Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Music to make merry by...

‘Christmas is coming, the Goose is getting fat…’ though if I continue to stick my hand in the various boxes of biscuits and sweets that are the desk fodder of the festive season then I won’t be far behind the Goose myself. Thankfully I walk everywhere, so any gluttony on my part is soon forgotten with a few strides. Where am I going with this? Oh yes! Christmas music. There is of course an abundance of the stuff and whether you’re a fan of classical, pop, rock, hip hop (shudder) or folk music then chances are there are an array of festive themed tunes and ditties available for your listening. When it comes to film music there is of course plenty to choose from and my iPod’s Christmas Playlist (oh yes, it’s true…) is chock full of some real classics. There is something about a Christmas film score that manages to set the mood just right… Sure there aren’t as many opportunities to sing along, but put on a few cues from, say, Home Alone or Miracle on 34th Street and I guarantee your heart will be full of cheer and all the lovely fluffy feelings that the Big C is supposed to invoke.

While I haven’t got everything that’s out there, my playlist does include some of the big ones and I urge you to grab the following and play them now (well, after you’ve read this perhaps… actually stick something on to listen to while you read, I can wait a tick…)
SO as I was saying… Top of the list for me personally though is the aforementioned Home Alone by John Williams. Not only is it full of warmth and sparkle (celeste and sleigh bells aplenty) there are actually some rather brilliant ‘action’ cues, full of Williams’ trademark brassy flair. If that weren’t enough there are two original songs – ‘Somewhere In My Memory’ and ‘Star Of Bethlehem’ – which are given a handful of airings. The songs were written with Williams’ lyricist of choice during this period, Leslie Bricusse and both were instant classics in 1990 and the former at least has gone on to become a fixture in Christmas concerts the world over. I don’t think ‘Star Of Bethlehem’ is heard enough though, the melody and orchestration being suitably heavenly. Throw in a handful of well chosen source tunes – including Mel Torme’s version of ‘Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas’ and The Drifters’ ‘White Christmas’ – and you have what is probably the quintessential Christmas soundtrack album.

With the sequel two years later came not one but two albums, this time giving Williams’ second score more room to breathe on its own release, with a collection of songs nicely filling the standard soundtrack disc. Once again the composer deftly created a whirlwind of comedic action, syrupy sparkle and yet more original songs – this time the sweet ‘Christmas Star’ and the joyful ‘Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas’ (again both composed with Bricusse). While it faithfully follows in the (snowy?) footprints of the first score, there are plenty more highlights and with the addition of an adult choir rather than the children of the first score, it all feels just a bit more mature. ‘Christmas at Carnegie Hall’ finds Williams putting together a lovely selection of traditional melodies, a highlight of the playlist for sure.

Using traditional/existing music within a Christmas film score is something that composers tend to rely upon more and more these days and a wealth of scores – including Alan Silvestri’s most recent offering for Disney’s A Christmas Carol – are guilty of this. One of my favourite examples of this came years before Home Alone was even thought of though, and the score is itself one of the hardest to find and even then Santa Claus – The Movie has only been released on LP and Cassette! Henry Mancini’s ‘Christmas Rhapsody’ is a brilliantly arranged selection of Christmas tunes, used over a montage of decades and centuries passing as the legend of Santa Claus evolves and engrains itself into the world’s consciousness. The album – released by Polygram in 1985 – is fairly short and it remains a sought after title on CD… The reasons for it not being available on CD in any form are unclear – likely complicated and legal - but with the recent surge of unreleased scores in mind, perhaps it’ll happen one day. Like Home Alone, Mancini’s Santa Claus features original songs co-written with Leslie Bricusse and with the rest of the composer’s very listenable score in mind, it’s a fine companion piece to Williams’ later work.

Flash forward nine years and pick up Bruce Broughton’s Miracle On 34th Street, which was thankfully released in complete form by Intrada Records a few years ago now. The original Fox Records soundtrack album was a major find for me years and years ago and the ‘Overture’ never ceases to bring about a real feeling of the season. The larger score features a scattering of lovely thematic threads and some wonderfully festive fare, including several Bach-style original source cues. The soundtrack album is brief-ish, but is very well considered collection which features the likes of Kenny G, Natalie Cole and Elvis Presley – great tunes!

James Horner’s The Grinch (aka How The Grinch Stole Christmas) divided many upon its release in 2000, much like the film itself. The film is kinda crazy yes, but it has some charm and Horner’s score is a dazzlingly chaotic blend of orchestra, crazy percussion and effects… ‘The Heist’ is a favourite cue on the album, while the finale moments are hugely uplifting. The original soundtrack album from Interscope Records combines a selection from the score – annoyingly mixed with occasional dialogue soundbytes – and an eclectic song set. The CD and score have grown on me hugely over the years and the majority of the songs offer an enjoyable alternative to the usual fare, with ‘Green Christmas’ by The Barenaked Ladies being a particular favourite. Horner’s own lyrical contribution, ‘Where Are You Christmas?’ performed by Faith Hill, isn’t the most festive creation in the world, and the film version (performed by Taylor Momsen) is thoroughly irritating (definitely one to leave from the playlist).

Now The Muppets may not be your cup of tea, but their Christmas Carol is a staple of my seasonal viewing. Walt Disney Records re-released the film’s soundtrack three years ago as part of Kermit’s 50th Anniversary. Paul Williams’ songs are as bright and jolly as they come, while the late Miles Goodman’s score is a fine accompaniment. The songs overshadow of course, being a musical, and it’s no worse off for it.

The truth is I could go on and on and this blog entry is already dangerously long I think. You will each have favourite festive film music moments and they might include: Elf by John Debney, Jingle All The Way by David Newman (released by Intrada last year), A Christmas Carol: The Movie by Julian Nott – featuring a song performed by Kate Winslet no less – Dimitri Tiomkin’s It’s A Wonderful Life, The Snowman, by Howard Blake, All I Want For Christmas by Bruce Broughton, Silver Bells by Mark McKenzie, all three of George S. Clinton’s The Santa Clause outings, not to mention Alan Silvestri’s duo of The Polar Express and A Christmas Carol. Perhaps The Nightmare Before Christmas by Danny Elfman is pushing it, but if you begin to feel Christmassy earlier in the year than most, then perfect.

Of course the majority of Christmas films spawn largely song-led albums (Four Christmases, Christmas With The Kranks, The Family Man…) with their scores left unreleased or barely registered. The classics remain though and steadily they’re becoming available on CD – all we need is that little bit of Mancini magic from 1985 and the Christmas film music wish list is complete.

Merry Christmas!

Monday, 9 November 2009

The Pink Ribbon Gala

Not only is Debbie Wiseman a wonderfully talented film composer, she also has a big heart and a generous spirit. All of the above were on display last night at London’s Cadogan Hall, where Debbie put on a very fine show, and all for charity.

The Pink Ribbon Gala was organised by the composer to help raise awareness and vital funds for Breast Cancer Campaign, one of the UK’s leading Breast Cancer charities. With more than a little help from her friends – namely the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, broadcasting legend Simon Bates, and a handful of stars from stage and screen – Debbie presided over a lovely concert programme of accessible classical music, not to mention a good many of her own works for the screen. The theme was certainly words and music, with specially selected pieces by poets such as Oscar Wilde, T.S. Eliot and Hilaire Beloc read to music from Wilde, Tom & Viv and a portion of the composer’s beautiful accompaniment for ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’ (as composed for the grammy nominated album of Oscar Wilde Fairy Tales).

The RPO were in fine fettle as ever, at home certainly on their own stage, and with images projected overhead, they accompanied Cheri Lunghi – reading Eliot’s ‘Five Finger Exercises’, Timothy West – who read Wilde’s gorgeous ‘Serenade for Music’, George Layton – in charge of the aforementioned ‘Nightingale and the Rose’, and the ever-brilliant Prunella Scales – reading Beloc’s grizzly ditty ‘Jim’, about a small boy who lets go of his Nanny’s hand only to be eaten by a hungry Lion.

The texts were well chosen and worked really very well against the music – both were given time to breathe, which was a blessing and while they were all marvellous, the highlight was surely ‘Jim’, set against Benjamin Britten’s ‘Simple Symphony: Playful Pizzicato’ There were instances of music without words, with the show opening to the tune of Bach’s sobering ‘Air on a G-String’, while Debbie’s own suite from ITV’s My Uncle Silas perked things up in the second half. Selections by Borodin and Holst – the former’s gorgeous ‘Nocturne’ from his second string quartet and the latter’s always-frolicsome ‘Finale’ from his ‘St. Paul’s Suite’ – were well received during the first half, with the latter putting a spring in our steps on the way to the bar!

