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Soundtrax: Episode 2009-10
August 4th, 2009

By Randall D. Larson

Austin Wintory

Grace Under Pressure:
The Film Music of Austin Wintory

A relative newcomer to film scoring, Austin Wintory has recently composed inventive and wholly different scores for Captain Abu Raed, a sensitive and moving Jordanian film about an airport janitor who makes a difference in the life of a boy in his poor neighborhood; Grace, an unnerving new psychological horror film about a woman who loses her unborn child, but insists on carrying it to term, and the baby is born alive but with a ravenous hunger, for blood, and Knuckle Draggers, a comic but sadly realistic look at how the behaviors of men and women have evolved very little since the caveman times.  Wintory candidly discusses his approach and perspective for each of these scores, and earlier works on his filmography.

Amin Matalqa's Captain Abu Raed just opened to theatres this week; BSX Records is releasing the Abu Raed soundtrack in August.  Paul Solet’s Grace opened at Sundance in January and has been lighting up the festival circuit ever since. A release date has not yet been announced, but the film should be hitting theaters later this year.


Q: What led you into film music?

Austin Wintory: I have a very specific memory of my catalyst.  I started piano lessons completely randomly, as a kid.  I had no musical background.  But my parents decided to try me off on some piano lessons when I was about ten, and my piano teacher Derry O’Leary asked me what kind of music I was interested in?  He was a jazz guy, so he wasn’t automatically into teaching me classical repertoire.  I said I didn’t know.  So he showed me some of his favorite music, and he brought me LPs of Patton, Papillon, and A Patch of Blue.  This was probably my second piano lesson, and I was astonished.  I had the LP of Star Wars but that was just an outgrowth of being a fan of the movie, it was nothing to do with the music on its own; I never even bothered to look to see who wrote it.  At the time, I had never seen of even heard of A Patch of Blue or Papillon, and hadn’t seen Patton, but hearing those three I began to think: wow, people actually do this for a living? 

Q: How did you actually get into the industry?

Austin Wintory: In gradual phases.  What started off as rabid soundtrack collecting grew to become music student.  In high school, for example, I went straight to the orchestra director and said I want to learn to compose and conduct, and so he taught me the basics of conducting, and for four years I would write for my high school orchestra. I was very lucky that someone of my generation learned to orchestrate in front of a real orchestra, as opposed to doing it in front of a sampler and sequencer, and that was a rare blessing among my peers.  I went to NYU and lived in Manhattan for a few years and did a bunch of little indie productions and student films, the kind of things you get to cut your teeth on, and then eventually went to USC and did their graduate program and got to do more advanced small projects.  Then it organically developed from that in a very steady way.

Q: Your score for Captain Abu Raed is a beautifully expressive composition and performance.

Austin Wintory: Well thank you, that means a lot.  When it came to me, I had already done four feature films but this was one where I really felt I had an opportunity to show what I could do, dramatically. Of course, the irony is that it’s really understated, and there’s very little score in the movie.  There’s only about 35 minutes.

Q: How would you describe your thought process as you were getting into Abu Raed and coming up with its score?

Austin Wintory:  I’ve always characterized that film as a modern fairy tale.  The film is a very realistic film which is based on very real and genuine emotions – and not in an overly melodramatic way, although it definitely has some emotionally big and stirring moments.  Generally speaking, though, it’s meant to feel quite real, and yet there’s also this strange fable/fairy tale quality to the film.  Before we started working on it, the director said very clearly: “I do not want a paint-by-numbers Arabic/Hollywood sound.”  We really tried to avoid sounding like Arabia in the film, because that would have been redundant.  You get that on the screen, since the film was made in Jordan and it’s all in Arabic; but it’s not about those things, it’s about these universal themes of a human helping another human in need.  So the Arabic aspects to the score were to be kept at a bare minimum.  Also, the film centers around all these children and the trials in their lives, which are universal issues, they’re dealing with child abuse and with poverty and things like that.  So the idea was also to try and capture that sense of innocence as well.  From the beginning it was to be an orchestral pallet but in a very simplistic way, which translated to string orchestra with a few select woodwind solos, and harp.

Vocalist Lisbeth Scott

Q: And you’ve also used Lisbeth Scott for her amazing vocals…

Austin Wintory:  That was a very last second decision.  I was listening to Jerry Goldsmith in my car – I’m hopelessly addicted to Goldsmith – the opening titles to Sum Of All Fears, which is one of the greatest things he wrote in the last ten years of his life.  It’s an amazing cue, just on its own; it’s stunning as an operatic, haunting moment.  So listening to that I thought, how interesting it would be to have some kind of vocal in Abu Raed for the End Credits.  But I didn’t want something operatic and I didn’t want a song because that would be too emotionally on the nose for this movie.  So I said to Amin, the director: “what do you think of the idea of having some kind of vocal?”  He said “Who would sing it?”  I said “I have no idea!”  So I wrote the End Credits with this vocal line, which was sort of an extension of the thematic material that had been throughout the score.  And then I happened to be listening to Munich, and the solo in there is absolutely one of the most amazing things.  I looked up who it was, and it was Lisbeth Scott.  I knew of Lisbeth’s work, but I didn’t know that she was the same person who had sung in all these different scores.  That blew my mind!  So I happened to talk that day to a friend of mine, another composer named Nate Barr, and he and Lisbeth are close, and I asked him if she might be interested in doing something like this.  I told him about the movie and he said it sounds right up her alley, because she’s very spiritual and she’s all about healing the world, and that was sort of the mentality of the film. So he gave me her phone number and I called her up all nervously.  She was busy working on some cues for Prince Caspian, but she said “well, send me the film and I’ll take a look at it and we’ll see.” So I sent her the DVD and she called me back practically in tears, and said “I have to do this film!”  She wrote lyrics, which the director translated into Arabic and taught back to her, phonetically.  I sent her the vocal line ahead of time and then after we recorded the orchestra I sent her the tracks.  When we showed up to her place to record her part, she said “I came up with my own melodic line, I just want to run past you before we record yours.”  And she sang this unbelievable line that captured the spirit of what we were going for so much better than what I wrote!  We never recorded what I had written.  What you hear in the score is similar – what I had written had been more in contrast with the orchestra, and what she did was just perfect.  I absolutely loved it.  That was a pretty mind blowing experience.

