The Tree of Life (Alexandre Desplat)

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Terrence Malick is one of the most respected and most divisive directors working in film today, and his works have aroused strong feelings, pro or con, in everyone who has viewed them. His 2011 film The Tree of Life was no less so, earning nominations in several Academy Award categories while simultaneously being savaged by many viewers and critics. Despite (or perhaps because of) his reputation, Malick had attracted a variety of top-flight musical talent to score his projects, from Ennio Morricone on Days of Heaven to Hans Zimmer and co. on The Thin Red Line to James Horner on The New World.

For The Tree of Life, Malick recruited French composer Alexandre Desplat, who was in the midst of an extremely busy year. 2011 saw seven movies scored in whole or in part by Desplat, including his Oscar-nominated score for Best Picture winner The King’s Speech and a score for Best Picture nominee Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. Desplat is often strongest in his contemplative mode, featured in scores such as Birth and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, than his disappointing attempts at epic fantasy writing as in The Golden Compass and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. The Tree of Life represents in some ways the ultimate evolution of the former style, with his usual waltzes and melody supplemented by Philip Glass influenced minimalism.

Fans of Glass will probably enjoy what they find here, especially in “Circles,” the album’s longest and most impressive track. Cellular composition, repeated motifs, and a cyclical and evolving feel make the 11-minute centerpiece cue a true tour-de-force without losing Desplat’s distinctive voice. Echoes of Benjamin Button and Birth are to be had elsewhere, often in the most melodic and piano-led cues like the desolate “Childhood” and warm “Awakening,” although it’s by and large a score of textures more than melody or theme. Those expecting the empty bombast of Desplat’s Compass or Potter will be disappointed, though the composer does include his signature waltzes in the pair of “Motherhood” and “Fatherhood.”

Desplat also blesses the score with an air of impressionistic darkness in many cues. The aforementioned “Awakening,” for instance, includes a sinister full string section under its gentle piano melody, skillfully intermixing optimism and unease in a similar way to the deep electronic pulses from Birth, before building to an unnerving crescendo at the end. He uses other innovative techniques, like a solo and vaguely out-of-tune leading string in “Good and Evil” or discordant, Elliot Goldenthal style shrieking strings in “Temptation” (perhaps the score’s darkest cue).

From the minimalistic opening piano of “Childhood” to the inviting cyclic minimalism of “Circles” through the darkness of “Awakening” and “Temptation,” to the final innocent and childlike “Skies,” Desplat’s album truly feels like a musical journey. With only his signature musical voice to bind the score together, the composer nevertheless manages to create a cohesive musical narrative that can stand well on its own. This was perhaps the wisest decision Desplat made, given Malick’s history of tinkering with his films’ soundtracks: creating an album that can exist completely independently of its film, a contemplative masterpiece perfect for engaged listening or as a backdrop to writing or other creative endeavors.

There is one downside to the album: anyone looking for the classical pieces that were inserted into the film to replace the majority of Desplat’s original music will be disappointed. Malick, despite working with the very best original composers that Hollywood has to offer, often uses very little of the score they prepare, with what is used often chopped up and redistributed. This led to many angry viewers upset with the album from Lakeshore records, which includes only Desplat’s original score instead of the many classical pieces by John Tavener, Arsenije Jovanovic, and many others. This led to many reviews roundly trashing Desplat’s album for what it is not, rather than what it is.

Still, as long as listeners know exactly what they are getting into (and the available sound samples represent an excellent cross-section of Desplat’s music) they won’t be disappointed. It may be closer to a quasi-rejected score, or an instrumental “music inspired by” album, but The Tree of Life is still a musical journey well worth taking by one of Hollywood’s strongest musical voices. Lakeshore Records’ score album has become rather scarce the film’s release, commanding slightly inflated prices, but it is still readily available in digital form.