You can always rely on Debbie Wiseman to have something new up her sleeve and this occasion was no exception. For the last few years she has been working with Oscar-winning lyricist Don Black on a new musical called Feather Boy. Originally staged with an all child cast a couple of years ago as part of the Shell Connections series on London’s South Bank, the pair have revisited the idea – based on Nicky Singer's award-winning children’s book – and have filled it out and readied it for the West End stage. It’s certainly been a labour of love and I know that Debbie was very pleased to be able to unveil one of the centrepiece songs from the new show. ‘Nothing Grows On Gold’, performed by the delightful Mary Carewe, proved itself to be a classic showstopper with some real wind beneath its wings. The show itself is set to debut officially in 2010…

The evening fluttered by it seemed and the room was filled with a lot of spirit and good will. Ending the show with an encore of ‘Wilde West’ from Wilde, Debbie had us clapping along, with a handful of unashamed yokels offering the off ‘Yee Haw’ to boot. It was a jolly end to a very pleasant evening of music and words and I think it was without doubt a big success for Breast Cancer Campaign. Well done to all involved for putting on a marvellous show.

If you’d like to find out more about the work that Breast Cancer Campaign do, or if you’d like to make a donation then please visit

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

A Great Event: Nature's Great Events

Bristol’s Colston Hall has been at the forefront of its busy music scene for countless years and after a number of rebuilds during its life, the latest upgrade – a £20m extension of glistening foyer, box office, dining, bars and performance spaces – is just the latest facelift. It’s an impressive creation and is a fine improvement, giving the old hall (with its renowned acoustic) the kind of entrance space it deserves, bringing it well and truly into the 21st century.

Ten days of celebrations are underway with over 2000 local musicians and performers involved in heralding the next stage in the venue’s story. With this in mind, the organisers wanted something special for the centrepiece event and they came up trumps with Natures Great Events.

Screened on BBC One earlier this year, Natures Great Events was classic Natural History Unit television, charting more wonders of the world’s animals, their behaviours and the delicate surroundings that form an essential part of their very existence. Supplying the music for the series were Bristol based composers Barnaby Taylor and Ben Salisbury who have each cut their teeth on Natural History productions. For Natures Great Events though, the pair very much took a leaf from George Fenton’s score pages and gave the often jaw-dropping images suitably emotional and epic music. With that in mind, it seems a logical idea to take that music into the concert hall and, played along with specially edited images projected onto a big screen, make a spectacle of it all. And that’s exactly what happened tonight at Colston Hall.

It was very much a once in a lifetime opportunity and the sell out crowd were treated to a specially created six movement symphony of sorts, with conductor William Goodchild leading the brilliant BBC Concert Orchestra through Barnaby and Ben’s music and if that weren’t enough each movement was introduced by none other than Sir David Attenborough himself. It was quite bizarre to sit and listen to ‘The Great Man’ – as he was introduced and described to us – so famous is that soft, well considered voice. To have him there was a real treat and he received a standing ovation before he’d even done anything, so high is the regard and affection with which he is held.

Natural History film is always the most real drama a composer could wish for when creating music and the array of scenarios presented here offered the composers the chance to be creative, comedic, dramatic and emotional. Frolicking cubs were underlined with jovial refrains on mallet percussion, mating Dragonflies with quasi-celestial twinkle, while Lions - near-starved and barely clinging to life - were met with emotive woodwind passages. It was the wide open vistas of the great African plains, grasslands and icy oceans though which saw the orchestra take flight, offering grandly sweeping gestures for strings and brass, while the larger, more ferocious sights gave rise to swathes of percussion. ‘A Heavy-weight Battle’ in Movement II (The Great Flood) was one such example, while the militaristic might of the final movement (The Great Tide) in which a ‘Super Pod’ of Dolphins, joined by sharks, whales and sea birds, mass an attack on millions of sardines off coast of South Africa, was a stunning display. It truly was a battering, with infectiously rhythmic percussive lines – performed with support from local percussionists – and was a brilliantly rousing finale to the piece. A similar scene was featured in The Blue Planet and I thought it would be hard to top Fenton’s brilliant cue ‘Sardine Run’ and while it differs greatly – being more of a 'march to battle' – it managed to raise the hairs equally.

The music and images of course went hand in hand, one supporting the other in all kinds of ways, and as often happens with this kind of performance, it was easy to forget you were in the presence of a live orchestra, so engaging were the images on screen. The sight of huge Humpback Whales feeding on herring by literally scooping entire schools of them from the surface with their bellowing mouths was just one of the many amazing highlights... The lasting shot for me though is of two Polar Bears, seemingly marooned on a lone iceberg in the Arctic Ocean; a poignant note about the future of the poles and the effect global warming will have on those beautiful beasts…

So with more standing ovations and a word or two from the composers themselves, the orchestra went on to perform a specially-composed encore. Played along with footage of the making of the series and introducing the amazing cameramen responsible for what we had seen, it was a free-spirited, celebratory denouement.

Natures Great Events really was Bristol’s great event and those of us lucky enough to attend were left in no doubt that this city really has a lot going for it right now. Congratulations to all involved and let’s hope Colston Hall can offer its stage to more events like this in the future.

You can find out more about upcoming events at the new look Colston Hall by visiting the venue’s website –

With thanks to Paul Preager at Colston Hall

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Hammering it out - BBC Proms: Michael Nyman

I know I bleat on about the Albert Hall, but I quite honestly never tire of being in that space and last night I found myself there once again for another of the BBC Proms. Last time was of course for the magic of the MGM Musicals with a vast orchestra, choir and vocalists on stage; this time, however, was a much smaller affair, though no less energetic methinks. Prom 54 saw the indomitable Michael Nyman take to the stage with his eleven-strong band to perform a late night set of music from his film scores and otherwise. A concert by the Michael Nyman Band is always something of a rambunctious affair, the music - and indeed the man himself - somehow unapologetic in their ‘down to business’ approach. Nyman took his seat at the piano with little fanfare and with a wave of his right hand immediately struck up the band for four selections from his 1982 score for The Draughtsman’s Contract. I’m always equally entertained and mystified by the music for this particular film, as it relentlessly and repetitively frolics along unashamedly loud and proud. There’s an air of naughtiness about it somehow, with the flagrant bassy piano bashing along and the brass having a whale of a time until they’re all seemingly rudely stopped in their musical tracks with the classic Nyman cadence; then comes that moment when nothingness pervades and you realise how brilliantly coloured the air was just moments before.

The uninterrupted set continued with a new piece commissioned by the BBC especially for the concert. ‘The Musicologist Scores’ was a lengthy (20 minutes) introspection of sorts, as the composer went back to his roots as a musicologist, deconstructing elements of music by Handel and Purcell, recycling them into his own composition. It was an entirely cyclical affair – as much of Nyman’s music tends to be – with a seemingly unchanging stream of notes, altering slightly with a new angle, a variation here, a new layer there, until it returns to the original root of the piece. It is of course deceptively difficult music, wholly mathematical, rhythmic and brilliantly structured; that said, when it’s chugging along for twenty minutes one’s appreciation for the artistry is overshadowed by a wandering mind and a sore bottom. It is of course hugely experimental music and Nyman’s tenacity in performing it should be admired if nothing else – we were indeed a captive audience and even the gentleman seated next to me following a copy of the printed score gave up at about the ten minute mark.

‘Six Celan Songs’ is a song cycle composed in 1990, based on the intense poetry of Paul Celan. Two of the six songs were presented, and the band were joined by Finnish soprano Anu Komsi who delivered both ‘Blume (No. 6)’ and ‘Psalm (No. 3) with an intensity – in German - that matched the words. It was the latter song which left the deepest impression though, its haunting lyricism overshadowing the much darker former piece, itself coming across with a dreary pessimism – bizarre when the title translates literally as ‘Flower’.

The final programmed piece was the ever-brilliant ‘Memorial’ from Greenaway’s The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. Once again Nyman’s hat is tipped firmly in the direction of Handel and Purcell, with the stomping bass line seemingly getting ever stompier and the petulant violin seemingly intensifying as if played through gritted teeth. It’s wonderfully steely music and never fails to, perhaps oddly, raise a smile – memories of cooked flesh and all kinds of arty eroticism coming to mind no doubt, not to mention the brilliantly vile Thief (Michael Gambon) who orders said meal (the Lover of the title) to teach the straying Wife (Helen Mirren) a lesson. Classic.

So it was definitely short, not particularly sweet, but certainly a lot to get your teeth into. Nyman’s music is ever challenging, always knowing, but at the same time beautiful somehow. His only encore – ‘Franklyn’, from Michael Winterbottom’s Wonderland – proved this in spades; a simple and elegant denouement which was definitely the calm after the storm. Hurricane Michael perhaps.

The Proms season continues until September 12th and you can catch all the action at, not to mention nightly broadcasts on BBC Radio 3 and occasionally on BBC Television. See the website for full details!

With many thanks to Bethan Bide at BBC Proms.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Straight from the Lion's Mouth - The MGM Film Musicals Prom

The Royal Albert Hall was bathed in the glow of Golden Age glamour last night as the BBC Proms celebrated the great MGM Film Musicals. The hall was something of a time machine as we were whisked back to a bygone age, with the John Wilson Orchestra, the Maida Vale Singers, and a host of vocal stars performing show-stopping numbers from the great Studio’s glittering heyday.

