Desplat, Armand Amar, Philippe Rombi among them – providing notably expressive work in contemporary cinema.

One of the first things to be noticed about a Bruno Coulais score is that one barely resembles another. From the energetic drama of VIDOCQ with its malevolent darkness and twisted chambers of sonority to the haunting ethnic melodies of the adventure drama HIMALAYA (1999) or the eloquent classical choir work that gave such poignancy to LES CHORISTES (2004, THE CHORUS, which earned him his third César Award), Coulais relishes films that allow him to become as varied as possible.

In CORALINE, director Henry Selick’s impressionistically animated interpretation of Neil Gaiman’s short story,  an adventurous but lonely girl named Coraline (“Not,” she reminds everyone, “Caroline”) finds a mirror world that turns out to be a strangely idealized version of her own, but one whose sinister secrets soon keep her from returning home. It was Selick’s style of animation (ala his work on THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS and JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH) and the way in which the film was shot that gave Coulais his initial inspiration for the kind of music the film would need, rather that its nuances of story and fantasy.

“At first, I don’t attach myself to the narrative because I think music must be another character of the film,” he said. “I’m sensitive to the light, to the mood, and everything that you cannot see directly.”

Coulais devised his enchanting instrumental design according to Selick’s visual interpretation of the story, which gave the strange alternate world of Coraline’s home and its button-eyed denizens a menacing clarity.

“While watching the pictures of CORALINE, I was struck by the extraordinary pictorial invention as well as the different stratum of the film: the routine/the fantasy, the epic side/the dark side, the fear, etc. and I agreed with Henry Selick, that we must use a wide musical range in order to realize all these diversities,” Coulais said. “The challenge was to make emerge a musical unit in spite of these different stylistic [elements] and I believe that the themes have played this part.”

Once he had established the musical design of CORALINE, Coulais developed the score to coincide with Coraline’s journey, her descent into the darkness of the world beyond the bricked up wall inside the drawing room door (where her button-eyed Other Mother has entrapped her), her heroic attempts to escape from that world and save her real parents, and her ultimate redemption and triumph.

“Once I wrote the main music themes of the film, I tried to work in a chronological order so I could respect the film progress,” he said. “I needed to start from a realistic, routine mood and then go into a fantastic mood, becoming more and more frightening. It was important to make the music evolve with the story. The first themes, like the one illustrating Coraline’s first visit in the house, seem peaceful in order to make the character’s world more realistic. But then the bizarreness and the anxiety take over. Some funny and absurd bits join the music. But even from the beginning there are some musical touches that make us understand we’re not in a completely realistic film.”

Coulais composed and recorded his score in France while communicating with Selick in Hollywood. Selick had used his music from WINGED MIGRATION and MICROCOSMOS as temporary music while building his final edit of CORALINE; although Selick didn’t expect Coulais to mirror those scores in his original compositions for CORALINE, this temp track gave the composer a kind of referential shorthand that let him know the type of music Selick had in mind for his film.

“Despise the distance and the language barrier, I’ve rarely felt so close to a director,” Coulais said. “Henry explained what he was expecting from the music for each sequence. Once the demo was done, I sent him an mp3 file to listen to. He gave me his first impressions and then, later on, his final remarks once the music was edited in by [film editor] Christopher Murrie.”

Bruno Coulais (Photo Credit: Hotspot)
Bruno Coulais (Photo Credit: Hotspot)

For Coulais, the most challenging aspect of scoring CORALINE was keeping pace with its shifting tone and supporting its sense of mystery and menace – and doing so with music that conveyed both mysterioso and emotional expressions. “There are two sequences which for me, were extremely important,” said Coulais. “The first sequence is the mice Marching Band on which I tried to write a score where the density and the scale were that of the mice, using all kind of instruments like toys, Chinese instruments, child’s brass and child’s piano, but also instruments of a traditional Marching Band. The second and the most important is for me the sequence between Coraline and the Other Mother where I intended, in spite of the malevolency of the Other Mother, to bring a certain emotional level to the scene.”

Like much of Coulais’ film music, his CORALINE score sounds like nothing else he has written, embodying a musical character and style all of its own. Coulais believes this is possible due to the wide range of films he has been able to score, and the willingness of directors not to impose certain strictures upon him.

“A kind of schizophrenia exists because sometimes a composer gravitates to the idea of being at the service of the film; sometimes he inclines to write the most personal music as possible,” Coulais said. “However, some movies allow the composer to be as free as possible in the writing of the music score. I am of course unable to define my style, but I can say that I am attracted to strangeness, and to the hybrid mixing of human voices and instruments. Although, I do also like to work with homogeneous instrumentation, like a string quartet.”

The Score: Remembering Maurice Jarre

Maurice JarreFilm composer Maurice Jarre passed away March 29th in Los Angeles at the age of 84. One of the finest craftsmen during what is called the “Silver Age of Film Music,” Jarre left a legacy of significant and influential scores, including some notable efforts within the fantastic genre.

The French-born composer began scoring movies in his native France in 1952, but it was his work for massive Hollywood blockbusters like LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and DOCTOR ZHIVAGO that made him a legend. With more than 160 movies to his credit, Jarre is one of the second wave of Hollywood film composers who helped shape the form of film music throughout the 1960s and beyond.

Born in Lyon, France, in 1924, Jarre discovered an interest in music in his late teens. He went on to study at the Conservatoire de Paris and later with noted inventor Joseph Martenot, whose electronic keyboard, the Ondes Martenot, would foreshadow the modern synthesizer and become a key element of Jarre’s later musical pallet.

Jarre met filmmaker Georges Franj  and he become the director’s primary composer for the next several years. When Franju made his first feature film in 1958, Jarre came along to score it. Franju’s second feature film, 1960’s LES YEUX SANS VISAGE (EYES WITHOUT A FACE; aka THE HORROR CHAMBER OF DR. FAUSTUS), became the director’s masterpiece and remains one of Jarre’s most potent fantasy film scores. A beautifully poetic story of a mad doctor whose efforts to replace the face of his disfigured daughter with those of murdered women, EYES featured an exceptional score with a jaunty, carnival-esque waltz associated with the doctor’s assistant, Louise (Alida Valli) as she locates and abducts potential women for the doctor’s fiendish work, and a lighter, sadder piece for the melancholy heroine, Christiane (Edith Scob).

Jarre’s music for Franju’s elegantly dreamlike JUDEX (1963), a remake of a 1916 silent film about masked avenger, also featured lyrical waltz melody. The music is used sparingly, which makes its presence especially provocative, as in the expressive version of the waltz heard when Judex, wearing a feathered bird headdress, walks though the dancers at Favreux’s masked ball carrying the still form of a bird. Jarre’s music for the nightmarish, ballet-like struggle between the two women on the rooftop at the film’s climax is an austere mélange of eerie strings, echoing low piano notes and furtive xylophone tones, giving the scene not a dramatic energy but a haunting and unrelentling atmosphere of strangitude.

Jarre came to the notice of Hollywood in, 1960 scoring Richard Fleischer’s crime drama, CRACK IN THE MIRROR and his 1961 comedy, THE BIG GAMBLE, but had his first real hit in 1962 with the all-star World War II blockbuster, THE LONGEST DAY. That brought him to the attention of producer Sam Spiegel, who brought him on board David Lean’s epic historical drama, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and an ongoing association with Lean that would result in three more of Jarre’s finest and most popular scores, DOCTOR ZHIVAGO (1965), RYAN’S DAUGHTER (1970), and A PASSAGE TO INDIA (1984).

Jarre was not one to settle into a comfortable style and remain there. His music of the 1960s remains fairly symphonic and melodic, although in the 1970s and 1980s his interest in electronic music resulted in scores like that for Peter Weir’s WITNESS being composed and performed entirely electronically, yet with no less emotive quality. Despite his popular successes of the 1960s, some of his most inventive music came about during the 1980s, embracing all manner of styles and musical modes. The 1970s and 1980s also saw Jarre provide some excellent scores for science fiction, fantasy, and horror films – genres that had been absent in his Hollywood film scores up until then.

It wasn’t until Disney’s ISLAND AT THE TOP OF THE WORLD (1974) that Jarre really dabbled in an outright Jules Verne-esque fantasy, providing a light and melodic adventure score. Clint Eastwood’s science fictionesque FIREFOX (1982), about a stolen supersonic jet fighter that can be controlled by a neuralink, was scored with a brassy adventurous flavor that really comes to life in the film’s climactic aerial dogfight sequence. The earlier part of the film, emphasizing intrigue and suspense, is fairly innocuous and furtive, but once the aerobatic combat ensues the music really takes off as well. Jarre’s high-register melody, delivered by strident brasses, drives the aeronautics effectively and gives the film a splendidly energetic propulsion.

Jarre provided a melodic score for synths and acoustic keyboards for the 1987 Japanese science fiction disaster movie SHUTO SHOSHITSU (TOKYO BLACKOUT), contrasting a lovely romantic piano ballad with some brooding and suspenseful sound design material that emphasizes the danger of the electromagnetic cloud that shrouds Tokyo. Jarre also wrote some percussive synth riffing for some of the heavier action scenes, and an overall main theme with a martial cadence associated with the military efforts to protect the city.

The eerie music for DREAMSCAPE (1984) utilized a sensual saxophone theme for the protagonist and rhythmic synthesizer material for the dream landscape through which he roams. FATAL ATTRACTION (1987, the PSYCHO of the 1980’s) was scored mainly for synths, emphasizing the madness and malevolence of Michael Douglas’ partner in illicit dalliance.

More symphonically oriented was Jarre’s music for the romantic horror tale, GHOST (1990). While overshadowed by the film’s use of the pop song “Unchained Melody” (originally written by film composer Alex North for the 1955 prison drama, Unchained, with lyrics by Hy Zaret), Jarre provided the film with some excellent spook music, low brooding synths for the demons, with more angelic melodies for the “good” afterlife.

His score for 1985’s MAD MAX BEYOND THUNDERDOME was written for a symphony orchestra and chorus, augmented by four grand pianos, a pipe organ, digeridoo, fujara, a battery of exotic percussion, and three ondes Martenot. In 1985’s BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN revision, THE BRIDE, Jarre’s romantic score reflects the sensuality, not the horror, of this female monster and underlines the friendship and rap-port between the male monster and his diminutive circus friend, Rinaldo. The compelling psychological horror thriller JACOB’S LADDER (1990) featured an imaginative score for keyboard, voice, pizzicato strings and Japanese flutes that effectively externalized the tortured psyche of guilt-haunted Jacob Singer; the score reflected much of the film’s stylistic hallucinations as well as its pervading pessimism.

