This is about two striking films from last year whose music scores are only being talked about recently: one just receiving a 90-minute two-disc soundtrack release, the other winning a BAFTA award for Best Original score – each representing opposite poles from ambient to classical scoring, yet each accompanying its film in the same episodic scene-setting way, rejecting a traditional narrative style. These are certainly radical films – so is this post-millennial scoring?
Of initial focus here is the audacious neo-noir fantasy/mystery film by David Robert Mitchell, Under the Silver Lake. The sheer flamboyance of its cryptic dream-like plot – a 20-something slacker dude rushing, stumbling across a contemporary L.A./Hollywood landscape of pools and bedrooms, boutiques and offices and parking lots -- had West Coast audiences fascinated last year and Cannes Film Festival panels confused. And there was further puzzlement among some viewers over the fact that, although this seemed to be an anarchical post-modern film, it was scored with a sober, didactic apparently traditional orchestral music score for forty strings, a dozen winds, a dozen horns, a synth keyboard and a formal conductor controlling it all, Neal Desby. So what's the idea here? -- a schizo whodunit that charges headlong like a video game but relies on a semi-symphonic sound in the background.
Credits assign the scoring to an entity called "Disasterpeace" but a little research shows there were two minds at work here: Rich Vreeland (who came up through video game music and sound design for theater productions and podcasts) and Kyle Newmaster (who is listed as Vreeland's orchestrator but, we will be suggesting, must have had more of a hand in the way this rich and consistently contemporary orchestral score proceeds). The latter is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music in one of those new courses halfway between tradition and divergence, "Composition for Contemporary Media". Together, Vreeland and Newmaster have created some serious music here that manages to hold attention though it doesn't actually go anywhere or make a statement – (characteristics that are also said to be true of a post-millennial mentality).
What is the plot that so confounded them at Cannes? Sam is the young slacker we mentioned; most of the time he lies around present day L.A. more interested in daydreaming about conspiracy theories (What secrets are hidden in the pop culture around us? Are there conspiratorial messages hidden in cereal box ads and Nintendo maps? Are all things connected somehow, leading to mind-control??) than in paying his overdue rent. A tangle of bizarre coincidences begins to engulf Sam once his sexy neighbor disappears and he is drawn into the search for her. He follows clues that he believes were meant for him – seeing them in random graffiti, in passing commercials and newscasts; his obsession leads him into local prostitution rings and political campaigns, posh parties. He encounters crazy homeless performance artists; gets involved with the author of an underground comics series; even questions a rich old man holed-up in a secret bunker awaiting direct access to the Afterlife. One wacky thing leads to another. So is it all connected somehow? Before long, Sam is losing his bearings. He's not even sure anymore that he isn't guilty of the girl's disappearance himself.
It's all a wicked satire of the scattered, self-absorbed post-millennial culture, not neglecting commentary on today's stereotypical younger generation mesmerized by games, distracted by short-cuts, hidden treasures, and anything that moves – ambitious only for more stimulation. What the Cannes panel didn't get was Silver Lake's purposeful portrait of the post-modern dude, looking for meaning in all the wrong places. What the film's most serious viewers complained about was that it was too random, flashy and shallow to actually support the issues it seemed to want to raise.
To what extent, then, did the Vreeland/Newmaster scoring support or even address this film-phantasm? This is not, as we've said, narrative or even sequential music. The individual cues, which are all of one piece compositionally, are used as scene markers and fillers as the game plays-out. Consistent features of the score are its dark sophisticated blends of wind instruments, often with solo clarinet figures above, and brass blends as more drama is happening: deep trombones when clues lead Sam further underground into the suburban nightmare; and there is an heroic horn motif once clues appear to comport at last. But it is the string writing that carries the weight of the score, most often dark and prescient brooding but also occasionally rhythmic and dynamic; some sectional counterpoint and some attention to performance details that show a solid composer behind it all. But who is really responsible?
