Gilbey on Film: the greatest movie scores

And does "A Single Man" boast this year's finest music?

If you find yourself losing faith in the subtlety of film music, allow me to suggest a few composers with restorative powers. Like the couple in a recent New Yorker cartoon who stroll unwittingly from the pastures marked "rock" through to "pop" and then "easy listening" (caption: "They never even knew"), the once-intriguing Danny Elfman, a regular Tim Burton collaborator, has lapsed -- perhaps irretrievably -- into mediocrity.

But Carter Burwell is still on the money. Burwell is best known for his work with the Coen brothers -- he's scored every one of their films, from 1984's Blood Simple to last year's A Serious Man.

My favourite scores of his can be heard in Rob Roy (this is how good he is: he makes Celtic pipes palatable), Adaptation and especially Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (where Burwell was called in at the 11th hour to replace another composer's score).

I was going to add The Hi-Lo Country: I can still hum that one despite not having seen Stephen Frears's film for over a decade. But on reflection, it's not a good fit. It's very grand and rousing, whereas those descriptions don't pertain to anything in the characters or story; you can't tell what the music is expressing.

It's not Burwell's fault, nor is it a slight on his work. Pure speculation alert: I wonder if the music was brought in once everyone realised that no one in the movie was particularly heroic, nor did they want to be. The idea may have been to get the audience excited, and hope they wouldn't realise until they got home that there was nothing on screen to be excited about.

Surely a fundamental rule of any score is that it has to have a correlation to what we're watching; otherwise it floats free of the movie, and can be as incongruous as an unnatural light source or a visible boom mic. Stuart Staples of Tindersticks has done some incredible work for Claire Denis, including her new film White Material (which I review in the next NS).

Check out the Tindersticks' score for Denis's last film, 35 Shots of Rum, where it ebbs and flows in gorgeous synchronicity with the performances, camerawork and editing -- a model not only of how to compose great film music, but of how to weave it into the action.

I also rest easy when I see on the opening credits of a film the names Alexandre Desplat (best scores: Birth and Lust, Caution) or Mychael Danna (The Ice Storm, Capote and 8MM -- the latter a classic case of great score/dud movie).

A contender for the finest film music of this year is the score for A Single Man, Tom Ford's adaptation of Christopher Isherwood's novel about a gay professor in early 1960s Los Angeles, mourning the death of his lover. (The film has just been released on DVD.) I should clarify "finest" by explaining that this score seems to emerge fully and organically from the movie, with no suggestion that it wasn't in fact generated spontaneously by the images, or vice versa.

"The music was an extension of George," Ford told me last year.

I was thinking about it as I was writing and shooting. Violins I knew I wanted to be prominent because they're the most human instrument; they can convey the most incredible sadness and also joy. Shigeru Umebayashi, a brilliant Japanese composer, wrote three pieces; he works with Wong Kar-Wai a lot, he's incredible. And Abel Korzeniowski is a Polish composer in Los Angeles, he's also incredible: he scores not just action but emotions. That's a crucial device in helping the audience know what George is feeling. Abel is the difference between someone scoring and just composing. When I was working with him, I was saying, 'This is great, but I need more.' And he said, 'More? Usually I get asked for something that just goes away into the background.' That's incredible! Why have music that just fades away, fills space?

"Often a finished film can be a slight disappointment," Firth chipped in,

or it might go off in a different direction to the one you'd anticipated. But the musical choices in A Single Man conformed to what I felt the film should be. Very rarely have I heard music on a score that reflected what the film felt like to make. If the music is an extension of George's thoughts, then it's bang on. It could not be more right. When I heard it for the first time, I had this strange idea that I'd sung it or something because it felt like it had come out of the character. To feel that this was what Abel was doing, following the thought processes of the character -- well, that really made sense. I want to meet this guy, because I really feel like we worked together. And you almost never feel that.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era