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2016 Round Up – May-June (5/12)

July 3, 2016

monthly_roundup2016 Round Up – May-June (5/12)

Synchrotones presents its monthly round-up: a brief overview of soundtrack releases that didn’t get their own dedicated review. And sorry we missed the March edition. So let’s focus on those scores that got away. Such as: “Money Monster” and “Last Days in the Desert” and “Our Kind of Traitor” and “The Family Fang” and “Viva” and “Of Mind and Music” and “The Expanse” and a few more.


Cover_LastDaysDesertLast Days in the Desert” (Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, 20 tracks, 32.52, Lakeshore Records 2016). “The music is meant to be simple, like the film. No miracles, no magic, just a real human encounter between Jesus and a family,” said Bensi. “We thought it was important that the film’s ensemble cast not be overwhelmed by orchestration, so we settled on just a few select instruments, each voicing its own part.” Juriaans adds: “This sparseness helped create a mournful, spacious sound that complements the mournfulness and spaciousness of the desert. Even the sound of the desert itself is recalled by the instrumentation—arid, attenuated, sometimes brittle, often bleak.  The core of the score is made up of violins and cellos, although you can’t always tell since they’re often played eerily, scratchily, or austerely. On the other hand, there are key moments of relief when they’re played more expressively and emotively—almost romantically.” I’m not sure I’d call it simple music. It’s minimalist, sparse and borderline abstract, but it’s not simple. It feels quite ‘arty’ and may have more in common with modern orchestral concert works than with ‘traditional’ film music. It can be quite a meditative listening experience, provided you like the sound of solo strings. It’s not unmelodic, but there is little to hold on to. It is much more about the sound and the atmosphere, similar to some works by Arnalds or Richter.


Cover_OfMindAndMusicOf Mind and Music” (Carlos José Alvarez, 29 tracks, 58:33, Varese Sarabande 2016)“This too is a largely minimalist and meditative experience, though on the whole this one is quite melodic and accessible. “Our main character Una Vida is a street musician with a mysterious past who suffers from Alzheimer’s and dementia,” said composer Alvarez. “I think the most challenging aspect of the score were the moments when she would go adrift and lose herself. Una Vida’s appearances are very intense moments in the film.  The score needed to pull us into her mind and somehow help us to experience that shift happening. We can’t pretend to know what that must be like and how scary that must be, but the director Richie Adams was very clear on how he wanted to feel experiencing those moments with her.  He is a director who is very in tune with his gut and knows when something is working for him.” The orchestrations are light-weight, often revolving around piano, guitar, woodwinds and accordion. It also features vocal performances by Mykia Jovan. The overall mood tends to be reflective and melancholy, with few uplifting moments (usually through songs). It’s a beautiful score; one that requires and deserves your full attention.


Cover_TheFamilyFangThe Family Fang” (Carter Burwell, 17 tracks, 35:18, Lakeshore Records 2016). “The central characters in “The Family Fang” are adult children who have not successfully grown up,” Burwell explained. “To suggest this, the score relies on the celesta, a bell piano familiar to listeners from the “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” in Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker”.” The composer adds: “For another level of context ‘celesta’ is French for ‘heavenly ‘and I used it here to suggest Annie and Baxter’s childlike qualities, their fragility, but also their aspirations. The innocence of the celesta is contradicted somewhat by the use of bittersweet harmonies which have more in common with the blues than Tchaikovsky. They’re used to suggest the siblings’ dysfunction and sadness. It’s only in the last scene of the film that these overcast harmonies burn off and the light shines in.” Burwell’s main theme for celesta is heard right from the start. It’s a simple, almost silly, little melody, but it gains some weight through the melancholy harmonies. It returns in practically every other cue throughout the album, which is of course great from a continuity point of view. There are some secondary themes and Burwell’s distinct (somewhat minimalist) orchestrations that also contribute to the score’s coherency. The celesta aside, Burwell relies heavily on piano, guitar, bass, woodwinds and some strings. The composer seems to be aiming for an indie/quirky vibe, but I find the result a bit dull.


Cover_VivaViva” (Stephen Rennicks, 20 tracks, 18:50, Lakeshore Records 2016). “In writing the music for Viva the challenge was to get themes and sounds which were somehow ‘of’ the characters and of the beautiful but bedraggled backdrop of the city of Havana,” said Rennicks. “The director, Paddy Breathnach, and I felt from early on that the instrumentation should have an acoustic feel and the themes be simple but strong and, in reference to the main character ‘Jesus’ in particular, have some sense of a veiled nobility.”  The composer continues: “What you get is music with instrumentation that is at home in the setting of the story and melodically steers a more neutral course, underpinning the drama rather than creating it, that’s the idea at least. The images, the acting, the dramatic arc of the film are all so beautifully treated that luckily all I needed to do was be as sympathetic as possible to what was already there.” The album for “Viva” offers 20 miniature pieces of music, many of them derived from the same central idea. From the get-go Rennicks introduces a melody for guitar and piano which will form the backbone for the remaining cues. With few exceptions, the composer sticks to a fixed sound palette of piano and guitar, though he does apply some filters and effects to break the monotony. On the whole, it’s a pleasant little album; but don’t expect too much development or storytelling in those 18 minutes!


