Best Scores of 2015 – Spain and Portugal, Part II
The fifth installment in my series of articles looking at the best “under the radar” scores from around the world takes a look at another great bunch of music from films and TV shows from Spain and Portugal. As I mentioned before, I have been very vocal in the past about my admiration for the music coming out of the Iberian peninsula, and this year just reinforces my view that some of the best film music in the world right now is being written there. This final crop features scores by Oscar nominees and promising newcomers, spanning documentaries and dramas and animated films, including three of the scores nominated for the 2015 Goyas, the Spanish Academy Awards.
CHAVÍN DE HUANTAR: EL TEATRO DEL MÁS ALLÁ – Santi Vega
Chavín de Huantar: El Teatro del Más Allá is a Spanish documentary feature directed by José Manuel Novoa about the early culture of what is now Peru, looking at how those ancient tribal civilizations began to domesticate plants and animals almost 3,000 years ago, how they developed their religions, and how they established the great city of Chavín de Huantar – the “Rome of the Andes” – which was a significant regional center of culture, learning, farming, and worship, and paved the way for the development of later civilizations such as the Incas, until the Spanish arrived and conquered the region in 1526.
The score for El Teatro del Más Allá is by Spanish composer Santi Vega, who was nominated for a Goya Award (Spain’s Academy Awards) for his work. The score is a fascinating collision of old and new, blending contemporary orchestral instrumental sounds with ancient Chavín chants and vocal stylings. The vocal performances are prominent in several cues, including the opening “Apu Wamani, La Morada de los Dioses,” the more percussive La Huaca,” “La Pirámide,” the soothing “Uma Nina Qari Nanka,” “Entre el Cielo y el Inframundo,” “El Culto al Agua,” and the conclusive “Chavín de Huantar”, which forms the first part of the score’s finale. The resulting effect reminds me a little of Klaus Badelt’s The Promise, crossed with James Horner’s Apocalypto: it’s raw, alien sounding, clearly authentic and rooted in this ancient culture, but is given a 21st century kick by the large, thematic orchestral backing. Sometimes the voices sing clearly intelligible lyrics, sometimes they just chant, sometimes they simply scream, but they are always enthralling.
Some cues make use of equally ancient instruments, including what sound like horns made from animal bones, pan flutes, and various rattlers, shakers, and percussion items. Cues like “Cosmogonía Chavín,” “El Lanzón, La Simiente del Cosmos,” “El Obelisco Tello,” “Oráculo,” “Antonio Raimondi,” are ethereal and other-worldly, sometimes mimicking the sounds of nature – including sampled animal growls! – while others like “Indios del Amazonas” have a world music sound that will be familiar to many listeners. And then there are the orchestral performances themselves, which range from lush and lyrical themes for the full ensemble built around a rising 2-note motif (“Emisarios,” “Mensajeros de los Dioses,” “Un Nuevo Ser”), to challenging abstractions, with pizzicato string writing, flutter-tongued woodwind phrases, nervous brass clusters, and staccato percussion effects that rattle the nerves (“Águilas, Jaguares y Sacerdotes,” “El Viaje Chamánico,” “Capac Cocha, el Sacrificio”).
Unfortunately, the score for El Teatro del Más Allá is not available for purchase – Vega put together this promotional release for consideration by awards bodies – but selections from the score are available on Youtube at https://youtu.be/sOuuIoeGklg, and I highly recommend you investigate them, in anticipation of (hopefully) a commercial release further down the line. There has been some exceptional music written for documentaries in 2015, and this is yet another one to add to that long and exciting list.
