As independent film became a vital and impressionable facet of ‘90s mainstream America, unorthodox film scores acquired a similar acceptance and notoriety. Films with smaller budgets were forced to seek out alternative scoring opportunities; other filmmakers strived to have the original soundtrack mirror their idiosyncratic visions. Bypassing the traditional (emotional tempests like John Williams) and the uniformly modern (brief snippets of fashionable rock ‘n’ roll), many pop musicians and producers have turned their attention to full- and part-time film scoring: Jon Brion (Magnolia, I Heart Huckabees), Mark Mothersbaugh (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums), Neil Young (Dead Man), and Jonny Greenwood (Bodysong) have all made the world of cinema soundtracks more interesting for those of nonconformist or adventurous temperament.
Nathan Larson began composing music for film in 1998 with his band Shudder to Think. The group produced an ambient score for High Art and a pop-oriented collection of guest-laden songs for First Love, Last Rites (featuring vocal contributions from Jeff Buckley, Liz Phair, and Cheap Trick’s Robin Zander). Although his public profile may not be as wide-reaching as Brion’s or Mothersbaugh’s, Larson has quietly built up an impressive body of work. Following his group’s disbanding soon after the release of First Love, Larson has only released one solo album, opting to devote the majority of his musical output to scores for small, often acclaimed, films. Larson’s music isn’t as expressively melodic as that of his contemporaries—it’s a little darker, a little hazier, embedded in atmosphere and disposition instead of themes and melodic triggers. FilmMusik is a collection of this varied work, touching on scores for Prozac Nation, Boys Don’t Cry, Dirty Pretty Things, Tigerland, and The Woodsman (amongst others), many of them unavailable anywhere else.
One of the continuing problems with film scores (an issue that has lingered on for decades since Hollywood’s golden era in the ‘30s and ‘40s) is how they unapologetically lobby for authority over the audience’s feelings. Larson’s music is true to its cinematic subjects, capturing the unflinching complexities of films like Boys Don’t Cry and The Woodsman without exploiting them. There’s no peddling of emotions in this music, no condescending instructions alerting an audience to how it should feel; Larson’s compositions are open-faced and suggestive, insinuating moods and ideas rather than dictating them. The selections from Prozac Nation are exercises in hesitant ambience, the guitar and gravely violin motifs implying caution and doubt—a method he uses to even greater effect in the zero gravity moments from Lilja 4-Ever. He exhales the arid Nebraska landscape in his electric guitar-based compositions for Boys Don’t Cry, which, when not propelled by a driving drum rhythm, echo Young’s Dead Man improvisations. FilmMusik also contains a few vocal tracks interspersed with the instrumentals, including Larson’s own performance of First Love‘s “I Want Someone Badly” (sung by Buckley on the soundtrack), High Art‘s “She Might Be Waking Up” (sort of a rumination on neo-soul), and the wordless fancy of the Cardigans’ Nina Persson on the Brion-esque “Fiction” (Storytelling) and the French pop potential of “La Pont de la Tristesse” (The Chateau). The cuts from Dirty Pretty Things and The Woodsman may be the most intriguing in how they evoke a kind of quizzical tension: “Dirty Pretty Thing” marries pulsing electronics with ballooning strings to express the conflicts of the film’s characters without the benefit of visuals; “Walter” ekes a slow, pensive melody from its deeply rich instrumental tones.
Removed from their intended context as cinematic accompaniment, Larson’s compositions fare quite well in this reconstituted cut-and-paste sampler. FilmMusik organizes the tracks based on mood and flow, not chronological order, which allows individual themes and textures to be revisited and reevaluated. And while each of Larson’s scores has a unique identity, FilmMusik avoids a schizophrenic or confused progression from beginning to end: many of its tracks are concise and flow with economical grace (sometimes with the help of crossfades). While not all of them are exceptional (in particular, a piece from Phone Booth lumbers with bland paranoia), their sum is frequently inspired and captivating. Until full soundtracks are issued for these films, FilmMusik offers fans of Larson, ambient music, and unconventional scoring something to pique their intrigue.