Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Film Scores of Thomas Newman

I have to say that Thomas Newman is one of my favorite film composers. From the moment I first saw Scent of a Woman (1992), I knew this man had a gift when it came to capturing true human emotion and conveying it musically.

Newman comes from a family of successful film composers including his father, Alfred Newman, who worked for years as the music director at 20th-Century Fox and composed their theme. Alfred is known to have worked alongside major names including George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, and Irving Berlin.

Though Thomas Newman originally sought work on Broadway (Stephen Sondheim was his mentor), he sort of fell into film when offered the chance to score the 1984 drama Reckless. Since then, he has many major film scores to his credit including Wall-E (2008), Erin Brockovich (2000), The Green Mile (1999), The Shawshank Redemption (1994), Finding Nemo (2003) and Saving Mr. Banks (2013).

Working from his father’s studio at his childhood home in Los Angeles, Newman has developed the skill of creating a score that adds to a motion picture without getting in the way. The Shawshank Redemption, for instance, contains deep visual emotion. Rather than competing with it, Newman created music that enhances it.

Newman’s compositional style varies somewhat depending on the film he is working on. Some films, like Little Women, use a 19th-century-sounding orchestra. Other films, such as Unstrung Heroes, use unique instruments such as the zither, hurdy-gurdy, psaltery, and hammered dulcimer.

Some of his scores reflect the film’s geographical location such as the sounds of the south in The Green Mile while others sound more minimalistic like American Beauty:

Despite these variances, I believe all of Newman’s work equally shares his ability to capture the deepest of emotions for the listener. Do you have a favorite Thomas Newman soundtrack that you find especially moving?

Monday, April 27, 2015

The Film Scores of Alexandre Desplat

Have you seen Unbroken, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Argo, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, The King’s Speech, or The Curious Case of Benjamin Button? Then you know the music of French film composer Alexandre Desplat.

Courtesy of 
Desplat has many film credits and numerous nominations and awards to his name. He grew up in Paris to a French father and Greek mother and fell in love with music at an early age, listening to the works of Ravel and Debussy, as well as jazz and world music. I think you can almost hear these influences in some of his scores. Desplat claims that he loved film music early on, especially tunes from Disney’s 101 Dalmatians and The Jungle Book.

Desplat met his wife, violinist Dominique Lemonnier, while working on his first film. She has been a great artistic advocate ever since. Many say Desplat is as successful as he is because, not only does he possess a strong sense of musicality, but he communicates well with film directors. Desplat says that it is not unusual for film composers to write their scores quickly—sometimes in as short at three-weeks’ time!

Here are a few of my favorite Desplat scores. Enjoy!

What influences do you hear in these examples?

Friday, April 24, 2015

Friday Flicks

What movies do you plan to watch this weekend? Write to me and let me know your impression of the music. Our topic this week has put me in the mood for another classic silent film, Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush (1925). Enjoy!

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Buster Keaton in 'The General'


Have you ever watched the 1926 silent film The General starring Buster Keaton? Some view this film as one of the best in history. The story revolves around Johnnie Gray (Keaton) who loves two things in life: Annabelle Lee and his train (The General). When Union spies steal his train with passenger Annabelle Lee, Johnnie must fight to save them.

While this film does not contain a score of its own, many distributors over the years have set it to various musical selections. While some are quite tasteful, others are absurd and unrelated. Below you can view the film in its original, silent form. Do you think the film stands on its own without music or do you think it would help enhance the plot to have some sort of music?

A random or inappropriate score affects this classic film and does it a disservice. A thought-out score, however, can add quite a bit to the onscreen action. I recently viewed a release of The General that allows viewers to choose one of three scores to accompany the film. One is symphonic, the second is derived from traditional silent film scores, and the third is for organ. Below you can view a trailer to The General with music accompaniment. Do you think it adds or takes away from the plot?

Monday, April 20, 2015

Silent Film Music

Music and cinema extends back before the implementation of recorded dialogue in film with the release of The Jazz Singer (1927). Prior to this, music was performed live at the theatre, accompanying moving picture shows and serving to connect scenes, create moods related to on-screen drama, and even cover up the humming of the projector.

Silent films first became popular in the 1890s. Often times a pianist or organist would improvise or play classical and popular music from memory. Pieces were chosen based on what best fit with the plot. In larger theatres, small orchestras would play music that was written specifically for the film.

Over time, filmmakers began to notice that films with appropriate music had a better audience reaction so, in 1909, they began providing cue sheets for musicians that indicated each scene with suggestions as to what types of music should be played at given moments. Music publishers took advantage of this newfound idea of film music and released anthologies organized by mood and circumstance so that musicians could easily find appropriate music during a performance.

Next time we will look at The General (1926) and how the music certainly does play a significant role in silent film.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Friday Flicks

What movies do you plan to watch this weekend? Write to me and let me know your impression of the music. I plan to watch The King’s Speech (2010) in which the second movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 sounds as King George VI makes a speech to the British Empire at the onset of World War II. 