Rich Vreeland's past multi-media scoring and incidental theater music had been smart but had never risen to this level of literacy. What about orchestrator Newmaster, then? (there are three other orchestrators credited, too). Director Mitchell claims to have asked for "a 40s-like Herrmann sound" but the tonal language here, once all these fragments are heard together, is more like the modal world of, say, Alban Berg; sophisticated and, while not thematic at all, satisfying. There is an impressive dance-like cue for strings that moves among time signatures. There's a moment of 50s style academic jazz; then a kind of 30s promenade piece; then a few bars of lyricism leading to a grand waltz. These are sounds and voicings we can begin to recognize as they repeat but they soon dissolve back into the ongoing mystery and melancholy of the score-as-a-whole. So, is this a fascinating major score, successfully evoking the modern miasma of post-millennial life through pure music or is it, like Sam's aborted journey, a hoax, a pantomime? We are left to assume that Kyle Newmaster is the source of the music's underlying coherence and consistent sound, but we're open to correction – i.e. the fruits of collaboration. Anyway, Silver Lake is a compelling White Rabbit Wonderland journey like Alice endured and if the script never quite makes its case to blend fantasy and philosophy and fan culture, the music score comes closer. It's striking, if also a dogged source of puzzlement: story and score aiming at insight still remain murky. It's enough to make slackers of us all.
It is easier to trace the origins and effects of Jocelyn Pook's screen music for the second striking film in this inquiry: the powerful play-screenplay by Mike Bartlett, King Charles III which, when directed for the screen by Rupert Goold (see his current film bio on Judy Garland, Judy) received a very formal, properly regal and yet effectively expressive score by Pook. As composer, she seems to be a combination of the aforementioned Vreeland and Newmaster – formally trained (Guildhall School of Music and Drama) yet conversant with multi-media. She is even experienced assisting rock bands like Massive Attack and Peter Gabriel. Her personal sound is frequently classical, though; even baroque – clean consonant beds of harmony, often with a vocal obbligato over it (she has extensive choral credentials away from films leading the "Jocelyn Pook Ensemble" choir as well as an instrumental group she calls "Electra Strings").
Certainly the milieu of the play King Charles III (we'll call it KC3 for now) fits well with her existing courtly style but the film version had some specific needs beyond that. There are two striking things about Bartlett's script: its rather daring fictional premise about Britain's real-life royal family, and the fact that, although the dialogue sounds naturally conversational for its present-day setting, it is actually written in blank verse! The plot pretends that Prince Charles, who has been waiting all his life on the sidelines while his mother Queen Elizabeth II reigned, succeeds to the throne on her death. He determines to make his mark early, refusing to support a Parliamentary bill introduced by his conservative Prime Minister which would rescind freedom of the press in order to protect the powers-that-be. As in a Shakespeare tragedy, the members of his own family rally against him in this debate, in favor of the ambitious P.M.
The character who stands-in for the real Prince William (these are fictional characters, remember, so no one's applying such flaws and wiles to the real royals) remains sheepishly aloof from the controversy but his American wife schemes with the P.M. to gain power: thus she is presented as a kind of evil manipulative Lady Macbeth. Meanwhile, the Prince Harry-ish character wants no part of the royal life, being half in love with a commoner (we note how even their youthful dialogue is rendered in Bartlett's clever hip version of blank verse). Still keeping the Shakespearean allusions alive, Bartlett has even staged several mystical Hamlet-like scenes in which the new king in his crisis-of-conscience is visited by a ghostly apparition of the late Princess Diana who counsels him, reassures him from the grave with words like:
"...an indecisive man,
and oft' so sad
will be the greatest king
we ever had..."
Jocelyn Pook's scoring for all of this has obviously to relate to the regal setting, accompanying at least a couple of investiture ceremonies with some soaring traditional liturgical music, but it also has to stay out of the way of the precisely nuanced language of the script. This she does handily. The opening scene of the Queen's funeral is formally scored with a noble requiem chorus moving between D minor and D# with a countertenor voice singing the words of the mass. In the midst of that ceremony, KC3 steps away from the formalities and, not for the last time, turns to us, the camera, to confess: "My life has been a lingering for the throne". Pook uses a small ensemble of strings, still with that liturgical tone, to let us know that the story-to-come will not be regal but personal -- the conscience of the king which, in his story, is about to represent the whole conscience of democracy.
