Wednesday, 29 April 2009

On The Desk

As a film music journalist and critic I do find all sorts of albums coming through the letterbox. With the prolonged – and indeed unforeseen - absence of Music from the, my in-tray is somewhat full of discs I would normally set to work on reviewing for the MftM review column. With that in mind I have decided do devote the occasional blog to those delights – or otherwise – which I find ‘On the desk…’

This week I would like to shine a light on a handful of offerings which have been lingering a bit too long and which certainly need a mention. Ryan Shore is one of the last year’s most exciting discoveries and whilst his family credentials need no more introduction, he has proven himself to be a most versatile and exciting talent. We of course have MovieScore Media to thank for bringing his work to our ears; from the label’s digital release of Headspace sometime ago, through the likes of Numb, Jack Brooks: Monster Slayer and Shadows, the Swedish label – headed by former Music from the Movies Chief Correspondent Mikael Carlsson – has championed the young composer well and truly. It is the latter two titles that have sat in my tray for a number of weeks and each is a credit to Shore, both displaying his fine talents with an orchestra. And they couldn’t be more different in tone; Jack Brooks is a carnivorous symphonic work which sees the Slovak Symphony Orchestra chop away at a ballsy set of cues, each working to enhance the gung-ho and ever so slightly comic visuals. At times Shore the younger has the feel of his Uncle, albeit a little wilder, a little more crazed – evidenced in ‘Tentacles’ and ‘Kicking Ass’ (which he does, and well). With ‘Eve’s Situation’ – a standout cue – he brings about a sense of pure 80s orchestral pleasure, reminiscent of early Horner in many respects and mainly thanks to the bold brass, trigger-happy anvil percussion and undulating snare. It’s a wonderfully robust piece of work all in all, and is a shoo-in for the Best Score award at the forthcoming Fangoria Chainsaw Awards.

A pole apart is Shadows, which Shore scored for Macedonian director Milcho Manchevski last year. The film itself, about a man whose near-death experience sees him having to confront the meaning of his own life, was considered for nomination at this year’s Academy Awards in the ‘Best Foreign Film’ category. Musically it’s a mature, dramatic work featuring some beautiful vocal solos by Janita and wonderfully lyrical lines. The opening title cue sees a gorgeous, lilting woodwind solo over strings, while the score proper is full of mystery, some angst and a lot of beauty. The motional quality of ‘Appearances’ found me thinking of Desplat, with those harmonies running throughout and captivating entirely.

When you realise that Shore is first and foremost a dedicated Jazz musician and composer - with great talents at both – you get the sense that he is just an absolute all rounder and will be able to turn his hand to anything. These two scores alone say so much, with the more intimate vibes of Numb, Kettle of Fish and Coney Island Baby, not to mention his presence in the Streep/Thurman rom-com Prime (released by Varese Sarabande) only increasing the scope and variety of the early part of what is likely to be a very fruitful career in film music.

Composer Neal Acree has been plying away in Hollywood for a few years now, providing music for a handful of primetime fantasy series’ including the Joel Goldsmith vehicles Witchblade and the long-running Stargate adventures. Movie-wise, Neal has impressed with a variety of under-the-radar shockers and thrillers and is due a high-profile break on the big screen. His scores for Juncture, 7 Seconds and Method are prime examples of his talents and while they haven’t been made available on CD officially, I was very pleased to receive a selection of Neal’s own promotional discs to listen to. With Method, he is given a classic murder mystery to play with and provides music that supports not just the bloody aspects of the story (brilliantly displayed in ‘Murder for String Quartet and Orchestra’), but also the faint romance of the central character – an actress, played by Liz Hurley, who gets into her current role as a famous Murderess a little too exactly. With a familiar piano-led vibe, Acree creates a sense of romance and threat – reminiscent of Mark Snow, John Ottman and alike – but very listenable indeed. Juncture sees another strong female character at the forefront, and this time the composer adopts solo female vocals, alongside sampled piano to create an altogether unusual atmosphere, which is definitely the name of the game. Finally 7 Seconds finds a heightened rhythmic sense, samples, loops and guitar work – not entirely my cup of tea, but well achieved and exacting a definite contemporary hue with just a touch of sass.

Finally this week is Enlightenment Records release for Shamim Sharif’s romantic comedy drama I Can’t Think Straight. The film, which sees a young – soon-to-be-wed – Palestinian woman falling in love with a British Indian woman, did the rounds at this year’s London Lesbian & Gay Film Festival and has proven quite a popular title. The soundtrack is an eclectic set of tunes which touches on the vibes and cultures found in the film’s busy plot. Singer/songwriter Nadine Khouri features throughout the line-up, with the freespirited and very listenable sound offering the disc’s highlights. Composer Raiomond Mirza is responsible for the film’s original music and the majority of his cues (mostly songs in fact) feature solo artists, including Khouri, as well as Mena and Leonie Casanova. Casanova’s own track ‘Holy Daughter’ is another treat, with strong vocals and guitar, while Mirza’s only instrumental score offering (‘Love Theme’) fits in rather nicely with it’s sweetly mellow vibe. It’s very much a set-list of strong female vocalists though that make up the album, topped off perhaps by World Music star Natacha Atlas, who adds ‘Kidda’ and ‘Ghanwa Bossanova’ to the mix. A well chosen selection and certainly not your average soundtrack playlist; it ought to do well with fans of the film, of which there are an increasing number.

More ‘On The Desk’ coming soon...

For more information about MovieScore Media releases go to, while you can find out more about Ryan Shore and Neal Acree at and, respectively.

I Can’t Think Straight is available on DVD from May 4th, while the soundtrack album is available on CD from the usual places. Take a look at

With thanks to MovieScore Media, Republic Media and Neal Acree.

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

On The Proms...

