At times, the eagle eyed film enthusiast could be forgiven for thinking that there were about four composers scoring high profile films. Hans Zimmer scored five films last year, and four films this year. Alexandre Desplat managed six in 2013, and five in 2014, while Christophe Beck topped both with seven last year, and six in 2014. Once you're in demand, you're really in demand, and the top tier of movies is very much dominated by established figures to the extent that up-and-comers must feel that it's impossible to break through.
But break through they continue to do, and there's a steady stream of exciting musical talent composing terrific work, mostly through the indie world, ensuring that new movies sound as fresh as they look. To pick up our ongoing On The Rise series of ascending stars, which started last week with cinematographers, we've picked out a dozen young composers who've tickled our eardrums in the last year or so. In 2013, one of our picks, Steven Price, went on to win the Academy Award for "Gravity," so we're certainly expecting big things from this year's graduates in the next twelve months or so. You can take a look, and a listen, at our choices below.
Watching the hotly-tipped dance-punk/hip-hop/thrash band Test Icicles, a group only marginally better than their name, back in 2005, a number of things went through our head. None of them were "less than a decade from now, one of the guys in this band will be scoring a film by a member of the Coppola family." And yet when Devonte Hynes wrote the excellent soundtrack to Gia Coppola's "Palo Alto" last year, that's exactly what happened. When the band split in 2006, Hynes, who was born in Texas but raised in East London, commented, "We were never, ever that keen on the music. I understand that people liked it, but we personally didn't." And his dizzylingly diverse subsequent career has backed that up: his first post-Test Icicles project, under the name Lightspeed Champion, was a lovely country-rock record featuring a number of Bright Eyes collaborators. Another followed in 2010, before two more as another incarnation, Blood Orange, which went in a slightly more electronic-tinged direction (last year's Cupid Deluxe is his best work to date). But he was enormously busy beyond that as a songwriter for hire, racking up credits for Florence And The Machine, The Chemical Brothers, some unused Britney Spears tracks, and perhaps most notably, for his friend Solange Knowles, sister of Beyoncé: their collaboration "Losing You" is one of the best pop songs in recent memory. Until last year, his major contribution to the soundtrack world had been duetting with Kristen Wiig on the end-credits song for "MacGruber," but Gia Coppola was a fan of Hynes' earlier records, and sought him out when making her first feature, a dreamy adaptation of James Franco's short story collection. Hynes' woozy, hugely atmospheric work, reminiscent of Air's work on auntie Sofia's debut "The Virgin Suicides" while beating out its own chilly, industrial path, is one of the best elements of the film, and we can only hope there's more to come from him in the movie world.
Last time Jonathan Glazer made a film—2004's fascinating, beguiling "Birth"—it came complete with maybe the finest score of the decade, via Alexandre Desplat's unforgettable work. So hopes were high when Glazer returned nine years later with "Under The Skin," but rather than reteaming with the ever-busy Desplat, or finding another A-list composer to work with, he instead gave the job to a then-25-year-old first-time film composer named Mica Levi. But there was no reason to doubt the results, as Levi knocked it out of the park. Classically trained at London's Guildhall (one of her pieces was performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 2008), Levi actually came to fame first as a DJ, through a mixtape known as Filthy Friends, then as the frontwoman of indie-pop band Micachu And The Shapes, whose 2009 record Jewellery was one of the most acclaimed of that year. The band's 2011 follow-up Chopped & Screwed, which rearranged the first album as a live collaboration with the London Sinfonietta, was brought to Glazer's attention by his music supervisor, and Levi came on board the film in April 2012, spending nearly a year working on her compositions. Written and recorded principally on viola, rather than the home-made instruments of the Micachu & The Shapes records, and influenced by Iannis Xenaxis, John Cage, and, in her words, "strip-club music and euphoric dance" it's astonishing stuff: otherworldly and strangely alluring, like the film itself. It's hardly hummable, with Levi telling The Guardian, "If your lifeforce is being distilled by an alien, it's not necessarily going to sound very nice. It's supposed to be physical, alarming, hot." The composer messed with the pitch and tone of what she wrote, "perverting material," as she calls it, to create a finished product that's just as responsible for the film's nervy, agitated, unshakable tone as Glazer and DP Daniel Landin's haunted imagery. As yet, there's no news of Levi taking on another film project, but she just performed the score live alongside the film in London, and we hope there'll be plenty more to come along these lines.
