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From background to forefront

Bake-off reflects diverse cadre of maestros

That old idea that good scores are supposed to be invisible, that you’re not supposed to notice them, is a fallacy, says “Far From Heaven” director Todd Haynes.

“At least in certain kinds of movies, you’re meant to be aware of the music. It’s speaking things that no one else in the film can,” Haynes adds.And his sentiment is reflected in 10 of this year’s most talked-about scores.

Alphabetically, by composer:

Elmer Bernstein
Far From Heaven
Already honored for this music by the L.A. Film Critics Assn., the 80-year-old composer (with one Oscar win and 12 other nominations behind him) recalls: “I looked at the film and I thought, What an opportunity to write the kind of score that you don’t get a chance to do anymore, one that deals with feelings.”

Although Bernstein’s work for Haynes’ ’50s homage has been described by several critics as lush, two-thirds of it is actually performed by a chamber ensemble of just 12 players, with the piano the central instrument in the score (a la the composer’s classic “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Haynes’ temp track for many scenes).

Said The New York Times: “Bernstein’s music, which plays beneath nearly every scene, puts the melody in this melodrama.”

Terence Blanchard
25th Hour
In his 14th collaboration with director Spike Lee, the Grammy-nominated composer and jazz trumpeter created a score that doubles as music for a mourning post-9/11 New York. The theme, as heard over the film’s Manhattan-skyline titles, features wordless vocals by Sri Lankan-born Tamil vocalist Manickam Yogeswaran, which lend both an elegiac quality and a world-music vibe to the score. Blanchard also blended Irish instruments and colors to reflect the background of the many policemen and fire fighters who died at Ground Zero.

“When Spike talked to me about post-9/11 New York as a backdrop for the picture, I started thinking in terms of Arabic vocals and percussion,Irish pipes and whistles. I think they lend a haunting texture to thescore, kind of bittersweet,” says Blanchard. Said Variety’s reviewer:

“the full-bodied, brooding score… is key to establishing and sustaining the drama’s uneasy, troubling mood and shaping its emotional crescendo.”

Philip Glass
The Hours
The New York-based concert-hall and theater composer doesn’t do many films, but says that he couldn’t pass up Stephen Daldry’s film of Michael Cunningham’s novel about three women in crisis in different decades. “I saw right away that for the film to work, there had to be some completely cohesive element that would pull the three stories together,” Glass says, referring to the score.

The composer, a previous Oscar nominee for “Kundun” and Golden Globe winner for “The Truman Show,” says his music for “The Hours” was written for large string ensemble and piano. He explains: “Each time the music appeared, it would be a bridge between all three scenes. Music could completely resolve and focus the emotional point of view.” Glass’ music for “The Hours” “heighten(s) the film’s emotional quotient and give(s) the story added grandeur, melancholy and uneasiness,” said the Los Angeles Times.

Elliot Goldenthal
Frida
Goldenthal describes his music for Julie Taymor’s Frida Kahlo biopic as “very isolated, very intimate music, almost like another character in the movie.” It’s mostly guitar-based, small-ensemble pieces. Goldenthal penned both the underscore and several original, Mexican-flavored songs as well as choosing the many authentic tunes from Kahlo’s life and times that dot the film.

The New York-based composer (a two-time Oscar nominee) used Argentinean guitarist Francisco “Pancho” Navarro as soloist on many cues, and recorded both in Mexico City and in New York. The Wall Street Journal said, “Goldenthal’s incidental music enriches countless scenes, often mere seconds at a time: the flourish of a flamenco-style guitar, the whistle of an accordion, a delicate phrase on piano.”

Jerry Goldsmith
The Sum of All Fears
The veteran composer, who has one Oscar and 17 other nominations stretching back to 1962, added an unexpected musical twist to the Tom Clancy thriller. The film opens with a nuclear bomb being loaded onto an Israeli fighter jet, followed by scenes of the jet exploding and the bomb being lost in the desert for 29 years.

Goldsmith and director Phil Alden Robinson — in the aftermath of 9/11 — decided to counterpoint the images with “a prayer for peace,” says the composer. Paul Williams wrote the words, which were translated into Latin and sung by a mezzo-soprano and 40-voice choir (it was also sung in English over the end titles). “Emotionally, it somehow struck a chord,” says Goldsmith. “Sometimes the cerebral approach does work.”