It’s amazing to think that the Royal Albert Hall is hosting its 115th season of ‘Proms’ concerts this year… The BBC Proms – as they’ve been known for sometime now – is without question the highlight of the Classical calendar in the UK. The world’s most accomplished musicians have descended on London year after year, performing music both classic and new to packed houses during the summer months. There’s a certain buzz about a Prom – and I’ve been fortunate enough to attend a few – that is somewhat difficult to explain. The experience of sitting beneath that vast dome seems somehow to unite those who have gathered to celebrate and join in the spirit and fellowship of music – okay, perhaps a touch over the top? Vomit inducing? Maybe… but it’s true; there’s a definite feeling of delight in that place, at those times. It’s certainly twee, but quintessentially British.

To extend the borders of the Proms – which of course are ever so London-centric – the BBC has found ways of bringing the experience to those outside the M25. Proms concerts are often broadcast on big screens in open spaces around the country, while some regional ‘Last Night of the Proms’ concerts have proven an interesting, and indeed interactive idea. Rolling out the carpet for the main event though have been the BBC Proms Preview Concerts, which are currently doing the rounds in the South of England (and only the South of England it seems…). I attended last night’s event at St. George’s Bristol, an all-too-hidden gem at the heart of the city, where the BBC Singers gave a free mini-concert of music by composers being represented this year at the Proms.

Music by Holst, Bach, Stravinsky and Mendelssohn were just some of the treats sung out by the neatly pressed troupe; their fluid – and at times powerful – voices ringing out perfectly in the fine acoustic of that beautiful space. Though brief at around forty minutes, the ensemble absolutely enraptured, with their performance of Stanford’s ‘The Blue Bird’ a captivating highlight featuring solo soprano Margaret Feaviour, while McCabe's 'I Sing of a Maiden' offered the newest composition in the selection and featured four soloists, including the very handsome (and equally talented) Christopher Bowen. The presentation ended with a wonderful tudor madrigal composed by none other than Henry VIII. With additional rhythmic hand percussion, ‘Pastyme with good companye’ left us in fine fettle indeed.

Proms Director and controller of BBC Radio 3 Roger Wright introduced the event, using the time of course to give us a brief insight into this year’s line-up. Mr Wright also used the opportunity to do a little market research, discovering to his delight that a good many of those in the audience had attended Proms concerts in the past. He seemed very pleased indeed, which he would be… I was pleased too, but also found myself pondering the demographics. Here was a room full of white middle class people who attend classical concerts on a very regular basis. It’s hardly a varied slice of the populace and if you’d given out tickets on the street and asked those people the same question, I know the response would be very different.

The remit of the Proms, as laid out by its founder Sir Henry Wood 115 years ago, is ‘Quality and Accessibility’ and our host assured us that this was still the case. Wood’s term certainly goes hand in hand with the BBC’s own of ‘Inform, Educate and Entertain’ and both attempt to work together to present a stunning array of talent (Quality) at an affordable price (Accessibility). Mr Wright was quick to assure us that the Proms was in no way a big money maker for the corporation, though he did reveal that a staggering £6m of licence-fee money goes into the production of the 58 days of live music – all of which is broadcast in some form - with ticket sales apparently accruing just £3m of that in return. So is it worth it? Well that’s an interesting question…

As a music lover, and someone who especially appreciates live orchestral music, then yes I think it undoubtedly is. Music is food for the soul and I can’t think of a better feast than the BBC Proms, but is everyone really getting a piece of the pie? Classical music inevitably draws a certain type of crowd and despite the best efforts of those involved, that’s the way it will always be. Each year there are a handful of Proms that go beyond the traditional, Classical idiom, with Children being the target for many of them. Whether it’s through Blue Peter or Doctor Who, the BBC try – and succeed – in getting young people through the door. Having been involved in the latter Doctor Who Prom I know first hand how it can work… Time will tell though whether that show, and that music will draw any of those concertgoers back again. This year’s programme sees many delights of course, and the BBC has seen fit to push their programming of ‘Indian Voices’ and Bollywood music, not to mention the appearance of Radiohead’s Johnny Greenwood, whose orchestral work ‘Popcorn Superhet Receiver’ is being premiered – both in Week 5. Another crowd pleaser is sure to be ‘A Celebration of MGM Film Musicals’ in Week 3, while I myself am looking forward to hearing music by Michael Nyman and Philip Glass later in the season.

These popular ‘shows’ overshadow the rest of the events – and I’m doing the same thing right now - but it proves a point that for some reason advertising the fact that all of Stravinsky’s ballet scores are being performed this season (which they are) won’t draw a ‘new’ crowd like that of a Bollywood spectacle, or a token rock star. The producers and those media vents in their pockets are perhaps somewhere between a rock and a hard place, because they need to be seen to be trying to attract a cross-section of society.

Is it enough though I wonder? The Proms Preview Concerts, such as the one I attended last night, take in just three other places: London (!), Brighton and Bath… that’s hardly a cross section. Televising concerts in open spaces around the country? Nice idea, but how about actually stage some of the Proms concerts at venues across the country; there are many fine halls that would suit, and a good deal closer to the homes of ordinary people who might think twice about travelling to London – whether the ticket itself is affordable or not. Quality? Certainly. Accessible? Not quite enough.

For more information on this year’s BBC Proms programme visit

With thanks to St George’s Bristol –

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Context conflab...

Watching BBC One’s The Apprentice is often an entertaining experience – though it has turned into something of a pantomime in recent years. Comedy aside, watching the show has – for me at least – become a weekly round of ‘Name that Tune’. Composer Dru Masters is credited as the series composer in the end credits, but there’s little evidence of his presence. Instead the producers happily seize upon an array of film music cues week in, week out.