Q: She sings on Grace also, doesn’t she?

Austin Wintory: I’ve now done two other movies with her since Abu Raed; she’s an infinite untapped wellspring of sound and interesting color.  I used her on Grace in a way that was totally different than on Abu Raed.  The film is about a woman who gives birth to a baby that was stillborn, but the baby comes alive, and the film is about the dark path that she goes down, from there.  It’s a very quiet psychological drama/horror film.  So, anyway, there’s a scene where the mother is giving her baby a bath and Paul Solet, the director, wanted her to be singing some kind of lullaby.  He said, “I’m sure there’s a public domain thing we could use, but what if she’s singing something that you write?” and that could then become the main theme of the score.  But they needed it that day since they were about to shoot that scene!  I wrote this bare bones, simple little lullaby, sent it to Lisbeth and she wrote lyrics and recorded the track at home.  We sent it up to the set and Jordon [Ladd] learned it and sang it in the film.  After it was done shooting I went back to Lisbeth and recorded her singing it a whole bunch of different tempos and keys and then treated those as pre-records and took them into the film and manipulated them and did all sorts of creepy things to them.  I let that be a voice within the score, but it was never written out in a specific way.  In fact I told her to sing it as non-professionally as she could, so there are all sorts of “flaws” in her performance but it gives us this raw difference, which is pitted against the really dark and dissonant textures of the rest of the score.

Q: You also pre-recorded music that was to be played on the set during shooting.  How did that come about?

Austin Wintory: I got very lucky on this one.  The director and I have been friends for years, and so he was really eager to do whatever we can do that would be out of the norm. One of those things was having me write a full 20-minute score based entirely on the script with the intention of playing that music back on set for the actors.  The idea behind this was to be able to put them emotionally in the scene so tightly that when we’re later in post production, no score will be needed for those scenes, because they’re capturing it all in their eyes and in their body language and in their faces.  It’s a quiet film, so I wrote a lot of really big, intense, dramatic, and horrifying music, in the hopes of it scaring the crap out of the actors, and giving them a very specific perspective.  I had read the drafts of the scripts for years as the director wrote it and rewrote it and revised it, so I knew the characters better than the actors did.  All of that music otherwise has nothing in common with the eventual score, no cues were re-used from that; the whole pallet of the score changed.  The script score was basically orchestral mock-ups and then the actual score is not orchestral at all.  

Q: With that in mind, then, how did you come up with your eventual approach to scoring the finished film, using this non-orchestral mélange of layered sound textures?

Austin Wintory: It was a combination of hearing the orchestral approach to the script music that felt very conventional, and then realizing the film is not a conventional horror film.  It’s a very slow burn, quiet, just intensely dramatic in a very understated type way.  On top of that, of course the budget was extremely small.  I had a whole bunch of different concepts that I had wanted to explore; for example, I’d always liked the idea of taking the sounds within a film and processing them back into the score, so that there’s a kind of constant subconscious reinforcement of what you’re seeing on the screen in the sound.  So I flew up to the set in Canada and recorded the various sort of creaking, groaning sounds of the house that this was shot in; and then I recorded the lead actress, Jordon Ladd, screaming, breathing, and sighing, just a bunch of little effects like that, and then I embedded them into the textures of the score so that, even when she is not speaking on screen, we would hear her in the color of the sound.  And then I recorded a bunch of baby cries and screams and yells and whimpers.  I processed those and layered ten or fifteen different sounds into one, to create a pallet where sometimes it’s clear and sometimes it’s not.  The rationale behind using the baby was not entirely because the movie is about that, although that’s certainly what gave me the initial idea.  I read once about how we have this biological hard wiring to hear baby cries more clearly than any other sound, and we also have a fundamentally kind of irritated reaction to that which puts us on the defensive, and I thought, how can I use that in the score?  How can I have almost no music going but put in the sound of a baby crying that’s somehow manipulated so that you don’t really realize you’re hearing a baby? This was attractive because it didn’t rely on the same old dissonant, orchestral techniques.  It took a lot of finessing to really make it work, but I think I ended up coming out essentially how I’d hoped, where there’s sections of the film where you don’t even realize you’re hearing score, but you’re filled with this tension and anxiety.

Q: This wasn’t something you were writing down in musical notes, right?  This is something you’ve done all on the keyboard and computer?

