Past Columns

Soundtrax: Episode 2010-04
May 19h, 2010

By Randall D. Larson

Eban Schletter

Animated Reality
Eban Schletter and the Music for DRAWN TOGETHER, SPONGEBOB, BATTLEBOTS and more

Composer Eban Schletter has scored a large variety of film and television music, from variety shows like THE JENNY McCARTHY SHOW, TENACIOUS D, feature films like DUMB AND DUMBERER: WHEN HAROLD MET LLOYD and 2005’s THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI remake, TV cartoons from SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS and FATHER OF THE PRIDE to DRAWN TOGETHER, and TV reality shows like BATTLEBOTS and YOU DON’T KNOW JACK.

Q: Briefly what if your background and how did you begin scoring films and TV?

Eban Schletter: I’ve always been a bit of a scattered person with too many interests.  From about nine years old through college I made super 8 films, often doing stop motion animation.  When technology made it (barely) doable, I started scoring my own movies.  Also, I played in various bands around town (Bay Area/San Francisco), usually as a drummer.  I juggled that as I continued school, first at U.C. Berkeley thinking I wanted to be a marine biologist, then law school at University Of San Francisco.

One of those bands was started by comedians Laura Milligan and Greg Behrendt.  Eventually they moved to Los Angeles where Laura started a live show called Tantrum which became sort of the hub for what would be called the “alternative comedy” scene.  Laura asked me to provide the music for those shows which, as the scene developed, eventually led to me becoming the music director for MR. SHOW WITH BOB AND DAVID, a critically acclaimed sketch show for HBO.  Fortunately for me, music was often featured prominently on that show and it led to me getting more work. 

“From my experience, the spectrum ranges between what I would call the ‘composer’s dream producer’ to the ‘composer’s nightmare producer.’”

Q: In general, when approaching an animated series and working with the producers to determine your musical approach – what elements are foremost in your mind when coming up with a theme and/or an episode’s musical score?  What is the process, then (again, generically) on developing that score to the finish?

Eban Schletter: For me, no matter what the genre, the broad concept of “storytelling” is my starting point.  What it this story trying to get across?  Is the heart of it based on character, the world created, an underlying message?  Of course, usually it’s a mix of these, though in animation the need to create the world is usually given extra weight.  Anyway, that’s always the theoretical starting point.  Then, once applying music to picture, technical, or other needs may dictate exceptions to any rules I may have made for myself.  For example, sometimes a scene just needs a sense of pacing and nothing more.

As for working with producers, it really becomes a function of the personalities of the producers and you have to adapt yourself to that.  From my experience, the spectrum ranges between what I would call the “composer’s dream producer” to the “composer’s nightmare producer.”  With the “dream producer” you discuss musical likes, dislikes, goals and specific needs for the score, you get on the same page.  From there they trust you to do what you do.  There are actually two kinds of “nightmare producer” – the easy kind and the difficult kind.  The easy kind does a temp score and demands that you get as close to it without infringing copyright as possible.  Nightmarish because you are given no creative voice whatsoever, but easy because at least it is clear what to do.  The difficult kind is the one who has some vague idea of what they want, can’t really communicate it, and yet they don’t want to step back and see how your approach may be right so you end up in an ESP-guessing game.  This makes for situations where you score the same scene ten totally different ways and they eventually, almost always begrudgingly, choose one.

Now, I do have to make an exception with parodies.  For example, I consider the DRAWN TOGETHER producers (Dave Jeser and Matt Silverstein) to be “dream producers” yet they often required me to imitate temp music.  But in that case, the joke depended on it, which is an entirely different matter.  

Q: You’ve worked on shows from light kids fare like SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS to the action-oriented SUPER ADVENTURE TEAM to the decidedly not-for-kids DRAWN TOGETHER.  From a musical standpoint, how does your approach to scoring these kinds of animated shows differ?

Eban Schletter: When doing something like SUPER ADVENTURE TEAM, which was a parody of the Gerry Anderson “Supermarionation” shows, the first priority was to create that retro-heroic world.  The music itself was like a separate character and there was a consistent pallet of thematic material and style used throughout.

DRAWN TOGETHER had many points of view to deal with.  Fundamentally, it was character driven, and each character had their own “world” to be represented, but then the situations would become direct parodies of everything from THE TERMINATOR to DIRTY DANCING and the score elements would have to follow suit.  And, on top of that was the overall frame story of this being its own reality show with its own theme and style.  It was quite a musical juggling act.

SPONGEBOB is also more character motivated.  On that show, music comes from a variety of sources including library tracks and various composers, tracks from The Blue Hawaiians and others.   In fact, my involvement has, for the most part, been limited to songs, as opposed to scoring.  The point of view really comes more from the musical taste of the producers rather than a single music director/composer.  Given the variety of music sources, tonal consistency isn’t the priority.  The common denominator is a general sense of frenetic whimsy – either within the tracks themselves of via juxtaposition. To me, this scattered approach works well on that show as it is organic to the character of SpongeBob.  

Q: On DRAWN TOGETHER, which mixes zany cartoon humor with very adult satire and parody, what’s your technique in deciding, developing, and recording an episode’s score? 

Eban Schletter: The situations often made it clear what approach to take.  For example, in the TERMINATOR episode, when they did their version of the attack on the police station it was pretty obvious to score that in a “terminator-ish” mode.  In less obvious cases, it would be a matter of deciding whether the cue should arise from the character’s world (i.e. a Disney-ish cue for the princess being upset) as opposed to the DRAWN TOGETHER reality show worlds (i.e. a modern dramatic tension bed for the princess being upset).  Some episodes were handed off to me and I made these decisions on my own, and only a few times was asked to make a change.  Often we would be able to do a spotting session and watch the episode through and agree on these decisions before I dove into it.  It really depended on scheduling show to show. 

Q: What influences have you drawn from when scoring episodes of DRAWN TOGETHER?