Noted Variety: “Goldsmith’s score will especially bring joy to fans of his great ’60s-era work.”

James Newton Howard
Signs
Howard’s three-note motif, developed through countless variations and growing in intensity, propelled M. Night Shyamalan’s sci-fi suspense piece about faith and redemption. This was Howard’s third film for Shyamalan, after “The Sixth Sense” and “Unbreakable,” and he began composing before shooting started.

Five-time nominee’s aim was, he says, “to try and establish a subtle yet extremely ominous sense of foreboding throughout the picture, in a hopefully non-cliched way. Scary music has been written every way, upside down and backwards. We wanted the music to express the idea as simply and economically, and in as singular a fashion, as possible.”

The New York Times referred to the audience’s “heightened attention, a state intensified by the velvet orchestral stabs of Howard’s opening music.”

Thomas Newman
The Road to Perdition
Newman’s first assignment for director Sam Mendes was the Oscar-winning “American Beauty,” which also netted Newman his fourth Acad nom for original score. His music for “Road to Perdition” was even more ambitious; as the New York Times pointed out, “Newman’s symphonic score infuses a sweeping Copland-esque evocation of the American flatlands with Irish folk motifs.”

Newman explains this score was more “thematically based, unlike ‘American Beauty,’ which was based more on percussion and pulsation.” He cited the look of the film –“the dark colors of the opening, lighter colors in the middle and the beautiful colors toward the end of the movie” — as influencing his own musical ideas: His sonic palette ranged from a small ensemble of unusual acoustic instruments (ranging from Irish bouzouki to 19th century Stroviol) to large orchestra with as many as 60 string players.

Howard Shore
The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
Last year’s Oscar winner for the first installment in the “Rings” trilogy, Shore spent nearly all year composing, orchestrating and conducting more than three hours of music for the second. While several themes resurface in this score, much of it is new material: particularly for the Viking-esque Rohan culture (in which all the Tolkien-written and -inspired texts are sung in Old English), the princess Eowyn and the ancient Ents (heard on wood percussion). The strange, schizophrenic character of Gollum, voiced by hammer dulcimer, even gets a song over the end titles.

“It’s the second act of a 10-hour piece. I think of it as operatic,” Shore says, noting that the 96-piece London Philharmonic was augmented by a 60-voice mixed choir, 30-voice boys’ choir and several vocal soloists. Wrote Variety: “Once again, Shore’s vigorous score, seemingly somewhat altered and darkened, provides valuable support.”

John Williams
Minority Report, Catch Me if You Can
For the first time since 1976, Williams has four eligible scores (including installments in the “Star Wars” and “Harry Potter” series), but Oscar attention is likely to focus on Steven Spielberg’s two films.

Williams says he found the futuristic chase film “Minority Report” “a huge challenge musically,” with 100 minutes of music encompassing considerable action material, “fast-paced and incisive in a rhythmic way”; Tom Cruise’s family backstory, music that is “more melodic, more emotionally based”; and the film-noir context, “a kind of Bernard Herrmann gloom that weaves and threads its way through many scenes” of the film’s complex murder mystery.

The New Republic offered “a bow to John Williams, whose music … supports or italicizes the action.”

In a lighter vein, “Catch Me if You Can” finds the five-time Oscar winner (who has another 36 nominations) in the jazz territory of his youth, with elaborately written solos for alto sax player Dan Higgins — for the poignant music for the central character’s sad-sack father (Christopher Walken), and in a seriocomic vein for the sleuthing music of FBI agent Tom Hanks. The escapades of con man Frank Abagnale (Leonardo DiCaprio) are accompanied by what Williams calls “a kind of loopy piece that I hope has a little touch of magic to it, as though this kid was a magician performing tricks for us.”

Variety referred to the “jazzy John Williams theme that harks back to his ‘Johnny’ Williams days as pianist for Henry Mancini’s orchestra.”

Falling into the category of memorable work for forgotten, small or obscure films: John Barry’s “Enigma,” which deftly combines the composer’s recent romantic style with his classic ’60s spy music a la “Ipcress File”; Rachel Portman’s “Nicholas Nickleby,” whose optimistic strings-and-woodwinds score buoys the often-tragic tale; and Gabriel Yared’s “Possession,” a lush orchestral accompaniment for parallel 19th and 21st century love stories.

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