Jarre retired from movie music in 2001, after scoring John Avnet’s UPRISING, a film about the Holocaust, leaving behind a legacy of significant music for cinema, and a new generation of music and movie artisans. His eldest son, Jean-Michel Jarre, is a pioneer in the world electronic music with numerous recordings to his credit; his youngest son Kevin Jarre is a screenwriter who worked on such movies as TOMBSTONE and GLORY.

The Score: Rorschach Test – Who’s Scoring the Watchmen?

Tyler Bates’ Music for Doctor Manhattan & Friends

With his pulsating and edgy score for Scott Derrickson’s revisualization of the science fiction classic THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL behind him, composer Tyler Bates now reunites with Zach Snyder, his director on both the 2004 DAWN OF THE DEAD remake and the graphically-intense 300 to compose the music for the big screen interpretation of the acclaimed graphic novel, WATCHMEN.

Bates was not familiar with the book when he got the call from Snyder to take on the assignment, so his first task was to procure and read it. And, essentially, absorb it. “I read the graphic novel, The Ultimate Watchmen, after he asked me to do the movie,” said Bates. “It was heavy when I picked it up, but it was about twice as heavy when I finished reading it! I realized how much gravity this novel held.”

Like THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, WATCHMEN had a tremendous following of fans who have certain expectations as to how the book will be treated, cinematically. Bates was very conscious of this responsibility when he came into the project to give Snyder’s interpretation of WATCHMEN its proper musical dynamic.

“For me to realistically think that I’m going to meet the expectation of the hard-core fans, I just can’t imagine,” Bates said. “But it comes down to: what is the movie that Zach has made? He’s done a great job of really putting that book on the screen, like he did for 300.” While familiarizing himself with the Alan Moore-Dave Gibbons novel, Bates ultimately realized his musical approach had to fit Snyder’s interpretation of it on the screen.

Bates’ initial musical inclination was to represent the characters properly, since so much of the story hangs on Alan Moore’s bruised and damaged super heroes. “The characters in WATCHMEN are so lonely,” said Bates. “That’s not the only bent of the score, but it definitely lives in that human dynamic a little bit more. I don’t know that most of these people really care for each other on an emotional level, but they are bound to each other and because of that, and because of the life they pursued, they ended up fairly lonely. They’re ostracized somewhat from society. They’re defunct for the most part, and they have no friends because they’ve led a life of secrecy. Although they’ve thought they’d led a life of importance or philanthropy, they’ve ended up in a place where it’s become somewhat meaningless. I think a lot of us contemplate that, as we get older, so I would say that the majority of the music is steeped in those emotions and not really bound to the traditions of superhero music by any stretch of the imagination.”

WATCHMEN is a far cry from other superhero movies like SPIDER-MAN, THE INCREDIBLE HULK, or IRON MAN. Even THE DARK KNIGHT for all its angsty introspection didn’t turn the entire notion of the super hero in its head the way WATCHMEN does. “The film is not so much expressing the superhero aspect of the story,” Bates noted. “That’s just a dimension of their characters. The movie isn’t one superhero act after another, nor is it an anti-hero story. We do have a few moments of glory, though, to capture musically.”

While supporting the film’s active energy, the score also emphasizes the character’s psychological nuances and changes. “We get a real back story on four of the characters,” Bates said. “The character development is very thorough in the film. And so if we’re experiencing some of Rorschach’s thoughts, or anything that he’s involved in – he sees the world through a lens of complete filth; I don’t think anybody is safe from that particular judgment by him – so there is this grimy feeling to the music when it’s his scene. Laurie is a little more emotionally fractured and yet there’s a glimmer of hope for something good; she hasn’t completely written the whole thing off yet. There is something bereft in the music that supports her throughout the film, but there are also moments of wistfulness and humor and joy. It really just depends on the dynamic of the individual. I don’t want to talk too specifically about the film because I really don’t want to give anything away.”

Tyler BatesWhile providing thematic nuances for several of the characters, Bates’ WATCHMEN music is not an intensively thematic score. Its tonality is more one of layered feelings corresponding to the characters’ interactions as they are portrayed throughout the film. “It’s more my approach to try and express or enhance the essence of a character in a film, as opposed to running leitmotifs throughout,” he said. “But there is a recurring feeling or theme, as far as the texture and the overall sound in the chords, that fits the feeling that goes with each character, so you’re well aware of whose perspective we’re in at the time. But it’s not like every time Dan’s on screen there’s the Dan melody and we come back to the same piece of music. This story, basically, is the unfurling of the lives of everyone, the characters involved, and it has a great impact on humanity as well, so to stay in the same place wouldn’t make sense. The way the story’s told, because there are vignettes where we’re getting the backstory on given characters and the experiences in their lives that has shaped their characters. I think that it’s very difficult to stay within the recurring themes and make them applicable to the story and allow it to move forward if it does. I will say there is an inherent perversion of pop culture in the music, though, just like history and pop culture are twisted in the film.”

In addition to Bates’ score, WATCHMEN includes thirteen songs in the movie, as well as a piece of music by Philip Glass. “With fourteen pieces of music already there, I thought maybe it’s not so much heavy lifting for me as a composer!” mused Bates. “But there’s still about eighty five minutes of my score.”

WATCHMEN uses classic rock and pop songs – Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, Leonard Cohen, and others – to reflect and enhance the pop culture of the film’s environment. Some of the songs were posts that Bates had to maneuver around, although some entailed a deeper integration with his underscore. “It wasn’t necessarily always to be a seamless transition, because sometimes we want that song to really cut, so the job of the score is to make sure that when that song comes in that it’s a real cleansing of the palette, or it’s a real beat that propels us forward – or backward, depending on what the dynamic needs to be,” he said. “That was something I had to think about in advance. There are a couple of scenes where there’s a gradual transition from one sequence to the next, and it’s almost like…, the picture doesn’t become blurred, but the mind-state from one scene transitions to the next and the music does with it, and sometimes in that next scene it might a source cue, and it may require that I don’t break the thread of that thought. So I have to transition into it somewhat seamlessly. That was an interesting challenge.”

Watchmen Vinyl Picture Disc
Watchmen Vinyl Picture Disc

iTunes has released two advance singles from the WATCHMEN soundtrack, one a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row” by My Chemical Romance, the other a track from Bates’ score called “Prison Fight.” Both are also available on a 12-inch picture disc LP single.Said Bates, “That’s one of the more aggressive scenes in the film. I played that track for Zach when we were on the dub stage and he listened on headphones. I asked him what he thought, and he said, ‘Oh, it’s awesome!’ I asked, ‘It wasn’t too heavy, was it?’ He said, ‘Is there such a thing?’”

Snyder welcomed the powerful dynamic that Bates brought to WATCHMEN with his music, investing it with a dramatic weight an intensity that elevates the emotional depth of the film immeasurably. “Zach is able to embrace and express the full range of emotions on the most extreme level and do so with an extreme level of proficiency and elegance at the same time,” said Bates. “But there is this weight in the music, throughout, and it depends on the perspective through which the story’s being told at any given time.”

Bates’ past scores, especially 300, have allowed him to integrate orchestra and electronics in a very big way, achieving some provocative musical dynamics. On the WATCHMEN score, Bates decided to stay a little more orchestral, with his electronic devices and synthesizers keeping a much more subdued voice. “There are a number of purely orchestral pieces in the film,” he said. “Even my electronic music is not what people think electronic music is, because I don’t use plug-in synthesizers or those kinds of things. I do have a lot of synths, but they are modular synthesis and the like, which, to me, is just as organic as the orchestra. There are definitely some big, long orchestral pieces in WATCHMEN that are quite emotional, and they have a tendency to drift from modern day to the 1940s, so there’s this kind of a nostalgic and an older feeling in certain sections of the music, which was fun to do. And then there’s some really, crazy non-orchestral stuff that’s all electronic; some of it is definitely embracing the ’80s, especially when a lot of the digital stuff started coming out, so we had some fun with that. I really don’t think I’ve done anything like WATCHMEN, as far as the score’s concerned. I’m just really happy about it.”

Bates recruited Lisa Papineau, his former bandmate when he was in the alternative pop/rock band Pet, to provide vocal texture to the WATCHMEN score. “She was the vocal colorist on the score, and it was really nice to work with her again,” said Bates. “She did a fantastic job and just brought another level of atmosphere and emotion to the music. And I played a bit of guitar on the score as well.”

Bates worked closely with orchestrator Tim Williams to realize the final WATCHMEN score which, while unmistakably Tyler Bates’ creative progeny, nonetheless took the efforts of a number of helpers. “It’s not my desire to run a shop of writers, but when you’re working on films that are huge – and they’re all huge to me, but when the studio side of it and the production side of it is huge, the schedule can be enormously challenging considering the scope of the work that you have to deliver,” said Bates. “It’s a lot of work to do 90 minutes of music, and if the picture is changing up to the moment that you need to record your score, and then even after you’ve recorded and you have to make adjustments to the recorded music so that it’s working well with the new picture, you need support. There’s no way around that. I would never want anyone to have the perception that I’m a one-man band. I’ve had my associate Wolfgang Matthes with me over the last eleven years and he’s been my partner in the electronic development. We jam on the electronic stuff and he’s mixed a lot of the scores with me, and he’s been a real brother.”

Bates’ collaborations with Williams and Matthes is not so much one of collaborative partnership – Bates is definitely the creative force, but the assistance of these musicians has enabled his intentions to be fully realized on the sound stage, which is especially important in a film like WATCHMEN. “What you want to do is to ensure that the best quality music, at the end of the day, is what is in the film,” said Bates. “When you have 45 minutes to write a 2-minute cue and get it orchestrated and ready for the stage the next day, you need help. You need people that you know and trust and who understand you long before you get to the point where you actually need it. That’s the way to create a cohesive sound. I have a few people who are very close to me who are hugely talented and we have fun working together and really respect each other, and that’s what it’s about. We try and maintain the enjoyment regardless of how hectic the work becomes, but we’re all committed to challenging ourselves and doing the best work we can.”