Eban Schletter: When in the direct film parody mode, the scoring on DRAWN TOGETHER allowed me tap into the “film/TV score nerd” side of my personality.  It also tapped into my legal background.  My approach to the imitation involved in parody is quite conservative.  I do not like to do the kind of thing where you simply change a note or two.  Legally, there is no rule on how many notes you can take before it is infringement – it’s always a case by case thing.  But there is one thing that IS legally clear – a certain sound is not copyrightable, unless it is literally the exact sound (i.e. sampled).  So, if you are able to play with your amplifier and get that exact James Bond guitar tone it’s not a copyright infringement unless you then play that riff.  So I like to go with the “same album, different song” approach as much as is possible.  Get the elements of the arrangement as authentic and close as possible to what is being imitated, but then make the actual underlying composition significantly different.  This can be very difficult sometimes as the original reference point can be lost, and thus the joke lost, but I try to strike the right balance, making it a send up not a rip off.  One of my favorite examples of a successful use of this approach is what Neil Innes did with THE RUTLES.

“With the DRAWN TOGETHER songs, I enjoyed tapping into a completely juvenile, silly, idiotic mindset.  It was nostalgic of my old punk days in that respect.” 

Q: When the script calls for a song to be sung by one of the characters, how is that written and recorded?

Eban Schletter: In most cases, I am given a script with lyrics and write the music based on that.  I create a demo in my studio with a scratch vocal where I sing all the parts.  Once approved that demo is given to the voice talent for them to get familiar with it and they record their part at a session when they are doing other voiceover for the show – that takes place outside of my studio.  Sometimes, my “scratch” vocal ends up being the real vocal, as was the case with the “Ling Ling Battle Song” on DRAWN TOGETHER, “Twinkle Twinkle Patrick Star” on SPONGEBOB and others.

The musical arrangement is then finalized and recorded at my studio.  Given the low budgets of most shows, I generally end up playing most instruments myself, and trying to keep arrangements leaning toward things I can play.  Wherever possible I bring in players, generally for horns and strings.

In the case of DRAWN TOGETHER, early on they needed a song that would play during a chase montage.  They knew they wanted it to be like one of those JOSIE AND THE PUSSYCATS songs, and left it up to me.  Given the chase involved a monster vagina, I wrote a song called “La la la labia.”  From then on they let me write lyrics to songs, with them punching them up on occasion. 

With the DRAWN TOGETHER songs, I enjoyed tapping into a completely juvenile, silly, idiotic mindset.  It was nostalgic of my old punk days in that respect.  Often, I knew that we would only hear the first verse of a song, but I would record it as a longer version anyway and make the lyrics of the latter sections utterly un-airable for TV just to make Matt and Dave laugh.  You can hear that happening on the songs “Lady Luck” and “Sunshine” on the CD that just came out (sorry for an inadvertent plug).

Q: You also scored David Lee Fisher’s remake of the silent classic, THE CABINET OF CALIGARI.  How would you describe your musical approach and how it developed?  How did the original influence your score?

Eban Schletter: David Fisher, for me, is the prime example of the “composers dream” producer/director.   First of all, you have to hand it to David for having an imagination – not just the kind that deals with his imagery and framing, but the kind that allowed him to pick me as a composer based on my work on MR. SHOW.  Most directors in his position wouldn’t even consider using a “comedy composer.”   He played me lots of music he liked – lots of industrial music, some score music – none of it was appropriate for CALIGARI but what he would do was point out some little thing that he loved: “hear that weird sound in the background?  That’s really creepy” – that sort of thing.  We discussed the silent film, the characters, the dream-like mindset.  I made a few demos before he started shooting and found a direction he liked.  Then, I was given an almost totally locked cut of the film with no temp music and set free to have my way with it.   

I had seen the original with an electronic score which I thought was OK, and also with the score by Timothy Brock which I thought was really great.  But after my first meeting with David, I didn’t refer to either of those as I wanted to have my own approach unfiltered. 

What I tried to do was create a sonic insanity which was still rooted in a “classic film” world.  I wanted a melodic theme that reflected the mental struggle of the main character, Francis. The melody would rise, then fall, then rise again, only to fall again.  My thought was how in life sometimes you feel you are moving two steps forward, then three steps back.  This was to highlight the deep yearning Francis was consumed with.  On top of that, I wanted to create a layer of disturbed voices and sounds – an unnerving sonic shroud over which the melody could ride, or which could simply take over when appropriate - wafting through this bizarre world and echoing in Francis’ mind. 

I also wanted the score to be as organic as possible, so I recorded a string quartet called “The Section,” and layered them four times over at times to create a large string section on an extremely low budget.  In addition I played bass clarinet myself as well as some screechy er-hu and violin for added effects.

Q: You were one of several composers on FATHER OF THE PRIDE.  How were the scoring assignments handed out on this show - and was there any attempt to maintain a similarity of scoring approaches between the different composers?  What was YOUR approach at providing music for this series?

Eban Schletter: This job came to me through Mark Rivers who had done the MR. SHOW theme.  When he moved to Los Angeles he was pursuing comedy writing and songwriting.  I suggested he get into TV music and he has done very well with it.  

Mark had done the arrangement of “Viva Las Vegas” for the FATHER OF THE PRIDE show open and was hired to score the show as well.  At the time, he did not have his own studio set up and was not fully comfortable dealing with underscore, so he pulled in John Dragonetti and myself to help.  We would have these fun group spotting sessions with the producers where we’d divvy up the cues to be done.  Generally, Mark and John took care of the more pop oriented transition cues – Mark basically developed the main musical point of view for the show, then he and John executed that throughout the episodes while I took on the “underscore” cues which often strayed from the main palate.   We realized that the fun, quirky pop style Mark had come up with could not be effectively imposed on cues that were meant to enhance, say, tension filled or melodramatic moments, so it was a matter of finding an “attitude” in the scoring that came from the same mindset. 

That was the last show Mark needed help on, and he probably didn’t even really need it (except for the technical set up).  It was a big budget show and I think he preferred to make it a bit less stressful on himself.  Soon after, he got his studio set up happening and went on to do great music for MORAL OREL and other shows.  I guess technically I helped with MORAL OREL in that I took over for him in the last season when he got a job writing for Demetri Martin in New York.

Q: BATTLEBOTS was a show that should be on forever.  What kind of musical needs were required to amp-up the drama to epic levels during the bot competitions?

Eban Schletter: Boy, I wish this show was still on!  My daughter just discovered the “Mouser Mecha-Catbot” single I had done and we’ve watched some of it on YouTube.  She would have loved to be able to go to one of the tapings – seeing those fights live was amazing.  Anyway – this was a fun show to work on.  Each season I’d start off by making about 15 “fight beds” – banging, clanging, rocking tracks.  There was actually way more “scoring” to picture than you’d think on that show.  I did all the builder profiles and such as if they were short films.  There was a segment that profiled one of the robots in the style of a 50’s B-movie which gave me my first opportunity to use the Theremin on a TV show.

