Most observers concede that 2001 was not the best year for film music.
Temp tracks and the usual meddling by execs have practically stamped out originality and freshness in most mainstream scores, and the indie composer faces an uphill battle even to be heard.
Still, a handful of efforts stood out, and it’s up to the music branch of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences to recognize them.
Here, in alphabetical order, are the scores people are talking about:
Composer: Patrick Doyle
Pedigree: Scottish composer, nominated for 1995’s “Sense and Sensibility” and 1996’s “Hamlet”; also scored this year’s “Bridget Jones’s Diary”
Composer’s aesthetic: “It was obvious that the film required a very small, intimate orchestra, so it was agreed that there would be no sweeping strings.
“Also, it struck me as being slightly decadent, slightly seedy — because some of the relationships are fairly immoral — and I thought of the world of Kurt Weill, that kind of cabaret music. Also, some of the behavior of the characters was quite theatrical. So I deliberately wrote music with slight harmonic and rhythmic discrepancies, because I wanted the band to sound like a little theater band that’s not very good.”
Strengths: English period film, Altman’s best pic in years
Handicaps:Auds notice pic’s multiple Ivor Novello songs instead of Doyle’s score?
Composers: Harry Gregson-Williams, John Powell
Pedigree: English-born composers of previous DreamWorks toon pics “Chicken Run” and “Antz”; Gregson-Williams scored this year’s “Spy Game”; Powell, “Rat Race”
Aesthetic: Says Powell: “It was very much about driving these two ideas home: Shrek’s honest, emotional, small, guitar-and-double-bass music, and Fiona’s big, fluffy, silky kind of romanticism. By the time that he’s finally going to tell her that he loves her, that’s when it all comes together in the same style.”
Says Gregson-Williams: There were very few scenes that desperately needed music to help them work. The opening title music, which represented the kind of fairy-tale end of the proceedings, was developed into the love theme between Shrek and the princess. As soon as we’d nailed that, we found that the emotional through line of the movie was going to fall into place a little more comfortably.”
Strengths: Hugely popular film; sweet, Annie-winning score by two vets of the genre
Handicaps: Music often barely noticeable among litany of pop songs; Acad dislikes rewarding composing teams
A Beautiful Mind
Composer: James Horner
Pedigree: Double Oscar winner for “Titanic” (song and score), with five other noms for “Braveheart,” “Apollo 13” and “Field of Dreams”; also scored this year’s “Iris” with violin solos played by young virtuoso Joshua Bell
Aesthetic: “To narrate the idea of what the beauty of mathematics is like to Nash (Russell Crowe), I wanted to give the impression of a kaleidoscope: The patterns are always changing, and things move very quickly, but in moving so quickly, they create other patterns that move very slowly underneath. That’s something I tried to convey with the pianos and the voice (of Charlotte Church). I was looking for a voice that was a child’s voice but not a woman’s voice and not a kid’s voice.
“She’s just the right distance between being a girl and being a woman.”
Strengths: Winning film whose opening sequence calls immediate attention to the score; creative use of popular classical artist Church
Handicaps: Stylistically similar to elements from earlier Horner scores (“Sneakers,” “Bicentennial Man”)
In the Bedroom
Composer: Thomas Newman
Pedigree: Four-time Oscar nominee (including “American Beauty,” “Little Women,” “The Shawshank Redemption”), son of legendary composer Alfred Newman
Aesthetic: “(I had to) be careful not to oversentimentalize or overdramatize. What’s really interesting about the movie is its ambiguity. Music often relieves ambiguity but in so doing, makes things easier to swallow and yet less interesting.
“(The score) was mostly small ensemble — two violins and viola, piano, struck quartz bowl, clay marimba — and a little bit of orchestra. It wanted to stay small and see-through. You wanted to fill it with feeling but it had to come at the right time and for the right reason. It had to be earned. The sheer brute force of the experience that you were having could not be short-shrifted or spoon-fed by the music. That’s why it wanted to be spare and muted in its color.”
Strengths: An Acad favorite who loves to experiment with unusual sonorities, a groundbreaker in a field becoming tired with same old, same old
Handicaps: Spare use of music in intense drama; will voters even notice the score?
The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
Composer: Howard Shore
Pedigree: New York-based composer best known for his thrillers (“Silence of the Lambs,” “Seven”) and quirky scores for David Cronenberg movies (“Naked Lunch,” “Crash”)
Aesthetic: “How do you put the viewer into the world of Middle-Earth, 7,000 years ago? It’s on a scale of real human tragedy and drama, (so) I thought of it in an operatic kind of (way): orchestra playing for 2½ to three hours, with choir and soloists. And early on, I had the idea of using the Tolkien languages — Elvish, Dwarvish, Black Speech, the Ancient Language of Men (and so on). I thought a way to put it back (into the film) was to sing it. I wanted it all to feel old and ancient, like it was discovered at the bottom of a vault somewhere.”
