Sunday, 26 March 2017

CrimeWaves: part 5

Title: Un uomo da rispettare (The master touch)
Year: 1972
Composer: Ennio Morricone

A heist film about a retired master thief committing one last job in London received another cleverly written score by Maestro Morricone. Quartet Records luckily reissued the old, out-of-print album in 2017 which hopefully makes some new people discover its greatness.

The score begins with its highlight cue which is almost a kind of miniature symphony of at times smooth, at times sinister atmospheres. It’s designed intelligently and forms a perfect arch. The beginning introduces icy-cold piano motif which forms the basis to the muted trumpets’ melodies. These are performed on top of a layer of whistling sounds utilized previously in Maestro’s giallo scores. Next enters Cicci Santucci’s cool-sounding flugelhorn which provides a little comfort with more laid-back tunes. However simultaneously the cue starts to slowly grow into its highpoint which is a sweeping crescendo for the whole orchestra with large brass section, and loud ‘urban’ sounding chords Maestro usually features in his scores depicting cityscapes. The rest of the cue plays the previous material in reversed order beginning with the solo flugelhorn and ending with the same cold atmosphere which opened the track but this time with cooing urban brass chords playing in the background. The reprise of the opening is a more beaten-down version of the more urban aspects of the cue but it still ends the score with a sense of brooding tension.

No matter how cold the opening piece was, the following Un tempo infinito takes things to a completely new level. It consists entirely of noise produced by hissing, rattling and beeping electronics which might work within the film but on the album are completely unlistenable. The suspense of the opening returns in Colpo parallelo which is by far the creepiest piece on the album because there is a constant feeling of unresolved tension made especially by the whistling choir and drum set fills. It’s even more admirable when you actually break down how little the cue has going on, yet how incredibly effective it is. L’incarico begins with a short burst of suspense before turning into a noir jazz club scene with a laid-back flugelhorn solo and the urban brass chords making a more subdued return.

Against the bleak tone which most of the tracks have, there is another theme which is more romantic in nature. It’s introduced in Prima di lasciarla which builds into a rather nice romantic crescendo towards the end. The melody itself doesn’t remind me of other Morricone themes but the chord progressions follow a familiar pattern. Nevertheless the sweet nostalgia the theme possesses is once again a real delight to listen to. A Florinda begins similarly to the previous cue but it ends with the bare accompanying chords. Its reprise is an introverted version for soft strings and solo piano which is just stunning with its fragility. There’s also a short piece of 70s party-music, 18 Pari with groovy keyboard and flute solos carrying the cue forward.

It’s incredible how much anxiety Maestro Morricone has been able to craft with so little. The overall mood is however rather unforgiving and at times even bone-chilling which might be difficult to handle for listeners not familiar with Maestro’s similar writing. Luckily the couple of romantic cues help to relieve the despair momentarily before returning back to the bleak cityscapes.

Rating: ****1/2

Title: Senza movente (Without apparent motive)
Year: 1971
Composer: Ennio Morricone

Senza movente is a film about a marksman murdering the elite of the city of Nice one by one. Over the years this relatively short score by Maestro Morricone has been paired up with many scores from different genres and I think the reason might be because it has its own sound that is somewhat hard to place to one specific soundtrack genre.

The main theme is reminiscent of Maestro’s secondary theme to Una lucertola con la pelle di donna from the same year. There’s a simultaneous feeling of whimsy and ambiguous threat which is created by the odd harmonies and creepy rattling percussion and electronic sounds which lurk underneath. Hence it’s very hard to figure out whether to feel discomfort or joy while listening to it, but nevertheless it’s still 100 % Morricone. No other composer could emulate his voice which shines through from the piece. The trademarks presented here include the whistling by Alessandro Alessandroni straight from Maestro’s spaghetti westerns and a solo mellophone providing a sort of call-answer -type dialogue with the whistling. Unfortunately the theme is a bit too overplayed on the album but it still gets some nice variations throughout. The best version is track 15 where the melody is first reprised with just the whistling and slowly having more and more instruments appearing into the mixture. There’s also some fun stabbing string writing and constant low piano crashes which burst from underneath in a disturbing way. Track 17 has some chilling atonal string chords.

The rest of the score consists of a series of more or less suspenseful cues. Sospensione folle continues the similar electronic noise heard in Un uoma da rispettare over sparse string chords which soon take over completely crating a typical Morriconean dark atmospheres. Il movente begins with a dramatic bell toll and stabbing strings before reprising the main theme in a subtle fashion before the groovy drumbeat changes the atmosphere into a more upbeat direction. Ricerca apparently plays over an investigation montage and has a very in-your-face attitude which becomes almost unpleasant or annoying with its building intensity. The only real action track is In pieno petto which starts with the wandering strings before switching the mood completely to nauseating swirling strings and rumbling rhythmic action writing for low pianos and bass. The reprises of these tracks offer some new variations but nothing worth to mention.

The score is a minor one by Maestro’s standards but nevertheless leaves an impression with its unmistakable style which is somewhat unique compared to his other crime flick scores. There’s a struggle with darkness and light here which creates a disturbing yet intriguing combination of constantly changing moods.