The project has been a labour of love for Wilson – a lifelong fan of the classic MGM sound – and the concert was the culmination of many months, if not years, of work reconstructing the original scores, literally raising from the dead the notes once put on paper by some of Hollywood’s most talented songwriters and orchestrators. With the decline of the original MGM studio and the subsequent buying and selling of its major assets, the music department archives found themselves out with the trash as developers cleared space for a new parking lot. It almost brings tears to your eyes when you think of the gems – largely notes on a page – that were discarded and probably used for landfill. All that remains are the original conductors’ books, held within the Warner Bros. archives in Burbank and it is those musty, but magical, pages that formed the basis of John Wilson’s restoration. Of course those books held only so much information about the orchestration and arrangement of the music, and so Wilson quite simply had to sit down, listen to the recordings and watch the films to transcribe note for note every part and every second of music.

The result is a tremendous feat and the show put on last night was truly a marvel as this hand picked orchestra, replete with dance band and chorus, managed to quite convincingly recreate the sound of the MGM Studio Orchestra before our eyes and ears. Opening with the swirling ‘MGM Jubilee Overture’ (arranged by then head of music, Johnny Green) I was left in no doubt that we were in for a very special evening. The scintillating strings, and those chorus voices, just smacked of another time and you couldn’t help but grin from ear to ear. From the overture we arrived at the first song, ‘The Trolley Song’ (from Meet Me In St. Louis). Once again I was bowled over by the immense sound coming out of the 95+ ensemble on the stage, while the lead vocal by Broadway/West End star Kim Criswell was as bright and peppy as it should be. If we were in any doubt of her skill at ‘becoming’ Judy Garland, her performance of ‘Over the Rainbow’ – which followed – was sublime, and enough to reduce my friend to tears.

Each of the solo vocalists embodied the original performers admirably, while at the same time bringing their own personality to the pieces. Curtis Stigers cut a fine figure as he stepped out onto the stage for the Astaire number ‘Steppin’ Out With My Baby’ (from Berlin’s Easter Parade), while the higher brow figures of Sarah Fox and Sir Thomas Allen (soprano and baritone respectively) raised hairs with their beautiful, velvet tones on the likes of ‘More Than You Know’ (from Youmans’ Hit The Deck) and the classic ‘Stranger in Paradise’, as featured in 1955’s Kismet. Prior to these we were treated to the wonderfully rambunctious ‘Barn Dance’ from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. The performance was an early highlight and the orchestra proved themselves even further, turning out a dazzling performance. At one point the string section took to their feet, while members of the chorus – not to mention soprano Sarah Fox – let out the odd ‘Yee Haw’. The piece, originally arranged by Adolph Deutsch, is a classic example of just how intricate and indeed difficult some of this music is; the pace was unrelenting and the players were put through their paces and no mistake, but they rose to the challenge and knocked our socks off with their energy. The smiles on their own faces were evidence enough that, while it was hard work, it was worth every bead of sweat.

One of the surprises of the evening was the last vocalist, one Seth MacFarlane. Known rather more widely for creating, writing and voicing the TV hit Family Guy, MacFarlane proved himself to be quite the crooner also. Doing a very fine impression of Frank Sinatra, he brought to life – with a little help from Criswell and Stigers – the likes of ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire’, ‘You’re Sensational’ and ‘Well, Did You Evah?’ from the classic Cole Porter musical High Society. The latter saw Stigers take on the Bing Crosby role, and both tuxedoed stars bounced off of one another well, champagne in hand.

There were plenty more highlights and surprises, from musicals both beloved and relatively unknown to the layman. 1955’s It’s Always Fair Weather and the previous year’s Deep in My Heart were examples of the latter, though both provided further brilliant turns from MacFarlane, Fox and Sir Thomas Allen. The latter star had his big moment in the Lerner & Loewe classic ‘Gigi’ from the 1957 musical of the same name, while Criswell brought the house down with the uber-classic ‘Get Happy’ which, if you didn’t know, was composed by Wizard of Oz composer Harold Arlen and featured in the 1950 musical Summer Stock (coincidentally Judy Garland’s final bow for the studio).

It was 1952 which saw the film that would embody the MGM Musical ideal and Singin’ in the Rain remains the jewel in the crown, not just for the talent on display (on and off screen) but also for its iconography. Seth MacFarlane took on the title song, this time doing his very best Gene Kelly impersonation, while the hardy group of regular ‘Promenaders’ standing down at the front twirled their umbrellas. It was something of a magical moment, Conrad Salinger’s beautiful, bouncing arrangement filling the air and epitomising the night we’d shared with this brilliant band and the music of the golden age. That wasn’t all though, as the show closed with Singin’ in the Rain’s ‘Broadway Melody Ballet’, a tour de force on screen as Gene Kelly – convincing studio bosses of his latest idea – descends into the fantasy world of that idea and dances his way through set piece after set piece. We were treated to the entire routine – sans footwork – with the company singing and having a ball. This of course resulted in rapturous applause and cries for more, with the stars returning to the stage for ‘That’s Entertainment’. MacFarlane made fans of Family Guy very giddy by singing a couple of his lines as ‘Stewie’, a nice touch for those in the know.

I’ve seen many shows in my time, musical and otherwise, but I can’t remember a time when I’ve been so captivated and so uplifted. The artistry on display, both on the page and on the stage was truly awesome and John Wilson’s dream – finally realised live at the Albert Hall – was nothing short of a triumph, straight from the Lion’s mouth.

With thanks to Bethan Bide at BBC Proms.

Friday, 24 July 2009

On The Desk V

Just when I think I’m beginning to get on top of things, the in-tray fills with another handful of albums. There are some cracking ones in need of attention, and I will get to those next week I hope. This week though I want to focus on a variety of titles in both my in-tray and on my hard drive. As I’ve said, very often I get sent links to albums, or files to download, from composers both up and coming, and well established.

Recently I received one such album from composer Edwin Wendler, a young and indeed talented composer who, though born in Vienna, now resides in Los Angeles. His most recent film score, The Interior – a film follow up to the 2007 television series – was released on CD by Perseverance Records a little while ago and while I’m yet to hear that, one of his early scores displays a colourful creative flair that I hope runs into the later works of recent years. Home: The Horror Story was a 2000 film directed by Venezuelan director Temístocles López and saw an all American family man find his life turned into a nightmare after undergoing invasive brain surgery. While it’s not a film that will likely be making it to your local multiplex anytime soon, the mix of bizarre surrealism and pseudo comedy horror antics has made it one not to be missed on late night television. Edwin’s score is as rambunctious as they come, with the composer unleashing a barrage of synthetic party tricks and unyielding ditties that cavort and swagger along with the comic capers in the surreal on-screen nightmare. I particularly enjoyed the opening cue ‘Meet The Family’ with its Elfmanesque hue, while the stomp and stagger of ‘Returning Home’ is a lot of fun. Ticking more of the horror boxes is ‘Getting Hot’ with its eerie voices, reverse effects and pizzicato effects. The overall carnival atmosphere of the larger score is a real winner though; much fun indeed. Hopefully we’ll hear more from Edwin Wendler in the future.

One composer I’m very pleased to be hearing more from is Benjamin Wallfisch. While Ben remains a big player in the classical field – his family name precedes him – his continuing work in film music is nothing short of brilliant. I was blown away by elements of Dear Wendy, which I reviewed for Music from the Movies a couple of years ago and when I learned that the young composer was working on The Escapist I was excited. Fast forward what seems like an eternity and MovieScore Media (who also made Dear Wendy available) have released the score on CD. The film is one of the unsung gems of recent years, with a stellar cast of British actors (including Brian Cox, Joseph Fiennes, Liam Cunningham, Seu Jorge and Steven Mackintosh) and gritty scenes of prison life and daring escape beneath the streets of London. The score is itself something of a breathtaking effort, with Ben scoring for both traditional orchestra and well conceived programming. With ‘Theme from The Escapist’ we’re thrown into an unrelenting, bassy refrain which drives the idea of the escape. The thumping piano and bass strings grab you by the throat and drag you along with its intensity. It’s an absolutely terrific, primal sound and quite a simple idea really, but nonetheless hugely effective. The escape itself – which runs through the film counter to the scenes of its inception within the prison walls – is underscored very creatively with rhythmic clangs and clatters, as programming, piano and bow strikes join forces to propel the band of escapees through the grimy sewers beneath the Capital. These are best heard in the likes of ‘Underground Escape’, ‘Into the Dryer’ and ‘Sump Chase’, while the brilliant main theme is deconstructed throughout as the plan comes together, with hints of it building in ‘Confessional’ and ‘Elegie for Brodie’. There’s an emotive side to the score also, as the music touches on the reason for the escape, Frank Perry’s daughter, who is gravely ill and with whom the life-prisoner wants to make peace. Solo vocal is utilised largely for these elements, with piano, strings and woods here and there (as in ‘Escaltor’) – these moments serve as a suitable antidote to the otherwise pivotal cues found elsewhere. Once again I am left in no doubt that Benjamin Wallfisch is one of the most exciting voices to enter the film music arena in recent years and while he continues to work as an orchestrator and conductor on other people’s scores, let’s hope he finds time to put pencil to paper himself and create more of this entirely listenable and hugely effective film music.

