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MR. TURNER – Gary Yershon

January 19, 2015 Leave a comment Go to comments

mrturnerOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

Joseph Mallord William “JMW” Turner is one of the greatest and most respected British painters, a mercurial figure in British society in the mid-1800s who hobnobbed with royalty, frequented brothels, and famously had himself strapped to the mast of a ship so he could accurately paint an approaching storm. Some of his works, notably masterpieces such as ‘Modern Rome-Campo Vaccino’, ‘Dutch Boats in a Gale’, ‘Ivy Bridge’, and ‘Calais Pier’, elevated the art of landscape painting to new heights, and his legacy lives on today through the Turner Prize, the most prestigious British art award, which is granted annually by the Tate Gallery in London. Director Mike Leigh’s film Mr. Turner is a fairly straightforward biopic of Turner’s life, starring Timothy Spall in the title role, and featuring supporting performances from Dorothy Atkinson, Marion Bailey, Paul Jesson and Lesley Manville.

Mike Leigh has never really had a strong musical component to his films. Despite him having directed several acclaimed films, notably the massively popular TV drama Abigail’s Party, Life is Sweet, Secrets & Lies, and Vera Drake, only his Gilbert and Sullivan period piece Topsy-Turvy from 1999 really impressed me on a musical level, with its sumptuous score by Carl Davis. Leigh virtually never works with mainstream composers: Life is Sweet was scored by Rachel Portman at the very beginning of her career, and both Secrets & Lies and Vera Drake were scored by Andrew Dickson. Following suit, for the last few years, Leigh has been working with the somewhat obscure English composer Gary Yershon, who has a great deal of experience writing for British theatre, radio and television, but has never had a cinematic experience with a director other than Leigh.

His music for Mr. Turner is small-scale and chamber-like, focusing mainly on a small string section with additional colors provided by a saxophone quartet, clarinet, flute, and an occasional harp. Compositionally, the score is very unusual. There is a main theme which runs all the way through the piece: a descending, snake-like motif, heavy on glissando, which has a hint of experimental jazz to it. Yershon’s arrangement of the theme often includes overlapping instrumental colors which play with slightly different timings so that, although the saxophone and the strings are playing the exact same notes at the exact same speed, the saxophone comes in a millisecond before or after the strings, resulting in a hazy, blurry sound that never quite comes into focus, and sounds like an echo of itself. On an intellectual level, one could hypothesize that Yershon was trying to capture in music what Turner himself captured in art – if you look at Turner’s paintings, many of them have a sort of washed-out feel, as though you are looking at the world through a window covered in water. Yershon’s music has a similarly indistinct feeling, and if that was his intention, then he succeeded admirably in capturing that effect.

Cues like the opening “Mr. Turner,” and subsequent cues such as “Colour Shop and Market,” “Long Time Ago,” the glum-sounding “Ailing,” “The Fighting Temeraire” and the extended “End Credits” feature the main motif prominently. There is a secondary motif – a two note statement usually for violins, but occasionally transposed to cellos – which appears in, and receives variations in, cues like “Preparations,” “To Petworth,” “Walks,” “Margate Again” and “Low”. Other cues of note include “Varnishing Day,” which features a prominent and dramatic timpani rumble; “Action Painting,” which includes some unexpectedly frenetic string lines offset by the main theme; and the impressionistic “Lashed to the Mast,” which features the score’s only significant use of standard brass – specifically a tuba.

However, despite all my conjecture about Yershon’s intellectual thought processes and the similarities between music and painting, the other thing to consider is that, for many, the score will be very difficult to connect with. The size of the ensemble is small, with virtually no music on anything that anyone could call a ‘grand scale’. The jazz-like arrangements can be a little impenetrable, often employing unconventional harmonies and a melodic flow that sometimes goes in unexpected directions. Many of the cues are very similar, presenting little more than variations on the same central idea for slightly different instruments, which could result in some listeners finding it boring and/or samey.

In addition, for me, one of the most disappointing aspects of the score was its lack of anything resembling period specificity – there are no pompous marches accompanying Turner as he blusters his way through Victorian society, and there is no clear musical acknowledgement of the relationships between Turner and his lifelong housekeeper Hannah Danby, or his landlady Sophia Booth, who eventually became his lover and his companion until his death in 1851. Instead, the music characterizes Turner as a melancholy, introverted, isolated genius, obsessed with his own life, but with very little regard for anyone else’s. This may be true, and an accurate depiction of the real man, but it makes for a somewhat despondent film score listening experience.

