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In Score Race, Oscar Sings New Tune

Vets, cutting-edge newcomers square off among composers

Is the Academy’s music branch growing up? This year’s crop of original-score nominees embraces not only traditional orchestral scores by veteran composers but also a hybrid score that stretches the definition of “music” into sound-design territory and another by members of an indie-rock band.

“I think they’re changing,” says one high-ranking studio music exec, although he believes some choices are automatic by branch members, “more strategic paper voting than intelligent music voting.”

He’s referring to the three scores written by Oscar veterans: John Williams for “The Book Thief” (a record 49th nom, with five wins), Thomas Newman for “Saving Mr. Banks” (his 12th nom) and French composer Alexandre Desplat for “Philomena” (his sixth nom). While all three may be music-branch favorites, they also penned scores that were among the year’s most acclaimed.

“Small pieces can deliver very forceful and powerful ideas, musically and dramatically,” says Williams of his unusually intimate score — strings, piano, a handful of woodwinds — for the drama about a girl’s experience with foster parents in Nazi Germany and their decision to conceal a young Jewish man. This was Williams’ first film in eight years with someone other than Steven Spielberg.

“At times it’s so small and delicate and poignant that it’s just right emotionally for what we had,” says “Book Thief” director Brian Percival.

In the case of “Mr. Banks,” the story jumps back and forth between 1906 Australia and 1961 Los Angeles, and the latter sequences often featured the delightful “Mary Poppins” songs (by Richard and Robert Sherman) in rehearsal. So Newman’s job, he says, “was more about character. If music carried character, character could really bridge those transitions more effectively than location or time changes.”

He added subtle Celtic flavors, including the use of dulcimer, for Australia, as well as a fun jazzy moment for author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) arriving, somewhat horrified, in sun-drenched, palm-tree-lined Los Angeles.

“Philomena” was the fourth film that workaholic Desplat (five films released in 2013, down from eight in 2012) has scored for director Stephen Frears, who trusted his surprising approach to the fact-based story about an Irish Catholic woman (Judi Dench) who goes looking for the child she was forced to give up as an unwed mother 50 years earlier.

“I wanted to write a melody that was memorable, simple without being simplistic,” Desplat says. It’s a waltz based on the fairground pipe-organ sound heard by the title character during her purported loss of innocence. “This tune comes back as a haunting flashback all along, until the very end.”

British composer Steven Price’s “Gravity” score was as much about cutting-edge technology as about music-making, “using that technology to completely immerse you in the emotional experience that Ryan (Sandra Bullock) is going through,” he says. “If she was overwhelmed, the music needed to overwhelm you; if she was feeling desolate and alone, the music needed to feel as small and delicate and broken as it possibly could.”

Price spent a year on the film, constantly conferring with director Alfonso Cuaron, who warned Price early that he “never wanted it to sound like a conventional film score.” Although there are acoustic instruments throughout, and the entire finale is orchestral, much of the score involves textural sounds that are either synthesized or elaborately processed acoustic ones.

Indie band Arcade Fire’s score for “Her” might have represented the biggest surprise (formal Oscar credits go to bandmates William Butler and Owen Pallett). “It’s never intrusive, and its biggest moments are never too big, so it keeps the story intimate,” notes Warner Bros. music president Paul Broucek.

The electro-acoustic blend of sweet and melancholy sounds, with its post-minimalist touches and tentative solo piano, clearly struck music-branch members as just right for Spike Jonze’s sci-fi tale about a lonely guy (Joaquin Phoenix) who falls in love with a VOS (Scarlett Johansson) without knowing where it’s all going to go.

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