“Stand by for Action!” The Music of Barry Gray is a little gem of an album, though it may only have appeal for those who grew up with the ‘Supermarionaton’ and, later, live-action classic series’ of Gerry Anderson. I for one am too young to fully appreciate the hysteria surrounding the original runs of the likes of Stingray, Fireball XL5, Joe 90 and Thunderbirds, however when I was a child in the early 1990s a number of these shows had something of a renaissance and was certainly hooked on the latter. Going back further into my childhood, I can remember being very afraid of the opening prologue sequence for Capain Scarlet and the Mysterons. The inclusion of the music and sound effects for that scene – including the terrifying footsteps and final gunshot – still manage to make me shiver just a little, ha. This album then takes in snippets, themes and cues from all of Barry Gray’s collaborations with Anderson and takes us from their earliest work (Four Feather Falls) right through the major classics of the mid 1960s, right up to the more ‘modern’ sci-fi adventures with real actors in the form of UFO and Space: 1999. A lot of it is kitsch, with some wonderfully twee sixties-soaked songs and ‘Twists’ offering an amusing and strangely infectious glimpse into the past, while the big guns blaze here and there with wonderful dramatic cues found in the selections from Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet and alike. The French-flavoured ‘Perils of Penelope’ in the former, not to mention Joe 90’s ‘International Concerto Suite’, are evidence enough and a prime example of just how multi-talented Gray truly was. The album, from Silva Screen, features informative notes by Ralph Titterton and along with the multi-faceted scores represented, they make for a wonderful tribute to an oft-overlooked master of film and television music.

Finally a couple more titles from MovieScore Media that are in need of a mention, namely Sharon Farber’s touching score for When Nietzsche Wept and Panu Aaltio’s The Home of Dark Butterflies. Both offer music from relative unknowns, which the Swedish label should constantly be commended for. Farber’s score for Pinchas Perry’s emotional drama – based on the novel by Irvin Yalom – is a poignant affair, played out largely with piano and strings, while more orchestral flurries can be found in the romantic and stately ‘Save Nietzsche/I’ll Help Your Friend’. Traditional melody is found in ‘Shabbath Dinner’, while Nietzsche himself is credited with composing ‘Hymnus an das leben’. Performed by soprano Ayama Haviv, accompanied by Farber on piano, it’s a strikingly emotional aria that manages to capture – along with Farber’s larger score – the ultimate fragility and sadness of this complicated emotional man. Equally emotive is Aaltio’s score for Dome Karukoski’s drama about about a teenager who is sent to a boy’s home called ‘The Island’, where he comes to terms with the ghosts of his past. Recorded in London, it’s a fine sound that is created here and through a mixture of minimalist devices, and swathes of strings, Aaltio manages to nail the emotional complexity and spirit of the young protagonist.

Coming soon: A look at Nicholas Hooper’s second Harry Potter score, a couple of premiere albums from James Horner’s past and music from the fourth season of Battlestar Galactica.

With thanks to Mikael Carlsson, David Stoner, Jelena Jancic and Edwin Wendler.

Monday, 20 July 2009

Music from the Movies

I got an email from a record producer recently – I’m not going to name him – asking about Music from the He made an interesting point in his email, remarking that the future of film music and indeed film music journalism surely cannot lie in the United States and the United States alone? Music from the Movies, which began life as a print magazine in 1992, went on to become a popular and oft-visited website for film music fans and industry names alike. As Web Editor and Chief Correspondent of the site, I was very proud of its status and the fact that it didn’t exist to make a profit. When the print magazine ceased production in 2006 it was a sad day; whether you realised it or not Music from the Movies was always produced by a small group of devoted people in the UK, along with Rudy Koppl and a few valued contributors in California. Nobody earned a single penny from their work and it was always a labour of love; the same went for the website – which subsequently went offline in March. The site’s disappearance was indeed unforeseen and as surprising to me as it was to anyone else.

I remember stumbling across a couple of messageboard threads in recent months, and noticed some bitter words about our magazine, and indeed its demise. I personally just wrote the words and kept the website updated and was never involved in any part of the ‘business’ end of Music from the Movies; but I do know that it wasn’t an easy decision. To carry on would have meant increasing the price of the magazine to a ridiculous level and any major revamp of the website would cost money that was never there in the first place. Nobody has come out of this with a pocketful of cash and I resent anybody thinking so; if anything certain members of the team are equally, if not more, out of pocket thanks to their own personal investment to keep the website alive.

That can be put behind us though and I hope to see a new future for Music from the Movies; it’s certainly not impossible – in fact it looks as if there may be life in the old dog yet... One thing is for sure though; you can guarantee that whatever it looks like on the surface, the same passion and devotion will go into its recreation and continued re-development. All I can say is watch this space…

As to the record producer’s comment about US-led film music journalism – I too agree that the art form shouldn’t forever be so LA-centric. There are plenty of people all around the world who not only make great film music, but also appreciate it, with passion and insight. You only have to look at the Spanish conventions in Ubeda, Madrid and on Tenerife, not to mention the online magazines still coming out of Germany and France. Hopefully Music from the Movies can return in the UK, with continued emphasis on the high-end work happening in the US and London, but also standing alongside our European friends and neighbours who love film music as much as we do.

Michael Beek
Web Editor/Chief Correspondent, Music from the Movies

Monday, 6 July 2009

On The Desk IV

Time once again to forage amongst the heap of CDs atop my horizontal work platform (aka the desk). I say ‘heap’… it’s more a molehill, and I won’t make a mountain out of it. It was a tricky decision as to what to shout about in this, the fourth instalment of ‘On The Desk’, but I feel I’ve plucked a good variety out of the heaplette.

I had planned on going into raptures about Richard Wells’ impressive feature score for Mutant Chronicles, however in extolling its virtues to a colleague last week I managed to leave said disc behind. So without the album here to refer to, all I can say is the score is really rather good. With orchestrations by Benjamin Wallfisch, the sound is robust and indeed fully orchestral with enough clout to stand out from the crowd. Whilst Wells isn’t perhaps the most recognisable name in film music right now, I expect he will be in time to come and thanks no doubt to turns such as this. On the small screen Wells has been responsible for the likes of the BBC’s brilliant fantasy/comedy/horror/drama/thing Being Human and I’m certainly keen to hear more.

So to the albums I didn’t abandon… First up is Bear McCreary’s Caprica; an album from La La Land Records containing the composer’s score for the pilot episode of this new sci-fi series from the makers of Battlestar Galactica. McCreary has enjoyed a large fan following thanks to his turn on the latter series, spawning a couple of albums and even a few live performances in Los Angeles over the years. Caprica couldn’t be more different to the solid tribal/rock-tinged hues of Battlestar though, as this new creation – set fifty years prior to the events of that series – is plainly more desolate, as two families on the titular planet bare witness to the events that lead to their society’s downfall. Stripping back the sound he created over four seasons of Battlestar, McCreary shifts his focus on a more minimalist palette, creating a frenetic and at times emotional score for the first part of what is essentially a tragedy. In many ways it’s a familiar sound, with echoes of Glass in the repeated patterns, while the passages of strings, woods and harp (e.g. ‘Grieving’) instantly remind me of Goldsmith’s brilliant Hollow Man. Around this there are hints of the music that will follow – temporally – in Battlestar Galactica as McCreary adds kinetic rhythm and such to cues like ‘Terrorism On The Lev’ and ‘Cybernetic Life Form Node’ (two of the very few up-tempo numbers on the disc). It’s a fitting sound for the setting though I think, and the sort of vacuous future-world score we’ve grown accustomed to in many respects, but no less effective. The series itself is set to air from January 2010, so it will be interesting to see where the music goes in the larger story; one thing is for sure, it’s off to a strong start with the Hollywood Studio Symphony at the helm and Bear McCreary’s engaging music at its heart.

