Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Bristol Music... A Rant?

I live in Bristol, in fact I was born in Bristol, and while I’ve visited plenty of other places – considered ‘the move to London’ – there really is no place like home. The city has a rich cultural heritage, a colourful history and its streets, with their era-straddling, ever changing facades, could tell a thousand stories I have no doubt. There’s also music to be discovered in the ‘capital’ of the West of England...

The Hazlewood Affair...

People have questioned Bristol’s musicality of late, thanks in no small part to comments by Charles Hazlewood. His article, which came about in the lead up to the first concert of a new residency at St George’s Bristol with his orchestra The Army of Generals, alludes to the fact – and it is a fact – that Bristol is without a major ‘full time’ orchestra. He also began his spiel by stating that in his opinion the city is ‘desperately in need’ of ‘musical protein’.

While we’re hardly desperate, a city of our size should probably have an ensemble in the league of those based in Bimingham, Bournemouth, Liverpool, Scotland and London, not to mention the great BBC Orchestras. Bournemouth’s Symphony Orchestra has become the orchestral representative of the South and West and so we get to share them... Sure they’re a fine ensemble – they were in fact the first live orchestra I saw when I was a child – but I’m not sure I want to share them...

Of course we do have Bristolian orchestras, several in fact, and the likes of the Bristol Ensemble and the Bristol Metropolitan Orchestra (both re-branded in an attempt to be taken more seriously perhaps), not to forget the Bristol Concert Orchestra, Brandon Hill Chamber Orchestra and Bristol Classical Players, each perform very regularly across the city and do great things. The Bristol Ensemble is itself somewhat omniscient of late, striving to set out its stall as Bristol’s first orchestra. Concerts aside they do marvellous outreach work, which is brilliant and essential.

There’s more to musical protein than a name, or a budget though... it’s what you play that matters, how well you play it and how you package it. I think If you want to get people in off the street to hear Classical music, particularly in this city, then you can’t be in the least bit pretentious. Will Mr and Mrs Bloggs in the suburbs of Horfield or Hartcliffe actually give two hoots about ‘Abstractions and Refractions’ – the title of Charles’ concert series – the answer is no frankly. Charles wanted, nay wants, to break down the boundaries of the classical concert experience, ‘concert etiquette’ if you will, and get people in through the door and listening who wouldn’t normally... It’s a great idea which I’m all for, but a glance around the room at the first concert in the series revealed the usual suspects in a venue steeped, historically, in the very Classical etiquette he’s striving to avoid. I absolutely love St George’s dearly, but the whole arrangement seemed at odds with its initial aim I’m afraid.

Bristol audiences are famously fickle though... Gergiev appeared at Colston Hall last year and nobody came. That’s an exaggeration obviously, but it illuminated the fact that if people haven’t got an appetite for Classical music they just won’t bother, no matter how big the name on the poster.

What might have worked better for Charles’ general idea? Get an orchestra in the amphitheatre on the harbourside, or in Queen Square and belt out some tunes that the Bloggs’ might know, something for the Classic FM crowd and the casual listener who likes the theme from Star Wars. That would do it, then when you’ve got them try them with something different, something they don’t know. Don’t try and play them music they don’t care about in the first place and then add insult to injury by showing them how amusing and clever some composer they’ve never even heard of was so many years later... It just doesn’t wash.

In, something, we trust...

Colston Hall likes to think of itself as the city’s premier music venue. The shiny makeover has worked wonders, not to mention some name changes behind the scenes... The council is in the process of offloading their responsibility of the venue, instead creating The Bristol Music Trust to run its affairs. Interesting times then for the hall, which will continue to be financed by the council in the initial years of the Trust’s life, but then it’ll have to fend for itself in a time when money for the arts is hardly abundant. The eventual aim is for this trust to be ‘entrusted’ with the all the musical goings on in the city, acting perhaps as a central hub for not just the Colston Hall, but other venues and events too... It’s an interesting idea certainly, but with a community of venues very much with their own established identities, clientele and modus operandi, I doubt whether shoving it all under one umbrella will work. The meetings and feasibility studies continue (endlessly knowing Bristol City Council, until they’ve spent a fortune and decide to leave things just the way they are) so the jury’s out on the future of Bristol’s music making.

One thing’s for sure there are those is this city who love music, who make great music and who enjoy music... and I’m not just talking Classical. So as long as that continues, we can’t go very far wrong can we?

Thursday, 10 February 2011

On The Desk VII

Well here we are again, at the desk and contemplating all things Film Music (and, it goes without saying, More Besides). I’ve had quite an influx this last week or so, passed on from labels, composers, friends and even a few I’ve actually bought myself – which is a rare occurrence these days I can tell you. I still enjoy the rush of buying an album though, particularly if it’s for my collection. This week I filled some gaps in the Horner line-up, so I finally inserted Avatar, The Karate Kid, Jade and 48 Hours in… The Karate Kid, a surprise entry in the composer’s resume last year to be sure, is a great listen actually. I do find James Horner comes out guns blazing when he’s against the clock (many composers do in fact). The album is one of those controversial CD-R releases, made to order so to speak. Do I mind this? Well to be honest I haven’t thought about it along any further line than ‘oh it’s on CD, let me at it!’. I suppose there are some things to consider with the rise of the CD-R album, but I don’t think I have the energy to go into it now. All I know is I’m enjoying the album very much. End of.