After reuniting with Zach Snyder on WATCHMEN, Bates resumed another collaborative partnership, scoring THE HAUNTED WORLD OF EL SUPERBEASTO for Rob Zombie, for whom Bates scored both THE DEVIL’S REJECTS and HALLOWEEN. Bates is also set to score HALLOWEEN 2 and TYRANNOSAURUS REX for Zombie later this year. Meanwhile, he’s returned to the world of WATCHMEN to write the music for TALES OF THE BLACK FREIGHTER, the companion piece to WATCHMEN, which is the comic that is read by a character in the graphic novel. It has been made into an animated short which will be issued on DVD later in March (and will eventually be included in the ULTIMATE WATCHMEN DVD). Bates is also slated to score James Gunn’s psychological horror film, THE BELCOO EXPERIMENT, later this year.

Clearly, Tyler Bates is a composer worth watching – and listening to.

Watchmen: Original Motion Picture Score

Besides the 12-inch picture disc LP single, the actual score and songtrack albums for WATCHMEN will be released on March 3rd from Reprise Records. There will also be a limited edtion run (2,500 units) 7-inch Vinyl Picture Disc collectors sets, featuring seven picture discs (one for each Watchman character) in a slip box. The first 1000 people to order the set at will receive an 11″x17″ Watchmen movie poster autographed by composer Tyler Bates.

For more information on Tyler Bates, see his official web site:

The Score: 2008’s Most Notable Genre Soundtracks

Reflecting back on 2008’s most interesting scores for science fiction, fantasy, and horror films, one can’t help noticing once again how few genre scores (and, in fact, genre films) are recognized when the Oscars come around. While Thomas Newman’s tune-pleasing WALL-E score and Alexandre Desplat’s sublime music for THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON received Oscar nominations, a great many other worthy, effective, memorable, and downright excellent music scores have been neglected – but it’s not unusual for the genre to get short shrift from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, whose voting members are mostly non-musical people who tend to remember tunes and songs more than dramatic underscore. On the other hand, a purist film-music specific organization like the International Association of Film Music Critics, while selecting its favored scores by genre, also listed its nominations for best score of the year – with four out of five choices being fantasy or science fiction films (horror scores almost never get included in generic year’s best lists).

Academies and Associations aside, these are my choices, in no particular order of preference, for last year’s most notable genre scores and soundtrack releases:

Probably my favorite action music of the year is Craig Armstrong’s propulsive score for THE INCREDIBLE HULK, which is a marvelously energetic and pulsating exercise in thematic interaction. Armstrong’s main theme is terrific, with its repeated, pronounced X-strokes of violin, and his 3-note Hulk motif, itself a kind of swervy reflection of that main theme transposed to a sinewy violin figure wrapped in thick cords, embodies the growling tonality of the verdant beast’s voice in those deep and substantial cello strains, which themselves are echoed by a much higher reflective glinting of violins – all propelled by a driving pulse of strings and snarling horns. The music draws its relentless forward motion from these violin strokes, driven by a recurring, low-string ostinato. It’s large and quick and powerful – an adroit embodiment of the green guy himself. In addition to these motifs, which characterize the duality of the Hulk, his brazen power and his transmutated cellular infrastructure, Armstrong has provided a secondary theme associated with the more diminutive and controlled Bruce Banner, a motif that shares the similar sensibility of the Hulk Theme but is more fragile. The military and their ongoing attempts to capture The Hulk are characterized by angular strokes of violin and aggressive tonalities of brass while the equally driven soldier Blonsky is depicted by a dark undulation of strings and synths, punctuated by highly reverberated percussion. Joe Harnell’s poignant piano theme, “The Lonely Man,” from the 1979 INCREDIBLE HULK TV series, is nicely incorporated into the score during a reflective moment. Throughout the score, Armstrong provides music that is both sensitive to the story’s underlying drama and sustaining of the film’s action set pieces. It is melodically rich, provocatively vigorous, and thematically compelling.

Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard spread dark wings over a shadowy sky in THE DARK KNIGHT. Their score develops the motific rhythms and texture introduced by the composers in BATMAN BEGINS and carries them into darker territory. While relying more on chord progressions and layered textures than rhythms and melodies, they provide a gracefully chaotic score that perfectly fits what the film is doing. The music brilliantly captures the duality of the characters as depicted in the pairing of Bruce Wayne/Batman and Harvey Dent/Two-Face: the hero as recognized hero, and the hero as hated lawbreaker, willingly accepting that role for the better good. The film is Bruce Wayne’s journey, as was BATMAN BEGINS; but where the earlier film showed him emerging from darkness of depression into the light of heroism , THE DARK KNIGHT takes a kind of reverse excursion, from hero to tainted champion, doing the right thing but taking the fall while doing it. The score’s main motif is a rhythm-based riff, carried over from BATMAN BEGINS but given a somewhat corroded aspect. It’s not as optimistically heroic; this Batman is mired in dissolution and disconsolation. It’s not even a theme, as such, since there is no recognizable melody; the composers provide a two-note rhythm pad that develops progressively through orchestration, tempo, and intensity. While the motif lacks the melodic flavor or musical interest of Danny Elfman’s theme from BATMAN or Elliot Goldenthal’s from BATMAN FOREVER, the Zimmer-Howard motif is nonetheless highly effective at casting the hero in very dark shades of grey and building a progressive heroic stature through rhythmic development. Aside from this primary motif, the score for THE DARK KNIGHT as a whole is a musical study in dualities. Each of the score’s three motifs has two sides: Batman the Good, Batman the Dark Knight; Joker the Brilliant Strategist, Joker the Madman; Harvey Dent, Gotham’s incorruptible icon of law and order, Harvey Dent, Two-Face, disfigured and disgruntled terrorist. Zimmer and Howard provide a brilliant thematic accompaniment to these ideas, not so much through melodic themes (although partly that in Howard’s case) but through a development of rhythm, texture, and a feeling of sound that breeds a fascinating musical psychology.

The antithesis of DARK KNIGHT is surely Alexandre Desplat’s sublime, wistful, and transcendent musical design for THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON. For David Wincher’s moving metaphysical fantasy about a man living life biologically in reverse, Desplat (noted for the fragile lyricism he has invested in prior scores) has come up with an enchanting score that floats, wafting above the storyline like a tangible sunrise, aglow with a buoyant brightness, always in constant motion. That idea of movement coincides with Benjamin’s journey, aging backwards through time, and although the music is moving forward, the score stays fairly unobtrusive, a sustained flash shining down on the character, a sense of spirit driving him on despite his bizarre condition. A separate but similarly inspired love theme resonates with a poignant melancholy as the doomed love story plays out, along with a keyboard-driven motif that keeps the idea of the passage of time – with inevitable oblivion at either end – continuously if hauntingly in mind. Its fragile poignancy and suspended airiness informs the film with a sensation of wonder that inspires the storyline and defines its affecting sensibility.

Ramin Djawadi has scored big with his music for the latest big-budget Marvel super hero adaptation, IRON MAN. Even at its most orchestral, IRON MANis very much a hybrid – very percussive, very metallic, very industrial, elements selected to represent the iron-clad uniform that serves both as Stark’s protection and his weaponry. The music develops along similar lines; a theme for “Mark I,” associated with the first hero suit, rife with an urgent undercurrent of impatient percussion driving a slower-moving heroic motif, while still a bit edgy and dirty; while “Mark II” is a more refined, more gleaming variation for Stark’s modified hero suit. An electronic rhythm pad drives the beat along with a variety of sampled percussion – synths, guitars, and orchestra taking their turns on the theme’s melody. Eerie tonalities and echoes of Stark’s heroic motif resonate in shadowy glimpses above the recurring and insistent strokes of violin, morphing into a low rumble of percussion, wisps of voices, and a sorrowful string figure, finally pulsing forth into a driving rhythm that propels the music into a very confident pattern of activity. As an origin story, albeit a very simplistic and predictable but a thoroughly entertaining one, IRON MAN is essentially and necessarily a journey – Tony Stark’s journey from arrogance, survival, redemption, and ultimate self-confident heroism, and Djawadi’s music makes for an apropos travelogue for this journey, building with clefs and staves of steel and iron the kind of confidence needed by this self-centered, womanizing and brilliant inventor, to become a true selfless super hero.

While cute anthropomorphic robots have never really been my thing, and for that reason I haven’t taken the opportunity to see the film yet, Thomas Newman’s score for Disney-Pixar’s WALL-E – as it exists on CD – is splendid stuff. Newman engages in his classic musical trademark of deceptively simple patterns built on repeating progressions, transforming that style into a mixture of quirky orchestration and full-on orchestra bombast suitable for the story’s science fiction environment. His main theme embodies an idiosyncratic piping woodwind motif punctuated by whistling chorus, harp, pizzicato strings, and weird percussive sonics that enhance the anthropomorphism of the WALL-E character with musical relish. The ensuing score abounds with the kind of quick-notation and rapidly plucked string or harp or piano notes that Newman has made his trademark, modified into the new setting in which WALL-E finds itself. Motifs grow from the staccato rhythm of plucked harp and beaten drum into an array of propulsive rhythmic textures, adding choir and pounding timpani, or from cyclonic string patterns over piping winds into a riffing of quickly plucked harp over lightly strummed acoustic guitar, laying down a pleasing pattern of musical activity and emotional urgency. Elsewhere, Newman embraces the bombastic orchestrations of STAR WARS as it defined futuristic space opera music. Brasses intone and woodwinds chirp and drums bellow, a definite Williamsesque swashbuckler yet shining through Newman’s own stylistic vocabulary.

Harry Gregson-Williams’ score for the second CHRONICLES OF NARNIA film, PRINCE CASPIAN, is a suitably massive and evocative development of his score for the first film, THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE. The score retains the thematic structure of the first score with its elegant and crystalline theme softly resplendent from horns and choir. The score reprises the melodic Aslan theme from the first film, beautifully capturing its tawny nuances of heroism, sacrifice, honor, and majesty through horns, strings, and choir. The score’s powerful main theme makes its presence known throughout the score, although the score as a whole is a darker animal than its predecessor, since the film itself comprises a darker period of Narnian history, and the pervasive use of choir gives it an edge that seems both epic and tragic; with the Aslan and Narnia themes rising in contrast heavenward with a rich sonority of French horn and violins. New themes for Caspian and his adversaries, the piratical Telmarines, appear but aren’t as immediately appealing as the motifs reprised from the first film, which remain more dominant and far-reaching.

