Home > Reviews > Best Scores of 2014 – Scandinavia

Best Scores of 2014 – Scandinavia

January 30, 2015 Leave a comment Go to comments

My fifth article in my Review of the Year 2014 looks at the Best Scores from Scandinavia. Scandinavian movies and scores get pretty short shrift from the majority of mainstream audiences, and that needs to change, because the level of talent and craftsmanship at work in those countries is superb. While composers like Johan Söderqvist from Sweden, Jóhann Jóhannsson from Iceland, and Tuomas Kantelinen and Panu Aaltio from Finland have developed an international profile over the past few years, there are still a number of domestic composers doing excellent work within their own industry; as such, this year’s choices from the frozen north contain music by both established names and promising newcomers, and include a Danish TV mini-series, a Swedish comedy, and three scores from Norway: a children’s adventure, a historical thriller, and a wonderful classical documentary.

 

1864 – Marco Beltrami

1864The nation of Denmark doesn’t have much of a contemporary military history, the country has been peaceful for pretty much the last century, having been little more than bit players in World War II, and basically not taking part in World War I at all. The last significant conflicts Denmark participated in were the two Schleswig wars between 1848 and 1864, the most important part of which was the Battle of Dybbøl. Dybbøl was a major defeat for the Danes, and the eventual end result of the conflict was Denmark losing significant parts of its territory to Germany. The epic eight-hour TV mini-series 1864 is a dramatic re-telling of the Battle of Dybbøl from the perspective of two brothers caught up in the bloodiest battle in the country’s history. Directed by Ole Bornedal, it is the by far most expensive Scandinavian TV production in history, and capitalizes in this status with its score by composer Marco Beltrami, who previously worked with Bornedal on films such as Deep Water, I Am Dina and Vikaren.

Beltrami is not a composer well known for his enormous, sweeping themes – although he has written some in his time – but 1864 will go down as being containing of those themes. The opening cue, “1864”, is a noble, solemn, important-sounding piece written for the full might of the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra, and has all the weight and gravitas one would expect for a tale of militaristic endeavor such as this.

The score progresses through numerous varied emotions, ranging from peaceful, pastoral, piano-heavy cues like “Lakeside” and “Clouds”, to the rousing patriotism of cues such as “Off to Service’” and “We Are Danes’”, and the reflective remembrance of cues like “Bombs”, the warmly engaging “Tears”, and the dramatic and oppressive-sounding “The Return of Laust”. Solo trumpets and darkly-hued string writing feature strongly in much of the score, giving the whole thing a sense of importance and gravitas. The introduction of chugging string ostinatos and lyrical woodwind passages into “An Inevitable War” and the sweeping “The Beginning of the End” makes for especially lovely listening.

Occasionally, Beltrami engages in some fierce, aggressive action writing in battle cues like “The Hussars Are Coming’”, and he augments these with some more dissonant, abstract writing in cues like “Bloody Hands”, “Overwhelmed” and “Der Friend Is Der Friend”, which use rattling percussion and off-kilter string lines to develop and sense of foreboding and trepidation. The score’s finale, comprising “Coming Home” and “Finale”, ratchets up the emotional content to its highest levels, presenting some of the most satisfyingly sweeping music Beltrami has written in some time.

It’s to Marco Beltrami’s immense credit that he was willing to honor and respect his long-standing composer-director relationship and score 1864 – let’s face it, how many other two-time Oscar nominated composers would happily score a Danish TV mini-series? It’s also to Beltrami’s credit that the score turned out as well as it did. Fans of powerful, dramatic historical scores, especially those which have a militaristic flavor and a penchant for heightened emotion, will find much to their liking here.

Track Listing: 1. 1864 (2:32), 2. Opening (1:07), 3. An Inevitable War (3:00), 4. Lakeside (3:18), 5. Bloody Hands (2:50), 6. Clouds (2:38), 7. Off to Service (1:54), 8. Confronting Laust (1:56), 9. A Dangerous Man (3:32), 10. The Hussars Are Coming (5:22), 11. Overwhelmed (1:39), 12. Der Friend Is Der Friend (3:16), 13. We Are Danes! (1:56), 14. Bombs (3:38), 15. Tears (2:26), 16. The Return of Laust (2:54), 17. The Beginning of the End (2:44), 18. The Letters (2:02), 19. Can’t Handle the Truth (3:23), 20. Inge’s Tears (2:05), 21. Coming Home (2:43), 22. Finale (2:04). Moviescore Media MMS14044, 59 minutes 01 seconds.

