Back in the days of “Ben-Hur” and “The Ten Commandments,” a widescreen epic was expected to be accompanied by a lavish symphonic score and, just as often, a heavenly choir.
Is that still true for today’s epics, with all the trappings from extensive CGI and 3D to 7.1 Dolby Atmos Surround sound?
Yes, for the most part, say the composers of historical, religious and fantasy films including “Noah,” “Exodus: Gods and Kings” and “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies,” along with the author of a new book on the subject.
“Big, massed orchestral sounds, alternating with very nuanced, soloistic use of strings and winds. That’s what comes into my ear when I think of the epic style,” says Stephen C. Meyer, author of “Epic Sound: Music in Postwar Hollywood Biblical Films,” which examines the music of such classics as “Quo Vadis,” “The Robe” and “Ben-Hur.”
Clint Mansell, composer for Darren Aronofsky’s retelling of the biblical tale “Noah,” says: “With epics, you need to match the scale of what’s going on onscreen.” They wound up with 118 musicians, although recorded in sections (violins one day, cellos and basses another day, etc.).
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What was unique about “Noah” was the addition of the Kronos Quartet, the San Francisco-based classical foursome that played portions of Mansell’s scores for earlier Aronofsky films “Requiem for a Dream” and “The Fountain.”
“Putting Kronos on the top, their playing became the pinpoint of the sound, and we could then mix that over the big orchestra,” Mansell says. “When we come to the intimate moments, they seamlessly glide into this smaller arena, while still retaining the identity of the music.”
Audiences expect grand music to accompany grand images, Mansell says, “but the film is always king. Some films will completely reject that notion, and you have to keep searching to find what it is that it wants.”
In the case of “Noah,” that was also “heavy percussion and chugging guitars” — not something associated with the ancient world, but this is an Aronofsky film, and “Darren’s films benefit from this idiosyncrasy, this uniqueness. We needed the orchestra for the weight and the scale, but these other elements helped bring our world to life,” says the composer.
For Spanish composer Alberto Iglesias, Ridley Scott’s “Exodus: Gods and Kings” is his largest-scale work to date, requiring 2½ hours of music played by a 108-member London orchestra, 60-voice choir singing passages from the Book of Exodus, and soloists playing various ethnic instruments.
“I’ve never worked in such a large format,” says the composer of “The Kite Runner” and “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.” “I did not struggle to try and re-create two different cultures (Egyptian and Hebrew) musically. There is music at the court of Pharaoh which does emerge, especially in the instruments used, but what prevails in the music is the narrative interest more than a search to be true to the era.”
“Exodus” also required multiple themes, “some attached to the main characters, others from the key concepts of freedom, exodus, light and God,” Iglesias says. The impetus, he says, came from Scott: “He suggested a classical criteria in which the themes that were developing are interwoven with the plot.”
A choir was deemed necessary, too, Iglesias says. “Ridley did not specifically tell me when he would or wouldn’t use choral elements, but we both agreed on their importance. Choir could represent the strength of nature and its anger.” And non-Western instruments offered “a compact and free language” that added unique and original sounds.
And sometimes the work of one composer isn’t enough. As deadlines neared, Iglesias enlisted Argentinian composer Federico Jusid to help. “Alberto was the chef of this recipe, and I was the sous chef,” Jusid says. “It was a very busy kitchen.”
British composer Harry Gregson-Williams, who previously worked with Scott on “Kingdom of Heaven,” augmented their work with 28 additional minutes of music.
Composer Howard Shore, who won three Oscars for his “The Lord of the Rings” music, has finished the third of the prequels, “The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies,” this time with the 92-piece New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and 60-voice London Voices choir.
While all of the J.R.R. Tolkien-inspired films demanded a large orchestra and choirs, “I don’t think there’s any hard and fast rule that (an epic) has to have a symphony orchestra, or a certain size and weight,” he says. “I think things can be done in different ways.”
The Tolkien saga, however, demanded that weight. “What would give you the breadth and scope and detail to tell a story of this length? I used, essentially, a 19th-century (musical) language: opera, if you like. By using that language, I could communicate the story well. It’s a language that everybody understands.”
For the “Hobbit” films, Shore retained “The Lord of the Rings” sound of symphony orchestra and choirs singing in multiple, Tolkien-created languages. “It’s essentially a choral piece,” he says.
“Part of the epic style of filmmaking, is the suggestion of the beyond,” historian Meyer says. “In ‘The Hobbit,’ Bilbo and the dwarves are moving through this imaginary landscape, and somehow we need to feel there is more to Middle-earth than the boundaries of the screen. Music has a special role to play in the construction of that imaginary geography.”
The third “Hobbit” film required 2½ hours of music, all orchestrated and conducted by Conrad Pope, including such offbeat instruments as the Irish whistle, bagpipes, sarangi (a South Asian stringed instrument), two gamelan ensembles and the largest timpani in the Southern Hemisphere.
Shore created themes for new characters, including Dain (Billy Connolly), and adapted his several themes and musical landscapes from the earlier films, for the final installment in the six-film Tolkien series.
A lot has changed in the past 60-plus years, author Meyer says, citing more recent historical epics such as “Gladiator” and “Troy.”
“We have all the resources of world music and digital manipulation of sound. I think our ears have come to expect more variety, different kinds of sounds — not just the orchestra, but electronic sounds, string quartets, interesting timbres.”