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).
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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.
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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.
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So how do I pick the music that I listen too?
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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.
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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.
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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!
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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).
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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).
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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.
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Old Favourites
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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).
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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...
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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
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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.

Jan 10, 2009

Ed the Ringwraith: Rohan

Well after my limited success finding some of this country's Middle Earthiness, I decided to actively try and seek more of it out this weekend.

I've lived here in New Zealand for 2 years, and only seen bits and pieces of Lord of the Rings scenery. For one thing they did a great job spreading it out across the whole country. Even when you manage to get to a site (most are not easy to get to by car) you find it doesn't look much like it did in the movie. Much like how a painting of a place isn't the same as the place itself, all the colour tweaking and digital landscape manipulation makes the onscreen Middle Earth quite different than many places in New Zealand, even though they were filmed RIGHT there.

Yesterday I embarked on a road trip to one place that is pretty much exactly the same in person as in the movie. Very cool I might add.


Of course this being me, meant I couldn't just do it the normal way...
This ones dedicated to Carmen, who no doubt had a real jealous twitch sometime yesterday she couldn't explain!
I present to you (which may have more installments)...

Tale the First: Rohan

Who better to take us on a tour of modern Middle Earth than a descendant of the Nazg├╗l. Ed the Ringwraith, who lives in the third Minas to the left on Mirkwood Lane.


Ed was very excited as today he was heading to the realm his ancestors used to get their rides from back in the day. Ed was going to have to make the trip in a more modern way himself. What with the inhabitants of this land no longer around to breed him a special horse tolerable enough to bear his unworldly presence.

That was to this place, Rohan! Land of the horse masters. Known to some as the Riddlemark or just The Mark.

Ed was very excited to visit the source of his ancestors land transport back in the day. He ever brought his still life rendering machine to record his visit.



All of Ed's pictures are high resolution so click on them to hopefully enlarge them. If not links to their larger version on my flickr account are given. This one's is here.


Ed was ecstatic. He could just imagine legions of Rohirrim horsemen riding across these plains, or hordes of those whacky Uruk-hai.

Alt version of pic here.


Ed noticed some of the nifty rocks that gave the area its distinctive look, and he had a funny idea.

Oh what a silly Ringwraith Ed is!

After much searching Ed found a landmark easily recognized from Peter Jackson's documentary on Middle Earth.

This was the lake where a village was ransacked and burned down by those rapscallions the Wild Men of the east.

Today it has once again been resettled by people if you look at a blown up version of the picture (alt version)

Look at Ed. Isn't he the kidder. He's pretending to be one of the many Rohirrin refuges. Oh that Ed...
Sadly for our favourite Black Rider the weather was turning foul. The sun was coming out, and Ed didn't want to ruin a perfect day with sunshine.

(close upable version here)

So we'll have to say good bye to Ed the Ringwraith today. He's back off to his hometown of Mordor, and its lovely perpetual darkness.

So enjoy one last look here to Rohan.

(flickr backup here)

Jan 4, 2009

The Kepler Track

So my big adventure in the days leading up to X Mas (right up until X Mas eve in fact) was embarking on one of the big essential New Zealand hikes (or as they call them tramps).

Here is a brief photo accompanied account of the journey... you can also get the same, yet different story, from Clare's blog.
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Day 1