Last Wednesday’s edition saw a host of filmic tones slapped onto scenes of ineptness, comedy and otherwise, with notable use of cues from Thomas Newman’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, Murray Gold’s Doctor Who (Series 3 to be exact) and music Debbie Wiseman penned for a Bertolli commercial some time ago. Thomas Newman is a firm favourite it seems, as his music often appears in the series – particularly pieces from Wall•E, Little Women and the aforementioned Lemony Snicket adventure – while cues from Rolf Kent’s About Schmidt feature almost weekly.

Sir Alan’s stage is not the only platform to do such a thing, in fact innumerable BBC programmes use music from film to underscore documentary, current affairs stories and even drama from time to time. Last year’s delightful travel series Stephen Fry in America is a case in point too; the six-part series was treated to original music by both Debbie Wiseman and composing duo Molly Nyman & Harry Escott, who each did a fine job. While the episodes Debbie scored featured entirely her own music, the Nyman/Escott instalments were littered with film music references. The most bizarre instance saw Fry enjoying a hot-air balloon ride to the tune of Jerry Goldsmith’s ‘Main Title’ from Alien. Now we all know that score was a bug bear for the late composer, but I’m sure even he would have shivered at the thought of his composition being used in such a way. Or would he? Do composers care that much about what happens to their music after it’s finished, being that it is written for a commercial medium to begin with? I ran the question by Debbie Wiseman and she finds a positive spin on the issue:

“To be honest, once the music is delivered for the particular project, and everyone is happy with what I've delivered, I feel my job is done, and I'll move on to the next project. Of course, the music can sometimes show up on other projects, in a completely different context, but in a way that's a means that the music was liked and used by another producer!”

The Alien example is surely down to temp-love of course… but when you have composers of that calibre scoring the entire episode, why would you need to insist on keeping the temp? Maybe the editor was a Goldsmith fan.

Back to The Apprentice though, and while I appreciate how it is much easier to simply cut and paste existing music onto a piece of footage (and I’ve done it myself many a time) rather than scoring it from scratch, couldn’t the producers have commissioned a set of cues which they might similarly chop and change around? I suppose it comes down to £’s and pence at the end of the day.

I am ranting about this a little, yes… But I can’t help but shudder whenever I hear music written for something so specific, chopped up and slapped onto an image that bears no kind of relation to its creation/inspiration. Perhaps a poll on the most random use of a piece of film music might be fun? What’s the weirdest context you’ve seen/heard a film music cue used in, outside of its original intent?

The Apprentice can be seen on BBC One at 2100GMT every Wednesday, followed by You're Fired on BBC Two at 2200.
With thanks to Debbie Wiseman.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

A nice Ring to it...

What a week or so it has been for live film music in London. I’ve been fortunate enough to find my self in the company of the LSO, the RPO and, last night, the LPO. Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings trilogy opener The Fellowship of the Ring, performed live to picture at London’s Royal Albert Hall was the icing on a very enjoyable cake. Conductor Ludwig Wicki, the man who has been looking after Shore’s baby for the past couple of years now, has been touring the world with this first magnificent spectacle and will soon hit the road with the second instalment The Two Towers. The London audience has to wait a year for Part II of the experience, but last night’s show will surely live in their minds for a long while yet.

What made the performance of this complete score extra special for those in attendance, Wicki himself, not to mention Howard Shore – who was in the audience – was the fact that it was played by the music’s original cast. The London Philharmonic Orchestra, London Voices and London Oratory School Schola, were reunited on stage and worked their magic from the opening logos through to the end credits. Those lucky enough to get a ticket, and a good view of the giant cinema screen above the massive ensemble, were treated to a spellbinding presentation of what film music is all about. There was no fanfare, no shouting, just the film and the music and at times I genuinely forgot all those people on the stage before me were even there. That says a lot for the film and story, which always manages to captivate, not to mention the role of the music which immediately became one with the image it was written for. This was the first time I’d watched a complete film with live music and I have to say it was at times a bizarre experience. As I said, it was easy to get lost in the whole film experience and completely ignore the musicians beavering away beneath the screen, except for those moments where a particular sounds rang out – like the immense clanging during the scenes in Isengard – and bam you’re aware once again that this massive, intricate collection of sounds and melodies is coming from the people on the stage and not from a reel of tape, or a disc. I also found myself more aware, mesmerised even, when it came to the big moments in the score – the haunting beauty of the music for the Elves of Rivendell and Lothlorien, aided by the female members of the huge choir; the masculine thunder found in the sections for the Balrog and ‘The Bridge of Khazad-Dun’, not to mention the discovery of Dwarrodelf, the passage between the mighty statues of the Kings of old on the river and the emotional passings of Gandalf and Boromir. Highlights all and each served to whet the appetite for the bigger things that await in the second and third scores – just the thought of ‘The Lighting of the Beacons’ and ‘Mount Doom’ from The Return of the King is enough to make me want to wish the months away.

Technically it’s quite a feat to perform a complete score to picture; while Maestro Wicki did of course have his own screen from which to follow the action, I didn’t see any cans on the heads of the players, so a click-track wasn’t used - which is itself amazing. Of course balance was always going to be an issue, in terms of dialogue, and subtitles were needed so the audience didn’t miss moments in the film; it wasn’t a problem though and on the whole it all played together very succinctly.

The setting of the Royal Albert Hall was perfect and, coming to it just days after my Star Wars experience at the o2 Arena my thoughts were confirmed; this would have been a far better choice for Star Wars: A Musical Journey. The atmosphere in that beautiful space was warm and friendly; the presentation magnificently intimate, though the ensemble and screen were by no means any smaller. This is what a live film and music experience should be like and I count myself lucky to have been there.

