Genevieve Valentine’s fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Fantasy Magazine, and anthologies Federations, Teeth, and Running with the Pack. Her first novel is forthcoming from Prime. She is a columnist at Fantasy Magazine and Tor.com, and writes about movies of questionable taste on her blog.
So, I am a writer and a movie nerd. These go together, largely because the sound of a keyboard in an empty room tends to freak me out. (I’ve watched too many horror movies.)
On the other hand, if I actually put on a movie, I will never get anything done (for the rest of my entire life).
Enter the movie scores!
By now, everyone who has seen Inception has seen this (and if you haven’t, for goodness’ sake don’t click!):
Spoiler-free description: it’s an example of a great composer at the top of his craft, pushing a movie moment over the edge from solid to sublime.
For those looking to boost their music libraries, I lined up nine awesome composers in no particular order. Most of them have done science fiction or fantasy movies; a few haven’t. All of them have at least one or two not-so-hot movies under their belts. (Luckily, the double-edged Sword of Credit means that while they don’t get enough praise for magnificent work, no one ever looks at Howard Shore and says, “That guy sunk The Cell.”) All of them are well worth listening to if you’re looking for a little inspiration.
The grand master. Composer of well over 100 soundtracks, from A League of Their Own to The Thin Red Line. Gladiator (with Lisa Gerrard) pushed him to superstardom, and he’s been knocking them out of the park since. Teamed up with James Newton Howard for Batman Begins, one of the strongest film scores of the last ten years. (Composing for movies is like living in a small town, I guess.)
Must-listen: “Hunger,” Black Hawk Down, a movie in six minutes.
Runner-up: “Vide Cor Meum,” Hannibal. Co-written by Patrick Cassidy, who apparently wrote an entire opera just to give context for the one track. (You gotta love composers.)
Composer of The Lord of the Rings. Also a lot of other movies that are not The Lord of the Rings, as well as The Lord of the Rings. Like a lot of composers, his material runs the gamut, but he’s a living example of a project coming to define a composer’s career, like with Howard Shore and The Lord of the Rings.
Must-listen: “eXistenZ by Antenna,” eXistenZ. The sort of creepiness the movie required, but with enough proto-LOTR sensibility that you’d recognize him at a hundred paces.
Runner-up: “The End of All Things,” The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King. Literally epic.
Renaissance man Sakamoto seems like the sort of person who has to make music or the day just isn’t full. A chart-topping classical and electropop musician with a decades-long career racking up more than two dozen albums, he also won the Academy Award for scoring The Last Emperor, one of thirty-something film scores he’s written in what we can only assume were a few weekends of free time when he was just kicking around.
Must-listen: “Main Title,” Wuthering Heights
Runner-up: “Raga Naiki Kanhra / The trial,” Little Buddha
This longtime movie composer made a seamless move to videogames, where he’s done some of his best work scoring Metal Gear Solid. It probably helps his VG stuff that he seems to love action scenes like few other composers do and flavors a lot of his pieces with techno elements. (On a completely different track, he’s recently become a Disney darling, scoring the Narnia series and Prince of Persia. You keep ’em guessing!)
Must-listen: “Main Theme,” Metal Gear Solid III
Runner-up: “Training Montage,” Spy Game
This workhorse seems to prefer mainstream movies and period pieces to spec flicks (his work includes The Piano, The Libertine, and The End of the Affair.) But when he dabbles in science fiction, as he did with 1997’s Gattaca, he really makes it count.
Must-listen: “Impromptu for 12 Fingers,” Gattaca. From a piano performance by a 12-fingered artist. (“That piece can only be played with 12.”)
Runner-up: “The Morrow,” Gattaca. (Seriously, dude, do some more sci-fi stuff.)
Dead Can Dance vet Lisa Gerrard specializes in floaty, atmospheric layers of sound , which sound at home no matter where you use them (and make her more recognizable than some other composers on this list – you always know when it’s Lisa Gerrard). Her big break was Gladiator (alongside Hans Zimmer), but her work on The Insider was just as impressive, and she found possibly the perfect project for her signature style in 2002’s Whale Rider.
Must-listen: “Empty Water,” Whale Rider
Runner-up: “Sacrifice,” The Insider
He creeped across the American radar with “Chaiyya Chaiyya” in American Gangster, and became a household name with” Jai Ho” from Slumdog Millionaire. (Um, thank you, Pussycat Dolls?) But Rahman is the undisputed king of Bollywood music, and for good reason: the dude rocks. He handles everything from energetic dance numbers to pining instrumentals, sometimes within minutes of each other. (Another Hall of Famer with more than 100 composing credits; I’m willing to bet all of them sound pretty great.)
Must-listen: “Chaiyya Chaiyya,” Dil Se. It’s so awesome that they’ve used it for about eight things already. It’s awesome every time.
Runner -up: “Dacoit Duel,” Water
The “Hey, it’s that guy!” of composers, James Newton Howard’s music tends to serve the movie rather than stand out – except for when it’s so good you can’t help but remember it. (Hum three bars from The Fugitive!) He recently got to the artistic big leagues with his work on Batman Begins and The Dark Knight; if everyone can forgive him for scoring The Last Airbender, he should continue to have a long and stealth-awesome career.
Must-listen: “The Vote,” The Village
Runner-up: “Eptesicus,” Batman Begins (with Hans Zimmer)
You know that friend of yours who is a total genius with so much talent it just makes you sick, and had one or two successes, but who is always dating people who petition them for signatures in the subway, and taking part-time jobs as the hot dog standing outside Gray’s Papaya, and you just want to shake them and scream that they deserve better than the choices they make? Anyway, Graeme Revell is a composer for The Crow, Strange Days, a bunch of independent projects, andâ€¦uh, Bride of Chucky, Aeon Flux, and the Eleventh Hour TV series.
Must-listen & Runner-up: “Alone,” from the Red Planet soundtrack, which is a complete crib of “Fall in the Light,” from his work with Lori Carson on the Strange Days soundtrack, but the piece is so great you understand why he used it twice.
There are enough great composers for a hundred more lists; are there any movie scores that are old standbys? Any new ones that have captured your heart? Any you’re ashamed to admit you own?
Confession: I will always love Brian Tyler’s soundtrack for Children of Dune, but mentioning that to someone usually involves explaining how many times I’ve watched Children of Dune, which gets awkward. (I have seen it mumblemumble times. I’m not proud.)