Best Scores of 2015 – Scandinavia
The second installment in my series of articles looking at the best “under the radar” scores from around the world concentrates on music from films from Scandinavia. This year’s crop of outstanding scores from the far north of Europe features an animated film from Denmark, a wry comedy-drama from Iceland, a pair of historical dramas from Finland, and a wonderful children’s score from Norway written by one of that country’s most talented young composers!
Albert is a Danish animated film directed by Karsten Kiilerich, based on the children’s book by famous Danish author Ole Lund Kierkegaard. It follows the adventures of a mischievous young boy named Albert, and his best friend Egon, who are always getting into trouble. When Albert accidentally smashes the statue in his hometown’s main square, he resolves to make amends, and sets off on adventure far from home to raise money to replace the statue – encountering pickpockets, gypsies, and the world’s biggest diamond along the way.
The score for the film is by a legend in Scandinavian film composing circles: 91-year old Bent Fabricius-Bjerre, who had an instrumental chart hit in 1961 with “Alley Cat,” and wrote the score for the greatest Norwegian film of all time, Flåklypa Grand Prix, in 1975. He is probably the oldest film composer in the world who’s still working, and for Albert he teamed up with fellow Danish composer Frans Bak, who is becoming more well known internationally as a result of his scores for the popular TV shows The Killing and Lilyhammer.
Bjerre is famous for his jazz and Dixieland tunes, so as one would expect his main theme – “Alberts Tema” – is a jazzy, upbeat piece with a reggae/ska vibe, a contemporary percussion beat, and a great saxophone solo that is a whole lot of fun. The theme runs through much of the score, appearing with a more cheerful orchestral vibe in “Åbning,” and with an Elfmanesque sense of hustle and bustle “Statuen Væltes” that’s not too far removed from the theme The Simpsons, before returning with a full refrain and the cool cat arrangements in the conclusive “Afsked med Jallevad.”
Elsewhere there’s a fair amount of orchestral mickey-mousing going on in the score’s mid-section, through cues like “Jallevad Marked” and the energetic “Diamantkuppet” which are probably the work of Bak, although they remind me of slightly less focused pastiches of something Randy Newman might write for a Pixar film. There’s even some comedy cowboy rock music in “Afsted til Jallevad,” and a great elephantine action sequence in “Lufballonen,” but it’s all very pleasant and playful and inoffensive, and will undoubtedly appeal to those who enjoy a child-like innocence and sense of whimsy in their animation scores.
Despite the film being a moderate hit in its home country, and despite Bjerre’s status as a Scandinavian poly-national treasure, the score for Albert unfortunately remains commercially unreleased; this promo was prepared by Bjerre himself for awards consideration purposes.
Track Listing: 01 Alberts Tema (1:25), 02 Åbning (1:15), 03 Statuen Væltes (1:09), 04 Jagten (1:22), 05 Turen i Tønden (2:06), 06 Afsted til Jallevad (0:50), 07 Jallevad Marked (1:48), 08 Krystalkuglen (1:27), 09 Diamantkuppet (2:40), 10 Diamanten Tilbage (1:26), 11 Albert og Egon i Fængsel (1:47), 12 Lufballonen (1:03), 13 Kampen mod Rapollo (1:57), 14 Afsked med Jallevad (3:19). Promo, 23 minutes 36 seconds
Hrútar (Rams) is a small scale comedy-drama from Iceland, written and directed Grímur Hákonarson. It’s a small-scale film about two brothers, Gummi (Sigurður Sigurjónsson) and Kiddi (Theodór Júlíusson), who live in adjoining sheep farms in a remote valley, but haven’t spoken to each other in 40 years, following a family dispute. When a lethal disease suddenly infects Kiddi’s sheep, the entire valley comes under threat. The authorities decide to cull all the animals in the area to contain the outbreak. This is a near death sentence for the farmers, whose sheep are their main source of income, and many abandon their land. But Gummi and Kiddi don’t give up so easily – and each brother tries to stave off the disaster in his own fashion: Kiddi by using his rifle and Gummi by using his wits. As the authorities close in the brothers will need to come together to save the special breed passed down for generations, and themselves, from extinction.