BATTLEBOTS was almost wall to wall music and I even created some of the fundamental sound effects like the countdown (using a vocorder) and end of round buzzer (a keyboard with heavy distortion).

Q: You’ve also scored game shows, variety shows, and reality shows – what are the challenges of providing music for this species of entertainment?

Eban Schletter: Game shows can be rather simple.  I did several for Comedy Central and MTV (VS., WEB RIOT, KIDNAPPED etc) where I would basically create a library for the show:  theme, bumpers, lightning round, tension bed, sometimes sound effects, all within a week or two, then they’d take those tracks and knock out 60 episodes.  The very short lived YOU DON’T KNOW JACK, hosted by Paul Reubens for ABC, was an exception as every episode had any number of different elements and jokes thrown in and it was nearly wall to wall music, or “musical” sound effects.  At one point ninjas came in and he fought them off to high paced action scoring.  Not usual fare for a game show – and a lot more work!

Variety shows generally require a similar package of theme, bumpers, and the like, but then there are more traditional music director functions like making arrangements for a band to perform covers and such.  Sometimes scoring sketches and the like. 

Reality shows I’ve done I pretty much treated like I was scoring a film, but with a different stylistic approach.  I would play to the moments and enhance the drama or comedy as best I could.  After a number of episodes are done in that manner, you end up with a sort of library of cues you can start pulling from.

"A true respect for what an original score has to offer is increasingly rare.  The modern approach to a film is to DJ it, as opposed to score it.”

Q: You’ve clearly found a productive niche in media music – what do you see for the future?  Are there any other areas of music for television and films you would like to explore?  Where would you like to be in another five years?

Eban Schletter: While TV has been my main bread and butter, I would love to do more feature film work.  Unfortunately I find that the general filmmaking sensibility has strayed very far from the sensibilities I find most rewarding in film scoring as a listener and as a composer.  Of course that is a broad generalization, but there is truth in it.   Directors like David Fisher are rare.  In fact, a true respect for what an original score has to offer is increasingly rare.  To me, the modern approach to a film is to DJ it, as opposed to score it.  Of course there are some examples of this DJing approach working incredibly well – 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and GOODFELLAS come to mind.  But, not everyone is a Kubrick or a Scorsese.  This DJing approach tends to neuter the creative voice of the composer, often to the detriment of the film in my opinion.  As much as I love scoring films, I’ve become very selective with what projects I take on.  The most interesting ones tend to be lower budget indie films.   (I love weird art-house movies!)  But, if I’m looking at a low budget paired with a director/producer who is tending toward the “nightmare” end of the spectrum, I find it’s not worth it. 

In the meantime, over the last few years I’ve been pursuing my own album projects more seriously.  While I had been making records on the side for a long time, I decided two years ago to put my own music more on the front burner.  I signed with a label, Oglio Records, and did a concept album, “Witching Hour”, which I also put up as a live show (and plan to do again this Halloween).  I got lots of my talented friends to perform the songs with me:  Grant-Lee Phillips, Jill Sobule, Dave Foley, Paul F. Tompkins, Tom Kenny, Samm Levine and others.  It was great fun and I’m developing it into a film project as well.  I also got more serious about my Theremin playing and last year put out another concept album, “Cosmic Christmas”, which featured Theremin renditions of holiday classics and some original material telling a story of a lost military satellite encountering a cloud of Christmas Spirit.  I did a planetarium show with that which was great fun, I will develop it further this year.

In five years I hope to have found a larger audience for these projects and there’s more where they came from (no more holiday themes though) which I’d like to pursue. 

For more information on Eban Schletter, see: www.myspace.com/ebanschletter

New Soundtrax in Review

I hope to get Soundtrax back onto a bi-weekly schedule soon; the last few columns have been more sporadic due to a major book project I am finishing up.  More details on that soon.  - rdl

Walt Disney Records will release the original soundtrack for Jerry Bruckheimer Films’ PRINCE OF PERSIA: THE SANDS OF TIME on May 25, 2010.  The music, composed by Harry Gregson-Williams, features an epic, romantic sweeping original score, with an end credit song performed by Alanis Morissette (“I Remain”).  For his score, which was recorded at the historic Abbey Road in London, Gregson-Williams utilized a broad sonic spectrum including a 77-piece orchestra, a choir of 32 vocalists as well as a variety of ethnic instruments.  The score attains an effective textural sound build on the kind of rhythmic melodic flavoring and cadence over driving violins and drums that will be recognized by those familiar with Gregson-Williams’ Media-Ventures background, but gives the film a likeable Arabian-Knights sensibility.  It’s a characteristic score but one that is rich in passion and texture.  His main theme is engaging although remains somewhat encased in its rhythmic structure; it builds its strongest interpretation in the action cue “The Passages,” third track from the end; the score concludes, in “Destiny,” with an eloquent, tantalizing reprisal of the main theme under choir. 

James Newton Howard’s music for NANNY McPHEE & THE BIG BANG, sequel to the first NANNY McPHEE movie (2006; scored by Patrick Doyle), is an enchanting and often epic fantasy score.  Released on CD in Europe and on American iTunes by Varese Sarabande (a CD will follow in August), the score ever so slightly resembles a Harry Potter score with its intricate, magical flavorings and soaring melodies.  The score is very likable although it takes a while to get going, roughly half of the first two thirds of the album consist of incidental, meandering cues accompanying furtive actions on the part of the kids, but the final five tracks are solidly engaging as the film reaches its conclusion and Howard dazzles us with full orchestra and choir as magic takes front stage and Saves The Day.  Howard doesn’t reference Doyle’s score for the first NANNY McPHEE in any way, although it had a similar orchestra and choir sensibility, but concocts an uneven but ultimately very lively and likable light fantasy score for the second.