 

BALLET BOYS – Henrik Skram

balletboysBallet Boys is a Norwegian documentary film, written and directed by Kenneth Elvebakk, chronicling the lives of three Norwegian boys (Torgeir Lund, Syvert Lorenz Garcia and Lukas Bjørneboe Brændsrød) who share a passion for ballet dancing. While studying the art of ballet as an extracurricular activity at the Norwegian Ballet School, the boys share many disappointments and victories, and eventually must decide whether they want to pursue their passion on a professional level, or keep it as a hobby while focusing on their higher education.

The score for Ballet Boys is by Norwegian composer Henrik Skram, whose previous major works include the drama 90 Minutes and the Swedish thriller Crestfallen. His opening cue “Grasse”, is sensational, a kaleidoscope of colors and cascading string textures and rhythms which simultaneously set up the classical world in which the film takes places, while also illustrating the drama of the boys lives. For me, the rich, bold string performances of the Macedonian Radio Symphonic Orchestra, as well as the prominent brass countermotifs that enter in the cue’s second half, represent some of the best writing of any score in 2014.

Clearly, the rest of the score is destined to never quite live up to this staggeringly brilliant orchestra, but to his credit Skram’s ‘underscore’ cues contain a great deal of excellence, compositional panache, and emotional depth – a difficult task considering that the music had to serve a dual purpose of scoring scenes of training and practicing, but also highlighting the more dramatic events in the boys’ lives.

Other cues of note include the solemn, expectant brass tones of the “Opening”; the wide and expansive statements of the appropriately named “Big Feelings”; the more introspective pianos and watery electronica of “Plan B”; and especially the bittersweet harps and chimes pondering on the “Future”, which grow in scope and instrumentation as the cue progresses, culmination is a beautifully rich orchestral performance full of hope and expectation. Later, there is nervous excitement at the prospect of an “Audition”, and a Thomas Newman-esque sense of intimate nostalgia in “Childhood”, before the lush and satisfying “Finale”.

Ballet Boys is, for me, the best documentary score written in 2014, and I hope that the outside world quickly begins to realize just how talented a composer Henrik Skram is, when given the right opportunities. Anyone who enjoys scores which adopt an unselfconscious, emotional classical vein, and are not afraid to make bold statements with a full orchestral complement, will surely find the score immensely rewarding, despite the brevity of the soundtrack album itself.

Track Listing: 1. Grasse (3:20), 2. Opening (2:58), 3. Big Feelings (1:53), 4. Plan B (3:18), 5. Future (4:34), 6. Play (2:56), 7. Audition (0:55), 8. The Wait (0:49), 9. Approved (1:20), 10. Childhood (0:59), 11. Finale (1:42). Moveiscore Media MMS-14034, 24 minutes 50 seconds.

 

THE HUNDRED-YEAR-OLD MAN WHO CLIMBED OUT OF THE WINDOW AND DISAPPEARED – Matti Bye

100yearoldmanThe Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out Of the Window and Disappeared (“Hundraåringen Som Klev Ut Genom Fönstret Och Försvann”) is a Swedish comedy-drama film directed by Felix Herngren, based on the novel by Jonas Jonasson, and starring comedian Robert Gustafsson as Allan Karlsson, a former dynamite expert who embarks on a wild and unforgettable series of adventures following his escape from an old folk’s home on his 100th birthday. The film was a popular and commercial success in its native country, and has an original score by Matti Bye, a Swedish film composer who is most famous for his incomparable style of improvisation on the piano, a skill he heavily relied on while writing new scores for early Swedish silent classics.

Bye’s score is lovely, fully orchestral, with an overtone of magic and whimsy that comes through strongly in every cue. The film has been described by commentators in Sweden as a sort of Scandinavian Forrest Gump, in which Allan accidentally interacts and gets involved with numerous real-life events during his adventures. As the story progresses Allan also traverses the world, and so many of the cues have a travelogue-like feeling, bringing in multiple styles from multiple ethnic locations.

The score is built around two main themes. The first is a mock-serious brass march full of pomp and comical pageantry, heard in its fullest forms the opening and closing tracks, “Intro” and “The End”. This is counterbalanced and a light and elegant piece for piano, fluttery woodwinds, and chimes, which has more than a hint of Alexandre Desplat about it, and it first heard in the second cue, “Esteban”.