Mark Snow’s expressive revisitation to THE X-FILES: I WANT TO BELIEVE follows in the footsteps of the television series and the first X-FILES movie, FIGHT THE FUTURE. The score carries on the mystique of mysterioso and melody that characterized his score for the show’s nine seasons, expanded, as with FIGHT THE FUTURE, into the larger dynamic of the big screen, although this new score comprises not so much the brooding mysteriosos and spooky atmospheres than Snow perfected on TV, but the more melodic and passionate material that reorients the story towards the characters and their perspective. The score contains some of Snow’s finest and most poignant violin writing, intoned over a high female choir and vocal soloist, which humanizes the events of the story and reiterates the essence of THE X-FILES as being a story about people and their interactions – reflecting here a very warm, positive, and humanitarian aspect, while much of the score in its darker moments is dealing with less favorable interactions. Snow proffers a couple of very subtle references to his original X-FILES TV theme, its melody played very slowly and deliberately by strings, evoking a mysterious atmosphere pregnant with discovery and revelation. A number of very interesting textural elements are inserted into the musical depth to give it a heightened degree of interesting musical grain as the score progresses. In the end, Snow provides the film’s conclusion with a very poignant and warmly reassuring denouement, ending on a final musical suggestion of the familiar X-Files TV theme, which resolves the score as if with a gentle wink toward the show’s devoted audience.

Randy Edelman’s score for THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR is every bit the massive fantasy-action score as it needs to be. The composer’s affinity for accessible melodies is well in evidence, as is his penchant for exotic and interesting orchestration. All manner of Chinese and Middle Eastern instruments have a part in this score (the low sonority of an 8-foot Tibetan Horn resonates mightily behind the orchestra and choir; the resonant sinews of er-hu – Chinese violin – is beautifully offset against orchestra; ethnic voice; an ensemble of multiple Chinese instruments; even an air of respectable British anglophilia in a few places, but all of this is wrapped up wrapped up in a splendid and old-fashioned styled main theme, very Indiana Jones-ish yet marinated with Edelman’s own eloquent sense of style and melody (I suppose even the main theme seems to suggest a bit of old Britannia). But the score’s central element remains the majestic main theme, a complicated eight-note melody that ascends and descends like the multilayered roofs of a Chinese temple, reprised throughout to reflect the once and now again glory of the Dragon Emperor, whose regained rise to power (not to mention, life) is the crux of this film’s journey into mummydom. Edelman and melody have been close companions for many years now, and TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR is a rich widescreen tapestry upon which Edelman continues to flaunt his unabashed fondness for maid melody. The score is immediately accessible, as a result, and vividly larger than life in its bold orchestral strokes and thunderous motifs. The score may not necessarily be psychologically complex or subliminally interactive, but this film doesn’t plumb those depths anyway; it called for a fun, adventurous, spectacular musical score and Edelman supplies that beautifully.

Another memorable score very much in the vibrant melodic corner is Andrew Lockington’s music score for the new version of JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH. Lockington, a comparative newcomer to Hollywood scoring, has integrating with his traditional orchestra and choir the unique orchestral percussion of the Japanese drumming ensemble, Kiyoshi Nagata, which provide the characters’ descent into “middle earth” with their own thunderous accompaniment of gongs, bells ,clappers, shakers, and bamboo flutes. The explorer’s arrival at the world at earth’s center is represented by a fragility of high winds and sustained high strings, which grow into a surging and powerfully triumphant rendition of Lockington’s magnificent main theme, its lyrical violin melodies intertwining among proud intonations of brass and, finally, reverent choir. The climactic volcano scene (lost world movies always seem to end with a volcano) spews out an undulating array of thick orchestration, flowing in rivulets across Lockington’s soundstage, flailing violins, surging horns, pounding drums, powering to a midway crescendo that dissolutes into a fjord of hushed choir and sustained violins, only to propel forward anew, boiling and relentless, crested by a rendition of the main theme for men’s choir and sparkling brass and culminating in a cyclonic eddy of violins and a final reprise of the main theme from horns.

Danny Elfman’s score for HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY is magical and muscular, richly and evocatively orchestrated, and a winning fantasy action score in every respect. Occupied by a raging and rhythmic legion of powerful horns and strings and percussion, the score is also embellished by an overarching tonality of horns and strings which give it a persuasive degree of melodic warmth for its second half. Replete will plenty of quirky touches – cool Theremin sounds and exotica rhythms a neat motif for sing-song choir over a very sturdy intensity of horns and percussion, driven by staccato strokes of violins and blaring trills of punchy, shouting brass, the score finds its most delightful evocation during director del Toro’s marvelously inventive Troll Market sequence, with its dominatrix female choir and trilling winds. Climaxing with a cataclysmic array of mammoth horns and timpani, a gigantic shuffling figure of massive orchestral magnitude, supported by a thin arpeggio of strings, piano, and harp, moving into a Herrmannesque mix of raging orchestra and choir, progressing through a variety of surging motifs, figures, punctuation and counterpoint, and an ongoing deconstruction/construction of Elfman’s primary musical elements in the midst of battle and triumph that can be quite breathtaking. This is a grand, energetic, and eloquent Elfman score.

Michael Giacchino’s music for the Wachowsky’s unique interpretation of SPEED RACER is a wondrous musical adventure interpolating elements from the old TV cartoon with the kind of modern, rhythmic material that seems to define contemporary action scoring – with Giacchino’s own manic style elevating it to the n’th degree. The score essentially takes the film’s title to heart and races along at a breakneck speed, demonstrating plenty of orchestral chops to manipulate, control, orchestrate, and drive to the finish line. Nobuyoshi Koshibe’s Mach-Go-Go-Go/Go Speed Racer motif from the original TV show is fittingly laced throughout Giacchino’s action music. SPEED RACER’s score is derived from a variety of motifs and themes crafted by Giacchino or recalled from Koshibe and carefully chiseled into the high-octane rush of the action cues in a way that they all make sense and never fall into chaotic dissonance. Rhythm is the music’s mainstay, straight-ahead and jet-speed rhythm, but there are moments of sublime eloquence remaining in the score. The score’s mix of thematic elements, respectful and generous inclusion of material from the film’s original source music, its pleasing fusion of retro with contemporary orchestral and jazz sensibilities, and its overall abundance of satisfyingly ferocious action music tinged with heartfelt poignancy makes SPEED RACER a thoroughly outstanding score.

Tyler Bates’ score for Neil Marshall’s post-apocalytic DOOMSDAY is a compelling hybrid of orchestra and synth, but it’s nothing like what you’d expect from the “traditional” hybrid scores that you’ve heard before. It’s epic and huge and yet it’s also thin and synthy; Bates keeps his synths and his symphs at a distance from one another, and allows each to craft its own musical environment and attitude. While the score finds plenty of room for large scale orchestra, Bates also scores many scenes for synthesizers alone – resembling the tracks we heard back in the ’80s when somebody’s moog or synclavier that was all we had for musical accompaniment and nary an acoustic instrument was anywhere near the soundtrack. The final escape scene is a thoroughly thrilling composition merging together all the elements that have gone before: heavy orchestral surges, soaring horn ascensions driven by cyclonic swirling arpeggios of violins, barrages of synths, crystal clear electronic guitar soloing over female choir and solo voice, thunderous drumming, burbling pads of electronic textures – one of Bates’ most compelling and interesting compositions to date. The score as a whole is really very appealing and attention-grabbing. Its calculated texture and orchestration is inventive and exciting, the score’s musical integrity shining through at even its most chaotically dissonant.

In M. Night Shyamalan’s enigmatic and ultimately unsatisfying thriller, THE HAPPENING, one thing that can be assured is that James Newton Howard’s latest collaboration with director is solidly atmospheric and scary/spooky. The score begins by emphasizing what’s happening to humanity, carrying a kind of DAY AFTER TOMORROW styled disaster-movie ominousness to them, a slow cadence of vaguely melodic tonality that evokes a sense of sorrow and loss; but once the nature of what’s happening slowly begins to be revealed, the score turns darker and underlines the maliciousness of the phenomenon. Modular layers of tonality – strings and piano mostly – draft a sonic continuum of apprehension that keeps the listener/viewer pretty much on edge throughout. Cello is much in evidence in this score, performed by noted cellist Maya Beiser, which offers a pleasing, humanity-affirming respite to the alarming desperation of much of the score’s pervasive apprehensivo. The score’s melodic material comes to the fore in the final moments, where Howard’s layers of melody ascend to a subtly powerful climactic resolution.

David Newman eschews the comedy spirit he has employed in so many movies of late and instead wraps himself in a dark, Gothic attitude for his score to Frank Miller’s homage to Will Eisner’s noir hero, THE SPIRIT. The score is as shadowy as the noirish Central City alleyways and concrete jungles that crimefighter Denny Colt inhabits in the film; the music plays it straight to Miller’s SIN CITY-like interpretation of Eisner’s brilliant graphic storytelling technique from the classic comics, with a score that inhabits a world initially quite similar to Danny Elfman’s BATMAN, dark, massive, shadowy concrete and steel. Each of THE SPIRIT’S wily feminine foils is captured musically: the enigmatic and mysterious Lorelei Rox with an ethereal, sirensong vocal motif; Silken Floss with a silky cool, teasing lounge saxophone melody over jazz combo; Plaster of Paris with an alluring woodwind melody as sexily deceptive as the bellydancing character it accompanies; and Sand Saref, Spirit’s lost love who now plays her cards on the opposite side of the law, with a sensual, sexy jazz melody just as sultry and bitter and dangerous as the Eva Mendez character. The motifs cling to each character like the tight, thin garments each of them almost inhabits. The major villain of the piece, Samuel Jackson’s impeccably costumed criminal, the Octopus, is given a percussive motif made up of synth and string patterns layered over a jangly, metallic percussion – a kind of Gothic, dark industrial bling that Octopus wears with an arrogant pride. In addition to the characters, the environment of City itself has its own motif, a low rumbling bass guitar riff, that reverberates like liquid shadows around and between stone, brick, and mortar, humming with the life of the City in which these characters conduct their business, commit their crimes, capture their enemies, and fall in love. . But the heart of the score – and the story – remains in the Spirit/Sand Saref relationship, and these moments are where the score really soars. Sand’s sultry theme echoes throughout the flashback moments their final kiss opens up the orchestra into a rapturous crescendo for French horn and strings, giving the motif its fullest and most virile musical moment. In the end, though, it’s The Spirit’s true mistress – the City – that wins the day, and Newman’s score closes with a resolute reprisal of the Spirit Theme, in full DARK KNIGHT semblance, fused with the bass guitar licks of the City Theme. It’s one of Newman’s best scores and shows him to be his father’s son: right at home in film noir.

