I was casually watching this documentary last night about one of my favourite musicians and producers Daniel Lanois when I heard some of my music crop up in places in the background. I had no idea it had been used in it but I love it when that happens (I think it’s only happened once or twice before!)
When my daughters were babies, they were both bad at sleeping.
We’d be extremely lucky to get more than a couple of uninterrupted hours at a time for the first few years. It was exhausting (and still is) but everyone goes through it and you eventually come out the other side and gradually forget how nerve-shreddingly debilitating it all was. I almost have.
Molly was our first born and one thing I started doing to try and calm her down at night was humming a simple lullaby. It was just a simple waltz melody that I made up which fitted the rocking motion as I tried to lull her to sleep. She’d rarely actually go to sleep but it was often enough to keep her calm, and you take what small mercies you can get when you haven’t slept for 3 days…
Over the years she began to know it as the ‘Da-da-da dee da-dum’ song and she started to sing it to herself. She still occasionally sings it now she’s almost 5 and I also used to hum it to our second daughter Ada when she came along.
So I thought it would be nice to try and take that simple hummed tune and orchestrate a recorded version for them to hear in case they forget when they’re older.
I fleshed it out a bit more than the simple hum it started off as, but it’s still essentially the same tune (Molly also makes cat noises when she hums it now, so it’s been named The Pussycat Waltz).
I also kept picturing the Grand Central station dance scene from The Fisher King when I was writing it. It probably wouldn’t send anyone off to sleep in its finished form (try tracks like Frozen White Light for sleep) as it builds up to a couple of rousing crescendos, but it was fun to do and I hope they’ll listen to it when they’re older and maybe remember how mum and dad went through those long, long (did I mention long?) sleepless nights.
If you’re interested you can get the track here on my site and it’s also on iTunes, Spotify etc.
A few days ago I had the belated pleasure of watching the 2013 film Still Life directed by Uberto Pasolini. The film stars the always brilliant Eddie Marsan as a council worker who tries to track down relatives of people who’ve died alone. It’s a very quiet subtle film and Eddie Marsan is amazing in his ability at being able to really hold and hang on to silence but still captivate your attention.
Rachel Portman - End Titles
One thing that really stood out and framed the whole thing perfectly was the beautiful score by British composer Rachel Portman.
The music is very delicate and haunting (you can hear the end titles in the video on the right) and it suits the melancholy emotional tone of the film perfectly.
Rachel Portman is an extremely talented and prolific composer having scored numerous films including The Cider House Rules, Chocolat, Never Let Me Go and Mike Leigh’s Four Days In July (in fact the score for Still Life reminded me at times of the soundtrack to Mike Leigh’s Naked, composed by Andrew Dickson and another one of my favourite film soundtracks).
The soundtrack for Still Life is available to download from iTunes here:
I’m extremely honoured to have some of my music featured in this hour long PBS documentary about the legendary comedian Richard Pryor. The show is available on the PBS Network.
“On this all new episode of :ICON, we delve into the life and legacy of Richard Pryor — how he came up through the brothels of Peoria, Illinois, performed on the Ed Sullivan Show, got banned by the networks, and became embroiled in a pattern of self-destruction that threatened his life.”
Following on from my post about ten inspirational moments in film scoring, I decided to follow it up with a second imaginatively titled installment. As before, these aren’t necessarily critically acclaimed or “the best” scores – just soundtracks I love which provided me with key moments of inspiration and that I think are well worth listening to. I’ve also added short audio clips from the soundtracks – they’re only about a minute long to give you an idea, but hopefully they help illustrate the musical choices:
The Insider (1999)
Gustavo Santaolalla : Iguazu
Director: Michael Mann
Composer: Lisa Gerrard/Pieter Bourke/Gustavo Santaolalla Get it from Amazon
Although the majority of this film’s score was actually provided by Lisa Gerrard and Pieter Bourke, it was Gustavo Santoalla’s haunting track Iguazu that completely sold this film to me. It sits so perfectly with the desperate paranoid tone of conspiracy and cover-up that it sends chills up my spine every time I hear it. To be honest, you could put Iguazu over an episode of Hollyoaks and it would make it seem epic but it’s used here to such mesmerising and ominous effect. In some ways I could just have easily picked Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s Babel, as that film also featured Iguazu along with several other Santaolalla tracks and is a more eclectic collection of tracks (plus it’s also another great film) but I think it fits better here.