Track Listing: 1. Apu Wamani, La Morada de los Dioses (2:09), 2. La Huaca (2:08), 3. El Enigma (1:06), 4. Cosmogonía Chavín (1:33), 5. Cáctus San Pedro (1:28), 6. Indios del Amazonas (1:24), 7. Galerías Pétreas (0:49), 8. El Lanzón, La Simiente del Cosmos (1:11), 9. La Pirámide (1:14), 10. Emisarios (1:47), 11. Águilas, Jaguares y Sacerdotes (1:44), 12. El Obelisco Tello (3:28), 13. Peregrinos (1:09), 14. Oráculo (5:27), 15. Antonio Raimondi (2:58), 16. Mensajeros de los Dioses (2:10), 17. Uma Nina Qari Nanka/La Ofrenda (1:04), 18. El Huascarán, La Montaña Sagrada (1:19), 19. La Llegada al Templo (1:09), 20. El Viaje Chamánico (2:02), 21. Entre el Cielo y el Inframundo (0:39), 22. El Teatro del Más Allá (1:44), 23. Estados Alterados (0:35), 24. El Culto al Agua (2:01), 25. Strombus y Spóndilus (0:41), 26. Plantas Sagradas (1:14), 27. Capac Cocha, el Sacrificio (3:00), 28. El Encuentro Con el Lanzón (2:24), 29. Un Nuevo Ser (2:05), 30. Chavín de Huantar (2:01), 31. El Teatro del Más Allá (1:56). Promo, 55 minutes 40 seconds.
LA NOVIA – Shigeru Umebayashi
La Novia (The Bride) is a critically acclaimed Spanish drama directed by Paula Ortiz, adapted from the play Bodas de Sangre by Federico García Lorca, which is widely considered to be the Spanish-language equivalent of Romeo and Juliet in terms if importance and legacy. A classic love triangle, it focuses on two friends, known only as Leonardo and ‘The Bride’, who were inseparable in childhood, but who have grown apart as adults. Leonardo is married, with a child of his own, and ‘The Bride’ is about to marry ‘The Groom’, but the two clearly still have intense feelings for each other. Before the wedding, ‘The Bride’ is visited by a beggar woman who tells her “don’t get married if you don’t love him”, and gives her two crystal daggers; after the ceremony, clearly influenced by the old woman’s words, ‘The Bride’ elopes with Leonardo, with ‘The Groom’ in vengeful pursuit. The film stars Inma Cuesta, Álex García, and Asier Etxeandia, and has an original score from an unlikely source: Japanese composer Shigeru Umebayashi.
Umebayashi is best known in the West for his scores for epic Japanese period films like House of Flying Daggers (2004) and Curse of the Golden Flower (2006), so for him to be asked to score a film as as prestigious and resolutely Spanish as La Novia is unexpected indeed. However, Umebayashi rose to the occasion, writing a classically rich, but understated score which captures the classic drama inherent in the story. He scored for the film for a comparatively small ensemble featuring a string quintet (two violins, viola, cello, bass), plus piano, flute, harp, and guitar, which reminds me a little of Marco Beltrami’s The Homesman. This stripped-down approach gives the score a clean intimate, immediate sound, focusing solely on the core of the story without any flashy orchestral histrionics.
“Track 1” features little more than a solo cello, brooding and somber, but in “Track 2” it emerges into a more lyrical piece for the full ensemble, and a performance of the main theme that has a real sense of tragedy and foreboding, but flavored with a hint of romance. The solo cello theme returns several times, most notably in “Track 4”, when it is accompanied by the harp, but other cues simply highlight a particular texture or combination of textures: an intimate, restrained, harp and flute duet with piano accents in “Track 3,” a string quartet playing off each other with fractured harmonics that speak of uncertainty in Track 5”, violin and flute in “Track 10,” and a solo piano in “Track 8,” hesitant, yet gently romantic, with dramatic thematic performance towards the end.
Several cues do build up to more dramatic heights, illustrating the increasingly dangerous relationships between the three protagonists. “Track 6” highlights the harp and cello together, but also introduces a set of guitar accents, and more insistent string ostinato underneath it all, giving it a sense of urgency and movement. Similarly, “Track 9” is led by strings and flutes, mournful and tragedy-laden, but unexpectedly develops to include an insistent synth pulse, like a hammering heartbeat.
The finale, “Track 11,” returns to the lyrical theme from the second track, with more sweeping and romantic string phrasing, and gradual inclusion of all the instrumental ideas, before segueing into “Track 12,” most traditionally ‘Spanish sounding’ piece, which introduces a new theme for violin and guitar that has a bittersweet quality, like an old fashioned camp fire love song without lyrics. The guitar becomes more rhythmic as the cue develops, almost like a dance, before returning to the lush romantic theme one more time to close the score.
The score, which was nominated for a Goya Award (Spain’s Academy Award), is a pleasant, if somewhat brief, diversion, which intelligently weaves a couple of recurring themes with various passages of instrumental interplay; plus, it’s always good to hear new music by Shigeru Umebayashi, whose career in the West needs to be re-ignited. Unfortunately, the score for La Novia is not available for purchase, and is only available via this brief 23 minute promo put together by Umebayashi for awards purposes, which has no cue titles.