La-La Land Records has released Joseph LoDuca’s soundtrack to the TNT television series, LEVERAGE.   The feisty show, with debuted in 2008, is about a crew of high-tech crooks attempt to steal from wealthy criminals and corrupt businessmen.  LoDuca’s music is predominantly inflected with funky jazz ala Schifrin and Quincy Jones which give it a modernistic, edgy vibe suitable to the corporate cons and high-tech capers that the series revolves around, but there’s much more to the LEVERAGE score than that.  A wide variety of musical forms from funky jazz to world-beat, Irisih tunes, poignant orchestral soliloquys occupy the show’s musical sensibility, making the LEVERAGE is a very favorable listen, featuring 33 score tracks from the show’s first two seasons.  Tracks like “Inside Job,” “Diamond Heist,” and “Elevator Bomb” seethe with cool jazzy rhythms, while the straight-ahead rhythm section rock of “Viva Vegas” embodies an exciting sonic verve, and “Count To Three” assumes a straightforward rock instrumental tonality; “Emergency Landing” assumes a staccato electronica urgency and import.  “Zagreb,” “Mumbai International,” and a few other cues fit the show’s international setting with a compelling ethnic sensibility, the provocative “Losing Underpants” is a sultry keyboard riffing on Hammond organ, rhythm section, and vibes, while “Surprise,” “Magical Soil,” and “Nate Comes Clean” provide a pleasing, orchestral expressiveness.  This is a much more contemporary techno LoDuca that we saw in XENA and HERCULES and THE LIBRARIAN, and it’s quite an intriguing listen.  Two songs are included on the album, Andy Lange’s “Not Sure Yet” and LoDuca’s own Pogues/Flogging Molly/Tossers styled Irish rocker, “Can’t Go Home Again” (the instrumental track “Wanna Bet” answers the song with an Irish reel backed by electric guitars).  La-La Land’s package includes notes from the composer as well as from several of the show’s producers and directors.

Another edgy 2008 TV series to find itself with a soundtrack is FRINGE, about an FBI "Fringe Division" team based in Boston that uses unorthodox "fringe" science and FBI investigative techniques to investigate "the Pattern", a series of unexplained, often ghastly occurrences.  The score has been released by Varese Sarabande with two dozen tracks assimilated from the show’s first season attributed to Michael Giacchino (including theme), Chad Seiter, and Chris Tilton, with a delicate piano main theme attributed to creator/producer J. J. Abrams.  Giacchino provides a dark sonority and a compelling rhythmic thrust to the episode scores, much in keeping with his approach to scoring Abrams’ LOST and ALIAS.  This scores are fluid with intercut  and compelling rhythms, kind of an X-FILES light, contrasting the harsher dark material with a lighter but non-melodic motif riffing, since this show didn’t have the kind of overt beasties’ its earlier cousin did.  The score embodies some striking past paced riffs which keep it fairly interesting and moving forward.

Spanish composer Fernando Velázquez’s score for SHIVER (2008; Eskalofrío) is a tremolo treasure of spooky sonorities and aggressive rhythms.  Released digitally and on CD by MovieScore Media, the score, like Velázquez’s earlier score for THE ORPHANAGE (2007; El Orfanato) is one of moody atmospheres and assertive rhythms.  The film is about a photosensitive young high school student who, like the kids in Alejandro Amenábar’s THE OTHERS, has a serious physical reaction to sunlight; when he moves with his single mom to an isolated mountain village, strange events and strange inhabitants reveal themselves.  The score opens with the brightly lit “Sunrise,” orchestral measures ascending with the glowing orb of our nearest star, but the tone soon dims as Velázquez identifies the boy’s condition with dark, tonal shards and sizzling textures, delineating a shadowy world mostly devoid of light in the first handful of cues, as in the terminator contrast between sunrise and sunset (here, between homey warmth and anxious panic) found in “Not a Place Where You Should Be Alone;” whereas “A Place Where the Sun Cannot Burn” captures a pleasing, joyful melody, encapsulating the mountain village with grandeur and hopefulness, a mood which unfortunately proves to have its own side effects, and which Velázquez captures with unsettling arrays of musical textures, tonalities, and motivic fragments that keep the viewer/listener deliciously on edge. The title track, “Shiver,” is a splendidly compelling progressive rhythm of melodic piano notes over a rhythmic bed of violins and piping winds.  A reprise of “Sunrise,” which segues into “So You Think I'm a Murderer Too?” distorts the pleasing sunrise motif introduced earlier with a disturbance of electronics and morose orchestral patterns that emphasizes the reaction the boy had to both sunrise and accusation.  “The Murder” captures a provocative, almost Herrmennesque orchestral intensity in its relentless violin lines bolstered by brass and drums; while “No… Not Yet” proffers a sweet, melodic respite from the former violence (until it queasily changes direction for the scene’s “Not Yet” twist).  “Finale” provides a nearly 6-minute concluding suite of the score’s primary elements, and would make for a terrific concert piece, concluding the album with a splendid climax.

Another notable Spanish score released from Moviescore Media is Zacarias M. de la Riva’s HIERRIO, a 2009 mystery thriller about a distraught woman who believes she saw her missing son in a traveling caravan and ventures off road to find him.  Like his music for IMAGO MORTIS (reviewed in my 7/18/08 column), which bowled me over with its compelling mix of orchestra, samples, and choir (for which the composer was nominated for an IFMCA Award), de la Riva provides “a dark journey where dissonant writing (inspired by Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki’s avant garde music) meets stirringly captivating suspense and action music that recalls the music of soundtrack masters Bernard Herrmann and Jerry Goldsmith and beautiful, reflective solo piano music,” as stated in MSM’s press release.  The music is nicely performed by The Kiev Symphony Orchestra and Chorus.  De la Riva has assumed the elegant mysterioso of classic Bernard Herrmann and infused it with contemporary synth-and-sample and choral textures and created a compelling and provocative score that attains an intriguing breadth of orchestration.  The score’s cues are often shifting shapes and tonalities, as with “Diego,” which begins as a sublime melody for orchestra and choir but then dissolves into sharp angles of synth and undulating brass chord progressions over piercing reflections of synths that create a striking sense of curiosity and unease.  The cue segues into the next one, “Requiem for a Caravan” with its layered groupings of choir creating a terraced landscape of choral ambience.  “German Woman” is constructed of an elegant misterioso for VERTIGO-like arpeggios of strings and the howling menace of horns over an underlying flitting base of synth.  As remarkable a composition as IMAGO MORTIS, the score is accessibly melodic yet with a thick texture of musical sound design.  “Wake Up and Remember” starts out desultorily but merges into a serene performance for piano over string quartet that exudes a blissful epiphany of revelation one can’t help but be affected even without seeing the film.

