Beat of a different drummer

Many of today's hottest talents avoided traditional route to scoring

Whey weren’t nominated for the Oscar — this time around. But don’t be surprised if the names Alexandre Desplat, Michael Giacchino, Jon Brion, Stephen Trask or Gustavo Santaolalla grace the music nominations list next year or the year after.

They are part of a next generation of film cleffers, musicians whose backgrounds are unusual or even unheard of by traditional film-music standards. Some are not even musically educated in any formal sense, yet all have found success scoring movies whose directors sought new sounds or a fresh approach.

Reflecting on the biz’s reluctance to try new musical directions, Oscar-winning composer-turned-author Fred Karlin (“Listening to Movies”) said, just before his death last year: “A background in rock, jazz or world music is particularly useful for a film composer today because it gives the composer experience in thinking on his feet, improvising both alone and with other musicians, and communicating with a variety of different musical languages.”

Among the new faces:

  • French composer Desplat, whose “Birth” score was among the year’s most original and whose charming “Girl With a Pearl Earring” was Golden Globe nominated the previous year, seems most poised for imminent success in American films. His “Upside of Anger” and “Hostage” are both scheduled for release in March.

    Unlike the others in this group, he is conservatory-trained and has scored more than four dozen films in his native France. “I’ve been listening to American composers and watching American films since I was 14,” he says, “so writing for American movies has been a dream. It’s good to have your dream come true.”

    His music is distinctive, bearing a classical, almost defiantly European sound that seems descended from such film greats as France’s Georges Delerue and Italy’s Nino Rota. Says Desplat, “I think of the composer as the last screenwriter on the project. The goal is to be able to write music which is dedicated to the movie but still stands by itself.”

  • Giacchino won the L.A. Film Critics prize for his jazzy, retro-’60s score for “The Incredibles.” Inspired by the spy and caper music of John Barry, Henry Mancini and Hanna-Barbera’s Hoyt Curtin, he freely admits that his “Incredibles” music is a pastiche, “an amalgam of the sound of the ’60s. We were paying homage to the things that we grew up with.”

    Giacchino is the first composer in the interactive field to make it to the big leagues. He started out creating electronic music in his home studio, eventually landing his first orchestral gig for DreamWorks’ PlayStation game based on Steven Spielberg’s “The Lost World: Jurassic Park.”

    With other games like “Medal of Honor” and “Secret Weapons Over Normandy” behind him, his big break happened when producer J.J. Abrams — who played those games and liked the music — asked him to score the ABC series “Alias.” He continues to do that, along with Abrams’ other show “Lost.” He’s now scoring “The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz” for TV later this year.

  • Brion’s Grammy-nominated score for last year’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and songs and score for “I Heart Huckabees” feature his trademark offbeat orchestrations and surprising instrumental choices, from mellotron to euphonium.

    Brion moonlights on movies when not busy with the multi-faceted music career he already built prior to director Paul Thomas Anderson’s call to do “Magnolia” and “Punch-Drunk Love”: producer for such vocalists as Aimee Mann and Fiona Apple, session player for Macy Gray and the late Elliott Smith, and a singer-songwriter who performs every Friday night at L.A. club Largo.

    “I guess the perception is, ‘Oh, a rock guy,’ ” laughs Brion, who is largely self-taught but whose arranging experience has given him a unique aural signature. He sees film music as just one facet of a diverse career. “It’s sort of music appreciation, musicologist, love of songs, setting songs, being placed in an environment and having to create something that will feel nice. It’s all kind of the same job. There’s no official schooling.”

  • Trask’s lighthearted, guitar- and percussion-driven score kept “In Good Company” bouncing along, just as his harmonica, banjo and singing-saw music for “The Station Agent” intrigued listeners the prior year.

    Trask, a pop writer who entered movies via his songs and score for cult fave “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” says, “Scoring movies is something that I’ve wanted to do for a long time. It’s not an easy thing to break into.

    “The film industry is smarter than the music industry. People in movies, for the most part, love the art form. They respect it and work really hard just to make whatever it is they’re working on the best that it can be.”

  • Santaolalla, a BAFTA nominee for his evocative guitar score for “The Motorcycle Diaries,” is currently working on music for Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain” (including songs, with Bernie Taupin lyrics, to be sung by Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris and Rufus Wainwright).

    The Argentina-born ex-rock star mixed rock and folk sounds, acoustic and electric guitar, Peruvian woodwinds and Brazilian percussion in a kind of musical travelogue that criss-crossed South America along with the protagonists of Walter Salles’ film. Previously, Santaolalla scored “Amores Perros” and “21 Grams.”

    It was a dream come true for the writer-performer-producer, who says, “When I was very, very young, I wanted to do music that had an identity of where I was from.”

(Jon Burlingame is the author of “Sound and Vision: 60 Years of Motion Picture Soundtracks” and the forthcoming “The Newmans of Hollywood.” He teaches film-music history at USC.)

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