Monster’s Ball (1999)
Asche & Spencer : Opening Title
Director: Marc Forster
Composer: Asche & Spencer Get it from Amazon
If Asche & Spencer sounds like the name of a brand of consultants or designers, that’s because, in a way they are. Actually, more a collaborative team of audio artists, Thad Spencer (Mark Asche left the firm many years ago) leads a team of composers who come from a background of producing music for advertising. While on paper this might sound like a cold and clinical choice, it actually works beautifully and organically. The creative team produced a haunting ethereal score, consisting largely of piano and sustained delayed guitar drones and swells. The result is a rich and evocative ambient and textural score that really emphasises the gaps between the notes and like the film itself, is contemplative and considered (there’s a great feature on the making of this score here). Another of their scores in a similar tone to this one is Stay (2005) and also Mark Isham’s beautiful and subtle Crash (also from 2005).
Alexandre Desplat: Driving In Geneva
Director: Stephen Gaghan
Composer: Alexandre Desplat Get it from Amazon
A mixture of solo minimalist piano, deep pulsing synths, marcato strings and ethnic flavoured percussions combine to give the score a sense of desperate urgency. Again, a score that works well with its eerie electronic-tinged minimalism subtly highlighting the film’s storyline of political corruption and terrorism in the oil industry. Having scored a multitude of films in his home country of France, Alexandre Desplat has also shown his diversity over a range of higher profile international features including Hostage and Firewall.
The Player (1992)
Thomas Newman : Funeral Shark
Director: Robert Altman
Composer: Thomas Newman Get it from Amazon
A tough choice with Thomas Newman; he’s written so many great scores and in doing so he’s kind of defined a certain type of piano sound that’s immediately recognisable. His piano voicings are strangely unique; usually soft, simple and muted but often approaching melodies from a skewed, leftfield perspective. I almost chose American Beauty but that’s probably had enough coverage already so I went for his score to Robert Altman’s fantastic The Player instead. Sly, discordant but still fresh sounding, The Player uses similar percussive elements that he also used in his theme to Six Feet Under. Other excellent Newman scores (but going more towards his trademark piano sound) include Road To Perdition, The Shawshank Redemption (though I think the film itself is massively overrated), The Green Mile, and Meet Joe Black.
The Bourne Identity (2002)
John Powell: Main Titles
Director: Doug Liman
Composer: John Powell Get it from Amazon
John Powell’s score to Doug Liman’s 2002 spy thriller combines contemporary electronica and percussion with orchestral instrumentation to create an instantly identifiable score. The simple repetitive string ostinato of the main theme, although now sounding a bit over familiar, has gone on to almost define a certain genre in the same way as Thomas Newman’s piano style (see above). That type of tense repetitive string line is cropping up everywhere these days. Another Media Ventures protégé, Powell went on to successfully score the two Bourne sequels, as well as another score I really liked, the sensitive and haunting soundtrack to Paul Greengrass’ 9/11 feature United 93.
28 Days Later (2002)
John Murphy : In The House, In A Heartbeat
Director: Danny Boyle
Composer: John Murphy Get it from Amazon
John Murphy’s tense, claustrophobic and mounting score is centred on the cyclic, slow-building mix of ominous guitars, bass and piano of “In The House, In A heartbeat” that builds to a cloud of minor-key melodic rage. The darkness and impending danger of the music perfectly fits the film’s apocalyptic story of a handful of survivors from a viral outbreak fighting against the infected victims. You still hear it all over the place on film trailers and TV promos and it’s almost become a cliche for it, but that’s not the track’s fault – blame lazy trailer makers Murphy has also contributed memorable music to some other films that I think work well including, surprisingly, Miami Vice.
Training Day (2001)
Mark Mancina : Money
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Composer: Mark Mancina Get it from Amazon
Another dark, atmospheric, almost ambient score. Ominous like the approach of distant thunder or a heartbeat pulse, Mancina’s score adds layers of minimalist atmosphere to the brooding sense of foreboding in Denzel Washington’s cop gone bad. Nicely underplayed with some occasional modern electronic percussive textures that you might expect from a former composer of the Media Ventures stable.
