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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Dennis the Menace (Jerry Goldsmith)

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An underrated film, Dennis the Menace didn’t make much of a box-office splash in 1993, despite its name recognition and top-notch cast, featuring a wonderfully cranky Walter Matthau. The late composer Jerry Goldsmith was no stranger to comedy scoring, with both Gremlins and The ‘Burbs to his credit, but was often (then as now) pigeonholed as a composer for action and science fiction. The film also was another slice of Goldsmith’s usual luck: the previous John Hughes family comedies, Home Alone and Home Alone 2, had been smash hits with John Williams scores. As with Supergirl before it, Goldsmith was left to score Williams’ leftovers.

Goldsmith anchors Dennis the Menace with a rollicking and carefree theme, a close cousin of his propulsive The Great Train Robbery motif, that is performed in full by an orchestra at the beginning and end of the album but mostly passed to soloists in the remaining tracks. The theme is therefore taken up by harmonica, woodwinds, and even tuba as circumstances dictate, usually at a slow and deliberate tempo. When presented in all its orchestral glory, Goldsmith’s theme is a treat–rambunctious, enthusiastic, but with an endearing undercurrent of innocence. The rest of the time, it’s far more subtle, and the endless interpretations and variations of the tune on album can grow tiresome.

There’s also a more menacing secondary motif for the ill-recieved character of Switchblade Sam–a series of repeated harpsichord notes with jagged brass vaguely similar to Capricorn One. This motif works well enough as a counterpoint, but isn’t very fully developed, leaving Dennis the Menace feeling at times like a monothematic score. The opportunity to have both themes in counterpoint or collision at the end of the film, which unwisely veered into Home Alone territory with a strong dose of The Ransom of Red Chief, was a bit of a missed opportunity.

Gentler material, notably at the beginning of “He’s Back” and “The Shaggy Dog,” is provided for the relatively few sentimental moments in the film–Goldsmith’s work here is effective , but rather low-key. In fact, “low-key” best describes the majority of the album: while there are occasional energetic outbursts, the music is generally restrained, meandering along with plentiful harmonica solos and single-instrument reinterpretations of the main theme to accompany the titular character’s inadvertent mischief.

The album can be difficult to find, as it was issued by the now-defunct Big Screen Records. Still, Dennis the Menace is well worth tracking down for the moments of orchestral exuberance and muscular main theme performances that bookend it, but even Jerry Goldsmith fans my find themselves skipping over some of the tracks in the middle.

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Medal of Honor: Frontline (Michael Giacchino)

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Long before his Pixar scores or his Oscar win, Michael Giacchino’s name was been inseparably linked to the Medal of Honor video game franchise. After  his award-winning score to the first game in the series, and a second Medal of Honor that recycled much of the first game’s music and only required a few additional minutes of score, the third entry in the series, 2002’s Medal of Honor: Frontline, received a new 70-minute Giacchino score. And, as befits the game’s darker subject matter, which revolves around the failed Operation Market Garden, Giacchino’s fully orchestral Frontline score is more nuanced and restrained than his previous effort.

Far from the continuous bombast that characterized his earlier efforts, much of Frontline is slow and elegiac, with a strong choral presence and echoes of John Williams’ “Hymn to the Fallen” from Saving Private Ryan. Beginning with the mournful “Operation Market-Garden,” Giacchino establishes a restrained, style that serves as a powerful counterpoint to the on-screen action.

“Arnhem” is the most potent expression of this elegaic style, combining a melancholy Dutch vocal with a full orchestral ensemble for powerfully moving effect. The closing “Songless Nightingale” opens the choral aspect up into a fully voiced piece with orchestral accompaniment, uniting the quieter part of the album with the more action-oriented and martial material.

There is still copious action music to be had, of course, with plenty of martial snare in evidence during “U-4902” and “Shipyards of Lorient,” among others. These action tracks are an extension of the dense, faux-Williams sound perfected by Giacchino in the previous two Medal of Honor games, and are generally rousing if not significantly different from similar cues earlier in the series. A few cues include touches of quirkiness in the mix as well, like the delightful “Escaping Gotha.” The only real misstep is the hidden “Various German Singing” track, which is simply silly.

In addition to reaping several awards, Frontline was an immense career boost for Giacchino; as the liner notes indicate, the music was noticed by the J. J. Abrams of Alias, who soon hired the composer and began a collaboration that has lasted to the silver screen and beyond. The score is a treat for anyone with a taste for large-scale, subdued orchestral composition in the Saving Private Ryan vein, and a fitting continuation of the series. It is an especially welcome treat given the increasingly gritty and soulless music that prevailed in the franchise following the series’ move away from World War II with its risible 2010 “reboot.”

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Afrika (Wataru Hokoyama)

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A spiritual successor to — of all things — Pokémon Snap, Afrika sets players on a photo safari, capturing shots of wildlife in motion. The game has attracted considerable praise, but the most discussed feature seems to be Wataru Hokoyama’s original score — his first for a major video game.

While Japan-born, Hokoyama’s training was in a decidedly Western vein, and this shows clearly in the sound he establishes for Afrika. Many of the orchestral colors and orchestrations have clearly been inspired by Western greats such as John Williams and Elmer Bernstein, building on the soundscapes those composers established for massive fantasy-adventure scores on the one hand and National Geographic specials on the other. The result is a unique blend of action-adventure — occasionally bordering on the superheroic — and expansive, pastoral documentary music.

Hokoyama introduces a strong theme in “Savanna” that forms the basis for the rest of the score. It’s sweeping and adventurous, while maintaining a strongly romantic and expansive feel. The theme is present in most of the tracks, and is given extended airings in the triumphant finale “Afrika” and the rambunctiously exhilarating “Safari,” the best track on the album.

The game’s setting isn’t neglected and Hokoyama anchors a number of cues with percussive rhythms to reflect the high veldt setting. “Base Camp” is the pick of the lot, transposing a xylophone variation on the main theme with a full drum ensemble. Darker tracks for dangerous and dark situations also make an appearance in “Hunting” and “Night Safari,” the latter of which is particularly reminiscent of John Williams’ suspense writing.

There are no outright dud tracks, although two do fall somewhat short of the standard established by the others. “Masai” and “Hatari” are percussion-only tracks that don’t have enough variation to justify their (admittedly brief) running times. Both could have easily been omitted from the disc without much loss, shortened by half, or even combined into a suite. In truth, almost every track other than those two is a highlight.

While Afrika the game remains relatively obscure outside Japan despite a belated Stateside release, the score is readily available via import. Thirty minutes of music is present on a standard CD, while a Dolby 5.1 version of the music, along with interviews, is present on a supplementary DVD. The music is highly recommended to anyone who can get their hands on it; it’s a superior product, bursting with creativity.

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