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DON GONYEA, host:

In two weeks, the National Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences struts its stuff at the 70th Annual Oscar Awards in Hollywood.

We're focused in on one category here: Best Original Score. We began last week when Liane Hansen was joined by Andy Trudeau to talk about two of the five nominees. If you missed that conversation you can catch up at our website, npr.org.

This week, Andy joins me to continue that discussion. Andy, welcome back.

ANDY TRUDEAU reporting:

Thanks Don.

TRUDEAU: This year, the headline really is those number of independent or low-grossing scores that have risen to the top of the list in the film scores. We have three composers who are first-timers to the Oscar party for film music.

John Williams has two nominations, but the big films he did, War of the Worlds and the last Star Wars, no nominations

The thing that bugs me a little bit too is that a couple of years ago, we used to have separate categories for comedy films and dramatic films. They grouped them together, and the result is inevitable in my mind, is that dramatic scores are always going to overwhelm comedy scores. And this year, there's nothing approaching a comedy score.

GONYEA: Okay, so here's what we have nominated this year. Brokeback Mountain, by Gustavo Santaolalla. Did I say that right? I did? The Constant Gardner, by Alberto Iglesias. Memoirs of a Geisha, by John Williams, no pronunciation problems there. Munich, also by John Williams. And finally, Pride and Prejudice, by Dario Marianelli.

So last week you sampled The Constant Gardner and Memoirs of a Geisha. What's up for this week?

Mr. TRUDEAU: Well, we're going to wind up in Brokeback Mountain, but we're going to start in Munich.

GONYEA: Okay.

Mr. TRUDEAU: A product of one of those great Hollywood collaborations, director Steven Spielberg, composer John Williams.

Williams, I like the fact he is of an oldish school that tends to rely on melodies a lot. That is, he'll create themes for characters or emotional moments and then manipulate those themes in the course of the movie to help move things along.

This score, Munich, has several of those themes, and certainly one of the most powerful is for our central character named Avner. Here's his theme, played at a slow tempo, by solo guitar.

(Soundbite of music from Munich)

TRUDEAU: Now that you've got that theme in your ear, let's listen to some of the things that Williams does with it. In this next cue, you're going to hear the solo guitar carrying that thematic line. There's going to be a dialogue with it. First by solo cello and then by string orchestra. The cue will start out with the solo guitar and then he'll slide the cello in, and then he'll slide the string orchestra in.

(Soundbite of music from Munich)

TRUDEAU: You're catching the theme there.

He's going to slide the cello in. Still very simple. It's a bit of a dialogue. Notice how it's mimicking it slightly.

Now same melodic line underneath but this time string orchestra. See how using that theme with that commentary creates emotion and interest in the rise.

GONYEA: Right. Right.

TRUDEAU: Now, in this next example we're going to hear the Avner theme again. Now this is a case where by really loading it on, you really change. Up to this point, it's been a somewhat simple, almost folkloric theme.

GONYEA: Right. Right.

TRUDEAU: Well, put in a full string section and really crank it on, and you get an extremely passionate rendition of that theme. This is the Avner theme played by a really full string orchestra.

(Soundbite of music from Munich)

TRUDEAU: See how it changes the weight and the character of it?

GONYEA: And is the guitar line replaced by, do I hear a harp or...

TRUDEAU: Could be in there. We don't get scores with these soundtracks.

Now, another part of the score, and this has become somewhat standard in dramatic film scores of the last five or six years, there's generally, I think it comes out of a World Music ethnic music mix, if you will. There's always a vocal line doing a vocalese; that is singing syllables, sounds, but always in a sentimental or a lamentation type of setting. And he's got one, Williams, in this score. The vocalist here is Elizabeth Scott.

(Soundbite of music from Munich)

TRUDEAU: This has become a new part of the mainstream language of film music. This kind of vocal writing.

I remember it first from the film Gladiator, where they had a similar sort of motif under a lot of the scenes.

GONYEA: The voice as an instrument, but no discernable words.

TRUDEAU: But conveying a really sadness here.

GONYEA: Uh-huh.

TRUDEAU: Now, I don't want to leave the impression that Williams just hangs his hat on the theme every time. A good film composer can get mileage out of pieces of nothing, of movement, of bits of sound just thrown up on the board, and often that happens in the action cues.