At the moment, Kathryn Bostic feels like a well-kept secret, familiar only to serious jazz heads or those immersed in the American theater scene, but if she carries on in the film world the way she has been, she's likely to break out in a very big way before too long. New York-born Bostic took up the piano at three and has carved out an impressive career as a vocalist and pianist in adulthood, working with the likes of David Byrne, Nas and Ryuichi Sakamoto, and releasing a self-produced CD of her own songs, From Me To You. She got her start composing in the theater world, turning heads after working with August Wilson on the legendary writer's penultimate play, "Gem Of The Ocean," which premiered only two years before the author's passing. She's worked consistently in theater since, including two plays by "The Walking Dead" star Danai Gurira, and writing some acclaimed music for the Broadway production of Rajiv Joseph's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Bengal Tiger At The Baghdad Zoo," which starred the late Robin Williams. On screen, she started working in documentary in the early '00s, but it was her relationship with director Ava DuVernay that brought her to more attention in the film world. They worked together on DuVernay's debut feature "I Will Follow," and reteamed for her ESPN doc "Venus Vs," in addition to the filmmaker's breakout "Middle Of Nowhere," the latter of which is a subtle, understated score that along with the careful direction and excellent performances, go a long way to keeping the film far away from melodrama. Most recently, she scored documentary "The New Black," and more notably, Justin Simeon's Sundance smash "Dear White People," lending a diverse mix of classical, hip-hop and jazz that perfectly encapsulates the film's subject matter. There's no word yet as to whether she's working again with DuVernay on her Oscar-touted "Selma," but if she is (and we certainly hope so), expect her to be much better known by this time next year.
Danny Bensi & Saunder Jurriaans
Multi-instrumentalists and classically trained musicians Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans first gained attention in 2004 with Tarantula A.D., their hypnotic and proggy indie-rock band featuring Devendra Banhart associate and drummer Gregory Rogove. They band eventually changed their nom de plume to Priestbird and only began their film scoring career as a duo in 2010 with the Cannes Directors' Fortnight effort “Two Gates of Sleep” starring Brady Corbet. But after scoring Sean Durkin’s “Martha Marcy May Marlene” in 2011, the duo's career quickly took off in succession and they have become go-to composers for in-the-know indie filmmakers. Antonio Campos’ “Simon Killer” followed, Sebastian Silva's "Magic Magic,” Lance Edmunds’ still unreleased superb “Bluebird” and perhaps their biggest “get,” Dennis Villeneuve’s “Enemy” starring Jake Gyllenhaal. If you see a moody pattern emerging on the type of films they’ve worked on, you’d be on the money; the pair, influenced by folks like Krzysztof Penderecki, Terry Bozzio and even later-day dark and doomy Scott Walker, traffic largely in droney and disquieting soundscapes, specializing in that sweet spot where discordant sounds subtly burn in the back of the frame rather than overpowering the narrative. This year they scored the Sundance sci-fi-ish mystery relationship film "The One I Love" and showed their diversity with the more classical "5 To 7." And they’ve booked a ton of work into the near future, with more than a dozen features and shorts they have scored that have yet to be released. Highlights include "A Good Marriage" starring Kristen Connolly, Joan Allen and Stephen Lang; Rodrigo García's "Last Days In the Desert" starring Ewan McGregor, Ciarán Hinds, Tye Sheridan and Sebastián Silva's next film "Nasty Baby" starring Kristen Wiig, Alia Shawkat, and Mark Margolis. Suffice to say, you may not have heard of them, but you will be hearing from them soon whether you know it or not.