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The Power and Vision of a Modern Orchestral Film Score

I attended most of the short film screenings at Sundance this year and Max Savikangas’ modern orchestral score (that inspired me to photograph this haunting Park City snow-covered tree) was the one that excited me the most!

FILM MUSIC is a pretty broad category. There’s the great film composers of the mid-20th century who were distilling harmonic principles from the late 19th century to underscore a picture. Rock music and electronic music were incorporated into Film Music. Some films have song scores, some have small scores with just a solo guitar. What we don’t hear often enough is a score that could be described as Modern Classical. CLASSICAL MUSIC refers to the period of music that started in the late 18th century, following the rich, busy contrapuntal music of the Baroque period, and ending with Beethoven’s earlier symphonies. It preceded the rich chromaticism of the Romantic period. For me, Classical Music is light and air and clarity. MODERN CLASSICAL is not really an accurate term. What we’re really referring to is orchestral music by contemporary composers. It’s serious music – not to be listened to casually. It can be abstract. There can be a lot of dissonance. The rhythms don’t usually fall into a predictable pulse. It’s rare in film. Johnny Greenwood’s string-rich score for THERE WILL BE BLOOD is this kind of music. And when I heard that score, it made me hopeful that more composers would explore this terrain in film. Few have, which is less a result of composers not wanting to go to this place than filmmakers seeking a musical language that is more familiar to them. Yesterday, I went to the Sundance screening of the NEW FRONTIER SHORTS. These are the avant garde films that defy categorization. One of these is ABEDLAND (HOURS, YEARS, AEONS), a 43-minute animated piece by Finnish filmmakers Patrik Söderlund and Visa Suonpää. ABEDLAND is in black and white. It defies the landscape rectangle of the movie screen by being perfectly square. It slowly depicts an overgrown fruit tree in a glade, near a swamp in twilight, as the branches gently sway and white moths land and appear as foliage. A mist comes off the swamp, engulfs the tree, and gradually, the tree vanishes and is replaced by stars. The stars fade and we see the roots of a tree groping toward water. The mist returns and the tree reappears in its original spot. This is accompanied by the haunting, brooding, intense Modern Classical music of composer Max Savikangas. He uses the contrabass to represent the tree. The bass is using effects that convey the sound of wood groaning and wood breaking. On one session I had with LA’s fine session bassist, Mike Valerio, Mike bowed the back of his bass to create the sound of wood shattering. That’s the kind of vocabulary that Savikangas is employing. The appearance of the stars is accompanied by high sizzle cymbals, high violin harmonics, and sopranos sustaining clusters of notes. And the roots of the tree are represented by the Contrabass Clarinet – the instrument that for some reason we refer to as “double B-flat,” an instrument that produces a rich, dark, woody sound that can go a whole step lower than the low C that an orchestral contrabass can go. Savikangas has all this lovely contrapuntal interaction between his two soloists – the contrabass and the contrabass clarinet. I found myself entering a heightened meditative state as I watched the great tree slowly morph into something else and heard Savikangas bold musical vision. This reverie was disrupted briefly by the woman sitting in front of me who insisted on pulling out her cellphone in the middle of ABEDLAND so she could get on the waitlist for another film.

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