Swedish composer Johan Söderqvist has crafted a very personal score for Tomas Alfredson’s striking vampire love story LET THE RIGHT ONE IN (Låt den rätte komma in) that juxtaposes elements of melodic beauty with dark and ominous textures (including the use of the unusual instrument, the bass waterphone). Söderqvist’s score floats in the air like a crystal fog, a fluid mélange of melodic tonality that wafts down like freshly laundered bedsheets to give the film a soft and comforting atmosphere that belies its dark underbelly, just as the love story betwixt boy-meets-girl, boy-falls-for-girl, girl-happens-to-be-a-vampire-which-kinda-complicates-matters glistens with its own airy lightness above its romantic yet dark underbelly. The score’s darker moments lay down a pervasive and weighty gloom through their low register and sustained tonalities. The boy is given a pensive and slowly-awakening motif for solo piano, reflective of his growing and very personal affection for the girl, whose loveliness of character is emphasized through a lilting theme for violins, rich in the passion for life and love. This is a very nice score, rich on pervasive atmospheres and compelling melodic phrasing.

James Horner provided THE SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES with a vibrant high fantasy score, brimming with adventurous melodies and passions. Musical flavors of HARRY POTTER and NARNIA, the film’s conceptual brethren, inevitably find their way into the music, a moment here, and filigree there, but Horner’s overall composition is expressive and elegant. With a trio of children as the film’s protagonists, the musical approach is one of innocence and youthful decency, represented through a fine melody of violins. This lush, romantic flavored theme emerges out of a chaotic and entwined forest of wicked horns and winds. The motif, ascending slowly, becomes an airy and enchanting flight through the fantastic landscape of Spiderwick. Set against this light-hearted and innocently heroic theme are a series of darker orchestral intonations associated with the goblins and wicked faeries inhabiting the estate to which the kids come to live. The goblins are represented with an interesting, fast-tapped vibrato keyboard figure that punctuates the motif’s martial cadence, progressing into a massive series of descending horn chords over a cyclonic swirling of strings, a huge measure of epic scope that emphasizes the strangitude of the developing story. SPIDERWICK CHRONICLES brings back the Horner of COCOON and CASPER, KRULL and WILLOW, gentle fantasies and morality plays with simple clear-cut and vastly likable melodic, larger-than-life scores.

Murray Gold continued to provide musical gold for the 4th season of BBC’s new incarnation of DOCTOR WHO. For Series 4, Gold provided a richly melodic score that maintains and intensifies the style and scope of the first three seasons. Gold’s “Doctors Theme Season 4” is a marvelously powerful and noble melody, orchestra and choir, reprising the Season 1 theme in a wonderfully expressive manner. DOCTOR WHO simply contains some of the best television scoring anywhere, from its melodious sonorities to its darker, harsher ambiances, its percussively-driven rhythm and harsh vocal chantings to the energetic scherzo for winds and strings for Donna, the Doctor’s new companion for Series 4, and the fuzzy electronica and chaotic piano embodying the theme for Davros. In the end, though, it’s the heroic music for Doctor Who, the timelord, that best characterizes the show’s sound design and gives the series its anthemic signature.

Gold’s music, composed in concert with his DOCTOR WHO arranger/conductor Ben Foster, is equally winning for the sister series, TORCHWOOD. An assemblage of full-blooded orchestral compositions, the TORCHWOOD soundtrack features an array of powerful and attractive dramatic melodies. More of a contemporary thriller than its Tardis-traveling bigger brother, TORCHWOOD (the title is an anagram of “Doctor Who”) has to do with a former Time Agent battling hostile extraterrestrial and supernatural threats in early 21st century Cardiff. The music, therefore, is more of contemporary action vibe that WHO’s more overt fantasy and science fiction accommodations. The score is edgier, often including a rock and roll pulse. While Gold and Foster share equal billing, it is reported that the bulk of the composition on TORCHWOOD is Foster’s bailiwick, and here he shines. The music is highly melodic, very expressive. It introduces, accompanies, and often says goodbye to major characters while supporting the show’s action with a solid contemporary vibe. All of the character themes are lovely melodies, very nicely nuanced and relayed, while the main TORCHWOOD theme is a straight ahead action rendering for keyboards and percussion over a very interesting bed of active synth textures. Captain Jack’s Theme, which comprised the show’s title music, is modern, confident, maybe even a tad arrogant, and contrasts nicely with the audacious poignancy of many of the show’s melodies and motifs.

While boasting the most enigmatic title, dullest poster image, and most controversial title song in 007 history, the latest James Bond action fest, QUANTUM OF SOLACE, contained another first rate score by David Arnold. The title song, “Another Way to Die,” written by The White Stripes’ Jack White and sung by he and modern pop diva Alicia Keys, may be rougher around the edges than the graceful sensuality of, say, Shirley Bassey’s “Goldfinger” or k.d. Lang’s “Surrender” (which, while relegated to end-title status in TOMORROW NEVER DIES, is arguably the best James Bond song of the last decade), it’s not as bad as many critics have decried, and offers a clear fusion of Bondian brasses and contemporary rock songsmithing. As for the score proper, Arnold’s latest approach is consistent with that of his last four go-arounds, splendidly Barryesque, massively orchestral, and rich in powerful melodies that drive the action cues and lend an elegance and an allure to the film’s flamboyant energy. The music retains a fluidity even when at its most dissonant activity, and conveys a melodic tonality that keeps the music romantic despite its muscular intensity. Action scenes area steady riot of orchestral propulsion, punches of brass driven by pounding drums, pulses of winds, and entwining stretches of strings. It takes on a pleasing rhythm that in itself is rather controlled even though the pulsating bits that make up that rhythm, the fragments and phrases of Arnold’s Bond motif and other elements, are fairly energetic and fast-paced. In QUANTUM OF SOLACE, David Arnold’s music continues to embody both the propulsive action and the masculine sensuality of the James Bond character; it’s an extremely appealing score which embraces that duality and provides a charismatic intensity that mirrors the essential allure of the 007 character and his ongoing adventures.

Trevor Rabin’s music for new GET SMART movie is an appealing mix of modern Zimmeresque action movie propulsion and retro 60’s action material – lots of hybrid epic action drive and lots of 60’s electric guitar wafting around it all. Rabin makes a lot of use of Irving Szathmary’s 1965 TV theme, giving it a modern edge and dynamic, and it is the anchor upon which Rabin hangs the rest of his score. The score incorporates the usual kind of rhythmic fusion of synth and symphs that Media Ventures acolytes continue to pave their scores with – and I say that without real denigration as I tend to like that approach to deriving epic-styled dramatic hero-action music even though it’s become a little too pervasive in contemporary film scoring. But once Rabin lets his angelic strings and French horns part the way and he launches into a furious, rock-driven variation of the GET SMART TV theme we know we’re in for a good sounding time. There are four ensuing and distinct variations of the get Smart theme, each of them takes the Szathmary theme into different musical directions and each is a refreshing bit of retrograde refurnishing in which the TV theme sits well in a new environment of, say, funky R&B grooving or Latin percussion riffing, or a bluesy Schifrinesque urban groove. Max Smart’s relentless march down the corridor of multiple doors has never sounded so dynamic. The rest of the score is a marvelous compendium

The music of Rob Lane and Rohan Stevenson for the UK miniseries MERLIN is, as one might expect from a fantasy adventure about the age of King Arthur, a lavish composition brimming with full-blooded orchestration and choir. The score is richly romantic and splendid swashbuckling, while evoking through mysterious chorale strains the more mystical elements of the Arthurian sorcerer. The score shifts moods frequently as dictated by the direction of the story, and is a thoroughly engaging composition, wonderfully melodic and orchestral.

Relishing the Rarities: 2008’s Restorations & Reissues

Also of note are these soundtrack restorations and reissues of older scores, released during 2008:

The inaugural soundtrack release of the new label Elysee Productions, issued the world premiere soundtrack of the 1969 Philippines horror exploiter, THE MAD DOCTOR OF BLOOD ISLAND (also known on the reissue circuit as TOMB OF THE LIVING DEAD and GRAVE DESIRES). This was the second film of the “Blood” quadrilogy that began with 1968’s BRIDES OF BLOOD and would spawn 1971’s BEAST OF BLOOD and 1972’s BRAIN OF BLOOD; but MAD DOCTOR was the first to have an original film score (BRIDE used ill-fitting classical excerpts as a budget-saving measure). The BLOOD films, through their mixture of sex, gore, and jungle exotica in some surreal narrative packages have become cult favorites among exploitation and Asian horror cinema fans. The score to THE MAD DOCTOR OF BLOOD ISLAND is classic horror music, quite potent on its own and it stands up well against the work that such notable Hollywood B-movie composers as Paul Dunlap, Ronald Stein and Les Baxter were doing at the same time. Composer Tito Arevalo began as an actor who worked in the Philippine film industry since the 1930s, moving into musical direction and composition in later decades. His last original film score was 1979; he died in 2000. Composed for orchestra enhanced with chorus for the Main Titles and a couple of Steiner-worthy native dance cues, the music has a slightly exotic edge while enhancing the film’s excitement and the danger of the zombies created by Blood Island’s resident mad scientist, Dr. Lorca. There are a number of excellent renditions of ferocious monster music that really enliven the score and give the film’s low-budget a big added value enhancement. MAD DOCTOR OF BLOOD ISLAND is a first rate horror score by any measure, and one that Elsee’s producer Tim Ferrante strove for two decades to bring to CD. The 8-page CD booklet discusses the history of the film, the soundtrack, and Arevalo’s place in the pantheon of internationally notable film composers.

