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Academy Breaks From Tradition With Latest Oscar Nominees for Score

Variety logo Variety 2/22/2017 Jon Burlingame
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For years, the Motion Picture Academy’s music branch has been accused of being old-fashioned and out of touch, always nominating the same handful of composers for best original score.

But not this year.

For the first time in nearly a half century, four of the five original-score Oscar nominations have gone to newcomers. The last time that happened was in 1967, when Lalo Schifrin, Quincy Jones, Richard Rodney Bennett, and Leslie Bricusse — now film-music legends — were Oscar-nominated for the first time.

Most of the 2016 nominees either come from unusual backgrounds or approached their films from surprising musical perspectives.

The big news is the nomination of Mica Levi for “Jackie” — the first woman composer to be nominated since 2000 and only the fifth in Academy history to be named in a scoring category.

“It’s a score where the music was excellent, and prominently featured,” says music-branch governor Laura Karpman, a leading advocate for diversity in the Academy. Levi has drawn critical raves, with Variety critic Guy Lodge noting that her “astonishing score somehow plays the complicated,

colliding feelings of anger, confusion, and cold acceptance that come with personal loss.” Karpman says the nomination shows that, as far as diversity is concerned, the

Academy is making progress.

Perhaps even more interesting is the fact that most of the nominees have limited experience in film.

In most years, a work by the venerable John Williams would be nominated. Williams has a staggering 50 Oscar noms, and the scores for each of his last five films made the cut. In fact, only once in the past 15 years has he failed to receive at least one nomination in a year in which he has had an eligible work. But the music branch didn’t nominate his score this year for

“The BFG.”

None of this year’s nominated scores would qualify as a traditional symphonic work in the classic Hollywood style. While all use actual musicians, three of the five also employ avant-garde techniques.

“Lion” used prepared piano (a technique involving placing objects between the strings to create odd sounds) and, in another departure from scoring tradition, was recorded in three locations: Düsseldorf, Los Angeles, and Budapest.

“An orchestra is an amazing way to make music,” says “Lion” composer Dustin O’Halloran. “It’s still valid, but there are so many more ways to score a film that can project a totally different kind of feeling. A lot of filmmakers are about my age, so we’ve all grown up listening to a lot of different music — electronic, experimental, indie — so I feel their aesthetics have changed as well.”

The mono-monikered Hauschka,

O’Halloran’s co-composer on “Lion,” finds that films today are more open to the ways they express emotion. “It’s nice that music doesn’t overpower the story,” he says. “It’s more like an addition, underlining the emotions, letting the audience find its own feelings.”

Nicholas Britell, nominated for “Moonlight,” recorded a work for piano and strings in a conventional way but processed the sounds by applying the “chopped and screwed” technique of Southern hip-hop, slowing down the recordings for a richer, deeper texture.

“I still used piano, violin, orchestral textures, but I was also utilizing technology to bend sounds,” says Britell. “There are so many new possibilities to experiment with, and that’s really exhilarating.”

Levi, in only her second feature, composed most of “Jackie” away from the film, seeing just a few scenes, writing about 50 minutes of music, and delivering it to director Pablo Larrain, who then placed it in the film as he deemed appropriate.

Like O’Halloran and Hauschka, Levi’s life isn’t entirely in film. She fronts an experimental pop band called Micachu and the Shapes. (Hauschka has just penned a cello concerto and O’Halloran has released a number of solo piano albums.)

The only veteran among the year’s nominees is Thomas Newman, receiving his 14th nom (so far without a win) for “Passengers.” A hybrid score featuring both large orchestra and a profusion of electronic sounds, it, too, is forward-thinking in its use of both real instruments and cutting-edge technology.

But the most conventional score may well prove the most popular: Justin Hurwitz’s music for “La La Land” takes one cue from pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and his desire to run a jazz club, and another from the songs he and Mia (Emma Stone) sing, expressing their feelings about life, dreams, and each other. There’s lots of jazz being played both before and behind the camera.

And like much of the rest of the field, Hurwitz is a relative newcomer to scoring — “La La Land” is just his third film.

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