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‘Reacher’ composer back in the action

Joe Kraemer savors bigger scope since first pic with helmer Christopher McQuarrie 12 years ago

The realm inhabited by big-budget film composers is a small, exclusive club, and alert auds might have been surprised to see the name Joe Kraemer attached to score a project as high-profile as Christopher McQuarrie’s Tom Cruise starrer “Jack Reacher.” And indeed, the film represents a huge step forward for the maestro — his first big break since his last one.

Acquainted with the director since he was a teenager, the Albany-raised Kraemer first teamed with McQuarrie on the 2000 pic “The Way of the Gun.” It was Kraemer’s first real marquee scoring assignment after stints as a sound editor, yet even with a strong cast and praise for his music, the film “just didn’t open,” as Kraemer put it, and big-budget follow-up projects were slow in coming.

Keeping busy with a plethora of TV, indie film and documentary scoring work in the following decade (most notably the Ralph Nader docu “An Unreasonable Man”), opportunity knocked once again when McQuarrie returned to the director’s chair to adapt Lee Child’s thriller tome “One Shot.” The composer seized the chance with both hands.

“For me, where I’m at in my career, it’s a huge deal,” Kraemer said. “It’s the first opportunity that’s come along since ‘Way of the Gun’ to really work on a much larger scale.”

For the film, Kraemer reached back to the music of McQuarrie’s biggest influences — especially the 1970s films of Sidney Lumet and Alan Pakula — and recorded in resolutely old-school environs. The entire score was finished in four days, recorded all the way through by a 90-piece orchestra, without dividing the musicians into smaller ensembles.

Furthermore, when Kraemer first received the film, it came without a temp score. The silence was particularly daunting for the composer when he was confronted with the film’s dialogue-free initial five minutes.

“Without dialogue or music, it all felt so real when I first got it,” he recalled. “You can easily imagine how the wrong music could just crush that sense of realism. It can be tricky not to step on a more delicate moment.”

Worries about overwhelming the material were not unfounded, as the score engages with the lower end of the spectrum to subwoofer-endangering degrees — Kraemer’s orchestra included no less than eight basses and two tubas — as well as embracing the full volume and scope of such a large ensemble. Minimalist it isn’t, but the composer was careful to apply such power delicately.

“There isn’t wall-to-wall music here, and the music comes in odd places,” Kraemer noted. “There’s no music during the car chase or the fistfights, which is unusual. But that’s a gift to me, because I’m not forced to tread water, musically, for three minutes because the director is worried that the scene isn’t working.”

Kraemer also credits his personal relationship with the director for inspiring some of his bolder experiments, as he knew he wouldn’t be booted from the job for pushing the envelope.

“There’s an implicit sense of trust (between us), and plus I know what Chris likes,” he said. “I know he likes a great, big, brassy crescendo, so I can use that as a sort of anchor to build on and try something different.”

Yet experimentation for its own sake was never the intention, and Kraemer was thankful for the ability to simply work with an orchestra of “Reacher’s” size and scale.

“I’m certainly not a purist or a snob, and I think electronic and ambient scores are perfectly valid,” he said. “I’ve done some myself, and I love scores like the one Daft Punk did for ‘Tron.’ But I wonder if anyone even aspires to reach that John Williams level of ability these days. There’s such a charge I get from hearing a full orchestral score — it really is the pinnacle of the art form.”