Up next an interesting trio of television films, screened earlier this year on Channel Four. Red Riding saw a sprawling fictitious account of the investigation into the Yorkshire Moors murders that gripped the attention of the nation in the 1970s and early 1980s. David Peace’s novel was re-imaged in three parts and by three different directors, each taking on the story and characters as they found themselves in 1974, 1980 and 1983. Each director utilised a different composer for their individual stories and as such Silva Screen has presented this musical triptych on CD. Award-winning British composer Adrian Johnston teamed up with regular director collaborator Julian Jarrold for the first part and set the scene with a visceral, edgy score, supported by a very listenable guitar theme for the ‘Eddie’, and later ‘Paula’ (with added cello). Six years later and we’re in the company of director James Marsh, who engaged composer Dickon Hinchliffe to continue the story musically. Hinchliffe, who scored the British comedy Keeping Mum and, more recently, the Dustin Hoffman/Emma Thompson romantic drama Last Chance Harvey, provides a slightly more engaging score for the second part. Opting for a more immediate orchestral tone, the composer peppers his score with light, almost jazz-like percussion as well as edgier tones (achieved with ambient effects and cello) in the likes of ‘The Karachi Club’. Once again it is one central theme which takes the weight of the music, though more so than Johnston. Finally it’s the turn of seasoned film and television composer Barrington Pheloung, who teamed up once again with Hilary and Jackie director Anand Tucker for the third and final part – 1983. As you might expect, strings play a central role here and the sound – courtesy of the London Metropolitan Orchestra – is fuller than the previous scores. Certainly the more traditional of the three, it is however far less engaging than say Hinchliffe’s effort which manages to carry the weight of the drama, while at the same time remaining fresh and interesting. Pheloung’s contribution is weighty enough and acts as a serious closing statement for the trio of scores. It is of course a fine score in and of itself, with ‘Love Theme’ the highlight. A printing error on the reverse of the album cover almost saw me make a silly error myself, as I went to track 25 thinking it was the first of Pheloung’s cues – I began writing about how similar his work was to Hinchliffe’s; of course it was Hinchliffe! Track 26 is the start of Pheloung’s score… That typo aside, this is largely a fine release from Silva and while my attention wandered occasionally the three scores sit alongside one another quite successfully.

One of the newest additions to my collection is an album from French violinist Laurent Korcia, who was signed to EMI earlier this year. His first album for them, entitled simply Cinema, sees the handsome virtuoso perform – you guessed it – music from the movies. That said, the link is fairly tenuous as the majority of the pieces are existing classical compositions used in films. However, the selection isn’t your everyday ‘Music from the Movies’ classical set, and there are enough original score pieces thrown in to make it an all round listen I’d say. The appearance of two compositions by Korcia himself cshift the overall concept of the album yet again to perhaps one of ‘showpiece’ rather than an out and out homage to film music. This is cinematic music then, rather than music of the cinema. Checking the original score boxes are the usual suspects, with Williams’ Schindler’s List and Morricone’s Cinema Paradiso – two of film music’s finest violin-centred works – at the top of the pile. Schifrin’s Mission Impossible is given an interesting arrangement with rhythm provided by accordion no less, while Mancini’s Moon River and Rota’s ‘Speak Softly Love’ from The Godfather complete the familiar selection. Two pieces from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess – of course filmed in 1959 by Otto Preminger – will please the crossover crowd, while the likes of Chaplin’s ‘Smile’ and ‘Weeping Willows’ from Modern Times and A King in New York are an original thought. ‘Some Day My Prince Will Come’, featuring vocals by Camille, closes the album and is a nice touch, giving the selection even more variety. Compositions by the likes of Saint-Saens, Vivaldi, Provost and Grappelli – amongst others – complete the line-up and of course largely fill it. There’s no denying Korcia’s talent though and his performances throughout are nothing short of beautiful. You can forgive EMI for wanting to show off their new signing and what better way to do it than with music of cinematic proportions.

Finally Sony Classical have released a follow-up CD set to last year’s Classic Cinema. I reviewed the first three-disc collection for Music from the and I recall being somewhat taken aback as the release was identical to that of Classic FM at the Movies. I relented somewhat, in hindsight, given that listeners outside of the UK might not be familiar with the British Classical music station, the Sony release perhaps being aimed at a more international market. This new release, entitled Classic Cinema Part 2, once again treads on the toes of Classic FM as it features, track for track and disc for disc, the exact same line-up as the station’s own follow-up set Classic FM at the Movies: The Sequel. I am still somewhat irritated by the complete lack of thought Sony seem to give the – okay let’s face it, gullable – British public. There will be many people who will see this nicely packaged set and think ‘Ooh that looks good, I’ll buy it’ only to discover they already own it in a different guise. Perhaps they’re just a bit thick if they do… Buyer state of mind aside, the selection – if you don’t already have it – is very fine indeed and rather all encompassing. It is of course a crowd pleasing playlist, perfect – funnily enough – for Classic FM fans who constantly request music from Pirates of the Caribbean, Superman, Captain Correlli’s Mandolin, Jurassic Park, Braveheart and Pride and Prejudice on a daily basis… and funnily enough they’re all present and correct here. Once again it’s a mixture of RPO, RSNO, City of Prague Philharmonic and original soundtrack recordings, with the usual suspects joined by similarly hued numbers – like Portman’s Emma, Goodwin’s Where Eagle’s Dare, Zimmer’s The Da Vinci Code, Doyle’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and Goldsmith’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture. What more can I say… Lap it up if you don’t own the aforementioned Classic FM release, grab it if you’re new to this lark, otherwise there’s nothing to see here.

Mutant Chronicles and Red Riding are available from, with Caprica available now from Sony Classical’s Classic Cinema 2 can be found in all the usual places and Laurent Korcia’s Cinema album goes on worldwide release on July 28th, courtesy of EMI.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

A Happy Tune - The King and I at the Albert Hall

I do love a good show; whether it’s a live orchestra playing, well, anything frankly, a talented singer doing what he/she does best, or indeed a glitzy Broadway/West End show. The latter took me further west last night - Kensington in fact - where Rodgers & Hammerstein’s sumptuous musical The King and I is currently enjoying a lavish revival at the Royal Albert Hall. It’s only the second time the glorious Victorian arena has staged a full blown musical – the first time being the Tenth Anniversary production of Les Miserables back in 1995 – and once again the hall was brought vividly to life with music, dance and colour. Of course this show is one of the old school Broadway spectaculars of the 1950s, the pair’s fifth ‘modern’ musical together, and like Oklahoma!, South Pacific and The Sound of Music, it’s littered with memorable melodies, larger than life characters and oodles of charm.

Leading a large ensemble cast were Maria Friedman and Daniel Dae Kim – as Anna Leonowens and The King of Siam – while fine support was given by the likes of well known screen actor David Yip and soprano Jee Hyun Lim, not to mention the many other faces and voices of the royal household. Miss Friedman is of course one of the stage’s brightest stars and she shone brightly in this perfectly cast role, in fine voice and emitting a wide-eyed warmth in a series of elaborate dresses. Mr Kim, most recognisable from TV’s Lost, made his London stage debut with this show and while he was by no means the strongest singing voice in the cast, he won us over with a charming and at times humorous portrayal of a man courting the modern world, but one who refuses to bow down to it. From their first moments together on stage I found it hard to imagine that the pair would gel and become a believable duo – but that’s the point of the story I suppose, they’re as opposite as opposites can be and the feelings between them are buried way beneath the surface. Later the bristles soften of course and their joint success at impressing the British envoy and his party, celebrated with a joyous dance lesson was truly delightful, not to mention their emotional, but understated parting.

Of course the Albert Hall is not a theatre per se, and so this production was performed ‘in the round’, the actors performing in the centre of the hall with the audience surrounding them. The setting of a musical in this way is quite a different experience for both performer and audience member alike, as for the former the space and direction of projection is increased and for the latter the performance is that much more immediate – for some it was literally right before their eyes. It was a challenge for sure, particularly for those creative minds tasked with staging the show and creating the world before us. When you’re being seen from all angles there really is nowhere to hide and the team can be congratulated not just for creating a lavish setting – replete with bodies of water, boats and indoor fireworks – but also for doing it relatively conservatively. Don’t get me wrong, there was bags of opulence in the Siamese Palace, but the use of space and the change over between scenes was well executed and required little fuss. There is definitely a weightier focus on performance and costume when there isn’t a myriad of backdrops and moving scenery and in this case it was a real winner.

This was my first viewing of this particular show and I went into the hall imagining all the music would be new to me; that was naïve of course as I instantly recognised many of the songs. Staple repertoire fillers such as I Whistle a Happy Tune, Getting To Know You and Shall We Dance? were instantly recognisable, while Hello, Young Lovers and I Have Dreamed were new to me and I shall certainly seek them out and listen to them again. The latter saw beautiful performances by Ethan Le Phong and Yanle Zhong as the young lovers Lun Tha and Tuptim, who cannot be together as she ‘belongs’ to the King. Le Phong was especially impressive and he would have made a fine King – I’d like to have seen/heard him perform A Puzzlement, the King’s big number, which was probably the weakest song in the show sadly.

Dance of course played a role in the show and the set piece for choreographer Susan Kikuchi was the performance of The Small House of Uncle Thomas, during which Princess Tuptim addresses her hatred of the King through her interpretation of an American story about slavery. To be honest this part was a tad lengthy and it was easy to lose focus – a casualty of the ‘round’ setting perhaps, being that the effects had to come from props and lighting on the ground, rather than the all encompassing and changeable surround of a proscenium stage.

