On Queue October pT. 2: Alexandre Desplat, Bernard Herrmann, Ryuichi Sakamoto/Alva Moto/Bryce Dessner
Full disclosure, I was rooting for Phantom Thread for best score at this year’s Oscars. I can’t say I was surprised Alexandre Desplat walked away with the award and now, closing in on a year removed from the release of The Shape Of Water, this score has really grown on me.
I came to realize my original gripe with the academy’s decision came while considering the pure music–I had strong feelings and would still argue Jonny Greenwood’s music from Phantom Thread, when separated from the image, held my attention and interest in a more captivating and enthralling manner. When I gave the Desplat’s score the attention it deserved (i.e. considering it in association with the beautiful visuals of Guillermo del Toro’s film) I realized how much attention was put on the color and timbre of the score resulting in a perfect sonic interpretation of the dark, enchanting, and unnerving world where the story unfolds.
Desplat is a giant in the film scoring world. The French-Greek composer has collected two Academy awards and seven nominations for his work. He frequently provides the soundtracks for the brilliantly quirky films of Wes Anderson. Desplat’s filmography for both English and French films is extensive, but I have a hard time finding another one of his scores that accompanies a film with such convincing and accurate representations of the film’s characters.
The film begins with the title theme, “The Shape of Water,” it is a bubbling and mystifying cue filled with a feeling of “fairy tail turned dark.” The steady harp motif that rises and falls behind the melody throughout paints a picture of bubbles or maybe of the hypnotizing motion of waves rising and falling.
The flute, piano, accordion, harp, and other instruments in the upper registers lift the score to tell the love story above the looming evil, heard in the strings, that seeks to tear Elisa (Sally Hawkins) and the amphibian creature (Doug Jones) apart. Low strings in “The Creature” feel as though they elude to the infamous theme from Jaws as flute stays near its lower range.
We are introduced to Elisa’s leitmotif in “Elisa’s Theme,” a playful theme that warms the listener. The plucky flute lines in this theme can be heard later in the score during “Overflow Of Love.” Elisa’s leitmotif returns slightly altered and seems to stop and start almost as if lost for words or for breath.
This feeling of desire continues in “Underwater Kiss,” in which Elisa’s theme and the opening title theme are passed back and forth giving the listener an idea of this conflicted love story.
The brilliance of this score lies in the subtle changes in timbre and phrasing that shift the audience between the excitement of love and an overwhelming sensation of fear in the blink of an eye. With the love story between human and creature, not much is said, but it is clear what is felt. For Desplat, what he says (the melodies) may appear simple, but how he speaks in this score makes all the difference.
Vertigo has quickly vaulted to the top of almost all film junkies’ rankings of Alfred Hitchcock films, although at its release it wasn’t necessarily a box office hit. Many attributed this to the tragic nature of the ending while Hitchcock was quick to blame his aging lead, James Stewart, who he felt may have not been a convincing love interest for 25-year-old, Kim Novak.
Hollywood gossip aside, it is safe to say Bernard Herrmann’s score, the fourth collaboration between these two masters of their craft, is a major contributor to this film’s infamous milieu. One must look no further than the legendary opening title sequence to hear this. Saul Bass created a spiraling animation that is accompanied by music that, quite literally, has vertigo. A repeated pattern of major thirds seems to spiral into a never ending abyss.
The plot has been compared to that of Proust’s “Tristan und Isolde,” which was famously made into an opera by Richard Wagner and premiered in 1865. This is widely considered as the pivotal moment in music history where classical music was no longer reliant on a tonal center or common practice harmony–it is the foundation of 20th century music. These sentiments, and even quotes from Wagner’s opera, fill the score adding to the eerie glow of the story and setting. Whereas tonality relies on the use of half steps and a mixture of minor and major intervals, Herrmann’s opening gesture with equally spaced major thirds immediately disorients the listener in an unsettling vortex that cannot be shaken, not even during moments of great desire and passion.
Herrmann cleverly uses leitmotifs associated with love and obsession throughout the film. These themes and motifs grow, transform, and mature as the plot unfolds. It takes a psychological toll on the listener as the score seems to point the audience towards a certain conclusion while having to sit hopelessly as the plot unfolds.
The most famous moment of the score, besides the opening sequence, is “Scene D’Amour.” The climax erupts as Stewart and Novak embrace for a kiss. We hear the love theme as it cycles through emotions of joy, romance, haunting fear, and back again. Herrmann so brilliantly, through his uses of motifs and orchestra, is able to communicate this love will not last for ever.
My favorite quote from Herrmann reads, “to orchestrate is like a thumbprint.” The importance of color in his music and to his ear is what made him one of the greatest film composers of all time. his style was well suited for the eerie thrillers that Hitchcock became so well known for and Vertigo was certainly the the pinnacle of this collaboration. Herrmann’s contribution to this film deepens the picture so beautifully that the music has, as Alex Ross puts it, “found a life outside the film.”
