Jan 15, 2009

Soundtracks: My favourite Composers

For no reason other than I can, I'm going to talk about soundtracks today.

Since their a big part of my everyday life (I'm known for ALWAYS having my earphones on, at least around my neck) I want to start writing about them more often (similar to Mike's comic updates).
To start off with 90-95% of the music I listen too is orchestral, and typically from a movie. I don't enjoy lyrics in a song unless the words really speak to me. Since this is rare, orchestral is the way to be if you ask me.
Many people who've gotten to know me throughout the years suspect my none stop imagination could be a direct byproduct of listening to nothing but eventful music. There is probably something to that. I usually have 1-5 great ideas (which mostly get forgotten by the next day) whilst listening to soundtracks.
So how do I pick the music that I listen too?
One of my major criteria in buying a soundtrack is usually seeing a movie, and gauging the impact its music had on me during the experience. However there are a few composers who consistently write music of superb enough quality that I now often buy their scores without referencing the films themselves.
These would be my favourite artists. My version of my top bands...

James Newton Howard

In the summer of 2001, while on a weekend break from summer camp I HAD to get some new music or I'd go bonkers. The problem was that I hadn't seen any new movies with must get music. In desperation at the CD store I picked up the soundtrack to Disney's Atlantis by James Newton Howard without having seen the film or been overly aware of this composer (at the time). I was blown away, and it still ranks as one of my favourite albums of all time.

It was with Mr. Howard's scores that I began this habit of non-scouting film music, and he has rarely let me down.
Overall I'd say he is my overall favourite composer due to his varied range, and lack of easily identifiable style (up until the last couple years). Often with many composers I can identify their music with just a tiny sampling. Howard does have some stylistic trademarks, but he varies his genre and orchestra (you'd be surprised how many composers stick with their comfort range of instruments... I'm looking at you WILLIAMS!) so that you have to listen hard to figure out it is a Howard movie.

Howard's other talent, that definitely fire my imagination cylinders, is for awe music. As in music for things that are extra-ordinary or not of the real world. No one does them like Howard, and he typically has at LEAST one per album.

Jerry Goldsmith

July 21st 2004 was a day that had a bit of an impact on me. It was like a really good friend died, even if I'd never met the man. At the same time he had been (and still is) a constant companion through his music. This man was Jerry Goldsmith. The most amazing composer there has ever been.

Now I don't say that in a over the top fanboy way. I mean it simply in his impact on my musical world. I have been listening to Goldsmith music since I was around 5 or 6, and without fail I've listened to him up until the present.

Out of the two greats, himself and John Williams, Jerry never got stuck in a great era. He was just always good. Which I'll admit. Sure his stuff isn't as famous or recognizable as Williams' classics, but unlike Williams, Goldsmith produced great music his whole career. Which is several more decades than Williams.

Harry Gregson Williams
Is a much newer addition to my buy without question list. I'd been buying his music since he went "solo" from being a ghost writer for Hans Zimmer and on to jobs where his name appeared in the credits. As of my purchase of his collaborative effort with John Powell (below) Chicken Run they both made the list.

Gregson Williams' talent lies in his ability to steer immense power from an orchestra and hammer home any theme he develops. Which is the other thing about his music I like. There are lots of repeating and catchy themes. If there is something I like in an album is several variations of a good theme.

John Powell
Same story as Gregson Williams above, had been liking his music in movies and buying his stuff. As of Chicken Run (which I will do a tribute post too soon) I was buying his stuff off the self. Though of all composers on this list, I've been having trouble keeping up with this albums. Not cause their bad (though he does produce more let downs than the others, but the reason is) it is just he does music for SO many movies now a year!
I love Powell's energy and light heartedness. His music taps into my inner child, and was the formative sound for a lot of Traumador's early days as a character (Chicken Run in particular, but other Powell only albums as backup).
Brian Tyler

The new kid on the block, Brian Tyler only just recent made buy before view status, and so far I'm enjoying his stuff very much. One of the immediate things that attracted me to his music was that it had a very Jerry Goldsmith feel to it (and in the wake of Mr. Goldsmith's passing this was most welcome). This was just last year taken to an extreme when Tyler took over the reigns for the Rambo franchise (fun fact despite owning all the Rambo soundtracks, I have NEVER seen a Rambo movie from start to finish!). It was astoundingly true to form.

Which has proven to be Tyler's incredible gift. Thus far many of his mainstream scoring gigs have been for existing franchises, and he slips into their musical skin so effortlessly you'd think he was the original films composer. In particular Alien vs. Predator 2 was a flawless blend of the scores of both original films (and they are not very compatible if you just threw their songs onto your mp3 player and hit shuffle).
Yet I will note at moment he is the weakest of the five. Not due to talent. More cause I'm jonesing for more of his greatest track of all time. His secondary theme from Timeline is one of the most hauntingly beautiful and addictive 45 seconds ever recorded. I have seriously listened to it on loop for hours and hours in a row, it is that good. So much like the junkie Tyler's later efforts have never given me that same fix.
Old Favourites
Sadly like so many things in my life, I have outgrown some composers. Which is sad, I wish sometimes I could rewind time to the point I was 12 again.
Not that I hate these composers by any means. Many of their early works are still among my favourites. Their just sadly oldies, and the new material these guys do is not up to the cut.
John Williams

