In December I wrapped up the first of two semesters at the USC Scoring for Motion Pictures and Television program (SMPTV). The final recording session was for string orchestra.
Working only with strings is like painting with a limited set of colors. On one hand that seems limiting, but on the other hand they blend so well you get a sound with lot of purity. Since I was writing to the opening funeral scene of The Village, I figured to use that pure sound to suggest fait, prayer, and the church.
The Village is about some very seriously damaged people, so the music also needs to set up themes of deep personal loss and the guilt and pain that go with that.
I asked the players to play with their mutes; this makes the strings sound less bright and a bit far-off, but they’re not really any quieter, and we got a nice fortissimo sound at the session. Also, this piece happens to be very easy to sight read and play; we got the take in just six minutes.
I didn’t label this clip in the “Awesomeness” category, mostly because I haven’t actually seen The Green Lantern movie. But this cue sort of turns a lot of the conventional epic action cue cliches on their side a bit.
What you usually hear these days are string ostinatos, but this one puts the ostinato on the brass right from the start. Huh.
Then there is this low-brass rhythmic figure – da-dah, da-dah – sounds like a cimbasso. Very prominent in the mix. It’s brash and unusual, almost so aggressive I would think it risks taking the audience out of the scene. Again, I haven’t seen it, and if it works, wow, that’s a cool original sound. Check it out:
What is remarkable about this cue is how musical it is for a combat cue. Lots of combat music is a confusion of changing time signatures and disjointed figures.
John William’s Battle of the Heroes is 2 basic ideas which we hear right up front – a fast string ostinato, and a horn playing the battle motif. There’s not much else aside from punctuations between statements of this theme.
We hear the motif with a chorus singing unison, then the chorus harmonizes, then the horns play it as an ensemble. We hear it at half-speed around the climactic moment of the cue, and towards the end, as a canon.
With each restatement, John Williams adds variations and development. It is decorated with many of his trademark Star Wars musical textures – rapid triplet horn lines, harp runs, xylophone doubling the strings, all with a grandeur that softens the idea of combat and makes it something operatic.
This one cue from Up was probably what won Giacchino the Oscar. Everyone was crying their eyes out in the theater during this scene when I went, the montage showing the married life of Carl and Ellie.
Listening again I’ve noticed how the piece uses orchestration to tell the story.
The melody is carried by sounds from the 40s – muted trumpet and solo violin. Later we hear vibes, probably suggesting domestic life in the 50s. Notice how the pizzicato strings are used in a way that sounds like the 50s.
What we never hear is a sweeping section of violins carrying the melody. This is no John Barry score from Out of Africa. That’s because Carl and Ellie never got to have their travel adventures. Flourishes of strings are limited to transitional effects and counter melodies.
This restraint keeps the cue focused on the relationship of Carl and Ellie and sets up Carl’s motivations to fly to South America.
By the time we hear the solo piano at the end (and everyone is bawling), we’ve heard the hook 8 or 12 times, showing there is nothing wrong with a lot of repetition.
OK, this is only based on perusing the web site (they are playing at Typhoon in Santa Monica on Monday November 7th). Just load the web page and put on your headphones, that is a damned impressive track on the web site. Nice arranging, I like the voicing, the didgeridoo, and the players are together and in tune (not so easy!)
This performance video ain’t bad either. Live videos really tell you a lot about a band (as opposed to studio recordings, where Pro Tools can hide a lot of things).
At the USC SMPTV program we did a composer-in-residence workshop with composer Marco Beltrami and his musical collaborator Buck Sanders. They brought in the 2005 film The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, and the 20 students in the program each rescored a scene from the film. Marco and Buck gave their feedback. We recorded at their in Malibu (Mix magazine profiles the studio in a recent issue).
A few notes about the session:
First of all, if you haven’t seen “3 Burials”, go watch it. Tommy Lee Jones directed, and of note is Barry Pepper playing a border patrol agent who suffers mightily. You also get to see January Jones playing a bored chain smoking housewife (and this was before Mad Men).
The story takes place in the desert on the US/Mexico border. Beltrami’s film’s original score evokes the barren, alien landscape of the film.
For the workshop, we recorded with an ensemble similar to the film – violin, cello, 2 guitars, accordion, percussion, and some sound design samples (the original film had a small string ensemble as well for a portion of its music).
It’s a small film with excellent drama, it’s a good model for what indie filmmakers can accomplish with limited resources. Many scenes are just 2 guys talking (the drama of course comes from the conflict between them).
The original score of the film uses the small scope to its advantage with a unique “soundprint” via instrumentation. Though the sound is very different, the motley ensemble recalls Morricone’s combination of human whistling, wah-wah vocals, and ocarina in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.
I’ll post a follow up when I finish the mix for my recording from the session. For now I’ll just call attention to this quote from mixer John Kurlander from that Mix article on Pianella Studio:
“All the orchestral studios and recording venues in Europe, particularly in London, have ambient spaces where the reverberation time is much longer,” with decay times of more than two seconds. “The converted soundstages of Southern California, however, are closer to 1-second RT. They definitely have a dead sound. It’s just a different mindset.”
Ain’t that the truth, we got a very live sound from the room there. Not like working in completely quiet studio rooms that I’m used to. When I get it ready I’ll post a mix on SoundCloud.