The perfect movie soundtrack: Hans Zimmer – Inception

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It’s been said that the perfect movie soundtrack is one that integrates itself so well into the fabric of the film that you don’t notice it’s there. i suspect that belief arises as much from experiencing the jarring æsthetic bifurcation that ensues from badly-executed soundtracks as from witnessing the seamless assimilation of sound with sight. The very best soundtracks of all, to me at least, are so good, so interesting, that they’re utterly unignorable. But it would be a mistake to say, in calling attention to themselves, that they’re too interesting; in the same way as an outstandingly effective mise en scène, or wardrobe design, or cluster of special effects, we’re conscious of their brilliance while remaining firmly locked in engagement with the film. My first podcast focussed on one of the very best examples of that, in Antichrist, and more recently Hans Zimmer has achieved something similar in his soundtrack for Christopher Nolan’s outstanding film Inception. It helps that the movie is as good as it is; i’ve not seen a film as engrossing as Inception in a while, which therefore presents Zimmer with something already extremely impressive to work with. and yet, as Zimmer has explained, he didn’t create his soundtrack with reference to any of the visuals, working instead from just the script, using that alone to ignite his imagination. It’s a risky approach, but a suitably unconventional one for a film that falls so far outside the realm of conventional thrillers. Read more


25 years on: a-ha – Take On Me

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This week marks the 25th anniversary of, in my view, one of the finest pop songs ever recorded: “Take On Me” by a-ha. It could be argued that the release of “Take On Me” marked a turning point for pop, which had spent the preceding years mooching around in New Romantic guise when it wasn’t posturing in Soft Rock or shuffling around with the Goths. To some extent following OMD’s lead, a-ha pretty much defined synthpop in this breathtaking song, although it took them three attempts to do it. Let’s go back to the beginning.

The song first began to take shape as early as 1982, when a-ha barely existed, the trio shacked up in a cabin in their native Norway, putting together a series of demos. Back then it was called “Lesson One”, and while the band used obviously cheap and cheerful synths and drum machines, the basic elements of the final song were already firmly in place, most notably the recurring synth riff as well as much of the main melody. Structurally though, it’s all over the place, sounding like three different songs awkwardly stitched together, not one of them possessing a chorus to speak of. It therefore comes across as rather odd, excruciatingly so when Morten Harket inexplicably lets loose a bizarre, horrifying whoop a little way in (0:41 – a moment he’d probably like to forget).

A year later, now calling themselves a-ha, the group spent several months recording demos in London, at a small studio called Rendezvous. It was here that “Take On Me” properly took its final form, bearing little resemblance to the miserable demo from 1982; all the basic elements—lyrics, structure, melody and harmonies—are the same at this stage as in the final version. Nonetheless, it’s clearly still a work in progress; Harket’s singing is still too waivering for its own good, despite the remarkable demonstration of his vocal range, as heard in the chorus, no less than two-and-a-half octaves. The impressive chorus goes some way to contrast with the verses, but there’s still a dynamic flatness that stops the song being terribly inviting, something the all-too-plain instrumental simply can’t solve on its own. Read more


Aching with exuberance: Of Montreal – False Priest

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My first encounter with of Montreal‘s 2008 album Skeletal Lamping was a bewildering experience. For anyone unfamiliar with it, its apparent 15 tracks are nothing but a ruse; in fact, there are many more than that, the album lurching between portions of song, seeking neither clarity nor indeed coherence. On the one hand, there’s something maddening about it, but what Skeletal Lamping projected most was a riotous celebration of the sheer joy of song-making, the jump-cuts so many signs of unbounded enthusiasm. For all its structural oddness, it was nonetheless irresistable, carrying the audience along on an unstoppable tide of invention. Their new album, False Priest, unleashed earlier this week, is therefore among the releases that i’ve been most excitedly ancitipating this year.

First things first: False Priest‘s 13 tracks are (almost) all present and correct in their entirety; of Montreal—as one might have guessed, considering their highly evolutionary history—have wisely not attempted to repeat past experiments. If anything, what songwriter Kevin Barnes has done in this new outpouring is find ways to incorporate the kind of stylistic eclecticism heard on Skeletal Lamping into cogent songs positively aching with exuberance. There’s undeniably a powerful sense of past musics informing each song at its deepest level, but while in the hands of lesser bands this can become a kind of shallow pastiche bordering on a piss-take (sadly, the road down which Scissor Sisters seem determined to travel), of Montreal’s unbridled imagination takes the essence of former idioms rather than just their surface gloss, and the result—for all its apparent ‘retro’ chic—is unequivocably new. Read more


Proms 2010: Jonathan Dove – A Song of Joys (World Première)

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i think Tom Service put it best, a few years ago, when he described the Last Night of the Proms as a “calcified cadaver”. It is, there’s no question: beneath the merriment and the klaxons lies an occasion that died many, many years ago; it’s a concert in aspic, filled with a misfitted agglomeration of works that culminate in a trio of singalongs which have at least made the transition from jingoistic anthems to party favourites. It’s almost as bad as Choral Evensong, for goodness’ sake. Anyway, turning away from such blatant party poopery for a moment, it does at least promise something new each year, and last night the opportunity fell to housewives’ favourite, Jonathan Dove, whose A Song of Joys was given its first performance, starting the concert.

