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DRACULA – David Arnold and Michael Price

January 28, 2020 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

There have been literally dozens and dozens of adaptations of and variations on the Dracula story in the years since Bram Stoker wrote it in 1897. The most recent version is this BBC mini-series developed by Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat, the brains behind such successful shows as Doctor Who, Sherlock, and The League of Gentleman. Danish actor Claes Bang is the latest to star in the title role as the undead aristocrat from Eastern Europe who drinks human blood to survive; the show begins with a fairly conventional re-telling of the Dracula myth – castles and brides, voyages to Whitby, Lucy and Mina and Jonathan Harker – but ends with a very unconventional contemporary twist that places Dracula in modern society and completely upends vampire lore. The show has not been entirely successful, but it certainly has handsome and impressive production values, which extend to its score by composers David Arnold and Michael Price.

As I wrote in my review of his score for the mini-series Good Omens last year, it’s a complete joy to be able to review a new David Arnold score after such a long time, considering how long it has been since he essentially stopped working on high profile movies. At the risk of repeating myself, it’s worth remembering that in the fifteen years between 1994 and 2010 he wrote a staggering sequence of brilliant scores: Stargate, Independence Day, Last of the Dogmen, Godzilla, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and of course his James Bond scores including Tomorrow Never Dies, The World is Not Enough, and Casino Royale. In the last decade, however, he has generally concentrated on projects for British television, most notably scoring all 13 episodes of the Sherlock series between 2010 and 2017. It is my hope that those scores, in conjunction with his work on Good Omens and Dracula, start to lure him back towards the big screen, where his magnificent themes, bold and creative action music, and inventive use of the orchestra, are so greatly missed.

Arnold and Price did an unusually large amount of publicity for Dracula in the run-up to its release. Much of the focus of this publicity was on the somewhat unorthodox approach they took to creating the score, which included taking the sounds of crying babies and manipulating them into a ghastly chorus, using the sound of wine glasses filled with dripping blood, and using wooden coffin boxes as percussion items. Arnold and Price said they wanted to somehow illustrate the ‘corruption’ of Dracula, his poisonous presence, and that no matter how urbane or charming he seems, he’s still very much a monster. I love this approach, and I love the level of innovation and depth of research they put into the creation of the score. From reading all this one could be forgiven for thinking that this Dracula would be completely avant-garde and atonal, possibly closer to musique concrète than anything else in Arnold’s past, but in actual fact the final product is surprisingly conventional and approachable. It’s a decently-sized orchestral score with a recognizable internal architecture of recurring themes and motifs, plenty of moments of creepy dissonance and horrific action, all counterbalanced by some more romantic sequences of gothic melodrama. The coffins and babies and sounds of dripping blood are used for atmospheric texture more than anything else, and really only become important because you know about them – in the final mix, wooden percussion sounds like wooden percussion, and you would have no idea it was a coffin had Arnold not told us.

The whole thing is anchored by the main theme that’s introduced in the “Opening Titles,” a spooky piece with a strong string rhythmic undercurrent, and creepy baby vocals to give it a horrific twist. It has a few stylistic similarities to the Sherlock main theme, which is quickly becoming something of an Arnold/Price template for their television work together. The theme that emerges from the opening title seems to be intended to represent Dracula himself, but cleverly Arnold and Price are able to make it pull double duty by extracting the first four notes of the theme and turning them into a recurring motif that constantly underpins his malevolent presence. The shorter motif is actually more prominent than the full main theme, and it appears frequently, sometimes playing in counterpoint to other themes, and sometimes appearing as the main melodic idea of an action sequence or a burst of dissonance. It’s also subject to some clever instrumental and tonal variations, where Arnold and Price alter the orchestration to give the motif a romantic spin, or to play wistfully, as the emotional needs of the scene in question dictate.

The other significant theme that recurs in the score is “Mina’s Theme,” which is given its most prominent initial performance in the second cue. Her theme is a gentle, lullaby-ish piece for strings and piano, augmented by harp and a soft choir, which speaks to the character’s innocence and goodness. Two further statements of the theme are especially noteworthy: in “Hello Jonny” the theme is picked up by lilting woodwinds, again accompanied by a heavenly angelic choir, while in the subsequent “You Are Jonathan Harker” Mina’s theme is heard on piano, but is underpinned by electronic dissonances and distortions and some quite vicious-sounding brass clusters, which appear to be illustrating the existential fight within Harker for his soul – human versus vampire.