The score for Hrútar is by one of Iceland’s premier film music composers, Atli Örvarsson, who after spending almost a decade in Hollywood working with Hans Zimmer and writing music for major studio films like Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, Vantage Point, The Mortal Instruments, and Babylon A.D., has returned home to his musical roots. This is a very personal score for Örvarsson, who is also one of the film’s associate producers, and is rooted in the music of his homeland, with a small chamber orchestra augmented by a number of solo instruments, including accordions, and what sounds like a langspil lute and a fiðla zither, the to most traditional instruments of Icelandic folk music
Most of the opening cues – “Rams,” ”Scrapie,” “Preparing for Winter,” “Winter” – have a desolate, isolated, haunting feel, with a series of lonely melodies for the central core instruments, augmented by keyboards. “Into the Highlands” has an almost ecclesiastical sound, with a church organ lamenting for the fate of the brothers and their flock, and “After the Storm” returns to the main theme on a sparse-sounding, reflective solo piano. “Heart and Soul” and “The Ancestors” both feature lovely, if desperately tragedy-laden, violin solos as their centerpieces, and you can almost feel the history and the connection to the land oozing out of every musical pore, while the conclusive “Lundarbrekka” returns to the theme heard in the opening cues, but elongates and expands it over the course of over 5 minutes.
Rounding out the album are a couple of classic Icelandic language songs, including the hymnal “Ökuljóð” performed by Stefán Íslandi, the operatic “Í Fögrum Dal” performed by Sigurður Skagfield, and “Aðfangadagskvöld” performed by Haukur Morthens, who is clearly Reykjavik’s answer to Elvis Presley.
It’s all very understated and minimalistic, a world away from the orchestral power Örvarsson usually provides for his films, and it reminds me a little bit of his score for the Czech WWII drama Colette, although Colette was much larger in scope in terms of the instrumentation and emotional range. For some reason, I found myself really connecting with the haunted, stark beauty of it all, especially during the longer cues in the score’s second half; the imagery of weather-beaten, shaggy-bearded men, gazing into the vast empty spaces of Iceland’s spectacular scenic interior was palpable from the music. And – yes! This is a comedy! Those Icelanders know how to leave ‘em rolling in the aisles.
Track Listing: 01 Rams (1:14), 02 Scrapie (1:54), 03 Preparing for Winter (1:03), 04 Ökuljóð (performed by Stefán Íslandi) (2:28), 05 Winter (1:26), 06 They’re Coming (1:05), 07 Into the Highlands (2:57), 08 After the Storm (3:27), 09 Í Fögrum Dal (performed by Sigurður Skagfield) (3:27), 10 Heart and Soul (4:51), 11 The Ancestors (2:16), 12 In the Valley (2:06), 13 Lundarbrekka (5:19), 14 Aðfangadagskvöld (performed by Haukur Morthens) (3:18). Lakeshore Records, 36 minutes 51 seconds.
Miekkailija (The Fencer) is a historical drama from Finland. Directed by Klaus Härö, one of that country’s most acclaimed directors, and written by Anna Heinämaa, the film stars Märt Avandi as an ambitious young fencer in Estonia in the 1950s who, due to his anti-Communist political leanings, finds himself being hunted by the Soviet secret police. After fleeing the capital, Tallinn, the fencer eventually makes his way to an isolated spa town on the Baltic coast, and is forced to teach physical education to the town’s children to maintain his cover; initially resentful at being forced to give up his dreams of competing in the Olympics, he eventually comes to appreciate and love his place in the world. The film is based on the true life story of Endel Nelis, the most famous fencer in Estonian sporting history, and received general critical acclaim when it opened in cinemas in Scandinavia in March 2015.