Rating: ****

1. Un uomo da rispettare (11:34) *****
2. Un tempo infinito (04:19) *
3. Prima di lasciarla (02:36) *****
4. A Florinda (03:04) ****
5. Colpo parallelo (03:46) *****
6. L’incarico (02:01) *****
7. 18 Pari (03:16) *****
8. A Florinda (02:43) *****
9. Un uomo da rispettare (02:45) *****

10. Senza motivo apparente (04:20) *****
11. Sospensione folle (02:35) ***
12. Il movente (02:28) ****
13. Ricerca (02:10) ****
14. In pieno petto (02:23) *****
15. Senza motivo apparente (2) (05:04) *****
16. Ricerca (2) (02:29) ***
17. Senza motivo apparente (3) (01:58) ****
18. Sospensione folle (2) (01:40) ***
19. Senza motivo apparente (4) (01:20) ***
20. In pieno petto (2) (01:41) *****
21. Il movente (2) (02:27) ***
22. Senza motivo apparente (5) (02:29) ****

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Love and other drugs: part 1

Title: Le altre
Year: 1969
Composer: Piero Piccioni

March 1st 2017 will be remembered as the day Finland finally married her first same sex couples. To honour this day of love I’m starting a new series concentrating on romantic films or at least scores that would fit into that kind of atmosphere. The film Le altre suits my reasons as well because it tells a story of a lesbian couple trying to find a man to have a child with and form a family. It’s completely forgotten now but possibly caused some controversy at the time of its release due to the subject matter. The score by Maestro Piccioni is a lengthy exercise in jazzy lounge moods that offer a mellow yet a bit anonymous listening experience perfect for a background listen to a romantic date.

The score is mostly written for a jazz ensemble with significant emphasis on the keyboards probably played by the composer himself. Some tracks feature choral voices of I Cantori Moderni but mostly it is an instrumental easy listening album with several impressive, improvisatory solos provided by the players. Strings are added only to one cue (Seq. 25) to offer some additional colour for a short fleeting moment.

There are several recurring motifs in the score. The most abundant one is reminiscent of Piccioni’s main theme from the film Giovinezza giovinezza which I reviewed a while ago. This time the rising-falling melody is used in a more upbeat manner and it has a bossa-flavoured groove to it that sounds to be somewhat offbeat in its introduction in Seq. 4 at least. The harmonies in that cue also have some odd qualities because of a plucked harpsichord like instrument that deviates from the usual jazz ensemble instrumentation. The melody gets a comical tango treatment in Seq. 8, whereas Seq. 14 treats it with an almost childlike naivety with a cheerful backing that just makes me smile. A downbeat choral version of Seq. 17 offers harmonies reminiscent of classic jazz vocal groups of the time. By far the most interesting variation is Seq. 23 where the melody is heard among atmospheric tinkling sounds and space-like organ effects.

A two-note motif in a minor key is heard in Titoli with sultry choral “hey-heys” and “hums”. At times the voices form bluesy harmonious chords on top of which the mad sax solo can improvise wildly. Much mellower version of this idea is heard in Seq. 24 but still with a groove that makes you sway. The second disc also closes beautifully with a slightly more optimistic version of the idea with bluesy piano and keyboard flourishes. The third theme is by far the most long-lined melody of the bunch and it’s first heard in Seq. 3 with a soft backing track and wordless choral voices singing the the bouncy melody, later reprised in an instrumental bossa cue in Seq. 19, 22 & 28 and finally in a weirdly amusing march-like setting in Seq. 30. A variation of those vocals is combined to a danceable garden party tune of Seq. 5 in Seq. 12 that also carries over to Seq. 6 transforming it into a dubious, unrecognizable electric organ solo.

There are a number of nonthematic source music cues on the album as well. The album begins with the loungy Prologo sequence, however the piano performance in the cue is rather restless and thus prevents it from becoming dull. Faster party cues are for instance Seq. 7 with a melodic base heavily rooted in blues and Seq. 18, 20 & 29 which are certainly more inspired by Latin America. There’s also music with a very fast drum beat and absolutely crazy guitar and keyboard performances that could fit into a modernistic chase sequence in Seq. 13 and Seq. 26, latter cue also having a strange droning noise underneath the chaotic yet extremely fun writing. There’s also a weird Middle-Eastern cue, Seq. 36 that appears straight out of nowhere and features a wandering sitar solo and a snake-charmer flute.

There’s nothing apparently wrong with the score. However there’s not enough variety or catchiness in the themes or performances to stop your mind from wandering off while listening to it. The duration of over 2 hours also doesn’t benefit anyone because everything worthwhile was already said on the first disc.

Rating: ***1/2

1. Le altre (Seq. 1 - Prologo) (03:10) ****
2. Le altre (Seq. 2 - Titoli) (05:00) *****
3. Le altre (Seq. 3) (03:14) *****
4. Le altre (Seq. 4) (04:30) ****
5. Le altre (Seq. 5) (04:00) ****
6. Le altre (Seq. 6) (03:09) ***
7. Le altre (Seq. 7) (03:08) ***
8. Le altre (Seq. 8) (02:33) ***
9. Le altre (Seq. 9) (04:24) ****
10. Le altre (Seq. 10) (02:58) ****
11. Le altre (Seq. 11 - Titoli alt. take 1) (05:14) ***
12. Le altre (Seq. 12) (03:15) ****
13. Le altre (Seq. 13) (02:20) *****
14. Le altre (Seq. 14) (03:05) *****
15. Le altre (Seq. 15) (01:54) ****
16. Le altre (Seq. 16) (02:13) ****
17. Le altre (Seq. 17) (03:36) ****
18. Le altre (Seq. 18) (04:49) ***