I remember having dinner with Maestro Wicki and his wife, amongst other people, in Cannes toward the end of 2006; we were all in town for the performance of Shore’s Lord of the Rings Symphony in nearby Nice. Wicki had come along to rehearsals to meet with Howard Shore for the first time, to make his acquaintance prior to his starting work on this mammoth project. Flash forward two and a half years and I am very pleased to have finally been able to experience what I had been told about that weekend. Truly magical…

My thanks to Jodie Jenkins and everyone at The Royal Albert Hall.

Howard Shore’s score for The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers will be presented in the same way by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and London Voices at the Royal Albert Hall on April 23rd and 24th 2010. Visit for further information.

Sunday, 12 April 2009

o2 D2... or how I survived Star Wars: A Musical Journey

The Star Wars cash cow was coaxed – quite easily to be fair – onto the stage of London’s vast o2 Arena this weekend as Lucasfilm premiered the live spectacle that is Star Wars: A Musical Journey. The poor thing is 32 years old – in fact it’s probably a different cow, the original was served up in the commissary at Skywalker Ranch a long time ago (in a galaxy far, far away?). Age, and freshness, aside, Star Wars draws the crowds like nobody’s business and nobody does business like George Lucas. With two shows this weekend and a tour of Europe and the US to follow, the money will indeed keep on rolling in. It also means the music of John Williams will be ringing out from stages for a long time to come, which is a great thing.

You might think I’m being cynical - I’m really not; I actually have great affection for Star Wars and lapped up every possible scrap of merchandise I could afford for almost ten years. The one thing I always looked forward to though was the CDs – indeed the music of Star Wars was an early factor in my appreciation of film music. I remember saving my pocket money for months (!) so that I could purchase the ‘Special Edition’ soundtracks in 1997 (though I still mourn the loss of ‘Lapti Nek’ and the original ‘Ewok Celebration’ from Return of the Jedi). As the millennium came and went, three brand new scores had been composed and released (to varying degrees of appreciation) and with that the circle was complete; a journey had been taken by John Williams and we’ve been enjoying it ever since. Compilation albums have come and gone – though let’s try and forget ‘The Corellian Edition’ shall we? – but with Star Wars: A Musical Journey, the story of Anakin Skywalker’s colossal fall from grace and ultimate redemption is told the right way... musically speaking at least.

The stage, shrouded by a large curtain finally came to life – later than anticipated – and the members of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra drew our attention with the classic opener of many a Star Wars adventure, the Twentieth Century Fox Fanfare. And so our ‘journey’ began, with our narrator for the evening, Anthony Daniels, guiding us through with his trademark voice and an unashamedly hammy delivery. There was no denying this was a serious, dramatic affair. That said, he was a fine storyteller and the crowd went wild with every reference to his alter-ego (helped along at one point with a gold waistcoat and a brief droid-like walk across the stage).

If you bought the original soundtrack album for Revenge of the Sith you will remember the bonus DVD. Also titled Star Wars: A Musical Journey, it featured Ian McDiarmid sitting in front of the empty stage at Abbey Road Studios where he re-told the story of the saga. This live show is essentially the same concept, though expanded a little (and only a little). In fact Daniels’ script was almost McDiarmid’s word-for-word and the accompanying footage – impressively projected on an enormous screen above the orchestra – differed really very little, though it was perhaps more inclusive of imagery from the original trilogy and more finely edited. I thought then, in 2005, that the piece would make a good live concert and it does lend itself very nicely to a staged setting. The union of words, images and glorious live music always works well and there was a touch of magic about the whole affair – but only a touch.

Musically it was a bit of a surprise as the majority of the pieces accompanying the story were the usual concert renderings of the major character themes and set-pieces. A big thing was made of the fact that Williams had himself arranged his six scores into a two hour suite. It would appear the composer had little to do, save for editing down ‘Luke and Leia’ and putting together a kind of ‘Entr’acte’ for the opening of the second half, consisting of the ever-thrilling cue ‘Carbon Freeze’ from The Empire Strikes Back. That said, there were many highlights including the wonderful concert version of ‘The Flag Parade’, a barnstorming presentation of ‘The Forest Battle’, the always-moving ‘Light of the Force’ and an absolutely brilliant, note-perfect rendition of ‘The Cantina Band’. Further highlights were found in ‘The Asteroid Field’, which wasn’t the concert version but the original cue from the film featuring some fantastic blasts of Vader’s theme and the sweep of Solo and Leia’s love theme toward the end.

Get to the point Michael… Okay, if anything it was a bit too much; the music – whilst performed admirably well by the RPO – was of course mic’d and the resulting sound bellowed and reverberated around the cavernous venue, as did Daniel’s voice. The distant hoots and shouts – and believe me in a space like that they were distant – gave the whole thing the feel of a football game. The emotion of the story itself, not to mention the many nuances found in Williams’ fine themes were somehow lost in the vastness. I’ve often felt there is something awfully lifeless about an arena, which is ironic given that this particular one was full of thousands of people shrieking and many wielding Lightsabers. Intimate this was not, and a concept such as this deserves that I think.

So all in all it was something of a Rebel Assault on the senses and it has taken me a day or so to contemplate the experience – perhaps evident in my writing… Whatever I think though, there’s no denying the size and power of this rather affable bovine and while there were many ironies and contradictions evident at the o2 Arena this weekend, one moment stands out for me: As I walked around the arena before the concert I found myself behind a small family. A very small boy, waving his toy Lightsaber like a conductor’s baton, hummed very loudly – and passionately - ‘The Imperial March’ note for note… That’s the power of this music, and the power of Star Wars… I do believe both will live forever.

With thanks to Lucy Ellison at AEG Europe and David Cox at The Outside Organisation.

