The end of 2013 marks the first half year of the existence of “Notes on Celluloid”, and I’m happy to say that thus far, things have been going remarkably well. The column has been fortunate enough to showcase interviews with some of film music’s eminent composers, Clint Mansell and Cliff Martinez, in particular.
Then there’s the matter of the body of film scores and soundtracks released this year, which is, as is usually the case, voluminous. Film music is unlike any other genre when it comes to end-of-the-year reminiscing, for whereas in most cases an artist can escape the follies of the genre he plays in even if it’s become unmemorable as a movement (See Touché Amoré‘s Is Survived By, a gem nearly drowned out by the muddy waters of the so-called “emo revival”), with scoring, much of the probability of success for the music is contingent on the quality of the celluloid it is paired with.
Were 2013 to be dominated by more films like Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 than those like Prince Avalanche, the world would have heard a very different set of tunes. Fortunately, what the year did bring was a rather impressive collection of scores and soundtracks, ten particularly great ones of which are documented below. Both film and television are considered, though one honorable mention from the world of video gaming—which, even more than film music, is criminally overlooked—is worth pointing out. Brice Ezell
If with Explosions in the Sky Ola Podrida’s David Wingo moved toward the intimate with Lucero, he pushes upward and out, transforming the Memphis band’s rootsy punk with violin stabs and percussion plunks. Much of Mud feels as if it possesses a greater thing inside of something small, the skin ripping to show you what lives underneath. Wingo pushes the rudiments of Americana through a meat grinder, resulting in accordion that menaces, guitars that creep, all festooned in pronounced horns and swelling strings. In feel, at least, it approaches old Ennio Morricone scores, a comparison I’m sure Wingo wouldn’t mind one bit. Robert Rubsam
How I Live Now
In more ways than one, Jon Hopkins’ score to Kevin Macdonald’s film How I Live Now picks up where his ingenious Immunity left off earlier in the year, particularly with the sparse, piano-led cut “Abandon Window.” Like that sonic meditation, How I Live Now focuses on the space between ambience and individual notes; Hopkins creates wide-open sonic spaces and methodically interrupts the airy tension and tranquility with gorgeous piano chords and melodies, which both beautify the landscape and problematize it. Just as the post-nuclear fallout of How I Live Now frequently moves from serenity and chaos (“Distant Fire” even evokes the doomy two-note horn motif from Inception), Hopkins guides the natural movement of these tracks as they range a continuum spanning intimate beauty and tense anticipation. Brice Ezell
Upon the release of Gravity, director Alfonso Cuaron, already revered for classics such as Children of Men and Y Tu Mama Tambien, was showered with garlands of critical praise that seemed to flow from an endless fount. Cuaron’s achievement is considerable, but equally impressive is composer Steven Price’s skill in maintaining the intensity of the film’s narrative in the format of the soundtrack CD. There are long stretches of the Gravity OST when not much happens—until, of course, it happens. Price knows how to make a crescendo feel exciting without making it totally obvious that it’s on the horizon. If it’s true that in outer space no one can hear you scream, Price’s score to Gravity is an auditory manifestation of the realization of that terror. Brice Ezell
7Explosions in the Sky & David Wingo
Most impressive among Wingo’s skills as a composer is how he draws new and surprising sounds out of his collaborators, turning expectations on their head. Though many of us know Explosions in the Sky as an epic rock band, hitting emotional peaks through guitar strums, with Wingo it produces something at once subdued and tense, a flipside to their work in Friday Night Lights, dominated by acoustic guitar and clarinet, oscillating between tuneful movements and Tim Hecker-style collages. Avalanche is a small film, and so its score feels intimate, though always threatening to soar. Robert Rubsam
6A Hawk and a Hacksaw
You Have Already Gone to Another World
Though Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, the Sergei Parajanov film A Hawk and a Hacksaw has scored, is from 1964, the band’s soundtrack feels fresh. Mixing traditional eastern European folk songs with its own numbers, A Hawk and a Hacksaw capture the wild joy, pandemonium, and sorrow of a film concerned with witchcraft and the connections between life and death. The soundtrack is most effective when channeling the rhythm and spirit of celebration, particularly through a prominent use of percussive beats, at times chaotic, as on “Witch’s Theme” and “Horses of Fire Rachenitsa”. A Hawk and a Hacksaw captures the soul of a world where magic is not yet lost, and then brings it to us, life still caught in its jaws. Robert Rubsam