Austin Wintory: Yeah, some of them I mapped into my sequencer and I made them into Mach 5 instruments so that I could play them.  Like the baby sounds, I made those into an instrument that I could play.  I like to write out blocks of sound and then sketch out how they’re supposed to be, but for the most part on this one it was all in the computer with the obvious exception of when I would have the musicians come and record, and then I would just hand write out a quick part.  I was really more interested in musical expression and not any specific timings, and so I would just write something out and I would conduct it while watching the film here in the studio.  The big exception of course is that for the end of the film we brought in this ensemble of bass and contrabass clarinets that we recorded at Abbey Road

Q: Does that allow the end of the film have a little more of a sense of relief and triumph?

Austin Wintory: Actually, it’s more the opposite!  The end of the film reaches this crazy, fever pitched climax, and it was a question of what I could do to raise the stakes in the score and really launch the film to that final height without just basically doing everything that I had done thus far louder or more dissonantly.  And so I just started thinking about what kind of new instrumental color I could bring in for just this last 15 or 20 minutes of the film, where things kind of go intensively off the hook.  I remembered this great cue from Interview With A Vampire, where Elliot Goldenthal wrote this contrabass clarinet solo.  It’s very quiet and understated, with this one instrument that’s so much lower than you’re used to hearing.  So, me in my excessiveness, I thought “how cool it would be to have eight of those!”  It was awesome!  It was so much fun to get these guys in a room and have them playing these four-voice chords that are way down at the bottom of the spectrum, and it really adds this new sort of menace to the film in a  way that was not accomplishable with the pallet that I had been using up until that point.

Q: To what extent would you say this score carries over into sound design, if you were to draw a line between the two?

Austin Wintory: It very much blurs the line, absolutely.  In fact I worked very closely with the sound designer on the film, so that we made sure not to make any redundancies.  The sound of the music wound up becoming so central a color to the film that most all of the sound that you hear in the film that you would think is sound design is actually my stuff, although he did tweak things and change things in a few key places that I really liked. I remember at one point, after the birth scene, Madeleine is sitting there holding this dead baby and it’s a haunting, really powerful moment. The sound designer had added in these tinges of whale calls over the music, and it’s so subtle and you don’t even really realize what you’re hearing, but it’s just one of those little things.  It was more like he was contributing to the score than I was contributing to the sound design.  So it was definitely a blurry distinction. 

Q: You did a horror film last year called Live Evil. What can you tell me about that?

Austin Wintory: That’s another film where I worked extensively with Lisbeth.  It’s sort of the exact opposite of Grace in terms of force – the film is sort of like a throwback to an old John Carpenter style vampire movie, and the premise of the film is that vampires are all in a state of civil war with each other, because humanity through drug and alcohol consumption have poisoned their bloodstream, and the blood is not compatible anymore.  They draw the analogy that it’s kind of like trying to run a high-end car on conventional gasoline; you need the high octane stuff, and the vampires need pure blood.  The producer, Mark, really wanted this larger than life, epic score, but of course the budget was basically zero for hiring any musicians, and certainly not a full orchestra.  I wrote over 60 minutes of score and most of it’s big, orchestral stuff, and I had to do all that with samples.  I was trying to find a way to augment the samples and give it some more flavor, because orchestral samples sound good but they’re nothing even remotely within the ballpark of hiring a real orchestra.  Hiring Lisbeth to be at the core of virtually every cue was my solution.  I mapped out the whole film and wrote each cue to fit within the framework of the Latin Requiem Mass, which is certainly nothing that’s not been done before.  I tried to give it a distinctly baroque and neo-classical flair, to add a little bit of that old fashioned Gothic horror quality within the context of an action score that’s really kind of modern.  And that, combined with Lisbeth’s singing in Latin and in German.  It was one of those films where there was no temp music and I was free to do whatever I wanted, so we did a lot of experimenting. 

Q: You scored a documentary called Serpent Of The Sun, Tales Of An Aztec Apprentice.  How would you describe your musical approach to that?

Austin Wintory: That was a really amazing film.  I saw it was my opportunity to do a 2008 version of Under Fire, which is my single favorite Goldsmith score, along with The Wind And The Lion.  It’s 90 minutes of music, so it’s basically a wall-to-wall score, and the score had to be done extremely fast.  The film is about a young kid in Mexico City who ends of crossing paths with a 43rd generation pure Aztec Medicine man, and he goes off on a journey with the kid.  It’s a film that’s meant to have larger themes at play than just a history lesson about the Aztecs.  I loved working on it.

Q: You mentioned you had scored a comedy called Knuckle Draggers.  What challenges did that assignment pose?

Austin Wintory: Knuckle Draggers is like a modern Swingers, a very character and relationship driven comedy/drama.  There’s only about 20 minutes of score because there’s so many songs in the film, but I loved doing it because it’s this hybrid of very ultra-romantic Spanish guitar, played by George Doering, and a bunch of very kind of savage cave-man percussion.  The premise of the film is that we as humans, and specifically men, have not evolved since the cave man days and our outlook on dating is informed by these basic, primal instincts.  The main character, played by Ross McCall, is constantly grappling with this dilemma between trying to be this sweet, nice guy and indulging in these sort of cave-man instincts, where you treat women terribly.  So a lot of it is this very sort of savage percussion combined with this very over-the-top romantic tangoey Spanish guitar. 