Dirty Harry (1975)
Lalo Schifrin : Scorpio’s Theme
Director: Don Siegel
Composer: Lalo Schifrin Get it from Amazon
As I mentioned in my previous inspirations post, I love the jazz and funk inspired scores of the great 70s cop/heist movies (like The Taking Of Pelham 123) and this one’s no exception. Lalo Schifrin’s iconic score of crisp breakbeat style drums, wah wah guitar, Fender Rhodes and fuzz bass conjures up the electric cool of downtown San Francisco as well as sounding influenced by the electric jazz experiments of the era (see Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew). Other great scores in a similar style are Dave Grusin’s Three Days Of The Condor, Dominic Frontiere’s Brannigan, Charles Bernstein’s Gator, Don Costa’s The Soul Of Nigger Charley, Quincy Jones’ Smackwater Jack, Isaac Hayes’ genre-defining Shaft plus of course all the classic Italian Giallo scores from the 70s. Big guns indeed.
Red Dragon (2002)
Danny Elfman : Main Titles
Director: Brett Ratner
Composer: Danny Elfman Get it from Amazon
On Red Dragon, Elfman got to channel some of his love of Bernard Herrmann’s work with Hitchcock into a score that’s full of weight and gravitas. I’m not really a massive Elfman fan, but I do generally like his music and you can always tell when you’re hearing an Elfman score. Certainly his big superhero scores do the job with just the right balance of bombast and camp. He plays this one pretty straight though, with no room for playfulness or lightness. I love the way some of the cues have a feeling of a heavy weight being dragged along before the low brass comes crashing in like a relentless killer. I also really liked his heavily percussive score to the Planet Of The Apes remake (though the film was botched).
The Hours (2002)
Philip Glass: Dead Things
Director: Stephen Daldry
Composer: Philip Glass Get it from Amazon
Philip Glass’ music usually invokes a love/hate reaction in many listeners. His style is heavily reliant on building simple repeated motifs and rhythms that slowly grab the listener’s attention. Here it produces a lulling and hypnotic effect that works perfectly with the film’s often dark and melancholy subject matter. Personally, I think this score is one of his best and is the perfect soundtrack for rainy Sunday afternoons. Also worth checking is his score to Koyanisqaatsi, although its repetitive minimalism is probably best experienced in conjunction with the dazzling visuals of the film. So there’s another 10 scores from films that have been a musical inspiration in one way or another to me, sometimes in tone or instrumentation but more commonly in the way they create an aural texture and atmosphere to match the visuals.
Many years ago I decided that I wanted to write music for documentaries, films and moving images. With music, I’ve always found myself thinking in terms of visuals: colours, textures, landscapes and the shapes of sound.
From a young age I was fascinated with the correlation between sound and picture. Films and music are powerful mediums that visit you at a young age and have a lasting impact on your memories. Some of my most vivid memories from childhood come from a time when my senses were overloaded with dazzling visuals and immersive soundtracks, jumping out of the darkness of a movie theatre.
So this post is about 10 atmospheric movie soundtracks which were hugely influential to me in wanting to write music for moving images. Films that cemented themselves firmly in my brain as being as rich in sound as they were in visuals. A few of these I saw as a child (Blade Runner in particular) while others are more recent examples. I could easily have picked another 50 films but they’re all classic examples of what inspired me (and continue to inspire me) to write music for visuals and films.
For each film I’ve included a short sample from some of my favourite parts of the soundtrack, but I would definitely encourage you to check out the full scores if you’re not already familiar with them. So, not in any order at all, here are 10 of my favourites:
The Taking Of Pelham 123 (1974)
David Shire: Main Title
Director: Joseph Sargent
Composer: David Shire Get it from Amazon
Massively funky & gritty 70’s score with an unbelievable dirty low-end in the horns and fat bass ostinatos; one of my absolute all time favourites. Aiming for a sound that was “New York jazz-oriented, hard edged”, Shire ended up basing the score on Schoenberg’s twelve tone method which gave the sound a kind of organised chaos without a definite tonal centre – basically a sinister and threatening jazz/funk score that’s full of menace. There’s something about the gritty vibe and music of movies from this period that I love: The French Connection, Serpico, Dirty Harry, Capricorn One, Marathon Man, Black Sunday etc. A hugely underrated composer, I also love and highly recommend Shire’s haunting, melancholy and eerily discordant piano-based score for Francis Ford Coppola’s excellent The Conversation starring Gene Hackman (1974) and more recently David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007).