Sunday, 5 April 2009

The LSO: A Life in Film

There really is nothing like hearing the music you love played live. Sitting in front of an orchestra is, at the best of times, a thrill, but sitting in front of the London Symphony Orchestra is something altogether different; it’s an electrifying experience. So it was that I found myself sitting a few metres from the mighty ensemble last night at their home stage in The Barbican, as they performed a full programme of film music to celebrate their long (70 years +) association with the silver screen. From their days working the orchestra pits of the great London film theatres, the LSO has somehow been synonymous with the art of film. The art of film music as we know it, i.e. fully synchronised music scoring, formed part of the orchestra’s roster of ‘jobs’ from the art form’s earliest days and since then they have performed the music of some of the idiom’s biggest names and for some of the box office’s most celebrated successes.

To encapsulate a ‘Life in Film’ is no easy thing, but the show’s producers managed to put together a programme that highlighted a good many critical moments in the orchestra’s filmography. From their earliest performances on the likes of Bliss’ Things to Come and Williams’ first Star Wars adventure, through to the emotive realms of George Fenton’s Shadowlands and James Horner’s Braveheart, the ensemble have continued to work their collective magic and the evening’s programme was littered with evocative, memorable music from their glittering past.

A nice touch was the presence of some of the represented composers, whether in person or on film – courtesy of new interview footage projected above the stage. Patrick Doyle and Trevor Jones – who discussed their careers in a pre-concert talk with presenter Tommy Pearson – were in attendance, with the performances of selections from Jones’ The Dark Crystal and Doyle’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire being further highlights. During the on-stage discussion Jones likened working with the LSO to having all his birthdays on one day, and both he and Doyle – who was as wonderfully animated as ever – spoke warmly and with some awe about their regular orchestral collaborators. Another composer in attendance was Philippe Rombi, whose ‘Aria’ from Joyeux Noel proved to be one of the surprising jewel’s of the second half, as was Alexandre Desplat’s specially arranged suite from The Queen. On screen, prior to their own works being performed, were John Williams, James Horner and George Fenton. Williams was of course given the most time and his affection for the orchestra was obvious, while a rather thin-looking Horner – sat in front of a piano – recalled, as many did, the orchestra’s prowess and dexterity. Fenton recalled Richard Attenborough asking him if he’d be able to get the LSO for Shadowlands and he remarked that, while he thought it was a fine idea, he wasn’t sure if they’d want to work with him!

The orchestra performed from genuine orchestrations, which makes a hell of a difference to the listening experience. The intricacies of Williams’ works rang out in all their glory, with the brass and percussion of concert-closer ‘Duel of the Fates’ absolutely knocking the audience’s socks off. So much of the music we hear in concert these days has been arranged by third parties, and that often means there are discrepancies – which perhaps only the truly enlightened fans might notice. But it is testament to this concert’s organisers that the ‘real’ thing, so to speak, was able to be enjoyed. It’s no easy task either, as I’ve been faithfully informed; James Horner is a case in point, for little or no true performable arrangements of his music exist. To hear music from Braveheart played live was a real treat, and while the crucial bagpipe element was absent (replaced by tin whistle), it was worth the effort (and expense) of getting the pages to perform.

Presiding over the orchestra was the indomitable Harry Rabinowitz who, at 93, must be in line for the honour of oldest conductor still working on the podium. While it was lovely to have him conduct, you couldn’t fail to notice that his eye wasn’t always on the ball. After flinging the baton into the front row during the first half, his confidence seemed to give out a little and he often lost his place in the scores, which led him to frantically rifle through pages as the orchestra continued to play. It is perhaps testament to the orchestra's skill and professionalism that they were able to hold it together, with a less-than-dynamic conductor. He is a dear old soul though with an impressive career in music, and indeed film music.

So for me it was a magical evening, and a fine end to a very entertaining afternoon in London, which was kicked off nicely with a matinee of Marc Shaiman’s delightful musical Hairspray - if you haven’t seen it, I urge you to go! Meanwhile there is more live film music to come in London over the next couple of months. This week we have Star Wars – A Musical Journey at the o2 Arena, followed next week by a live performance of Howard Shore’s score for The Fellowship of the Ring (to picture) at the Royal Albert Hall. May 8th sees the annual Filmharmonic gala concert with the RPO, while June 7th sees the LSO back on stage at The Barbican, this time performing an entire programme of music by George Fenton, conducted by the composer.

Long live the LSO!

With thanks to the LSO and Dvora Lewis PR. For more information about the London Symphony Orchestra and to book tickets for ‘The Film & TV Music of George Fenton’ visit

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Fighting Horner's Corner

I sometimes think James Horner is one of the great misunderstood. His enduring presence on the scoring stage over the last thirty years – yes, thirty – has seen him go from classical wannabe and B-Movie composer to one of the most recognisable voices, and names, in film music. To some he’s just ‘that guy who scored Titanic’, to others he’s a master of emotional nuance with a well honed perception of the human condition. He may sometimes come across as ever so slightly aloof, shy perhaps, and it’s no secret that he often finds the Hollywood machine faintly tiresome, but there’s no denying his skill and the identity he has crafted for himself. Has he passed the pinnacle of his career? Perhaps. There’s no doubt in my mind that Titanic was the crest of a steadily rising wave – built from the likes of Cocoon, Willow, Jumanji, Braveheart and Apollo 13. That said, his post-Oscar filmography is littered with box office and critical successes. His triumphs with his two Star Trek entries (The Wrath of Khan and The Search for Spock) meant his star was on the rise early and echoes of those scores can still be heard in his work today. But is that something to deride him for? Are we to berate an artist for creating a palette and re-using the same colours, nuances and brush strokes throughout their career? It seems so. Innumerable devices, motifs and rhythmic patterns have followed Horner throughout his career; most notably perhaps is the four-note ‘danger/threat’ motif, heard way back in 1983’s Brainstorm (‘Lilian’s Heart Attack’), through to Willow, The Mask of Zorro, The Perfect Storm and even The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. That latter example – his most recent score – is a fine case in point as even though it is reminiscent of A Beautiful Mind and the aforementioned Brainstorm in places, it remains a really rather captivating work and a perfect supporting tone for the film.