Q: You scored a video game called FLOW. How have you adopted your filmmusical approach for the world of games, which are becoming more and more like film scores these days?

Austin Wintory: I’ve thought a lot about the difference between game music and film music.  The biggest creative difference between the two stems from the biggest logistical difference between the two: video game music is interactive and film music if not.  Flow is sort of an extreme example of that because it’s so interactive.  The music, in a way, drives the game play, and the game play experience would be radically different without the music.  The music and the sound design in Flow are one and the same.  I did all the sound – I worked with Sony’s sound team and they really took what I did to the next level in ways I could have never done alone, and for that I am infinitely indebted to them, but all the sound and music started with me, conceived of as one whole.  It took months to find a way to make an emotionally complex experience in which even the slightest amount of input from the player will change the direction, often in subtle ways. 

Music for video games music is becoming a subset of Hollywood, and there are both pros and cons to that.  I like the fact that there’s a new raised expectation as far a production value goes, and that MIDI is no longer considered an acceptable norm, and that recording with a full symphony orchestra is becoming the minimum acceptable level of production.  John Debney wrote his first videogame score to LAIR, for example; the game didn’t do all that well but his score is one of the best, if not the best, produced soundtrack I’ve ever heard in a game.  It’s the most gloriously large and rich and epic sounding game score I’ve ever heard, because they flew to London and had a huge ensemble and really produced the hell out of it.  To me, in terms of just sheer production, it raised the bar for the entire game industry, scoring-wise. Now of course because the game didn’t do well at all, it might be a while before that invest that heavily again!

Q: I’m not a gamer myself but my kids are, and I’ve seen the way that game music has become very much like movie scores.  The difference in technique, for a composer, seems to be that you have to put more thought into it because you’re not just scoring the story, the character, the subtext, the environment, as in a linear film story, but you’ve also got to pre-plan the interaction of the gameplay, and how the music is going to respond to new directions that player is taking it to.

Austin Wintory: If you look at the history of music itself, our modern conceptions of music started in ancient Greece, where it was an accompaniment to storytelling.  Then you had the medieval period, where the most popular surviving music, historically, is sacred music.  During the baroque period it starts to break off and become more secular, but frequently it’s tied to this notion of storytelling, which certainly was true during the classical era and the birth of operas in the modern sense, which had their heyday in the 19th Century, and now film is basically a continuation of that.  Motion pictures are undoubtedly the art form of the 20th Century, and I think that the 21st Century’s leading art form is going to end up being video games.  We’re at just the infancy of that now; truly I think it’s going to be able to transcend and encompass storytelling in a way that no other medium has. 

If you look at all the historical precedent over thousands of years, culminating in film, for music as an accompaniment to storytelling, the idea of interactive music within a non-linear environment has no precedent in all of human history.  Right now, the video game sound is basically the film sound on steroids.  Everything has to be louder and punchier and bigger, and frequently there’s kind of a groove to it and, to me, that’s a symptom of the adolescence of the genre, but it’s going to take on a very sort of serious and individualistic identity that we probably can’t even predict right now.  There’s nowhere to look to imagine where this might go.  But I think as games become more and more accepted and mainstream, you’re going to see a much wider variety of games.  For example, you can go see a romance film like The Notebook – there is no videogame equivalent to that, but I think you’re going to start to see that.  It may not be for another thirty years, but that’s going to be the general trend, and when that happens I think the music is going to follow suit and really take on its own identity the way that film music sounds different than contemporary concert music.

New Soundtrax in Review

With their 2-CD collection of music from television’s Battlestar Galactica: Season 4, our friends at La-La Land Records offer their 100th soundtrack release, and proffer Bear McCreary’s marvelous music from the series’ fourth and final season (see Soundtrax for 2/27/08 for my career-spanning interview with McCreary on his BG and other music).  Perhaps the most profound effect that McCreary’s scoring approach to BG has had is in its abstinence of traditional science fiction music.  The show’s theme and scores have always been very earthbound, very character-driven, and very ethnic in their instrumental flavorings; the science fictionesque elements of Battlestar Galactica are its window dressing, only occasionally intruding into what it’s really about, which are the people who inhabit its world, and it’s these people and their environments that Bear has flavored with the zestiest of musical ingredients, yet elements that fit perfectly with the story or the nuance of character or place that the music happens to accompany at any given moment.  Season 4 reaches the artistic culmination of where Bear has taken that approach, with an aesthetic clarity and syncretistic articulation that is simply astonishing.  The score’s most pervasive sound is, of course, that of the drums, which gives BG it’s earthy and naturalistic texture; voice and ethnic instruments take up the next component aroma of the music’s zesty personality, suitable to the show’s worldly/otherworldly connotations, set not in a time or place of a single ethnicity or people, but a vast and mixed accumulation of species and cultures and endless possibilities; the ethnic approach, while overused in other venues since, was and remains a signature of the BG aesthetic. 

As I see it (or more appropriately, hear it), all four seasons put together, Battlestar Galactica’s music is the television equivalent to what Howard Shore’s expansive Lord of the Rings trilogy did for feature film scoring, it elevated the medium by incorporating a myriad of diverse elements and treatments, it scrupulously avoided tradition and expectation, it cast an objective eye upon the proceedings of its story even while subjectively following the dramatic trails it traversed, and it provided moments of incredible artistry in a medium still unfairly shunned by pure-music devotee academics.

