The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug Soundtrack

The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug

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The second instalment to The Hobbit trilogy has received many compliments, not only referring to the film itself but the score which shapes it. The score was composed by Howard Shore, the world famous composer, in addition to his previous Lord of the Rings pieces which won him Academy Awards for “best original score.” He is also recognised for his contribution to the Silence of the Lambs and the third Twilight film.

The Desolation of Smaug score comprises of 28 tracks over 128 minutes and the flow wonderfully into each other, particularly when compared to the previous Hobbit instalment which can seem a bit disjointed. The soundtrack is divided across two CD’s, the second half being much more melancholic as Smaug enters the scene. The interesting thing to remember about this score is it acts as a bridge from the first film to the last and therefore has a very different tone to the first. The composition is much darker and creepier as new themes are introduced, old themes are built upon and new themes are foreshadowed.

Something Shore has become loved for is his use of themes in the construction of his score. The first Hobbit, An Unexpected Journey, was complimented for its use of leitmotifs which were so strong that cues of music could be instantly assigned to a character or place (such as Shire theme, for example.) Desolation of Smaug incorporates this thematic composition and introduces new themes to accompany the darker storyline. It is not just the notes which form a leitmotif in score, but the instruments used to play them. In this film, the Shire theme crops up from time to time with its Irish inspired folk instruments including fiddles, whistles and harps. Although the presence of this theme is much less in the Desolation of Smaug than in the first instalment, its strength reinstates the comforting and jolly atmosphere associated with the Shire. On the other hand, brass instruments and strings are used for the more impending themes, however Shore has used a variety to create a contextually rich score.

A new theme introduced by Shore in this score, is Smaug, the dragon from the film in which they are trying to overcome.  The theme for Smaug is six notes long but inflicts such a morbid and daunting sense upon the listener, seeing the film isn’t necessary to know this character is dangerous. It consists of swaying notes being repeated but gaining length with each stroke. Smaug’s theme follows a similar template to Sauron’s theme and can be heard across a few tracks in the second half of the film. Shore interweaves fragments of Sauron’s theme to imply his presence yet he is not revealed until A Spell of Concealment where his theme is played with trombones and violins shrieking over each other with trumpets dominating the melody. Sauron’s theme is also present alongside Smaug’s which cleverly suggests Sauron’s influence over the dragon.

Another theme which really stands out if that of Tauriel, a heroic she-elf. Her theme adopts flutes and oboes alongside a heavenly voice which is reminiscent of Arwen from the Lord of the Rings series. She also has a heroic battle theme when paired up with Legolas which can be heard in Flies and Spiders and the Forest River.

There has been some criticism over the removal of the Misty Mountains theme which dominated the first Hobbit soundtrack. Granted the physical location has changed however this theme was more about representing the dwarves than anything. Another aspect of the soundtrack which has received scepticism is the song developed for the ending credits. Following tradition of using a pop singer to accompany the credits, Desolation of Smaug employs Ed Sheeran with the song “I see fire.” Some are not so keen on the choice however Sheeran’s gentle voice and soft guitar playing end the film on a beautifully and surprisingly epic tone. He repeats Thorin’s words as the chorus which echo a sense of unity amongst the characters.

Overall, the score for Desolation of Smaug is much darker but also more complex and textually rich than An Unexpected Journey. Fans of the joyous Shire music and harmonic elven themes may be disappointed as they are replaced by those of impending doom however Shore has done a magnificent job of weaving these together to not only accompany the film but help shape it. Shore’s use of interlinking leitmotifs has given this score its magic and to be able to follow the tension of a film through the music alone is impressive.

Elysium Soundtrack

Elysium

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The curious thing about the soundtrack to Elysium is that it is a debut by Ryan Amon as a film composer. His works consist of trailers and adverts and it is interesting to see how this could affect his film scoring. The soundtrack comprises of 29 tracks over 72 minutes and is a mixed bag of music with tracks being fresh and innovative, others being generic electronics, some being action packed and others seemingly superfluous. It consists of modern and sometimes innovative musical techniques to suit the futuristic setting yet it also contains mind-numbing or overly aggressive sounds which seem to lack a theme to tie them together, which perhaps reflects Amon’s experience in composing excerpts rather than full soundtracks.

The soundtrack opens with Heaven and Earth which introduces the modernity with a strong resemblance to Hans Zimmer by using electronic sounds backed by percussion. This track, although not particularly revolutionary, does set up the final two tracks nicely. The sounds are very similar to the generic electronic music of films like Pacific Rim and Man of Steel and therefore lack originality and personality.