Emmy-award winning composer Christophe Beck scored, mixed and produced BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER – The Score CD, released by Rounder Records. After several song-based Buffy music albums (songs used in the shows), Beck’s outstanding underscore can now be appreciated outside of the several bootlegs it had previously been available on. The Score contains 29 tracks, all drawn from seasons two, three, four, and five. While the alt rock performed by various bands provided much of the Buffyverse’s angst, Beck’s music provided both its soul and its bite. From traditional if only slightly Gothic-tinged horror music to the warm, emotive melodies that really endeared the show and its characters to audiences, Beck brought all of the VAMPIRE SLAYER’S multifaceted components to life. With 29 tracks from three seasons (more than half of the album comes from Season 4), the selections cover many of the most significant musical moments of the show. You don’t need to be a Buffy fan to appreciate the powerful fragrances of Beck’s music from the show; it’s strength and emotive intensity is evident on its own; and capably relayed through this important collection of musical moments. With a handful of song-based albums, we’ve waited far too long for a true score album to emerge. Thanks to Beck and Rounder Records for having finally filled the gap.

FSM released an ambitious 8-CD box set that gathered together all of the music for the SUPERMAN franchise of the 1970s and ‘80s, from John Williams seminal and signature music for Richard Donner’s SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE, through its three sequels and onto its life as an animated series on TV. All of the music is drawn from Williams’ 1978 themes; adapted by Ken Thorne into the scores of SUPERMAN II (1980) and SUPERMAN III (1983), by STAR TREK’S Alexander Courage into SUPERMAN IV: THE QUEST FOR PEACE (1987), and by Star Trek: TNG’s Ron Jones into the animated show (1988). The eighth CD contains a plethora of alternate tracks from the first three SUPERMAN movies and a fistful of very dispensable disco songs written by Giorgio Moroder for use in the latter movies. The 8-disc set is thorough to the point of overindulgence; but for those eager to savor every second of soundtrack music, it is a noble and very definitive set and recommended for those like me who must have it all. A very thorough cd-sized 160-page hardback book analyzes the films, the music, and the CD tracks in voluminous detail.

One of the year’s most extraordinary archival restorations is Max Steiner’s expressive score from SHE, Merian C. Cooper’s 1935 adaptation of the H. Rider Haggard fantasy novel, released as the third volume in the newly launched Tribute Film Classics series (following 2007’s MYSTERIOUS ISLAND and FAHRENHEIT 451). Fully reconstructed by the masterful John Morgan and recorded by the full prowess of the Moscow Symphony, conducted by William Stromberg, this new presentation of the score allows Steiner’s breathtaking composition, restricted in its original recording to a small orchestral size, musical passages truncated during editing, and the limited range of mid 1930s recording technology, to be expressed in its fully intended scope for large orchestra of up to 60 players and spectacular digital recording technology. At the same time, the Morgan/Stromberg team are true to Steiner’s musical intent for the score, embiggening its sonic dynamic without imposing any improper nuances that its composer hadn’t intended. The clarity of the new recording allows the score’s striking textures and orchestrations to be fully heard and appreciated across the breadth of the soundscape; hearing the score thus is like lifting the veil off of the hidden land of Kor itself, allowing the music to be fully realized for the first time.

Percepto Records’ release of the complete score from Georges’ Delerue’s masterful THE DAY OF THE DOLPHIN finally gives this wonderful score its due. The score remains one of Delerue’s most beautiful scores – and that’s saying a lot, as he wrote plenty of them. But the romantic fragility of his main theme, whether played by flute, strings, or plucked harp, is hauntingly attractive and unforgettable. Delerue, known for his lush romances, was an unusual choice but proved to be on the mark, emphasizing not the dark political turmoil of the film’s subtext but the more implicit love story between man and dolphin that is its center. Yet his exquisite love theme is contrasted by plenty of dark passages that underline the malevolent use to which the dolphins are to be put. Percepto’s recording restores nine unreleased tracks and contains a hefty and well illustrated booklet with thoroughgoing notes.

Another notable score to receive its first valid CD release in 2008 was Elmer Bernstein’s massive fantasy score for the 1981 animated feature film, HEAVY METAL, is finally given its due on CD through a nicely restored release from FSM. The label aptly refers to HEAVY METAL as “Bernstein’s STAR WARS” which isn’t far off the mark. It’s a thundering symphonic work comprised of a wealth of disparate music for each of the film’s segments. Performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the music is powerful, persuasive, and poignant, as epic as the film tried to be (but failed). FSM’s release presents the complete score, remastered from the original ¼” stereo tapes in the Bernstein collection at USC. The score is simply breathtaking, vivid with soaring melodies, earnest crescendos, and the kind of marvelous, surging melodies that nobody but Bernstein could do with such orchestral energy. There is swashbuckler aplenty, passionate and surging melodies, heroic measures and motifs – often in the same cue. HEAVY METAL is distinctly and definitively Bernstein and one of the best scores of his career; simply a must-have score for any serious filmmusicophile, and FSM has done a fine job presenting it on CD for the first time.

From Italy’s Digitmovies, which along with DGM continues to restore and release a fistful of significant Italian fantasy and horror scores of the 60s and 70s. Digitmovies’ May release of Sante Maria Romitelli’s persuasive score for Mario Bava’s potent 1969 Euroshock thriller, HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON expands the previous CD release of the score by adding 13 previously unreleased tracks. Romitelli’s score ranges from a sweeping classical waltz that opens the film to cacophonic riffing of electric guitar and shimmering electronics, and an intriguing fusion of melody and atonality from both acoustic and electronic instruments. A delightfully pop-ish variation of the main waltz recurs several times from flutes and harpsichords, giving it a quite compelling texture. A secondary motif proffers a mix of light melody from flute over electric bass drumset, and mixed percussion that takes on a lullaby characteristic evocative of the main character’s youth. Whereas the stereo tracks culled from the prior RCA release emphasized the score’s lighter side through gentle melodies, melodic waltzes, and compelling musical intimacies, the new tracks included on the Digitmovies release really emphasize the striking use to which Romitelli has put the electric guitar as a significant element of his musical pallet here. Not unlike the pervasive use of that instrument in the same year’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, which forever linked the electric guitar with wild west gunfights through Morricone’s brilliantly realized score, Romitelli’s powerful profusion of solo and emphasized electric guitar in HATCHET FOR THE HONEYMOON is commanding; his score is a mesmerizing and psychedelic alteration of traditional horror scoring with a fascinating fusion of classical, early electronic, lounge/pop, and straight ahead rock and roll.

La-La Land Records has released a sumptuous 3-CD collection of original soundtrack scores from the classic 1965 TV series, THE OUTER LIMITS. Featuring suites from nearly a dozen episodes and a plethora of variations on the main title theme, with and without the famous “Control Voice” opening and closing narrative, the new release includes Dominic Frontiere’s music from the show’s first season (the second season had a complete change in management, with music brought over from Harry (ONE STEP BEYOND) Lubin). While OUTER LIMITS was the work of a single composer rather than the shared effort of many composers like its older cousin, THE TWILIGHT ZONE, it shares many of the same musical attributes as that legendary Rod Serling series, intricately phrased mysteriosos, moody phrasings associated with characters’ psychologies, and all manner of melodies and instrumental textures befitting each individual story. Frontiere, who reused some of the music for his underscore on THE INVADERS, drew a deft hand when composing for macabre, fantastic, and horrific subjects, the music from THE OUTER LIMITS demonstrates the versatility of a capable composer and reflects the creative environment of the group of talented artists who gave us a compelling anthology series.

Another very noteworthy release from La-La Land Record’s is their 2-disc premiere collection of Mark Snow’s music from the TV series MILLENNIUM. While a much darker show than THE X-FILES, Snow’s other collaboration with creator Chris Carter, the music is actually among his most passionate and heartfelt. Snow crafted an elegant sound design that captured the show’s duality between dark and light, good and evil, while also providing unique approaches for each episode during the show’s three seasons. Comprising 26 tracks from 19 episodes over four seasons, this is some of the most affecting music you’ll ever hear on television. From the eerily beautiful violin theme that opens the show and characterizes the brightness of the Yellow House in season one, to the eclectic variety of music – menacing choral and synth atmospheres, a disturbed children’s piano melody, deliciously spooky Halloween music, the mesmerizingly beautiful soprano nymph’s theme from “Omerta,” the hilarity of Snow’s demonic tunes (including a brilliant parody on his own X-FILES theme) for one of Darin Morgan’s humorous episodes, to Snow’s delightful retake on an X-FILES score in the jazzified “Jose Chung’s Doomsday Defense,” this is a thoroughly compelling and interesting collection of eloquent and atmospheric music.

Intrada, which rescued about 30 notable scores from oblivion last year and released them in its Special Collection series, provided one of Christopher Young’s best science fiction scores last year with SPECIES. Previously unavailable except via a short suite on a compilation disc or on a limited promotional CD issued by the composer, SPECIES after thirteen years made it to CD in a splendid package. The music is brooding and action-oriented, with fine mysteriosos and an ongoing atmosphere of menace and danger, giving the film a consistent tension for nearly all of its running time and intensifying the story about cloned alien DNA seeking reproduction of its species. The score is rippling with hybrid synth and acoustic textures, seething low chords sparring against ethereal choral passages and insistent string figures. There are massive dissonances, rhythmic chord-progressions and eerie tonalities, avant-garde and atonal measures, bells and blasts and sinewy strings and pounding percussion and almost every other truck in the book, but it all works together beautifully; the SPECIES score is provocative and unsettling, passionate and potent, a muscular horror score with a pervasive femininity, since after all the alien monster is a female, albeit an exceeding powerful female. Young’s musical sound for Sil evokes both aspects of her purpose-driven life. The breadth of its orchestration is remarkable, evoking a fusion of musical elements that crafts a creepy and consequential musical composition. Young continues to tread the outer reaches as well as the forefront of filmscoring with scores like this; he has shown his capabilities in virtually every genre, but can’t help but return to his first love with scores like this. The Intrada soundtrack provides both Young’s orchestral score as well as, separately, a trio of synth-and-percussion tracks in a more contemporary style that were used for scenes of Sil prowling the streets of Los Angeles. Comprehensive notes from Jeff Bond complete an excellent package.