When I first got into film music, decades ago, I never thought I would ever see the day when I could buy actual soundtrack albums from the cheesy 1950’s era sci-fi horror films I grew up watching on television. But now, thanks to intrepid visionaries like Marco Polo, Naxos, Monstrous Movie Music, Starlog Records, early Varese Sarabande, Percepto, and the like, I actually have shelves filled with the music from classic Universal monster and outer space films from the golden age of science fiction monsters of yesteryear.  Bruce Kimmel’s Kritzerland label has provided one of the archetypal cheesy sci-fi scores with Albert Glasser’s EARTH VS. THE SPIDER (1958), one of the many scores this maestro of monster music concocted for b-movie monster maven, Bert I. Gordon.  With 15 delicious tracks of furry, eight-legged fury, Kritzerland has done Glasser and Gordon well with this limited release, already sold out on the label’s web site but available elsewhere if you hurry or search.  EARTH VS. THE SPIDER “is Glasser at his best,” Kimmel aptly asserts in his album notes.  “It’s just a perfect genre score, beginning with his grand main title, complete with its wailing Theremin.  His music pulses through most of the film, propelling it from one scene to the next with suspense music, chase music, mutant spider music…”  Glasser’s music is solid and ferocious, with surging brass chords rendering an extreme magnitude of importance to the efforts of the sheriff’s party when they search the cave for the giant arachnid, with sizzling cymbals and the silken sounds of Dr. Samuel Hoffman’s Theremin building a delicious anticipation, merging with the spider’s screams (yes: screams) when it scuttles out of the cavern’s shadows.  Later, when high school couple Mike and Carol, return to the cave after the spider’s seeming eradication, a tangible throbbing tone of low brass and quiet timpani signifies the danger the unsuspecting couple are in as we know the spider is heading home.  The score in all its monstrous measures is boundlessly bombastic, a treasure of everything that’s best in 1950’s monster music comprised into a rich web of arachnid aggression and human helplessness, until the spider meets its ultimate doom and Glasser’s score assures us that, once again, just as we have survived colossal men, world-ending giant grasshoppers, cyclopean creatures, and puppet people, we are safe from tremendous tarantulas as well.  Until the next movie, at any rate.

From his initial efforts serving as an uncredited orchestrator on seemingly every big Hollywood blockbuster since JURASSIC PARK (including all three of the STAR WARS first trilogy scores) up to providing additional music to this year’s WOLFMAN, Conrad Pope has had an array of film musical experience with which to draw from in his own film scores, of which he’s composed just over a dozen since 1992.   While they may not be the blockbuster films for which he’s orchestrated, Pope has invested these smaller, more intimate films with the same sense of musical verisimilitude that you’ll find in any of those big film scores.  His latest, Allen Wolf’s intriguing 2009 drama, IN MY SLEEP, about a man who suffers from parasomnia, a rare sleep disorder that causes him to do unremembered things while sleeping, and who suspects he may commit murders in his nightmares, builds an unpredictable psychological portrait of the man, augmenting his nightmares and his self-doubts even while washing him in sympathetic melodic colors.  Released by MovieScore Media, the score favors piano as a dominant instrument, backed by orchestra and very subtle electronic timbres.  A recurring action motif, heard from somewhat staccato percussive violins and burbling vibes in cues like “Police Search,” “Awkward Date,” “Justin’s Plea,” and others builds a compelling sound pattern that keeps the score, and its movie, moving continually forward.  The wind-rushing, pipe-flailing dissonance of “Second Nightmare” secretes a potent brooding atmosphere of disturbance, while the energetic string writing in “Triangle Park” is both claustrophobic and alluring.  There’s a constant thread of tension that runs throughout the score, reinforcing the essential mystery of the story, often contrasted against the dominating pretty piano melody.  It’s a score constantly in motion – seemingly in contradiction to the film’s title but reflective of the activity that is ongoing even during the protagonists supposed moments of rest, until the final few cues that accompany the story’s final moments of sublime poignancy.  This is a marvelous and constantly interesting score; even the recurring presence of Pope’s action motif is delineated in enough variations or threaded through other moments of appearance and dissolution that every cue seems to have something new to offer.  An End Title song by the band Damesviolet concludes the album with an appealing vigor.

John Rowley has composed an engaging soundtrack for the 2009 super-hero comedy-fantasy film, DEFENDOR [sic], released recently by Lakeshore.  The story has to do with a troubled everyday joe who imagines he’s a superhero and wanders off in costume to do good every night, and the psychologist who tries to help him.  Rowley, who’s scored some half dozen films since WEIRDSVILLE (2007) and served as music supervisor on nearly twenty more, has provided a neat score merging rhythmic-based sampled orchestral measures with elements of Italian Western whistling and some compelling piano figures over layered string patterns, building a sympathetic portrait of the would-be super hero.  The high whistling notes also recall Mark Snow’s music for THE X-FILES in their timbre and lofty sustainment which seems to fit the tone as well (especially notable in “Captain Industry” and “Guns Are For Cowards,” although the cue soon segues to a suspenseful layered ambiance).  Rowley’s main theme, which runs throughout many of the tracks, is a likeable super-hero theme but remains grounded enough to give the protagonist a real world psychology. It’s a pleasing score that provides a vivid flavor to the imaginings of the protagonist.

The latest soundtrack release of Korean composer Byeongwoo Lee (THE HOST) is for the 2009 effects-laden disaster film, TIDAL WAVE (aka Haeundae), released in Korea on the CJ Entertainment label and available via amazon and elsewhere.  Lee scored the film with powerful inflections of brass and orchestra that accompany the surging tsunami, while softer measures of strings and piano are associated with the characters as we get to know them.  When the earth quakes and the tidal wave rolls into its inevitable, increasing velocity, Lee’s music adopts a fatalistic, sorrowful cadence, acquiescing to the disaster’s inevitability yet resolute in its determination to hold fast in the disaster’s wake, as we return to the characters as they find themselves trapped harm’s way as the enormous wall of water rushes in.  And then the urgency returns and the brass and drums thunder as protagonists and populace alike flee in a hopeless race for high ground; Lee’s music supports the enormous prowess of the onrushing tidal wave, giving it a malevolent character of incredulous power and unstoppable progression, while at the same time delineating the human quotient with bold strokes that capture brief moments of intimacy, heartache, and resolve.  A choral lament near the end serves as a tender requiem for submerged humanity.  There are also some pop source tunes that are heard during the pre-disaster portion of the story.   HAEUNDAE is not nearly as melodically or dramatically provocative as his striking score for THE HOST (it’s a bit slower and subtler in its elegant orchestral measures) but it has enough intriguing moments of surging rhythm and illustrative power to make it an impressive listen on cd.