The score alternates between ambient melodies in tracks such as Darkness to aggressively electronic songs. This is necessary though as the action tracks can be quite overpowering and require the slower songs to restore the balance. The slower songs in comparison however can become quite monotonous and almost boring and seem to be included just to give the ears a rest. The Raven, a track towards the end of the score, is a simple, throbbing percussion which does not alternate in tempo or timbre and seems to add no value or meaning to the score. A Political Sickness simply overuses the electronic horn so characteristic to Pacific Rim and Transformers while adopting a fast drum beat to amplify tension. These tracks seem simple and appear to lack any real depth or thought.

Some of the more interesting pieces use techniques to add a bit of texture to the electronic synths however this does not necessarily make them pleasant pieces to listen to. You said you’d do Anything is a track which introduces an electronic throat singing paired with a repetitive three beat drumming. The singing and percussion gives the piece quite an eerie feel while the electronic spin casts the image of a modern civilisation. Breaking a Promise is a track which really stands out, using wordless vocals and slow strings to portray a sense of loss and impending sadness. The voice almost freezes time which builds tension effectively. Elysium follows this track and is a harmonious mix between orchestral and vocals which increase in intensity, concluding the composition with a beautiful yet melancholic atmosphere. For this reason, this track would have served better as the final song however Amon then added New heaven, New earth which re-invites some dramatic stabbing of synths which perhaps rises the action again instead of ending it like a final track should.

On the whole, the Elysium composition does now flow as a stand-alone score and does not make a pleasant listen without the visuals to accompany it. It comprises of such mixed quality that it makes it difficult to judge. The soundtrack contains overpowering, aggressive tracks which are supposed to heighten the action yet they do not develop, making them fade into the background as annoying throbs. Despite being an action film, the slower songs are the strongest. It is evident that Amon has attempted to introduce some techniques to vary the electronics however they are not strong enough to make up for the lack of quality and abundance of simplicity. One major flaw with this soundtrack is the inconsistency – the balance is on both ends of the scale and with no themes, the pieces appear disjointed which perhaps indicates Amon’s experience to crafting short trailers as opposed to lengthy soundtracks. Many of the tracks could be cut out as they add no meaning and make the composition seem all over the place, without thought or revision. The use of electronic synths lacks the personality and originality that perhaps a debut composer needs. The bits that are good are very good however there are not enough of these highlights to make Elysium a successful composition.

Steel Pan review

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The Steel Pan (also referred to as the Steel Drum) is a percussion instrument originating from the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago in the 1930’s. It is a widely recognised instrument with a unique sound and rich history which is characteristic to Caribbean culture. Although the steel pan was originally designed to play Calypso music, modern influences have integrated the steel pan due to its versatile nature.

The steel pan was an instrument used in street music and designed to be played at festivals, known as Calypso music. When French planters arrived in Trinidad in the 1700’s they introduced the concept of carnivals and their slaves had their own festivals which were driven by drum music. After emancipation, the music become noisier and drum music was banned by the British government. Tamboo-bamboo then surfaced, which were bamboo cuts being struck on the ground which was also then banned in 1934, thus the emergence and survival of the steel pan. People began experimenting with pots and pans lying around and the steel pan became iconic to Trinidadian culture. By 1941, the sound of the steel pan had entered America.

The steel pan is originally made out of 55 gallon industrial oil drums. The process consists of ten steps including sinking the drum, marking and denting the metal and tuning the notes. Modern steel pans use sheet metal instead of oil drums. The instrument has three main parts; the skirt, the belly and the playing surface. The skirt is the surrounding base of the drum – the shorter the skirt, the higher the pitch. The belly is where the sound resonates and the playing surface contains the notes. The higher pitch notes are made of smaller indentations that the lower notes. The tenor steel pan is a typical example of a short-skirted, higher pitched drum and is the most recognised. The metal is then hit using mallets. Talented pannists may sometimes use two mallets per hand. The grip can alter the sound produced so there is a specific technique to be mastered.

This Trinidadian instrument is extremely versatile and although developed initially for calypso music, it can be used to play any genre. The steel pan has been used in reggae, ska, western pop and even contemporary Christian music. For example, The Hollies used the steel pan in their song “Carrie-Ann” and Prince popularized the sound in his “New Position.” The steel pan is also the defining instrument to the Disney song “Under the sea” in the Little Mermaid. It seems to be a popular choice as its high pitched sound promotes an exotic and tropical image. This makes the steel pan useful for producing upbeat and happy songs which resonates sunshine and unity.