In this action cue, you're just going to hear him using simple little pieces. The pieces will be repeated, thrown around, set against a rhythmic driving line, if you will. And it creates a very effective cue, starting with a rhythmic pattern.

(Soundbite of music from Munich)

TRUDEAU: Drums. He's going to stir in some strings now. Sounds like he's got some winds in there too.

Brass. Very repetitive. Once you've got the basic pieces down, they're all there. You're just finding them again and again.

Strings. A new repetitive line.

GONYEA: And again, not connected to the themes we heard.

TRUDEAU: No.

Composers have to do a lot of this. They've got to cover a lot of space. They're not all Mozart so they can't crank out the tunes. This kind of style in writing gets them through.

GONYEA: I'm talking with Andy Trudeau about music by John Williams from Munich It's one of five soundtracks nominated in the Oscar category of Best Original Score this year. It's also the second of two John Williams scores in the running this year. The remaining three come from composers who haven't been to the big game before, and Andy, you've got one of those guys next.

TRUDEAU: That's right. He's from Argentina. He produces records. He plays the guitar. He writes songs. His name is Gustavo Santaolalla. This isn't his first film score. He's done at least four others and one called North Country in 2005. As an aside, he almost got for Best Song as well. He wrote a song for Emmylou Harris that was heard in the film Brokeback Mountain, but it was on a radio in the background in a scene and they actually had to get a panel in, and the panel ruled it was just too much in the background to justify a nomination.

I have to say, Brokeback Mountain is a tough score to explicate. The soundtrack is mostly songs that are heard in different parts of the film. The original instrumental score is just 13 minutes long. It's a very ambiguous score. To my ears, that ambiguity is the message.

That is, there seems to be an effort to lean towards an identity but never quite achieve it. And you'll hear it right from the opening cue with off notes that really throw off your sense of balance.

(Soundbite of music from Brokeback Mountain)

TRUDEAU: Now, hear that electronic echo. He's going to repeat the phrase and it'll be replaced by a slide guitar. Here comes the slide guitar. It's very careful layering, kind of a studio mix that's become also very standard.

GONYEA: And a lot of processing on this. Echo and...

TRUDEAU: Right. But it's simple. It's not really a tune. It's trying to be a tune.

Time and again in the cues on this score, the music seems to be almost ready to break into a melody, that we're actually going to get a theme, but it never quite gets it. It almost always lapses back into what I would almost call atmospherics. Here is the closest I think the composer comes to actually writing a theme for the characters or the drama.

(Soundbite of music from Brokeback Mountain)

TRUDEAU: And that's the closest we come to a theme in this score. In another cue we'll hear how he's, to my ears, struggling to make something of this fragment but never quite does it. In this one he's got the string orchestra. He's got the guitar. He's even put in some new elements.

(Soundbite of music from Brokeback Mountain)

TRUDEAU: String orchestra's going to play a fragment or two of that theme. Just a piece of it.

Now the guitar will play it for us.

Now we have a little new material.

GONYEA: Are we heading towards a theme?

TRUDEAU: I don't think so.

GONYEA: I guess it does convey open spaces.

TRUDEAU: Well, he's using the vocabulary of the West, if you will, in terms of the slide guitar and his lead guitar. Wouldn't really call it a folk-like theme.

GONYEA: No.

TRUDEAU: And again, to me the ambiguity is part of what he's trying to do here. It's at the very end of the score we have really the most determined effort to establish this theme, but once again to my ears, the gesture goes nowhere.

(Soundbite of music from Brokeback Mountain)

TRUDEAU: You've got all the elements in there. And they're cranking away. But it just lapses back into...

GONYEA: I've been talking with Andy Trudeau about music by Gustavo Santaolalla, whose soundtrack for Brokeback Mountain is one of five nominated this year for a Best Original Score Oscar. Before that, we heard selections from Munich by John Williams.

What do you have for us next week Andy?

TRUDEAU: Another first timer to the big dance: Dario Marianelli and music for Pride and Prejudice.

GONYEA: And I understand you'll give us your vote.

TRUDEAU: My vote.

GONYEA: For Oscar. Andy Trudeau talks to us every year at this time about film music. And there's more music from the nominated movies at our website NPR.org, where you can also review Andy's analysis of Oscar nominated film scores from years past and see his list of the ten best all time film scores. Thanks, Andy.

TRUDEAU: Thanks, Don.

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