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Cluster Reviews #02

July 25, 2018

In this digitally printed episode of Cluster Reviews I’d like to focus on a few scores that one might describe as ‘beautiful’. The spotlight is on Mark McKenzie’s Max & Me, Roque Banos’ The Miracle Season, Laurent Eyquem’s Nostalgia and a re-release of the compilation The Complete London Sessions by Georges Delerue. So sit back, relax, close your eyes and … open your eyes to read the reviews.

Max & Me is not the long-awaited sequel to Mac and Me, as I had initially hoped, but rather an animated film that tells about a priest who sacrificed his life to save another from the Nazi death camps. That sounds like heavy stuff and makes my joke at the start of this paragraph seem rather crass. The original score is by Mark McKenzie, who is an extremely talented composer; yet a-status has yet, somehow, eluded him. Max & Me is incredibly easy to like, as it’s easy to listen to, which means it’s also easy to get carried away by its prettiness. However, it’s also fairly easy to criticise, which I won’t shy away from.

Without going into huge amounts of detail, the score features a handful of themes. All very beautiful, hitting the right notes at the right times, accompanied by the right chords. You’ve got to admit, it is rather predictable. After just a few notes you know exactly how a certain piece is going to unfold; and so it does. Sometimes that’s exactly what you want from a piece of music — and this is one of those times. It’s orchestrated for silky smooth strings, solo violin, the odd piano, choir and some solo vocals and a bit of brass (the latter being the only part that doesn’t sound quite right to me, but it’s hard to work out why). The score is dramatic, melancholic, romantic and towards the end downright euphoric. It’s melodic from start to end. As said, you can’t not like this work. But it is predictable, at times repetitive, and it relies heavily on its pretty themes so that most of the time I find myself wishing that it was a little more complex in its harmonies and counterpoint writing. On a personal note, some of the music reminds me a lot of something I wrote myself a few years ago; and it totally freaks me out! Anyway, it may be easy-listening, but it’s incredibly beautiful listening. I don’t think it’s quite the masterpiece some of my peers think it is, but you can’t go far wrong with this one. (22 tracks, 57m, Sony Classical 2018. 4/5)

Another beauty is The Miracle Season by Roque Banos. The film’s synopsis reads: “After the tragic death of star volleyball player Caroline Found, a team of dispirited high school girls must band together under the guidance of their tough-love coach in hopes of winning the state championship.” Call me a cynic, but I think that tells you everything you need to know. The credits for director Sean McNamara reveal loads of TV-films, but also the motion picture Field of Lost Shoes, which features a very pleasant score by Frederik Wiedmann. What these two scores and Max and Me have in common is their easy-going if predictable nature.

There have been many great, beautiful and inspirational ‘sports’ scores; and Banos seems to be aware of most of them. I mean, he may not be, I don’t know, but his score presses all the right buttons at all the right times. Marching band percussion? Check! Melancholy strings? Check. Heroic brass? Check! Stupid comments from stupid soundtrack critic? Check… hey wait a minute! The Miracle Season is an expertly written score; another one that is very easy to like; and one that very clearly tells a story, as it very obviously moves through all the emotions that accompany this kind of film. From feeling good, to feeling down, to battling onwards to the inevitable victory. The thing is… every other note reminds me of Horner or Silvestri or Isham; and I can’t quite work out whether that bothers me or not. It shouldn’t and it usually doesn’t; but the generic nature of this score bothers me more than that of Max & Me. Maybe it’s because I’m not a huge fan of the overtly obvious optimism that exists in this type of score. (15 tracks, 49m, Meliam Music 2018. 3,5/5)