The album is rich in powerful and affecting musical moments.  The light, melodic choir and steel-percussion over a fast wave low ethnic drums of “The Cult of Baltar” building in velocity to a provocative climax.  The poignant uilleann pipes and Irish whistles of “Farewell Apollo” and their sad and respectful folk melody.  The piercing splendor of the violin melody in “Cally Descends” with its spiritual tonality and aching beauty.  The multiple layers of exquisitely expressive violin interaction over drums in the sad “Funeral Pyre.”  The warm serenity of the massed violin and hints of piano “Roslin and Adama Reunited” and the persuasive fragility of the piano performance in “Elegy.”  The sad Celtic folk tune played as the crew toast the “Grand Old Lady” as they are forced to abandon their ship (tenderly reprised in “Heart of the Sun” and “So Much Life”.  The massively powerful growing cadence of “Kara Remembers” and its thunderous drumming and guitar soloing, dissolving into the delicate piano filigree and synth tonalities that close out the cue.  The incandescent choral beauty of “Disapora Oratorio” with its vivid nuances of er-hu, flutes, and drums.  The poignant expressions of sorrow and regret from violin and er-hu in “Caprica City, Before the Fall,” and the twanging, reflective electronica that closes out the cue.  The drum-laden progression and near-spiritual objectivity of “Assault on the Colony” and its timbral inflections of pipes, bansuri and duduk, voice, and elegant string harmonies.  The very cool statement of Stu Phillips’ theme from the original 1978 Battletar Galactica at the end of “The Heart of the Sun.”  The sad piano performance, the blossoming lushness of the strings, and the echoes of past times so beautifully harmonized in the final track, “The Passage of Time.”  This is a profoundly beautiful and affecting score, vastly influential and exceptional in its tone and texture, and remarkably intrinsic in its faculty to match its visual counterparts.

The first CD contains 20 tracks from 15 episodes; the second CD contains the complete score to the series finale, “Daybreak,” including the 15-minute track, “Assault on the Colony.”  The album booklet contains comments and tributes to Bear for his music from dozens of cast and crew members from the show, a note from Bear, and a powerful summation of the influence this score has had on subsequent television scores from the label’s chiefs, Michael Gerhard and Matt Verboys.  Congrats on the 110th.


Lakeshore Records has released the score by Aaron Zigman for the latest battle of the sexes romantic comedy, The Ugly Truth.  Ironically suitable for scoring this film, having just scored the feature film of perhaps the ultimate pop battle of the sexes show, Sex and the City (he also did Bridge to Terabithia, My Sister’s Keeper, and The Notebook), Zigman provides a catchy and enjoyably tuneful approach to The Ugly Truth.  The score is presented on disc via 35 mostly short tracks (averaging about a minute in length; the longest is 2:34) with a total running time of 38 mins, but the style and tone is compatible enough to make for a pleasing listening experience from start to end.  A quirky waltz figure seems to be the score’s primary element, emphasizing solo violin, keyboard, acoustic guitar, electric guitar fills, and light percussion, but there’s a likeable mix of pop rhythms, rock beats, subtle Latin touches, pizzicato, furtive musical glances and smirks, awkward interactions, teasing flirtatious melodies, honest affection, naked weather women, and plenty of musical tongue in cheek to fit the verbal and unspoken exchanges that stymie true communications between man and woman in this cinematic romp.  It’s all fluff, but it’s pleasing and it’s pleasant.


Kritzerland has unearthed a previously unissued are largely unknown Michel Legrand score with their new release of Cops and Robbers, a 1973 comedy about a pair of NYPD cops who supplement their poor wages by planning a huge heist.  As Kritzerland’s Bruce Kimmel puts it in his album notes, “The film as presented basically has very little music that you would consider conventional scoring… it’s film music as source music, as pad, as texture, as part of everyday life.”   Limited to 1000 copies, the score is well-entrenched in the funk style of ‘70s pop filmscoring, and follows the sequence created, presumably, by Legrand for a proposed soundtrack that never appeared, until now.  The Main Title is a mostly spoken-vocal number, acoustic guitar, bass, and drums with a spoken line and a sung chorus, “It’s a world of cops and robbers;” fairly innocuous although it will probably get inside your head and stay there if you listen to it long enough.  Other tracks are rhythm cues that set a mood, dialed way down in the film soundtrack or, as Kimmel notes, appear in the film for only seconds, coming out of somebody’s radio, or were deleted altogether (including a compelling 7-minute jazz track for harmonica, bass, and drums written but never used for the film’s final chase through Central Park; it’s also presented in an alternate version of half the length; the harmonica and bass interaction resembles what Morricone would do in L’ultimo treno della note in 1975).  “The Buyer” is an infectious little vibe for a classical string quartet over a pop melody performed by xylophone backed by bass and drumkit; “Suburbia” is a similarly orchestrated, very pretty and elegant tune, later, harp and then piano take the melody out for a short spin.  “Wall Street,” one of the unused cues, is a captivating little piece for mixed chorus over harp, intoning like a religious chorus piously intoning the glories of capitalism.  There’s a cute Italiana piece for mandolin and cello for “Papa Joe, the Padrone,” the local mafia boss.  The actual heist, as delineated in “The Caper,” is pulled off with the assistance of reverbed xylophone, bass and guitar, saxophone, and jazzy drumkit.  “The Lush Life,” possibly as close to interactive scoring as this one gets, is an accompaniment of, well, lush strings, with melodic interplay from trumpet and (what I believe to be) oboe.  Otherwise, there’s lots of electric bass, Hammond (or similar) organ, guitar, drum kit, piano, and the like.  The score closes with a Disneyesque or Mancinesque choral song, “The Sleep Song,” which even more oddball than the other song.  It’s clearly not a dramatic and wasn’t intended to be at the mandate of the director, but is a very pleasant assortment of jazz-funk-pop instrumentals. 