Before getting into the score, if you have the opportunity to see “Ryuichi Sakamoto: Coda” I cannot recommend it enough. It is an incredibly well thought out biographical documentary about Ryuichi Sakamoto. Rather than just starting from the beginning and move forward with the story of his life, we see him in the present day as he works on a new album and fights a caner diagnosis while working on the score for The Revenant. Through this struggle, we hear about moments in his life and his story is told.
But back to the matter at hand, The Revenant. For those that have seen the film, the images and landscapes we see are breathtaking. The vastness and power of nature is put on full display. The three composers masterfully create a soundscape that is representative of the immeasurable landscape, which at times can be hauntingly silent, and the slow and painful death that Leonardo DiCaprio inches towards.
Much of the power in this score lies in the mix. The opening theme is a simple two chord motif that sits in the air with wind noise underneath it. This two chord motif appears throughout the score. It feels a slow and painful heart beat–each instance takes increasingly more effort. After three or four cues of mainly ambient drones or reverb soaked chords, “Killing Hawk” introduces the gritty and percussive sound of col legno strings when stringed instruments are hit with the wood of the bow rather than the hair. It is an unnerving attrition to the soundscape.
“Goodbye To Hawk” melds together strings and synthesizers playing slowly swooping melodies in front of synth basses that pulse in the manner of a funeral march. The use of synthesizers is a surprising choice in a film that is so deeply rooted in nature. There is an uncanny balance between these instruments and devises that enhances the sense of a churning expanse rather than a confusing muddle of voices.
One of Bryce Dessner’s contributions to the soundtrack is perhaps the most emotional cue of the whole film. “Imagining Buffalo” does not waver from the minimalistic theme of the soundtrack, but the additive process and layering of strings creates a rising chorus of beautiful dissonance. Low and high strings call and respond to one another while a middle range drown stabilizes the chord. Like many of the cues on this soundtrack, I am left in astonishment of the emotional power of a single, drawn out chord.
The color palate of the soundtrack is as cold as the wind that sweeps through Alejandro D. Iñárritu’s western. It becomes hard to make a distinction between beauty and terror as you sit within the slowly evolving textures. In many ways this mirrors our experience with nature–the beauty of the natural world can become a source of unrelenting terror and pain without warning.
Better late than never? Isn’t that what they say? Sometimes life gets in the way of those self-imposed deadlines that you set for your small blog. Get ready for that one-two punch of posts this week and then boom, right back on schedule.
Music For Touching entered my life through one of those “if you bought this, then try” emails. It came in hot and unapologetic. The preview track, “Crybaby (A),” is an in-your-face pop number whose bass line immediately hypnotizes you. Add in catchy melodies and the bombastic baritone saxophone sounds of previous On Queue cameo mention, Colin Stetson, and you have a perfect representation of this avant-garde pop hit.
When the Brooklyn-based indie group, Mobius Band, broke up in 2010 after two releases on Ghostly International, the three members all began pursuing new projects. Peter Sax began recording as Ladies and Gentlemen, Noam Schatz became LOLFM, and Ben Sterling created Cookies. This new period of uncompromised creative output resulted in Music For Touching, a brilliant display of comforting and familiar pop melodies dressed in an experimental edge giving a new sense of humor, grit, and unexpected splendor to the popular music canon.
The album–best played front to back and uninterrupted due to the creative and seamless transitions heard throughout–draws from a range of disco, hip hop, classical pop, and electronic timbres that blend with the voices of Melissa Metrick, Areni Agbabian, Ashley Giorgi, and Ben Sterling.
In my opinion, the true anthems on this record are “Go Back,” “Crybaby (A),” and “Kathrine.” Cookies cleverly spaces these more upbeat and slightly less experimental moments relatively evenly throughout the 10-track work. They become almost aiming points that are found through a weaving path of art songs and interludes. The opening track, “1000 Breakfasts With You,” is rich in trap influence and juxtaposes the serene vocals with distorted guitars and synths in a minimalistic style before leading into “Go Back.”
“Spill Of Sugar” and “Music For Touching” align closely with the idea of ballads. They both act as palate cleaners placed in between maximalist and experimental soundscapes like “Introduction” and “Human Problems.” I am most impressed by the pacing of this project. When it comes to experimental music, I find that my attention can be lost in moments of oversaturation. The experimental edge makes a positive impression on me in this release due to the moments the listener is given to recover or recharge. An intensely catchy pop melody and structure gives way to a gritty experimental take on pop. Rinse and repeat.