48 Hours is an interesting little disc; first time on CD and featuring just about half an hour of Horner’s original score. The film, and score, is as old (or indeed young) as me… So yes it is a little dated here and there, but it represents one of the composer’s really early Hollywood entries (1982 fyi) and shows him in action, non sci-fi/fantasy mode which is seemingly all we know of him from that period. Some subtle electronics linger around the orchestral forces (not massive, but sizeable) and they come together with steel drum (yes, remember that in Commando? It’s the same here, and very similar all round I’d say) creating a rather interesting underscore to the otherwise snappy buddy comedy antics on screen. Horner very much lets the performers (Nolte and Murphy) do their thing and underlines the more serious aspects of the unfolding drama, chases and wotnot. It’s over in a flash of course, but the album goes on with original songs by The BusBoys and one source cue by the brilliant Ira Newborn, who also produced the songs. Good to tick the box though and have the album and it’s a colourful listen when all is said and done.

Last time round I promised The Promise (can one promise a promise?) and so I turn now to Debbie Wiseman’s latest dramatic turn for director Peter Kosminsky. The mini-series has just started on Channel 4 – so catch up if you can – and the composer’s emotional musical underpinning is characteristically on the money. Ebbing and flowing with a well honed sense of drama, Debbie Wiseman’s music is at once even tempered, subtly exotic and always beautiful. The traditional middle eastern instrumentation – including Oud, Kaval, Duduk and Arabic Violin – peppered throughout the cues is well balanced alongside the more usual solo turns from members of the RPO and of course the composer herself on Piano. Following two characters 60 years apart in history, the music is able to straddle both narrative strands allowing Debbie to make even distinctions thematically. There’s a darker hue to some of the flashback moments – ‘The Settlers’ and ‘The Fight’ for example – while the deeper emotion is often found in the cues with the least orchestration. It’s amazing what a solo piano can say… Food for thought and another fine score, plus a very generous album from Silva Screen Records.

Silva also released The Rite by Alex Heffes. Alex is such a great composer, and a jolly nice chap to boot, so it’s always good to hear new things from him. This film, by Swedish director Mikael Håfström stars the oh-so brilliant Anthony Hopkins as an unconventional Catholic Priest who tutors a young seminary at the Vatican’s Exorcism School… Fascinating stuff then, and a robust effort from the composer who opts for largely conventional trains of thought, given the subject matter. There are urgent strings, swathe of chorus, bubbling brass and jolting percussion aplenty, particularly in the exorcism cues themselves. ‘Exorcism of Lucas Part 1’ has a particularly impressive jump-start and builds to a heady fusion of contemporary atmospherics which, when coupled with some snarling brass and eerie choral moments, makes for a textbook gothic horror cue full of shudders. Textbook is often good, particularly when coming from a composer of this calibre and being as we haven’t heard anything like this from him before, it’s not a bad route to take… this is Hollywood after all and as a young, relatively unknown composer, you really need to stay within the parameters of what’s known and accepted by producers, otherwise they might go elsewhere. While Alex has done some great films, this is the first glossy Hollywood entry away from Kevin MacDonald and it’s a great first crack at the big studio nut.

Merry Christmas!?

Has Christmas come early, or is it late? La La Land Records’ release of Home Alone has appeared on my desk, at last. Ok so it’s late, the album was released in time for the movie’s twentieth anniversary (I cannot believe I’m writing that…). The film, produced by the late John Hughes and directed by Chris Columbus, has become a festive family classic and it’s music goes a long way to creating that sense of Christmas cheer, familial warmth and comedic caper. This new pressing from the label is just brilliant, with all of Williams’ cues collected together in film order, not to mention versions of his original songs (‘Somewhere in My Memory’ and ‘Star of Bethlehem’, written with Leslie Bricusse). While the original CBS Records soundtrack album (which is normally on repeat in the house every season) captured the heart of the music created for the film, there are a handful of fresh cues here to enjoy, plus some additional music in the shape of source cues (carol medleys and alternates) to make it worth the purchase, not to mention the fact that the 1990 album is very hard to find nowadays… The big draw for me was the booklet which features some great background to the film’s production and the creation of the score. It seems Williams was never considered – Bruce Broughton was credited in early trailers, but had to abandon the project due to other commitments – and it was only when he was treated to a sneak preview screening at Amblin Entertainment that he himself requested to do the picture, so excited was he by it. After all those years at the top of his game, and his name attached to near enough every Hollywood blockbuster in recent history, it’s no surprise Williams had a canny eye for a surefire hit… which it was.