The steel pan is still undergoing development, with advancements in notes, tuning and attempts at simplifying the manufacturing processes to allow mass production. Steel pans can also deteriorate quite easily and need retuning twice a year. Sheet metal can now be used as an alternative to oil drums. Electronic pans have also been designed; the E-pan for example, by Salmon Cupid. British composer Daphne Oram was the first to use an electronic steel pan in her composition.  This instrument is only 80 years old which allows for expansion however traditional pannists will insist that there is nothing like an original Trinidadian steel drum.

Trinidad holds various competitions for Steel bands, honouring their tradition. The most famous is the World Steel band Music Festival which has been running since 1964 and invites competitors from across the world to re-interpret calypsos and perform a piece of their choice, usually a classical rendition.

The steel pan is a unique and inspiring instrument with an enriched history which is upheld with each playing. The joyful pitch and exotic tones can transport listeners to an auditory paradise, while Trinidadians are reminded of their rejoice and conquer from oppression. It is an instrument with room to develop, perhaps making it an innovative choice to use in a modern, Caribbean inspired composition.

Assasin’s Creed IV: Black Flag Soundtrack Review

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The soundtrack for Black Flag was designed by American composer Brian Tyler, whose works include The Expendables, Iron Man 3 and the video game Far Cry 3. The latest Assassin’s Creed instalment is based upon Caribbean pirates so the soundtrack needed to generate a nautical authenticity, which it does very well. The overall composition is 34 tracks and is a wonderful blend of extensive orchestral and rock instrumentation. The tracks may have a familiar sound to them as they are strongly inspired by Hans Zimmer and Klaus Badelt with their work on Pirates of the Caribbean. The main opening theme for the game has a strong resemblance to the lively folk jig of the first POC film.

The tracks in Black Flag really create a seafaring atmosphere and vary in timbre to compliment the player’s actions. The three prominent tones vary between jovial jigs, dramatic combat and calm exploration. The jigs are used when the player visits the towns and comprise of Irish folk music using percussive drums, strings and brass. This maintains the nautical feel while providing some light hearted music to accompany a pirate’s errands. When exploring a relatively safe location like a jungle for example, the music takes a more minimal approach. The drums are quiet and light in the background while strings play delicate yet lengthy notes. As tension increases when entering battle, the strings are shorter, sharper and used in repetitive bars. The drums become dominant as they increase in volume and tempo. A key instrument to this soundtrack and other music depicting the Golden Age of piracy is the Marimba. This is a percussive instrument made up of wooden bars. It originated in the West Indies by African Slaves in the 16th and 17th century, making the sound characteristic and relevant to the Black Flag soundtrack.

When sailing the high seas, the music disappears (unless in combat with another ship) and is instead replaced by sea shanties. These are collectable in the game and allow your crew to sing while sailing and include famous shanties such as Drunken Sailor. The singing can be turned on and off by the player. They add a charm to the game and reinforce the authenticity of the setting however if the player is not a fan of drunken chants they can become quite irritating, especially when you find yourself singing along even when not playing the game as they are extremely catchy. When the shanties are turned off, there is no music at all apart from the gentle lull of the waves which although slightly boring, is an accurate portrayal of being a pirate.

Although wonderfully composed, the integration of the soundtrack can be inconsistent at times. The music tends to alter in tone, becoming tenser which makes the player think they are approaching danger when they are not. It then ebbs away again into the previous music which can be confusing. It can also phase in and out randomly leaving the player nothing to listen to but their own footsteps, for quite some time until it kicks in again. With 1 hour 38 minutes of play time, the music can become quite tedious as there are no tracks which really stand out. The tone does change to accommodate battles, but there are no individual songs which really represent a character or a place and they all tend to sound quite similar. Even when listening to the soundtrack when not playing the game, there is no song which really sparks an association.

Overall, Tyler’s composition is outstanding representation of 17th century piracy and has been beautifully crafted to fit around the needs of the game. It produces such an authenticity that it really enhances the setting and atmosphere of Black Flag. Except for a few small inconsistencies, the music is flawless and lends a hand to making this instalment evolve from the other Assasin’s Creed titles.

Shamisen

 

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The Japanese culture is one of etiquette and tradition and even their instruments reflect this. A shamisen is a three stringed instrument which resembles a banjo or perhaps a guitar. It is played by plucking, using a fan shaped plectrum called a bachi. Despite consisting of only three strings, the sound of the shamisen is very distinct and can be manipulated in a variety of ways.

Traditionally, the shamisen is constructed of high value materials such as silk and ivory however there are cheaper and more durable versions, usually used by practising students. The shamisen is comprised of two main parts which can be disassembled for convenience; the body and the neck. The frame is usually carved out of mulberry or sandalwood. The neck of the shamisen is fretless and has three pegs at the end used to tighten the strings. The strings would be made using silk, or sometimes nylon, and would be pulled across the base of the shamisen. The body resembles a drum and is covered with taut hide. For professional players, this is usually cat skin and some of the most highly regarded shamisen still feature the cat’s nipples.

