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.