06.10.2008

The Spitfire Grill Soundtrack, James Horner

Posted by AJ Harbison at 6:08 am

I apologize for not posting in a few days–I had a busy weekend, and I’m still settling into my apartment and adjusting to the life of a full-time employee. But here’s another movie score post for you, faithful reader.

I just rewatched one of my favorite movies, The Spitfire Grill, a few weeks ago. It’s a 1996 movie about a woman just released from prison, looking for a new start in a small town in Maine, and it’s brilliantly written, directed and acted. If you’ve never seen it you need to check it out. James Horner wrote the music, and listening to the score more closely this time than in times past I understand more fully how it blends with the other elements of the film and elevates the story.

Like the movie, the score sparkles and is full of hope, featuring broad strings in often simple harmonic progressions, high twinkling percussion, and poignant piano writing. A clear, high major third in perhaps a piccolo or other high woodwind seems to represent the curiosity and wonder laced throughout the film, and at other times Horner (who also did the movie’s orchestrations) writes strings in open fifths that invoke a Coplandesque, Americana sound (complemented in other places by bluegrass-type music). The piano sounds almost improvisatory, with simple fantasia-type flourishes that are very evocative and also conjure up an almost childlike wonder.

I noticed that the hopeful effect was created, in addition to the orchestration choices, by mostly major chords that are denied tonic resolution. The score hangs out on the IV chord quite a bit, with lots of embellishments: added notes in the sustained strings, swirling piano lines, etc. It simultaneously creates the effect of stasis, by staying on the one chord, and tension, by virtue of the IV needing to resolve. And I suppose that’s what hope is: looking ahead from where you are. A brilliant musical counterpart to a superlative film.

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05.31.2008

Scent Of A Woman Soundtrack, Thomas Newman

Posted by AJ Harbison at 1:00 am

I watched the movie Scent of a Woman for the first time two weeks ago. It stars Al Pacino and has a soundtrack by Thomas Newman, who has 78 movies to his credit as a composer according to IMDB.com, including Fried Green Tomatoes, The Shawshank Redemption, American Beauty, The Green Mile, Finding Nemo and the upcoming WALL•E–not a list to sneeze at, by any means. (What the heck is that phrase supposed to mean, anyway?) IMDB also notes, in the “Trivia” section on Newman, that he has scored at least one Oscar-nominated movie every year since 1994, which is rather impressive in itself. He showcases his obviously prodigious talent in the score to Scent Of A Woman; it was very well-written, with distinctive and memorable themes that had original thoughts to offer. My favorite of the themes, which appears first on the soundtrack in the second track, “A Tour Of Pleasures,” is a soft, chordal piano theme. It reminded me when I first heard it in the movie of the chordal movement of Arvo Pärt’s Fratres–a similar progression of faintly-related major chords. When I listened to it again on Amazon.com’s listening samples for the soundtrack, it also reminded me of some chordal passages of Morten Lauridsen’s Mid-Winter Songs (probably because I listened to Mid-Winter Songs the night before watching the movie). Good stuff. I also enjoyed the tango in the dance scene, which was not composed by Newman but was also good. As I discovered when I wrote a tango for a piano suite I was composing, the primary distinctive of a tango is the following rhythm (often with similar pitches to these):

Obviously this was used throughout the tango itself. But the tango became an important plot point in the movie, such as in this exchange, where Charlie repeats a line the Colonel had spoken to him earlier:

Lt. Col. Frank Slade [Al Pacino]: Oh, where do I go from here, Charlie?
Charlie Simms: If you’re tangled up, just tango on.
Lt. Col. Frank Slade: You askin’ me to dance, Charlie?

The tango symbolizes enjoying life, dancing it up, moving on–which Al Pacino’s character decides to do at the end of the movie. And in the closing music, in fact in the last 10 seconds of the film, the tango rhythm appears once in the orchestration, very soft and subtle. An excellent musical/psychological association by Newman, expertly applied. All in all a terrific score to a terrific movie.

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