Intrada has released Vince DiCola’s score to ROCKY IV (1985), the only ROCKY movie not scored by Bill Conti.  When Conti, who had defined the orchestral ROCKY sound in the first three pictures, proved not to be available (he was busy composing the KARATE KID movies), long-time session player DiCola got his film scoring debut on ROCKY IV just as the film itself shifted direction, influenced by the glossy style and fast-paced editing of music videos that were becoming popular on MTV.  DiCola, after providing a stirring rendition of Conti’s Rocky Theme for the main titles, replaced the former orchestra-heavy tonality with a synth-laden pop-rock sensibility that interfaced with a slew of rock songs while meeting the film’s techno sensibility.  Issued on CD for the first time on CD (the 1985 CD on Scotti Bros was a soundtrack album with only two short cues from DiCola’s underscore), Intrada has preserved a likable and affecting score from oblivion.  From playful cues like the synth-dappled “Paulie’s Robot” to the harsh percussive electronica of the villain’s theme in “Drago Suite,” a pretty love theme for strings and piano in “Anniversary” to the inevitable anthemic “Training Montage” and its follow-ups, “Up the Mountain” for “Victory,”  DiCola serves up a potent and effective score that launched DiCola on a short-lived but memorable scoring career (he also wrote the rock-styled heroic theme for the animated TRANSFORMERS: THE MOVIE, 1986, which also featured a mix of 1980s power rock performed by various then-popular bands, and scored the 2004 indie actioner, SCI-FIGHTER). On ROCKY VI, DiCola pioneered the use of the sequencing capabilities of the Fairlight Computerized Musical Instrument (CMI), while laying down the meaty sound of Moog, Emu, and Oberheim modular synths, which come together nicely over rock beat for a reprisal of DiCola’s main theme in “War.”  Daniel Schweiger provides the album notes and a solid background with which to enjoy the album.

A 2-CD soundtrack of music from the long-running daytime soap opera, DAYS OF OUR LIVES (1965-now), may seem like an unusual choice for La-La Land Records to release, in the midst of their released of modern and vintage dramatic film and television scoring, but in fact the soap opera generated some very intriguing pieces of music, as the album quickly points out with its main theme and opening music rich of orchestral and choral intrigue.  Series composers Ken Corday and D. Brent Nelson, who produced the soundtrack release for La-La Land, have nicely organized the music between the two discs, the primary themes and variations for characters and situations, and the show’s main theme, appear in various guises on disc 1, while disc 2 has been assembled and mixed into six interconnected musical storylines following various arcs of the show, with the prettier music appearing in straightforward form on the former and more dramatic, action oriented material occupying the latter.  The music is lush and glamorous, like the show itself, and this release is an excellent gallery of what the show and its composers have to offer, musically.  Non-watchers such as myself will find the music compelling and appealing, fans of the show will be delighted more so by this emotional keepsake.  Album notes from and about both composers provide background into the scores.

The score for the video game, God Of War III, recently released by Sumthing Else, is a mythic, epically powerful composition featuring the work of no less than five notable composers, each of whom worked on the first two game scores, and whose work here continues to congeal nicely into a homogenous whole that remains as vastly exciting on CD as it does in energizing the gameplay.  The game revolves around Olympic gods and the Titans, and their interaction with lesser mortals, who struggle against the arrogant gods in an epic struggle between god and man. Gerard Molina provides the main overture and initial elements that introduce the game’s sound, a huge fusion of orchestra and choir, and he concludes the work with the climactic final declaration of “End of Vengeance” with its oratory of huge choirs and flailing rivulets of strings and bold, brassy statements. The cool thing about game scores like this is that they are, for the most part, all massive blood and thunder, with nothing held back – epic gameplay at your fingertips and monumentally exciting and granite-hewn scores emerging like titans from primordial mists.  God of War is no less, although it has its momentary nuances of finesse and delicacy; but it’s primarily music of stone and sea, steel and lightning.  Jeff Rona’s “Anthem for the Dead” is an intricate choral piece, layered intonations of men’s choir with horns, inbound like thick clouds rapidly obscuring the horizon.  Rona also provides the percussive heavy action piece, “Duel with Hades” and the acoustic, guitar and ethnic flute-laden captivation of “Lure of a Goddess.”  Ron Fish provides elemental motifs associated with Hades and the underworld, massive blocks of melodic and rhythmic orchestration, bolstered by thick drums and mighty muscles.  Mike Reagan has composed a quartet of strong, strident cues, thunderous and sweeping, as in the doomcrying, carven darkness of “Forge of Hephaestus” and the rhythmic torrent of chorale bombast in “Revenge Rising,” or the clank of steel and wood in “In The Face of Fear.”  Finally, Cris Velasco provides some notable battle music for orchestra and choir, as the mighty ballast of low, growling horns and chanting, assured mens’ choir in “Brothers of Blood,” whose brassy instrumental bridge proffers a compelling sonorous interlude.  Velasco’s “Pandora’s Song” is a ponderous but sublime melody allowing female choir to interface with that of the men and the heavy orchestral instruments, accentuated by the sharp pluck of a mandolin in a few spots.  This is a marvelous soundtrack, especially if you like raging orchestra and choir; even without familiarity or interest in the game, this is thunderous music that will engage the listener’s emotions in a vigorous exercise of eloquent fury.

Soundtrack & Music News

Sony Classical will release John Debney’s score to IRON MAN 2 on July 7th.  The greatly promoted songtrack album featuring songs by AC DC has been out for a few weeks already.

Aaron Zigman reunites with director Michael Patrick King to score the sequel SEX AND THE CITY 2. The film stars the original cast from the TV series and opens in theaters on May 27. WaterTower Music will be releasing the soundtrack, including the composer’s song, “Divas and Dunes.”  Zigman is said to have delivered a score that ranges from contemporary orchestral to romantic classical, as well as Middle Eastern motifs with haunting, lilting rhythms to convey the geographical diversity represented in the film.