Track Listing: 1. Track 1 (1:03), 2. Track 2 (2:47), 3. Track 3 (1:55), 4. Track 4 (1:30), 5. Track 5 (0:38), 6. Track 6 (1:40), 7. Track 7 (0:24), 8. Track 8 (2:35), 9. Track 9 (1:58), 10. Track 10 (0:53), 11. Track 11 (2:00), 12. Track 12 (5:50). Promo, 23 minutes 20 seconds.
MA MA – Alberto Iglesias
Ma Ma is the latest film from acclaimed director Julio Medem, a drama about a woman named Magda (played by Penelope Cruz) whose life begins to fall apart around her when her husband leaves her for another woman, and she is diagnosed with breast cancer, for which she will have to undergo chemotherapy and mastectomy. Looking for comfort from someone other than her sports-mad son Dani, Magda meets a kind-but-unavailable soccer coach named Arturo (Luis Tosar). However, tragedy strikes once more after Arturo’s wife and son are killed in a car accident, and the pair grow closer, drawing on each other’s strength to overcome their mutual emotional distress. The film has been described as a “smiling-through-tears saga” and a vanity project for Penelope Cruz, who portrays her character as nothing less and an entirely self-sacrificial saint, but the film has been a popular success in its native Spain, where Cruz reigns supreme at the box office.
The score for Ma Ma is by the acclaimed Oscar-nominated composer Alberto Iglesias, who has worked with director Medem before on films such as The Red Squirrel (1993), Earth (1996), Lovers of the Arctic Circle (1998), and Sex and Lucia (2001). Whereas once Medem and Iglesias were of the most respected composer/director partnerships in European cinema, Ma Ma marks the first time the two men have worked together for over a decade.
Iglesias’s score is very much in the vein of the film, portraying Magda in a positive light throughout, anchoring her character through a series of pretty, emotionally direct, slightly jazzy, slightly melancholy piano themes performed by Iglesias himself. Cues like the opening “Que Vaya Todo Bien,” and subsequent pieces like “El Balón,” “Y Si Te Llevo Yo?,” “Y Tú De Qué Jugabas?,” “Por la Puerta Grande,” “El 70%,” and others, take the piano and offset it against solo strings, plucked basses, and attractive waltz-time rhythms. The piano melodies Iglesias creates are generally quite lovely, with soothing chord progressions and an overall mood that clearly shows Magda to be a good-hearted person trying to overcome unimaginable hardships, but they are just a tiny bit insubstantial, failing to linger in the memory for very long after the final chord has died away.
The outliers are cues like “Siberia,” “No Duerme,” “Se Parece Al Mío,” and “Es Una Niña,” which are slightly more abstract and little ethereal, with a bed of synth tones and barely-there pulsating rhythmic devices that twist and torture the groaning strings and piano chords into something that has a dream-like, surreal quality.
Thankfully, the one thing Iglesias was careful to avoid was laying on the emotion too thick; with a film like Ma Ma it could have been very easy to wallow in the overwhelming tragedy of it all by writing an equally overwhelming emotional score. Instead, Iglesias side-steps the deadly pit of maudlin and the swamp of saccharine by keeping the music grounded in reality. The final three cues, “Natasha en la Orilla,” “Magda,” and “Ma Ma,” do have some sense of emotional catharsis and bit of a payoff, but they are still very much within the tonal range of the rest of the score, and don’t engulf it with a big, soaring conclusion that would have undone all the quiet subtlety and good-natured suffering in the rest of the score.
Despite all the critical and popular acclaim he has received over the years, I’ve never really fully connected with Alberto Iglesias’s music in the same way I have with several of his contemporaries, and Ma Ma is another one of those scores of his I appreciate more than I actually enjoy. It’s a perfectly acceptable film score in every respect, which captures the central heart of his film’s narrative, and the piano solos Iglesias performs are certainly excellent, but it’s not one that will stay with me in the same way that this year’s scores by Federico Jusid, Roque Baños, Diego Navarro, or Santi Vega have. The score, which was nominated for a Goya Award (Spain’s Academy Award), is available from the Spanish label Quartet Records, and via the usual online digital retailers.