Also of note is one of several compilation album England’s Silva Screen released in 2008. The Essential Harry Potter Film Music Collection contains a fine assortment of music from each of the (so far) five HARRY POTTER movies spread across two discs. Very finely performed by the City of Prague Philharmonic, the first disc contains the John Williams’ exuberant and enchanting music for SORCERER’S STONE (under its English title, PHILOSOPHER’S STONE), CHAMBER OF SECRETS (as adapted by William Ross), and PRISONER OF AZKABAN, while disc 2 contains Patrick Doyle’s GOBLET OF FIRE and Nicholas Hooper’s ORDER OF THE PHOENIX, both of which elaborate Williams’ initial ideas into new but compatible styles of their own. Disc 2 also includes a closing reprisal of Williams’ “Hedwig’s Theme” which makes a suitable coda for the collection. The double disc set is thorough yet concise, gathering the significant thematic and cinematic moments of the five films into a very likable collection of fine film music.

The Score: Robert Miller and the Music of TEETH

TEETH is a deceptive movie on first encounter. The DVD box is fairly tame, showing star Jess Weixler in a bubble bath, only her head showing, her eyes gazing at the camera with subtle menace, or arrogance. “Go ahead, screw with me,” they seem to warn. Turn the DVD box over and you realize the movie is about a teenager whose vagina possesses teeth, sharp ones, capable of inflicting grievous harm upon a sexual partner who dares offend her. A clear opportunity for a sleazy exploitation horror film, but here’s another deception. The film is actually a quite sensitive, compelling, and entertaining story of sexual awakening, male-female posturing, and the ownership of one’s body – the ideas made palatable, believable, and convincing through the careful handling of first-time writer-director Mitchell Lichtenstein and the believable performance of Weixler, who won the Special Jury Prize for Dramatic Performance at Sundance when the film debuted there. With a review consensus that the film was “smart, original, and horrifically funny,” according to Rotten Tomatoes, TEETH is a refreshingly invigorating film about character development – revulsion, acceptance, and finally embrace of one’s difference – all couched in a quasi-horror tradition. I found the film quite intriguing even if I couldn’t unclench my legs for 90 minutes.

The musical score also avoids the expected tonal atmospheres and spooky musical gravitas of most contemporary horror films; composer Robert Miller provides music rich in expressiveness – an intriguing blend of hollow acoustic sound design, derived somewhat from primitive American Indian sonic traditions, giving the soundtrack a unique flavor. The Indian motif suggests the ancient myth of Vagina Dentata – toothed vagina – which are legendary in many cultures – and underlines the vague mythology that gives the film its “scientific” grounding for Weixler’s condition.

Miller grew up loving movies and appreciating great stories, but as a youth always felt he’d grow up writing music for the concert hall. “One of my mentors was American composer Aaron Copland, who felt that my sound was naturally visual, and that I’d make a good film composer because I love the way stories can inspire people,” Miller said. “I took in the advice, but didn’t immediately drop everything for movies, although the desire to eventually embrace film composing was burning brightly in me. A few decades later – here I am!”

He made the move into film music sporadically during the late 1980s and 1990s, scoring a handful of films but concentrating on writing music for TV commercials – more than 1400 of them to date (he’s also been the recipient of five CLIO awards for music). During the late 1990s he also served as composer-In-Residence with the New York-based Jupiter Symphony. The scoring of very filmic commercials led to interest from directors of short films, documentaries, and independent features. “I have been asked quite often about the similarities between scoring spots and films, and my answer is always the same – other than the fact that music is being written for a moving image, I think they are quite different disciplines. In a commercial, you are quickly creating an attractive sense impression of something – often with a story arc that resembles a well written paragraph. The musical phrases are designed to complete themselves very quickly – a movie is like an opera; the internal artistic logic has natural space and time to develop. Good scores are beautifully crafted theme-and-variation styled works in their own right.”

Miller’s early experiences in film composition, indie films like CONCRETE ANGEL (a 1987 drama about a young man who forms a rock group with his friends in order to win a music competition tied into The Beatles’ 1964 visit to Toronto) and PANTS ON FIRE (a complicated romantic comedy from 1998, and a fistful of short films) taught Miller the value of collaboration. “I also began to work on how to understand music’s vital role in a film, and how easy it is to compound an emotion in a scene to the point that viewers turn off because it’s too heavy, or is stripped of its natural, honest affect.”

Miller had been scoring feature films pretty steadily since 2005 when Mitchell Lichtenstein’s quirky horror drama came his way two years after that.

“When I saw TEETH, I was of course a little distracted by the severed penises, which is of course the thing everybody talks about at first,” Miller said. “But I noticed instantly that Mitchell Lichtenstein is a unique film maker with a strong command of his story-telling. There are so many great intimate and warm moments in this movie that somehow blend in with the bizare aspects, that I wanted very badly to work with Mitchell. I felt like I needed a musical metaphor for the Freudian (and ancient) myth of Vagina Dentata, a healthy palette of expressive horror music, and tender thematic material that can nestle right in cracks! I had a blast creating this one. I could make fun and be the straight man all in one movie!”

Miller worked closely with both director Mitchell Lichtenstein and also Beth Rosenblatt who was music supervisor on the film. “My first mission was to write an overture apart from the movie – my idea – that could contain all of the elements that I needed – when I played it for Mitchell I remember getting a hug immediately! I then knew I hit the target for our film!”

The sonic palette for TEETH is characterized by the prominence of frame drums (played by virtuoso Glen Velez), bass pan flutes, and assorted primitive wood flutes, bass clarinet trio, piano (for the tender music), and traditional orchestra. “I needed to have fun with primitive folk lore, be able to be genuinely tender, and powerfully symphonic during a few very horrific moments,” Miller said. “I believe the elements worked well together in their own weird way!”

While seeming to be a horror thriller on one level, TEETH is more of a fascinating character study of Dawn. Aware of this, Miller was able to enhance the film’s more humanizing aspects while at the same time supporting the spookier and more disturbing moments. “The intimate piano waltz melody was the key to Dawn’s character in the film,” said Miller. “A notable scene is very late in the movie, when she moves away from home and everything strange that has occurred. Her travel is accompanied by that theme in a pure form – Mitchell kept sight of Dawn’s young and fairly idealistic spirit throughout the story (although she certainly discovered her “power”) and I tried to illuminate that spirit in music.”

Miller is just now finishing scoring Lichtenstein’s next film, HAPPY TEARS. A far different film from TEETH, this one is about two sisters (Demi Moore and Parker Posey) who return home to deal with their ailing father (Rip Torn), only to face some surprising situations. Miller is investing this film with a similar kind of unique style and color-collision that he feels “will be as unique to this film as TEETH’s score was for our first collaboration.”

Robert MillerWith some twenty scores under his belt, most in the last three years, and the prospect of HAPPY TEARS being critical success, Miller’s career may well be on its way to the A-list. “I like the idea of making movies that make an imprint of people’s soul in some small way, even if it’s through laughter,” Miller said. “That’s the only reason to create after all, and I want to spend several decades working hard helping lots of great stories come to life on film.”

For more information on Robert Miller, see:

The Score: A Quantum Quest for Film Composer Shawn Clement

quantum-questQUANTUM QUEST, a new 3-D, computer animated, large format, action-adventure film that interweaves animated sequences with actual space imagery captured from seven ongoing NASA and NASA/ESA space missions, will receive an equally large-scale musical score from award-winning composer Shawn Clement.

A multifaceted composer, Clement’s film credits include WE MARRIED MARGO and LAST CHANCE, with notable scores for television shows such as BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER (Season 2 episodes), and music for video games such as OPEN SEASON, THE SIMS 2 and BATMAN: RISE OF SIN TZU. Clement is also credited with establishing the definitive dramatic musical style of the reality show format; his efforts have earned him ASCAP Film & TV Music Awards. Clement’s music has set the tone for the voyeuristic sensations including AMERICAN IDOL, NEWLYWEDS: NICK & JESSICA, SNOOP DOGG’S FATHER HOOD, MY SUPER SWEET 16 and HOGAN KNOWS BEST.

Clement will record his original score for QUANTUM QUEST at George Lucas’ legendary Skywalker Ranch facility in April.

QUANTUM QUEST, which premieres in theaters in September 2009, stars Chris Pine, Samuel L. Jackson, Hayden Christensen, Amanda Peet, Robert Picardo, Brent Spiner, James Earl Jones, William Shatner, Mark Hamill, and astronaut Neil Armstrong. The film takes place in an atomic world, where the forces of the Core and the forces of the Void battle for the fate of the universe. The Core is a kind being, who lives inside all suns; his children are protons, photons, and neutrinos. The Void is that which existed before the Big Bang; he hates everything and everyone in the universe for invading his nothingness. The Void has an army of anti-matter that he uses to try and destroy the forces of the Core. QUANTUM QUEST centers on the story of Dave, a young photon, who is forced out of the Sun on a journey of discovery. Dave must get to the Cassini Space Craft and save it from the forces of the Void.

For more information on Shawn K. Clement, see:

At the Precipace We Change: Tyler Bates’ Music To Make The Earth Stand Still

click to purchase
click to purchase

Tyler Bates’ has crafted a primarily dissonant, pulsating, and edgy score for the 2008 interpretation of the classic science fiction cautionary tale, THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL, one that is well in keeping with director Scott Derrickson’s epic of near-cataclysmic destruction while also sharing the film’s sense of humanity and harmony. Bates’ aggressive score carries the film – and we the viewer – to the precipice of annihilation but, musically emphasizing that same sense of shared harmony and a human spirit shed of its cruelty, allows us to achieve redemption.

Tyler Bates came to Los Angeles from Chicago in 1993, where he had grown up writing, recording, and playing in local rock bands. His first scoring assignment was for Adam Rifkin’s low-budget sci-fi thriller called PSYCHO COP 2. That led to additional scoring assignments for movies of the same ilk, mostly independent affairs like TAMMY AND THE T-REX (1994, aka: TEENAGE T-REX), BALLISTIC (1995), and Roger Corman’s ALIEN AVENGERS (1996). Bates bounced between film scoring and touring with his rock band, Pet, until being on the road became tiresome and he began to miss the opportunities to create music in the studio. Getting back into film, Bates scored a wide variety of movies: the remade action thriller, GET CARTER (2000), the up-tempo of WHAT’S THE WORSE THAT COULD HAPPEN? (2001), the crime drama LOVE AND A BULLET (2002), and the disturbing DAWN OF THE DEAD remake (2004). His association with Snyder led to his massive score for 300 (2006) and his music for Snyder’s interpretation of WATCHMEN, due out next May.* Bates also has maintained an ongoing collaboration with Rob Zombie, scoring the director’s THE DEVIL’S REJECTS (2005), his 2007 HALLOWEEN remake, the WEREWOLF WOMEN OF THE S.S. trailer for GRINDHOUSE, and the recently completed HAUNTED WORLD OF EL SUPERBEASTO (2009). Bates has also scored the TV series CALIFORNICATION, James Gunn’s horror pic SLITHER (2006), and Neil Marshall’s post-apocalyptic DOOMSDAY (2008).

