Best Scores of 2015 – United Kingdom
The fourth installment in my series of articles looking at the best “under the radar” scores from around the world concentrates on music from films and TV shows from the United Kingdom. The British Isles have always been a major center for excellent film music, and this year is no exception: as well as scores for projects like Peter and Wendy, Wolf Hall, Poldark, Suffragette, Spectre, Mr. Holmes, and Far From the Madding Crowd, which I have already reviewed, the rest of this year’s bumper crop includes the scores for a low-budget thriller, two wonderful TV documentaries, a witty comedy, and a swashbuckling TV adventure series!
DARTMOOR KILLING – Sarah Class
Dartmoor Killing is an independent British psychological thriller by BAFTA-winning writer and director Peter Nicholson, who spent years making acclaimed documentaries, and is making his narrative feature debut here. The film stars Rebecca Night and Gemma-Leah Devereaux as Susan and Becky, two close friends who take a weekend trip to Dartmoor, a national park in the south-west of England. Upon arrival they meet a charismatic young man named Chris, and before long their plans for a quiet getaway become shattered by mind games, sexual deceit and betrayal, as Becky’s hitherto hidden involvement in Chris’ traumatic and damaged past is revealed.
The score for Dartmoor Killing is by the exceptionally talented young British composer Sarah Class, a crossover classical-pop-jazz artist who some may remember for her remarkable IFMCA-nominated score for the BBC nature documentary Africa in 2013. Africa was full of broad and expansive theme-writing, but Dartmoor Killing showcases a much darker, more intense side to her musical capabilities that highlights real growth in her as a composer. It is still melodic and musical, but the aims are different: Dartmoor Killing has an intense, at times overwhelming, sense of sadness and oppression, and occasionally even ventures into full-on horror music territory, with synth-heavy dissonances and explosions of sound that are quite hair-raising.
Several cues stand out for their melodic content. The opening titles cue, “It’s a Surprise,” and the subsequent “Lead On Full,” feature a contemporary-sounding piano syncopation accompanied by deep, sonorous cello writing and a sampled soprano vocal which is beautiful, but somehow has a slight sense of foreboding. Later, “A Magical Place I Know” and “Turn Around” revisit these ideas with a rapturous intensity, but after this emotional and thematic high point the score quickly changes, turning into a musical depiction of the terror and psychological torment that makes up the film’s second half.
Earlier cues like “Hello Tarzan” and “Yes, Of Course” had allowed the score to develop a sinister feeling, with spooky electronic ambiences and tinkling metallic textures, but “Take This” takes it to a new level, with a much more prominent percussion element giving the lush piano and cello lines a real sense of urgency. Towards the end of the score, cues like “Pain in This House” are oppressively suffocating, while both “Bar Comes Away” and “Becky Alone” have a breathless intensity to them, with throbbing brass clusters, trilling pianos, soprano vocals, and layers of electronic beats underscoring her desperate attempt to stay alive.
The “Rape Scene” is scored very interestingly, almost like an abstract dream, with distant voices and creaking electronic textures having the effect of taking the victim – and the listener – to another place, like an out-of-body experience. The final cue, “End – You Grabbed the Knife,” begins with more of the same sort of disturbing dissonance, but ends with a subtle sense of relief and catharsis, like the sun finally peeking out from behind the clouds after a torrential rainstorm. The soprano vocals, soft an angelic, give it an almost spiritual feel, especially when they combine with a quiet sampled church organ.
Unfortunately, the score for Dartmoor Killing is not available for purchase – Class produced this promo release for awards consideration purposes – although some of the music from the score can be heard in the film’s trailer at https://youtu.be/6-i3DQZb_t4. Until such time as the score is released people will have to be satisfied with this small taste, which is a shame because Dartmoor Killing is an impressive score which deserves to be heard by a much wider audience, and Sarah Class herself deserves to be much more well known in film music circles than she is.
Track Listing: 1. Young Becky (1:49), 2. Opening Titles – It’s a Surprise (2:50), 3. Lead On Full (1:56), 4. Hello Tarzan (4:34), 5. Yes, Of Course (1:20), 6. I Hope So (0:50), 7. A Magical Place I Know (1:32), 8. Turn Around (2:53), 9. Meet Me Later (0:58), 10. Take This (4:06), 11. Captured (2:04), 12. Pain in This House (2:53), 13. Bar Comes Away (3:56), 14. Rape Scene (2:51), 15. Becky Alone (4:38), 16. End – You Grabbed the Knife (4:38). Promo, 43 minutes 57 seconds.