Cover_LightBeneathFeetA Light Beneath Their Feet” (John Swihart, 19 tracks, 31:27, Lakeshore Records 2016).  It must be indie / minimalist season! Here we have another score that relies on a quiet, meditative, minimal sound palette. For the most part Swihart employs soft, whispery synth pads; with guitar occasionally breaking through that misty, spacey sound. It’s a very pretty and pleasant sound, but there is little else to hang on to as a listener. There is something of a central idea (more a chord progression) but it’s not particularly strong or distinct, and doesn’t appear often beyond the first two cues. It’s the sound itself that holds everything together. As said, it’s perfectly nice and technically well done, but I struggle to extract any emotion or storytelling from this. Like most of the albums reviewed above, the music is fairly neutral (or melancholy at best). It’ll depend on your mood and your circumstances as to how you’ll interpret this kind of music. You as an audience will project your emotions onto it, rather than have the music project its emotions onto you.


Cover_OurKindOfTraitorOur Kind of Traitor” (Marcelo Zarvos, 20 tracks, 62.27, Quartet Records 2016). “This was no ordinary spy story and the very first image we see is that of famed ballet dancer Antonio Acosta in a gorgeous slow motion shot,” Zarvos explained. “I took to heart that the idea of dance for this score. I played a mind game with myself and imagined this story as a ballet in which our main characters are the dancers. Being a partially Russian story of course also helped inform that, and it didn’t hurt that some of my favourite music comes from Russian ballet composers such as Prokofiev and Tchaikovsky. In the end, the challenge in doing the score for “Our Kind of Traitor” was how to balance the internal world of the characters with the action.” It’s an interesting approach, but it’s not one I hear on the album. What I hear is a technically flawless, but otherwise typical thriller score. Lots of droning strings, echoing pianos and electronic pads. It’s alright, but it’s anonymous.. and, with the exception of a few cues, it’s a bit dull too.


Cover_MoneyMonsterMoney Monster” (Dominic Lewis, 13 tracks, 39.09, Sony Classical 2016). It’s funny when you listen to multiple albums in one day. “Money Monster” follows the afore-reviewed “Our Kind of Traitor” quite nicely. Lewis relies heavily on synthesised sounds and rhythms, augmented with live strings. The synths often have a crunchy (granulated) texture. It’s a very typical soundscape for a modern thriller. Lewis applies a simple, but surprisingly effective main theme (which he varies upon throughout the score), and he does a good job at building the tension (and releasing it towards the end). It’s by no means a groundbreaking score, but it’s a very solid and entertaining effort. There’s an addictive sense of determination and energy here. I enjoyed this a lot more than I was expecting to.


Cover_TheNeonDemonThe Neon Demon” (Cliff Martinez, 23 tracks, 69.42, Milan Records 2016). There’s something quite attractive about Martinez’s “The Neon Demon”… but perhaps only if you have an affinity with synths and early 90s dance music. “The Demon Dance” would not have been out of place during a 1990s acid/rave party. Personally, I quite enjoy some of these musical influences. But beyond that cue, and maybe a few others, the score very much relies on the sound and the effects of synthesizers – vintage ones, I guess. Like most of the albums reviewed above, it’s an atmospheric score, revolving around sound rather then melody. I don’t necessarily mind that, but there are so many of these scores these days; and there is little to distinguish between them. It’s even getting increasingly difficult to hear the composer’s own voice through all the electronic tinkering. And I’ll say again what I’ve said before: as much as I love all these synth sounds, I’m not getting an emotional response. I’m not hearing a story. Again it’s up to the listener to inject their own feelings… but that’s not why I listen to film music.


Cover_TheExpanseThe Expanse” (Clinton Shorter, 19 tracks, 46.03, Lakeshore Record 2016). Hundreds of years in the future, humans have colonized the solar system. The U.N. controls Earth. Mars is an independent military power. The planets rely on the resources of the Asteroid Belt, where air and water are more precious than gold. For decades, tensions have been rising between these three places. Earth, Mars and the Belt are now on the brink of war. And all it will take is a single spark. The music for this television show is by Clinton Shorter, who made a name for himself with “District 9” a few years ago. “The Expanse” is an enjoyable, and at times impressive, score. It’s largely (if not entirely) electronic, though it still has an acoustic feel to it; courtesy of strings. It’s also largely an atmospheric score, but it’s not really a droning one. Shorter usually manages to keep the music moving through rhythms, arpeggios and see-sawing string motifs. There are a couple of big-sounding action cues in the first half, and the main title features an attractive vocal. As the album progresses, I must admit the music becomes less interesting.


Reviews by Pete Simons (C) 2016 Synchrotones

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