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Altered States (Miguel d’Oliveira)

December 19, 2018

Not long ago we reviewed Miguel d’Oliveira’s retro-synth score for the TV-documentary Michael Palin in North Korea. That one has been released via MovieScore Media. d’Oliveira has also worked on another high-profile series… Altered States by acclaimed documentary filmmaker Louis Theroux. Whilst there don’t seem to be any plans right now for an official release, you can still listen to it on the composer’s website… and it’s definitely worth doing so.

This three-part documentary looks at how modern America deals with birth, love and death. In “Take My Baby”, Theroux explores open adoption in California, where women hand over their babies at birth to adoptive families paying tens of thousands of dollars for the privilege. In “Choosing Death”, he spends time with those preparing to take a lethal but legally prescribed overdose and meets a controversial group educating others in how to end their lives. Lastly in “Love Without Limits” the filmmaker travels to Portland, Oregon, to visit a movement seeking to rewrite the rulebook on how we conduct intimate relationships and experience family life.

Theroux has always had a knack for offering us an insight into the lives and decisions of people that most of us would struggle to relate to. Their life choices may surprise or downright confuse us, but Theroux manages to get to the heart of their stories without judging them, without mockery or sarcasm. I mean, his facial expressions tell us that he is as bemused, amazed or flabbergasted as any of us are, but his questioning is always genuinely inquisitive. He may ask probing questions and he may not get a response, but rather than press on, he’ll let the absence of an answer speak volumes for itself. He really does use his slightly geeky, insecure mumbling Brit persona to great advantage.

Cues likes “Boxes” and its variation “Life Changing Moments”, as well as “Just the Six of Us” and “Who Wouldn’t Want My Life” appear to evoke a sense of normality, an every-day casualness. They do this through upbeat, jaunty melodies, mostly for piano. “Who Wouldn’t Want My Life” is arranged for organ, bass, guitar and light percussion, evoking a sort-of 60s jazz vibe (a bit like Sideways or The Cooler perhaps). Yet, nothing is ever quite as straight-forward as it first seems in a Theroux documentary, and the music reflects this.

The promo album opens with “A Better Place” which is a soft, melancholy piece for slow string chords (probably augmented with string-like pads) with see-sawing piano motif over the top. This motif speeds up at some point (nice little reversed-echo transition there) which increases its sense of urgency. “Debra” also features soft, dreamy pads countered by plucked strings and bell-like sounds; whilst “Feel Free to Take Off” is more upbeat, again in a slightly old-fashioned kind of way. If there is a proper term for this style, I’m happy to hear it!

“Five Families to Choose From” is one of the score’s darkest cues. Really slow chords for growling bassoon (or maybe bass clarinet) and deep pads provide a layer of (sub) bass, with a few notes hovering quietly a couple of octaves above it. But it’s the fragments of percussion that really intrigue and add so much more unease. It’s really hard to describe… there is an ongoing rhythm, but it’s very soft and you might almost think it’s vinyl crackle; but at the start of each bar there is a percussive motif (sometimes 3, 4 or 5 hits) which has a distinct wooden sound, not at all trying to be in time, and sounding like falling sticks.

Now, this is one of the things that intrigue me about d’Oliveira’s music. On the surface it may sound quite simple and understated, but when you listen closer there is a lot of stuff going on. There’s a piano in several cues, but I doubt he’s used the same piano sound twice in this score. It’s a little different every time. The combination of, and balance between, synths and acoustic instruments is spot on; they complement each other. There are subtle electronic manipulations happening throughout the music. Not to mention, d’Oliveira juggles a host of different musical styles; yet the album never feels disjointed; it clearly all comes from the same creative place (and through same or similar chords and instrumentations).

There are a bunch of cues I haven’t specifically mentioned, and they’re all of equal quality. Often relying on pads or bass to create a dreamy and bittersweet atmosphere, with guitars and woodwinds (bassoon and clarinet in particular) over the top, keeping things light, keeping it moving and keeping it accessible. It’s great stuff. In all, there are 14 cues, covering roughly 27 minutes. Sadly, there is no official release of the music planned right now, but you can have a listen to it on d’Oliveira’s website.

Special Thanks to Miguel d’Oliveira.
Review by Pete Simons (c) 2018 Synchrotones.
Louis Theroux Altered States cover image (c) BBC; edited by Pete Simons for illustrative and promotional purposes.

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