Rating: starstarstarstarstar

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Serenada Schizophrana (Danny Elfman)

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Film music has often been compared unfavorably (and unfairly) to concert hall music; over the years, this has led many film composers to dabble in writing concert works. John Williams wrote several such pieces, as did Elmer Bernstein, and Elliot Goldenthal’s concert output threatens to outpace his film scoring of late. Danny Elfman isn’t a composer one would readily associate with the concert hall–his status as a self-taught musician has always cast him as a sort of outsider in the musical community. Nevertheless, the American Composers Orchestra chose to commission Elfman to write an original symphonic piece (the only film composer so honored), and Serenada Schizophrana debuted at Carnegie Hall in early 2005, earning rave reviews and paving the way for additional concert, art installation, and ballet pieces from Elfman in the decade to follow.

As Elfman attested in several interviews, Serenada was created in a strange manner–the composer forced himself to write short pieces every day for a period of several weeks, and then began to develop those musical fragments into longer pieces. Eventually, six distinct movements emerged, augmented on disc by a brief end stinger and bonus track. The “schizophrana” in the title is well-earned, as the movements share no consistent themes or motifs. Rather, Danny Elfman’s unique personal style is what ties them together, and it’s a telling sign of Eflman’s maturity as a composer that his style is up to the task.

The album begins with “Pianos,” a series of complex and jagged figures for piano (obviously) and orchestra which recalls some of Elfman’s strongest film work. It’s driving and propulsive music, and a strong opening. Unfortunately, the next movement, “Blue Strings,” is the longest and also weakest. It’s low-key music that’s heavily reminiscent of Red Dragon, rumbling through troubled string figures and occasionally hinting at Hermannesque stabbing motions. Yet the movement never really goes anywhere; it’s content to malinger and hint at its potential.

“A Brass Thing,” the third movement, is far brassier then the previous two, with copious church bells and sections of jazzy instrumentation. There are even a few rambling piano figures that recall Beetlejuice, though never reaching the wild and wacky heights of that score. “The Quadruped Patrol,” which Elfman described as a contest between a big dog and a little dog, returns to the jagged style of the first movement, but far more string-led and percussive. “Quadruped” also features some of Elfman’s trademark choral work, its first appearance in the Serenada.

It’s in the fifth track, “I Forget,” that the choir comes into its own. In a rare move for Elfman, the singing isn’t wordless (it’s Spanish), and it mixes perfectly with the sprightly, dark orchestral ruckus Elfman whips up. “I Forget” is Serenada’s highlight, and shows that Elfman probably has an opera or two in him, if he ever decides to write one. “Bells and Whistles” is another subdued track, though far more interesting in its development than “Blue Strings.” “End Tag” is too short and underdeveloped to have much of an impact, but the jazzy “Improv for Alto Sax” brings the CD to a strong close.

While Serenada Schizophrana isn’t as cohesive or enjoyable as Elfman’s best film works, it is still a very strong piece of music on its own merits, and represents a bold move in the composer’s career. Still, the album is classic Elfman, and highly recommended to fans as well as naysayers. Elfman’s later non-film work includes, a shorter second concert work (The Overeager Overture) for conductor John Mauceri’s farewell concert, a ballet with Twyla Tharp (Rabbit and Rogue), and music to accompany the Tim Burton art installation at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. One can only hope that more opportunities to hear Danny Elfman’s distinctive musical style in its purest form, albeit unhindered by the need to match images or maintain consistent themes, will follow.

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Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (Elliot Goldenthal)

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Destined to go down as one of the largest cinematic flops in history, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was a disappointment to series fans and neophytes alike, and nearly bankrupted Squaresoft, leading to its merger with perennial rival Enix not long after. Fans of the Final Fantasy video games were dismayed by the lack of continuity between the games and the film; aside from a Cid and a vague lifestream-esqe concept, it was totally unrelated to the franchise. Even in the context of games that regularly reinvented themselves and only ever shared certain thematic details and concepts, the dark science fiction thriller Square produced seemed a tonal mismatch, as if they had taken exactly the wrong lesson from their previous games and decided to make a 90-minute Final Fantasy VIII-style cutscene. Fans hoping for a film version of Final Fantasy VII, and sci-fi fans with little to connect them to the concept, stayed away in droves.