David Julyan: Memento Main Theme
Director: Christopher Nolan
Composer: David Julyan Get it from Amazon
Proof that every so often, independent cinema can come up with a modern classic on a shoestring budget (well, $5m, but peanuts by industry standards). David Julyan’s score to Memento is a fitting combination of glitchy nervous sound effects and slow haunting melancholic strings (which became a recurring sound in much of his successive work on other films with Chris Nolan, e.g. The Prestige, Insomnia etc.) For a while it seemed to be almost de facto for independent directors to cite this score as an influence in what they were looking for when on the lookout for a composer. In fact it still crops up as a musical inspiration on many film job briefs to this day, the sign of a highly effective score.
Andrew Dickson: Naked Title Music
Director: Mike Leigh
Composer: Andrew Dickson
Still my favourite Mike Leigh film, Naked is, let’s be frank, a fairly bleak tale. Dark, brutal and unsettling but bristling with amazing fast-paced dialogue and stellar performances from David Thewlis and Katrin Cartlidge (much of the final dialogue was improvised in character during rehearsals). The music by Andrew Dickson, an English composer and longtime musical associate of Leigh’s (scoring Meantime, High Hopes, Secrets and Lies and Vera Drake) is seemingly impossible to track down. Lots of mournful and desolate violins, cellos and harp, it’s a beautiful and dark companion to the stark and uncompromising subject matter.
Cliff Martinez: Is That What Everybody Wants
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Composer: Cliff Martinez Get it from Amazon
Perfectly matching the understated visuals and narrative of the film, Cliff Martinez’ ambient score is an exercise in pure artistic synchronicity. Using Javanese gamelan, celesta, muted steel drums and slow shifting tone colors along with more traditional strings and horns, the ghostly score perfectly captures the remoteness and subtle poignancy of the film’s narrative. A bit of a departure at the time from the former drummer for Captain Beefheart and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. It’s a beautiful, timeless and sublime piece of work and like the score for Memento above, still a touchstone soundtrack for indie directors looking to appropriate some of that ambient existential angst for their own projects.
Assault On Precinct 13 (1976) / Halloween (1978) / The Thing (1982) / Escape From New York (1981)
John Carpenter: Assault On Precinct 13 (Main Title)
Director: John Carpenter
Composer: John Carpenter (Ennio Morricone for The Thing) Get it from Amazon
I love John Carpenter even though his films are pretty patchy in quality (apart from Halloween which is definitive). When I was growing up in the 80s, his movies would regularly play on late night TV and I’d stay up late to watch them. It was also a boom time for early ‘home entertainment’ when classics like Evil Dead and The Shining were becoming available to rent on VHS from the local video store. I remember the thrill of watching loads of Carpenter back then – Christine, The Fog, The Thing…there’s something very moody about his opening credit sequences that takes me right back to being 13 again. For me part of the appeal lies in that whole minimal atmospherics thing which was actually largely due to budget and time constraints at the time. I couldn’t really pick one film in particular, but the scores for the above four are probably my favourites. Maybe Escape From New York for consistency: big thick warm vintage synths and darkly humorous lyrics (“…stab a priest with a fork, and you’ll spend your vacation in New York.”)
Blade Runner (1982)
Vangelis: Fading Away
Director: Ridley Scott
Composer: Vangelis Get it from Amazon
One of my favourite scores from possibly my favourite movie (depending on what day you ask me). I suppose it’s a bit of an obvious contender but this score is just so damned evocative and lush; one of the most perfect and timeless combinations of visuals and music. And I’m not a particularly big Vangelis fan either (a bit too new-agey for me usually). Maybe as with the John Carpenter scores above, it could be the powerful associations of childhood memories attached to watching the film that trigger things in me. Either way it’s another great example of music matching the visuals perfectly. If you’re going to get the soundtrack, try and hunt down the 5 CD Esper edition, or failing that the 3CD version in the link above.