1. Le altre (Seq. 19) (02:48) ****
2. Le altre (Seq. 20) (02:56) ***
3. Le altre (Seq. 21) (04:01) ***
4. Le altre (Seq. 22) (03:14) ***
5. Le altre (Seq. 23) (02:35) ****
6. Le altre (Seq. 24) (04:28) ****
7. Le altre (Seq. 25) (01:04) ***
8. Le altre (Seq. 26) (03:13) *****
9. Le altre (Seq. 27) (03:37) ***
10. Le altre (Seq. 28) (02:07) ****
11. Le altre (Seq. 29 - Titoli alt. take 2) (02:55) *****
12. Le altre (Seq. 30) (02:34) ****
13. Le altre (Seq. 31) (04:29) ***
14. Le altre (Seq. 32) (01:03) ****
15. Le altre (Seq. 33) (03:16) ***
16. Le altre (Seq. 34) (05:13) ***
17. Le altre (Seq. 35) (02:13) ***
18. Le altre (Seq. 36) (02:27) ***
19. Le altre (Seq. 37 - Titoli alt. take 3) (03:30) *****

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Spaghetti and cowboys: part 3

Title: The hateful eight
Year: 2015
Composer: Ennio Morricone

February 28th, 2016 Maestro Morricone finally received an Academy Award for an original film score. In 2007 he was given an honorary award for his lifetime work and surely nobody would expect him of winning another one after that. However circumstances change and luckily they developed into one of the greatest stories in film music history.

The director Quentin Tarantino had previously never had an original film score in his films but he had used Morricone’s compositions throughout his career and expressed a deep admiration for the composer. For Djago unchained he actually asked Morricone to compose an original song, which he did. There had been talks already at the time whether Morricone could score the whole film but the idea was ditched. Luckily his next film was another western, a genre Morricone is most known for, though his latest score in the genre was with 1981’s Occhio alla penna. Miraculously Maestro accepted the job (supposedly by the pressure of his wife Maria) and the rest is history as they say. Already at the time of the announcement and recording of the score, throughout the marketing and at the time of the film’s screenings there was a fuss surrounding the score like no other. Fortunately also the Academy finally acknowledged Maestro’s contributions and gave him the award after all these years.

Maestro's Oscar speech

Morricone has said in the interviews that his desire is to create absolute music and his film music success was at the start of his career means to pay the bills so to say. This is the closest he has given freedom to create something similar to that in film music in many years. You see Tarantino pretty much allowed Maestro to create anything he liked and he certainly wasn’t going to please anybody by offering them a smooth and stereotypical pastiche. The result has almost no resemblance to his previous western scores which was the composer’s intention too. What we ended up with is an extremely brutal theme and variations -type of score with barely any pauses in the bleakness. The way Tarantino also utilized Maestro’s music is very in-your-face and ballsy which just deepens its impact. For instance the film opens with a single long shot with just the savage music creating the atmosphere. In the final film there were also a few cues used from Maestro’s score to 1982’s The thing which didn’t end up in that film. They fuse well with the more mysterious original material, both expressing the feeling of isolation and dread in a restrained fashion.

Before listening to the score or seeing the film I too had no idea of what to expect. Straight at the opening minutes of L’ultima diligenza di Red Rock I was sure that I was in for a thrill ride. The sound of ominous bassoons and a steady percussion track immediately reminded me of a stagecoach riding by. This bassoon melody is the film’s main theme and there’s something truly unsettling about it; like it’s a growling beast stalking its prey and preparing for an attack. This animalistic quality continues throughout the piece with the atmosphere intensifying with each added instrumental line. A nod to Maestro’s previous works in the genre is included too in a form of shouting “wah-wah” voices. Eventually Maestro brings out all the stops in an immense crescendo for the whole string section playing the main theme while the brass answers rhythmically in joint conversation. Ingeniously it’s not the end but there’s time for a silent, sinister coda that tells the listener that the worst is yet to come.

The score’s other theme is Neve which is introduced fully in its 12-minute form in track 8. Even though I adore what Morricone did with his main theme, I actually think this cue is even better than the opening. It is by no means flashy but a slowly developing mystery which ultimately shrouds everything like the falling snow. It begins with an intro melody that is oddly similar to Kylo Ren’s theme from John Williams’ Star Wars episode VII score. However from that on we hear a musicbox melody similar to one Maestro used in Per qualche dollaro in più which forms the basis to the rest of the cue. At first it seems not much is going on but with clever orchestrations like crystal clear solo trumpet which appears from time to time, quotes from the main theme and a sublime feeling of isolation utilized by low woodwinds, Maestro keeps me entertained till the very end. The closing chords are just wonderfully distant, fading into uncertainty.

Recording a special LP album at the Abbey Road studios

Almost everything derives from these two primary themes. Overture begins with a slow string version of the snow theme whose pace thickens along with the musicbox and the underlying faint hints to the main theme. Vice versa Narratore letterario builds around the main theme starting from pizzicato strings and the musicbox melody plays on top of that before moving to dramatic atonal strings. Those also earn their own difficult cue called Sei cavelli. The reprise of the main theme in track 7 starts with brutal percussion and reprises the original cue’s dramatic conclusion. The reprises of Neve take another route and are much more restrained than the long version, the first one just repeating the intro and the second playing the musicbox melody in a beaten down manner along with cooing main theme clarinet. Sangue e neve presents the dual personalities within one cue: it begins with the musicbox building momentum and out of nowhere appears a brutal string version of the main theme that vanishes as abruptly.