THE HUNT – Steven Price
The Hunt is a nature documentary series produced by the BBC’s world-famous Natural History Unit, narrated by Sir David Attenborough. The seven-part series, which began airing in the United Kingdom in November 2015, examines the extraordinary range of techniques predators use to catch their prey in all parts of the natural world, ranging from leopards in Africa to polar bears in the Arctic, tigers in the forest, to sharks in the ocean. The series has been roundly praised for its utterly spectacular camerawork and the range and quality of footage captured, as well as for its evocative and multi-faceted score by Oscar-winning composer Steven Price.
Price’s scores for Gravity and Fury have a strong and at times quite intense electronic element to them, so it will perhaps come as a surprise to learn that much of The Hunt is predominantly written for a traditional large symphony orchestra, although the electronic elements are still very much in evidence. It’s melodic, emotionally strong, at times exciting, at times quite wondrous, as befits the legacy of the BBC, and its music by such composers as George Fenton, Christopher Gunning, and Nicholas Hooper. There are no real prominent recurring thematic ideas – at least none, that are immediately noticeable – meaning that Price essentially scores each episode, and each animal-specific sequence, as its own entity. This is both a positive and a negative thing, as it means that Price is free to approach each vignette with a blank slate, and score it accordingly, but as larger work it loses a little specificity.
Nevertheless, several cues stand out for their excellence. The opening “A Game of Strategy,” and subsequent cues like “All Fueled Up and Heading South,” “All at Sea,” and the utterly magnificent “The Blue Whale,” have all the scope and sense of majesty that one would expect from a show dealing with the never-ending life-and-death situations faced by much of the animal kingdom on a daily basis. These large orchestral forces are counterbalanced by more tender, almost romantic writing for cellos, guitars, harps, piano, a wordless (possible sampled) vocal effects, and lighter, airy woodwinds in cues like “The Cut Line Inconvenience,” the open and effortless “A Sparrowhawk’s Tale,” the joyous “Spinner Dolphin Superpod,” … the list goes on and on.
Meanwhile, parts of cues like “Looking on at What Might Have Been” and “At First it’s a Game” are quite sorrowful, while “Melt Waters,” the whirligig “Buzzing Jays,” the lively “Red Hot Ants,” the space-age and spooky “No Ordinary Octopus,” and others, come across as lightly comedic, often with waltz-like rhythms and circus-style orchestrations.
Some of the more robust action tracks, like the phenomenal “Power vs. Teamwork,” “The Hungry Crocodile,” “Wolves and Hares,” “Big Game on the Tundra,” “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea,” “The Bait Ball,” the intense “Lions and Buffalo,” and “Sea Lions and Killer Whales,” make use of fast and vibrant string writing, powerful brass calls, and vigorous percussion hits, as well as a small selection of specialty instruments to give the orchestra a flash of regional color, including electric guitars, and huffing, breathy vocals. These cues are, for me, the highlights of the score, and really drive home Price’s skill as a writer of compelling action music. Some of these cues have hints of Gravity to them, especially when the more prominent electronic percussive ideas come in to join the large orchestral forces, which is a good thing indeed.
The score for The Hunt is available as a 2-CD set from the BBC, and via the usual online download sources. It’s long score, clocking in at well over two hours, and as such may prove to be a little exhausting for some listeners who prefer their scores to come in shorter bite-sized chunks, but the fact that Price was able to maintain such a high standard of writing over such a long period of time is testament to his increasing excellence as a film composer. The Hunt is a score with virtually no dead weight, no blank spots, a great deal of emotional resonance, and no small amount of interesting instrumental textures and combinations. In a year which has produced several truly outstanding scores for nature documentaries, this is one of the best – and, for me, it’s the best score Price has written in his career to date, Gravity included.
Track Listing: 1. A Game of Strategy (3:17), 2. Power vs. Teamwork (8:20), 3. The Cut Line Inconvenience (4:25), 4. Fueled Up and Headed South (3:11), 5. The Hungry Crocodile (5:45), 6. Looking on at What Might Have Been (3:23), 7. In the Grip of the Seasons (2:53), 8. Melt Waters (3:22), 9. All at Sea (3:49), 10. Wolves and Hares (3:58), 11. Miniature Gliders (5:08), 12. Big Game on the Tundra (5:04), 13. At First It’s a Game (2:12), 14. A Sparrowhawk’s Tale (3:56), 15. Buzzing Jays (2:03), 16. Chimps vs. Monkeys (3:39), 17. The Army Ants (7:08), 18. The Blue Whale (5:12), 19. Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea (5:19), 20. Spinner Dolphin Superpod (1:31), 21. The Deep (3:59), 22. The Bait Ball (5:11), 23. Nowhere to Hide (1:07), 24. The Honey Badger (2:53), 25. Building a Fortress (4:52), 26. Lions and Buffalo (6:04), 27. Red Hot Ants (6:37), 28. Etosha Lions (6:10), 29. Race Against Time (1:19), 30. No Ordinary Octopus (3:41), 31. Living on a Calorific Knife Edge (3:11), 32. Sea Lions and Killer Whales (6:11), 33. Wolves and Bears (5:07), 34. Hunting Humpbacks (4:46), 35. The Lions Theme (4:40). BBC Music/Sony Music, 149 minutes 19 seconds.