An overarching feeling of darkness and dread is present throughout much of the score, as one would expect. Dracula’s predatory instinct and malevolent presence tends to be scored with low strings, groaning and moaning in combination with insistent percussion ideas, some electronic ambiances, and ominous brass chords. Cues like “Contaminated,” “Boxes of Undead,” “Dracula is God,” “Greatest of Care,” “The Right One,” and many others revel in this oppressive atmosphere, but to their credit Arnold and Price always allow some new texture or instrumental idea to permeate it, keeping the music interesting. In “Vague in Parts” and “A Pineapple,” for example, they use a dusty, intentionally out-of-tune piano to create a sense of ancient, slightly twisted elegance, in keeping with Dracula’s aged and outward appearance of broken opulence.

Once in a while the music becomes much more energetic and propulsive, adopting action music rhythms and a much more aggressive attitude, usually to underscore one of the more bloody moments of vampiric horror. The middle section of “Boxes of Undead,” and later cues such as “Bats Are a Little Noisy,” Clearing Her Throat,” “Fish Meat,” and the superb “What Kept You” are excellent sequences of throbbing percussive intensity, awash with heavy brass clusters and surging strings, and which often weave the shorter Dracula motif into the fabric of the action. “Clearing Her Throat” also features an unexpectedly sentimental, bittersweet ending, which again addresses the duality inherent in the Dracula character; he is a murderous monster, yes, but he also craves romance and passion and relationships, as we all do.

A couple of other cues worth noting include “Helsing,” which reverberates with big gothic fanfares, but also some lighter and more liturgical choral music that may be a smaller sub-theme for the Sister Agatha character. “Sermon” is a beautiful interlude for an angelic choir and church organs. “Make It a Long Voyage” again seems to revisit the pretty Van Helsing melody before concluding with a longing, elegant version of the main Dracula theme for slow, intimate strings and a solo piano. Later, “Trying to Contact You” features some slightly more contemporary-sounding scoring, featuring many different styles of electronic percussion beats and pulses, along with a bold string ostinato.

As the score reaches its conclusion Arnold and Price begin to rely heavily on elegiac but tragedy-laden strings, almost lamenting for the fate of Dracula. “Outgrown Beauty” is a long exploration of that writing style that is very impressive indeed; the subsequent “That Is Everything” builds on the style even further, and initially has a little hint of Vivaldi in the strings, before eventually growing into an action packed, thrilling finale. The conclusive “The Fear” ends things on an epic note, wherein overlapping layers of strings and brass combine with the choir to excellent effect. There is a sense of finality and tragedy in this writing, and the way Arnold and Price are able to weave darkly-hued but clearly recognizable statements of both Dracula’s theme and Mina’s theme into it is very striking indeed.

One thing I do want to mention, though, is how unlike the majority of David Arnold’s most famous scores Dracula sounds. From Stargate through Independence Day and Godzilla, and several others, Arnold had a very identifiable and personal sound that developed from score to score. Dracula, however, doesn’t really share any obvious characteristics with those, or any others, which is quite unusual. Usually you can hear something in the chord progressions and instrumental combinations that will make your ears prick up and think ‘Ah! There’s David Arnold!” but I didn’t get that from Dracula at all. Perhaps Michael Price – whose style I’m not familiar enough with to recognize – had a much stronger hand in this score than any of the others? I really don’t know, but I thought it was worth mentioning. This one issue aside, however, Dracula remains an enjoyable and appropriate contemporary Gothic horror score, with enough recurring thematic content, tragic elegance, and aggressive action music to recommend.

Buy the Dracula soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Opening Titles (0:55)
  • Mina’s Theme (1:16)
  • Contaminated (1:15)
  • Boxes of Undead (2:43)
  • Vague in Parts (2:18)
  • Dracula is God (2:52)
  • Hello Jonny (1:59)
  • Bats Are a Little Noisy (0:53)
  • You Are Jonathan Harker (3:40)
  • Helsing! (2:03)
  • Greatest of Care (2:26)
  • Sermon (1:20)
  • Clearing Her Throat (3:48)
  • Bad Book (1:40)
  • The Right One (2:46)
  • Make It a Long Voyage (3:47)
  • Learning German (1:30)
  • A Pineapple (2:06)
  • In the Mirror (1:32)
  • Pulsing Jugular (2:51)
  • Fish Meat (3:37)
  • What Kept You (1:58)
  • Sentimental Stalking (1:10)
  • Trying to Contact You (1:37)
  • Undisturbed (3:16)
  • Nothing to Lose (3:39)
  • One Less Thing (3:38)
  • Inside Your head (2:34)
  • Outgrown Beauty (6:47)
  • That Is Everything (2:02)
  • The Fear (4:17)

Running Time: 78 minutes 15 seconds

Silva Screen SILED-1619 (2020)

Music composed by David Arnold and Michael Price. Conducted by Michael Price. Orchestrations by Anthony Weeden. Recorded and mixed by Nick Wollage. Album produced by David Arnold and Michael Price.

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