There are a few exceptions to the monothematic structure. Raggi di sole sulla montagna is probably the most 'classical' sounding cue with very abstract harmonies formed by the strings and wandering woodwinds which actually create a brief moment of serenity amid the otherwise dark times. The two L’inferno bianco tracks are very similar and the differences are almost nonexistent. They start with some Morriconean action writing with several rhythmic stabs over a layer formed by a martial drum and aforementioned wandering woodwinds. In the second part the rhythmic stabs continue by themselves and are joined by a more intimate bass and drum set and in the first version by a synth brass sound, and by a larger brass section in the latter. The writing is once again challenging but that also makes it rather unique. The last farewell La lettera di Lincoln is an elegy for a solo trumpet, organ and warm strings which is rather lovely though short-lived.

Some listeners might discard The hateful eight for being boring. It’s true that it relies heavily on repetition like many other Morricone scores. However the two long suites which Maestro bases all the music on are probably the two best single compositions he has written in 2010s and once again show his ability to reinvent himself after all these years. The album presentation is a mess, the dialogue sounded okay after seeing the film but now it leans more towards irritating. The songs are nothing special except the guitar ballad Jennifer Jason Leigh sings. Overall it really is a historic score which celebrates Maestro’s whole legacy in both absolute and film music during the time when film music is being overrun by mediocrity.

Rating: ****1/2

1. L'ultima diligenza di Red Rock - Versione integrale (07:33) *****
2. Overture (03:11) *****
3. "Major Warren meet Daisy Domergue" (00:33) *
4. Narratore letterario (02:02) *****
5. Apple blossom (The White Stripes) (02:15) ***
6. "Frontier justice" (01:51) *
7. L'Ultima diligenza di Red Rock - #2 (02:38) *****
8. Neve - Versione integrale (12:17) *****
9. "This here is Daisy Domergue" (01:02) *
10. Sei cavalli (01:22) ****
11. Raggi di sole sulla montagna (01:42) *****
12. "Son of the bloody ni**er killer of Baton Rouge" (02:44) *
13. Jim Jones at Botany Bay (Jennifer Jason Leigh, featuring Kurt Russell) (04:11) ****
14. Neve - #2 (02:06) ****
15. "Uncle charlie's stew" (01:42) *
16. I quattro passeggeri (01:50) *****
17. La musica prima del massacro (02:02) ****
18. L'inferno bianco - Synth (03:32) *****
19. The suggestive Oswaldo Mobray (00:48) *
20. Now you're all alone (David Hess) (01:31) ***
21. Sangue e neve (02:06) *****
22. L'inferno bianco - Ottoni (03:33) *****
23. Neve - #3 (02:03) ****
24. Daisy's speech (01:33) *
25. La lettera di Lincoln - Strumentale (01:42) *****
26. La lettera di Lincoln - Con dialogo (Ennio Morricone, Walton Goggins) (01:47) ****
27. There won't be many coming home (Roy Orbison) (02:45) ***
28. La puntura della morte (00:28) **

Thursday, 23 February 2017

CrimeWaves: part 4

Title: The untouchables
Year: 1987
Composer: Ennio Morricone

Morricone’s next Oscar nomination came straight after the last one in 1988 in the 60th Academy Awards. The film is by Brian De Palma, and is about a group of police working to stop Al Capone’s crimes in 1930s Chicago. The award went to The last emperor but the film’s star Sean Connery managed to grab one from the best supporting role. Morricone’s score was released at the time of the film’s release in a 40-minute album presentation and later expanded by La-La Land Records. I only own the original album, so let’s hear if it was worthy of a nomination.

As with many albums Maestro Morricone produced, the tracks are in a completely scrambled order usually presenting the thematic material first and ending the album with a long suspenseful cue. This is also true with The untouchables which begins with the End title. This triumphant piece represents the heroics of the police and Morricone has said in the interviews that he really didn’t want to compose this piece the director insisted and ended up offering numerous alternatives which were ultimately rejected. And even though it is one of the album’s highpoints, I can see Maestro’s side too. The piece sounds a bit like a TV news theme and thus is a bit distracting from the overall feel of the score which is more reflective and paranoid. The melody is very typical of Maestro’s more symphonic writing he utilized in the late 80s and 90s and can remind the listener of many other melodies from that time. The trademark faster, rhythmic figures which appear over the melody and were later used e.g. in The legend of 1900 are a great way of creating a sense of movement and buildup. The theme is reprised a few times during the album, first in Victorious after a comical, jazzy tuba prelude which then rises into a hopeful rendition of the melody with a very ‘academic’ sounding conclusion. The untouchables builds straight into the theme with another exuberant rendition that rather clumsily turns into suspense strings in the middle.

Otherwise the album consists of tracks describing the different locales and moods, each one offering a new melody without much thematic repetition. It has been a while when I’ve seen the film and I haven’t heard the expanded album so I really don’t recall whether the themes gain a lot of variation within the film. Al Capone is a very ‘Italian’ sounding cue similar to something Morricone already created for his other mafia-related films. This time it is joined by a drum set and cheesy James Bond -like brass which just exaggerates the mob boss’ grandeur. Other crime aspects are presented in The strength of the righteous which is the main title piece. The track has quirky sensibilities provided by its ingenious Morriconean instrumentation: jagged piano and string rhythms, clever low woodwind writing and a descending harmonica solo borrowed from his score to Il poliziotto della brigata criminale. This unusual cue has crime flick written all over and I just love the creativity Maestro put into it. This thematic thread is turned into a chase sequence in On the rooftops with more chaotic string rhythms.

