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Oscar Favorite Alexandre Desplat Comes Back With Three Scores in Contention

"Isle of Dogs" and "The Sisters Brothers" spotlight the composer's consistently unconventional approach.

Coming off an Oscar this year for his “The Shape of Water” score, Alexandre Desplat has some significant laurels to rest on, but the kudos haven’t put a crimp in his tirelessness. The prolific French composer has three scores in contention for this year’s awards and has even managed to squeeze in the creation of an opera that will be be staged early next year.

All three of Desplat’s films are musically unconventional, and the most peculiar among them is “Isle of Dogs” — no surprise given that the film is Wes Anderson’s wild stop-motion animation tale set in a future Japan where canines are banished by a dog-hating politician to a garbage-strewn island.

“It’s a very strange score,” he admits. Desplat’s imagination ran as wild as Anderson’s, creating an ensemble of taiko drums, recorders, saxophones and male choir, along with the slightly more conventional piano, bass and French horns. “I play with ideas and motifs and patterns, then Wes comes over and we play together,” the composer quips, calling in from Paris.

The massive Japanese drums “are actually the sound of the movie that drives us along, like a tedious, difficult march that the dogs have to walk, from one point to another on the island.” Four saxophones “matched the low voices and the taikos,” he adds. “They have a great, electric energy when they play and it goes straight into the microphone.”

His last collaboration with Wes Anderson resulted in his first Oscar in 2014, for the equally wacky cimbalom-zither-balalaika combination that flavored “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” They are about to start their fifth film together.

While “The Sisters Brothers” was Desplat’s first Western, the composer was in familiar territory as this was his seventh film for French director Jacques Audiard. “This was not a traditional Western, with the cowboys and a girl and the cattle,” the composer says. “It’s the story of the country opening to modernity.”

To Desplat, a change of costumes and location could easily have turned this story about two hired killers and their quarry into a film noir. So he used a jazz trio –piano, bass and drums –added acoustic and electric guitars (“but never played as folky,” Desplat says) and, atop it all, an electric violin (played by his wife and frequent concertmaster, Solrey) throughout the score.

“She creates very strange sounds. It creates incredible tension and a fragility at the same time,” says the composer. “These two guys are killers, and they are odd characters, but they have this sensitivity.” And it’s not just any piano, Desplat reports: it’s both prepared acoustic piano and Fender Rhodes.

Slightly more traditional — in the sense that he conducted the London Symphony Orchestra — was his music for “Operation Finale,” the capturing-Adolf Eichmann story that marked his fourth collaboration with director Chris Weitz (“The Golden Compass”). But even that required a left turn: “12 percussionists at the front of the orchestra,” Desplat explains.

The inspiration was Eichmann’s Third Reich role, in charge of the network of railroad lines that would transport Jews to the extermination camps. “The way they were organized, the precision, the movements of trains, made me think of percussion playing something very active and strange. Not snare drums, but something very obsessive.”

He also wanted to avoid the cliché of “violin, cello and strings playing a lament,” so instead he employed a boys’ choir to convey the sorrow associated with the shocking murders of women and children across Europe.

Desplat is currently completing a 75-minute opera that will debut Feb. 26 in Luxembourg. Ironically titled “Silence,” it’s based on a short story by Japanese author Yasunari Kawabata. It requires just 10 musicians (flutes, clarinets, string trio, percussion), two singers and a narrator. Then he will start on “The Secret Life of Pets 2,” so there are more dogs in the composer’s future.

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