An early conference between king and P.M. shows the first signs of conflict – and as the sinister workings of politics begin to spin, the score lays-out the arpeggio notes of a revolving bass line for bassoon. Then accompanying strings begin to harmonize; then another layer stirs in: a minor key andante is taking shape that will become a motif of sorts.
Shortly, the drama switches to a London pub where Harry has fled to be with his mates – there's a pumping club tune playing and a hot female vocalist singing a Pook original: "I know it's hard; I know we want something that money can't buy..." Here Harry meets Jessica the commoner who understands his torn loyalties right off. Somehow behind their pub-talk, Pook's scoring melds from that club music down into a tentatively tender string quartet (Harry loves Jessica?). The scene ends with a suspended chord.
Thoughtful comments and more suspended harmonies from that same string quartet frame and advance the subsequent intrigues as KC3 tries to argue his position and Lady Macbeth plots behind the throne. Official pressure even falls against Harry to stop his seeing Jessica and Pook unpacks that same baroque andante bass line from before – on cello this time, then bassoon, with winds for counterpoint, building by layers, quickening, doubling the meter nearly towards the establishment of a theme; but it never actually materializes. As a scoring device, though, that slowly intensifying andante piece is used to mimic the steady accumulation of inexorable events.
Lady Macbeth seems a very modern character to us, urging authoritarian over humanitarian rule while the P.M. claims to be preserving democracy. Like Silver Lake, Bartlett and Goold's KC3 seems to have aspirations toward being a present-day protest as, at least in America, real-life leaders are indeed calling the free press "an enemy of the people" (whenever it criticizes them) and authoritarian regimes are on the increase around the world. Pook's scoring never becomes histrionic with all these provocations but holds to its own minor key gravitas – her warnings are private, literally behind the scenes. Her music for those mystical appearances of the ghostly Diana (countertenor singing a "Lacrimoso") is likewise only subtly, privately sympathetic to the king while, at the same time, being half-magical, is also open to re-interpretation.
The other fiercely scored scene in KC3 comes at the center of the film: Parliament has convened to consider the censorship bill when there comes a thunderous pounding on the chamber door to which all heads turn. There is a deep ground note in the strings; then higher strings in minor thirds over it: the king enters, dressed in full regalia, and strides up to the Speaker of the House to deliver his edict on the current State crisis. A male chorus and the lower half of the string orchestra remind us of the film's opening processional music, but now it's weighty with the king's defiant spirit and a dash of Shakespearean tragedy. Together writing, staging and performance have stopped the drama cold and the scoring, while supposedly just representing the court, has been equally significant in raising our conscience.
Jocelyn Pook's most famous score to date for Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut took a similar non-committal yet influential stance using string interjections between film scenes rather than narrative music cues to carry the soundtrack – in that case, they were sounds from her Electra Strings ensemble juxtaposed with imported music tracks from other composers (as Kubrick always chose to do) like the stark solo piano tones near the end of the film from Gyorgy Ligeti and others. And there is more noncommittal string music in her score to the Al Pacino version of Merchant of Venice – again used as scene-dividers and backdrops. That film, though, gave Pook the chance to indulge her love of vocal music by devoting screen time to four of her lovely original airs, variously written for treble, countertenor, or soprano, on texts by Shakespeare, Milton, and Poe.
But back to the subject: these two films, Under the Silver Lake and King Charles III, divergent in style and setting, do seem somewhat related in the ways they take-on contemporary issues and in the manner of their objective-but-resonant functional scoring. And in the end, each score taken as a whole does represent and advocate for the main message of its screen story; each seems as striking as its film even though neither admits themes or forward development or even a point of view. We are wondering, Is this what post-millennium film scoring will be like in the years to come?