Saturday, January 16, 2016

Favourite Composers List - January 2016 Edition

I've been having an amazing amount of fun over the past few days working on a personal dev project over the past few days. Progress has been great - it's really exciting to see it really take shape this time... I can feel it... it's almost there... so tantalisingly close this time... just a little bit more tweaks and I think I'll have it working properly this time :D

Even more awesome is working on this while listening to some of my favourite awesome music from some of my favourite composers. So, I thought I'd post an updated list of my current favourites as they stand:

1) Thomas Newman
Finding Nemo was my first introduction to his work. In particular, I still get the chills from tracks 1, 3, 38, and 39 on the soundtrack, despite having listened to it hundreds of times by now; the harmonies from the last few phrases of the end of track 39 are one of the reasons why I initially sought out the soundtrack for this, and why I was so happy when I stumbled across the CD in a local store which usually doesn't stock much interesting stuff - this would've been about 8-10 years ago now... probably closer to 10).

I've since grown to really love the unique "Thomas Newman" sound - the "atmospheric sound" that just seems to hang in mid air, the soft + gentle + lush "string sound" that is layered over this and is sometimes used to carry some very memorable melodies (e.g. the Finding Nemo theme - "Nemo's Egg") as well as some little yummy "dissonant transitions", and some sparse piano chords/melody sprinkled over the top from time to time.

This is most evident in some of his earlier scores such as the Shawshank Redemption ("Brooks Was Here" is really awesome... ever since I saw it used in a video a few years ago set against pictures of the night sky + empty fields + some profound text/narration, it's been one of my favourite cues from that soundtrack), Road to Perdition, Green Mile, Horse Whisperer, and Lemony Snicket.  His work on American Beauty is also often highly viewed, though I personally find that one so-so (too percussive for my taste... also, after knowing what some of those cues were set against... yeah, that's not really a soundtrack I really appreciate too much :)

It's a bit more toned down in his work these days, especially in the ones where (at least IMO) ironically there's been the greatest hype for him to actually win an Oscar already for best soundtrack... Saving Mr Banks (IIRC, "Forgiveness, Whisky" is one of the nicer tracks from that soundtrack) and the Bond scores aren't quite as impressive (for standalone listening) as those earlier ones were, though there are still many points of interest there.

What was more surprising though was his score for Bridge of Spies. I was watching it in the theatre last year, and wasn't really paying much attention to the music (TBH, I was too busy being distracted by all the sound effects/foley they had going on, and listening to how "placed" it all sounded coming from the sound system). And why would I.... as a Spielberg film, I was expecting it to be just another John Williams score (more in a moment)... it certainly *sounded* like one for the large part, with all the string section stuff going on in most of the early scenes... It wasn't until up to one or two scenes near the middle of the film - in retrospect, it may even have been one of those train+bridge scenes that I suddenly heard some unmistakable sounds.... WTF?! Could this be a Newman score?! Then from that point on, I started paying a bit more attention, hunting for some more telltale signs... Naturally, I was curious for the credits to roll so that I could see who composed the music ;)

2) John Williams
How can anyone leave the grandmaster off a list like this?! Over his long and illustrious career, John Williams has produced some of the most memorable and instantly recognisable tunes around. From the first notes of the upbeat "ready-for-action" Indiana Jones theme, to other iconic themes such as the themes for Superman, Jaws, Star Wars, Encounters of the Third Kind, and Schindler's List, who else can claim to have been involved in so many iconic songs.

When working though, I am however particularly fond of several particular things:
   1) The "flying" theme from ET (particularly after watching some documentary clips talking about how it came to be - from him playing it on the piano for Spielberg, to how they ended up syncing the shots to the music to get the best flowing effect),

   2) "Hedwig's Theme" and "Buckbeak's Flight" from the Harry Potter franchise  (RIP Alan Rickman!) - The first for being so instantly recognisable, and the second for the grand epicness of the music (and the feeling of freeness it brings)

   3) The score for "Memoirs of a Geisha" - While a departure from his usual work, and notable for the heavy Asian/Japanese influence in this score, this score is notable for featuring solos + duets from two living legend/heavyweights in classical music: Izthak Perlman (violin) and Yoyo Ma (cello) - which is quite impressive, given that you had these 3 big names in music all working on what wasn't really a big "top-rung" film/blockbuster. IIRC, the main character's theme is played by the cello, and the Chairman's theme by violin. What makes this a particular mainstay for me when trying to get things done though is the combination of rich flowing melodies, and complex percussive texture that's constantly driving forward.

(On a side note: I remember that when the film came out, Mum and Dad ended up going by themselves as I wasn't interested. As a result, they were running a bit late, so ended up only getting into the cinema after the ads had been played, the lights had dimmed, and the film was just starting to play. From what I heard afterwards, apparently they found it quite impressive to walk into that screening, walking in on an entirely foreign world.  When I finally saw the film several years later on TV, I finally understood why...)