There was a time where this man was god of music to me. In fact I owe my soundtrack addiction to this man. My father bought me the Star Wars: A New Hope soundtrack on LP when I was 3 or 4. I have vivid memories of sitting transfixed sitting in a chair with huge headphones on listening (which as a little guy with ADD was very rare as I'm sure my parents will attest). His work throughout my childhood was amazing, and still top notch music I'll listen too over many modern scores.
Yet the good times ended. John Williams lost the spark. I'm not sure exactly where, I think it was more a gradual dimming than the spark just going out. Yet beyond the JP:Lost World/Schindler's List scores his music grew less and less compelling, and tended to recycle itself.
This is evident in the new Star Wars movies. Phantom Menace had a few really listenable original themes and tracks (I personally LOVE the spaceship fight music. It is better than the imperial march, and I love the march!), and then it is reuse of Indiana Jones 3. However Attack of the Clowns... oh sorry Clones had only a great love theme and uh than lots of Phantom Menace (aka Indy 3) and Indy 3 reuse. By Revenge of the Sith, Williams was not just out of steam he was stealing from other composers. One track on that album is directly from Howard Shores the Lord of the Rings (elven music if you're wondering).
I rant about this, because so many people in the Soundtrack community have such fond memories of his earlier music that they still worship the ground he walks on. This is so bad that War of the Worlds, which is literally just random instruments playing random notes at random moments, the worst thing John Williams' has ever written got a mere 3/5 at my favourite review site. Compared to Williams' nearly unbroken streak of 4-5 out of 5's this was a harsh review, but the hero worship still crept in. "Interspersed with these walls of noise" he starts, and than in a long winded manner tells us this is brilliantly put together noise...
John Williams was brilliant at putting together incredibly memorable and appropriate themes for films, and they are among the most famous to this day (likely will be for decades to come). Yet he had a weakness that would dampen the spark. He relied on the same orchestrations. Sure you could argue he'd throw in the odd ethnic or genre instrument, but under that it was always the same general Williams instruments. Also undermining him, his underscores were all fairly the same. Apart from Jaws and Star Wars, most of his underscore sounds similar (coming to a head as of Indy 3... which you may have noticed as a tangent of mine).

James Horner
Some of James Horner's earlier works are master pieces equal to John Williams or Jerry Goldsmith, and are terrific albums. Yet they were to be his only. For the problem with Horner, as he himself will admit, all his music is these same early scores over and over again. What I can appreciate about this though, is that Mr. Horner will tell you up front that he writes music the way he thinks music should sound. Fair enough. It was good back than, but I'd like something new now as well...

So there is an intro to (some of) the artists who have a big impact on me on a daily basis. Sometime down the road I'll probably start looking at genres of score and a few highlight tracks and albums.


Dinorider d'Andoandor said...

the first two paragraphs seem t be written by me

I can ID that elven music from Revenge of the Sith, I got the same feeling!

In fact, the last really good, IMO, Williams soundtrack belongs to Harry Potter 3 (which already has many years), I hope he'll recover from that imagiantion crisis or whatever it is.

Raptor Lewis said...

I love John Williams for the Jurassic Park themes. His symphonies are classics and that's what made him so famous.

Speaking of Repetition, ever heard Don Davis and his Jurassic Park III themes? He took credit for Williams' original work. There is NO difference between the music of the first film and the third film. It was one of the reasons, the third film stunk so bad.

I will say this, though, Craig. You have a great taste for music. Ever listen to Beethoven or Mozart. There symphonies have been popular for about 300 to 200 years.

Michael Hoskin said...

Goldsmith also did some great music for radio in the 50s; check out the CBS Radio Workshop someday, I think you'll love the theme he made with Bernard Herrmann for Brave New World.

Which reminds me...WHERE'S BERNARD HERRMANN?!?!

Even as a young child I recognized the similarities in Williams' scores for Star Wars, Superman & Indiana Jones. Little did I suspect that it would stop being funny.

Of interest in Williams' career: his first movie, Daddy-O, was riffed on MST3K.

And mentioning Horner reminds me...watch Glory already, yah?

Prehistoric Insanity said...

Dinorider- I think Williams should (and he kind of has lately) retire. He has slowed down a lot lately. Only one soundtrack this year, and a break before that...

It just gets worse year after year. Frankly he is getting old, and has had a good run. I think he should just end while is still ahead (if he IS still ahead if you ask me).

You should do up some soundtrack posts. I'd be interested to see the tastes and opinions of a fellow track freak. I often feel so alone in my exclusively listening to them. I just don't connect to most people on music.

Raptor- Well to be fair to Don Davis, they give full credit to John Williams for his themes on both the CD case and in the films credits, and the CD even has nice little stars beside each track that contain Williams music.

I find the JP3 score a bit meh, though the miltarized version of the JP theme (the main reason I bought it) was worth it, and frankly a better arrangement than the "lighter" Williams version (I do still love the "heavy" JP theme more, but the lighter one is boring).

There should be no difference on a franchise even if composers switch, if your doing it right. Otherwise it can destroy a key part of the flims' continuty. Listen careful to the Harry Potter movies as an example (though there are plenty of NOT John Williams examples... the X-Men for example). An abandonment of the previous composers themes and style can really throw a franchise off cilter.

Mike- Haven't heard MUCH of really early Goldsmith... Not sure where to track it down here, but maybe when I get back up to cowtown we can work on tracking it down.

As for Herrmann, I have some of his Harryhausen music, and of course the shower piece of Psycho, but otherwise he wasn't easy enough access for me to get. Does the library have any of his stuff? Worth checking, if even for a compelation disc (something else I should do a post on... some of them compelations are really good)

As for Williams, yeah I am sick of the religious following he has. He did some great music, but it isn't all great grrrrrr

Might get around to Glory, but I might let you pop my cherry on that film.

Dinorider d'Andoandor said...

"You should do up some soundtrack posts. I'd be interested to see the tastes and opinions of a fellow track freak. I often feel so alone in my exclusively listening to them. I just don't connect to most people on music."
I'll consider that. Don't feel alone! I'm a soundtrack freak too! I just had a very busy week and early morning I got an internet connection problem so I haven't written anything fot the blog yet.
Just wanted to say welcome back!