Re-using musical ideas, I think, simply cements a stronger presence and is a well conceived move. Today so much film music is merely wallpaper with little or no identity and I can barely think of a composer who is working in the very connective way that Horner still does. Plenty of legendary composers of the past did similar things; in fact it was the done thing in the early days of film music. With the conveyor belt system of production in the Golden Age, composers would often return to past scores and re-use bits and pieces, themes and motifs. Max Steiner – the man who started it all – is a fine case in point; for example Casablanca features music from The Lost Squadron, while his glorious theme for Now, Voyager is re-used for Bette Davis’ turn three years later as Mildred Pierce. Bernard Herrmann was fond of a three-note motif; made famous in Psycho as the ‘Madness’ motif, it was itself taken from his own ‘Sinfonietta for Strings’ (1935), used two years later in his ‘Moby Dick’ cantata and went on to feature in his score for Taxi Driver, amongst others. John Williams famously quoted the motif in Star Wars, which he was finishing up in the year following Herrmann’s death.

When he’s not re-using his own ideas, he’s often borrowing from other people – so the naysayers like to spout. Hands up, it is true to say that the music of Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Saint-Saens and Khachaturian have each had some bearing on Horner’s work over the years, but what about the presence of Holst in both Zimmer and Williams, not to mention the effect the likes of Herrmann and Nino Rota had on Danny Elfman’s early work. Aaron Zigman does a very fine Thomas Newman every other score, while Newman himself has, on occasion, been inspired by his late father’s work. To come full circle, and to mention a recently released Horner gem, Honey, I Shrunk The Kids sees the composer take Elfman’s lead and looks to Rota for his main theme, Copland for his ‘Rodeo’ style pieces while the appearance of Grusin’s The Goonies in ‘Ant Rodeo’ can surely be put down to temp-love. Speaking of which, anyone ever noticed Williams’ ‘Banning Back Home’ from Hook is strangely similar to Grusin’s ‘Mountain Dance’ from Falling in Love?

So Horner can be forgiven for simply continuing a trend which has been, and always will be, apparent in film music. While he’s scored some stinkers in his time and doesn’t always come up trumps – Windtalkers anyone? – he remains one of the strongest and most recognised voices in film music. The Spiderwick Chronicles showed he’s still got it and indeed all ears will be on James Cameron’s ambitious 3D epic Avatar when it finally graces the screen later this year. With the passing of Maurice Jarre just this week, we are reminded of the longevity of film music royalty. Williams, Morricone and Barry represent the higher echelons, while James Horner is the head of the next generation, so be nice.

Honey, I Shrunk The Kids is available now on limited edition CD from Intrada Records (ISC Vol 94) – – while The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is available as a digital download from Walt Disney Records at the usual places, or you can hear it for free by downloading Spotify here in the UK –

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

One Hell of a Bite...

Debbie Wiseman's Lesbian Vampire Killers

It was on a relatively grey October morning that I ventured across the country to London; a familiar journey culminating in my arrival at the sanctuary that is Air Studios. Every time I come to Air I’m struck by the friendly atmosphere as people bustle about, many of whom visiting just like me. The cosy, and busy, refectory usually offers a glimpse of someone well known in the music world – last time it was Bryn Terfel, enjoying a bowl of soup. This time Nick Cave, looking somewhat Vampiric - which was apt as just across the way the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra were battling a pack of Vampires, Lesbian Vampires to be exact. As I found my way to the booth, through a cable-covered corridor, a familiar orchestral flurry met my ears – the music of Debbie Wiseman. Later on, back in the refectory, the whys and wherefores of Lesbian Vampire Killers is being explained to a somewhat confused Nick Cave during lunch – ‘so is it the Vampires that are Lesbians, or the Vampire Killers?!’

To set the record straight – so to speak – it is the Vampires who are Lesbians; the killers are none other than James Corden and Matthew Horne, a pair of comedy actors who have unwittingly made it into the public conscience here in the UK through a series of roles and shows – some rather better received than others. Lesbian Vampire Killers though, finds the duo on fine form as Jimmy and Fletch, two friends who decide to get away from it all and go hiking in rural Norfolk, only to find themselves prey for a pack of Lesbian Vampires bent on resurrecting their long-dead Queen.

Back to the scoring session and it’s a tough schedule, but Debbie Wiseman is in fine spirits as usual. Two orchestra sessions fill the daylight hours, while the evening session sees the lovely ladies of the Crouch End Festival Chorus offer their voices, supported by classical superstar Hayley Westenra.

As usual I’m blown away by just how much music can be delivered in such a short space of time – indeed the entire film was scored in one day – and it’s all marvellous stuff. This is not a small score, but a wildly lustrous affair with unrelenting set pieces, fluttering romance and just a dose of comedy. Shortly after I take my seat behind Debbie’s regular engineer Steve Price, she takes the orchestra through a barnstorming cue which supports a hilarious scene involving an axe. As soon as the orchestra lifts off, it’s obvious the director is loving every minute of it and we exchange amused and excited smiles as Matthew Horne burys the axe into the head of his recently bitten ex-girlfriend all to the tune of Offenbach’s rambunctious ‘Can-Can’ (“It’s gonna be called ‘My aXe Girlfriend’ if there’s an album” he tells me, grinning from ear to ear). Later I’m introduced to the enthusiastic director and I’m pleased to find out he’s a big soundtrack fan – and possibly the only other person to have purchased Jaws 3D when it was finally released on CD last year. ‘I bought two!!!’ he reveals.