JOANNA LUMLEY’S TRANS-SIBERIAN ADVENTURE – Miguel d’Oliveira
A British TV documentary which aired on ITV during the summer of 2015, Joanna Lumley’s Trans-Siberian Adventure is a 3-part travelogue in which Absolutely Fabulous actress and author Joanna Lumley embarks on an epic journey by rail, beginning in Hong Kong where she catches the bullet train to Beijing, continues through China – past the Great Wall – to Mongolia, and finally along the Trans-Siberian Railroad, which traverses the bleakest and most inhospitable parts of eastern Russia on its way to Moscow.
The score for series is by Portuguese-born London-based composer Miguel d’Oliveira, a self-taught musician who originally studied to be a doctor before embracing his love of music, and who will likely be familiar to readers for his IFMCA-nominated work on earlier documentaries such as The Battle of Britain (2010) and Simon Schama’s Shakespeare, AKA Shakespeare & Us (2012). In describing his score, d’Oliveira says “Early on this project, director Michael Waldman and I decided that, instead of emulating all the musical idiosyncrasies of the vastly different countries and territories Joanna travels through, the score should seem as if we were hearing everything through her. This is why the music has a very British/Western hemisphere flavor, as opposed to a collection of rough guide tracks.”
The score’s ensemble consists of the composer playing nine different instruments (guitars, piano, viola, cello, clarinet, dulcimer) accompanied by soloists for piccolo, cor anglais, violin and cello. Several tracks also have a hint of Eastern sounds (particularly Tuvan throat singing) plus Russian and Chinese instruments; and it’s all thoroughly lovely. The opening “Once in a Lifetime” has an optimistic, forward-thinking sense of wonder and discovery, which is underpinned by a repetitive ostinato idea to capture the idea of a train, and a palpable sense of it being the beginning of a wondrous adventure.
Subsequent cues highlight one particular instrumental texture or another, from the dancing piccolos, sparkling pizzicato strings, and traditional Chinese sounds of “Breathtaking Scenery,” to the surging fully-orchestral sweep and unexpected typewriter percussion of “And So It Begins,” and the scatterbrained orchestral comedy of “Idiosyncrasies,” with its twanging rubber-band percussion and hooting clarinets. Later, “Window Seat” has an instrumental flair that recalls the best of Thomas Newman, especially in the woodwinds, while “As Far As The Eye Can Sea” has a touch of piano-and-guitar-led melancholy that gives the score some appropriate emotional depth. The conclusive “Rediscovery” has the merest hint of Alexandre Desplat in the dancing flute lines, crossed with a touch of wintry Russian classicism, that ends the score on a positive note.
The whole score is effortlessly charming, with real warmth, and an engaging personality that mirrors Lumley’s own. The instrumental textures d’Oliveira employs are consistently interesting, blending together in a series of excellent combinations, and the scope of the score – while limited in terms of recurring thematic ideas – nevertheless perfectly encapsulates the heart of the project. The soundtrack, available for download from Movie Score Media via all the usual online outlets, is a short one, clocking in at just under 20 minutes, but is well worth its investigating despite its brevity. Miguel d’Oliveira is one of those excellent composers who continually writes superb, expressive, interesting music for projects which very few people outside the UK ever see, and every chance we have to hear his talent should be taken without delay.
Track Listing: 1. Once in a Lifetime (3:02), 2. Breathtaking Scenery (1:15), 3. And So It Begins (2:39), 4. Idiosyncrasies (3:21), 5. Window Seat (1:36), 6. Moving Scenery (2:48), 7. As Far as the Eye Can See (2:31), 8. Rediscovery (1:16). Movie Score Media MMS-15027, 18 minutes 30 seconds.
