Starhawk (Christopher Lennertz)


A Playstation 3 exclusive title, Starhawk (2012) was a spiritual successor to the earlier Warhawk (1995) and its one-step-forward two-steps-back remake Warhawk (2007). Unlike the 2007 game, Starhawk actually featured a single-player campaign mode for people who didn’t want anonymous 14-year-olds screaming obscenities in their ears, and it attracted decent notices and sales numbers despite being released relatively late in the lifespan of its console.

Composer Christopher Lennertz had co-scored the remade Warhawk in 2007, with his music attracting strong praise despite being shackled to a multiplayer-only game. Lennertz was an old hand at game scoring by that point, with dozens of triple-A titles under his belt from the Medal of Honor series and beyond; unlike Michael Giacchino, Lennertz has kept a firmer foot in the game industry despite branching out into feature scoring. For Starhawk, Lennertz assembled an impressive ensemble in the Skywalker Symphony Orchestra and an array of soloists on instruments like slide guitar and harmonica.

And therein is the central conceit of the score: Starhawk adapts a Firefly/Serenity-like “wild west in space” approach, and Lennertz embraces that sound with his soloists layered over top of a full symphony orchestra. It’s also reflected in the two main thematic constructs of the score: the noble, rollicking Bernstein-esque “Emmett’s Theme” and the much darker Morricone-style theme for the game’s villainous Outcasts (first heard, appropriately, in “Outcasts”), which is driven by percussion and electric guitars.

With these two themes and a variety of western soloists, Lennertz is able to build an action score at least as effective as Greg Edmonson or David Newman. The majority of songs on the album are, as one might expect from a shooter, massive action pieces. The freedom inherent in video game scoring enables the composer to sidestep many of the action cliches in film today and instead write complex and tonal music. When the music is firing on all cylinders, it’s breathtaking: the prime example of this is “The Rift,” which alternates Emmett’s theme and the Outcast theme against one another in a terrific example of leitmotif scoring.

One thing to note about this score: there are two separate releases of Starhawk that may be confusing to the casual listener. The version available at iTunes runs 45 minutes while La-La Land Records’ deluxe limited edition CD is a full 57 minutes. Most of the missing songs on the shorter, digital release are, unfortunately, the album’s greatest highlights like beautiful choral “The Source.” The cut tracks are also, generally speaking, the least action-packed, which compounds the album’s only stylistic flaw: its emphasis on constant gigantic action with very little breathing room. As such, the La-La Land CD is the preferred purchase option.

Christopher Lennertz is a talented composer, but it’s ironic that most of his feature assignments have been in comedy and romance, leaving it to the world of video games to show his most effective and most filmic work. While listeners who aren’t fond of western sounds or relentless action may find the album exhausting, Starhawk nevertheless comes highly recommended.

Rating: starstarstarstar

Serenity (David Newman)


When Joss Whedon revealed that a movie based on his brilliant but short-lived TV series Firefly was in the works, most fans expected that Firefly composer Greg Edmonson, or perhaps Carter Burwell (who had collaborated with Whedon on 1992’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer), to score it. Instead, Whedon, on the advice of Universal music executives, turned to David Newman, who seemed a very odd choice given his background in comedy scoring. On closer inspection, Whedon’s choice makes a lot of sense: Newman had continually proven himself to be an able and creative composer even when working on risible comedies, and had experience in the sci-fi genre, having scored 1999’s popular GalaxyQuest. Furthermore, David Newman was the son of the legendary Alfred Newman, a composer renowned for his score to How the West Was Won, one of the finest westerns ever put to film.

Newman crafts a strong, folksy string tune that serves as the main theme for Serenity, appropriately enough first heard in the track “Serenity.” This western sound predominates at the beginning and end of the album, but Newman returns to it throughout, handing it off to the brass for use as a heroic fanfare, or to an array of ethnic and percussion instruments for a twisted rendition in “Mal Decides.” It’s much more thematic than Edmonson’s Firefly material, but draws from the same inspiration and uses similar instrumentation. Newman also creates an ethereal piano work for the character of River, which is attractive but frustratingly never given a full, concert-style performance.

The middle sections of Serenity are comprised largely of loud action sequences that incorporate electronics and aggressive orchestral writing. While there is  a grinding/squealing motif for the villainous Reavers, this music is largely themeless, aside from statements of the main theme or River’s theme. This does not mean that the tracks are dull, however: Newman adds a variety of ethnic instruments to the work, taking a cue from his brother and the ethnically diverse world of the film. The ferocious “Space Battle” cue is a rousing example of this, filled with booming brass and thunderous percussion offset against more intimate fiddles and ethnic strings.

The action material in the middle is more dissonant, more challenging, and less of a crowd-pleaser, which led to many negative reactions from film and score fans. While some of the more chaotic tracks can drag a bit, Newman is generally skillful at keeping the material listenable and interesting. Overall, the solid thematic material that opens and closes Serenity, and the better action cues like “Space Battle” more than maks up for the more atonal action music. The album’s great shortcoming, if it can be said to have one, is the lack of a few short but engaging cues from the film’s midsection: more folksy cues like “Going to See Inara” and “Flash Bomb Escape” could have helped break up the heavier action music somewhat.

Sadly, Serenity would be the only collaboration between Newman and Whedon; the director’s next film, the mega-hit The Avengers, came at a time when Newman was semi-retired from film scoring in favor of his work with youth orchestras, and The Avengers received a serviceable Alan Silvestri score instead. Nevertheless, anyone looking for a tuneful extension of Greg Edmonson’s soundscape for the Firefly TV series, and a score that successfully combines Western and sci-fi musical elements, need look no further.

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