We set off on the circle trail loop from this point here. The control gates. They are only one part of New Zealand's largest hydro electric generation system (this is just one of two lakes involved!).
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It was at this point that I seemed to set the trend for myself on this hike. Which was less than brilliant.
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Immediately I lost my hoodie getting out of the car, and caused a 5 minute delay to retrieve it. This made sense as I had been an idiot and just threw the thing into a loop on my pack. I didn't tie it or anything. Everything else was nice and secure and the hike could now go on with no incident... Or so I had thought.
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Somehow Clare's waterproof bundle fell off about 2 metres from where we noticed the hoodie incident. This was quite puzzling and infuriating. I had specifically tightened this bundle and my own quite tight. Yet somehow it had gotten loose. Worse yet it took us about a kilometre to realize it. So I had the opportunity of seeing the first km of the trail 3 times as I had to go and retrieve it.
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Fortunately for the rest of day 1 there were no more incidents. I was mistaken at the time in hoping there'd be no more the rest of the hike...
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So much of day 1 was us hiking through lovely kiwi forest like this. I just love it. On most levels my favourite part of the trip.
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There is a whole Traumador storyline in the works for later in 09 that was shot here during this hike, but I shall reveal nothing more for now...
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Here is Clare. Doesn't she look happy she is in the forest.
We had a lot of the forest to enjoy. Some 4ish hours of it. All the while we were heading steadily uphill.
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When we set out we knew that there'd be a lot of uphill involved on Day 1, but knowing it and walking it are totally different things...
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Finally we made it to the 3/4 marker the Limestone Bluffs. They were cool, but sadly slightly diminished due to our being slightly worn out and tired by this stage.
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As you climbed past the bluffs suddenly the forest changed into a more lichen filled Beech forest (compared to the earlier fern dominated one below).
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Despite the unrelenting upward marching the landscape continued, if not slowly, to change and thus show we were making progress. Here we finally made it into the Alpine range, and mercifully the Hut was only an hour into this.
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This was our concluding view on Day 1. We were at the top of the Te Anau area. The end of the "worst" day was over. Setting our packs down, and claiming our bunks we decided to wander off to see the cool side attraction by the Hut.
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Just 10 minutes away from the Hut was a limestone cave that you could go explore. Apparently the cave goes for about 2km, but 1.75 of that you have to crawl/squeeze through some pretty tight spaces. I was having trouble enough due to my height and beer belly with just some of the slight obstructions in the open part of the cave (though my legs being really tired didn't help either).
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I worry that the climbing around in the cave may have contributed to the next day's problems. As on the walk back to the Hut my knee started to unbearably hurt during the last 200 metres of the walk.
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Day 2
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The weather of the first day had been perfect, and we were slightly sad to see clouds on the morning of the second day.
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However within 20 minutes of resuming walking it cleared up. Revealing some amazing views. These were indeed the best part of the day, and are certainly the reason to do the trail. I still love the forests the most, but I'd already done them as day trips in "winter" (remember NZ winter is opposite to back home). The views of day 2 are the reason to do the full hike if you're thinking about going. In other words check to make sure the weather lets you see around you or there's not much point!
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A lot of the scenery of day 2 lent itself to a very Middle Earth feel. Despite New Zealand being the land of Lord of the Rings, it is often difficult to see/feel it. Due to the digital manipulation in that film, I've been to places they filmed at and you can hardly tell.
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In the movies mountain ranges were changed or added to chots, sky and plant colours were tweaked and adjusted (a process called digital grading... oh how I want it bad!) that makes them look totally different than real life, and there is typically signs of modern civilization visible (this is more cause I'm lazy and stick to easy to access sites).
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This was one of the first times and places I truly could have believed that I was suddenly transported into Middle Earth. Though not really anywhere significant (minus a few Rohanian feeling spots) other than some of the incidental locations from the fellowships travelling montage in the first film.
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Sadly for me troubles began in the first half an hour. You see despite what we thought we'd understood about the hike, the second was far from an easy flat walk. It turned out to be as much uphill as the day before. If not more!
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If you look carefully in this picture you can see the trail we're on winding up the mountain on the left. Clare and Anne are there in the foreground, for uh scale I guess...
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If you couldn't see the trail before, here is a closer zoomed shot. The tiny specks you see along the trail in the distance, those are people.
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This was the first major uphill, about a kilometre from the first Hut we left behind. It was at that point on the right side of picture where the trail disappears into the cloud that my knee COMPLETELY gave out!
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I have never had so much trouble walking in my life. The joint just refused to bend, and even when I limped it so it swung around unbent the act of bearing any weight caused me to make involuntary yelps of pain. I nearly just collapsed there, done for the day.
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That is if not for the kindness of strangers. Which I have to say immediately, if there is an activity that brings out the best in people, it would seem to be hiking. As everyone who passed me not only noted my gibbled knee, but expressed concern and a desire to assist me.
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One rather nice woman by the name of Susan went a step further. Seeing my anguish she selflessly insisted that I take her walking sticks to ease the weight on my knee. It was a grand gesture, and I was in no shape to refuse it. Though on account of the fact she too had bad knees, and I was unaccustomed to using sticks I only borrowed one for use on my bad side.
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I'm certain I wouldn't have been able to go much further without it.
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Despite the stick it was tough goings to put it lightly. Honestly the only thing making it worthwhile was every time I stopped to let my throbbing immobile knee have a break, the scenery about me was spectacular!
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Simply breathtaking.
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The only bonus of the injury, was taking plenty of breaks I used them as excuses to take TONS of pictures (990 of them in fact!). So I can roughtly reassemble most of the key points in the journey...
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The poor ladies, Clare and Anne, though. They had to take a lot of really long breaks so I could catch up.
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Which is a funny side note. In all my years of outdoor work, summer camp and tour guiding, I every session (or two weeks tour guiding) would have one of my participates suffer a leg or foot injury. I'd affectionately dub them peg leg as I helped them limp on.
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It was interesting being on the other side of the equation (though for the ladies sake I immediately recognized my condition and dubbed myself peg leg for them!).
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The thing was the trail just bloody well kept going up and up. Don't believe me look at it!