Klaus Härö has a penchant for commissioning emotional classic scores for his films – one of his last features, Mother of Mine, had a searingly powerful score by Tuomas Kantelinen – and Miekkailija is very much in the same vein. The score is by German composer Gert Wilden Jr., whose father Gert Sr. wrote music for 50 feature films in numerous genres between 1954 and 1987, but is best known for his music for German erotic films in the 1970s. The younger Wilden clearly inherited a lot of his father’s talent, because the score is lovely: classical, melancholic, quite emotionally restrained for most of its running time, but which occasionally emerges into truly lovely themes. Some of it has an air of those European classical mainstays – Gabriel Yared, or Alexandre Desplat, perhaps – but there is a sense of Scandinavian reticence too, which intentionally holds back from truly overwhelming emotional statements.
The main theme is a soft, introverted, cold-sounding piano melody, and several subsequent cues take this initial instrumental core and flesh it out with pizzicato strings, harps, moody violin and cello textures, deep bassy woodwinds, and the like. Much of the score is quite downbeat, reflective of the Fencer’s dreary life and his desire to escape from it – cues like “Parents Vote,” “Alexej,” “Gone Forever,” “Like a Father/The Decision,” and “Staircase” adopt this style and often restate the theme. Elsewhere, “Snow” has some pretty harp textures, playful and appropriately wintry; “The Parcel” is a sublime solo piano virtuoso; “Summer Music” introduces an accordion and guitars to the mix for a bit of regional color; and things begin to boil with the introduction of the martial action music in “His Name is Keller,” a flurry of snare drums and turbulent string writing. Later, “The Henchmen” is quite oppressive, with its more pronounced use of synths and contemporary electronic effects
Meanwhile, more energetic and lively pieces illustrate his love of fencing, and of teaching the art to the children of his new adopted home. Cues like “First Lesson” and “We Go!” are almost playful, especially when the piano and strings join the pizzicato textures in the second half, while other cues like “Birth of an Idea” have an infectious enthusiasm that is hard to ignore. By the time the score reaches its conclusion, through cues like the three “Fight” sequences, “Victory,” and “Coming Home,” Wilden has released the shackles of restraint entirely, reveling in action cues that throb to striking string pulses and percussion tattoos, celebratory brass band music that could almost be a national anthem
The soundtrack for Miekkailija was released by German boutique label Königskinder and is available for purchase via Amazon, iTunes, and other online digital sources, and I definitely recommend it to any who enjoys classical drama scores with a European sensibility.
Track Listing: 01 The Fencer Theme (1:49), 02 Snow! (0:47), 03 First Lesson (1:50), 04 Parent’s Vote (1:48), 05 Birth of an Idea (1:17), 06 Alexej (1:54), 07 The Parcel (0:50), 08 Summer Music (1:38), 09 His Name Is Keller (1:30), 10 On the Street (1:38), 11 Arresting Grandpa (1:44), 12 Gone Forever (0:57), 13 The Henchmen (1:23), 14 Like a Father/The Decision (2:02), 15 We Go! (2:08), 16 I’ll Be Back Soon (1:25), 17 Leningrad! (1:04), 18 Electronic Weapons (1:04), 19 Lena’s Fight (2:10), 20 Staircase/Jan’s Fight (2:30), 21 Martha’s Fight (3:42), 22 Victory! (1:59), 23 Coming Home (2:07), 24 Days of Happiness (1:38). Königskinder Music, 40 minutes 52 seconds.
Norway’s ‘Pinchcliffe’ films have been a part of that country’s cultural identity since 1975, when director Ivo Caprino’s groundbreaking animated film Flåklypa Grand Prix first premiered. Since then there have been multiple films returning audiences to that world, with the latest being Solan og Ludvig: Herfra Til Flåklypa, directed by Rasmur Sivertsen. Solan is a cheerful and optimistic magpie, and Ludwig is a nervous and pessimistic hedgehog, and together they must help the local inventor Reodor Felgens win a bet against a rival (and a gorilla named Emanuel Desperados!) for who can build the best ‘flying machine’ and win the famous King’s Cheese Race, thereby maintaining Pinchcliffe’s reputation and honor.