Performing the music on the stage proper – though cloaked behind flowing drapes and ornate columns – was the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, conducted by seasoned Musical Director Gareth Valentine. The usual acoustic was somewhat dulled by their shroud – though to be fair it was the voices that were the main focus here – but they did a wonderful job as ever. The score represents one of Richard Rodgers’ finest and most incandescent, with the March of the Siamese Children being a wonderful musical set piece and highlight as Anna meets each of her new pupils, just some of the King’s many heirs. The children themselves were warmly received and each turned in a lovely performance – though at times it seemed Prince Chulalongkorn was lost somewhere between Hackney and Bangkok, as his accent flitted between the two quite often. Neither he or young Louis – performed here by Tony Nguyen and Lewis Cornay – were given their chance to shine vocally as their song, the Reprise of A Puzzlement was excised from the show for reasons unknown. Of course I wouldn’t have known otherwise having never seen the show before, but my companion actually played the part of Louis in the 1990/91 production (starring Susan Hampshire as Anna) and so he immediately drew my attention to it.

Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II rejuvenated the Broadway stage with shows like The King and I in 1951 and this week it’s happening all over again with this gilded spectacle at the Royal Albert Hall. This is a rare opportunity to experience musical theatre as never before and while the likes of Hairspray, Avenue Q and Wicked are perhaps more flavour of the month with the younger generation, they owe their existence to shows like this. The old ones really are the best and no mistake.

The King and I is at London’s Royal Albert Hall until June 28th. Tickets are still available priced between £21.50 and £62.50. Group discounts and hospitality packages are available. Visit for further information or ring 020 7838 3100 to book tickets.

With huge thanks to Jodie Jenkins at the Royal Albert Hall.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

On The Desk III

My desk is almost tipping over under the weight of CDs at one end, so the toy TARDIS has had to move to the other end to keep things on an even keel… Of course I jest (though, not about the TARDIS). The in-tray is somewhat heaving though at the moment and so I feel it’s time to give some time to more albums that are ‘On The Desk’…

First up and well overdue for a mention is La La Land’s release of Lisa Coleman and Wendy Melvoin’s music for the hit NBC drama Heroes. Now I am about to commit a cardinal sin and admit that the entire phenomenon has passed me by (yes, terrible I know). I understand it’s rather good… (understatement of the decade perhaps) It’s certainly popular and the series has made stars of its, well, stars, spawned a committed fan following, and a top selling soundtrack album to boot. While the hip ‘n trendy tracks add much (to the record companies wallets no doubt), it’s the contemporary licks of Coleman and Melvoin that give Heroes its real voice and musical identity. The album from La La Land appears at first to be somewhat thin on the ground – with just ten tracks – but the majority of the selections go way past the five and six minute mark. Yes it’s something of a suite frenzy, arranged by the composers to reflect each of the series’ main characters and ending with a couple of set piece moments – including ‘Kirby Plaza’ from the finale of Season One. So, as the composers’ state in their nicely personal sleeve notes, each character is given their own ‘overture’ of sorts. But don’t get me wrong, there are no grand gestures here, no big themes; instead a sort of chillout set which re-creates the atmosphere of the show. ‘Claire’ offers a glimpse of a main thematic on piano – and a good one at that – echoed in parts of ‘Sylar’, while both he and ‘Mohinder’ are painted with Satie-esque piano hues. The selection is of course awash with synthetic textures, some airy, some industrial and all very listenable in their own ways. Not a groundbreaking, ear-shattering, pulse-racing selection by any stretch of the imagination, though fans of the show are sure to lap it up.

Up next – and staying with La La Land Records – is John Murphy’s take on The Last House on the Left, the latest Hollywood Horror makeover from Rogue Pictures. Wes Craven’s 1972 original – indeed his directorial debut – paved the way for countless films that followed with its gritty ‘realism’. The impact, however, is somewhat diluted all these years later and the film represents probably one of the titles most in need of a re-hash. And so fast forward to 2009 and Dennis Iliadis takes the reigns on this suped-up, sexier version of the story, which sees a family holiday home invaded by a violent gang who find themselves suffering at the hands of the angry parents of their victims. It’s all rather unpleasant of course, but the score manages to rise above mere shock and spatter, instead offering a mature take on the emotions running high throughout. ‘Saving Mari’ and ‘Going to the Guest House’ offer typical horror tones and general unease, while the likes of ‘After the Assault’ and ‘The End’ see more tonal ideas, achieved with solo piano – particularly in the latter. Murphy is no stranger to the darker side of film, thanks to brilliant turns in 28 Days Later and its follow up 28 Weeks Later and with The Last House on the Left he applies subtle atmospherics to a largely orchestral score, creating a bristling balance of light and shadow offering far more than your average horror score.

As I’ve touched on before, composers often feel inclined to send me promotional material of their latest work and I was delighted to receive a couple of discs from British composer Jennie Muskett. Jennie is one of the UK’s little known shining lights, having provided highly imaginative scores for small documentaries, prime-time television series’ and glossy Hollywood films alike. She is well on the heels of current trends and strives to keep on top of technological developments – with that in mind you can always count on Jennie for an immediate sound, straddling the genres of contemporary digital music and traditional classical approaches. Most recently the composer delivered Compulsion, for the ITV film drama starring Ray Winstone and Parminda Nagra. It’s an atmospheric and at times darkly sensual score, featuring deliciously exotic colours and a well-honed contemporary edginess. I’m always impressed by Jennie’s music and am always left wanting more – I think there’s still a lot remaining for her to achieve and she has well and truly set herself up to become on of the UK’s major voices on screen.

Finally to one of MovieScore Media’s most colourful releases in a while, Darren Fung’s Just Buried. The film is a darkly comic look at funeral homes, as a young man inherits one such establishment only to find the young female mortician he falls in love with is doing away with the locals to keep the ailing business afloat. Taking its lead of course in many respects from the likes of Six Feet Under and Pushing Daisies - the lighter side of death has certainly been in vogue of late – the film is given life (ahem) thanks to a delightfully perky score by Darren Fung. Eclectic is something of a buzz word when it comes to this type of score, but it truly fits Just Buried as Fung has arranged a frisky melange of instrumentation to create a bustling musical accompaniment. Headed by piano, we’re well and truly in Thomas Newman territory in many respects, but more playfully so I feel. The scampering pizzicato, glockenspiel, strings and cimbalom that skip through the likes of ‘Vehicular Manslaughter’ are immediately likeable, and indeed infectious, while the pseudo-gothic classicism found in ‘Pickles Has The Stick’ are both tongue-in-cheek and brilliantly applied. The track titles alone here are enough to raise a smile – and an eyebrow perhaps – each perfectly exhibiting the type of film this is. Personal favourites are ‘I Dropped a Mini-Van On Him’ and ‘You Screwed My Dad!?!?’ – need I say more. Joking aside, both cues offer some of the more dramatic brassy moments on the disc - the latter seeing an amusing shift on the wedding march. This is a delightful score and no mistake – a real breath of fresh air for the ears.

Heroes (LLLCD1091) and The Last House on the Left (LLLCD1092) are both available from, while Just Buried (MMS-09003) is available on CD via and as a download from the usual platforms. For more information visit

If you’d like to know more about Jennie Muskett then take a look at her newly launched website where you can see and hear what she’s all about –

With thanks to Beth Krakower at Cinemedia, Mikael Carlsson at MovieScore Media and Jennie Muskett.

Monday, 8 June 2009

By George! - George Fenton and the LSO

I’ve mentioned my early obsession with television theme music when I was growing up; I’d sit with a tape recorder next to the television set and record tape after tape of themes. Of course I had favourites and it has transpired that many of them were composed by people I’ve since had the pleasure to meet, get to know, and whose music for the big screen I admire still. George Fenton is one such person whose career began on that box in the corner of the living room and his music for the likes of Bergerac, Telly Addicts and countless BBC News themes and stings most certainly appeared on my cassette tape ‘compilations’. George is an absolute gentleman and with an enviable career as a screen composer; he is without doubt one of the largely unsung heroes of film music. His early collaborations with directors like Richard Attenborough and Neil Jordan, followed swiftly by those with Ken Loach, Stephen Frears and Andy Tennant have allowed the composer a lingering presence on screen, with assignments on boths sides of the Atlantic. His music, I find, is consistently good; it’s thematic, listenable, strong and varied – which is the hallmark of a great composer. Any film is in safe hands when George Fenton is on board.

Last night George was able to present a selection of his works at London’s Barbican Centre, with more than a little help from the London Symphony Orchestra. Ever humble, the composer/conductor seemed truly honoured to be able to stand before the illustrious band. The orchestra last worked with Fenton in 1993, performing the score to Attenborough’s Shadowlands and so it was something of a long-overdue reunion. From the podium, the composer presented his own music in his own understated way; this wasn’t a big showy event by any means, instead it was a safe and strong presentation of just really very good music. It was the personal touch that gave the evening a sense of warmth and intimacy, with George leaving the podium himself to bring on his soloist guests at times.