Strengths: Powerful, epic-scale score for three-hour Tolkien fantasy featuring multiple themes and choirs singing in six languages
Handicaps: Shore often ignored by Acad voters, even for solid work like “Silence of the Lambs” and “Ed Wood”
Composer: Stephen Warbeck
Pedigree: 1998 Oscar winner for “Shakespeare in Love”; other scores include last year’s “Quills” and “Billy Elliot”; also scored this year’s “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin”
Aesthetic: “(Director) Gillian Armstrong wanted something rather personal and connected with the central character rather than starting from the big sweep of history, the conflict in Europe.
“We thought about an instrument which would resonate with her: solo fiddle with a slight folk inflection, (although) we stepped back from the most outright statements of (her) Scottishness. Gillian didn’t want it to be a big signpost stuck on the character. It did feel that it was right to be personal rather than bombastic and epic, because the story is focused on the central character and her two love affairs. (The film is) rather subtle and muted in tone and color, and I’m certain that affected me.”
Strengths: Sumptuous, string-drenched score, never overdone, possibly the composer’s best work
Handicaps: Lukewarm response to downbeat WWII drama
A.I. Artificial Intelligence
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
Composer: John Williams
Pedigree: Most-honored and in demand of modern film composers, with five Oscars (for such classics as “Jaws,” “Star Wars,” “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial,” “Schindler’s List”) and 34 other noms
Composer’s aesthetic: On “A.I.”: “The (music has) a filial connection from theme to theme and period to period, that turns the corners with the film. (The music of the first section) is a fairly normal dramatic kind of approach. (In) the middle section, at the Flesh Fair, the music is all electronic and more otherworldly, certainly less tonal and of a different texture. (In the third), it’s impressionistic, dreamy, or in a ruminative way, lyrical. We make a musical journey and end with a very straightforward tonal melody; it also features two choral pieces.”
On “Harry Potter”: “(I) set up a series of melodic identifications with the characters. There are two themes for Harry, one to do with the magical and heroic aspects, the other for the isolated little boy who lives with unfeeling Muggles; (and themes for) Hedwig the owl, Fluffy the sleeping dog, Lord Voldemort the archvillain, Hogwarts School, the Quidditch match, the Nimbus 2000 broomstick. All sorts of pieces of music fit into this complex tapestry and action. It’s a very intricate score.”
Strengths: Both large-scale orchestral-and-choral scores in the classic tradition; might receive two noms in same year
Handicaps: “Potter” heavily criticized for loud, in-your-face score.
The Shipping News
Composer: Christopher Young
Pedigree: Respected young composer who has scored a number of hits (“Species,” “Entrapment,” “The Hurricane”) but has not previously been nominated
Aesthetic: “(Director) Lasse Hallstrom was very sensitive about making sure that the music didn’t overdramatize what was happening. My job was to subtly support the drama and simultaneously acknowledge the location.
“Lasse sent over some CDs of local musicians, and the music was Celtic. I guess the majority of the initial immigrants to Newfoundland came from Ireland. I would characterize (the score) as Celtic, supported by instruments generally associated with the Renaissance. I tried to find an ensemble that might bring some colors that we don’t normally hear in film music: hurdy-gurdy, a quartet of Renaissance viols, pump harmonium, and the usual suspects (among Celtic instruments) — pennywhistle, Uillean pipes, Irish fiddle, Celtic harp and bodhran drums.”
Strengths: One of the year’s most colorful, evocative scores, he’s long overdue for recognition
Handicaps: Mixed reviews, tepid B.O.
Black Hawk Down
Composer: Hans Zimmer
Pedigree: An Oscar for “The Lion King,” six other noms for such films as “Rain Man,” “As Good as It Gets” and “Gladiator”; also scored “Hannibal” and “Pearl Harbor” this year
Aesthetic: “(Musically) we have two tribes: One is incredibly technologically advanced, one very ethnically tribal, and these two musics really, truly collide. One tears at the other all the time. I needed a voice of Africa, so I brought in Baaba Maal, the great Senegalese singer, as my vocalist. Baaba is singing about what Africa was like before it all went wrong: a land of plenty, of peace. He’s like a Greek chorus, saying ‘Make this country whole again.’
“(Also) I was trying to write something (to represent) the idea of the universal soldier; it could be an Irish or a Scottish anthem. We built all these textures which would be sound effects as well. Nothing romantic in this one.”
Strengths: World-music influences lend authenticity to war film set in Somalia; Zimmer a frequent nominee
Handicaps: Radically different from usual orchestral scores that Acad music-branch members like; “sound design” approach involving electronic sounds may not even seem like music to some
(Also notable this year are the Golden Globe-nominated scores from”Ali,” by Lisa Gerrard and Pieter Bourke, and “Mulholland Drive,” by Angelo Badalamenti.)