The score for Herfra Til Flåklypa is by Norwegian composer Knut Avenstroup Haugen, who scored the 2013 Pinchcliffe film Jul i Flåklypa, and won an IFMCA Award in 2008 for his outstanding video game score Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures. Performed by the Norwegian Radio Orchestra and conducted by Christian Eggen, Haugen’s music is good-humored comedy-adventure scoring, mixing a full orchestra with some jazz and easy listening elements that may come across as too saccharine for some listeners, but which I thoroughly enjoy.
The “Prologue “re-introduces the lovely, upbeat ideas for the town of Pinchliffe that Bent Fabricius-Bjerre introduced some 40 years ago – a string section, jazzy rhythms and textures, a hint of the circus – which continue through cues like “The Wager,” with its hooting woodwinds and sultry accordions; the toe-tapping and cheerful “Training,” which has an unexpected Indian influence; the slightly more melancholy “The Eve of the Cheese Race”; and the really very beautiful cello-led version of the theme at the beginning of “Crossing the Gorge,” which drips with emotion. Elsewhere, there are is faux-regal pomposity in “The King’s Cheese,” varying amounts of sinister shenanigans in “The Cabin,” “We Don’t Need a Bridge,” “The Vusvol,” and “The Weakest Link”, each of which has a variation on the score’s recurring ‘villain’s theme’, and even an old-fashioned country hoe-down in the wonderfully-titled “Ludvig Milks a Goat”.
The action music has a fair bit of good-natured mickey mousing, not quite at the level of Tom & Jerry, but certainly mimicking the speeds and movement of the scenes a fair bit. Cues like “Many Dangers Await,” “A Shortcut Across the Ice,” and “The Bear Forest,” are certainly exciting enough, with flashing brass parts and a real sense of kinetic energy, while others like “Bouncy Shoes and the Gorge of Hell” are light and elegant, with especially fanciful string writing. It’s all wonderfully tuneful and unashamedly old-fashioned, reveling in the nostalgic glow of the Pinchcliffe world, and finishes with a flourish, with the pathos-heavy “The Last Night,” the spectacular and adventurous “Hang Glider Flight,” and a final return home and the main Pinchcliffe theme in “Everyone Wins and the “Epilogue”.
Despite the film being a popular Christmas release in Norway, and other than this promo which was prepared by Haugen for awards consideration purposes, the score for Herfra Til Flåklypa is not available for commercial purchase, although there are numerous streaming samples from the score available via Haugen’s personal website at http://www.knutavenstrouphaugen.com/projects.html.
Track Listing: 01 Prologue (2:00), 02 The Wager (1:17), 03 The Kings Cheese (1:09), 04 The Contract (1:29), 05 The Day After (1:01), 06 Training (0:59), 07 The Eve of the Cheese Race (1:21), 08 The Teams (1:37), 09 Many Dangers Await (1:32), 10 On the Starting Line (1:09), 11 Bouncy Shoes and the Gorge of Hell (2:56), 12 The Cabin (0:36), 13 We Don’t Need a Bridge (1:15), 14 Crossing the Gorge (1:30), 15 A Shortcut Across the Ice (2:59), 16 We Will Not Give In (1:14), 17 The Vusvol (1:43), 18 The Bear Forest (3:06), 19 Through the Nightly Forest (1:22), 20 Slidre’s Cheese Gets Eaten (2:02), 21 Solan – Champion of the World (0:38), 22 The Weakest Link (1:39), 23 Ludvig Milks a Goat (1:04), 24 The Cheese Machine (2:11), 25 The Last Night (2:20), 26 Hang Glider Flight (3:46), 27 Everyone Wins (1:47), 28 Epilogue (1:08). Promo, 46 minutes 50 seconds.