This is the only release from Cookies thus far. The band has gone silent since the media buzz that formed around this album in late-2014. There is no shortage of sonic and formal creativity keeping this album playing on my queue frequently. I’m keeping my fingers tightly crossed for a Sophomore project from Cookies.
I love this next story. Shout out to Harry Shapiro for hipping me to this gem of a record.
The setting is a town of 600 in Alaska steeped in Tlingit tradition. In Kake, Alaska, which sits on an island in the Southeast part of the state, Archie James Cavanaugh was born and raised. The small town was brimming in musical talent and housed a forty-piece jazz orchestra. Smaller groups of varying genres came from this group and is where Cavanaugh credits his early musical exposure and interest.
Cavanaugh’s musical promise grew through his years in school. He took guitar lessons from local legends and never lost sight of his dream to record and album. Soon, Cavanaugh decided to assemble a professional band and travel to a recording studio in Portland, OR in order to make this dream a reality. The result was an incredibly elegant and well received debut album whose best tracks rival those of any major label release of the time. In fact, many mistook the “A&M” printed on the album to be the major label when it actually stands for “Archie and Melinda,” a nod to his wife who co-wrote the album.
Cavanaugh is deeply religious and in touch with the traditions of his Tlingit community. This can most prominently be seen in the album artwork: an image of a raven that represents Tlingit mythology in which a raven opens Pandora’s Box. Sickness and disease spread into the world and turning it from white to black. For such a dark story, the album has no lack of joy and pulse within the sound. “Light Unto The World” is a soulful gospel number that rings with a religious enthusiasm heard in Cavanaugh’s voice and the deep and lively connection within the band.
The album opens with the most well known and strongest track, “Take It Easy.” An acrobatic and catchy bass line is soon joined by guitar chords and glide with an exceptional ease within the groove. The title and theme of the song match perfectly with the vocal style Cavanaugh brings to the entire album. He is laid back and sings with a confidence that and be felt reverberating through the entire band.
The impressive musicianship on every track lifts up even some of the, perhaps, less captivating moments of the album. “High Rise” features the distinctive and funky organ and horn writing in the album, but the other true highlight of the album comes with “Make Me Believe.” The band plays a tight groove during the hook of this love song that made waves all the way in Japan where it was released as a limited edition single.
It is through word of mouth occurrences, like Harry’s suggestion to me, that this private press release has given Cavanaugh a couple of hits and a little bit of stardom. It has been a slow rise for this masterpiece, but it seems to be starting to get some of the recognition that it deserves. The 26-year gap between his first and second release is a good indicator of the pacing associated with the career of this talented performer. While it might not be immediately apparent from the Native American artwork and title, Black and White Raven is a window into ‘70s soul music rich in vibrancy and funk.
If you are ever given the opportunity to see a Peanut Butter Wolf live DJ set, don’t hesitate and immediately get tickets. There are few people who have the ability to turn DJing, often viewed as a passive action with little skill other than buttons needed, into an eclectic display of music history and musicality. Once I saw Peanut Butter Wolf live, I went home and drove into any recorded set I could possibly find. I stumbled across one done for Bandcamp Weekly earlier this year. The set featured many new and old gems signed to Stones Throw Records including a single from a then upcoming release by Jerry Paper. October 12th was a long awaited release day for me and Like a Baby did not disappoint.
Born Lucas Nathan, Jerry Paper is based in LA and draws on his experience moving from New York city to the West Coast while exploring themes of “the endless human cycle of desire and satisfaction.” The laid back and low volume album bristling with wavy synthesizers and reverb soaked vocals is co-produced by Matty Tavares, a member of BADBADNOTGOOD. Those familiar with the jazz fusion and free improvisational style of this band and Tavares voice on keys and synths will feel right at home.
There is an undeniable dreamy timbre through the entire album. It is a pleasant blend of psychedelic rock meeting wistful synth textures of electronic music. For lovers of lo-fi, there is more than enough to enjoy. The album begins as though it is powering on. “Your Cocoon” (the single featured in Peanut Butter Wolf’s set) climbs up to speed into a wash of funky drums and plucky guitar accompaniments.
“A Moment” has an undeniable bossa nova flavor to it made clear through the driving brushes on drums and the silky background vocals. “My God,” another single from the project, is a melancholy meditation on the true importance of financial worth. Many of the narratives sung through the album are sometimes hard to decipher due to the unique and thick processing done to Jerry Paper’s deep vocals. This does nothing to take away from the album and adds a mystique that compliments the sound.
I feel like there is a definite embrace of what may be seen as “cheesy.” It is a quirky sound, but it is so refined and self-aware that it sets itself apart in its own category. The album is as pleasing to listen to as it is filled with deep commentary on the reality of our surroundings allowing the listener to sit back and relax or interact in a more thought provoking manner. It is a soft-rock masterpiece that has been well worth the wait.