Oscars: Why Composers Went the "Traditional" Route With Best Score Nominees

Composers Traditional Route - H 2015
Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Composers Traditional Route - H 2015

This year's nominated scores are full of traditional orchestras and "bow and blow" ensembles playing acoustic instruments — even in outer space — as their composers blended old sounds with new technology.

This story first appeared in the Feb. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

When it comes to film scoring, "adventurous" sometimes gets conflated with "electronic," especially at the Oscars. But not this year, as the nominated scores eschew computer-generated sounds to take risks with old-fashioned acoustic instrumentation. "If using a violin is traditional, then we can call this year's scores traditional," says composer Alexandre Desplat, who scored two nominations in January, for The Imitation Game and The Grand Budapest Hotel. "But there are ways of using the classical orchestra to be cheesy and out-of-date, and [ways] of using it to look to the future."

No film in this category looks more to the future than Christopher Nolan's Interstellar, although that movie's 10-time Oscar-nominated composer, Hans Zimmer (he won for The Lion King), doesn't see much of a difference between whether you blow into your instrument or plug it into a wall. "It's all adventurous," he says. "An orchestra is made up of lots of instruments that were built with technology. It's important to Chris and me that we're supporting live musicians with our movies, but that doesn't mean that I don't get to geek out and do a lot of electronics, because I do. These scores [of the nominated films] reflect an incredible range and sense of color that hasn't been heard before."

For Interstellar, Zimmer got to geek out on an antique pipe organ — "a technological marvel," he calls it — although initially, Nolan had to convince him to give the instrument a try. "I thought it could turn into a gothic horror score," says Zimmer. As it turned out, the pipe organ — mixed at times with strings playing a late 19th century-style love theme inspired by Zimmer's "Mahler and Straussian roots" — ended up giving Interstellar's score a modern, Imax-sized sound.

First-time nominee Gary Yershon also mixed old with (relatively) new — or at least jazz age — when composing his score for Mr. Turner, combining a string ensemble with a saxophone quartet. "Bow and blow," he calls it, laughing. The dissonant sound was a bold choice for a film set in the early 19th century, but Yershon thinks it would have been a "disaster" to give the film a straight classical score: "You look at the screen and see 19th century costumes. You see people walking through 19th century streets, behaving in an early 19th century way. It would have been redundant to have frittered away the resource that music gives you, the extra emotional impact, on doing the same thing."

Johann Johannsson, also a first-time nominee, has spent much of his career working outside of the film world, and his music has tended toward the more experimental. So it's ironic that his warm, fully orchestral The Theory of Everything score is the closest thing to a truly old-fashioned sound in this year's race. "A lot of my previous works are more electronic," he says, "but for me, this is close to purely orchestral and on the lighter side of the spectrum. Going traditional felt kind of avant-garde to me."

For Imitation Game, Desplat chose an appropriately dark and tricky orchestral score, while he gave Grand Budapest Hotel a more Euro-folksy sound. He's not terribly worried about competing with himself for the Oscar (he jokingly suggests voting for The Grand Imitation Hotel); it could have been even worse. He also could have been nominated for Unbroken, which he scored as well. "No, two nominations is enough already," he says. "I loved writing the score for Unbroken, but if a film doesn't make it through the maze of critics, there's little chance that you would get nominated for anything. I should just focus on my next music, and what happens, happens."