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Thursday, September 13, 2018

John Williams' Music by Emilio Audissino

I always scour for books on film scores, and I have read a few before. My most favorite book on film scores was Doug Adams’ The Music of the Lord of the Rings films. It is a hefty, glossy, hardbound tome in which the author examines Howard Shore’s Wagnerian leitmotiv method of scoring for multiple tribes, cultures, characters and creatures in the Middle Earth. The book is a focused monographic study of the score of just one film, and I thought it the most definitive book on film scores. But that changed when I stumbled upon Emilio Audissino’s John Williams’ Music: Jaws, Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark and the Returns of the Classical Hollywood Music style; an immense, scholarly study on the vast film music repertoire and the long career of the legendary film composer John Williams.

Audissino is a film scholar and a film musicologist. He holds a PhD from the University of Pisa and his PhD theses was on John Williams’ music. The book is the culmination of various papers, articles, and the final PhD theses he had written on Williams’ music. However, the book is totally stripped off of all the cumbersome academic terminologies that could have rendered it inaccessible to the general readers.

It is evident that Audissino intends the book to be accessible to all. Even those who wouldn’t have thought in their entire lives about film music might still be drawn to this book because of the names of some of the most iconic Hollywood franchise films—Jaws, Star Wars and Indiana Jones—on the book’s title, and hence Audissino doesn’t drop us directly in a jungle of musical jargons.

The book begins with a simple, detailed explanation of the methodology and terminologies Audissino has used to illustrate the significance of music in films. Diegetic, non-diegetic, extra diegetic, micky-mousing, soundtrack, wall-paper music, contrapuntal, leitmotif, applied music, absolute music and such terms are introduced with simple, concise and comprehensible definitions. He holds our hands until we can walk on our own, explains the basics, and sets up the context before he divulges deep into the theories and functions of John Williams’ film music.

Audissino presents an all-encompassing authoritative study of John Williams’ music and his career as a musician, arranger, composer and a conductor. He makes a compelling case for the neoclassical revolution that he believes John Williams single-handedly initiated with his symphonic scores early in his career.

The book starts with a comprehensive history of the relation between films and music. There have been many books with elaborate accounts of music in the era of silent cinema written by film scholars like Rick Altman, but Audissino offers a succinct account of the evolution of sound and music in films here. In the following chapter, he defines the phrase ‘classical Hollywood music style’ and talks about its pioneers (Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Max Steiner), explains how Hollywood film production worked and how its business-model influenced the kind of music used in films, and consequently the near extinction of the ‘classic Hollywood music style’ just before John Williams stormed into the scene and revived it with Star Wars.

In each subsequent chapter, Audissino picks John William’s score in Jaws, Star Wars and Raiders of the Last Ark and does a rigorous, microscopic, scene by scene, cue by cue analysis of the score. He illustrates with ample evidence how in a John Williams’ score, the ‘applied music’ blends in with the visuals of the said film, despite the composer writing the music strictly adhering to the formal techniques of the classical, ‘absolute music’. There is nothing in the score that you cannot produce live on stage with a classical orchestra. It is pure polyphonic writing.

I did struggle with the musical terms like sforzando, fortissimo and pianissimo but then because the book tells us precisely where the music is played in the film, when I read these passages and simultaneously watched the scenes, it became easy to appreciate the insight. The book doesn’t pretend to be a leisure reading anyway, and I guess it’s intended readers, even if originally just a fan of the film, once they start reading the book, wouldn’t mind making that extra effort to do what is required to access and ascertain its contents. The stunningly thorough examination of many components of the film and its musical score made me appreciate music in films much better than I could have done on my own.

Then Audissino delves extensively into the appointment of John Williams as the conductor of one of the most popular American orchestras the Boston Pops Orchestra, which historically have always had a European as its conductor. John Williams was the first American to become Boston Pops’ conductor. Audissino presents the context against which Williams changed the way film music was represented in Classical music concerts, not as frivolous pop encore one dances and claps to, but as a serious piece of art music that ought to be heard with rapt silence that audience usual reserve for classical music.