There is luckily some time for nostalgic sadness too. Death theme is a first example of this, a melody only Morricone can create with so much sentimental sadness to it. It’s like a short elegy for strings and solo saxophone, and even though it clearly isn’t his greatest melody it’s still a delight to listen to. The theme is reprised later in Four friends with almost the same arrangement but this time being played with a flute. Noteworthy is also that a part of the melody became one of the themes in Morricone’s all-time masterpieces Cinema Paradiso a few years later. Another elegant romance cue, Ness and his family has a more hopeful tone with a flute and viola solo and some unexpected harmonic devices.

A bulk of the score is dedicated to the suspense writing Morricone usually excels at. Waiting at the border is the first exercise in this, creating a tense track of building suspense through a steady pulsating bassline, drum rhythm interruptions and a chromatic melody played by the strings. It’s nothing new to the composer but still effective at its own right. Spine-chilling suspense starts The man with the matches with quotes from the main title’s harmonica but unfortunately it later turns into more uninspired, wandering string writing. False alarm has string clusters which are uncomfortable but unoriginal. The ending cue is another cue only Morricone could create. It scores the film’s most famous scene and begins with an innocent musicbox lullaby which repeats endlessly while the disturbing atmosphere slowly creeps in preparing the listener for the approaching bloodshed. At times the strings might sound almost serene but there’s tension in the atonal cluster chords which become more prominent before engulfing the whole cue into a dramatic nightmare with piano stabs reminding us of the gangsters’ presence.

For me The untouchables sounds a bit like Morricone on autopilot. There certainly are positives here like the brilliant main title cue but overall I feel that he has scored similar films with better success. The 40-minute presentation is plenty enough and has enough highlights to keep you entertained.

Rating: ****

1. The untouchables (End title) (03:13) *****
2. Al Capone (02:56) ****
3. Waiting at the border (03:46) ****
4. Death theme (02:43) *****
5. On the rooftops (02:36) ****
6. Victorious (02:10) *****
7. The man with the matches (02:47) ***
8. The strength of the righteous (Main title) (02:27) *****
9. Ness and his family (02:46) *****
10. False alarm (01:13) **
11. The untouchables (03:05) ****
12. Four friends (02:52) *****
13. Machine gun lullaby (07:02) ****

Monday, 20 February 2017

Exotic flavours: part 3

Title: The mission
Year: 1986
Composer: Ennio Morricone

The next Oscar nomination Maestro Morricone got in 1987 for his score to Roland Joffé’s film The mission about a Jesuit missionary in South America. After his spaghetti western scores it may be his most well-known score internationally with many of the film’s cues receiving praise even outside the film music community. Sadly once again the Academy didn't acknowledge the brilliance and instead gave the Oscar to Herbie Hancock’s Round midnight. Morricone loved the film and has been public about this in interviews feeling that his score should have been the winner. Well in any case he was thankfully rewarded with Oscars for his lifetime work and for an original film score as well.

The score begins with its highpoint On Earth as it is in heaven. This piece of music is usually the ending of Maestro’s live performances. This masterclass composition could be labeled under ‘beauty’ in a dictionary and it’s impossible not to be moved by its immense emotional rush. It also serves as an introduction to all the elements the score consists of. The slow intro introduces a heavenly choir singing in Latin before South American percussion rhythms enter into the scene and explode the track into a dance of the chanting natives. On top of everything plays the melody of Gabriel’s oboe, a miraculous theme that I’ll talk more in a moment, and the film’s main theme is also hidden in the accompanying chords. The cue builds and builds towards a finish that is brilliantly joyous and marvellous. Film music just doesn’t get any better than this!

The film’s main theme is The mission which is the only time we get to hear the moving developmental bridge section for strings in the middle of the cue. The identity the melody gets throughout the film is introduced in Falls which builds up to a wondrous statement of the theme which by itself is an extremely simple falling and rising melody that repeats mostly 4 notes. It’s performed here by pan flutes that are appropriately played by a group called Incantation whose member Tony Hinnigan later had a successful career with another film score composer, James Horner. He has said in an interview that Morricone improvised the melodies, rhythms etc on the spot and asked the players to create something similar with their flutes and percussion instruments, and everything was recorded on one take. That’s hard to believe because the ethnic instruments are implemented so effectively to the orchestral and choral material. The theme gets many versions throughout the album’s duration. It reaches another short crescendo in Climb, and gets even a disturbingly skewed string version in one of the suspense tracks Remorse which fortunately transforms after a fleeting moment of darkness into a heavenly reprise of the main melody. However by far the greatest use of the theme is in the film’s finale Miserere where it’s sung by a solo treble vocalist who ends the album with a true human element after the preceding devastating horrors.

The second idea called Gabriel’s oboe truly is the heart of the score. In the film it’s what Jeremy Irons’ character plays in the rainforest to convince the native people that he is friendly. Supposedly Morricone wrote the music by looking at Irons’ finger movements to actually try to fit the music into the scene. I’m not really convinced that that’s the case while rewatching the scene, but in any case it still is a spectacular composition. The choice of oboe as the primary instrument is just heart-wrenchingly emotional and especially the B section of the melody just melts your soul when the instrument reaches those glorious high notes. Vita nostra is another incredible cue with the oboe melody being played this time with a high ethnic flute while the choir chants the natives’ theme in a very bright and optimistic fashion. The last reprise of the theme is heard briefly in The sword for a warm low flute that is surrounded by sinister stabs of military trumpets and brass.