Track Listing: 1. Que Vaya Todo Bien (2:22), 2. Siberia (2:20), 3. El Balón (3:02), 4. No Duerme (2:30), 5. Y Si Te Llevo Yo? (2:20), 6. Se Parece Al Mío (3:42), 7. Y Tú De Qué Jugabas? (2:14), 8. Por la Puerta Grande (2:41), 9. 6 Meses (3:56), 10. El 70% (2:46), 11. Es Una Niña (1:10), 12. Natasha en la Orilla (2:23), 13. Magda (2:22), 14. Ma Ma (4:02). Quartet Records, 39 minutes 27 seconds.
OCHO APELLIDOS CATALANES – Roque Baños
Ocho Apellidos Catalanes is a Spanish romantic comedy directed by Emilio Martínez-Lázaro, and is a sequel to the 2014 box office hit Ocho Apellidos Vascos, a comedy of errors which was as much about the relationships between native Andalusians and Basques as it was about affairs of the heart. Picking up where the last film left off, it continues to follow the romantic escapades of Amaia Zugasti, a progressive young woman from the Euskadi region of Spain, who has broken up her Andalusian boyfriend Rafa, and is now dating a Catalan man named Pau. All this proves too much for Amaia’s full-blooded Basque father Koldo, who decides to take it upon himself to leave the provinces and travel to Sevilla and convince him to try and win Amaia’s heart back. The film stars Clara Lago, Dani Rovira, and Karra Elejalde, and has a lovely score by Murcian composer Roque Baños (replacing Fernando Velázquez, who scored the first film).
Since being embraced by the larger Hollywood community, Roque Baños’s scores have tended to be somewhat serious: things like Evil Dead, Oldboy, and In the Heart of the Sea, while all very good scores by anyone’s standards, have not yet introduced American audiences to the full range of his personality. Earlier scores like Segunda Piel and Las 13 Rosas showcase his wonderful talent for writing beautiful romance music, while others like the Torrente films and last year’s Cantinflas prove his aptitude for comedy scoring. Ocho Apellidos Catalanes is a score which blends those two styles together: light-hearted, sunny, endlessly optimistic writing which offers several moments of tender romance, as well as moments of caper-like hi-jinks to keep the sprits light.
The opening cue, “Sardana (Titulos),” is a perfect example of this, blending some traditional Spanish folk music and flamenco rhythms with regional instrumental touches – trumpets, castanets – and a large orchestral ensemble, performing a lively, upbeat theme that veers from comedy to pathos to romance and back again, with equal success at each aspect. The theme is repeated in “Enredo en la Habitación de Amaya,” a piece full of comedy capers and Carl Stalling-esque touches in the energetic string and woodwind writing, while “Vals de Boda” is a formal and classical waltz transposed to saxophones, which gives it a slightly curious timbre.
Some very cool jazz music can be found in “Judit, la Wedding Planner” and “Estabamos Hablando de Ti,” a pair of authentic mash ups of stand up basses, brushed snares, pianos and muted horns that wouldn’t sound out of place in a smoky New York bar. The jazz inflections continue in cues like “La Masia de la Yaya Roser,” which adds a world-weary kick to the orchestral textures and stereotypically Spanish rhythmic ideas, and the finger-snapping duo comprising “Recepcion en la Masia” and “Baile de los Hipsters,” a splash of old Hollywood transposed to contemporary Spain. The growling muted brasses and swing-like rhythms of the latter remind me of James Horner’s similar-sounding pieces from his Cocoon scores, and Batteries Not Included.
More traditional romance stylings appear in cues like “El Vestido de Boda,” a soft piece for piano and strings, but the score really embraces its romantic element much more strongly during the score’s latter third in the beautiful “Poema de Amor,” “El Amor de Pau y Judit,” and most notably “Beso en la Plaza de Cataluña,” the score’s tender and sentimental highlight. Baños’s romantic theme is built around a tinkling five-note melody on the piano, and its development throughout much of the score is enjoyable to experience; the unadorned concert performance of the theme on solo piano in “Canción de Amor” is also thoroughly gorgeous.
