Oscar nominees push boundaries of traditional score

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What is a "traditional score," and why are they saying such terrible things about it? You'll recall that last year the dictum from filmmakers seemed to be a unanimous "We don't want a traditional score!" This year however, aside from James Newton Howard's stealthy, ambient work for "Michael Clayton," the remaining nominees for best original score -- Dario Marianelli's "Atonement," Michael Giacchino's "Ratatouille," Marco Beltrami's "3:10 to Yuma" and even Alberto Iglesias' "The Kite Runner" -- all feature strong orchestral writing and melodies along with their innovations.

"3:10 to Yuma" manages to pay homage to the roots of its genre while employing first-time nominee Marco Beltrami's knack for finding unusual approaches to instrumentation and recording. "I think the biggest challenge was to be aware of the genre, be aware of Western scores that had come before and the stylized nature of that, but to do something original that wasn't a pastiche of everything else," Beltrami says. "So it had the flavor of an older sound but maybe in a more modern setting."

Like many of his peers, Beltrami received orders from director James Mangold to avoid a traditional sound. "Jim didn't want a large, orchestral, epic score -- that's not what the picture needed. He wanted a smaller, more unique sound and cool grooves that would compliment the picture almost as a character. I did use some strings in it, but when we recorded the strings at Abbey Road, we had close mikes set up and room mikes set up, and all the room mikes were dialed out in favor of the real closeness of the sound, the close mikes. So it doesn't have a big sense of space but more of an intimate sense of grittiness."

That approach does indeed go against the grain of the more recent trend of recording large orchestras, often close to or over over 100 players, and miking them to get a more massive overall sound -- in effect blending the orchestra into one huge instrument. "That became the de facto approach to scoring action or big-budget subjects," says Giacchino, whose eclectic "Ratatouille" score continues his exploration of largely acoustic orchestral effects. "You're not dealing with counterpoint or many things of a musical nature, you're just pushing the audience through the movie, and there's a bullying aspect to that in a way. I think that effects movies have taken the same approach, where you're layering effect upon effect and you lose the reason for even having a special effect -- it's like in 'The Incredibles' (2004) when the villain wants to make everyone special so no one will be."

Dario Marianelli, whose "Atonement" score makes use of a manual typewriter as a percussion instrument, says the toughest part of the "nontraditional score" request is figuring out exactly what the filmmaker doesn't want. "When a composer is told not to use the orchestra, God knows which types of treatments of the orchestra the director has in mind," he says. "One thing I hear fairly often is that there is a certain backlash against the very big, over-orchestrated Hollywood sound that has been a staple of big films for a while -- and the growth of independent filmmaking has brought back a taste for more idiosyncratic sounds. We've always had that in Europe because it's very unlikely a European film would be scored with a huge orchestra. So I'm lucky to be in the right place at the right time. when Hollywood is possibly looking outside for a different kind of sound."

Oddly, the traditions filmmakers don't want are tied to eras that range from 30 to 50 years ago -- from the lush Max Steiner approach that dominated the late '30s through the late '50s, to the retro rebirth of those traditions jump-started by "Star Wars" in 1977. "I would bet that when you ask someone what a 'traditional score' is, they would say 'Star Wars' or 'The Adventures of Robin Hood' (1938), and they're looking at a time period more than a genre or type of score," Giacchino points out. "A lot of people these days are afraid of the emotion of music and afraid to push it too much. It's a hard thing to deal with, and one of the great things about working with ("Ratatouille" director) Brad Bird, or even J.J. (Abrams, whom Giacchino worked with on Paramount's "Cloverfield") is that those conversations never come up. It's never about, 'Well, we can't push too hard or get too emotional.' The conversation is always just, 'Let's do what's right for the movie.'"

Ironically, the smaller groups and tighter miking on display in Beltrami's "3:10 to Yuma" are part of a strong scoring tradition, albeit one more on display in the '60s and '70s, when composers began to experiment and turn away from the big-score sound of the '50s and earlier. Epic scores in the '60s might feature 50 or 60 players as opposed to 100, with miking that showcased individual and section performance much more acutely.

A composer can also make a huge difference with just one player, or one sound, as with Marianelli's much-discussed typewriter percussion. "It's one of those things that gets discussed very early, and (director) Joe (Wright) had a wonderful way of setting challenges for me. He would say, 'Dario, what do you think you could do with a typewriter?' and I would go off and think about it. I sampled a 1930s typewriter and started playing with it, and I gave him a few pieces for solo typewriter and he really liked them, so the typewriter started to become a percussion instrument in the score."

While all the nominated scores feature these kinds of innovative approaches, orchestral sophistication and melody continue to be the rudders that steer the tone of many of these works. "Some of the cinematic tricks we've come to rely on are there for a reason and used when necessary," Beltrami says. "Like any part of filmmaking, there are certain things that everyone is aware of and are part of the standard repertoire."

Even a score like Iglesias' "The Kite Runner," with its mix of indigenous ethnic instrumentation, takes advantage of orchestral signposts. "Maybe the biggest difference is the multiplicity of musical languages that coexist in the industry," Iglesias says. "For me, the classicism in film music -- the films of the '40s and '50s -- is still a first reference that we shouldn't forget. All that has happened from then to nowadays, both in the U.S. and in Europe, has an influence on all of us. New technologies have progressively changed concepts of the music composition, and I feel very comfortable with the new technologies, but the basis of this profession is still very similar: to have the capacity to absorb all that surrounds us -- to be a sponge -- and be able to react in different ways -- not to be a parrot. What we normally call 'traditional score' has always been in constant movement. The music language evolves and it constantly needs to expand its ways of expression."
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