It must have been a difficult concert to programme, mainly because of the wealth of material composed over the last thirty years or so. That said it was a fairly inclusive set-list, with just a touch of the composer’s early small screen gems presented in a trio including the themes from The Jewel in the Crown, The Monocled Mutineer and The Blue Planet. The latter was of course the most recent of that selection and one of George Fenton’s biggest triumphs, the music itself being performed in its own concert tour in recent years. With that in mind it’s understandable that there wasn’t more from the groundbreaking BBC series being played at this concert – though a performance of ‘Sardine Run’ would have gone down very well I think.

The film selections that made up the majority of what remained took in many highlights and key collaborations in George’s career so far, with emphasis on his variety of style here and there. Sweeping, orchestral romance was a firm fixture with suites from the likes of Ever After and Stage Beauty whisking us off our feet, while the likes of China Moon and Land and Freedom offered more contemporary orchestration choices and Spanish hues respectively. The brass and percussion were able to exhibit their famously fine voices throughout, with Valiant being a brilliant second half opener, while first half closer Land and Freedom was positively Herrmannesque in places with crashing brass chords and all kinds of jarring harmonies.

As I said, soloists played a key role on the stage and the second half saw some stunning performances by Martin Robertson and Andrew Findon who took on the likes of Duduk, Chinese flute and Irish pipes in selections from Planet Earth (itself a moving suite), Beyond the Clouds and one of my all time favourite Fenton scores, High Spirits. John Parricelli and Tom Howe did the honours on acoustic guitars for Dangerous Beauty, a lovely suite and another highlight for me personally as I’ve enjoyed the score on album for many years (though I didn’t recognise the title in the programme as my album is called A Destiny of Her Own).

Singer Nicola Emmanuelle provided an edgy vocal for Le Vampire, a standout moment from the first half. The music was composed by Fenton for Neil Jordan’s 1995 film Interview With The Vampire, though it was replaced with a score by Elliot Goldenthal… It is a classic example of ‘why on earth?’ as the music is simply brimming with gothic romance and fire. I am a fan of the replacement score though, which is perhaps slightly edgier still; certainly more chaotic, but no less romantic in my view. Emmanuelle returned in the second half with a group of singers for the finale piece, from Richard Attenborough’s 1987 apartheid drama Cry Freedom. The music was a tour-de-force which saw the conductor leave the podium to perform piano and ‘mumble’ (as he put it) the end title song he wrote at the last minute at Attenborough’s request. It was a stunning end, with the voices of the passionate vocalists ringing out over the orchestra and the rhythm section inspiring many a toe to tap in the audience. George returned to the podium to bring the ensemble together (though they never missed a beat without him) for a thrilling cadence of percussion, brass and voices.

While my companion and I were sad not to hear a burst of Newsnight or The 6 O’Clock News as an encore (appeasing ourselves by humming it all the way to the pub), we did leave in no doubt that George Fenton is one of the industry’s strongest voices, and a composer who is sure to do marvellous things with music for a long while to come. Come on George, release a compilation album and include a few bonus tracks of news stings… please?

With thanks to Dvora Lewis PR.

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

On The Desk II

In my in-tray this week – and indeed On The Desk – is a steadily growing pile of CDs which I’ve sadly had to ignore due to other commitments of varying interest. That said, there has been time to sample a handful of delights this week, including one of the more anticipated scores of the ‘Summer’.

Indeed, Hans Zimmer’s follow up to the scintillating gothic-fest that was The Da Vinci CodeAngels and Demons – has graced my ears a number of times since I hungrily grabbed it from the FedEx man’s clutches last week. Zimmer frames (!) Ron Howard’s scaled down religious thriller in a similar musical shroud to that of their first Robert Langdon ‘adventure’ though, like the movie, it feels somewhat more focused. The single location and smaller ensemble (casting wise) means there is far less to get confused about, and fewer bases to cover for the composer. With that in mind – and continuing a trend somewhat – the composer presents his lengthy score in just a few tracks, nine to be exact. Yes it’s the kind of album that will send some people completely mad as it is impossible to know what you’re listening to in relation to what you heard in the film.

This is a classic album production for the composer/producer, with all-encompassing track titles such as ‘Air’, ‘Fire’ and ‘503’ giving absolutely nothing away. Is that a problem though, really? Well I’m on the fence I suppose – as I’ve mentioned in my blog before, back in the day composers would record the soundtrack album specially and call it ‘Music from the Motion Picture’, thus creating a rounded listening experience and musical titbit for consumers to enjoy. Arranging and splicing score cues into lengthy suites – as Zimmer does here – is equally maddening for some, but like the ‘Music from’ albums it somehow captures the work in a neat little designed package. I watched the film having heard the album and immediately knew that the disc bore no relation to what I was watching, and in some instances I picked out perfectly nice cues that weren’t on the disc (such as a rather nice boy soprano solo for an early scene at the Vatican). The music in the film is immediate, sometimes relentless and – as my friend commented on leaving the cinema – rarely gives you time to breathe, so constant is its ascension to a seemingly unending precipice (that’s BeekBlog guff for Cliffhanger).

The album then opens with the end credits music – titled ‘160 BPM’, which is possibly how fast the audience’s pulse is racing by the time the cue ends. It is a brilliant album opener – despite being the film closer – and pretty much overshadows everything that follows. The rhythmic patter of the faux pipe organ, incessant drums and ecclesiastic choir all soar above quite a kitsch, almost 80s electronic beat. It’s all very Hans Zimmer though and is somewhat refreshing in a bizarre way; we’ve heard so much from his cohorts and protégés that you really do forget – as a colleague put it to me – how bloody good Zimmer can actually be. This track shows him on fine form indeed and I’d quite happily rate the entire disc on this piece alone; it left me breathless. There is another forty or so minutes of music left though, so I’ll try not to peak too early, even if Hans did. With ‘God Particle’ we get some of the music from the opening of the film as a familiar motional string line precedes Zimmer’s simple climbing theme from The Da Vinci Code, this time given life by violinist Joshua Bell. The instrument – and performance – gives it a matured and more emotive feel. It’s a strong thematic though and is warmly welcomed back, along with the threat motif from the first film. Initially associated with the shadowy monk assassin, it is used here for the similarly shadowy clergy-killer. Both thematic threads rear their heads amongst a sea of programmed loops, atmosphere and choral hue (‘God Particle’ quickly disappears from the memory by the way after Bell bows out). Bassy chords, shrieks and all kinds of eerie patter remind me of Hannibal, as Da Vinci did in places, with the grandiose choir and creepy pipe organ found here and there, for example in ‘Air’ and ‘Fire’, raising the hairs rather successfully. Bell returns in the latter, alongside all kinds of shimmer and twinkle, creating a rather mystical sheen before atmospherics take over once again.

The production design here is pretty special to be fair and you can’t fail to be impressed by the depth and nuance created by Zimmer and Co. There’s further excitement in ‘Black Smoke’ with much percussive wizardry and a return to the ‘160 BPM’ sound, while things calm down a little in ‘Science and Religion’ and the bassy ‘Immolation’. All in all it’s a very glossy soundtrack album which concerns itself more with a listening experience, rather than the original intent of the music in the film itself. A gripping listen... mostly.

Another shadowy film to turn heads in recent week is Tomas Alfedson’s gothic drama Let The Right One In. With a score by Swedish composer Johan Soderqvist, the atmospheric story about a bullied boy who befriends a young female Vampire has been winning over viewers the world over. While it is a visually beautiful piece of work, a lot of the film’s impact comes from the music by Soderqvist, who supports the story with a brilliantly balanced score that both lurks in the shadows and casts a melodic light on the unlikely friendship that blossoms between Oscar and Eli. MovieScore Media released the music on limited edition CD, and as a download, and their album presentation is a generous one that takes in many highlights, including the graceful, yet hugely emotive ‘Eli’s Theme’. Other standouts include the sweet piano-led ‘Then We Are Together’ and the gorgeous guitar take on Eli’s theme in ‘Going Home’, while darkness enraptures in the likes of ‘The Slaughter’ and ‘Virginia in Flames’. A fine album of a very fine score.

Finally, and adding a splash of colour to my pile, is the very yellow-sleeved Shifty. Released by Silva Screen Records, the British indy drama about two friends reunited after four years having gone down very different paths, was treated to a very listenable contemporary score by composing team Molly Nyman and Harry Escott. A small ensemble piece – performed by The Samphire Band – it feels wonderfully fresh and appealing, with a street-ish vibe that doesn’t alienate. The touch is really very light, with a slight electropop edge in the likes of ‘Busting My Ghaand’, while piano and guitar perform repetitive patterns in ‘Charming Glen’ and ‘Leave It All Behind’ (with Violin). The influence of Nyman’s composer-father is evident in this respect, but the younger Nyman takes his lead and runs in her own direction with well conceived edginess and colour. The final score cue ‘Play The Tape’ continues the feeling of ‘Leave It All Behind’, but with added percussion and is a definite highlight and an all encompassing example of what Molly and Harry have achieved here. All in all it’s a surprising listen, and not at all what you’d imagine from the subject matter; in fact the film itself has surprised many offering one of the most real portrayals of a heterosexual relationship between men seen on screen, not to mention the contemporary take on Islam. For those reasons Shifty has been celebrated, and the music should be too.