Morricone wrote also two sacred choral pieces that are performed impressively by London voices. Both Ave Maria Guarani and Te Deum Guarani however offer mental images of South America because the choral sound is very nasal and the latter cue also includes a native flute to back up the melody. Brothers on the other hand is a romantic theme for a flute and accompanying solo guitar which doesn’t reappear elsewhere on the album. The guitar gives a more dramatic solo performance in Carlotta with a more menacing string backing. The natives’ chanting theme is featured in The river which rises up to glorious heights with the vocal parts getting higher and higher after each repeat and ending with a fanfare version of Gabriel's oboe's opening phrase.

As with many other Morricone scores, there also are a few suspenseful moments that especially in this score feel extremely harsh since the core material is just so melodic in comparison. Penance is the first of these and is mostly built around wandering bassoon motif that now reminds me of Maestro’s main theme for The hateful eight. There also is a short quote of the Latin doomsday hymn of Dies irae and a short reprise of the main theme in a schizophrenic arrangement. The whole cue creates a disturbing feeling of uneasiness because the tension doesn’t fully resolve at the end. Refusal begins with excellent pan flute motifs that just make the hairs all over your body stand up and the situation is then made worse by a steady crushing rhythm and screeching high strings and military trumpets. Once again this writing is highly disturbing but simultaneously so effective. The natives’ theme is played over chase-like percussion and pizzicato writing in Asuncion which is an oddly fun cue though being suspenseful. Alone is mostly an exercise for the atonal strings which once again provide material that is rather hard to enjoy but certainly serves its purpose within the film. The players of Incantation bring out all the stops in Guarani which includes all kinds of imaginable noises that can be produced by the ethnic flutes. The atmosphere cools down towards the end but the waiting uneasiness and sudden stabs from the flutes prevent the listener from getting a sigh of relief.

There really isn’t much that hasn’t already been said about this score so I’ll keep it short. Even though The mission receives a lot of praise, it’s all deserved. It’s one of the most accessible Morricone albums ever because even the suspenseful cues are there to complement the overall narrative. It’s a spectacular score with a great amount of heart and soul. Any film score fan should listen to it at least once and preferably many times more.

Rating: *****

1. On Earth as it is in heaven (03:48) *****
2. Falls (01:53) *****
3. Gabriel's oboe (02:12) *****
4. Ave Maria Guarani (02:48) *****
5. Brothers (01:30) *****
6. Carlotta (01:19) ****
7. Vita nostra (01:52) *****
8. Climb (01:35) *****
9. Remorse (02:46) *****
10. Penance (04:00) *****
11. The mission (02:47) *****
12. River (01:57) *****
13. Gabriel's oboe (02:38) *****
14. Te Deum Guarani (00:46) *****
15. Refusal (03:28) *****
16. Asuncion (01:25) *****
17. Alone (04:18) ****
18. Guarani (03:54) ****
19. The sword (01:58) ****
20. Miserere (00:59) *****

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Need for drama: part 5

Title: Days of heaven
Year: 1978
Composer: Ennio Morricone

It’s Oscar season again and for the next week I’m reviewing some of Ennio Morricone’s Oscar nominated scores ending with his last year’s winning score for The hateful eight. His first nomination was for a Terrence Malick film Days of heaven that unfortunately lost to Giorgio Moroder’s Midnight express. The score is a true beauty, a glace to a time when film scores still had memorable melodies and genuine emotional impact.

Malick is a director known to be difficult to work with for the composers. He tends to move the music to other places in the film that it was written for or replace it completely with classical music. This wasn’t really a problem for Maestro Morricone who wrote several versions of a number of themes that could be implemented to the film quite freely. He only insisted one cue, The fire, to be kept in its original place and ultimately everything else was changed except for that piece. The Film Score Monthly album presents the score in 3 ways: the original album presentation, the cues as heard in the film and finally extended material, most of which didn’t appear in the film. Due to this some of the cues are heard twice or three times during the album’s duration but the programs provide different perspectives to experience the score.

The original album and the film open with Camille Saint-Saëns’ Aquarium from The carnival of the animals. This mysterious cue was clearly advised for Morricone to be used as the basis of his main theme. However his melody, though similar, takes another direction. The harmonies are more oddly sentimental than shrouded in mystery and somewhat unexpected thus giving the theme a neoromantic edge. The first version of the theme is heard in Harvest which really brings to mind images of the vast prairies. The theme’s every appearance really is like the great outdoors itself depicted through music. For instance on the album it is heard next time in Ashes & dust following the devastating fire sequence thus really giving the sense of nature waking up from the ashes. It beautifully then moves straight to the love theme, showing the human side of moving on after a loss. Similar method is applied to His death, though this time reversed like returning back to nature through one’s death. The second disc opens with the original Main title where the theme’s version for strings really reminds me of works by classical composers and the emphasis is on the rolling piano accompaniment. There are some great variations of the theme e.g.  in track 16 with guitars providing the base, track 27 with out of tune swirling figures combined to childlike music box melody and finally in track 30 with a passionate solo piano performance.

The real emotional punch is the love theme (aka The farmer and the girl or Days of heaven) that really is a melody to behold, easily one of the all-time greatest Morricone compositions. It has a rural, almost folk song like quality to it because of the use of natural minor scale and it makes a perfect circle of music that flows like a river forever forward. The theme is hinted at first in The return which really is an intelligent cue because it only has the accompanying harmonies in their simplest forms but they leave an emotional impact entirely by theirselves too. On the second disc this method goes even further by changing the harmonies to the solo piano and soft strings. Track 15 of disc 1 is the full version of the theme for a plain piano solo which is just incredible in its simplicity. The theme has a beautiful descending intro and outro that is heard for instance in track 28 of disc 1 and several times on the second disc. Days of heaven is the biggest concert arrangement of the theme for the full orchestra, several solo woodwind performances on top of swirling strings and guitars which create a true moment of indescribable beauty. The album version ends with nightly sounds of chirping locusts that remind the listener of the surrounding atmosphere.