3) John Powell
This is a recent favourite of mine. If you asked me maybe 2-3 years ago, I wouldn't have known who he was, and wouldn't have been too familiar with his work. But, in the past 1-2 years, I've really come to appreciate his work.

The game changer?  How to Train Your Dragon

HTTYD (and it's sequel - I'm still quite pissed that Big Hero 6 won the Best Animated Film Oscar last year instead of it) are two great films... A long time ago, I wouldn't think I'd say that about some Dreamworks films, but the HTTYD and Kung Fu Panda franchises are two legitimate shining gems of quality, depth, and just all round awesome work in a steaming pile of poop jokes  (well, I guess credit must also go to the Madagascar franchise - I happened to stumble across the circus sequence from M3 over the weekend, and was blown away by the imaginative staging, use of space + colour, the beautiful posing/animation and general artistry that had gone into making that sequence... also, it was amazing seeing such an "out there" moment in a modern mainstream animated feature, as I'd thought these had died out when the old-style 2D Disney films disappeared... apparently not!).

Anyone, the soundtracks to HTTYD are two really awesome/epic compilations to listen to, and are current favourites of mine if in the mood for really knocking some work out of the park. There are so many awesome things to love about these: the exhillerating, thundering openings, the melodies and themes (that flying theme - yes, a flying theme again - is something I really love hearing), as are some of the quieter moments (e.g. when Hiccup wakes up in his hut at the end of the first film, and realises that he's lost his leg - the use of the delicate solo piano treatment of that moment, apparently played+recorded by the composer himself during a scoring session with the directors, is one of my favourite moments of the score/film).

Speaking of Kung Fu Panda, I've been listening to that soundtrack (and the second one's soundtrack - the film I have to say is in many ways even better than the first... many great gags - e.g. the lion-dance costume - and some moments with some rich emotional gravitas) a bit in the past few days a bit. Oogway's Theme in particular is so awesome to listen to (as is that scene where he ascends to heaven with the peach blossom flowers... that was really beautiful!), as is how they've managed to incorporate the general spirit and essence of Chinese music into the score.

4) Tchaikovsky
Perhaps one of the few classical composers to actually make the cut on this list (or at least the highest ranking ones worth mentioning). I like pretty much most of his work. What stands out the most for me though is probably his Violin Concerto - well actually, it's the orchestral intro that I like (the grand call and response stuff he's got going on). The actual violin solo parts of it are nice as well - to listen to, that is! I've looked over the score, and don't really fancy playing through some of it myself XD

5) Alan Menken
Who can forget the musical genius that gave us some of the most memorable songs from Disney's Renaissance. Again, instantly recognisable + memorable songs with sweeping melodies (e.g. things like "Part of Your World" (Little Mermaid), "Whole New World" (Aladdin), "Beauty and the Beast" (BATB), "Something's There" (BATB), "Reflection" (Mulan), "Under the Sea" (Little Mermaid), "Kiss the Girl" (Little Mermaid)) or other lively pieces (e.g. "I won't say I'm in love" and "Go the distance" from Hercules)

Admittedly, most of these songs aren't actually that great when coding or writing. This is due to the presence of lyrics, which makes it incredibly distracting to be trying to type words in English - do so at your own peril... you may just end up randomly transcribing snippets of random song lyrics into whatever you working on!).

Fortunately, there are also a few tracks from a few of the soundtracks which are orchestral only (e.g. "Enchanted Suite" and "True Love's Kiss" from Enchanted, in that order - BTW, if you're listening to that though, I'd recommend starting with "How Does She Know" (film version with all the foley, NOT soundtrack version which is quite dull + muted), "Happy Working Song" (film/soundtrack versions ok... film version a bit more interesting/fuller sounding again though), "So Close" (film version, with all the dialog in between), then the two orchestrals, followed by "Ever Ever After"....  Warning: The first one of these can get a bit addictive... you've been warned!)

6) Two Steps From Hell - Thomas J. Bergersen
This is the guy who gave the world the epicness that is "Heart of Courage".

You may not know it by name (well now you do... remember it!), but you'll most definitely have heard it somewhere. Most people probably heard it in the promos for the BBC's "Frozen Planet" (in particular, look for a clip with orcas bobbing up and down in sync out of a hole), but it's also used nowaways for certain BMW and game ads (IIRC), and I've heard it played in the water fountain area of Ocean Park HK.

Anyway, these guys make a lot of other similarly awesome + epic music, especially for use in trailers and stuff like that.