The shamisen is derived from a Chinese instrument called the sanchian in the 16th century. Since reaching Japan, the shamisen has become a characteristic feature of Kabuki; the Japanese theatre. It can be played solo or as part of an ensemble.  Shamisens are also often associated with geisha as maikos take lessons in learning the shamisen shape their future as geisha. They often play the shamisen at teahouses to entertain the guests. Memoirs of a geisha (a film and novel) exemplify the importance of learning the shamisen and even show the lead character performing Kabuki where the shamisen is used as an accompaniment to a dance performance.

The shamisen has a very unique sound and could be likened to a whiney twang. The piercing notes linger by the amplification of the drum body and this gives the instrument a melancholic tone. When plucked slowly, the shamisen produces quite an eerie yet calming sound with a mysterious implication. However, when tempo and volume are increased, the shamisen can create a lively and upbeat atmosphere which emanates a slight urgency.

Traditional shamisen playing adhere to very strict rules about the construction and composition of shamisen music. However,   Tsugaru-jamisen is a genre of shamisen music developed in northern Japan which has been growing in repertoire. The rules are much more relaxed with this genre and has allowed for variation in shamisen playing. For example, the strings of the instrument tend to be thicker, the components are made out of acrylic materials and even an electric tsugaru-jamisen has been developed. This style of playing has a more percussive quality, created by the plectrum striking the body after each stroke.

In 1999, the shamisen was revolutionised by The Yoshida Brothers who beautifully demonstrate the variation in energy which a shamisen can have. Playing tsugaru-jamisen, they incorporate elements of jazz and rock and use other instruments such as drums and synthesizers to enhance the shamisen. They became extremely popular, reaching American ears and their music was even used to advertise the Nintendo Wii.

The shamisen is an instrument which radiates delicacy and reform. With a single note, the mind inadvertently delves into the realm of Japanese culture. An instrument which is able to do this is a powerful one and this essence must be retained. Although modernists have updated the perception of shamisen playing, the unique sound still resonates, reminding listeners of the underlying history and culture. If anything, the updating of shamisen playing has reminded the modern world of this pure instrument and has allowed it to enter the market, therefore re-entering minds.

Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

 

Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was released in 1988 and since then has become a beloved classic. This game revolutionised RPG’s and the Zelda series still amazes the market today. Essentially, the plot consists of a young boy dressed in green, delving into an adventure to save the princess Zelda. There are many elements to this game which make it so heart-warming yet the most memorable aspect to the Zelda series, is the music behind the game which can spark a wave of nostalgia to any player.

The composer for the Ocarina of Time soundtrack is Koji Kondo – the first man hired by Nintedo for the sole purpose of composing. He is also the composer of the equally loved Super Mario series. The Legend of Zelda soundtrack comprises of 82 tracks with a total runtime of 1 hour 17 seconds. The songs are simplistic renditions of the do-re-mi scale. The music was developed using a MIDI, a musical instrument digital interface, which allowed a variety of instruments to communicate with each other and computers. The most notable instruments used in the game include a flute, piano, violin, timpani and a snare drum.

Perhaps the most nostalgic aspect of the game is Kondo’s use of the technique leitmotif. This is defined as a short, constantly recurring musical phrase which is associated with a character or place, usually serving as an introductory theme tune. However, Kondo gives each location in Hyrule its own song which plays as the player approaches the area. With such limited scales but comprehensive soundtrack, Kondo has given each character and location an associated melody which produces emotion but retains catchiness. For example, the song for Koriki

village has a light-hearted, high and joyful tone, comprised mainly from strings and wind, which replicates the nature of the residents of the village. Yet the theme for the final boss consists of fast, tumbling low notes of urgency, interjected with long alternating notes which inflict a sense of danger in the player. It’s these emotive yet simplistic songs which make the Legend of Zelda so engaging, as the player’s emotions are heightened by the appropriate music choice.