On May 25th, Tadlow will release a 2-CD set limited collector’s edition release of the complete score for
Maurice Jarre’s MAD MAX: BEYOND THUNDERDOME, including alternative versions and bonus tracks.  Over 2 hours of Jarre’s music for the final movie in the 1979-85 MAD MAX trilogy has been remixed and remastered from the original 24 track recordings, including more than 50 minutes of previously unreleased music.  Tadlow presents the original soundtrack recording as performed by the 100-piece Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by the composer, and featuring 3 Ondes Martenot, 6 pianos, 10 percussion players, 3 anvils, and didgeridoo.  When the score was originally released on LP in 1985 by EMI/Capitol, it contained only 3 tracks by Jarre while favoring songs by singer/actress Tina Turner featured in the film; a 1994 reissue on CD by GNP Crescendo replicated that LP.  Tadlow’s album, a limited edition of 3000 copies, includes the three original album tracks, provides 27 tracks of Jarre’s complete score, and adds 4 bonus tracks of musical effects used in the soundtrack, and a final track, “I Ain’t Captain Walker,” performed by the City of Prague Philharmonic.

Varese Sarabande will release Harry Gregson-Williams score to the fourth green ogre movie, SHREK: FOREVER AFTER, on May 25th.    Albums to ROBIN HOOD (Marc Streitenfeld), MOTHER AND CHILD (Edward Shearmur), PASSCHENDAELE (Jan A.P. Kaczmarek), and OSCAR: THE COLOR OF DESTINY (Diego Navarro) are currently in release, the latter two issued this week.

Kritzerland’s latest world premiere limited edition CD release is the complete soundtrack to Peter Hyam’s debute feature, a buddy cop film named BUSTING (1974), featuring music by Billy Goldenberg.  The composer has been so unfairly absent in soundtrack recordings that any work of his to make it to the laser-light of CD is a boon; BUSTING has the additional advantage of being an excellent score.  In the film, Elliot Gould and Robert Blake are two wise-cracking cops whose personalities are reflected in Goldenberg’s score, which comprises some serious funk, some fun source music, some terrific suspense cues, and some very unorthodox (for the time) orchestrations. “His music fits the film like a glove,” said Kitzerland’s Bruce Kimmel.  “It’s just as sly, irreverent and off-the-cuff as the movie’s sly, irreverent and off-the-cuff protagonists.”  A limited edition of only 1,000 copies, expected to go out of stock fast.  www.kritzerland.com

Austin Wintory’s latest project, the indie-drama A LITTLE HELP starring Jenna Fischer (THE OFFICE) and Chris O’Donnell, will premiere at the Seattle International Film Festival (May 20 – June 16). A LITTLE HELPis written by, and marks the directorial debut of, THE KING OF QUEENS creator Michael J. Weithorn. The film tells the story of a recently widowed, single mother who re-embarks in an affair with her brother-in-law.  Wintory’s music was particularly unique among other projects he has scored because of the multi-faceted role it needed to fulfill. His score needed to seamlessly mesh with the licensed classic rock in the film (one of the main characters is a DJ at a classic rock station), and also stand on its own. In many cases the scenes chosen to be scored were selected based on how different they were, emotionally, from others in the film. Overall, “dramatically and darkly comedic” were the operative words for the score’s direction, arrived at via close collaboration with director Michael Weithorn and producers Joe Gressis and Dena Hysell. Using that direction, combined with the abundance of classic rock elsewhere in the film, electric guitar and electric bass formed the core of Wintory’s palette. “It’s not a rock score, and the cues actually run the gamut from off-kilter waltzes featuring banjo solos, to purely synthesized cues which occupy the subconscious realms of the story,” explained Wintory, who also co-wrote a song for the film called “I’m Lucky” with Céleigh Chapman.

Colosseum Records of Germany has released the score for SCHWERKRAFT with music by Jakob Ilja. It’s the story of a seemingly settled bank employee who breaks the shackles of his everyday life and becomes a wanderer between social boundaries.

Film Music 2009 is the third installment in the new annual “Year Book” concept from Silva Screen. Brought up to date each year, Silva Screen’s repertoire of film music spans a century of scoring achievement. The collection is a snapshot of the best offerings from film music released in 2009, the 11 track collection features A.R. Rahman’s “Latika’s Theme” from Oscar / BAFTA winner SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, Alexandre Desplat’s THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON, James Newton Howard’s painfully sad, violin led “The Exodus” from DEFIANCE and James Horner’s epic ‘War” from AVATAR.  Other highlights include Johan Soderqvist’s “Eli’s Theme” from LET THE RIGHT ONE IN,
Christopher Young’s dazzling “End Credits” from DRAG ME TO HELL, Michael Giacchino’s “Hella Bar Talk / Enterprising Young Men” from STAR TREK, and Carter Burwell’s yearning piece “The Meadow” from TWILIGHT: THE NEW MOON, and more.  Silva Screen also has new several titles uploaded to their digital delivery service.  See: www.silvascreen.co.uk or www.silvascreen.com

The Spanish label, Quartet Records, has released Angelo Francesco Lavagnino’s score to the 1972 drama, HISTORIA DE UNA CHICA SOLA (Story Of A Girl Alone).

The new Music From The Movies website features an extensive set of interviews about the music and sound design behind Oscar-winning THE HURT LOCKER, including director Kathryn Bigelow, composers Marco Beltrami and Buck Sanders, sound designer/editor Paul Ottosson, and virtuoso er-hu solist, Karen Han.  Here’s two examples: “Since it’s not thematic music, but more of a sonic based score with textures and ambiences,” Sanders told interviewer Rudy Koppl, “we reuse those styles a lot because it’s like you’re repeating certain themes for a film that has a variety of themes in the score. There are textures that have a harmonic quality to them, like a chord progression that was based on this rising waterphone sound. So there is really only one theme, but there are sounds and chord progressions that we used throughout the score to give it an identity and some continuity. We never really named these ideas like identifiable themes; we’d just refer to a section from one scene to try it somewhere else because it might work.”
Added Beltrami: “We knew that we wanted to have some sort of ‘distorted perspective’ of the music from the region. One way we thought about doing that first was not by using traditional instruments, but trying to get similar effects by using Russian instruments, like with the piano. We actually started out by using the piano at my house. We had this piece of Plexiglas and we were tapping on the piano in-between the strings to get the sound of an eastern stringed instrument, a sound like a dulcimer. I also used the Plexiglas as a bow and interwoven between the piano strings for a sharp percussive sound. Who knows where a sound comes from; it just had to be appropriate for the film… the whole thing was a subtle manipulation of music to work in the sound environment anyway, so it all seemed to play out.”  Read all four fascinating feature interviews at www.musicfromthemovies.com

