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Still Alice (Ilan Eshkeri)

January 25, 2015

Cover_StillAliceSTILL ALICE

Ilan Eshkeri, 2014, Nettwerk
14 tracks, 23:07

There is a fine line between ‘doing too little’ and ‘doing too much’ for a poignant drama such as “Still Alice”. How does Ilan Eshkeri fare walking this musical tightrope?

Review by Pete Simons

What is it?

“Still Alice” is a gripping drama from directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland. Julianne Moore leads a stellar cast and received numerous award nominations for it (including BAFTA, Golden Globe and Academy Awards – at the time of this writing, she’s won the Golden Globe). She portrays a linguistics professor who is diagnosed with the early on-sets of Alzheimer’s disease. As the once-vibrant woman struggles to hang on to her sense of self for as long as possible, Alice’s three grown children must watch helplessly as their mother disappears more and more with each passing day.

For too many people this is a harrowing reality. It’s not an easy subject to tackle, and for a composer it must be very difficult to walk that very fine line between dramatic storytelling and real sincerity. Few composers would be better suited than Ilan Eshkeri. He has witnessed the disease up close; and has worked on various projects (short films, charitable campaigns) that dealt with the subject.

What does it sound like?

Eshkeri’s score is performed by piano and a string trio; the latter a deliberate challenge the composer set himself. String trios are notoriously difficult to write for, because it’s tricky to create (and maintain) a full chord. Working on the assumption that a basic chord is made up from three notes, you’d need four instruments to form that chord and play a melody over the top of it. By sticking to a trio the composer set himself a technical challenge – one that would inevitably lead to clashes and missing notes. In a wonderful interview with IFMCA-colleague Kaya Savas, Eshkeri explains how his music, the challenges and the mishaps of it, depict the debilitating mental illness.

On the surface it’s only natural to draw comparisons to similarly orchestrated scores. One that particularly comes to mind is James Horner’s “Iris”, the 2001-drama starring Judi Dench and Jim Broadbent that also deals with dementia. During the opening cue “L.A. Drive” you may in fact be forgiven for thinking you’ve put on a Horner record, as twinkly piano and soft violin greet you. The key difference between both scores is that Eshkeri’s is even smaller, even more intimate. Where Horner made use of an orchestra to add warmth, Eshkeri relies solely on his piano and string trio. As a result, his score never feels all that comfortable. There’s always a slight unease. It’s more real.

There are several themes to be found here. The one that stands out most is first heard in “Running” (though you could argue that it’s hinted at during “L.A. Drive”). Variations not withstanding, it’s a circular five-note theme (three up, two down) written in a 3/4 signature. I’m a real sucker for this sort of stuff and it’s the kind of thing I could play on the piano for hours on end, until I realise what the hell I’ve been doing! I really love the chord-change at 0:29 into this cue; and how the melody fizzles out, making way for unsettling violin sounds.  The melody is reprised lushly in “Beach” and “Butterfly”. The melody is supported by broken chords. In “Butterfly” Eshkeri seems to alter, ever so slightly, the notes in the chords, which has a surprisingly disorienting effect. For a while I thought it was written in a different time signature, until I twigged on to what he’d done.

It’s the warmest, most hopeful and (relatively) most lively melody of them, as if to celebrate life. Yet, when it’s slowed down and minimised, and performed ever so gently on piano with maybe only a cello accompanying (as it is in “Speech” and “It Was About Love”) it is utterly heartbreaking; starkly reminding us that things won’t last as they are.

“Lost Phone” and “Pills” are two eerie cues, relying on uneasy chords and unusual playing techniques, such as sul pont, where the violin is played close to the bridge, creating a scratchy, glass-like sound. “No Secrets”, “Words With Friends” and “Souls Rising” offer a lovely melody for piano. Very gentle and delicate. It’s probably the most lyrical or classical of the themes, but do take that relatively. The violin adds an interesting, if slightly uneasy, atmosphere to “Words With Friends”, whilst cello adds warmth to “Souls Rising”.

“Alice Tells The Children” and “Toothpaste” revolve around a slow arpeggio (broken chord) on the piano. The string trio add melancholy harmonies; whilst the right-hand on the piano adds an aching 3-note motif that was also heard earlier in “Lost Phone”. And do we detect a hint of synthesiser (or even a real glass harmonica) in “Tooth Paste”?

The album closes with Karen Elson’s song “If I Had A Boat”. It’s cute song and she’s got a nice voice. It’s piano-driven, so fits in nicely with the score. No issues there. The lyrics are a little silly though; probably deliberate. “If I had a boat, I’d go out on the ocean. And if i had a pony, I’d ride him on my boat.” Yeah, good luck with that, love.

Is it any good?

Let’s get the negative out of the way first, shall we? The album is short. At 23 minutes (and that includes the song) I can imagine people being a little hesitant parting with their pennies; especially when you can get sixteen days’ worth of Middle Earth music for virtually the same price. That said, Eshkeri didn’t write an album, he wrote a film score. I can imagine that the film won’t have needed much more. And whilst it makes for a short album, as with Eshkeri’s own super-short “Austenland“, it is very much worth exploring. That is… if you like piano and strings. If it takes a 100-hundred piece orchestra and an 80-piece choir for you to enjoy a film score, you’ve come reading the wrong review.

Fans of romantic minimalism (as I’d like to call it) – which is experiencing something of a revival thanks to composers such as Olafur Arnalds (“Broadchurch“), Max Richter (“The Leftovers”), Johan Johansson (“The Theory of Everything“) and to some extent Abel Korzeniowski (“Romeo & Juliet“) – may find that Ilan Eshkeri’s “Still Alice” fits quite nicely in this line up. Minimalism is a term often mis-used, including by myself. Still, there is very little to Eshkeri’s score. Short, simple themes. Four instruments. It feels naked… it feels exposed. Any lesser composer would’ve felt the need to dress it up with a string section – at least. Everything hinges on those four players; and on Eshkeri’s notes. There is nowhere for the composer or the musicians to hide. And they don’t need to. This is a beautiful piece of work; one that gets under your skin. Clearly a labour of love.

P.s. I would have loved to have credited the four performers, but unfortunately I have not yet been able to obtain that information.

Rating [4/5]


01. L.A. Drive (0:48)
02. No Secrets (0:48)
03. Running (2:03)
04. Alice Tells the Children (0:54)
05. Beach (1:06)
06. Words with Friends (0:50)
07. Butterfly (1:37)
08. Lost Phone (1:21)
09. Speech (2:35)
10. Pills (3:04)
11. Toothpaste (1:32)
12. Souls Rising (1:25)
13. It Was About Love (0:47)
14. If I Had a Boat – Karen Elson (4:17)




Check out IFMCA’s Kaya Savas’ interview with Ilan Eshkeri, in which he talks at lengths about his work for “Still Alice” and the campaign for Dementia Friends.

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