Guy Gross, best known on our shores for his many years as primary composer for the Sci-Fi Channel series Farscape, is actually a pretty prolific composer in his native Australia, having done some significant features and much television scoring. One of his latest, East West 101, Series 1, has been released to iTunes as a digital download. The show is an award-winning, character-based urban police drama set in Sydney; the first series (aka season) centered around two detectives, one a Muslim and the other an Anglo-Australian, who are pitted against each other in a struggle for respect as they try to balance work with their own cultural and religious beliefs, which results in tension between cultures, egos and workmates (thank you Wikipedia). All of these factors are embraced in Gross’ modern/urban score, and even though the cast is thoroughly multi-racial, the emphasis, at least in Series 1, is clearly on Malik, the Muslim officer. The music follows suit; using sampled Arabic stringed instruments along with a live oud player (Guy described to be the instrumentation thusly: “The only real string instrument on the album is the Oud. The theme features a real one layered with a few sampled ones. The other sampled Arabic stringed instruments are the santur, and the qanun plus a few less featured guitar-like sounds. The sounds I used were a combination of the software sampled based MOTU's Ethno Instrument, Apple's Garage Band World Music Jam Pack, and many self created samples.”

The series’ Main Title, which includes a brief Arabic singing voice, siren and gunfire sound effects to set the sonic stage, is a rapid-fire (no pun intended) rhythm for oud and percussion, clearly relating to the Middle Eastern portion of the story. A longer extended version is also provided. Malik is represented throughout the score by Arabic styled vocalisms and instruments which underline his and culture. Even when Crowley, the white officer, is supported with Western instrumentation, such as the massed strings of the poignant “Crowley’s Despair,” there is an element of the Middle East that impinges upon it, as with the ethnic guitar flavoring that comes in midway through that track. “Drug Crazed Killer” is a terrific progressive track, one of the album’s best; it open with fast ethnic drumming and oud, with added textures provided by strings and R&B guitar riffing, then moves into a steady drum and bass cadence with random oud plucks, then back into the fast-moving material, which really gets moving. The score balances action tracks like that and the “The Train Station” with introspective, subjective cues, evoking the inner character and struggles faced by the cast as opposed to the external actions they are involved in. “Haunted By the Past” is an eloquent rhythm track, while the compelling melody of “Tough Love” is played on a sampled santur, which has a very interesting timbre. “War Crimes,” on the other hand, features harmonica, guitar, low synths, strings, and accordion or harmonium, as well as a female singer who evokes a Middle Eastern styled vocal midway through. It’s a very interesting score with a compelling sonic texture; in the score’s exploration of clashing and merging cultures, it’s as fascinating musically as the show is dramatically.

Bill Brown, known for his prolific and high-intensity scores to video games like the Ghost Recon, Castle Wolfenstein, and Command & Conquer series and his music for five seasons of CSI: NY, has composed a dark and exciting orchestral score for Jason Connery's science fiction/action thriller The Devil's Tomb, starring Cuba Gooding Jr, Ray Winstone and Ron Perlman, about an elite group of soldiers on a covert mission to retrieve a scientist from an underground lab who encounter an ancient evil in the facility.  The rousing score combines orchestral parts recorded in Prague, along with sampled choral elements, pounding rhythm programming, and atmospheric electronics.  Released on CD and digitally by MovieScoreMedia, the score ripples with progressive atmospheres, beginning with a 4:26 overture that introduces Brown’s primary musical elements.  Shifting layers of orchestral sound are enhanced with sheets of synth tonality that drift hauntingly nearer to evoke a mysterious and compelling sonority.  “Sandstorm” is more of a percussive action cue, staunch keyboard notation over electric guitars and driving percussion; you can almost feel the heat and stinging of the sand splitting the skin of your face and arms.   After some rather standard percussive cues for the initial military mission music, the score really gets going when the “ancient evil” makes its wicked presence known, starting in Track 8.  With its haunting textures, exuding reflections from massed choral and synth reverberations, and malevolent sonic mysterioso, “What is That?” instantly and excellently evokes the flavor of Goldsmith’s Alien music, opening into an onrushing blackness charging hugely closer, Brown’s clear toned growling synth tones piercing flesh and his heartbeaten drum cadences sounding out what may well be someone’s final cardiac rhythms.  “Afterbirth” fumes with massive intonations of chorus, while “The Temple” progresses steadily with layered textures and furtive movements into large shifting strata of heavy sound.  Terror is let out of the box most explicitly in “Hallucinations,” as percussive shards of and relentless, string-driven cadences stride viciously through dark, echoing corridors.   Quiet harmonies of cello and choir and varying timbres give “Do You Believe?” its chilling quietude, while “Rumblings” takes on more an attribute of stark thunder with cyclonic swirls of synths and strings, gruesome howls of horns, and soul-hammering pounding drums.  You might not want to listen to this score alone at night.  “Return of the Father” and “God’s Plan” wax more eloquently with brooding and spiritual synth and string atmospheres as the story takes on a haunting metaphysical turn; in “Incantation/Escape,” disturbing whispers and creepy, scuttling electronica textures open into smooth-walled atmospheric chord progressions and finally a headlong flight of panic and hysteria driven by frantic drumming and revolving synth/string and a dazzling slow glissando of sound that rises to a feverous intensity and suddenly dissipates like black vapor.  “Resolution” provides a warm sonority of relief and survival, as the dark horrors depart with the rising light of the theater auditorium.  A potent and likable horror score with moments of fine expressiveness as well as sheer panic.