Dove has turned to that most ambitious of poets Walt Whitman for his text, lines from the poem whose title Dove has borrowed for his own. And it’s a big text; the scope of Whitman’s vision is akin to that of Psalm 8, conjuring a vista of creation from the vantage point of song. Such epic scope as this makes it all the more disappointing that Dove’s response to the text is so simple and unimaginative. Dove probably wasn’t allowed longer than his 5-minute duration, but did he really have to move through the text in such a perfunctory way? One phrase dutifully follows another, never really bringing alive the words or tapping into their vision, still less presenting one of Dove’s own. It’s all terribly functional: loud and light, with lots of big tunes—but not a hint of the genuine, deep excitement from which Whitman’s words no doubt sprang. In fact, the choral evensong analogy remains apt; what Dove has composed is a secular but unavoidably John Rutter-esque anthem that would sit perfectly comfortably within an edition of Songs of Praise. So, was it suitable to start the Last Night of the Proms? with Tom Service’s description of the occasion foremost in mind: yes, absolutely. Read more


Proms 2010: Robin Holloway – RELIQUARY – Scenes from the life of Mary, Queen of Scots (World Première)

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Prize for the longest title bestowed on a piece in this year’s Proms must surely go to Robin Holloway‘s RELIQUARY – Scenes from the life of Mary, Queen of Scots, enclosing an instrumentation of Robert Schumann’s ‘Gedichte der Königin Maria Stuart’, given its world première two days ago. Holloway has taken Schumann’s last five songs—deemed, it seems, by scholars to be of relatively poor quality—and both orchestrated them as well as providing them with a larger context, a framework within which they sit; Holloway describes how “[the] work as an entity … contains the five original songs as within a mediaeval reliquary, surrounding the precious remains within a suitable setting, tactful and unobtrusive for the most part…” (from the programme note).

To that end, Holloway has put himself in Schumann’s compositional shoes, to the extent that the opening Prologue works so convincingly as a preliminary to the first song, that i didn’t even notice it at an initial listening. This stylistic reserve continues throughout the song (“Abschied von Frankreich”); while the orchestration does sound, at moments, a touch richer than Schumann might have written, the language is faithful, with little to suggest a much later hand has been involved. Until, that is, the very end of the song, when a muted call from the horns causes the style to shift, allowing in some poignant dissonances, all the more cutting in this context. It leads pretty much seamlessly into the second song (“Nach der Geburt ihres Sohnes”), in which Holloway’s voice is much more demonstrable—right from the start, in fact: the opening celesta motif almost made me gasp at its stylistic difference. But one gets the impression, quickly, that this song was most in need of assistance; Schumann’s treatment of the text (a prayer for her new-born son’s safety) is somewhat perfunctory and fragmented. While this isn’t helped by Holloway’s interpolation of a number of silences, it is significantly enriched with what he calls a ‘halo’, provided by celesta and strings, continuing throughout; it sits surprisingly comfortably above the song, giving it a delicate, even transcendent dimension. Read more


Proms 2010: James MacMillan – The Sacrifice – Three Interludes (London Première)

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The Proms is now well into its final straight, and the week began with the London première of James MacMillan‘s The Sacrifice – Three Interludes. As the title suggests, MacMillan has extracted the music from his 2007 opera, The Sacrifice.

First of the three is “The Parting”, which opens, disarmingly, like a John Williams-esque bit of film music, continuing in this vein for several minutes. Eventually it coalesces into something deeper; a curious music, driven by the strings, taking some strange harmonic twists (akin to one of Shostakovich’s slow movements), before being abruptly snatched by the brass and percussion. This throws a bit of light and air into the mix, and leads to some brief excitement in the woodwinds, though not for long, finally descending back to the mood from which it sprang. The interlude concludes with the greyest of passages (now Wagner springs to mind), muted, melancholic, ashen.

A “Passacaglia” follows, and if the opening moments suggest Britten or Lutosławski, such notions are quickly dispelled by the boistrous melody that chirps up, setting the tone for where things are going. The music originally accompanied the scene of a marriage feast, and there’s a fair amount of merriment in MacMillan’s material, although equally, the ominous presence of the ground bass, coupled with the nasal quality of much of the music, makes for an ambivalent mood (MacMillan’s programme note bluntly states, “It will end in violence”). Read more

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Proms 2010: Weir, Musgrave, Northcott, Ferneyhough, Taverner, Harvey and Jackson

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The final Proms Saturday Matinee, two days ago, featured the BBC Singers, exploring a variety of contemporary works inspired by early music. The singers were joined for the occasion by the Arditti Quartet and members of Endymion, with David Hill presiding.

The concert opened with Judith Weir‘s millennial composition All the Ends of the Earth. Weir’s innate sensitivity in writing for voices is superbly demonstrated here, the sopranos exploring increasingly complex melismas; they’re answered at intervals by the lower voices, who are backed up by soft harp and percussion. The melodic lines soon become concentric, fast and slow simultaneously, an obvious tip-of-the-hat to Weir’s inspiration for the piece, Perotin. The lower voices’ contributions become more and more static, less and less frequent, as the piece progresses; greatest emphasis is given to the often stratospheric sopranos, whose repeated Alleluia refrain carries real weight, despite the altitude. Towards the conclusion, both the lower voices and the instruments get more caught up in the celebration, the choir ultimately uniting at the very end. Read more

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