Eye on the Oscars: Music
“3:10 to Yuma”
Oscar pedigree: None
Awards to date: BFCA nom
Challenge: “Coming up with music that would work for the stylized nature of the picture, yet be original at the same time.”
Resonance: “I used period instruments — tack piano, pump organ, jaw harp, banjo, nylon-stringed guitar, fiddle, Native American drums — but processed some of them electronically, so that it had characteristics of the old sounds, but in more of a modern way.”
State of the art: “With the ease of use of technology, there is a great range of options open to the composer. There’s still a whole frontier to be explored. It’s exciting in that you can have traditional sounds and modern sounds and put completely different worlds together.”
Advantage: Moody, evocative Western score, unlike anything else in competition.
Disadvantage: Voters may be focused on perceived front-runners and skip this one.
Oscar pedigree: None
Awards to date: Grammy nom, Annie nom
Challenge: “It was a weird process. The film happened so quickly and so fast, and (director) Brad Bird was rewriting it the whole way. We shot from the hip from start to finish, and when it was over, we realized that it was very much like the film: Cooking from scratch, coming home at night looking for food in the refrigerator and trying to make something with whatever was available.”
Resonance: “Most of the orchestra was fairly traditional, but (percussionist) Emil Richards had this giant thumb piano that went over four octaves. It looked and felt kind of like a rat. I used that as a color, layered into the score.”
State of the art: “(The nominees represent) such a wide range of music, from traditional to very experimental. Tradition is important to me; I love scores from the ’30s and ’40s, and all of those have influenced me, but I love the fact that we can try different things. It’s an interesting time to be experimental and also be traditional.”
Advantage: Lively, fun musical souffle from composer of “The Incredibles,” incorporating jazz, pop, Latin influences far beyond usual French-accordion cliches.
Disadvantage: Acad voters usually favor heavy drama to comedies, especially when Acad voters equate feature animation with light family fare.
James Newton Howard
Oscar pedigree: Six noms (four for score, two for song)
Awards to date: None
Challenge: “The music had to be very disciplined, very restrained. A lot of that came from director Tony Gilroy. His musical instincts were very much on the mark. He knew exactly what the movie would and wouldn’t take in terms of music.”
Resonance: “I just loved this character, and Tony gave me such clear direction. The score evolved slowly. It was a very minimalist approach, mostly electronic but in an orchestral context. I try to make the orchestra and electronics invisibly connected so that you really can’t tell what’s what.”
State of the art: “It’s predominantly an electronic score, and electronic scores have not, for the most part, been recognized by the Academy.”
Advantage: Popular film with edgy contemporary-sounding score by a composer who has long been recognized as among the town’s most talented.
Disadvantage: Score is so understated in most of the film that it could be too subtle for voters.
“The Kite Runner”
Oscar pedigree: One nom (“The Constant Gardener”)
Awards to date: Golden Globe nom, BAFTA nom
Challenge: “To have the capacity to change and create different musical colors for the different parts of the film. We pass from a happy childhood in idyllic Afghanistan to a complex childhood where the country starts its destruction, (then) a very complex exile while the main character finds his own voice and turns into a writer that needs to go back to his origins. But then Afghanistan is a nightmare.”
Resonance: “(We used) rubab, tabla, lyre, flutes from different places, a very extensive selection of percussion, a collection of instruments that covered a bigger area than Afghanistan. We used instruments from Pakistan, Iran, South China, even Turkey and Greece, thinking there is a cultural connection that unifies countries and traditions.”
State of the art: “Diversity is richness. What else can I say? Not only in films but in everything in the world, and more than ever, many voices are heard. If art is a mixture of tradition and breaking up, the symphonic forms that founded the cinema are crossed by those voices and today’s dreams.”
Advantage: Colorful, world-music backdrop for intense Afghanistan-set drama.
Disadvantage: Represents an orphan nomination for a film that didn’t generate a lot of traction among critics or audiences.
Oscar pedigree: One nom (“Pride & Prejudice”)
Awards to date: Golden Globe win, BAFTA nom, BFCA nom
Challenge: “(Director) Joe Wright wanted me to write some pieces just to inspire him. He would take music to the soundstage and put it on for the actors to hear while he shot the scene. The first piece that I wrote opens the film. I called it ‘The Girl With the Faulty Brakes’ (a reference to Briony) — she’s got forward momentum; she can’t stop.”
Resonance: “I borrowed a 1930s typewriter and sampled every keystroke, the space bar, the carriage return, and wrote five or six pieces. That was an independent strand of thought that at some point got merged with my ideas about Briony. It was clear that we could use the typewriter as percussion in the film.”
State of the art: “You can’t force music to say anything. You can take aim and shoot and hope that music opens a channel between the audience and the screen.”
Advantage: Music, including the unusual use of a typewriter as a musical effect, distinctly blends into the pic’s overall sound design.
Disadvantage: Use of the typewriter may be perceived as too gimmicky by some, and the use of piano and cello might seem classic to certain voters but old-fashioned to others.