Anyone who is only familiar with Roque Baños’s more serious and weighty Hollywood output would do very well to familiarize themselves with Ocho Apellidos Catalanes, and several of the other scores I mentioned in this review, as they give a much more rounded representation of what a talented composer he is, and how much range he has. As good as things like Evil Dead are, it’s the music in scores like this that made me sit up and take notice of him in the first place. The score is available to purchase, on the Meliam Music label, and digitally via most of the usual online retailers.
Track Listing: 1. Sardana (Titulos) (3:34), 2. De Euskadi a Cataluña Pasando por Sevilla (2:12), 3. Judit, la Wedding Planner (1:09), 4. La Masia de la Yaya Roser (1:54), 5. El Vestido de Boda (1:51), 6. Enredo en la Habitación de Amaya (2:41), 7. Recepcion en la Masia (3:22), 8. Vals de Boda (2:02), 9. Estabamos Hablando de Ti (4:35), 10. Baile de los Hipsters (2:42), 11. Poema de Amor (1:02), 12. El Primo Anselmo Salva España (2:02), 13. El Amor de Pau y Judit (2:03), 14. Beso en la Plaza de Cataluña (1:53), 15. Sardana (Cobla) (3:22), 16. Canción de Amor (1:37), 17. La de los Ojos de Bronce (performed by Sevillanas) (3:09). Meliam Music, 41 minutes 20 seconds.
TERESA – Federico Jusid
Teresa is a high profile Spanish TV movie directed by Jorge Dorado, about the life and work of Saint Teresa of Ávila, a 15th century Spanish Carmelite nun who was a prominent and influential speaker and author during the Catholic Reformation. Teresa’s writings about life and faith subsequently led to her being canonized by Pope Gregory XV, while her autobiography and her seminal book El Castillo Interior are considered an integral part of Spanish Renaissance literature and Christian meditation practices, even today. The film, which stars Marian Álvarez, David Luque, and Carla Díaz, examines the life of Teresa from the viewpoint of a contemporary Spanish woman reading her work for the first time.
Anyone who fell in love with the gorgeous thematic writing of Jusid’s score for the TV series Isabel, or its sequel Carlos Rey Emperador earlier this year, will find Teresa very much to their liking. It has the same large orchestral forces in play, and the same heavy emphasis on choral work, but whereas Isabel and Carlos Rey Emperador often rose to great triumphant heights, Teresa is for the most part slightly more restrained, respectful in its religious reverence for its subject matter, and not prone to any extended periods of action music or propulsive power.
The opening cue, “The Book of Life,” is just glorious, a sweeping and stirring orchestral feast for the ears with tolling bells, heavenly choral accents, and a prominent thematic core. These compositional ideas form the core of much of the score, and received extended restatement in subsequent tracks such as the unexpectedly lovely and dramatic “Teresa’s Illness,” the rousing “St. Joseph’s Convent,” and the searing “Goodbye, Father” with its heavenly refrain of a liturgical kyrie eleison.
There are more playful passages too, like the almost John Williams/Harry Potter-esque “Do Not Seek A Different Life” which has an especially prominent dancing woodwind element and a chirpy rhythmic center, and the broad and majestic “Journey to Toledo” whose trilling fanfares and optimistic outlook make it one of the score’s emotional high points. Elsewhere the music is a little darker, often incorporating renaissance-era instrumentation like the harpsichord into the orchestral palette. The writing in these cues tends to be a little less florid, a little more uneasy, but they still find time to rise to some spine-tingling crescendos, especially the finale of the glockenspiel-inflected “The Levitation,” and the euphoric “Ecstasy”. Meanwhile, cues like “Book Seizure,” “The Trial,” and “The Verdict” are ominous and oppressive, alluding to the events that led to the creation of the Spanish Inquisition, and all the terrible torture and cruelty that that period contained.
Unfortunately, the score for Teresa is not available for purchase – Jusid put together this promotional release for consideration by awards bodies – but selections from the score are available on Youtube at https://youtu.be/e4MN485Fzy0. This is yet another astonishing score by Jusid, whose command of the orchestra and talent for magnificent thematic writing is re-affirmed with every score he writes. For me, this is one of the best drama scores of 2015.