Cheshire Adventures is a series of short films created by The Cheshire Film Camp, a project created by a community in Venice, California that encourages friendships between people with and without disabilities.  One of several such camps now under the Zeno Mountain Farm located in North America, Cheshire brings together some 40 participants each year to create a short film, culminating in a Hollywood-style premiere screening at a major venue in Los Angeles.  This album, available digitally from the Westwood Music Group on iTunes and amazon.com, contains the music from three of those films, a pirate musical called The Return of the Muskrats, a superhero adventure called Sky Squad Eagle Eight, and a time travel story called Selling The Future: The Adventure of Lenny Maloney.  Film composer Edwin Wendler (Interiors, Home The Horror Story, Wrong Hollywood Number) has provided the music for each of these films; most appear to be synth and sample scores but they are quite eloquent and dramatic in execution.  Muskats includes three songs, lyrics written Will Halby or Ron Simonsen and arranged by Wendler, is, naturally enough, fairly swashbuckling and adventurous for a story about a retired pirate whose lady friend is kidnapped by a rival pirate gang.  Wendler nicely buckles his swash for this score, providing a number of compelling action cues like “The Plank & Rescue” and “Sword Fight” which thunder along percussively while leaving plenty of room for the main theme to rush in and nimbly arc across the soundscape.  The main theme is first introduced in “Out To Sea” and is a gorgeous, seafaring, adventurous melody for synth over a pounding cadence of drums that really gives it a powerful dynamic.  The main theme is dialed down into a graceful piano and synth variant in “A Call to Arms,” which resonates with quiet nobility and worthiness before opening fully into the main theme, driven by synth fifes and horns which generate a powerful and heroic melody.   “Billy’s Quest” and “Eagle Eight” from Sky Squad are likewise very heroically inclined tracks; in fact all three of these films and their scores are unabashedly heroic and appropriately so.  In his melodic writing and powerfully-flavored orchestration, Wendler gives all three scores a superlative tone of teamwork and triumph amidst adversity, which not only is the kind of statement the Cheshire camp wants to make but it also makes the scores very captivating and expressive to listen to regardless of where they came from.   “Hilda’s Prophecy” culminates in a cool rush of ethnic percussion; “Save the World” adds a pop beat and clear synth to the score’s texture, and of course the title track summarizes the score in all of its stalwart glory.  Selling the Future takes a more modernistic tone, with the jazz-like bass, harp, and percussion riffing of “Hard Times,” the breezy rhythm of “Time Travel,” and the worrisome keyboard notation of “Things Have Changed” as poor Lenny realized his trip into the past has irrevocably altered his present; but the synth-choir enhanced culmination of “Fixing Time” and the feel-good wrap-up, “Good Times” clearly set things aright.  A cool pop instrumental by Wendler and guitarist Mike Ator, which is probably more about the Cheshire people than the movie characters, called “Everyday Heroes,” concludes the album very nicely.   It’s a likable score album and a very worthy cause – 100% of the album’s profits are going into funding Cheshire’s next film camp. 

The gamescore for Empire: Total War, despite being the work of four composers (Richard Beddow , Richard Bidsall, Walter Mair, and Simon Ravn), is a quite well integrated and consistent score.  Empire, the fifth installment of the Total War series, is a “turn-based strategy” and “real-time tactics” computer game allowing players to engage in any number of historical land and sea battles of the18th Century.  The game was developed by The Creative Assembly and published by Sega.  The score is extremely cinematic, with sweeping themes, elegant melodies, stirring rhythms, and raging battle constructions.  While library samples were liberally used throughout the game score, they have been sweetened by a live orchestra to “give the music the required depth and breadth,” as composer/soundtrack producer Beddow writes in his album notes.  Performed by the Slovak National Symphony Orchestra in Bratislava, the real symphonic tracks add immeasurably to the scope and feel of the game score.  The game’s primary theme is a graceful and languid melody for strings and horns, rather melancholy and sounding almost like a lament for the existence of war as an inevitable part of existence; out of the melody rises a degree of heroic passion, as if suggesting that even in unfortunate circumstances such as war, character, honor, and heroism can be embraced.  That’s my reading, anyway, based on the elegant tone and emotional flavoring of the track.  The rest of the tracks, until the main theme is reprised in “Empire Credits,” are all action based tracks supporting various gameplay as players either prepare for or engage in various battles. The American Revolutionary War occupies almost half of the cues, but battles in Europe (Battle of Bakhchisaray, Russia, 1935-39; Battle of Azov, Russo-Turkish War, 1768-1774) and Asia (Battle of Panipat, India, 1871) are also gameplay options, and figure in the scoring.  Some minor ethnic flavorings color the European/Asian battle sequences, but the focus is on strenuous action accompaniment (i.e., there are no 1812-ish national anthems, no overt fifes or drums in the American Revolution sequences, although “The American Dream,” which concludes that section of the game and score, does have a touch of respectful Americana; and a subtle presence of Native American flutes and rattles are heard in “The Threat of War” and “The Powhatan Attack”), and in this respect the game score is thoroughly engaging, mostly dynamically orchestral and very melodic based.  It avoids dissonances (that most likely is handled by the game sound designers) but instead proffers a rhythm and melody based symphonic accompaniment to heighten the emotional drama of the battles.  “Victory,” second to last cue, is a kind of reversal of the tonality of “Empire Credits;” while it also harbors a slow and reflective cadence, it carries boldly a feeling of triumph and of having proudly but not boastfully fought the good fight.  The game score is a thoughtful, exhilarating, and completely enthralling compilation of music.