Besides the two main themes, there are other recurring motifs as well. Threshing aka Non-stop work aka Work theme is a dramatic tune with chord progressions familiar to Morricone’s previous works. The steady string accompaniment has almost classical or sacred quality to it (even more on the second disc by the appearance of a church organ), later similarly reprised in the introverted The honeymoon. Luckily among the dramatic cues there is also time for some positivity in Happiness aka On the road aka Train ride which has a moving flute melody made fluid by constantly rolling classical guitar and piano base. The B section shows though that the drama is never far away with an intensifying pace that resolves to the sweet reprise of the main melody.

The real dread and horror is depicted within a couple of cues. The chase is a mad Morriconean action track with pounding, rhythmic harpsichord that is combined surprisingly to the love theme that bleeds with agony among the screeching strings. Aquarium also inspired one suspense cue called Bad news but this time the falling melody gives creepy vibes in a mysterious setting. Thankfully it resolves into the intro and short reprise of the love theme. The second disc also introduces Insect noises or Ghost voices that are made by swirling flutes (and on the latter track by actual choral voices and jazzy percussion fills) and often added to the main theme creating sense of lurking danger and uneasiness. By far the greatest depiction of horror is the 7.5-minute The fire with which Morricone wanted to underscore the devastation of crops caused by the locusts and fire. It begins with string writing straight out of a horror movie that then turns to sinister woodwinds from The good, the bad and the ugly’s desert sequence. However the rhythmic accompaniment intensifies even more as the track progresses keeping the listener on his toes finally exploding into a death march with judgmental brass instruments of doom and real sound effects of burning fire. Though it might be hard to listen to at times, it is a crucial part of the dramatic arch of the music.

Listening to this score has to be of the most immensely moving musical experiences of my life. No score has expressed connections between the beauty and brutality of both the wilderness and the human nature with such ease. The 2 CDs are a bit long to finish with one sitting but the different presentations give options to the listener needing some relaxation and peace presented through music.

Rating: *****

1978 soundtrack album
1. Aquarium [Le Carnaval des animaux] (Camille Saint-Saëns) (02:05) *****
2. We used to do things (Linda Manz) (00:49) *
3. Enderlin (Leo Kottke) (03:14) ***
4. Harvest (02:59) *****
5. Threshing (02:05) *****
6. Happiness (02:13) *****
7. The honeymoon (01:26) ****
8. Swamp dance (Doug Kershaw) (03:32) ***
9. The return (02:31) *****
10. The chase (02:00) *****
11. The fire (07:48) *****
12. Ashes & dust (02:17) *****
13. Days of heaven (03:26) *****

Ennio Morricone cues used in picture:
14. Main theme (7M1 tk 8) (01:02) *****
15. The farmer and the girl (Theme 18—piano version) (01:53) *****
16. In the field (Theme 5 long version, cf. Harvest) (02:59) *****
17. Bad news (3M1 tk 3) (02:35) *****
18. Non-stop work (2M1 2nd part) (00:36) ****
19. Main theme (2M1 1st part) (01:18) *****
20. Bad news (4M3) (00:36) *****
21. After wedding (5M2 2nd part) (00:56) ****
22. Empty house (5M3, cf. The honeymoon) (01:24) ****
23. On the road (1M2 for 5M4) (01:41) *****
24. They should leave (6M1, cf. Ashes & dust) (02:16) *****
25. On the road (8M1 long version, cf. Happiness) (02:13) *****
26. Bill returns (8M2, cf. The return) (02:30) *****
27. The locusts and fire (9M1, cf. The fire) (07:29) *****
28. The farmer and the girl (11M3 2nd version) (02:26) *****
29. His death (5M2 1st part) (01:27) *****
30. The farmer and the girl (10M3, cf. Days of heaven) (02:46) *****

Extended score program:
1. 1M1 (Main title) (02:00) *****
2. 1M2 (Train ride) (01:44) *****
3. 1M3 (Main theme) (01:47) *****
4. Theme 18 (Love theme, long version) (01:22) *****
5. 2M1 1st part (Main theme, alternate take) (01:20) *****
6. 2M2 (Main theme) (00:53) ****
7. 2M3 (Threshing, alternate mix) (02:05) *****
8. 3M1 (Bad news, longer version) (02:42) *****
9. 3M2 (Work theme) (01:46) *****
10. 3M3 (Love theme) (01:00) *****
11. 4M1 (Intro to love theme, 2 versions) (00:39) *****
12. 5M1 (Love theme) (01:17) *****
13. 5M2 (Insect noises with main theme) (01:45) *****
14. 5M3 (The honeymoon, with piano) (01:26) ****
15. 6M1 (Intro to Love theme/Ashes to dust) (02:42) *****
16. 6M2/7M2/7M3 (Suspense theme/Main theme, 2 versions/Suspense theme) (02:27) *****
17. 8M1 long version (Happiness) (02:16) *****
18. 8M2 (The return, piano version) (02:33) *****
19. Ghost voices (02:33) *****
20. 9M1 (The fire) (07:31) *****
21. 10M1 (Pursuit theme) (01:26) *****
22. 10M2 (The killing) (01:06) ****
23. 10M3 (Days of heaven) (02:47) *****
24. 11M1 version 1 (The chase) (02:01) *****
25. 11M1 version 2 (Love theme) (02:06) *****
26. 11M2 (Main theme) (01:03) *****
27. 11M3 version 2 (Main theme) (02:36) *****
28. 11M3 version 1 (Love theme) (02:29) *****

