Tradition faces new guard
Old rules no longer apply as high-tech tools widen field
This season’s Oscar-nominated scores reflect the new realities about music in film: While there will always be room for the traditional symphonic score, composers and filmmakers are now so comfortable with high-tech recording techniques, world music and electronic soundscapes that the playing field is broader than ever before.
Twenty years ago, it would have been difficult to imagine that an American-born industrial-rock pioneer and his British partner would be nominated alongside a German-born pop producer-turned-composer, an Indian-music superstar, a French flutist-turned-composer and a conservatory-trained British tunesmith.
For a contemporary sound in “The Social Network,” director David Fincher turned to Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor, who had never scored a film before (although his English-born partner, Atticus Ross, had done “The Book of Eli”).
Their work — a moody mixture of old modular-synth sounds and electronic processing of real acoustic instruments, including a recurring piano figure — reflects a little of Fincher’s ideas (he had referenced the sounds once made by Wendy Carlos and Tangerine Dream) and a lot of the kinds of ambient soundscapes that Reznor and Ross had previously imagined on their “Ghosts I-IV” album in 2008.
Contrast that — basically two guys in a studio — with the traditional orchestral music that has long been the Hollywood standard for film scoring: French composer Alexandre Desplat’s largely piano-and-strings score for “The King’s Speech” and Brit John Powell’s symphonic work for “How to Train Your Dragon.”
One is a British period picture, set in the years before World War II, and the other is an animated fantasy — both of which called for more traditional music methods. Desplat’s score had to dovetail neatly with the Mozart and Beethoven excerpts that director Tom Hooper had already chosen for key dramatic moments, while first-time nominee Powell (“Happy Feet,” the “Bourne” movies) created a grand tapestry for orchestra and choir, adding regional elements for the Viking characters in “Dragon.”
Most composers insist the best way to evoke emotional responses from audiences is still via real musicians playing real instruments, and those two scores serve as proof of this concept.
Hans Zimmer’s “Inception” demonstrates the growing importance of technology in creating and recording music for film. Seeking a specific sound for Christopher Nolan’s dream-infiltration thriller, he recorded dissonant brass clusters on one day, Modest Mouse guitarist Johnny Marr another day, layered in electronics, manipulated much of it in the digital realm and ended up with a massive orchestral/electronic dreamscape.
Indian composer A.R. Rahman, meanwhile, reteamed with his “Slumdog Millionaire” director Danny Boyle for an eerie, guitar-driven accompaniment for the trapped-rock-climber thriller “127 Hours.” And, in a repeat of his “Slumdog” accomplishment two years ago, he is nominated for score and song for the same film. His “If I Rise,” written with English singer Dido and her brother Rollo Armstrong, is one of just four songs nominated this year.
These days, to guess what the music branch has in mind when it chooses songs is a fool’s errand. The mysterious voting procedure (either attend the song bakeoff at the Academy or ask for a DVD with all the eligible songs as they appeared in their films, then tabulate their relative “quality” via a complex numerical formula), coupled with the Academy’s refusal to say how many members actually participate, make it impossible to speculate.
It is fair to say, however, that songs performed on-screen in a way that drives the action or plot, vs. playing over the intro- or end-credits, have an advantage in the nominations process. While the branch only nominated four songs, not the usual five, this year, all are performed against some kind of visual action.
Beyond that, it’s mostly business as usual, with songs by animation-music pros Alan Menken (“Tangled”) and Randy Newman (“Toy Story 3”) competing against two offbeat contenders: Rahman’s ethereal “If I Rise” and the Gwyneth Paltrow-sung country tune “Coming Home,” which occurs during a dramatic moment of “Country Strong.”
And with a pair of Disney tunes squaring off against the genuine Nashville article and a song by a world-music titan, in the immortal words of Cole Porter, anything goes.