After Snyder’s DAWN OF THE DEAD and Zombie’s HALLOWEEN, THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL is the latest and largest big budget remake that Bates has had the opportunity – and challenge – to score.

Composer Tyler Bates

“It seems like a lot of the films I work on kind of carry that weight!” Bates acknowledged. “The expectation of what the music should be for many of the films I do is probably something that’s next to impossible to satiate for most of the fans, but you can’t let that get in your head. What you have to do is get a feeling for what the film itself is – not what the idea of the film is but what the film itself is, and for one, do the best thing you can for the film, and, two, serve the director’s vision. Really, that’s how I have to approach it.”

Bates came into DAY after Derrickson had been attracted to his previous scores – although perhaps not the ones one might immediate imagine. “Strangely enough, DEVIL’S REJECTS and SLITHER had the most profound effect on him, of my work!” Bates said. “It was cool!”

In this case, however, Bates was up against tremendous competition from the score of the original classic film. The music by Bernard Herrmann for the 1951 version of THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL is one of the most significant, influential, and iconic science fiction soundtrack efforts of all time. Its use of Theremin (long with the same year’s THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD, scored by Dimitri Tiomkin) was groundbreaking and forever associated the instrument with science fiction; Herrmann’s brilliance in crafting sonic structures and melodic ambiances resulted in a score that is nearly impossible to replicate.

Bates realized he shouldn’t even try. “I can’t think to myself, Oh my god, Bernard Herrmann did the original! I don’t expect to ever exist in a paradigm close to his stature, so I can’t even think about that. I think that would end up setting me backwards. My approach was just to get into it and understand what Scott wanted to communicate, because obviously there is a consciousness about the film and its message that is slightly different than that of the original, which you kind of have to expect, fifty-seven years ago. Frankly, I think most of the people who will go to see THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL won’t even realize that it’s a remake.”

Instead of trying to emulate Herrmann, Bates recognized that he is scoring Scott Derrickson’s interpretation of the Robert Wise classic, which is a different film with a different tone and a different sensibility. “We got this on HALLOWEEN when Rob Zombie and I did that,” said Bates. “People revere an original property and feel that it’s sacred, but frankly, there’s a good story to be retold, as it applies to the climate of the world now. If that’s something beyond the scope of a person’s ability to take in, on a new level, without necessarily using the original as a criteria for whether or not they’re going to enjoy it, then they probably shouldn’t bother themselves with it.”

Bates’ resultant score is a potent and cataclysmic evocation of a subtle and ultimately benevolent invasion of the earth by a higher intelligence. The score characterizes both the epic-level awesomeness of such a concept and the inevitable menace of that visiting presence through a tonality of clearly restrained synthetic power and a pulsing, relentless assuredness of purpose.

It’s not a thematic score, with recognizable themes resurfacing from time to time. The music is derived from an ambient movement that is replicated, developed, looped, restructured, and regenerated throughout the score. It’s the feeling of the cue that is built upon to create the various atmospheres that are culled together to form the cohesive sonic structure.

“The impetus for what the score would be came about from watching them film a couple scenes with Keanu and Jaden Smith up in Vancouver,” Bates recalled. “I came back to L.A. and was just experimenting and trying to create a feeling on my GuitarViol. It was not intended to be the score. I just happened to record this one passage into my computer and a couple months later when Scott came over I played it for him and asked what he thought of it. His eyes lit up and he said, ‘I think that’s the score!’ Well, it presented an incredible problem for me because the actual piece had a sound that I couldn’t replicate; it wasn’t in time; it was a little distorted, and it was harmonically very rich. So it posed some restrictions, but he stuck to wanting me to base the score off the feeling of the movement in this little loop that I created.”

Bates managed to replicate that sensibility and develop it into a full score. “It turned out to work out really well and it spawned a number of thematic ideas for the film,” he said. “But my goal was to bring some human spirit to the music, and that was a challenge. Keanu has appeared in so many genre roles of this nature, that I also wanted to feel like it was definitely a new experience with him as an actor in this role, so it was a matter of also creating an environment that I hadn’t quite experienced with him on screen. That took some handiwork and experimentation with electronic development.”

Bates also made sure he included a Theremin in his roster of orchestral rolling stock for the DAY score. “We had to include the Theremin!” Bates grinned. “But it’s not so much a literal expression of the Theremin, as in the original. It’s used throughout the score very richly as far as textures are concerned. A lot of the ghostly ambiances throughout the film are layers of Theremin performances. There’s also some melodic stuff, but you sometimes can’t quite tell the difference between the Theremin and our solo vocalist, Nan Vernon, so it’s been kind of interesting.”

Singer Nan Vernon was called in provide an organic vocal texture – not songs but wordless singing – which is not always obvious when the score is heard; however, the sound of her voice, as with the Theremin, lends a strikingly subliminal texture. “Nan transcends the term ethereal,” Bates said. “It’s not something she has to conjure up; it’s just her state of being! She’s a fan of the original movie so when I talked to her about it she was just very happy to get involved.”

Bates use of Vernon’s vocal recordings, like his incorporation of the Theremin, underscores some of the more emotional moments of the film – as in the scene between Jaden Smith and Jennifer Connelly at the military cemetery. “Nan is able to do that without being poignant,” said Bates. “I don’t think the vocal is ever truly a solo or lead instrument, but she’s definitely enhancing the orchestra in expressing certain counter melodies to what the strings are often playing. She’s definitely brought more of the authentic ethereal sort of otherworldly quality to the music.”

Jennifer Connelly, Keanu Reeves
Jennifer Connelly, Keanu Reeves

In addition to the pervasive atmospheres associated with Klaatu and the potential danger of his presence on Earth, Bates’ music has characterized the heart of the Jennifer Connelly character through whose eyes much of what transpires is filtered for the audience. This material begins to appear about half way through, as the alien’s decision that “If the human race dies, the Earth survives” begins to acquiesce to the awareness that humanity can, as John Cleese’s scientist opines, change at the precipice of destruction. This musical material is more serenely reflective in its sustained tonality and quiet measures, evoking sympathy and a benevolence of purpose that is contrapuntal to the pervasive dissonance of Klaatu’s or G.O.R.T.’s music, even though both styles are part of a whole in his musical approach.

“For the most part the score is driven by the character of Helen, played by Jennifer Connelly,” said Bates. “She is, as the film begins, unrelated to the story, going through a series of personal challenges, emotionally and whatnot, in her life, so what’s going on with her is already an emotional element in the score. And then she’s also a scientist, so her connection with Klaatu is one of wonderment and awe as well as dread, because I think there’s nobody who understands, more than her, what’s really potentially going to happen in the film. The thing was to try and not necessarily oversell Klaatu as the bad guy. G.O.R.T. is more than threatening presence, and one that we’re not quite certain what’s going on with. The cards are always face down with that character in the film.”


Bates treated G.O.R.T. menacing ambiguity and immense power with layers of dark and heavy atmospheric music. “At one point, G.O.R.T. is restrained in a flash chamber, and before that goes wrong, there’s a sense of some impending doom.” Bates’ recognized that there’s an inherent cliché in underlining the obvious doom and gloom of that scene, but avoided that by including in his harmonic approach the same kind of flowing chords that emphasized the Helen material. “We didn’t want to make a cartoon of this movie, so most of the dynamics are steeped in human emotions,” said Bates. “I’m not really trying to oversell the outer space elements.”

The music for DAY, consequently, begins with the human story and then layers all these other elements on top of that, but without losing the initial humanity. The score works in harmony with that sensibility, with a depth to its sonic textures and progressive structure. One moment, for example, when the scientists are initially gathered and brought to Central Park to investigate the landing of the Orb, burbles of electronics and sustained string harmonies create a sinewy chord of apprehensive inquisition, dramatically but quietly underlining Connelly’s character’s question, “Did you hear that?” As the group encounters the swirling Orb, the music opens into an exuding harmony of synths, strings, and choir that is unmistakably unearthly and movingly powerful. Later in the film, when Klaatu’s Orb rises and all power and movement on the planet stops for a short time and the film achieves its title, Bates’ provides a rising cadence of grandiose eloquence that builds through surging symphonics punctuated by a subtle use of synth stingers and a massive choir intonation, emphasizing the cosmic importance of the sequence.

The score as a whole may be characterized by its overall sense of dissonance and orchestral onslaught, but its lynchpins are these moments that speak to the heart of humanity – Connelly’s music and that of the changed Klaatu, recognizing that, on the precipice of destruction, there is hope for humanity – providing the music’s motivic (if not thematic) unity. Bates develops his score progressively by riffing on these motifs, and culminates it in a very satisfying gathering of atmospheric development that retains the sense of largess coupled with elements of introspection.

It’s a powerful and climactic science fiction score. We can only wait to see what he comes up with for WATCHMEN in May.*


  • The WATCHMEN’s intended May release may be in doubt since a court has ruled in favor of 20th Cnetury Fox’s contention that they – not Warner Brothers, which produced the film – owns the U.S. distribution rights. Read more here.

Inferno by Keith Emerson – Soundtrack Review

Although often compared unfavorably to Goblin’s music for SUSPIRIA, keyboardist Keith Emerson’s score for the sequel, INFERNO, is every bit as in tune with the film, perfectly matching the mood and action. Unlike Goblin’s heavy rhythms, shrieking vocals, and shrill synthesizers of the previous film, Emerson employs a much more subtle approach, weaving a score out of quiet piano motifs supported by orchestral arrangements, only occasionally reaching into his electronic bag of tricks for a more outre effect. The result comes closer to a conventional piece of film scoring, underlining the on-screen action without drawing as much attention to itself. Read More