Incidental Music

Incidental Music: def. (noun)- music used in a film as a background to create or enhance a particular atmosphere, otherwise known as a score

Sunday, January 27, 2013

January Score Reviews and Oscar Nominees

Hi all! Welcome to another Incidentally, Music blog post! Let's jump right in with my thoughts on some scores released in January. For those of you new to the blog, I judge scores based on a few things-first, does it fit the movie? The music I hear needs to fit what people see on the screen.  Second, does it make me feel something? I know this is a weird question, but one of the points of a movie score is to provide emotional support to the action in the movie. So the music needs to make me feel something! It needs to convince me! Third, is it original? I like scores that do something different, whatever that may be. Maybe a melody pops up that's completely different from any other scores I've heard before. Maybe there's a new instrument that give it a unique sound. Fourth and finally, do I like it? I'm not pretending to be an impartial judge who's word is law. Some scores I will rate high because I like them. Other scores, I will not rate high, because I don't like them. All my thoughts are just that-my thoughts. I'm just trying to get more people to listen to movie music and give the art form some love <3

Gangster Squad, by Steve Jablonsky-4/10
Did it fit the movie? Yes, I think so. It was dark and adrenaline pumping. Jablonsky make use of driving percussion and strings a lot, with horn hits in between and the occasional harmonica.
Did it make me feel something? No, not really. My heart did kinda jump at points like in the track You're Talking to God, when the sound got really loud and intense, and the one track that got me excited was Welcome to Los Angeles, in which there's this really cool beat with a fun string melody. The problem is that the score pretty much just sounds that track the whole time. Perhaps in this movie, the absence of music served to make certain scenes more dramatic because I kept waiting for some kind of dramatic rise beyond the heart-pumping drums and strings, and I didn't really feel it.
Was it original? For the most part, no. It sounded like just another action movie score to me, with the driving beats and strings.The addition of the harmonica was unexpected and new, though, so that was kinda interesting. I didn't expect it! 
Did I like it? No, not particularly. There was no melody, and I have a hard time with scores that have no recurring melodies. It's a personal preference, though. I think that scores can be successful without melodies, but it's harder for me to relate to them when they don't. Purchasing suggestion? I personally wouldn't buy it. I just didn't like it enough. Listen to it on YouTube and see you agree!

The Impossible, by Fernando Velasquez-7.5/10
Did it fit the movie? Yes, completely. I had no trouble imagining a family struck by tragedy while listening to this score. Lots of strings and piano mostly, with a cello solo popping up consistently throughout and some woodwinds. 
Did I feel something? Oh yeah. Every single track was designed to pull at your emotional center in some way. Most of the music was longing and heart rending except for Is It Over?, which sounded totally frightening-I'm guessing it came at the point when the family was separated from each other. I felt the separation, loss, and devastation come through very clearly.
Was it original? No, and here's where I took off a couple rating points. Although I really enjoyed the melodies, they just seemed a little too predictable to me. Also, although the use of solo cello with strings and piano was lovely, it's also not very new. I've heard plenty of scores with a similar sound.
Did I like it? Yes, I did :) It made me long for my home and my family, and whenever scores make me feel something in my own life, I usually like them. It was very peaceful to listen to while reading or cooking or doing homework, and there are some tracks that I absolutely love, including Go and Help People and The Impossible End Titles. Purchasing suggestion? Buy the tracks you like! They're worth it.

 Promised Land, by Danny Elfman (January Composer of the Month)-7.5/10
Did it fit the movie? You know, at first I wasn't sure if it would! Bouncing back from Silver Linings Playbook, Elfman's usually whimsy and dream-like style comes through strongly in this score, and I don't really think "whimsy" when I think of a movie about the fracking industry. But the more I listened to it and the more I thought about it, I realized that it works. Why? Because the whole premise of the movie plays on people's hopes and dreams. The title refers to the hope of the promised land, the home God promised to the ancient Israelites in Biblical times. So I think a whimiscal Elfman score works well! True to his style, there's lots of woodwinds, xylophones, and strings.
Did I feel something? Yes. Tracks like Traveling made me think of moving through life holding onto a dream or a goal, and letting that drive my actions. Weepy Donuts, although humorously named, actually made me sad-it's just a solo piano with a few strings, playing out a simple melody. I think of longing for a lost time in my life when I hear it.
Was it original? Yes, and here's why-the haunting female voices that show up every once and awhile. They're child-like and on the line between eerie and friendly. I thought it was a perfect addition, and it made the score just different enough from others I've heard, because some of the music does sound very familiar to me.
Did I like it? Yes, I think so. It wasn't a perfect score, but I enjoyed a few tracks very much. The ones I mentioned previously, as well as The Speech. Purchasing suggestion? Buy the tracks you like and support our composer of the month! 

