Posted on

Another 10 Inspirational Moments In Film Soundtracks

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 soundtrack by Lisa Gerrard/Pieter Bourke/Gustavo Santaolalla

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 soundtrack by Asche and SpencerMonster’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).


Syriana soundtrack by Alexander DesplatSyriana (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 soundtrack by Thomas NewmanThe 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 PerditionThe Shawshank Redemption (though I think the film itself is massively overrated), The Green Mile, and Meet Joe Black.


The Bourne Identity soundtrack by John PowellThe 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 soundtrack by John Murphy28 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 soundtrack by Mark MancinaTraining 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 soundtrack by Lalo SchifrinDirty 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 soundtrack by Danny ElfmanRed 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 soundtrack by Philip GlassThe 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.

Posted on

10 Inspirational Moments In Film Soundtracks

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 soundtrack by David ShireThe 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 ConnectionSerpicoDirty HarryCapricorn 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).


Memento soundtrack by David JulyanMemento (2000)
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 PrestigeInsomnia 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.


Naked soundtrack by Andrew DicksonNaked (1993)
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 MeantimeHigh HopesSecrets 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.


Solaris Soundtrack By Cliff MartinezSolaris (2002)
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 soundtrack by John CarpenterAssault 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 soundtrack by VangelisBlade 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 soundtrack by various artistsThe 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 soundtrack by Clint MansellPi: 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 soundtrack by RZAGhost 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 soundtrack by Nick Cave and Warren EllisThe 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.

Posted on

Royalty Free Film & Documentary Music Vol. 1: Piano & Atmospheric Beds Released

Royal Free Music Vol.1 by Simon WilkinsonI’ve just released a new low-cost downloadable royalty free collection of music aimed at film and documentary makers.

Royalty Free Film & Documentary Music Vol. 1: Piano & Atmospheric Beds is a collection of specially composed dark piano and atmospheric ambient soundscapes ideal for film and documentary visuals that need a suitably dark and atmospheric musical background.

The album is 45 minutes long and can be bought from my download shop at the link below. Purchase of the mp3 album download grants the user a license to use the music in any film, documentary or other visual project without the need for any further payment. So once you’ve bought this, you can use it in as many of your film and documentary projects as you like, whether it’s for festivals, trailers, or broadcast.

The idea was to provide film and documentary makers with music that hopefully has more of an atmospheric or cinematic feel to it than stock library music but to keep it good quality at a reasonable price. Click the link below for full details and previews of all the tracks in my music download shop. I expect there’ll be more volumes to come in future. I’ve got some ideas for themes but I’ll wait and see what I can fit in around other projects.