Since it is Christmas time, a review of a typical Christmas movie seems more than appropriate. But wait, the film Little Women will only premiere in February 2020 in Europe; only in the USA, people were able to watch it during the holiday season. Anyways, because we already have the soundtrack, here’s the review!
As many readers know, the Alpha-Audio office is surrounded by music companies. We’re housed in the Record Industry complex, the record manufacturing company. There is also an all analog recording studio (Artone) where artists can record directly on vinyl. And our dear neighbors are Music On Vinyl, who provide beautiful releases on vinyl; re-releases of historical albums and new productions. A separate branch of Music On Vinyl is the music written for films and series. For example, there is a beautiful LP box of the series ‘Breaking Bad’ where the vinyl is colored in matching chrystal meth tones.
In this At The Movies series, the soundtrack of Little Women was released in mid-December 2019. A double-LP, of course in heavy audiophile 180-gram vinyl and provided with an informative booklet about the music. All this expresses the added value of vinyl; while listening we read the liner notes and background information in the book. We feel more immersed into the music whilst looking at the wonderful pictures in full size double LP album format. These are the ‘metadata’ that are much more real and tangible than their digital siblings.
A Musical Without Any Singing
The music was composed and directed by Alexandre Desplat (1961), who also composed the music for films such as The Grand Budapest Hotel, Harry Potter and the Deadly Hallows, The King’s Speech and The Imitation Game. Before his breakthrough as a film music composer in Hollywood, he was a successful and highly productive composer in the French film world. So far he has delivered more than 100 soundtracks.
It is somewhat awkward, listening to a soundtrack without having seen the film. In the liner notes we read what conditions director Greta Gerwig conceived for the music.
“I knew that the score would be an essential part of the story-telling. I wanted the film to be a musical without any singing. It needed to be beautiful without being cloying, epic without crushing the actors, tragic without being manipulative, intelligent without being superior. In short, I needed a genius to write that music for me.”
Little Women is about four sisters who grew up in the period after the American Civil War (the story takes place after 1860). The film is based on the book of the same name by Louise Alcott, which is one of the most widely read novels in the US. The photographs show atmospheric images of 19th century America on the east coast. Imagine large wooden mansions, landscapes and beaches, historic costumes and carriages. Then think of the star cast with names like Emma Thomson, Laura Dern, Meryl Streep, Saoirse Ronan, Timothée Chalamet (Homeland).
We’ve been listening to the soundtrack of Little Women for a couple of days now. It’s unmistakenly film music and we don’t mean ambient music that is played around the house like musical wallpaper. When we did, roommates sometimes became extremely restless from the rhythmic transitions and mood changes in the music. The music was recorded with a classical orchestra where two pianos form the core of the music score. This is a referral to the story, where the piano also plays an important role in the lives of the four sisters. The leitmotiv can be heard in the track ‘Plumfield’; it comes back in different forms in the rest of the soundtrack.
We are really drawn into the music while listening; even without knowing the film footage, we imagine the scenes that would go with this music. “Theatre In The Attic” is about a play that children play in the attic. If we listen to “The Beach”, all we have to do is take a look at the album and booklet cover to make a performance of it.
The quality of the recording is excellent. The orchestra which consists of almost 50 musicians is recorded at the DiMenna center for classical music, New York. The ‘close miking’ of the recording is striking. Usually symphony orchestras of this size are recorded with a set of microphones a few meters in front of the orchestra. The arrangement of these microphones can (literally) be studied: X/Y, ORTF, Decca, A/B. In all cases it results in a spatial recording where the acoustics of the room play a part in the music. Most classical music is registered in this way; thus, we are able to hear the music as if we were the audience, sitting at the sweet spot in the concert hall. That is, away from the musicians. The soundtrack of Little Women is recorded with a multitude of microphones set up close to the orchestra. The pianos are really beautifully recorded. In a concert situation it is a challenge to make two concert grand pianos sound good next to an orchestra. Soft piano passages make it difficult for a piano to be discernable above an orchestra, and when two grand pianos play at high volume they can overpower an orchestra. In this soundtrack the sound engineers were able to solve this nicely. And film music must have more ‘oomph’ than a classical recorded orchestra. Modern theatres demand a score with great dynamism. In short: the soundtrack is perfectly suited for the purpose, but because of the applied technique we miss some spaciousness and soundstage.
So, here it is; a review of film music without having seen the film. And in hindsight, it was not that peculiar. In fact, it might even be preferable to listen to the music first before watching the movie. It might be possible that we will enjoy the film even more. And it’s also a nice preparation for a movie night, to listen to the music. We wish you a lot of listening and viewing pleasure with this beautiful edition of Little Women. The movie’s coming later, Soundtrack First!