COMPOSERS: Eleni Karaindrou
ALBUM TITLE: Music for Films
WORKS: find works
CATALOGUE NO: 847 609-2
The traditional posture for film composers vis-à-vis their directors is on bended knee: their job is to serve. But it’s good to remember – changing the metaphor a little – that the boot can also be on the other foot. Eleni Karaindrou, whose latest soundtrack accompanies Theo Angelopoulos’s award-garlanded ETERNITY AND A DAY, commonly writes her music before the film has been shot, with the result that her director adjusts his work accordingly. ‘His ideas inspire me, and I think my music inspires him,’ she says modestly. ‘Luckily we have a deep affinity.’
Her scores for ULYSSES’ GAZE, The Beekeeper and Voyage to Cythera – all by this same director – reveal a voice which is strikingly consistent: gracefully ruminative, simply orchestrated, always suggestive of atmosphere. Her music allows the mind to float and dream. But its symphonic textures are also regularly shot through with the sound of the saxophone (usually Jan Garbarek’s) plus sundry folk instruments from her childhood haunts in rural Greece. She is adept with odd combinations: accordion with harp, zither with prepared piano. She works like a painter, enriching her canvas with a build-up of disparate dabs of colour. Great music? Well, that’s not the aim, though she is increasingly recycling it as concert material. The Greeks like to parade her as their ‘tenth Muse’, and in a sense that’s what this former classical pianist is becoming.
Karaindrou’s working methods may be unusual, but her results are essentially conventional. As with Michael Nyman and George Fenton, her mood-music scarcely alters from film to film, and her soundtracks – doing excellent business for ECM – seem almost interchangeable. So it’s refreshing to encounter a composer who has absolutely no interest in record spin-offs, but whose maiden flight in the cinema achieves quiet marvels nonetheless.
Douglas Finch is head of keyboard studies at London’s Trinity College of Music, and a modernist through and through. He was hired to compose the score for Jon Sanders’s bleakly beautiful whorehouse drama PAINTED ANGELS because the Canadian co-financiers of this Saskatchewan-located film insisted on a quota of Canadians in the production team – and he is Canadian. Sanders didn’t want a score that bolstered the action in the conventional manner: he instructed Finch to emulate the way Robert Bresson and Andrei Tarkovsky used music in their films – sparingly, and always in the interstices of the action.
‘He told me he wanted a lot of different wind-noises,’ says Finch. ‘So I had a series of flutes specially made, including a Mongolian one with overtones. I went for a sound which wasn’t absolutely in tune, more an extension of the sounds in nature.’ Discovering that Finch was a celebrated improviser, Sanders decided to pester the score out of him through a process of suggestion and response which, in the final rushed moments of editing, continued over the phone. ‘Everyone told me I ought to hire regular film-musicians, to get the best results,’ Finch adds. ‘But I decided to use the Continuum Ensemble, with whom I regularly improvise.’ The results are wonderfully fresh. Although the film is currently on release in the UK, the score is as yet unavailable on disc.
Another notable aspect of the film is that all the music we see on screen is actually being played: not one note was dubbed. And since Kelly McGillis – who plays one of the prostitutes – had never learned to play the piano this posed a problem for the scene in which she accompanies a pastiche-Victorian entertainment. Finch’s ingenious solution was to provide her with a ‘graphic’ score with instructions like ‘start noodling with fingers, gradually getting higher up the keyboard’ or ‘big clusters on black notes only’. McGillis also took a crash course with a piano teacher, and passed with flying colours.
Painted Angels came within an ace of being destroyed – the Canadian backers loathed its grim truthfulness so much that they tried to impose a radical recut, but it’s now set for the international celebrity it deserves.
Meanwhile the soundtrack mills keep turning out standard stuff. The vastly overrated SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE has a soundtrack by Stephen Warbeck to match: sub-Mahler with harps, limp Elizabethan lutenism, a doodling theme too pallid to cause offence. The soundtrack to THE THIN RED LINE – by The Lion King composer Hans Zimmer – may be less ingratiating, but it’s still background music rather than something to listen to. It includes the now-obligatory dash of exoticism for films shot in distant places: there is a brief burst from a Melanesian choir.
The exotic element in John Corigliano’s score for François Girard’s THE RED VIOLIN is a Shanghai children’s choir but, that apart, this is at least a disc worth our full attention. Corigliano’s music is gracefully tonal, and sometimes closely pastiched on Bach or Bartók, but it always has sinew. And with violin cadenzas galore, it makes a brilliant showcase for the talents of Joshua Bell.