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Interviews with Artists

Oftentimes we get the pleasure of interviewing guest artists who may pass through town and stop by the WGUC studios. Sometimes we even get to chat with artists over the phone about their latest releases! Recently, we had two such incidents: Paavo Jarvi, when he visited Cincinnati in February to conduct the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra; and Avi Avital, a world-class mandolinist who just released a brand-new recording. During our time with them, they willingly contributed to our Clef Notes conversation and filled me in on some of their film music thoughts.

Did you know that Paavo Jarvi’s favorite film-music composer is Toru Takemitsu? Maestro Jarvi says that he is the only well-known contemporary Japanese composer and you’ll find his work in many Kurosawa films.  Jarvi also enjoys those film composers who are more associated with the Romantic generation including Erich Korngold and Miklos Rozsa. When asked to name a favorite movie that uses pre-existing classical music, the Maestro mentioned Platoon (1986) and went on to describe the use of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings during the violent scenes. 

Our second interviewee was the outstanding mandolinist Avi Avital whose new Vivaldi CD features transcriptions of Vivaldi works for the mandolin (and of course, the Vivaldi Mandolin Concerto!) We will be offering this great CD as part of our spring fund drive at WGUC later this month so be sure to request your copy when you call 513-419-7155 or go to

Mr. Avital’s favorite film music composer is John Williams. He also told us that his favorite use of pre-existing classical music in a movie is in Waltz with Bashir (2008). This film includes Bach’s Concerto No. 5 in F minor for Harpsichord and Strings, BWV 1056. The second movement sounds during a very violent scene and Avital describes it as providing contrast that is quite moving—so much that he decided to record the concerto in its entirety on his Bach album!

What about you? Do you have a favorite film music composer? What about a favorite film that uses pre-existing classical music? 

Monday, April 13, 2015

A Tale of Two Requiems


Are you familiar with film director Terrence Malick? In 2011 he released The Tree of Life, a film that polarized viewers with his incorporation of enigmatic spiritual symbolism. Malick’s use of a compilation score including excerpts from Zbigniew Preisner’s Requiem for my friend and Hector Berlioz’s Requiem is significant to understanding underlying thematic elements of the film. A compilation score can be defined as a film score that uses various pre-composed works not originally composed for the film. Malick’s careful placement of each requiem depicts the dichotomy between physical and spiritual death and life inherent throughout the film, augmenting the symbolism to convey a message to viewers.

Zbigniew Preisner’s “Lacrimosa” from his Requiem for my friend occurs at the beginning of The Tree of Life during the creation sequence. Visually this scene depicts the formation of physical life while musically it depicts spiritual death. The translation of “Lacrimosa” cries out to God for mercy in anticipation of Judgment Day. You can watch this scene here:

Hector Berlioz’s Requiem occurs at the end of the film during a scene visually implying the physical death and spiritual life of the main character (Jack). The specific use of the “Agnus dei” from the Requiem is significant in that it musically conveys God’s forgiveness of sin and this theme of spiritual life. You can watch the eternity scene near the film’s ending here:

What do you think? Can you think of a film that uses a compilation score, allowing the music to imply a deeper meaning?

Friday, April 10, 2015

Friday Flicks

What movies do you plan to watch this weekend? Write to me and let me know your impression of the music. I plan to watch The Sound of Music which, as a musical, has many examples of diegetic music. Check out this scene of Christopher Plummer singing “Edelweiss.” 

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Diegetic or Non-Diegetic: The Music in Krzysztof Kieslowski's Blue

Last time we looked at what makes music diegetic or non-diegetic in a movie. While often it is clear which of these terms is applicable to a scene, sometimes, it can be rather ambiguous. Today we will look at a great example of this ambiguity in the 1993 Krzysztof Kieslowski film Blue from his Three Colors trilogy.

Blue begins with a fatal car accident that kills world-renown composer Patrice de Courcy and his young daughter, leaving behind widow, Julie Vignon. While Julie lies in a hospital bed early on in the film, she watches the funeral over a small television. An ensemble provides music for the funeral on screen, performing one of Patrice’s compositions. The scene begins 9:10 into the film.

This is a clear example of diegetic music. The music source is the television and Julie can obviously hear the music as she watches the funeral. What comes next is a bit more difficult to label. Begin watching at 11:20.

This scene begins as Julie is awoken by the same music heard during the funeral. She can clearly hear the music as she seems startled by it and listens intently. It cannot be heard by others around her, however, as is clear when the journalist appears for an interview. No source is shown for this music. Is it perhaps in Julie’s head?

What do you think? How would you label the music in this scene? 

Friday, April 3, 2015

Back to Music at the Movies!

This month I’d like to re-explore a fun topic in musicology that we touched on last April: music and cinema. There’s an endless amount of movies to explore so this is a great topic to keep coming back to.

Everyone watches movies and thus, everyone has encountered the soundtrack to a film. While some film directors use pre-existing music to underlie their cinematic project, others will use a film composer to write a new score to fit the images and plot they aim to create.