Varese Sarabande have re-released The Complete London Sessions, a wonderful 2-disc compilation of music by Georges Delerue. It was previously released in 2001 as Great Composers: Georges Delerue. The French composer died in 1992 and, for me, it’s weird to think that some of my readers will have been born after that, and may not even remotely be familiar with his work. If you are familiar with Delerue, then you’re likely familiar with this compilation and you may even own a copy of the original release. You’ll know how fabulous it is. If you have the original, I don’t really see a reason to obtain this new release as it appears to be exactly the same (bar the cover image). So, this one is really for those film-music fans who have a bit of catching up to do, or who wish to explore something ‘new’. This compilation offers 19 suites, recorded in 1989 with Delerue himself at the helm. The recording is absolutely spotless and sounds like it was only just recorded yesterday. Delerue’s music is lush, melodic, romantic, dramatic and memorable. If I were to carefully compare him to a modern-day working composer, I’d probably compare him to Patrick Doyle, as I believe they share a sense of joy, drama and beauty. If it helps, consider Delerue a slightly more old-fashioned and French version of Doyle. All 19 cues here are career highlights (though many are missing… the guy did score over 300 films and television productions). For me personally, the real stand-outs are Rich and Famous, with its rich melody. I don’t want to keep coming back to the word ‘lush’, but that is exactly what this is. The melody, performed by strings, flows so naturally that inevitably your entire body will gently rock from side to side in time with the music. Platoon is an exquisite work that matches the melancholy in Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, which features prominently in that film, yet is unmistakably from the hand of Delerue. The way the composer plays with tension and release is fantastic. It’s such a shame that most (if not all) of the score went unused, as director Oliver Stone ultimately favoured Barber’s Adagio.

If you like long-lined melodies than the Steel Magnolias suite should be right up your alley. It has a thematic line that just seems to carry on forever… risking it becoming too much to remember, but it’s really lovely nonetheless, with a nice Americana touch. Cues like Beaches, Exposed and The Escape Artist sound deliciously European with their summery melodies, jazzy characteristics and orchestrations for strings, accordion, flute, marimba and bass. Arguable the darkest and most menacing suite is the one for Something Wicked This Way Comes, a score that was ultimately rejected in favour of one from James Horner. I think Delerue’s vision and Horner’s are pretty similar, as both offer an idyllic main theme and plenty of gothic dark material. But Delerue is Delerue and Horner is Horner… both have very strong identifiable styles; and I guess that Delerue’s score might have sounded just a little too European or too classical, where Horner was able to produce a more typically ‘Hollywood’ score. A Little Sex offers a lively melody that travels from flute to oboe to accordion. It’s a virtuous theme that dances between instruments like a butterfly between flowers. What’s evident in every single one of these pieces is Delerue’s incredible gift for melody. Each of them a little gift from wonderful composer. (19 tracks, 2CD, 1h 57m, Varese Sarabande 2018. 5/5)

Sticking with French composers, Laurent Eyquem has penned a lovely score for Nostalgia. A mosaic of stories about love and loss, Nostalgia explores our relationships to the objects, artifacts, and memories that shape our lives. Eyquem’s scores revolves primarily around the piano and cello. There’s a small string section present; and even a single trumpet at one point. The result is a very intimate score. It’s quite melancholy and sombre, as you might expect from the title, and it relies on silence between the notes as much as it does on the notes itself. You’ll often hear strings fade in and out with a slight rest before resurging again; and on a few occasions the music almost dissolves with just a few sparse piano notes remaining. This restraint is deliberate; and very powerful.

The director wanted a natural sound where you can hear the mechanics of the piano as well as any noises from the strings. This ‘unpolished’ sound is quite popular nowadays, partly due to artists like Nils Frahm, Olafur Arnalds, Dustin O’Halloran, etcetera. Eyquem was also encouraged to explore the tragedies in his own life to find inspiration for the music. As such, it has become a very personal work. There is a beautiful sadness to this music. It’s always melodic and harmonic with heartfelt performances on said piano, cello and trumpet. (11 tracks, 30m, Varese Sarabande 2018. 4/5)

Reviews by Pete Simons (c) 2018 Synchrotones.

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