Tyttökuningas (The Girl King) is a historical drama from Finland directed by Mika Kaurismäki, written by Canadian author Michel Marc Bouchard, based on his play. It tells the mainly true story of Christina Vasa, who became Queen of Sweden in 1632 following the death of her father, King Gustav II, and subsequently became renowned for her intellect, her deep interest in religion, philosophy, mathematics and science, and her desire to turn Stockholm into a great center of learning – the “Athens of the North”. During her lifetime, Christina was also notorious for her then-unconventional sexual and romantic tastes, which included a life-long love affair with her bed-mate Ebba Sparre, and which is a primary focus of Kaurismäki’s film. Tyttökuningas opened to positive reviews in Scandinavia in September 2015 and will enjoy a brief worldwide theatrical release in December.
The score for Tyttökuningas is by Finnish composer Anssi Tikanmäki, a popular classical musician in his native country who has worked with Kaurismäki before, notably on the 1984 film Klaani: Tarina Sammakoitten Suvusta (for which he won a Jussi Award, Finland’s Oscar), and the 1999 film Juha. Tikanmäki’s score is big, classical, and generally quite dark and dramatic in tone, with heavy emphasis on string textures, as well as some more traditional ‘medieval’ instruments such as harpsichords and cimbaloms, but with some bold and sweeping moments that are sure to impress.
The opening “Death of the King” is a menacing collision of pipe organs and oppressive voices, which quickly moves into the equally ominous “Kissing the Cadaver”, but from then on the music tends to accompany and accentuate the dichotomies of Christina’s character and demeanor. “Voyage to Stockholm” is more refined, with floating oboe lines dancing above surging string writing; “Grown-Up Girl,” “Writing Letters,” and “Removal” have pretty music-box textures, guitars and voices, typifying the life of a princess; “Fighting Friends” is more rambunctious, as befits the tomboy she was; “Return of Soldiers” has all the dramatic military might one would imagine, with snare drums and trumpet flourishes. The darkness returns later in the score, in the rather threatening-sounding pair “The Devil’s Bible” and “The Vanished/The Lonely Queen,” adding a level of religious portent to Christina’s life, and the terribly overwhelming “Death of the Friend,” which has a church organ part that Bach would have been proud to own.
However, the score’s loveliest moments are filled with harp glissandi, swooning string melodies, and operatic voices, and come during the more intimate and romantic scenes between Christina and Ebbe, the childhood bedmates who become forbidden lovers through cues like “The Corridor,” “The Blue Gown,” “Night Gallop,” “Bed Companion,” and “The Permission”. A couple of delightful source music-style pieces round out the album, including the Handel-esque “Coronation,” the formal and dance-like “Ballet de Plaisirs” and “Quattro Ragioni,” and the folk-inflected “Du Gamla du Fria Folk,” while Tikanmäki’s love theme culminates in the operatic song “L’Amour,” performed by soprano Johanna Rusanen-Kartano, which ends the soundtrack on a especially pretty note.
Unfortunately, Tikanmäki’s score is not commercially available at this time; this promo was prepared by the composer for awards consideration purposes.
Track Listing: 01 Death of the King (1:05), 02 Kissing the Cadaver/Voyage to Stockholm (3:55), 03 Grown Up Girl (0:37), 04 Fighting Friends (1:07), 05 Coronation (1:14), 06 Ballet de Plaisirs (0:59), 07 Quattro Ragioni (0:52), 08 The Queen Leaves (1:06), 09 The Corridor (0:58), 10 Galloping (0:20), 11 Hunting (0:45), 12 Writing Letters (3:02), 13 The Blue Gown (2:07), 14 Night Gallop (1:10), 15 In the Bed (0:32), 16 Bed Companion (1:56), 17 Hateful Thoughts (1:05), 18 The Saw, Please (2:51), 19 Shooting the Queen (0:53), 20 Sick in Bed (0:52), 21 Return of Soldiers (1:51), 22 Du Gamla du Fria Folk (1:25), 23 The Devil’s Bible (2:32), 24 The Vanished/Lonely Queen (5:13), 25 The Permission (1:34), 26 Death of the Friend (2:04), 27 The Wedding (1:14), 28 Removal (1:04), 29 Resignation (1:10), 30 L’Amore (performed by Johanna Rusanen-Kartano) (3:28). Promo, 49 minutes 10 seconds.