7) Michael Giacchino
I'm a bit on the fence on this one...On one hand, I love his work on Ratatouille (in particular, "Remy's Theme" - the swelling violin solo you hear as Remy emerges from the sewers to admire the Paris nightscape from a roof is my absolute favourite part of this score) as well as a few cues from Up (Married Life + Escape from Muntz Mountain in particular).

However, there is a lot of his work that I'm either indifferent to (and maybe slightly happy with some aspects of those), or am not really impressed by at all. Examples of this include his score for Inside Out (i.e. aside from that piano motif that's introduced at the start of the film, there's not really anything else... and then, the piano motif just keeps coming back resued in so many other ways, along with some occasional quirky outbursts), most of the score for Up (i.e. it turns out that, apart from the cues that they included in the "sampler" for the Academy voters when he got the Oscar for Up, most of the rest on that soundtrack are actually so-so when I finally got around to listening to them all... this leads me to suspect that for best score winners, it may in many cases be a case of whether they submitted the right "portfolio" of cues from their score for the voters vs whether the score overall was good). Another example is his work on The Incredibles, or Mission Impossible - I dunno whether it's just the director's choice of music style for those, or his scoring choices, but those tended to be quite jazzy-type scores, which I didn't really like that much.

8) Hans Zimmer
Like John Williams, most people probably have some sort of soft spot or space reserved for his style of music. Especially for stuff like his Inception soundtrack ("Time" is just such a classic, which instantly captures + represents most of what that confusing + lumbering Nolan epic was all about), Pirates of the Carribean, or his Lion King/Kung Fu Panda work.

Also noteworthy is the "Prince of Egypt" soundtrack. The songs on here are really nice and epic (as well as hauntingly memorable - like the opening lullaby).

9) Alexandre Desplat
This guy is another one of those film composers who's been doing a lot of good work in recent years. Personally, I'm most familiar with his work on Benjamin Button (maybe it's the film, but his music here also contributes a bit to the heavy dreariness you feel after watching that thing), though he also scored some of the last Harry Potter films, as well as The Grand Budapest Hotel (apart from that opening "yodelling" crap that opens the film which IMO was awful to listen to, there's some really nice and exciting stuff going on here - e.g. the zippy ukelele ? stuff that goes on during the chase sequences shown in the trailers).

10) Georges Bizet
Most well known for composing the Carmen opera (and the related orchestral suite). A little secret: I've found that for me personally, it tends to bring good luck to listen to recordings of his Carmen related work (either the suite or just Habanera) before exams and other important things like that.

That said, I'm quite picky about which recordings of the orchestra suite I listen to. So far, only one recording actually fits the bill: a cheap, bargin-basement CD set recording of the North German Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Henry Adolph.  Although it's not really kosher under all the copyright crappiness, I may need to try ripping a copy of those tracks for backup reasons, as I've noticed the CD starting to look a bit blotchy recently, meaning that it may stop working soon :/  But, since I can't find any other recordings that aren't either morosely slow, or somehow lacking in spirit/colour in vital places that may be the only option for now...

11) Aleksey Igudesman
This violinist's zany combination of comedy with unorthodox violin playing techniques executed with a high level of skill makes his work a pleasure to listen to. I first heard of his work via his duo: Igudesman and Joo, and their original show: "A Little Nightmare Music" many years ago, and recently rediscovered their stuff.

If you're up for some interesting listening (and viewing... I can't stress this part enough, as it makes it more fun), I'd recommend (in the following order):
* A Turkish Couple Arguing
* Rumba De Mumbai
* Salsa De La Luna
* Flamenco Fantasy

12) Romain Paillot
A young and upcoming composer doing scores for short films and games. I first heard of his work via the short film: "Dum Spiro"

Recommended Tracks:
* Resurrection of Gaia - This is on a similar level of epicness as Heart of Courage
* Destiny
* Dream Palace
* Epic Main Title

Other Really Nice Music (by Various Artists):
- The Cinematic Orchestra
Brief mention must be made to the composers of the awesome "Arrival of the Birds" song. Yet another one of those really epic + beautiful songs.

- "Song of the Sea" (2014 film)
  * "Song of the Sea" by Lisa Harrington
  * "Lullaby"  sung by Nolwenn Leroy

- Into the Woods (Film Edition) - Recommended Playlists
  1) Songs
      * Finale: Children Will Listen (Part 2)
      * Stay With Me (Instrumental)
      * A Very Nice Prince
      * No One Is Alone
      * Cinderella at the Grave
      * Your Fault
      * Ever After
      * It Takes Two

  2) Mostly Orchestral Only
      * Ever After
      * Finale: Children Will Listen (Part 2)
      * Stay With Me (Instrumental)
      * Rapunzel's Tear
      * No More (Instrumental)
      * The Giant Attack
      * Stay With Me (Instrumental)
      * (No One Is Alone)

- Shostakovich: Symphony No 11 - "The Year 1905"

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