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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Fable (Russell Shaw)

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Bogged down by unrealistic expectations brought on by developer Lionhead Studios’ hyperbolic pre-release commentary, the original Fable wound up disappointing for what it was not despite being a relatively solid (and often quite funny) game in its own right. One of the entries in Sumthing Else’s Xbox catalog, Fable also represents something of a rarity (though it is becoming more and more common): a major film score composer working on a video game. In this case, Danny Elfman, famous for his work with Tim Burton, was brought in to write the main theme, while Russell Shaw, composer of Black and White, was drafted to flesh it out into a complete score.

Elfman has worked in this way many times before, contributing themes to Pure Luck, Novocaine, and Heartbreakers, among others, but his main theme has much more in common with his then-contemporary Spider-Man and Planet of the Apes scores. Dynamic, percussion-heavy, and with a full choir, the theme is built around a malleable 7 (or 8, depending on the variation) note theme that captures the darkness inherent in the game’s concept without servicing the fantasy aspect too much. The approach is light-years away from Lord of the Rings, and is perhaps more suited to a superhero, but manages to fit very well.

Russell Shaw clearly studied Elfman’s body of work and adopted the composer’s signature motifs for several cues in his score. “Oakvale” is orchestrated and performed like a cue out of Edward Scissorhands, for example, while “Arena” features Elfman’s trademark ascending brass notes. On the whole, though, Shaw limits himself to referencing the “Fable” theme, which is heard in one form or another in virtually every track on the disc.

Shaw’s own musical voice comes to the fore in tracks like “Temple of Light” and “Bowerstone”. “Temple” is the only synthesized track on the disc, and features a mystical, distant, almost new age feel, while “Bowerstone” is a quirky plucked-string delight that evokes an upper-class, uptight atmosphere. The latter especially would go on to influence Shaw’s scores to Fable II and Fable III, which took on increasingly Victorian mannerisms even as they first minimized and then discarded Elfman’s original theme.

The album does suffer from more than its share of dud tracks, however. “Lytchfield Cemetery,” for example, is atmospheric and plodding — good for setting a mood but of little use outside of the game. And the final two tracks, taking up almost a fourth of the total running time, are extraordinarily dull Gregorian chants. I normally cherish choral elements in soundtracks, but the chants found in Fable are repetitive, shrill, and totally uninteresting, and they end the disc on a very weak note.

Overall, there is much reason to recommend the album — Elfman’s theme, Shaw’s original work, and variations — but the number of dull dud tracks brings the album down considerably. Elfman completists, and anyone who enjoyed Lionhead’s other scores, will probably get the most out of a purchase. The best solution for casual enthusiasts may be to seek out the digital reissue and avoid the weakest music altogether.

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