As I walked on, a new problem developed. My good knee was beginning to suffer under the burden of having to do all the work of both knees... Yet I kept trucking on.


At the point where we reached the "top" of the trail, and prepared to make our way down for the first serious distance in the day we hit this highlight. The most Lord of the Rings thing I've been too in New Zealand. I fought off the urge (which with my legs was sadly too easy) to jump under these rocks and hide from a swarm of evil crows...

Though they look the part, had I run up to get underneath them, sadly these rocks were hobbit scale. If I were in the photo bent over my back would be JUST lower the top of these outcrops! Still they fit the bill in this photo, and I stick to my guns here.


So there we were. We'd walked for 6 hours along the top ridges of 4 or 5 mountains, and to finish this day off we were going to head down. Right down. In this picture the I was as high up as that yellow point of the mountain on the right. I was going to have to walk down the equivalent distance of to nearly the lake in this photo!

There were a set of some 16 stair cases right off the bat on this downhill turn (that I neglected to take a picture of... no doubt due to the most pain I've ever experienced from my legs in my life!) that did my knees totally in. Seriously. For the rest of the trip I just couldn't bend them!

It took me till Dec. 28th before I could bend them both properly again.

Day 3

The last day proved the easy walk we'd hoped the previous day would be. Despite a few slight ups and downs overall day 3 proved a conceptually pleasant walk. The only thing against us was distance. We had the distance of both days 1 and 2 to walk, and me and Clare (though me especially) were not in prime walking condition anymore.

My knees had both ceased to function as they should. Which most of the time wasn't an issue.

Though you'd be surprised how critical bending is to going up even a small hill. Clare was having trouble going down the hills. Meaning we played a funny game of grow apart and than catch up as the up and downs of the terrain played out. The worst point of the day was climbing a naturally staircase of roots around a landslided part of the track. With the steps occasionally being nearly a metre high I was crying out in pain by the last 1/3.


Now before you think I didn't enjoy myself, I did, but this trip was the strongest case of "no pain no gain" I've ever experienced. The two were nearly equal while walking (especially on day 2).

I immensely enjoyed the company of my two hiking mates, the scenery was awe inspiring, and I got the heart warming experience of seeing the decency in people, that is often lacking in civilization, when many other hikers expressed concern over my knee (as they passed me).

At the same time I've done it, and to be honest I think its one of those kiwi experiences that I'll be more than will left done simply once!