Composing Without The Picture

CWTPI think I’ve written before about how it can be either an enlightening or jarring experience listening to music by your favourite film composer that was not written for a film or visual medium. It can be something of a leap for the listener to go from emotionally constructed cues, themes and suites, to music that is altogether without synergy, liberated from the emotional boundaries and time constraints that film demands.

I remember when I first heard John Williams’ violin and flute concertos… I didn’t really know how to feel, which is extremely illuminating, given the way film music – so rooted in a pre-existing story and set of ideas – guides you emotionally. That guide is either by means of construct and method, or by the memories it stirs about the experience of watching and engaging with characters and situations. Williams’ concertos, when I was a teenager, didn’t do that and I remember fighting the urge to switch the stereo off and listen to something else; I so wanted to stick with it and be faithful to this composer whose music I usually adored. I had to stick with it, just in case there was a moment that sang out and hit me in the heart. It did come, but years later. Williams’ more recent concert works, his concertos for harp (‘On Willow and Birches’), Horn, and Oboe, have been a much easier ride. Whether that is because I have matured, or whether it’s because the composer is doing something different I’m not sure.

A recent album release featuring British cellist Richard Harwood collects together various works by film composers that are not written for the screen. Called ‘Composing Without The Picture’, it features works for cello by not only John Williams, but also Dario Marianelli, Benjamin Wallfisch, Alex Heffes, Ennio Morricone, Christopher Gunning, Fernando Velasquez, Ernest Toch and Miklos Rozsa.

If you’re a film music nut that hasn’t gotten involved in concert music then I don’t think this album will be a way in; some of the music presented here is truly avant garde, though there are moments of intensity and beauty only the cello can elicit. I’m a big fan of the cello as an instrument; there’s a depth in those lower registers that manage to infiltrate your very being, while the upper registers – much like the violin – sing out. For me there was less singing out than I would normally like, though there are standout pieces like Gunning’s ‘Variations on a Slavic Theme’ and Toch’s ‘Impromptu’. The Williams piece I knew; ‘Three Pieces for Cello’ was originally recorded by Yo Yo Ma and was released as part of the Sony disc ‘Yo Yo Ma Plays the Music of John Williams’. It’s a work that doesn’t go in for long melodic lines, instead opting for languid tones and picking… I think Ernest Toch wins the prize for the most beauty.

Harwood’s album, released by Resonus Classics, is available digitally only and has genuine appeal. It’s a fascinating window into non-film music by film composers and the performance by the in-demand cellist is at times truly virtuosic and reveals a deep appreciation of the material.

The release got me thinking about the cello in film music and of course the likes of Tan Dun’s Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and John Williams’ Memoirs of a Geisha sprung to mind immediately – both courtesy of Yo Yo Ma of course. Performances by the likes of Caroline Dale and Anthony Pleeth have graced countless scores; I understand Tony Pleeth has recently retired, which is a great loss to us listeners. I remember attending a day of recording for The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor when Tony laid down some gorgeous cello solos, the director (Rob Cohen) hanging on every note. Tony also worked his magic on Ben Foster’s Torchwood: Children of Earth, the recording of which I was again fortunate enough to attend. Thankfully Caroline Dale, whose work for Dario Marianelli on Pride and Prejudice and Atonement still lingers in the memory, is still very much active, as is of course Richard Harwood, who continues to be a major presence on the concert stage and in the recording studio.

There’s so much more to say about great cello music in film and television scoring… I’d love to hear about your favourite moments, cellists and scores, so drop me a line on twitter @michaelbeek and share!

Click here to download Richard Harwood’s ‘Composing Without The Picture’ and read more about him on his own website.