THE LADY IN THE VAN – George Fenton
The Lady in the Van is an English comedy-drama written by the great Yorkshire playwright Alan Bennett, and is based on the true story of Mary Shepherd, an elderly homeless woman who lived in a dilapidated van on Bennett’s driveway in London for years between 1975 and 1989, and who everyone assumed was a harmless eccentric, before Bennett took the time to discover her fascinating past. The film is directed by Nicholas Hytner stars Dame Maggie Smith – who received BAFTA and Golden Globe nominations for her performance – as the eponymous lady, Alex Jennings as Bennett, has a supporting cast that includes Jim Broadbent, Frances de la Tour, Roger Allam, James Corden, and Gwen Taylor.
The score for the film is by George Fenton, who has scored every film Hytner has directed, including The Madness of King George, The Crucible, The Object of My Affection, and The History Boys. I am quite sad at how George Fenton’s mainstream career has dwindled over the last decade or so – you have to go back to the late 1990s and early 2000s to find his most significant financial successes (Hitch, You’ve Got Mail, Sweet Home Alabama), and it’s been more than five years since he scored a film that attained any sort of real traction at the box office (The Bounty Hunter in 2010). He has been working solidly on BBC nature documentaries for a long time, and has received a great deal of critical acclaim for them, but throughout the 1990s I honestly thought that Fenton was on the cusp of becoming Britain’s leading film composer, and it’s profoundly disappointing that this has not really come to pass.
Nevertheless, The Lady in the Van has a lot going for it. The main theme is a waltz, classical and traditional, but with just a hint of the slightly dotty eccentricity inherent in Miss Shepherd’s character. Stylistically, it actually reminds me of the waltz from Shostakovich’s Jazz Suite No.2, and it has that piece’s same sense of mischievous energy and playfulness; it’s memorable and engaging. It’s subsequent restatement and allusions, in cues like “Special Paint” and “The Day Centre,” are excellent, and the full-throated final reprise in “The Ascension” is the score’s thematic high point.
The rest of the score continues in this vein, presenting a series of pretty, classically inflected little vignettes that illustrate both the absurdity and, eventually, mutual fondness in the relationship between Bennett and Miss Shepherd. The whole thing is witty, elegant, and effortlessly charming, with that indefinable ‘Englishness’ about it which is hard to describe but immediately obvious to anyone who hears it.
Several cues stand out, either for their wry comedic attitude, or their increased emotional content. “Moving In” has a lovely, sprightly solo piano element; “Re-Parking” has the unmistakable sound of a Yorkshire brass band; “Collision and Confession” and “Curtain Down” are darker, touching on Miss Shepherd’s tragic past with solemn string writing and tremulous piano chords; “Freewheeling” is one of my favorite pieces, so full of joy and joie de vivre, recalling the ebullient orchestral writing from his outstanding 2005 animated score Valiant; conversely, “A Sepulchre” is greatly moving, an solemn and poignant piano-led piece full of regret and loss.
The soundtrack, on Sony Classical, includes a generous amount of Fenton’s score, as well as several pieces from two classical works, Chopin’s Piano Concerto No.1 in E Minor, and Schubert’s Impromptu No.3 in G-Flat Major, both of which allude to the classical music in Miss Shepherd’s past, and are performed impeccably. Although The Lady in the Van is a light, undemanding score, it will nevertheless appeal to those who enjoy tuneful works inspired by the best classical music, and stands as one of the best comedy scores of 2015.
Track Listing: 1. Miss Shepherd’s Waltz (1:56), 2. Moving In (1:36), 3. Two Women – Tango (2:36), 4. Re-Parking (1:38), 5. In Care (0:48), 6. The Neighbours (1:57), 7. Special Paint (1:51), 8. Collision and Confession (3:32), 9. Piano Concerto No.1 in E Minor, Op.11 [Excerpt] (written by Frédéric Chopin) (1:18), 10. The New Van (1:49), 11. Broadstairs (1:09), 12. Impromptu No.3 in G-Flat Major, Op.90, D899 [Excerpt] (written by Franz Schubert) (2:12), 13. Curtain Down (2:58), 14. Alive and Well (0:52), 15. Freewheeling (1:11), 16. The Day Centre (2:08), 17. A Sepulchre (2:56), 18. Remembering Miss Shepherd (0:53), 19. Walk Through the Cemetery (2:18), 20. The Ascension (Miss Shepherd’s Waltz) (3:25), 21. Impromptu No.3 in G-Flat Major, Op.90, D899 (written by Franz Schubert, performed by Clare Hammond) (6:25), 22. Piano Concerto No.1 in E Minor, Op.11 – Romanze, Larghetto (written by Frédéric Chopin) (9:58), 23. Piano Concerto No.1 in E Minor, Op.11 – Rondo, Vivace (written by Frédéric Chopin) (2:28). Sony Classical, 58 minutes 05 seconds.