The Shining (1980) / 2001 A Space Odyssey (1968)
Wendy Carlos & Rachel Elkind: Rocky Mountains
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Composer: Various Artists
It was a toss up between these two Kubrick masterpieces. In the end I went for The Shining, but both are equally fantastic combinations of image and music. Stanley Kubrick had a tendency to not use one specific composer but rather just the individual pieces of music that fit the film, regardless of who wrote it. Using a mix of experimental electronic Moog soundscapes and modernist classical music, The Shining features artists including Wendy Carlos, Rachel Elkind, Kryzysztof Penderecki, Gyorgi Ligeti and Bela Bartok to create a deathlessly iconic soundtrack and movie. There’s a continuous unsettling air of dread and disturbing atmosphere subtly humming like dormant electricity throughout the entire film, from the initial flyover of the Rocky Mountains through to Jack’s gradual breakdown into insanity. It’s one of those films that are just inseparable from the soundtrack.
Pi: Faith In Chaos (1998)
Clint Mansell: 2 Pi R
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Composer: Clint Mansell Get it from Amazon
Another pivotal moment (for me at least) in modern independent cinema, Aronofsky’s moody and atmospheric film probably has a few holes in the mathematical technicalities (“A paranoid mathematician searches for a key number that will unlock the universal patterns found in nature”) but it’s full of beautiful grainy noir visuals, paranoid conspiracies and Clint Mansell’s hard edged distinctive electronic music (Mansell was frontman with late 80s alt/techno/industrial band Pop Will Eat Itself and has gone on to become a highly regarded modern film composer). Also, another good example of a successful director/composer partnership (Mansell went on to score Aronofsky’s Requiem For A Dream and The Fountain among many others).
Ghost Dog (1999)
RZA: Ghost Dog Main Titles
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Composer: RZA Get it from Amazon
When RZA nails it, he really nails it. His music can occasionally be hit and miss, but on Ghost Dog he gets it right from the off (and some of the Afro Samurai soundtrack is also pretty cool). Those ghostly lo-fi hip hop beats and spectral string samples are his trademark sound and put here to stellar use against Jarmusch’s existential story of modern-day assassins and Japanese mythology. The opening titles set the subdued tone perfectly for the rest of the movie – I definitely have a pull towards films where not much appears to be happening on the surface but quietly boiling underneath. Also, I’ve been listening to hip hop for over 20 years now and it’s always been a perfect genre for cinematic imagery and wordplay – yet it still amazes me that even today, there are a few who refuse to even acknowledge it as a valid musical form, especially other film composers who would prefer it to be all quill and manuscript.
The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford(2007)
Nick Cave & Warren Ellis: Falling
Director: Andrew Dominik
Composer: Nick Cave and Warren Ellis Get it from Amazon
After a short period of being generally uninspired by recent films and scores, this beautiful elegiac and atmospheric film brought it all back home again. Again, it’s one of those films where large sections just drift by with not much apparently happening, but the camera is allowed to linger on the actors’ faces and stunning photography. Nick Cave and Warren Ellis provide a haunting and intimate close-sounding score of piano, violin and guitar. Brad Pitt was on fine form in the film but the show was completely stolen by Casey Affleck who was mesmerising as Robert Ford and rightly nominated for several awards. One of the best films I’ve seen in a long time.
OK, that’ll do for now. Obviously, the above 10 are just an arbitrary selection of some of my favourites, so here’s a few more inspirations that could have been contenders:
Monster’s Ball : Asche & Spencer The Hours/Koyaanisqatsi : Philip Glass The Player/American Beauty : Thomas Newman Syriana : Alexandre Desplat Alien/Capricorn One : Jerry Goldsmith Red Dragon : Danny Elfman Taxi Driver/Psycho : Bernard Herrmann Thunderball/You Only Live Twice : John Barry Amelie : Yann Tiersen Get Carter : Roy Budd Lawrence Of Arabia : Maurice Jarre Paris, Texas : Ry Cooder Three Days Of The Condor – Dave Grusin The Usual Suspects – John Ottman
Updated: See my follow up list of another 10 classic atmospheric film scores here.