Gary Yershon received a wholly unexpected Oscar nomination for his score, and as much as I hate to admit it, and with all due respect to the composer, I think it’s quite likely that he got swept up on the rise of popular acclaim for the film itself – it also received nominations for Cinematography, Production Design and Costume Design, while Spall previously won the Best Actor award at Cannes. As much as I appreciate bold and unexpected choices, especially when the recipients are scores like this which are performed by real live musicians with real instruments, I can think of literally 20 other scores which would, in my opinion, have been better choices for an Academy Award nomination. The soundtrack, released on Varese Sarabande, contains just under half an hour of music from Mr. Turner, plus an additional half an hour of music from the Olympics-themed short film A Running Jump, which was also directed by Mike Leigh and was released in 2012.

Buy the Mr. Turner soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Mr. Turner (3:22)
  • Colour Shop and Market (1:34)
  • Preparations (0:59)
  • To Petworth (0:39)
  • Margate Sands (0:28)
  • Long Time Ago (0:20)
  • Ailing (1:10)
  • Mourning (0:46)
  • Quiet House (0:57)
  • Walks (1:01)
  • Varnishing Day (0:26)
  • Action Painting (1:28)
  • Lashed to the Mast (1:11)
  • Margate Again (1:21)
  • The Fighting Temeraire (1:22)
  • Steam Railway (0:49)
  • Critics (0:57)
  • Low (1:35)
  • On the Jetty (1:37)
  • Old and New (2:10)
  • End Credits (4:17)
  • Fit ‘n’ Fancy/In the Cab/At the Garage/Sporting Spirit (5:21) – from the short film “A Running Jump”
  • Billy (1:32) – from the short film “A Running Jump”
  • On the Run/In the Swim (1:58) – from the short film “A Running Jump”
  • On the Spot (0:46) – from the short film “A Running Jump”
  • Hard Sell/Drive, Swim, Sell (7:47) – from the short film “A Running Jump”
  • Cash/Sold (2:39) – from the short film “A Running Jump”
  • Goals (3:01) – from the short film “A Running Jump”
  • Fitter ‘n’ Fancier/Taking Flight/The Final (4:43) – from the short film “A Running Jump”

Running Time: 56 minutes 23 seconds

Varese Sarabande VSD-7318 (2014)

Music composed by Gary Yershon. Conducted by Terry Davies. Orchestrations by Gary Yershon. Recorded and mixed by Nick Taylor. Edited by Andrew Glen. Album produced by Gary Yershon.

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  1. January 19, 2015 at 4:37 pm

    I think the nomination of this score took everyone by surprise. Desplat, Jóhannsonn and Zimmer nominations were predictable, but for the other nominee, John Powell or Trent Resznor were more likely to be candidates.

    I guess you’re right, this film only get the Original Score nomination because of its prestige among the Academy. That, unfortunately, prevents movies with better scores but not so loved by the critic to be completely excluded of the awards season, like Maleficent or Godzilla.

    On the bright side, at least this was a better option than that drum score from Birdman.

  2. Mic Pool
    January 20, 2015 at 6:19 am

    I think you miss the point. I was immediately of the opinion, seeing the film in the cinema, that it was highly unlikely there would be a better film score this season, and think the nomination is richly deserved. Here is a perfect example of music completely in sympathy with direction, design and cinematography, written with uncompromising integrity. It is entirely in the moment of the film, without any regard to any existence or value, independent of service to the commissioning project. It is to the Academy’s credit that they have the taste and discernment to recognise this.

    I think the same could be said of Mica Levi’s masterful work on Under The Skin, which should have trumped the excellent Interstellar, or could have been chosen over any nominated score which lazily arpeggiates piano over sustained strings.

    • Edmund Meinerts
      January 21, 2015 at 2:03 am

      I don’t think Jon missed the point, I think he’s simply making a different one. You say the score is “entirely in the moment of the film, without any regard to any existence or value” out of that context – well, Jon’s reviewing a score ALBUM, which is a different context altogether, and obviously a score that disregards whether it sounds good at all on album isn’t likely to be a very pleasant experience in that format. Your citation of Mica Levi’s completely unlistenable Under the Skin is an even more extreme example of that.

      Whether it’s to the Academy’s “credit” to nominate such things is very much up for debate. :/

  3. Kevan
    January 23, 2015 at 7:55 pm

    I am wholly in agreement with Mic Pool. I felt the score was quite sublime. It was so on point and at one with the pace and sentiment of the film. Quite exquisite in my humble opinion as a composer myself.

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