Of course there has been an album and ‘My aXe Girlfriend’ is not only present and correct, but one of the highlights as well. Having been at the scoring session, heard the album many times and seen the film, I am well and truly adversed in the ways of the Lesbian Vampire – and so it was with a head full of music, snappy one-liners and images of all kinds of gore (not to mention silliness) that I chatted on the telephone to Debbie Wiseman to discuss the most controversial title in her CV yet.

Unusual title… you’d agree the most unusual in your filmography so far?

I think it’s fair to say. Yes it definitely is the most unusual; it’s certainly causing the most controversy and whenever I tell anybody I’m doing it they look shocked. Especially with Hayley Westenra fans, I think they’re all a bit shocked as well; but the thing is that, as I say to people, the film is a lot of fun, it’s not offensive in any way and it’s just fun and the title itself causes controversy and makes people laugh and I think that’s a good thing.

How did you become involved with the project then?

Well about two and a half years ago, believe it or not, I met with Phil Claydon the director and he had heard some of the music I had written for Arsene Lupin and we met in a pub and started chatting about the music. Phil, as you know, is a massive soundtrack fan and he’s been collecting soundtracks probably even as early as you have I would have thought - he started when he was about six or something. He got into soundtracks really young, started to collect them and really has a massive knowledge of every type of soundtrack, from the early stuff – he loves Bernard Herrmann, things like that – all the way up to modern contemporary stuff. So he was so enthusiastic about the music, the score and what it could be and how much fun it could be. It was brilliant because often directors like the music process because it adds such a massive boost to their film, but to have somebody that not only likes the process but absolutely loves it was just fantastic. He’d come over and we’d start work and he said ‘Oh I’ve been waiting to do this for ages!!’ It was just great to have that enthusiasm and to have that support for the whole thing was fabulous.

You say in the album notes that he actually had quite a lot to do with how the score turned out; what sort of things was he giving you in that sense?

Well there were temp track ideas, but also before we even started actually – before he started shooting even – Phil made up CDs for me of all the stuff that he loved and stuff that he thought might work. A lot of that was just for listening and just for fun, and not necessarily to inform the score, but it was just great because he had so much in his head because he’d been looking forward to it so much and been really enthusing about getting started, so he had quite a lot in his head as he was writing it and developing the script. So there was a lot there to listen to, which I did, and then when we started actually working on it, it was kind of starting again really because it takes on its own life and although there were some temp track ideas, most of the time they were just there as a rough guide for editing. So we just sort of started again and that’s the fun bit because, though he’s had a great knowledge about soundtracks and had this background of loving film music, it didn’t make it ‘it’s gotta be like this soundtrack that I love…’ which a lesser director would have fallen into that trap.

So from all that you’ve ended up with this quite massive score; it’s gothic, romantic and funny… It’s actually scored quite seriously on the whole.

Well I think in a way it’s funnier if you do that; the irony of it plays well against the craziness of the situation. I don’t think comedy music ever really works terribly well in a film; I think by trying to be funny with the music often you can kill the joke, because you’re telling the audience and nudging them to laugh, and if they’re not gonna laugh without music, it’s probably unlikely they’re gonna laugh with music. The gags have to work on their own really and so the music plays seriously against it and a lot of the time obviously it’s a crazy scenario, but they’re in terrible danger, the boys, they’re about to be eaten by lesbian vampires and that’s a not a nice thing to happen (laughs). So to play it seriously was absolutely the right thing to do, because they’re in terrible danger, even though James Corden keeps going on about ‘I know something really wrong is happening here, but can we just ignore it?!’ (laughs) So of course it’s silly and of course it’s a crazy story, but I think it’s done with such love and the way it’s delivered – the two boys are so funny it, they’re very endearing characters – hopefully people will go along and grab a big bag of popcorn and enjoy it; it’s that sort of movie.

Typically your music is very thematic; what sorts of things have you come up with this time?

Well I guess the main one is the Lesbian Vampire theme itself because that sort of threads through, so you hear that in the opening prologue. In fact that was the very first thing I wrote; I was coming up with the idea of having something that was quite gothic and quite epic, but that also could be very beautiful and small at the start, so you’re teasing it a little bit at the beginning of the film. I played it to Phil and that theme stayed virtually exactly the same as it did from day one, I hardly changed a note, because it just sat really well and a lot of other things grew out of that quite naturally so it was quite good that it was nailed quite quickly. A lot of the other stuff, certainly the horror stuff was harder to nail and I tried out a couple of different ideas on Phil. I think the themes for that were harder because we weren’t sure whether to go all out horror or whether just to keep it slightly more magical and dark. There’s a very fine line between slightly overdoing it and slightly not, and that was quite hard to get right. The comedy stuff was more straightforward, there are a few comedy scenes and lighter touches which were easier to get right, then the real sort of action/adventure stuff, stuff where they’re bashing down doors – or not able to bash them down – and the running and big chases in reels four and five, those also were quite hard to nail and I did two or three versions of lots of those cues before we ended with what we’ve got in the film now.

Does that become more motivic than thematic then, that sort of scoring?

Yeah and it was getting the kind of big, chunky sound that Phil was after – very rhythmic and quite driving – without it sounding… It’s quite difficult to explain actually. A bit like the film itself, it’s very full on and it delivers the gags and then it moves on; it’s very quick and fast paced. He directed it and always wanted it to feel a bit like an animation; you know the way in an animated film the characters come to life so directly and then it’s over and done with and they’re off doing something else, and that’s what he wanted with this. He wanted the music to do that as well, so it literally leaps from one thing to another without bothering to make a nice neat join; one moment you’re in action/adventure land, the next you’re in magical land, the next moment you’re doing all out horror, the next minute it’s comedy… He just wanted that to happen and not to apologise for it, so it was getting into that vein of writing – which is very different to anything else I’ve done, and it was getting that atmosphere right…

Is that slightly more ‘Hollywood’ in that sense then, to be creating such a relentless, almost wall-to-wall sound… It did strike me as such when I reviewed the album, whatever ‘more Hollywood’ actually means (laughs)

I think so, possibly… I was interested that you said that. I guessed what you meant was that, yes, the directness of it, the directness of the approach…

Relentless, colourful, but not too repetitive and turning on its heel as you say…

That was the intention, to try and keep it lively and to give it that sense of excitement where it needed it, keep the drama moving on. I mean that very last sequence where he picks up the sword and he throws it, you know he’s a Hollywood hero at that moment and so the surging brass there and all that sort of stuff was to really play that up. Here he is, Matt Horne kind of looking like a Hollywood film star, saving the day!

