Friday, January 19, 2007

Music to write scripts and books to

Yesterday I blogged about transcendent musical moments in non-musical films. Most of the examples I cited were source music, with John Tavener's contribution to Children of Men the only extract from a specifically composed film score, rather than a song or operatic aria borrowed for use on the soundtrack. People offered their own comments and suggestions, among them several great film scores. So, let's talk about music specially created for movies.

When I'm creating fiction - a script, a screenplay, an audio drama or a novel - I like to have predominantly instrumental music playing in the background. If I find the perfect match for a project, I'll play it on an endless loop everytime I sit down to write. That can drive you a little crazy after a while but it works for me. Film soundtracks are a particularly useful source of background music. So, what are my favourite slices of writing music? Here's ten, in no particular order.

Aliens: James Horner
Bombastic and militaristic in parts, soothing and calm in others. Appropriately e for me, my favourite track is Bishop's Countdown. In the film it's where Bishop flies Ripley & Co out of the exploding building as it nukes out. You'll hear this used a lot of action movie trailers. Sure, parts of the score owe a debt of inspiration to the likes of Holst's Mars, Bringer of War, but it's still great stuff. Good for high tension writing and action sequences. Horner's score for Iris is very different, but still a favourite.

Leon: Eric Serra
Lush and romantic in parts, childlike and innocent in others, but with no shortage of big booming moments. Sometimes it feels Arabic, other times military and sinister. Quite an all-rounder, this one. This score hasn't dated as much as Serra's efforts on Goldeneye, although the love theme in that is rather haunting.

Backdraft: Hans Zimmer
Part of this music was used on a largely unseen trailer for Judge Dredd designed to impress potential licensors, cut together from the dailies' raw footage. I've been hearing bits of the Backdraft music on film trailers ever since, it's obviously a default choice in Hollywood. The score's quite short, but another favourite for writing action sequences. Lots of military drums and tension, big whirling emotions and the like. People have been aping this score ever since. Zimmer's score for Gladiator is also well worth a listen.

Magnolia: Jon Brion
Much as I like the use of Aimee Mann's songs in this movie, it's the Jon Brion score that haunts me. Must be the French horns and lush strings. Ranges from playful through dramatic to tragic. Heart-wrenching but not sentimental, there's an underlying sense of cataclysm and dread. Good for we're all going to die scenes. Brion's score for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is another favourite, and much lighter in tone.

Insomnia: David Julyan
Slow to the point of being glacial in parts, this is another big bunch of dread. You know nothing's going to end well listening to this music. Can become quite oppressive after a while. Not sure I could have this as background music for a whole novel, I'd end up like Al Pacino in the movie. Julyan also provided the score for The Prestige, but I haven't heard that yet - I expect more symphonic dread.

Little Children: Thomas Newman
This has been high rotatio on iTunes for me lately. Swirling in parts, urgent and stabbing in others, but always with Newman's undercurrent of heady romanticism. He's become one of my most-played film score composers, thanks to his work on movies like Road to Perdition and A History of Violence. The music for The Shawshank Redemption is endlessly borrowed by trailers looking to tug at the heartstrings, but I've also been besotted by the music from The Silence of the Lambs. Unlike some composers who ply their trade for Hollywood, not all Newman scores sound the same.

The Lost Prince
: Adrian Johnston
Why do French horns sound so moody and melancholic? Beats me, but they're used to stunning effect on this TV score. While movie scores regularly get issued on CD or download, music made for television is less likely to be easily available. This Johnston score got me through a dark and moving novel. I've happily pay good money to get his score for Tipping the Velvet, that was even better than this, IMHO.

Lost: Michael Giacchino
Having said TV scores really get released, here's another exception to the rule. Giacchino's music for Lost deftly underlined the mood of the first season, yet didn't draw attention to itself - the perfect score. Watching the season again on DVD made me hungry to buy the music and it eventually became available. The best tracks are Parting Words and Oceanic 815, both from the finale of season 1. Giacchino's something of a rising star, after years of providing music for computer games. His work on the Medal of Honor series is available on CD or download and well worth a listen, especially the Underground album.