La La Land are very much championing the music of the great John Morris, having release a number of his works in recent times, indeed the label just announced Clue which is fresh off the bat following their release of the brilliant Haunted Honeymoon. A master of pastiche, Morris provided a full-blown orchestral score for Gene Wilder’s 1986 comedy shocker using the talents of the London Symphony Orchestra no less. Wildly scintillating in places and full of fun in others – the main titles as source music for example in ‘Memory Music/Wolfington Castle – Haunted Honeymoon is a comedy score that takes itself absolutely seriously, though with its tongue firmly in its cheek of course! Jeff Bond’s liner notes are typically informative, making for a fine package all in all. With a composer as talented as Morris and an ensemble as mighty as the LSO you just can’t go wrong. Well done La La Land.


Finally I look to The King’s Speech which I’ve finally managed to have a listen to away from the film itself, and what a film. It’s the BAFTAs this coming Sunday night and I’m in no doubt that this film will sweep the board, including a nod for Alexandre Desplat who has yet again delivered a sensitively sparkling dramatic score. There’s charisma here, beauty of course and emotional hues born of subtlety and a lightness of touch we’ve become so accustomed to. While Desplat’s score underlines the majority of the drama, his typically delicate title cue dances around slightly more sombre string passages. Those ‘heavier’ moments (as heavy as Desplat can be when he decorates them so elegantly) lead nicely into the disc’s final selection of Beethoven pieces. Of course the film’s denouement, where His Majesty gives the speech of his life, is underscored by a passage from Beethoven’s 7th which is chock full of tempered emotion it inspired tears by the scene’s end. A fine disc from Decca Records and hopefully an award-winning soundtrack for the composer of the hour.

Next time? Who knows… though I do have a confession to make. I’ve been listening to Henry Jackman’s Gullivers Travels and I’m excited, that’s all I’m saying. More on him next time.

The Promise and The Rite are available from Silva Screen Records now – – while will take you to all manner of delights, including the Morris scores, Home Alone and their fine releases of Batman Returns and Star Trek V: The Final Frontier…

Thursday, 3 February 2011

John Barry 1933-2011

A sad week for film music with the news of John Barry’s passing, a true Lion of a composer whose legacy speaks volumes…

Listening to his work, as I have been since I heard the news on Tuesday morning – indeed I immediately selected his album ‘The Beyondness of Things’ to underscore my walk into the office that day – I was struck by the innocence to be found within his melody making. That album, followed by the equally brilliant ‘Eternal Echoes’ absolutely represents Barry at the peak of his orchestral composing. They’re very personal albums I think. It’s as if he had all these little musical ideas stored away and needed to get them out, share them with the world. That was a while ago now, and it’s been ten years since he actually scored a picture – Enigma being his celluloid swansong.

Of course everyone has been talking about James Bond and Barry is 007’s composer laureate. Those scores – and songs – are a legacy in themselves when you think just how important they are in conjuring the very essence of that character and those classic films. Me? I was never a Bond nut – I was too young to really jump on that fan-wagon, and I can’t think of a film scored by John Barry that I was able to appreciate fully. The later films were a bit heavy for a young Beek, though we did have Dances With Wolves on video at home…

It’s very easy to herald the brilliance of someone when they’ve left us and I feel something of a hypocrite in many respects when I do this today, as I admit to never giving Barry’s music as much time or enthusiasm over the years as other composers’ work. When I think back now I realise that it comes down to age. I was a child of the late 80s/early 90s and thus John Williams, James Horner, Danny Elfman and Hans Zimmer are the composers who I was drawn to initially, and still hold in the highest esteem. Look at my CD collection and it’s those four names, in that order, which rank highest in terms of sheer numbers. Barry CDs? You’d have to look hard and go way down to the bottom, and even then it’s just a couple of compilation discs. Go to my hard drive though and it’s a different story. I have, in recent years, managed to gather 23 Barry albums… it’s a start.

Barry is as great as John Williams – certainly had as many Oscars – and was actually a year younger than the American. Some of Barry’s big successes came before Williams’ most famous, and in the 80s a John Barry score was sought after. Barry was the go-to composer for a deep, dramatic, mature sound… which Williams proved he could do much later. When Williams ‘came out’ as a serious dramatic composer with the likes of JFK, Schindler’s List and all that followed, it seems Barry was out of a job…

So while I haven’t had chance yet to listen to all his major works, the truth is Barry has been almost omnipresent all through my years. Whether it’s Bond films on the telly, or those great great themes for the likes of Zulu, The Lion in Winter, Midnight Cowboy, Born Free and Out of Africa… These things are used, re-used, played again and again in concert, on television and alike, so in many ways I’m a Barry fan by default. I do have favourites though and Somewhere in Time is top of my list, followed by Out of Africa and Body Heat. I recently acquired The Deep and must finally play Moonraker… I’m actually quite excited to think there’s a whole world of ‘new’ music for me to discover for the first time.

John Barry, I am now your fan – I’m sorry it’s taken so long, but thank you for all the wonderful music you’ve left for us to enjoy, discover and rediscover.