Before diving into a variety of films and discussing the types of music (new or existing) used as the soundtrack, I wanted to introduce you to several impressive musical terms you can use when discussing movie music with your friends: diegetic and non-diegetic.

Diegetic music is the type of music that is not only heard by the viewer, but also by the on-screen characters in the film. An example would be: 

As in this example, typically the viewer can see the source of the music on screen to help determine whether or not it is diegetic. In this case, you can see the ensemble on the side of the dance floor as Al Pacino leads the famous tango from Scent of a Woman (1992). We will reference this film again later this month when we talk about Thomas Newman.   

The opposite of diegetic music would be non-diegetic. This type of music serves as a background to the film and can only be heard by the viewer, not the characters on screen. An example would be the following from The Curious Case of Benjamin Button:

Here, the music enhances the plot for the viewer as Benjamin and Daisy are reunited. The characters, however, cannot hear it themselves. We will discuss this film’s composer, Alexandre Desplat, later this month.

Can you think of any examples of diegetic or non-diegetic music from your favorite films?

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Jascha Heifetz Subject of Newest 'American Masters' on PBS

This post was written by Tom Brinkmoeller. 

Tom Brinkmoeller wrote about broadcasting for The Cincinnati Enquirer in the '70s and '80s and has continued to do so whenever he's had the opportunity. He writes about public television in his "Public Decency" blog .

Speaking from experience, it's not often that a critic of any sort can cause even a tremor. Forget moving a mountain. Yet, in the case of one of the most gifted musicians in modern history, it was a bad review that turned not just the head, but the entire life of Jascha Heifetz from a young man who was learning to play like a boy to a virtuoso whose skills almost surely will be admired many years.

PBS' always-excellent "American Masters" series does a fine job of profiling a gifted and very complex man in the upcoming "Jascha Heifetz: God's Fiddler." 

(The hour-long special will be shown on: WCET April 17 at 9 p.m.; CET Arts April 19 at 9 p.m.; WPTD, Think TV 16, April 19 at 4 p.m.; KET2 April 17 and 18 at 2 a.m., April 19 at 4 a.m. and April 22 at 8 p.m.; KET April 23 at 3 a.m. and April 26 at 2 p.m.)

Heifetz was born in 1901 in a small Lithuanian town, then part of Russia. He died in 1987, a Californian with homes in Malibu and Beverly Hills. His career was golden. In addition to his super stardom as a violinist, his Hollywood existence landed him in a movie, led him to write a Bing Crosby hit and brought him to a first marriage, with a movie star. Because the program is told from Heifetz/s writings and from recollections of those who knew him, the materials' provenance is near-flawless. So much detail about this huge talent is packed into a relatively small hour, yet one leaves with a clear idea of and new respect for such a singular musical genius.
Jascha Heifetz, the child prodigy, circa 1907 at age 6. Credit: Library of Congress
He played in public for the first time at the age of 5; four years later, he was admitted to a prestigious conservatory in St. Petersburg, Russia, where only the intervention of Leopold Auer, a Russian musical giant at the time, kept him from being barred because of his Jewish heritage; at 11 he played his first solo concert, and after building a reputation throughout Russia and Europe by the time he reached 17, he left for what was supposed to be a four-month tour of the United States. The overthrow of the Russian monarchy turned that into a much longer stay and, eventually, U.S. citizenship.

He was an immediate celebrity, and as more of America discovered him, he had -- for him -- unprecedented fun as he discovered a life that was far better than the one he had left in Russia.

"After I came to America, my one aim, it seems, was to enjoy myself," he wrote. "I had to wait until I was a young man before I could act like a child."

The end to that spree came when W.J. Henderson, a respected New York music critic, wrote in a scathing review of a Heifetz performance that he seemed "content to stand still" and not progress his art.

"Nothing had prepared me for a bad review," Heifetz wrote.

An associate from later in his life tells how Heifetz considered suicide. Instead of ending his life, he changed it radically, returning to serious practice and rehearsal again. He never turned his eyes from that intense discipline for the remainder of his professional life. 

The change spilled over into almost all parts of his life. His second marriage ended as unsuccessfully as the first. His decades-long lawyer said of the children from those marriages, "He didn't care for any one of the three of them."

Heifetz taught master classes at the University of Southern California. Some students were unable to take the master's stern nature and abandoned the course. Those who stayed experienced a "tense" unbalance between his demeanor out of the teaching environment and the strict formality within. His performances were labeled by some as impassive and cold. It's pointed out that very few people were allowed to call him by his first name; "Mr. H" was the more common appellation. Reversing his earlier love for celebrity, he traveled under the name Jim Hoyl. It was the same pseudonym he used as the composer of the Crosby recording -- “When You Make Love To Me (Don’t Make Believe”).

It appears all the adulation made him incredibly complex. When he was still a child, his Russian benefactor, Auer, announced, "He's not my student. He's a student of God." 

The continuing overawed reaction of Itzhak Perlman to encounters with Heifetz sums up how this most-serious man was almost religiously respected by those he touched:

"I can't believe I'm actually talking to God!"

Jascha Heifetz, circa 1969-1970. Credit: RCA