The piano motif plays a prominent role in much of the score, returning in cues like “Truman Becomes President” and “The Road”, and the march returns several times too: “Dinner with Tage Erlander”, for example. has a frenetic carnival calliope-style variation (Tage Erlander, for those who don’t know, was Prime Minister of Sweden from 1946 to 1969, and is one of that country’s most important historical political figures). Later, “Djibouti” takes the march and reworks into a vibrant ethnic dance, enhancing the brass with a bed of whirligig percussion that has more than a hint of Khachaturian, while “Pim” re-imagines the march as a reggae/ska piece reminiscent of the 1980s London sound of bands like Madness or The Specials.

Elsewhere, the Russian-sounding pair “Red Square” and “Escape from the Gulag” bring in balalaikas, traditional Slavic chord progressions, and a hint of a male voice choir, while “Manhattan” introduces a cool, Gershwin-esque vibe, and “Espionage” has a John Barry James Bond flavor that is very appealing.

However, throughout all this variety, the essence of the central character – his inquisitiveness and thirst for life – comes through in Bye’s writing, which even at its darkest still has a sense of optimism and positivity, and for that reason the score has a significant replay value and overall appeal that is very engaging. The 29 minute running time of Moviescore Media’s soundtrack doesn’t hurt either – once it’s over, you want to start the whole thing again!

Track Listing: 1. Intro (2:51), 2. Esteban (1:54), 3. Red Square (1:08), 4. Escape from Gulag (1:54), 5. Manhattan (1:28), 6. Espionage (2:30), 7. Truman Becomes President (1:49), 8. The Flight to Bali (2:24), 9. Funeral March (1:15), 10. Dinner with Tage Erlander (1:42), 11. The Road (1:52), 12. Djibouti (1:40), 13. New Friends in the Camp (2:17), 14. Pim (1:50), 15. The End (2:39). Moviescore Media MMS-14014, 29 minutes 14 seconds.

 

KARSTEN OG PETRA PÅ VINTERFERIE – Lars Kilevold

karstenogpetrapavinterferieThe Karsten and Petra films are a popular children’s film series in Norway, based on a similarly popular children’s TV series adapted from books written by Tor Åge Bringsværd. One of their two 2014 films, Karsten og Petra på Vinterferie (Karsten and Petra on Winter Holiday), sees the mischievous best friends visiting their grandfather’s cabin in the mountains, where they get into all sorts of adventures with their animal friends, Lion Cub and Miss Rabbit. The scores for the Karsten and Petra films are by Norwegian composer Lars Kilevold, a popular pop artist and songwriter in the 1980s who recently made a transition into film music.

The score is fully orchestral, light, playful, and magical, with a series of lovely themes and twinkling orchestrations perfect for children’s adventures in the snow. The “Opening” is especially lovely, featuring a pretty melody for piano and woodwinds, notably a featured recorder, which gradually grows to encompass a more broad and lush orchestral sweep. Later, the extended cue “Løveungen og Frøken Kanin (The Lion Cub and Miss Rabbit)” has some unusual, occasionally quite abstract woodwind textures, but eventually develops into a lovely, sentimental variation on the score’s main theme that grows to quite emotional heights.

Kilevold introduces some more contemporary beats into cues like “Borg og Krig”, reminding the listener that we are in the year 2014, but reverts back to the lush classicism in cues like the sadly brief “Busstur”, which are lively and energetic and have a sense of child-like excitement. The comically pompous hooting clarinets in “Skrienn” are a special delight, as are the magical chimes and subtle synth textures of “I Snøhulen” and “Sjøbua”, which for me conjured up icy vistas of the Aurora Borealis. There are a few moments of dramatic tension, with cues like “Spenning i Hulen” and “Karsten Velter Kopp” containing some slightly darker woodwind textures and minor key chord progressions, but these are few and far between in a score which is, for the most part, positive and charming.

The final two cues, “Sluttscener Part I” and “Sluttscener Part II”, actually run for a combined total of almost 15 minutes, and run the gamut of emotions from slightly tense saxophone pieces and Thomas Newman-esque marimba-inflected rhythmic ideas, to martial trumpet fanfares, bright piano-and-clarinet dances, and even a quite chaotic and aggressive piece for rattling percussion, before everything climaxes in a big, bold finale.