This feeling of disconnect extended to the film’s score as well; those same fans were dismayed to see composer Nobuo Uematsu’s name missing from the marquee. Uematsu had scored every main game in the series himself with striking music rooted in the vernacular of popular songwriting with a fantasy twist, but 2001 would ultimately be the year he began to disassociate himself from Final Fantasy, collaborating with others for the first time on Final Fantasy X and foregoing The Spirits Within entirely. Yet, in retrospect, the decision makes sense; Uematsu himself will freely admit that he is not cut out for film scoring, and his muddled effort on the later Advent Children animation stands as a stark example of this. The producers instead hired American composer Elliot Goldenthal, best known for his muscular sci-fi work on blockbusters like Alien 3, Demolition Man, and Batman Forever.

Goldenthal had never played the console Final Fantasies, and made no attempt to bring any of Uematsu’s themes or styles to the big screen. In light of the nature of the film, with its tenuous connection to the franchise as a whole (there really wouldn’t be room for anything other than “The Prelude” or perhaps “Final Fantasy” in the film itself), this decision was a wise one. Instead, the composer brought an extremely varied and complex sci-fi sound to the film, building on his pedigree to produce a dark and gothic score that mixes a chorus and pounding percussion with lighter and more melodic moments. Many of Goldenthal’s trademarks, like whirling strings (as heard in the opening track), wailing bass (“Code Red”), and towering dissonance (“Toccada and Dreamscapes”) are in evidence as the composer sought to support the bleak images onscreen.

The score’s main theme is much lighter and more mystical, led by woodwinds for a much earthier sound than the rest of the score. Heard in “The Kiss” and “A Child Remembered,” this theme is largely seperate from the rest of the material until it joins the more dissonant and thunderous sound in the stunning “Adagio and Transfuguration” before forming the basis of “The Dream Within.” It is perhaps the closest that Goldenthal would ever come to writing a traditional love theme, and it shows that despite his proclivity for avant-garde symphonics, he has the capacity for immense tonal beauty when he wants to write it.

Goldenthal’s carefully-produced album pares the score down to 50 minutes of highlights, with relentless action balanced out with occasional statements of the love theme. The music is almost entirely acoustic save for an electronic pulse in “Dead Rain” which serves as counterpoint to a downbeat and minor-key version of the love theme, and Goldenthal throws a large choir into the mix often. The choral histrionics in “Dead Rain” and “Zeus Cannon,” are perhaps the closest that Uematsu and Goldenthal come to the same inspiration, with both men clearly inspired by Wagner to raise an immense wordlessly choral ruckus. The final rock song is completely out of synch with the rest of the album, but not entirely wretched.

With Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, Goldenthal produced a film score, not video game music. Anyone looking for Uematsu’s sound–or that of most other video game composers, for that matter–will be disappointed. Fans of powerful, complex music–and fans of Goldenthal himself, of course–will be delighted with the album, which stands out as the best part of the film. Not only that, but The Spirits Within also offers Elliot Goldenthal’s powerful style in a more tuneful and conventional presentation than many of his more experimental works; it completely lacks the occasionally schizophrenic nature of works like Titus and plays down the raw atonality as compared to Alien 3.

Ultimately, listeners’ appreciation of Goldenthal’s distinctive style, and how much they mind the absence of Nobuo Uematsu’s characteristic Final Fantasy sound, will color their response to the music. Taken on its own terms, it is perhaps the composer’s finest and most accessible work.

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Rise of the Argonauts (Tyler Bates)

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2008’s Rise of the Argonauts sought to recast the ancient story in the dark and gory tone set by recent sword-and-sandal epics like 300 and Gladiator. While it met with mixed reviews, the game did deliver high production values, including a score by Tyler Bates who had written the music for 300. While Bates has been controversial among movie score fans due to his reputed plagiarism of Elliot Goldenthal (which led to at least one lawsuit), his music has defined the sword-and-sandal genre for modern ears for better or worse.

