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Music On Trial, March 7: Fresh composer beats out film vets for Oscar win

The 86th Academy Awards were held on Sunday, March 2 and, as always, were filled with laughter and tears. Noteworthy moments included Jennifer Lawrence’s second Oscar-worthy fall, John Travolta’s butchering of Idina Menzel’s name, Benedict Cumberbatch’s U2 photobomb and Leonardo DiCaprio’s trek home Oscar-less… again.

The night also included some fantastic music, including performances by the nomninees for Best Original Song, an award that went to “Let It Go” from “Frozen,” written by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez and sung in a noteworthy performance by Idina Menzel. “Let It Go” beat out “Happy” from “Despicable Me 2,” “The Moon Song” from “Her” and “Ordinary Love” from “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom.”

My favorite category, however, was the award for best original film score. Before I begin discussing the nominees, I must confess that I have not seen any of the films in question. That said, I have listened to the soundtracks on the Internet and read as many articles as I could get my hands on about the composers and their scores. And the nominees are…

“The Book Thief”

Composed by John Williams

No stranger to the Oscars, John Williams has been nominated 49 times for his original scores, songs and adaptations. Williams won five Best Original Score awards for his work on “Schindler’s List,” “E.T. The Extra Terrestrial,” “Star Wars,” “Jaws” and “Fiddler on the Roof.” Williams also composed the scores for the first three Harry Potter movies, all four Indiana Jones films and “Lincoln.”


Composed by William Butler and Owen Pallett

Both Butler and Pallett are members of the band Arcade Fire, making the “Her” soundtrack a poignant example of a trend in which pop and rock musicians are entering the film score industry. While “Her” is their first collaborative full-length score, the band is not unfamiliar with making music for film. The group recorded “Abraham’s Daughter” to play over the credits in “The Hunger Games,” and band members Win Butler and Régine Chassagne also played a part in writing the Capitol’s anthem, “The Horn of Plenty,” in the film’s sequel “Catching Fire.”


Composed by Alexandre Desplat

While Alexandre Desplat has not yet taken home an Oscar, he has been nominated in five of the last six ceremonies. His work on “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” “The King’s Speech,” “Argo” and now “Philomena” has earned him exceptional praise from his peers. Desplat also composed scores for the final two Harry Potter films, “Moonrise Kingdom” a quirky yet entertaining score that I highly recommend and dozens of French films.

“Saving Mr. Banks”

Composed by Thomas Newman

Nominee for 12 Academy Awards and winner of none, Thomas Newman is the most nominated composer never to have actually taken home an Oscar – think of him as the Leonardo DiCaprio of composers. Despite his failure to actually win any awards, Newman’s name and music are quite well-known. He has composed scores for “Shawshank Redemption,” “American Beauty,” “Finding Nemo,” “Wall-E” and – my personal favorite – “Skyfall.” For those of you familiar with the music of these films, you know that means that Newman has a very broad range of ability. That said, his scores do all have one very important thing in common: passion.

… and the winner: “Gravity”

Composed by Steven Price

Relatively new to the composing game, Steven Price has made quite an early impression. As of now, Price only has three complete film scores out – for “Attack the Block,” “The World’s End” and “Gravity” – with plans to work on “Fury” and “Ant-Man” over the next two years. However, after this Oscar win he will no doubt be a highly-sought-after composer, drawing on experience he gained working as a programmer, arranger, performer and music editor on many prestigious scores including The Lord of the Rings Trilogy and “Batman Begins.”

At the Oscar concert on Feb. 27, Price noted that his score for “Gravity” is driven by Sandra Bullock’s character’s heartbeat.

The moral of the story, gleaned from these five composers’ stories, is four-fold: Awards are not one and done you could win 49, perhaps; there are no hard lines in the music industry only blurred ones; if you don’t succeed, try, try again and again and again and again and again…; and finally, you don’t have to be a seasoned composer to win an Oscar.

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