It’s always amazing to me how some of the most melodically satisfying music written each year comes from completely unlikely places – I mean, who would ever think about Norwegian children’s films, let along seek out and listen to their scores? But, there it is: Karsten og Petra på Vinterferie is really lovely, and I’m very disappointed that the only available recording of the score is as a promo which Kilevold put together for awards consideration purposes. Karsten and Petra starred in another film in 2014, Karsten og Petras Vidunderlige Jul (Karsten and Petra’s Wonderful Christmas), which had a similar-sounding but more festive-flavored score, also by Lars Kilevold, and is also worth seeking out for anyone who gets the opportunity.

Track Listing: 1. Opening (4:14), 2. Borg og Krig (1:05), 3. Busstur (0:38), 4. Før Skirenn (1:51), 5. Skrienn (1:44), 6. Ond Idé (0:27), 7. I Snøhulen (0:49), 8. Spenning i Hulen (0:44), 9. Karsten Velter Kopp (1:29), 10. Sjøbua (2:51), 11. Løveungen og Frøken Kanin (5:13), 12. Neste Morgen (0:38), 13. Petra Skal Bli Venner (0:33), 14. Sluttscener, Part I (5:58), 15. Sluttscener, Part II (8:33). Promo, 36 minutes 54 seconds.

 

SKUMRINGSLANDET – Johannes Leonard Rusten

skumringslandetSkumringslandet (“The Veil of Twilight”) is a Norwegian historical crime thriller written and directed by Paul Magnus Lundø. Set in a remote mountain village in the mid 1300s, during a time when the plague is ravaging the rest of Europe, the film follows the lives of two brothers, William and Ansgar, one of whom has disappeared after being accused of committing a series of brutal murders in a nearby community while under the control of demons. Convinced of his brother’s innocence, William resolves to find Ansgar and uncover the truth about the murders for himself. The film stars Kim Bodnia, Sverre Anker Ousdal, Jørgen Langhelle, Leif Nygaard and Ewen Bremner, and has an original score by the young but extremely talented Norwegian composer Johannes Leonard Rusten.

To capture the historical setting of the score, Rusten uses a fairly standard symphony orchestra, but augments it with some ancient sounding textures, notably a viola de gamba, while also adding a very subtle layer of effective electronic enhancement to illustrate the supernatural side of the film’s narrative.

The theme which develops in the first half of the opening cue, “Prolog”, has a hint of Hans Zimmer-style cello ostinato writing, but also has a noble and satisfying brass element, identifying William as the movie’s hero. The viola de gamba, which was used to memorably by Elliot Goldenthal in Interview with the Vampire, takes center stage in “Offerplassen”, where it combines with what sounds like the subtle whine of a hurdy-gurdy, setting the dramatic scene of a ritual execution. The theme introduced here recurs in several cues thereafter, establishing itself as the primary identify for the score.

There are some moments of action and occasional extreme dissonance – the opening of “Prolog”, for example – as well as some moments of truly lovely romance, most notably the beautifully textured string and woodwind duet at the beginning of “Johanne Blir Tatt Til Fange”, the subsequent recorder performance later in the melancholy but gorgeous “Forhøret”, and the hauntingly emotional “Bekjennelsen”. Some of the romantic woodwind performances have a hint of Braveheart-era James Horner to them, which should give you an idea of why I appreciate them so much. The last minute or so of the finale, “Epilog”, is also especially resonant.

The score for Skumringslandet did not have a commercial soundtrack release, and is only available as a 19-minute promo prepared by the composer himself, but anyone who has the opportunity to hear it should do so. Scandinavian cinema and Scandinavian film music is curiously overlooked by contemporary film-goers and soundtrack fans, despite the abundance of Norwegians and Swedes and Danes both in front of and behind the camera. Johannes Leonard Rusten is clearly a composer with a huge amount of talent, and a sensitivity the way music enhances emotion. I will eager to see what he does in the future.

Track Listing: 1. Prolog (4:46), 2. Offerplassen (2:17), 3. Johanne Blir Tatt Til Fange/Forhøret (4:53), 4. Bekjennelsen/Brevet (3:11), 5. Epilog (4:09). Promo, 19 minutes 08 seconds.

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  1. January 30, 2015 at 12:24 pm

    Beltrami’s score seems really good, I’ll take a look at it.

    And, talking about scandinavian composers, what happened to Johan Söderqvist? He is an amazing film music composer, and since his wonderful Kon-Tiki and the beautiful In a Better World, I haven’t listened to anything about him. Is he still working on film music?

  2. January 31, 2015 at 4:16 pm

    Söderqvist is as busy as ever! So don´t you worry 🙂
    Thanks for doing this list! I run a record label with focus on Danish composers. You´ll most likely hear from me soon 😉

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