2016 Oscars Orchestration Review – Thomas Newman’s “Bridge of Spies”

I have a confession to make. Often when I’m finalising a score or editing a video, I’ll listen to something in the background. Sometimes it will be a comedy, political talk show, or discussion about the arts and literature. But what I really like is a good mystery with little to no music – something with twists and turns and an intellectual puzzle – old Law & Order reruns are perfect in this regard. That keeps the imaginative side of my brain occupied while my fingers do the busywork.

I am sorry to say that Stephen Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies” could easily have filled this bill. There was so little music throughout its 137-minute length that I easily could have composed a few pages of score without more than a few fast-forwards. Okay, so that’s a slight exaggeration. But you have to wonder when a Spielberg film has no opening credits music establishing musical themes, and no character leitmotifs. Yes, it was an excellent Cold War spy drama, all the more so for the true story that it told. And the Coen brothers’ script was peerless. It really was more like a Coen film than a Spielberg film, except for the wonderful sense of form, continuity, and overriding awareness of the camera.

Of course, most readers will know by now the story of how Spielberg intended this to be a John Williams soundtrack, only health issues by the maestro interfered with these plans, causing Thomas Newman to be hired. This is all in the family – Thomas’s father Alfred Newman was once John Williams’ boss at Fox, and gave him his first break scoring pictures. I’ve linked an article at the end of this review that talks about this in a lot more detail. The takeaway that I have from the situation here is that relationship between Spielberg may not have been an easy fit creatively. For all that Spielberg gave Newman his customary trust, I’m not hearing elements essential to a Spielberg film – like a strong internal theme tying together the emotional message of the film.

This is the most glaring from the start. There is no music at all (especially as I mentioned above, no credit sequence) until over 20 minutes have passed – and then just light, atmospheric touches. It’s really not until the film settles on pilot Lt. Gary Powers’ reconnaissance training that any firmly stated musical themes emerge.

In fact, this movie is a bit difficult to review strictly from the standpoint of traditional orchestration, because of Newman’s approach in mixing electronic elements, processed piano, and live instruments with such abandon. It’s a great style, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not the thrust of what I’m trying to cover in this series. So I will restrict my observations below to those cues in which a clearly dominant orchestral sound is used. Much credit here is due to orchestrator J.A.C. Roberts (aka “Jac Roberts”), Newman’s right-hand man and also composer in his own right of episodic television.

In the first really standout cue titled “Sunlit Silence,” it’s obvious that the sense of duty and patriotism of The Right Stuff are being referenced. Unison horns emote an unaccompanied line, followed by trombones and horns in chorale. This is just a setup for the groove that follows, with spiccato strings bouncing around a snare tattoo and a single low trumpet note. It’s all of a particular style – well-worn clothing on a new frame, perhaps. I was actually more impressed by the next part: oboe and clarinet duo over strings, leading to a brief statement by wind quintet. The call-and-response between these winds and sul tasto strings is a very nice touch, and sound like a sketch for a greater thematic cue. One wonders if Newman originally submitted a grander version of this as opening credits music, but that due to the sudden rush caused by the change of composers, Spielberg opted for a very uncharacteristic silent opening. As the strings take over the cue, listen to the role of horns within their often soaring texture: emerging chorales, very faint background pads, and often single held notes around which the functions can revolve and the harmonies can glow.

The previously inexplicably absent orchestral cueing continues as Gary Powers tests his spy plane over the Caucasus Mountains and is shot down by a Soviet tracking station, cued in the track Ejection Protocol. The music depicts the struggle of the pilot to go through a list of self-destruct instructions as he plummets from 30,000 feet. There are a number of nice touches at the beginning: tremolo strings and balalaikas shuddering away under a wooden flute solo. The string pacing rhythm that follows would feel pedestrian and unremarkable but for the very cool touch of punctuating bass drum and vibraphone bringing a sense of cool deliberation to mix. The stopped horns are great, especially dropped far back in the sound picture. The nice wash of electronic resonance that ends the cue is a perfect use here, as it tails out the saturation of reverb on the acoustic instruments in a “natural” way.

From here, Newman contributes a few cues that are more in line with his signature mix of electronics, piano, and orchestral inserts. They’re still well worth a listen – particularly the tracks “Standing Man,” “Rain,” and “Lt. Gary Francis Powers.” In this last is horror-texture building worthy of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s “Sicario.” It’s a bit heavy-handed by comparison in portraying the sense of isolation and antagonism Powers experiences in the Soviet lockup, but it’s still a very cool cue. Truly orchestral scoring returns at the start of the track “The Article,” with big horns over organ, low brass, and strings in a pedal C. A bit of a comment on the horn sound here and in “Sunlit Silence.” This barking, direct sound is nearly trombone-like in the lower register, but it’s not what I referred to in the Star Wars: The Force Awakens reviews as the “L.A. Horn Sound.” It’s really more squeezed than that, with very little richness of character or teeth. It’s just a straight and dull sound, not something most hornists would aspire to but still what was asked by the character of the cue itself.

There are some great orchestral moments after this. I like the warm, committed string scoring in the track “The Wall,” with a beefy chorale from choir and brass at the end. Strings also transition well between all the floaty electronica in “Gleinicke Bridge.” But for studying nicely-scored pop cinema orchestration, you can’t beat the penultimate track “Homecoming.” I like the teasing parallels to Copland in the opening trumpet, and the intensity of the oboe’s register as an echo. I also though it was cool that Newman avoided a simple string doubling of the reverent piano hymn in the middle – rather, the strings worked in counterpoint at times, and even took the lead toward the end of the episode. This allowed the track to reference the earlier call-and-response with winds and develop it into something more. I felt that in the end, it was great how this track and the film that it capped avoided overarching grandeur and settled for a more straightforward vision of human values – home, self-respect, and human dignity. These principles were all the stronger for not being overblown, though perhaps a more cohesive musical vision would have turned the soundtrack into a true partnership rather than just a musical commentary.

Sparse as it was, and as last-minute as the selection of Newman was, the Oscar nomination still happened. But will this 13th nomination open the envelope for Newman this time around? I’ll think about those questions for all the composer in my final review, coming in a day or two. Hope to see you there.

Thomas Goss is a professional composer and orchestrator with an international roster of clients. He has worked with such talents as Billy Ocean, Melanie C, Sharon Corr, and Nikki Yanofsky. His compositions, orchestrations, and crossover arrangements have been performed by such ensembles as Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, and San Francisco Symphony Chamber Ensemble.

Thomas lives and works in Wellington, New Zealand, with his wife Erica and son Charlie, and one very unappreciative cat.

One thought on “2016 Oscars Orchestration Review – Thomas Newman’s “Bridge of Spies”

  1. Hello Thomas. For some sad reason and just like it happened on the Hateful Eight review, the video links are not working. At least not for me.

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