On May 25th, Zero Day Releasing will exude THEY WON’T STAY DEAD! Music from the soundtrack of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. Featuring all-new digitally restored audio from original library LPs and reels, this is the most comprehensive music score ever released in any format for the modern horror classic.  Although this same music – the work of Harry Bluestone/Emil Cadkin, Ib Glindemann, Phil Green, George Hormel II, Stan Livingston, William Loose/John Seely, and Spencer Moore – had been used more than a decade earlier in low-budget efforts such as TEENAGERS FROM OUTER SPACE, THE HIDEOUS SUN DEMON and THE KILLER SHREWS, it would become forever known as the soundtrack to NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD.

Alhambra Records of Germany will issue, by month’s end, Angelo Francesco Lavagnino’s classic score to CONTINENTE PERDUTO (The Lost Continent), the 1955 Award-winning documentary film about a missing land bridge between South Asia and Australia. (not a film about dinosaurs and a lost volcanic isle!).

The evocative score to this year’s Academy Award-winning Best Foreign Language Film, Sony Picture Classics’THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES, is now available from Milan Records for digital download through iTunes and Amazon.com and in stores May 25th. The original theme is by Emilio Kauderer and the score is co-composed by Kauderer and Federico Jusid. The music creates a powerful combination with the visuals as it captures the tension and romance of this richly layered film. Emilio Kauderer mixes elements of his South American roots with his European heritage and delivers a unique palette of up-to-date orchestral sounds. From contemporary to classical Kauderer adds passion and heart to today’s music scene. “It was a difficult, fine line between a thriller and a love story,” says Kauderer about his score. “We had to work it out so it doesn’t feel melodramatic yet we needed the intensity.”


Games Music News

From The Independent: “Sir Paul McCartney has one, as do Lou Reed, Lionel Bart and Annie Lennox. They hold a prestigious Ivor Novello Award, Britain's tribute to the finest songwriters the world has seen. This week they will be joined by someone whose music has never been near the charts: the composer of a computer game soundtrack.

“It goes without saying that the bleepy backings to games such as Super Mario stand no chance. Instead, the leading compositions will feature sweeping orchestral strings, stirring choral harmonies and quickening trumpets which bring pathos and excitement to on-screen battles in much the same way they do for films.

“One of those nominated on Thursday is Walter Mair, a 31-year-old composer who lives in London, and who has also worked on Hollywood films such as THE DARK KNIGHT. He scored the soundtrack for Empire: Total War in which gamers can bring opposing armies from different periods in history together.
‘We use the same musicians, the same level of orchestration and the same studios such as Abbey Road as Hollywood films,’ he said. ‘It costs just as much. Even the sound engineers are the same. For a composer it’s not as stressful working on computer games as there are not the big names to deal with.’”

Read the full story at: http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/music/news/composers-of-video-game-music-to-get-their-own-top-award-1974693.html

Tom Salta, one of the most decorated and prolific music composers for multimedia, has produced an original music score for Prince of Persia The Forgotten Sands for the Nintendo Wii™ system. Salta is renowned for crafting memorable, emotionally engaging scores for the medium and delivers a melodic and deeply immersive soundtrack that is essential to the rich gaming experience of Prince of Persia The Forgotten Sands.  Developed by Ubisoft®’s Production Studio in Quebec and built entirely from the ground up, the game is a new chapter in the critically acclaimed Prince of Persia® The Sands of Time series, which introduces players to a brand new storyline complete with new characters, and powers that transcend both nature and time. To fully immerse players in the Prince’s new adventure, Salta composed and produced an intensely atmospheric and intricately woven original music score that captures the essence and spirit of the original game while also supporting the new story and gameplay of Forgotten Sands™ with a contemporary world music aesthetic. The score features performances recorded with globally revered percussionist Bashiri Johnson, dark hypnotic vocals by world music singer Azam Ali and ethereal vocals by international recording artist Judith Bérard, as well as world music and middle-eastern instrumentation such as doubek, kora, khangira, bowhammer cymbalom, lakota slide, walimba, ney, duduk and custom made instruments.

Award-winning composers Inon Zur (Dragon Age: Origins, Prince of Persia) and Rod Abernethy (Rise of the Kasai, The Hobbit) have composed and produced an original score for the innovative massive multiplayer online role playing game (MMORPG), TERA™. The atmospheric and emotionally engaging fantasy compositions written by Abernethy and Zur for TERA were recorded with the acclaimed Northwest Sinfonia Orchestra and feature traditional acoustic guitar, ethnic instrumentation and evocative vocal performances. Currently in development for PC by Bluehole Studio in Seoul, Korea, and published by NHN Corporation, TERA is the world’s first action-MMORPG launching in Korea in Summer 2010.

“The general direction for the music for TERA was to have an original score that sounded grand and to match the large-scale in-game world, mixed with some warm sounding music,” said Mr. An Yong Jin, Audio Director for TERA at Bluehole Studio. “Inon has created world-class quality, epic orchestral music, which is his best attribute; his sweeping symphonic music is outstanding. Rod’s beautiful compositions for TERA span a wide scope of musical styles. His expertly crafted blend of acoustic guitar and orchestral compositions is incredible for enhancing the musical atmosphere and their popular music appeal.”

TERA is an innovative massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) set in a richly imagined fantasy universe.

Randall Larson was for many years senior editor for Soundtrack Magazine, publisher of CinemaScore: The Film Music Journal, and a film music columnist for Cinefantastique magazine.  A specialist on horror film music, he is the author of Musique Fantastique: A Survey of Film Music from the Fantastic Cinema and Music From the House of Hammer.  He now reviews soundtracks for Music from the Movies, Cemetery Dance magazine, and writes for Film Music Magazine and others. For more information, see: www.myspace.com/larsonrdl
Randall can be contacted at soundtraxrdl@aol.com



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