With over 70 hours of gameplay, Kondo faced a huge challenge composing a soundtrack which retained interest yet provoke emotion while avoiding becoming too monotonous. The Hyrule field track is the perfect example of this. Short stoked from strings which are harmonised by flute solos give the field track a majestic feel. However, the variations keep it interesting. While running, there is the addition of percussion but when standing still the percussion drops and the music becomes quieter and more serene. Tempo change is very significant to altering the tone. Enemy battle music often interjects the field track which returns once the enemy is defeated. The importance here is not just variation, but the interaction between the music and the player’s control. Koji Kondo was asked in an interview what he considered to be important when composing music for a game to which he replied; “First of all, each game has a unique rhythm or tempo, so I try to capture that and compose music that fits the game’s rhythm. Second of all, the balance. For games, it isn’t just the music, one also has to consider sound effects, the balance of the volume, the balance between left and right channels, and make sure the sound effects more prominent. Third, putting in variations in the music to fit with the interactivity of the game. For example, speeding up the tempo when time is running out or changing the music that plays depending on the player’s location.”

Legend of Zelda takes music to the next level with the involvement of instruments being essential for story progression. Link must learn to play songs which have specific attributes, like summoning his horse, which draw the player’s attention to the music. Notes appear on the screen to which the player must press the correct buttons to copy the tune. These are simplistic lines ranging from four to eight notes, using the five notes available on an ocarina. The analogue stick could be used to bend pitches which helped Kondo overcome the challenge of creating different melodies. Once completing the song, an orchestral version comes in underneath Link’s playing, adding a sense of achievement. These songs soon become memorable after learning to play and really heighten the appreciation for the soundtrack.

It seems the soundtrack for Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of time plays an equally important role to the functioning of the game as the story does. Kondo has not only produced a majestic and fluctuating composition but has made it so powerful; it inflicts a strong reminiscence upon players which has made it such a well-known classic.

Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch

 

Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is a Japanese role-playing game released in January 2013. The developers are Level 5 and Studio Ghibli, the latter being a Japanese film studio set in Tokyo. The game is breath-taking in all elements but most specifically; its soundtrack.

The music behind the game was composed by Joe Hisaichi, who is also known for his musical contribution to films such as Spirited Away and Ponyo. For a game which has over 40 hours gameplay, the music must be captivating without becoming repetitive, which is something Hisaichi has achieved well. He even claimed he found this composition quite easy and felt very blessed with the production of Ni No Kuni. He based the music on Irish folk music and the soundtrack consists of 21 tracks which amount to 55 minutes in total. The score took Hisaichi a mere 7 days to compose and it is performed by the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra (which consists of 166 members).

Ni No Kuni is essentially a cross between Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest and Pokémon. The protagonist, Oliver, is a young boy travels to a parallel, magical world after the death of his mother. He uses his wizardry skills and trainable creature called familiars to restore the souls of the “broken-hearted.”

From the moment the game loads, the opening theme is uplifting and epic. There is an instant crashing of loud booming horns which grabs the attention of the player and inflicts this sense of alertness, making you want to delve into this adventure. The piece then unfolds and breaks down into softer violin strokes, topped with the subtle sound of the triangle. It then unravels further into a flute solo, which gives the piece a gentle yet magical sound. This then develops into rushing violins, reverts back to the flute and then loops back round to the opening horns. This variation tells a story in itself and prepares you for the depth of the game.

Another notable track of the game is the field track i.e. the music which plays when exploring the world map. As with the opening track, this piece follows a similar grand opening which breaks down into different, softer harmonies and then builds up again. The instruments provide a real sense of adventure while reminding the player of the sombre threat which lurks over the world as they trek to their next destination. The rebuild of the tune gives the impression of hope and ambition in conquering the melancholy melody.

The battle song consists of invasive violins using sharp and fast strokes to emit a sense of urgency and danger, while a gentle sweeping percussion induces hope. The only downfall of this track is that as Oliver levels up, the battles are shorter and the music can become repetitive and almost irritating when you have frequent battles and you only hear the urgent strings.

An example of a more sentimental piece of music in Ni No Kuni is Arie Recollection which is used to convey Oliver’s loss of his mother. This is a slow and gentle piano melody, paired with saddening violin strokes and harp harmonies. There are also high pitched yet soft tings which remind the player of Oliver’s youth and the combination of these make the piece quite emotional.

The closing track is the only one to contain vocals, sung by Hisaichi’s daughter called “Kokoro no Kakera” (which translates as “Pieces of a broken heart.”)Combined with flutes and piano, the piece is quite moving as it has a wistful feel yet it includes the field track giving a beautiful sense of victory and achievement which ends the game perfectly. You feel like you have been through a real journey and her voice makes you feel overwhelmed at completing Ni No Kuni.

Hisaichi has composed a wonderful soundtrack which not only compliments Ni No Kuni, but helps shape it. The music has such a powerful impact that when you hear it, you are overcome with the need to replay Ni No Kuni and can envision the world without visual aid. Hisaichi really has created the “nostalgic, but connected to the future” world he was aiming for while giving us a memorable and enjoyable musical experience which so unique to a video game.