Soundtrack News

On September 8th, Varese Sarabande will release a score soundtrack of Nathan Barr’s music for the popular HBO series, True Blood.  A songtrack album featuring some of the show’s many needle drop songs came out a while back, but contained none of Barr’s acclaimed underscore.   John Frizzell’s music for Whiteout will be issued the same date.

La-La Land Records has released the soundtrack to Cannon Film’s 1986 action/adventure feature film Allan Quatermain And The Lost City Of Gold, the sequel to King Solomon’s Mines, starring Richard Chamberlain, Sharon Stone and James Earl Jones.  The original score by Michael Linn (American Ninja, Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo), presented here, offset against large chunks of Jerry Goldsmith’s music from King Solomon’s Mines imported into the sequel soundtrack, but is a first rate score on its own, never previously issued on record or cd.  Exclusive, in-depth liner notes describe the film and its music. Produced by Ford A. Thaxton. This is a limited edition pressing of 1200 Units.

La-La Land has also announced a Sept 22 release date for Danny Elfman’s music for Taking Woodstock as well as Douglas Pipe’s score for Trick ‘r’ Treat. – via FSM

Naïve Records of France will release Alexandre Desplat’s score for Un Prophète on August 25th.

Intrada’s Special Collection releases for last week were of Miklos Rozsa’s 1979 Hitchcockian mystery thriller, Last Embrace, one of the composer’s last scores – yet just as powerful as anything he did in the 1940s.  Also Intrada has also released two scores by Leigh Harline: a dark noir mystery, Black Widow, and a romantic comedy Good Morning, Miss Dove.  Glad to see more of Harline’s work available on CD, and these two, even if they are mismatched genre-wise, make a fine entry in the composer’s long-delayed discography.  The Harline release, a limited edition of 1,000 copies, is sold out at the label, but is probably available from other online retailers.

FSM has discovered and released a rare score by Jerry Goldsmith and Morton Stevens, from the TV show Cain’s Hundred

Previously available on CD only in Japan (and an abbreviated version of its French LP at that), French composer Jean Prodromidès’ score for the 1960 Jules Vernesian adventure, Le Voyage en ballon (aka Stowaway in the Sky is being released on Sept. 1st as an unabridged (12 tracks), remastered soundtrack CD by Disques Cinémusique of Montreal.  The large orchestra and chorus score were vivid and colorful, and this remains one of the composer’s finest works for cinema.  The release also includes a 17:29 suite from the short film, Un Jardin public, a short feature from1955 centered on the mime Marcel Marceau.   www.disquescinemusique.com

Lakeshore is slated to release Christopher Young’s score for the horror film, Drag Me To Hell, on August 18.  The music of Geoff Zanelli and Robb Williamson for Gamer will release on Sept. 1st.

MovieScore Media has announced Ryan Shore’s music for Rex Steele: Nazi Smasher and Other Short Film Scores will be issued on August 25th.

Games Music News

Sumthing Else Music Works has released soundtracks to two recent popular video games:

Viva Piñata®,  a UK-based game that invites players to create an immersive world where living piñatas inhabit an ever-changing environment. The soundtrack features 25 original musical compositions by Grant Kirkhope (Banjo-Kazooie, Donkey Kong 64, GoldenEye 007, Grabbed by the Ghoulies). The score was orchestrated by Nic Raine and recorded with the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra.

Bionic Commando Original Soundtrack features the musical score from the next generation sequel to the classic 1988 Nintendo Entertainment System video game. The game sees the return of the bionically-enhanced hero Nathan "Rad" Spencer (voiced by Mike Patton, the former lead singer of Faith No More).

Composer Jamie Christopherson: "I remember playing Bionic Commando back on the NES and like everyone else I was blown away by the quality of the music. Not only were there extremely 'hummable' epic melodies, but the use of the MIDI chip to create a very dense and complicated orchestral arrangement was astonishing. If someone would have told me that 20 years later I would be working on a next generation Bionic Commando game, I would never have believed them. I was fortunate enough to take the music (including the famous main theme) and give it a modern treatment, complete with an anthemic 15-piece brass ensemble."


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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