Helped along by you…

Yes (laughs)

You mentioned the brass, which is fantastic, and it’s of course courtesy of the RPO, along with Hayley Westenra and the Crouch End Chorus… It’s becoming a regular cast.

Yeah… It’s not kind of intended. I do like the sound of the RPO brass and they do make a really great sound, they play beautifully together and create big sounds with seemingly very little effort – though I know a lot of effort goes into it. Having Hayley on board was really because Phil always wanted a choir and when I met him for the first time two and a half years ago one of the first things he said was ‘I really want it to sound epic and I’d love to use a female choir…’ – so he already had that in his head. But the solo voice came kind of later on, because once I’d written some of the choral cues it seemed there were obvious moments where a solo voice could be used as well. That’s when I suggested Hayley, because I just love her voice ‘cause it’s so pure and I can use it like another instrument; unlike say if I used a modern opera singer who might use a lot of vibrato, or make more of the notes than you necessarily want in something like this. She sings what I write very purely and it comes across sounding hopefully just like another instrument, but beautiful…

She has an ageless voice I think…

Yes that’s true, that’s a very good point, you don’t really know. I played a CD of hers to Phil when we were talking about using a soloist and he just loved it. Luckily she was free and was able to do it, because she has a crazy schedule and we were really fortunate that she was able to do it.

Returning to specific moments in the score, one of the standouts is ‘My aXe Girlfriend’… What was the idea behind that, using the ‘Can-Can’?

Well that actually was one of the hardest ones, that scene with the axe and poor Judy turning into a vampire… We must have written it four, five or six different times, I mean I wrote all kinds of different things; I wrote a crazy waltz that went round and round and round, I did something very very fast like an animated/cartoon sequence. So we tried loads and loads of different things and I don’t know where it came from and I don’t know how it ended up on the temp track, but the full Offenbach ‘Can-Can’ was originally tried as a temp track along with five or six other things and it was kind of felt that it was so crazy and so silly that it really really worked. So one day Phil said ‘why don’t we just think about using a bit of the ‘Can-Can’ and see if that works…’ So what I did was start the cue – it’s not the ‘Can-Can’ at the start – and then when he grabs the axe and goes across the room with her it’s there and at that moment it’s absolutely 100% the ‘Can-Can’. You only probably hear about twenty seconds of it; it just comes out of nowhere and hopefully will make people smile… It was really tough to do that sequence, but in the end everybody just loved it.

So you’re appearing at Filmharmonic once again this year, will the Lesbian Vampire Killers be making an appearance too?

Yeah definitely, I’ll be doing a suite from LVK – I’ve already written it actually, or put it together more or less – not with Hayley unfortunately as she’s out of the country, but it will be just an orchestral suite of all the main themes. I’m also doing a new version of Tom & Viv, which is quite interesting because Tom & Viv was my first film score and this is the most recent, so I thought I’d put them together. So that’s what’s happening! It should be a good night…

You were working on a ballet… Is that still premiering in July?

Unfortunately the ballet got a little bit delayed. There’s a slight problem with one of the financers; it was a bank that went under because of the credit crunch stuff. So it’s just been slightly delayed; but it’s not a terrible thing and will only probably be delayed by a month. I am work-shopping Feather Boy (the musical with Don Black) with the National in July; it’s been re-written and re-shaped as a new full-length musical. We’ve just cast it with old people and young people now, so we have this more binary attitude to it; I’m really looking forward to that and hopefully we’ll take that on after the workshops.

So one last point on Lesbian Vampire Killers… Is there a favourite moment for you in your music?

That’s a really hard question ‘cause I’m so close to it now… I think for me it’s in the last reel, so on the CD that would be the one that’s actually called ‘Lesbian Vampire Killers’. That track I really enjoyed, because it took quite a long time to get it to feel as good as it could feel and just writing that and sustaining that kind of momentum – for seven, eight minutes – right to the end as he throws the sword and saves the day. That whole sequence and the build to that was quite a challenge, so that was good fun and I guess for me that whole sequence was the standout bit.

When you sit down and watch the film, or any film you’ve scored, are you really tuned into the music and the memories of working on it?

Yes it is strange… Now I am anyway. In two years time I’ll be able to watch it much more dispassionately and will be able to sit back and just watch it as a film, because the intensity of what you’ve done and how hard you’ve worked on it, it’s just that bit further away and so you can become just a bit more objective about it. Also you’re there at every stage – I went to the dub on this, I saw the final mix and so I have seen it many many times. I love seeing it when it’s finished, because that’s your treat at the end you know, it’s there and it’s done and it’s finished and hopefully everybody is happy with it. That’s great and that’s why you do it, but I will be able to – in a couple of years time – as I do with stuff that I did when I was first starting out, not listen as such, but I can certainly watch a film that I’ve done two or three years ago and not really think about the music. I’ll have the memories of it, but it will be much less in the front of my mind and I can sit and have a nice time just watching the film.

Lesbian Vampire Killers is in cinemas in the UK now, with the album available from Silva Screen Records (
My thanks to Debbie Wiseman, Phil Claydon and everyone at Air Studios.