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Oscar Score Contenders Provide an Infusion of New Blood

Variety logo Variety 2/9/2017 Jon Burlingame
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Four of the five scores nominated for this year’s Oscars were composed by first-time nominees, something that hasn’t happened in 49 years (last time: 1967, when Lalo Schifrin scored “Cool Hand Luke” and Quincy Jones did “In Cold Blood”).

And one of them – “Jackie” composer Mica Levi – happens to be female, marking only the sixth time in Academy history that a woman has been nominated for composing an original score, and the first time in 16 years.

While she used a traditional orchestra, most of her fellow nominees either applied experimental or avant-garde techniques – using prepared piano in “Lion” and post-recording processing of the sound in “Moonlight” – or added futuristic-sounding electronics, as in “Passengers.” “La La Land” also used a big orchestra but half that score is also rooted in small-combo jazz.

Surprisingly, most of the nominees have only limited film experience: “Jackie” is Levi’s second feature, “La La Land’s” Justin Hurwitz his third, “Moonlight’s” Nicholas Britell his seventh. “Passengers” composer Thomas Newman is the sole veteran in the group, having been nominated 13 times previously without a win.

Four are American, one is English (Levi) and one German (Hauschka, born Volker Bertelmann). Two other much-honored films, “Arrival” and “Manchester by the Sea,” were disqualified by the Academy music branch because of their use of pre-existing music in addition to the original scores.

“Jackie” Mica Levi

Oscar pedigree: First nomination

Musical style: Melancholy strings and woodwinds, striking glissandos for Jackie biopic

Artist’s POV: “I was interested in her grace and her strength, her privileged position but also the loss and extreme trauma that she experienced. I thought of her as quite sweet and childlike. I basically got together a group of instruments that felt resonant to the time because it was a period piece.”

Surprising fact: Mostly written away from film; director decided musical placement

“La La Land” Justin Hurwitz

Oscar pedigree: First nomination (also has two song nods)

Musical style: Tuneful, jazz-oriented backdrop for L.A. dreamers

Artist’s POV: “We spent so much time on melodies. Melodies that stick with you, that you can hum when you’re leaving the movie theater. I do so many demos for Damien (Chazelle) and he says ‘no’ a lot until I finally get to the right melody. It may be the 25th or 30th, but I’m the first to recognize that it’s definitely worth waiting for.”

Surprising fact: Hurwitz orchestrated every note himself, a rarity in film music

“Lion” Dustin O’Halloran, Hauschka

Oscar pedigree: First nomination for each

Musical style: Piano-and-strings score with advanced performance techniques

Artist’s POV: (O’Halloran) “An orchestral approach would have been too much. It’s such an emotional story that Garth (director Davis) didn’t really want to push the audience. For us, it was trying to find the right restraint, the right level. (Hauschka) “The biggest challenge for us was to to find exactly the temperature and quality, not to destroy this beauty that was there.”

Surprising fact: They avoided any hint of “Indian” music despite the Indian locale

“Moonlight” Nicholas Britell

Oscar pedigree: First nomination

Musical style: Chamber-style score, some slowed down for richer, deeper sound

Artist’s POV: “The first cue in the movie, Little’s theme, is a piano-and-violin piece that I initially called ‘Piano and Violin Poem’ because there was this poetry in the screenplay and the early cuts that I saw, this feeling of intimacy and sensitivity and beauty in the film. I was trying to channel the musical sound of poetry.”

Surprising fact: With music, director Barry Jenkins sought to “bring the arthouse to the hood”

“Passengers” Thomas Newman

Oscar pedigree: 14th nomination

Musical style: Strings, brass, piano plus elaborate electronics for spaceship crisis

Artist’s POV: “Music had to refine and sharpen the tone of the images and the sense of character interaction. What is the notion of future? I didn’t want to get caught in the trap of trying to create ‘futuristic music’ which then has to be a kind of justifable language. That was a big dilemma for me. What kind of music would they be listening to?”

Surprising fact: Newman plays all the keyboards throughout the score

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