Further, Audissino records Williams’ innovative ideas that spawned a new trend of multimedia concerts based on films and film scores. On 16th March 2002, on the occasion of the premiere of the twentieth anniversary edition of the film E.T – The Extra-Terrestrial, composer John Williams, with Recording Arts Orchestra of Los Angeles, conducted the complete score to the projection of the entire film. That was the first ever time, a live orchestra’s performance of the score accompanied a non-silent film throughout. Since 2002, Films with Live Orchestra concerts have grown in number to become a regular event in major concert halls of the western world. There are at least five hundred such concerts performed all over the world in 2018.

Audissino offers a strong rebuttal to those who hold Williams’ popularity against his genius by comparing his works with Ennio Morricone and such composers and attempt to denounce his achievements. Despite Audissino’s evident enthusiasm for John Williams’ music, he finally doesn’t deny the fact that the ever-evolving Hollywood production system doesn’t allow John Williams’ classical Hollywood style spread far and wide; it remained just his distinct style and the other composers continued to deviate and found newer ways of scoring films; a glaring case in point, Hans Zimmer’s monophonic music and its stratospheric success. Zimmer’s music is an irrefutable antithesis to everything John Williams’ music stands for.

Audissino’s study is focused on a few specific works from the repertoire of one composer, and yet it discusses, even if briefly, many of the popular works of Williams’ contemporaries in order to substantiate Williams’ uniqueness.

Audissino’s book is a stellar example of how a piece of academic writing on an obscure subject can be tweaked to transcend beyond its esoteric scholarly boundaries and made accessible without diluting the heft of its subject matter.



Sunday, February 25, 2018

You in Me - Ghibran


Ghibran is undoubtedly a beacon of hope in Tamil film music. Immensely original. A fresh voice. Muted and Modest. Not an Anirudh or even a Santosh Narayanan in popularity, but was the composer for three consecutive Kamal Hasan films. Ghibran has been quietly marching ahead with tenacity and focusing on composing well-rounded songs; give him any mood or ask for any genre, he cooks a song with a clean and crisp melody, rich and dense arrangements, and moreover, always, a dash of sparkling newness. Nayyaandi Songs are a towering testament to his wicked mastery.

Ghibran is probably the first Tamil film composer, who had access to a full-length symphony orchestra to record his debut film soundtrack (Vaagai Sooda Va). He studied film music in Singapore, and was aspiring to work in Hans Zimmer’s team, but fortunately for us, he didn’t. With his melodies soaked in Hindustani classical and his orchestration in western classical, he doesn’t condescend on electronica. He always managed to strike a fine balance between symphonic and synthesized music in his arrangements (he call it Hybrid Orchestral). The heft of his melodies that lends it longevity is cleverly camouflaged under the easy niceties to deliver instant pleasure.

Ghibran has recently released a single, an instrumental track, called You in me, that corroborates my assertions on his music, his influences, and his methods.

Amidst the singles that are not much different from your typical Tamil film song, which shows no promise of breaking the shackles of the barriers imposed by the music made for the medium of Tamil cinema, an instrumental piece, even if it sticks entirely to the idioms of a Tamil film score, is a welcome initiative. This proves that the creator, though aware of the unpopularity of instrumental music, is willing to create, for he loves to create, and genuinely hopes it will eventually find its audience.

In You in Me, the motif is short, quiet and melodic; ethereal and dreamy when it sparkles out of an acoustic piano; sounds like a quintessential love theme in a Tamil film, especially when recapitulated on an angelic female voice. Upon multiple recurrences in the span of the piece, the melody does seem capable of evincing a neutral universality. The song soon enters a meandering zone in the middle, where a distant woodwind plays a muted yearning melody, against the occasionally rising brass tones and celestial atmospherics. And piano quietly runs underneath in allegretto through the hazy jungle of sounds. The theme is reprised electronically against techno beats, with multiple layers of instruments fluttering away as accompaniments (a palette Ghibran wonderfully put to use in Enthaara song). I do enjoy moody, languorous soundscape pieces, however, with a melody as malleable and potent as in this piece, I would have liked a few more variegated orchestral versions of it neatly strung together within the piece.

Go forth and conquer Ghibran! Looking forward to more in the Ghibran’s Orchestra Series.


Friday, December 8, 2017

Rahman-Shankar Orchestral Suite

At the 2.0 audio launch, a symphony orchestra conducted by Matt Dunkley, performed a suite of instrumental themes A. R. Rahman composed for Shankar’s films so far. That they chose to perform instrumental themes instead of songs was a surprise.