Bates, following the trend of many Hollywood composers who have moonlighted in games, brings his established sound and renders it with live vocals and a mix of real and synthetic instruments. Wordless Middle Eastern style vocals are present in many of the songs, whether as an accent or a lead, and your tolerance for them may in many ways dictate what you think of the music as a whole. “Broken Union” uses the vocals very effectively, establishing a sad, almost Celtic melody that sadly goes undeveloped in the rest of the score.

“Undeveloped” is an apt descriptor for most of the music Bates presents. There’s very little thematic music here, with the most prominent mode being a rather ambient mix of drums, duduk, and vocalist that matches the scenery well enough but isn’t really anything that lingers in the mind. A few moments of mystic beauty blossom forth here and there, as in “The Argo,” the second-longest track on the album, and the concluding, triumphant “Myth Makers”. Some of the battle tracks are effective at establishing a cacophonously entertaining mood, notably “Sanctuary of Medusa” and “Battle for the Fleece.”

But most of the music is sonic wallpaper, establishing a mood and doing little else. Aside from the overall ethnic feeling of the music, there isn’t a lot of continuity — and the short tracks (only 7 of the 33 tracks break the two-minute mark) don’t help. The overall feeling it that of a wasted opportunity — Bates teases listeners with the promise of epic and beautiful music for barbarians, but mostly fails to deliver.

Somewhat oddly for a composer as high-profile as Bates, Rise of the Argonauts is only available as a bonus with the collector’s edition of the game, though both are readily available on the secondary market. The disc, with about an hour of music from the game, is worth picking up if you’re a fan of the composer or vaguely Middle Eastern sounds, but the few highlights aren’t really worth going out of your way for.

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Dead Space (Jason Graves)

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A science-fiction survival horror title that received enthusiastic reviews in late 2008 and went on to start a full-fledged franchise, Dead Space also joined the increasing number of Western games featuring full-fledged soundtrack releases (albeit only in digital form). Written by the appropriately named Jason Graves and recorded by a live orchestra at no less a facility than Skywalker Sound, Dead Space proves a very modern and complex addition to the pantheon of survival horror scores.

The album begins on a cold, contemplative note in “Welcome Aboard the U.S.G. Ishimura,” the first part of which is the most serene and melodic the album gets. There are a few other isolated recurrences of this style, most notably in the morose “Nicole’s Farewell,” and some of the louder tracks will sometimes segue into quieter music for a moment or two. Suspense music is woven throughout the album as well, providing an uneasy churning sound that seems ready to explode into towering horror cues — and often does. The “Dead Space Theme” is the only largely self-contained example of this style, with the remainder mixed into suites with other styles. But this, and the colder and more traditional music, form a small portion of the album overall.

The vast majority of the music is unrelenting in its brutal orchestral chaos. Tracks like “The Leviathan” are full-on aural assaults, melding shrieking strings, pounding percussion, and deeply layered brasses. It’s a very modernistic sound, written in an aleatoric style often bordering on “musique concréte” with strong echoes of Elliot Goldenthal and John Corigliano. And, like Goldenthal and Corgiliano, the effect is exhilarating and terrifying even in a vacuum.

Considering the debt that the game itself owes to the Alien franchise, it’s no surprise that those films’ melding of icy, clinical, soft music with cacophonous and modernistic action writing is very much in evidence. However, this approach does have its drawbacks; the music isn’t very thematic and likely won’t appeal to many because of that. Graves was under explicit orders not to write a thematic score, as it turns out, though he was able to slip in a few recurring motifs, most notably one which follows a D-E-A-D note progression (which delighted the suits when Graves described it). The sheer amount of gigantic, slashing horror cues can also be exhausting with few lighter tracks to break things up.

It’s very refreshing to see horror music like this being written for a game; there are few places today where such a sound could be used, and many places where it is needed. If only modern horror movies allowed for this kind of scoring instead of the droning drek with which them seem to be saddled! While the dissonant, chaotic sound of the album certainly isn’t for everyone, those who do appreciate relentless modernistic music on a gigantic level will find a lot to enjoy here. Highly recommended.

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