City Hall: Jerry Goldsmith
The spirit of pioneering American composer Aaron Copland lives on in this big, bombastic score. Goldsmith's music screams cities, metropolitan and New York. Timpanis to die for, haunting clarinets, all the mood in the world - stunning stuff. His LA Confidential score is just as good, but with more jazzy inflections.

The Piano: Michael Nyman
You couldn't go anything without hearing this music in 1994, it became a crossover sensation. More than a decade later, perhaps people are willing to hear it again, shorn of any Classical FM reflex sneering. Varied, exciting, romantic, dramatic - this one's got it all. Write while this is playind and you can't help but be influenced by the music's changing mood and tempo.

So, what are you favourite film scores? What do you like to listen to while writing?


James Swallow said...

The Gladiator OST is great for setting the mood when I'm writing my Warhammer 40,000 books. Recently, I came across the soundtrack for Half-Life 2 and that's got some weird ambient creepyness about it.

Optimistic_Reader said...

I have a Michael Nyman compilation CD I like to listen to when writing - highlights are The Piano, The End of the Affair, Gattaca (thought the music was the best thing about the film) and The Claim. Also like to listen to Craig Armstrong or David Arnold. Rather like the soundtracks for City of God and Lantana as well but don't often listen to those when writing.

Optimistic_Reader said...

Oh, and forgot Ennio Morricone's soundtrack for The Mission, that's a good one to listen to when writing. And also have liked everything scored by Angelo Badalamenti and Gustavo Santaolla but haven't got around to buying any of their soundtracks yet, so this is a reminder to do so!

MJ said...

I'm with you on 'The Piano' score - I guess with many, popularity breeds contempt. The 'Angel Heart' soundtrack always gets me writing. The little bursts of dialogue from the film alongside all the smokey atmosphere make me feel inspired even when I'm not. Can't go wrong with a soundtrack that includes Bessie Smith!

David Bishop said...

MJ - love the Angel Heart soundtrack too. Alas, my favourite track is only on the cassette not the CD - Soul on Fire by Lavern Baker. Thanks to the joys of iTunes, I've just downloaded it. And the little bits of dialogue are great too. 'What else have I got?' 'A hard-on?'

optimistic_reader: if you like The Mission, have a listen to Yo-Yo Ma plays Ennio Morricone for a crackin' cello version of bits from the film.

Anonymous said...

'Unbreakable' is a great soundtrack, I find it quite evocative (though James Newton Howard does suffer a bit from soundalike-ness - if I play 'Batman Begins' and 'Unbreakable' on shuffle it's sometimes 10 or 20 seconds before I know which album the track's from).

I also get a lot of mileage out of 'The Bourne Supremacy'. By turns haunting and frantically kinetic, it's a really nice fusion of drum and bass with conventional orchestral film music (and some 'world music' influences). Also, unlike '... Identity' the 'Supremacy' album has Moby's 'Extreme Ways' which lyrically sounds almost written for the Bourne character.

(and 'The Piano' and 'Gattaca' are both excellent though I don't really listen to the former much anymore for personal reasons)

Laura Anderson said...

I have "the Greatest Classical Movie Album" which almost lives up to its name.

Highlights for me are mainly on the first of the two CD's, with Barber's "Adagio for strings", op 11 (Platoon), Handel "Zadok the Priest" (Madness of King George) and Puccini "O mio babbino caro" (Room with a view).

The only problem with the album is that it lacks the fluidity that a single movie soundtrack album might have, and sometimes the tempo changes can be a little offputting.

Still good, though!

MJ said...

Will seek out the extra track - thanks for the heads-up as I didn't even know it existed!

David said...


I'm looking for certain tracks on the "Insomnia" soundtrack, by David Julyan. The particular songs are listed below:

1. Opening Titles/Blood Trips
2. The Glacier
11. Kay's Funeral
17. "Let Me Sleep"
18. Closing Titles

If you could email any of the ones you have, I would GREATLY appreciate it! :) Please email them to DVCAMPBELL@GMAIL.COM

David Campbell