‘For such a visual medium, the cinema is profoundly located by our ears.’ – Anthony Minghella (1954-2008)
On my personal list of favourite film scores – nestled among famous ones by Bernard Herrmann, Toru Takemitsu and John Williams – is certainly the other-worldly collaboration of Gabriel Yared and Underworld, co-composed for Anthony Minghella’s Breaking and Entering (2006). It is, quite simply, one of the most immaculate blends of electronic and acoustic elements I have heard on disc. A considerable chunk of its artistic merit is surely the actual production value of the recording itself, “mixed to perfection” I think to myself whenever I enjoy it on a really juicy sound system. And while so many subtle combinations of sounds float past me, I also think: “Why on earth wasn’t this soundtrack mixed in surround sound?!” That would probably take it from exquisite to mind-blowing.
Coincidentally, this month I also borrowed a DVD from the public library entitled Music by Gabriel Yared, a 2008 documentary that is short-and-sweet at only 60 mins. It is wonderfully insightful, offering an intimate glimpse into the life of the oscar-winning, Lebanese-born composer.
Fascinated as I am by the nature of collaboration, I particularly loved being privy to Yared’s interactions with the late, great, Anthony Minghella, who died aged 54. I should take a moment to say how tragic it is for us to have lost a director of his calibre when he no doubt had so many great films left to make. A trained pianist, he was deeply intelligent about music and he was even invited to direct Madame Butterfly as the MET Opera’s season opener, also for 2006. His obituary in the NYTimes is a wonderfully illuminating article, if you would like to know more about him. It seems fitting to me that Minghella, who was able to deftly and poignantly weave so many elements into complex cinematic tapestries, should be served in his film Breaking and Entering by a score that does exactly the same. Minghella himself provides the liner notes to the album, which makes the CD a special thing to own (he writes beautifully. And yes, I still love buying hard copies. There is also that superior audio quality that the internet will still not provide, cough). Minghella talks of how he and Yared shared the kind of patience and respect for each other that allowed them to work simultaneously through the process, resulting in a very organic score, even remarking: “On Cold Mountain he sat across the room from me at my piano while I scribbled at the draft [screenplay] on my desk.”
Wow. How many directors today embed music this deeply into their methodology?
Collaborations abound between parties of different disciplines – e.g. composers and performers, dancers and percussionists, etc. – but collaborations between parties of the same discipline, where creative input and credit must be equally shared, are different beasts entirely. You inevitably risk a clash of egos in coming to consensus whenever there are lots of valid ideas vying for precedence. And so I find myself even more impressed by this music, when I can only imagine what the process of compromise must have been for two parties as disparate as Yared and Underworld, the latter a collaborative duo in themselves. A room containing Yared, Minghella, Karl Hyde and Rick Smith must have seen a lot of compromise(!) Yet what has emerged is a score/soundtrack that is truly another character of the film, and is incredibly, as Minghella again observes: “unlike anything of Gabriel’s I’ve heard, and certainly not what you might expect from Underworld”.
I personally think of it as their beautiful ‘alien lovechild’ ;)
I’d rather not get into a debate about whether the score to Breaking and Entering is greater than the film itself, as it is beside the point of this post. Certainly the movie deserves to be watched since it abounds with talent (Juliette Binoche, need I say more?). I also love seeing London from the perspectives of class and culture. There are so many sublime moments from the soundtrack, which on CD plays continuously as though it were an intimate 60-minute symphony, that it was very difficult for me to choose just one track to share with you. Here is St. Pancras, which of course refers to the railway station:
I highly recommend that you listen to this on the best sound system you can access. If you turn it right up, it will still be intimate; and the intimacy is so precious, yet also so preciously captured with brilliant audio engineering. We hear an exquisite mix of sound effects and musical elements that are both acoustic and electronic, their qualities shaped and blurred to the point where we don’t know which is which. It reminds me of what Leonard Bernstein said about ‘ambiguity’ creating the beauty in art. In St. Pancras, that software synth at 0:28 – didn’t you think it was a real instrument for a moment? When the multi-layered groove kicks in at 0:22, can we accurately dissect its components? And when it ramps up at 0:57, is that triple-meter cross-rhythm on a cajón?! How the heck did that solo cello appear suddenly in the foreground at 1:50? And the floating string chords? Where precisely are the attacks of all these sounds? I suspect there are none. They seem to materialize as if by magic. Studio magic apparently.
I have been heavily immersed for the last couple of months in a world of samples and loops, leading up to my WijeratneWorks project premiering soon, and I have to admit that when listening to the soundtrack of Breaking and Entering, I stand both humbled and envious. There is a lot I’m trying to take from experiencing its unique little universe, but in a perfect mix of a multitude of tiny elements, many are too mysterious to understand.