These themes, monophonic they maybe, warrant a symphonic orchestra, for the same reason visuals of Shankar’s films’ songs require as many number of extras as they do. It is for the grandiose. The bombast. The boisterous spectacle.

The highpoint was hearing the Gentleman theme; booming large through the robust symphonic orchestra the swag and the power in the tune packed a solid punch (I would love to hear orchestra performing Kochadaiyaan revenge Theme like this). Also, the unsung I theme, one of my favourites, which has the right mix of darkness, dread and fury and even a drop of poisonous chemical in its sound, was extremely effective with the live chorus and orchestra. I like that they played the theme without the percussion section once before closing the suite with a bang.

Jeans theme was less effective, lost in transcription, something was different and many parts of it were brutally chopped out; felt they could have used Jeans as an opportunity to go quiet with just Rahman playing the tune on Piano. It would have brought a right balance in the suite in which most of the themes were loud and bombastic. Mudhalvan theme was just perfect for the orchestra; with the militaristic snare rolls, the brass and strings section played the majestic tune in unison. The original version itself had the grandeur of a live orchestra in its sound. The other Mudhalvan theme, the victory chant, that appears later was bang on, with a slightly increased tempo, the choir and orchestra were incredibly in synergy.

Surprised that they chose Indian End Credits music. I wonder how many in the audience guessed the film, for this theme appears only during the end credits of the film. However, when it was followed by the key motif from Kappaleri Poyaachchu, it would have been obvious. A solo Violin played the melody just about right to remind us the tune, but went down on a slippery slope after the beginning, (or was it an attempt to bridge the melody to the subsequent chorus part?) and it turned slightly better after the orchestra took over. The orchestral version too jarred a little due to some of the new inflections in the melody line. Rahman’s Indian melodies always lose some of its identity when transcribed onto a score sheet for a western orchestra. I wonder who is to be blamed for this. Rahman, though, was endearingly in trance, shaking his head and swaying to the orchestra performing his creations, without any of these concerns.

Sivaji and Endhiran themes were originally created for a symphony orchestra and recorded with one, so no changes or surprises there. There is still something oddly asynchronous in Arima choir piece. I guess it arises mainly from the verses in the chorus, not in the original song and written only for the background score, that doesn’t sit well with the beat of the song.

Despite all the flaws, this orchestral suite performance is a welcome change in the utterly tiresome promotional events these audio launches have become otherwise.

And, whoever you are, adding those clap sounds (I am sure they weren’t as loud where it was performed live) during the post, I would happily watch your fingers severed.

P.S. - Rahman said that he would be releasing a complete soundtrack with the cues from the background score of the film once all the work is done. Hope, it isn’t an empty promise this time, like it was when he promised the same with Kochadaiyaan.






Friday, December 1, 2017

Music of Satyajit Ray - Documentary


Though I haven’t seen much of Ray’s films, I have heard most of his film scores thanks to the compilation The Music of Satyajit Ray, which has 53 musical cues from his scores, and have been a huge fan. His polyphonic arrangements are minimal, elegant and interesting, and motifs simple and precise. The sheer clarity with which he pretty much does everything shines through his music too. Found a documentary made by NFDC in 1984 on Music of Satyajit Ray, which has rare footage of live recording sessions of some of Ray’s music. Ray is instructing the musicians and conducting the orchestra. He is also seen playing his synthesizer at his home, trying different ideas while writing a new melody. 

Also found an interview with Satyajit Ray on his music, by a French documentary film maker Pierre-Andre Boutang, in which he articulates with astonishing clarity his process, reasons, about other composers he used for his films and how he played pieces of Schubert or Sibelius in reverse in one of the scenes in his film The Music Room. This was in 1989. 

Ray talks a lot about fusing Indian and Western classical idioms in his music, a style and approach we find in Ilaiyaraaja’s music. I wonder if Satyajit Ray ever heard Ilaiyaraaja’s music and if he did, would be amazing to know what he thought of it.

Music of Satyajit Ray Documentary


Ray on Music - Interviewed by Pierre-Andre Boutang



Ray on Music - Interviewed by Shyam Benegal