Bonus tracks:
29. 4M2 (Intro to love theme) (00:22) ****
30. 5M2 1st track (Insect noises with main theme, alternate) (01:51) *****
31. 5M2 2nd track (Main theme, 1st mix) (01:23) *****
32. 5M2 2nd track (Main theme, 2nd mix) (01:22) *****
33. Theme 18 (Love theme, short version) (00:49) *****

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Oh, the horror: part 6

Title: Lady Lucifera
Year: 1979
Composer: Stelvio Cipriani

I’m glad that several record labels still keep releasing scores from the most obscure films imaginable. For instance Lady Lucifera aka Polvos mágicos is the kind of film I’ve never would have imagined looking more into when I started listening to film music. It’s a horror comedy about suitors trying to tempt the devil’s daughter who needs them to gain eternal youth. Usually a score for a film like this might be played for laughs but surprisingly Stelvio Cipriani delivered a dead-serious horror score with only a few lighter moments.

The main theme is a real winner. Usually I say that Cipriani’s melodies tend to run into each other and you really cannot distinguish one from another. This isn’t the case with Lady Lucifera though because the theme has something unexpected about it (even though the same exact melody was used in 1979's another Cipriani score Un'ombra nell'ombra). Maybe it’s the Goblinesque synthesizers and irregular-sounding rhythms (even though it goes in regular 9/8 waltz groove if you listen closely) or the nostalgic feeling you get from the chord progressions which don’t follow regular pop music progressions directly. Even though the theme really doesn’t feature a longlined melody rather than one that appears in between the rhythmical arpeggios, it still is captivating yet eerily sinister. Seq. 5 is the first reprise of the theme but it doesn’t go into the more nostalgic second part of the melody but just plays around the intro for a short while. The third reprise in Seq. 9 is probably the most beautiful one, sounding translucent somehow. The finale cue sounds like an outtake because the intro is repeated a bit amateurishly before the track gets going.

Seq. 2 introduces a minor romantic theme which is more in Cipriani’s regular style and easily hummable though nothing that special. However what I love about this track is that it actually begins with a bassline that reappears later in the horror tracks, and in the middle of the romantic mood we also get disturbing organ clusters which bend the atmosphere into more foreboding direction. A pure and innocent version of the melody for piano and flute appears in Seq. 13 which is a breath of fresh air after the brooding horror tracks. There’s also one other romantic piece, Seq. 11, a classicaly-inspired piano waltz that sounds slightly broken and humorous as it’s interrupted by unnecessary piano runs.

Most of the album’s duration is devoted to straight-up horror music. These tracks have a certain structure to them: they’re usually built around a simple repeating bass phrase which is intensified with added instrumental colours. Similar bass writing has been used in many Italian giallos representing a heartbeat though Cipriani’s is more musical. For instance Seq. 3 has a Chopinesque funeral march feel to it even though the countermelodies provided by the organ don’t go into that direction at all. Seq. 4 repeats the bassline from Seq. 2 and accelerates it like a racing heart of a murder victim. The syncopated rhythms and previously mentioned funeral organ are combined to synthetic strings and a flute that reminds me of 60s agent flicks more than a horror film in both Seq. 6 and Seq. 10. The album’s longest piece Seq. 7 offers a great number of intelligent horror tropes like icy piano notes, a sense of time ticking by and eerie electric organ chords which turn rather comical with their insane sound manipulation. There are some more action-oriented pieces as well like Seq. 8 and Seq. 12 with almost tribal-like quality to them perfectly suitable for the manhunt going on. The best horror track however is the last one, Seq. 14 which manages to give genuine chills with an atmosphere straight from a Goblin album, even featuring the rhythmic tinkling synthesizer heard in the main theme.

If I had to describe the score with two words, those would be dreamlike and hypnotic. There’s something really disturbing about the building atmosphere of the suspenseful moments that are contrasted with the seemingly serene main theme which too has its dark edge. The problem I have is that though the intent is to create atmosphere, there is no resolution and thus the horror falls flat. Even though the duration is just under 40 minutes, the album actually feels longer than it really is which shows the downside of the repetition. So even though I give it a high score, you might want to consider a while first before making your purchase.

Rating: ****

1. Lady Lucifera - Seq.1 (02:13) *****
2. Lady Lucifera - Seq.2 (02:29) *****
3. Lady Lucifera - Seq.3 (02:15) ***
4. Lady Lucifera - Seq.4 (01:40) *****
5. Lady Lucifera - Seq.5 (01:56) ****
6. Lady Lucifera - Seq.6 (03:06) ****
7. Lady Lucifera - Seq.7 (05:14) ****
8. Lady Lucifera - Seq.8 (01:17) ****
9. Lady Lucifera - Seq.9 (02:09) *****
10. Lady Lucifera - Seq.10 (03:25) ****
11. Lady Lucifera - Seq.11 (01:13) ****
12. Lady Lucifera - Seq.12 (03:09) ****
13. Lady Lucifera - Seq.13 (01:52) *****
14. Lady Lucifera - Seq.14 (03:43) *****
15. Lady Lucifera - Seq.15 (03:45) ****