More On The Desk coming soon, including La-La-Land’s Heroes score album, John Murphy’s The Last House on the Left and a look at the recent music of British composer Jennie Muskett.

Angels & Demons is in cinemas right now, with Hans Zimmer’s score available on Sony Classical. Let The Right One In is still doing the rounds on screen in the UK and Johan Soderqvist’s engaging score is available on CD from Screen and as a download from the usual places. Visit for more information. Finally Shifty is available on CD and as a download from Check it out.

Friday, 22 May 2009

Music on a Knife-Edge: Psycho LIVE

While I’m yet to see all of his films, I can say with my hand on my heart that I am a Hitchcock fan. I remember going to the cinema – The Watershed in Bristol to be exact – eleven years ago to see a film which would have a huge impact on me for years to come. To this day Psycho is my favourite film, for various reasons, and last night I was able to experience it on the big screen for a second time at Notting Hill’s glorious Coronet Cinema. That experience in itself would be enough to write home about – or indeed to blog about – but Hitchcock’s visual masterpiece was brought even more vividly to life with its groundbreaking score by Bernard Herrmann played live.

In what was essentially a brilliantly conceived, though wonderfully random promotional event, Sky Movies laid on the film and music as a way of launching their new Hitchcock Season. With that in mind it was very much a private affair, with a scattering of tickets given out to prize winners and alike, with the rest dished out amongst interested and related parties, not to mention a handful of ‘celebrities’ (I use that in the loosest sense of the word and although the names Gabriel and McCartney were mooted, sadly I only happened upon Who Wants To Be a Millionaire host Chris Tarrant). I was fortunate enough to come under one of those categories (and no I didn’t win a competition) and took my seat, clutching my gleefully acquired complimentary drink and sweets, thinking I knew full well what to expect. I was entirely wrong… well, mostly.

Twenty or so string players from The London Soundtrack Orchestra (formerly known as The London Ensemble) did an admirable job of hacking away at Herrmann’s busy, rhythmic and always thrilling music, with conductor Ben Foster at the helm. It was quite a task and Ben steered them through cue after cue, sometimes with as little as a second or two to breathe before the next onslaught. Obviously it was a slightly smaller ensemble than we might be used to hearing play this music, but that didn’t mean it was any less impressive or immediate, in fact it was downright startling in places.

The clincher was always going to be the shower scene as blade meets flesh (or does it?) to the shriek and hack of those immortal glissando notes. It was this moment that shook me out of my otherwise state of quiet enjoyment. This scene was always meant to shock of course, but after years of seeing it on the small screen, the sharp edge has gone a little blunt… not so last night. With the music being played right before us, the intensity of that famous scene was dialled up to max and it was almost heart stopping, while the enlarged screen meant the eyes of the killer – shrouded in inky shadow – shone out larger than ever. The moment leading up to the frenzied attack was given extra atmosphere with the low rumbling of a passing tube train far below us. What a thrill.

Another reason it’s great to see a classic film in the cinema is the audience experience… Moments that you laugh at on your own, are funnier still, while moments that make you catch your breath are even more breathless – the scene where Lila is frightened by her own reflection in Mrs. Bates’ bedroom was one such moment and everyone laughed nervously at how much we had jumped, helped along of course by our musicians’ on-the-nail performance.

Everything about this film is so well considered, from the carefully planned shots and even-tempered script, to Herrmann’s intricately symmetrical musical puzzle. It’s ultimately a very simple film, but it’s no less masterful. The conservative nature of its production gives way to the fact that the story at its heart is simply marvellous, the performances brilliant and it never fails to enlighten me, excite me and make my heart pound. Even more so last night and thanks to that my passion for this film, and its music, has been fuelled once more.

My fellow audience members appeared to agree and with the spine-tingling notes of the ‘Mad House’ motif, as Marion’s car is dragged from the swamp, a wave of applause rang out across the gilded room. Ben Foster and the London Soundtrack Orchestra created a bit of magic in a small corner of the capital last night and for the first time ‘in the history of Planet Earth’ as our host Alex Zane put it. I’m amazed this landmark piece of music hasn’t been performed live to its picture before, but it’ll surely happen again though. ‘Sometimes just one time can be enough…’? Not this time Marion.

Sky Movies’ Hitchcock Season begins on Monday May 25th with screenings of fifteen of the master’s classic films throughout the week, including world premiere HD presentations available on demand through the SkyHD channel. For more information visit

With thanks to Ben Foster.

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Rolling out the Classics - Filmharmonic 2009

There is one permanent entry in my diary year after year that I always look forward to and can never bring myself to miss – Filmharmonic. I go along to the Albert Hall knowing fully what to expect – indeed this is my fifth year – as the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra take to the stage to perform some of cinema’s greatest film themes. Before you open the programme you know you’re going to see the words Gladiator, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Mission: Impossible, Superman, Witness and Pirates of the Caribbean. These days you know you won’t see Rocky in the programme, but you know full well that Bill Conti’s rousing fanfare and theme will provide the encore piece. Does any of this matter? I used to think so, but I’ve come to embrace the annual dusting off of the classic film music repertoire. Why? Because it’s just so damned good.

There’s no doubt either that the performance won’t be up to scratch and this year it was largely agreed that the RPO excelled themselves with what I considered a really punchy performance. A few pieces in the past have come across somewhat lacklustre, tired even, but this year they were each performed with a lot of flair and power, particularly Williams’ glorious theme from Jurassic Park (though they still use the score with the wrong note at the start!), the obligatory Superman and Goodwin’s downright brilliant theme from Where Eagles Dare.

A highlight moment for me always comes with the guest conductors and while the producers rarely stray far from their usual contact list, it’s always a nice opportunity to a) see a composer conduct their own music, and b) hear something you haven’t heard live before. Last night saw David Arnold take to the stage at the Albert Hall for the first time in a few years. David would be the first to agree he isn’t really a conductor, but he kept the ensemble together – using a red pencil I might add – and appeared to thoroughly enjoy conducting his perky waltz from The Stepford Wives, an orchestral rendering of ‘You Know My Name’ from Casino Royale and the cue ‘A Night at the Opera’ from Quantum of Solace. While the former Bond snippet was obviously barnstorming, the real highlight for me was the latter dramatic cue and although it didn’t end with much fanfare, it was a riveting addition.

British Film and TV stalwart Debbie Wiseman is a permanent and very welcome fixture at Filmharmonic and she can always be counted on to bring her latest score pages – and a rowdy posse – with her. This year saw her lead the orchestra through a suite from Lesbian Vampire Killers - her most recent film score – preceded by a selection from Tom & Viv – her first. It was a nice touch making those career bookend selections and the former certainly went down well, with members of the film’s team – including director Phil Claydon – offering no end of support from their seats in the Grand Tier. I told Debbie I would make some noise after the suite, but it really wasn’t needed with them in the room! While the film itself has suffered very mixed reviews, there’s no doubt that the music is a triumph. The composer and director make a good team and I’m fairly certain it won’t be the last we’ll see and hear of them together.

As usual a few additional nuggets littered the programme, with a rendering of Ray Parker Jr’s Ghostbusters title song leaving me slightly red-faced in the first half. While it featured very colourful orchestration and some great brass, it was all just a bit embarrassing frankly… I’ll never condone orchestral versions of songs. It really was something weird, and it didn’t sound good, particularly when it came to the point where people would normally shout ‘Ghostbusters!’ – that was left to the brass… oh dear.

What should have been embarrassing at the end of the first half was a selection of American TV Themes and while you’d be right in thinking it’s a bit of a stretch for a film music concert, it actually ended up being one of the best bits of the night. Opening with Bill Conti’s brilliantly applied themes for Dynasty and Cagney & Lacey (which was rightly met with a very big cheer and applause come the end), the ensemble presented Mike Post’s dramatic opener for LA Law, before ending with Jerrold Immel’s infectious Western-tinged theme for Dallas. I was a fan of TV Themes long before I discovered film music – okay, I was about 10 – and these four themes always scored highly for me. I do believe Conti’s Cagney & Lacey is a contender for ‘Best TV theme Ever’, and it was a giddy childlike pleasure to see and hear it played by a full orchestra.

So you see there’s always something to get excited about at Filmharmonic, even if you think you know what to expect. The hall was very full as it always is and when our affable host Tommy Pearson – who did a fine job as usual – asked if anyone hadn’t been before, I was surprised to hear a great many voices shout out. That’s a wonderful thing and indeed another reason why the RPO roll out the classics annually, because there’s always someone who is yet to experience the power of live orchestral music, and live film music at that. More of the same next year – May 14th 2010! Don’t miss it.

You can experience the delights of the Filmharmonic repertoire on a newly packaged triple CD set, available from the shop at Visit for information about the RPO’s next film music concert – ‘The Best of Bond’ – which takes place on Friday 13th November.

With thanks to Doran Harding, Debbie Wiseman and all at the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.