Zero Dark Thirty, by Alexandre Desplat-8.5/10
Did it fit the movie? Totally. Dark, intense, scary, horrible, suspenseful, sad, angry, frustrated, heartbroken, lost-all of these adjectives and more came to my mind at some point while listening the score, and I think all of these things apply to the hunt for Bin Laden. Desplat uses a variety of instruments, some definitely Middle-Eastern, others more traditionally orchestral.
Did I feel something? Yes, I did. In fact, the score was almost uncomfortable to listen to at some points because of the darkness embedded in it. I let it run in the background while doing homework, and my work suddenly took on this tone of urgency. I felt uptight and uneasy. It's not that the music is awfully written. It's just...uncomfortable. I can't really describe it. Listen to it and you'll understand! There were a few tracks that tugged at my heart too-Maya On Plane is my favorite.
Was it original? Very much yes. The melodies, though few, were unique. I heard so many instruments and some interesting electronic effects as well. Bombings has this sound in the background of the track that sounds like a slow, twisted, almost evil heartbeat, and I'm really curious about how they made it. Monkeys and Flight to Compound have similar "heartbeats." 
Did I like it? Yes, and here's why-because it's extremely well crafted. Every track has something distinctive about it, distinguishing it from the others. I've noticed this in other works by Desplat as well. He makes every track different, and I love that. It's also tailored to the film's subject matter very well, another thing Desplat is famous for. Purchasing suggestion? Buy only the tracks that you know you'll want to listen to again and again. Most of the score is too uncomfortable for that, but I still think it needs some love and support!

And now, ladies and gentlemen, the nominees for Best Original Score are: 

Mychael Danna, Life of Pi
Alexandre Desplat, Argo
Dario Marianelli, Anna Karenina
John Williams, Lincoln
Thomas Newman, Skyfall

Yay! Congrats to all the nominees!  The exciting thing about all of these is that I've reviewed 4 out of the 5 scores nominated (see here and here). Your challenge this week is to listen to all of these scores, which is easy because they're all on Spotify for free listening! Comment below or on my Facebook page to let me know which one you think should win! I'll review Argo next week, along with giving my predictions for who will win :) Thanks for reading and have a great week of good music listening!

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Part Two: Orchestration!

Hi everyone! About a month ago, I wrote Part One of a series about the score writing process. In that post, I described some of the people that are involved in developing a score and syncing it to a film, such as composers, music editors, etc. (See full post here) Today, I'm continuing that series by talking about the what, who, why, and how of orchestration. 

What is Orchestration? 

 1. the arrangement of a musical composition for performance by an orchestra
 2. harmonious organization. 

The first definition is more informative, because it tells you exactly what orchestration means! It's taking a simple melody and developing it for a larger group of instruments to play (it doesn't have to be an orchestra necessarily). I really like the second definition, though, because I think it conveys what orchestration sounds like-taking a melody and organizing many instruments to play it, giving it harmonies and layers that the original composition may not have had. This is harmonious organization.

Who orchestrates?
Well, um, the orchestrator does. Go figure. But the orchestrator could also be the film composer or the orchestra conductor as well. Like I said in my previous post, it depends on who's scoring the film and what their preference is. Howard Shore, the composer of the Lord of the Rings music, both composes and orchestrates his music. January composer of the month Danny Elfman, however, just composes the melodies and has an orchestrator arrange the melodies for him. I think this is interesting because it's often the film composer who gets the credit for writing the music when in fact, it might be the orchestrator or team of orchestrators who write most of the actual music you hear in the film. (Not to belittle the composer, though, because coming up with good quality melodies is so much more difficult than it sounds. )

Why orchestrate?
Why indeed? After all, what's wrong with a simple piano or a lone violin? Who needs a big complicated orchestra playing in the background of a movie? Well, sometimes you don't need an orchestra! There are situations when orchestration isn't necessary when crafting a score. Maybe it's a low budget indie film and so there's not enough funds to hire an orchestra to play the score. Mostly, it comes down to the director's vision for the tone and feel of the movie. If piano solos fit the tone, then piano solos will be the score. If it's an epic movie that calls for sound to match the dramatic onscreen action, then the score will probably be orchestrated for many instruments to provide a fuller sound.

How do you orchestrate?
When I first started arranging my own music for orchestra, I thought it would be easy. Write a piece for piano, pick instruments I like, distribute the piano chords across them, and boom. It's orchestrated. But I soon found out that it's much more difficult than that. There's tons of things an orchestrator must consider when arranging a composition. 

Say you write a song on the piano. You decide that your piece might sound good played by a full concert orchestra so you decide to orchestrate it. Cool. One of the first problems will be getting the instruments to play together in the same key at the same time. Why? Notes on some instruments do not match up to notes on other instruments. For example, the note C on the violin sounds like a B flat on a trumpet. This means you have to take the music you've written and make sure it's in the correct key for each one of the instruments so that the melody sounds right. If this sounds confusing, that's because it is! Even I don't completely understand this!