Track Listing: 1. The Book of Life (2:23), 2. The Levitation (2:46), 3. Ecstasy (1:42), 4. Do Not Seek A Different Life (2:54), 5. I Also Lost A Dear One (1:51), 6. Teresa’s Illness (2:25), 7. Journey to Toledo (3:46), 8. Book Seizure (2:56), 9. I Read Through Your Eyes (0:56), 10. Goodbye, Father (1:57), 11. The Trial (2:12), 12. Who Was Juan Sanchez? (2:37), 13. The Verdict (2:01), 14. St. Joseph’s Convent (1:50), 15. Let’s Go Home, Teresa (2:15), 16. The Good Man (1:12), 17. Salazar’s Prayer (0:38), 18. Communion (0:58). Promo, 37 minutes 27 seconds.
UN GALLO CON MUCHOS HUEVOS – Zacarías M. de la Riva
Un Gallo Con Muchos Huevos (Little Rooster’s Egg-Cellent Adventure) is a Mexican 3D CGI animated film directed by Gabriel Riva Palacio Alatriste and Rodolfo Riva Palacio Alatriste, and is the third film in the successful Huevos film franchise, but the first one to be released in English-speaking territories. It tells the story of Toto, a timid young rooster, who learns that his idyllic farmland home is in bankruptcy and is about to be sold to an unscrupulous developer. In order to save the land for himself and his barnyard friends, Toto challenges a rooster boxing champion named Bankivoide, hoping to raise enough money to stop the sale.
The score for Un Gallo Con Muchos Huevos is by Spanish composer Zacarías Martinez de la Riva, who has a history of writing great scores for animated films, notably Copito de Nieve in 2011 and Las Aventuras de Tadeo Jones in 2012. Un Gallo Con Muchos Huevos makes it three for three in the success stakes: it’s a large scale, theme filled, playful, energetic delight, fully orchestral, and with a number of sequences of great scope and emotion, and a number of other of unexpectedly powerful action music.
Parts of the opening “League of the Egg Avengers,” and subsequent cues like “Toto the Rooster,” “Attack of the Vultures,” the ominous “Entering Bankivoide,” parts of “Yes You Can,” and especially the rock-inflected “The Fight,” are bold and unexpectedly rousing, with flashing brass fanfares, heroic march-like themes, and stirring string crescendos. Cues like “The Arena” and the second half of the aforementioned “Entering Bankivoide” even work in a cooing choral effect and some contemporary electronic percussion stylings for added emphasis, while the conclusive suite “Little Rooster’s Egg-Cellent Adventure” is the score’s emotional heart, providing the most extrovert rendition of the cheerful main theme that runs through a lot of the album.
Some of the music can come across as being a little too scattershot and unfocused, with twangy comedy orchestrations and a little too much forced humor that some will label as mickey-mousing, but you have to remember that this is a children’s film first and foremost, and this sort of music didn’t do Carl Stalling or Scott Bradley any harm. There’s also a fair bit of intentional pastiche, from the obvious Thomas Newman influences in “Eggscent of a Woman” and parts of “Find Your Inner Yolk,” to the blatant Nino Rota references in “The Egg Godfather,” and the hints of Daft Punk’s Tron in “Toto Lives”.
Anyone who enjoys the tuneful, optimistic film music of a John Debney or a David Newman will find Un Gallo Con Muchos Huevos to be a delightful diversion. It’s certainly a far cry from the serious, dystopian sci-fi score he wrote for the excellent Automata last year, but the fact that Zacarías de la Riva can switch from something like that to something like this so easily shows his versatility. Overall, this is an egg-cellent score, and that’s no egg-saggeration. OK, I’ll stop with the yolks now. Sometimes I crack myself up.
Track Listing: 1. League of the Egg Avengers (3:26), 2. Toto the Rooster (1:51), 3. Start the Fight! (3:51), 4. Don Poncho (1:56), 5. It’s a Duck! (1:44), 6. The Arena (3:25), 7. Eggscent of a Woman (1:40), 8. Attack of the Vultures (4:27), 9. The Egg Godfather (1:43), 10. Toto Ovowhelmed (1:52), 11. Fight to Win (1:34), 12. Patín Patán (4:00), 13. Entering Bankivoide (3:08), 14. Yes You Can! (2:49), 15. Find Your Inner Yolk (3:02), 16. The Fight (5:22), 17. Toto Lives (2:52), 18. Little Rooster’s Egg-Cellent Adventure (6:39). Movie Score Media MMS-15034, 55 minutes 30 seconds.