THE MUSKETEERS [SEASON TWO] – Paul Englishby
The Musketeers is a historical action-drama TV series from the BBC, based on the classic novel The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas, which charts the adventures of a young man named d’Artagnan who leaves his rural home and travels to Paris to join the Musketeers of the Guard protecting the French monarchy; d’Artagnan and his comrades Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, subsequently become embroiled in numerous adventures along the corridors of power, involving plots to overthrow the King, back-stabbing and double dealing in the church, illicit romances, and much more besides. The show stars Luke Pasqualino as d’Artagnan, Tom Burke as Athos, Howard Charles as Porthos, Santiago Cabrera as Aramis, and Peter Capaldi and Marc Warren as the scenery-chewing villains, and has been a popular success on British TV since it first began airing in January 2014.
The main theme of the show, and the score for Season One, was written by the popular Doctor Who composer Murray Gold, but for 2015’s Season Two he was replaced by the equally talented Lancashire-born composer Paul Englishby (although Gold’s main theme, an upbeat renaissance-style dance piece with gruff, chanting voices, was retained). Englishby intentionally doesn’t reference much of Gold’s material in his score, instead building it around a brand new, flashy motif for the heroic Musketeers in action. After a being briefly introduced in the opening “Musketeers Theme” – a flurry of dashing strings and rousing brass fanfares – Englishby cleverly inserts the theme into numerous cues thereafter, establishing it as the primary identity of his score.
It is used terrifically in the numerous action sequences, most notably the magnificent and swashbuckling “The Ravine Sequence,” “Escape Foiled,” “Rescue from the Guillotine,” the almost folk-like “Saving Jeanne,” the determined-sounding “Training the Villagers,” and the high-spirited “Series Finale”. In fact, the exceptional quality of the action music in The Musketeers is the most surprising thing about the score; Englishby’s previous scores, which include small-scale dramas like Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day and An Education, and more contemporary jazz-infused pieces like Salting the Battlefield and Turks & Caicos, gave no indication as to his prowess for writing stirring, exciting action material, but The Muskeeters contains a ton of it, and it’s impressive indeed.
More intimate, dramatic pieces underscore both the intrigue of French courtly life, and the romantic escapades of the gallant quartet themselves; cues like “Compte de Rochefort” are bold and menacing, and “Milady de Winter” and “Milady and the Jewels” are full of intrigue and mystery thanks to an increased synth element, while elsewhere pieces like “King Meets His Son,” “Aramis and the Queen,” and “Porthos and Samara,” are more pastoral and emotional, with especially excellent writing for cello and, in the latter cue, moody ethnic woodwinds. The more romantic “D’Artagnan and Constance” showcases some lovely interplay between solo guitar and woodwinds, while the sweeping, swooning “Papin’s Wife” rises to exquisite heights.
Unfortunately, none of the music from either of the first two seasons of The Musketeers has been released on CD – this promo was put together by Englishby specifically for awards consideration purposes. For those who are curious, there are several versions of Gold’s main theme on Youtube, several selections from Englishby’s score on his Soundcloud page at https://soundcloud.com/paulenglishbymusic, and there is an excellent official BBC video showcasing Englishby’s music at https://youtu.be/Vm24ivyOAOU, which includes the majority of “The Ravine Sequence”, and footage from the recording sessions with the City of Prague Philharmonic at Smečky Studios in Prague. Until it does receive a release, I highly recommend that listeners go and experience this outstanding music wherever they can, as I personally consider it to be one of the best TV scores of 2015.
Track Listing: 1. Musketeers Theme (0:39), 2. The Ravine Sequence (4:10), 3. Compte de Rochefort (2:22), 4. Escape Foiled (2:57), 5. Milady de Winter (1:29), 6. King Meets His Son (1:05), 7. Milady on a Mission (0:49), 8. Aramis and the Queen (2:38), 9. Rescue from the Guillotine (3:20), 10. D’Artagnan and Constance (1:43), 11. Hail Mary (2:00), 12. Papin’s Wife (2:11), 13. Underwater Sequence (4:25), 14. Saving Jeanne (2:13), 15. Milady and the Jewels (2:13), 16. Training the Villagers (2:37), 17. Porthos and Samara (1:26), 18. Soldiers Are Coming (0:59), 19. The Aftermath (1:01), 20. Rochefort and the Musketeers (2:42), 21. Series Finale (1:21). Promo, 44 minutes 19 seconds.