Now that you have the keys all worked out, you need to write out the parts for the instruments to play. When you do this, you actually have to write music that's different of your original composition. You have to know the harmonies, the counter melodies, the notes just hanging out the in background, and even the drum beats. You have to decide which instruments get the melody line at specific points in your piece, which instruments are providing harmony, which instruments come in then fade out and when, etc.

You also have to balance the instruments to get the right sound level and to make sure the melody gets heard. For example, you've figured out that you want the violins to play the melody and the trumpets to play the harmony. But, trumpets are naturally much louder than violins, so you need to have the correct balance of sound to make sure the melody gets through the blare of the trumpets. You could do this by varying the number of trumpets playing, maybe 2 instead of 10, or telling the violins to play as loud as possible to make sure they're heard.

What about the tempo, or speed of the music? Well, when you were playing your song by yourself on the piano, you could speed up or slow down whenever you wanted because it was just you. Now, there's tons of instruments that have to all speed up and slow down at the same time. You need to make sure that you write parts that allow for the instruments to change their tempo without sounding like a train wreck.

These are just a few of the problems I've encountered while orchestrating, and I'm sure I could list a few more, but you get the idea. ORCHESTRATION IS HARD! Although, like most things in life,  it is made easier today by computers. Aspiring orchestrators like myself can make use of various programs that get instruments in the right key or write out parts for us so we don't have to do it manually. Yay technology! 

Well, that's all for today. I hope you've enjoyed reading this post about orchestration :) It's definitely one of the things that I want to get better at in the future, so I've had fun learning more about it by writing about it! If you want to read more about the art of orchestrating, I suggest reading Principles of Orchestration, written by Nicloai Rimsky-Korsakov, who composed Flight of the Bumblebee and other wonderful music. His book was first published in 1922, and it's still one of the definitive texts on the subject! It's timeless. Anyway, thanks for reading, and check back next week for four January score reviews and a peak ahead to the Oscars!

Monday, January 14, 2013

And the January Composer of the Month is...

Hi everyone! I'm back from my adventure in Nicaragua! It was absolutely wonderful. Unfortunately, I didn't get to the chance to listen to any of the native music, but I did hear some samples of the pop music that's popular there-It's called "reggaeton" and here's what it sounds like-groovy and good for dancing. My group had the opportunity to take a dancing class while we were there, and we did some shaking and moving to this kind of music :) Super fun!

Danny Elfman
Today, I'd like to introduce you to the January Composer of the Month...Danny Elfman-the composer for all the Tim Burton movies (A.K.A. your nightmares), the Simpsons TV show theme, Batman, and Spiderman! I had fun reading about his journey to becoming a composer because it is kinda unconventional. Daniel Robert Elfman was born May 29, 1953. He was interested in movies as an art form from an early age, but his interest in until high school. He was friends with many artistically inclined individuals, some of whom were musicians. He didn't play any instruments, but watching his friends play their music made him want to learn. 

Young Danny in Oingo Boingo
After high school, he decided to buy a violin and go traveling the world instead of going to college right away. He stayed with his brother Richard in France for awhile, where the brothers toured with a group called the Grand Magic Circus, a musical theatre group. After touring with this group for a few months, Danny separated from Richard and went to Africa for a year, where he learned how to play drums in addition to improving his skill on the violin. While he was in Africa, Richard had returned to the US and started his own musical theatre group called the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo. When Danny returned, Richard invited him to be the group's musical director. He also sang and played trombone, violin, and percussion in the group. After the Mystic Knights disbanded, Danny formed the punk band Oingo Boingo, which toured until 1995. Here's one of their hit songs.

While Elfman was touring with Oingo Boingo, he began writing movie scores! His first score was for "Forbidden Zone" in 1982, which was written and directed by his brother. His work on this soundtrack and for Oingo Boingo attracted the attention of Tim Burton, who was beginning work on a movie called "Pee Wee's Big Adventure." Burton hired Elfman to score this film in 1982, and the rest is history! Since that time,  Elfman has been one of Hollywood's most prominent composers. In addition to his collaborations with Tim Burton (which include Batman, the Nightmare Before Christmas, Alice in Wonderland, and most recently, Frankenweenie), Elfman has worked on many blockbuster films films, including the Spiderman trilogy, the Men in Black trilogy, and the first Mission Impossible

What most impressed me about Elfman is the fact that he is self taught! He has little to no formal musical training. He taught himself all he knows about music! I think that's amazing and possibly reveals a little bit of musical genius :) Another interesting fact: He is actually the singing voice of Jack Skellington in The Nightmare Before Christmas! I didn't know that before. I chose him to be our composer for the month because in 2012, he released SIX new scores. He's been busy, so I think he needs a bit of love and appreciation. 

That's all I have for this week! Come back next week for Part Two on my series about the scoring process! Assignment for the Week: Listen to Danny Elfman!