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Pop & Hiss goes to the movies: James Newton Howard gets violin-happy with 'Defiance'

November 14, 2008 | 10:30 pm

Defiance_200 Composer James Newton Howard made headlines this week. With Hans Zimmer, Howard worked on one of the more acclaimed scores of 2008, the strikingly tense, vividly aggressive music for "The Dark Knight," which, as industry trade Variety reported, would be ruled ineligible for Oscar consideration on a technicality.

But don't expect the news to take Howard out of Oscar talk. Still to come is his violin-heavy score to "Defiance," Edward Zwick's World War II film starring Daniel Craig. The music is streaming on the Paramount Vantage website, and an official soundtrack will be released Dec. 9, which is in advance of the film's limited release on Dec. 31.

Pop & Hiss hasn't spent enough time with the score to offer a review, but initial listens reveal a nuanced work, a piece that flirts with classical stylings but drifts into more moody terrain. See the rhythmic bursts that give way to a romantic swing in "The Police Station," or the mournful counter melodies of "Tuvia Kisses Lukia." Additionally, much of the score is a showcase for noted violinist Joshua Bell, who was part of the Oscar-winning score to "The Red Violin."

Speaking at Billboard/The Hollywood Reporter's Film & TV Music Conference, Howard said, "The score is essentially a minimalist score, with a substantial amount of what you'd call ambiance to it."

Howard was appearing as part of a Friday afternoon discussion with Zwick, which was moderated by Billboard senior editor Ann Donahue. Howard and Zwick have previously worked together on 2006 film "Blood Diamond." Howard praised Zwick as a filmmaker who can subtly intertwine scores into his films.

"The music," said Howard, "in all of Edward's work has been a very strong component.... The spotting, where the music is used, how its used, is restrained."

For "Defiance," which, as this Times article detailed, tells the true story of Jewish refugees who fought Nazi invaders in the forests of what is now Belarus, the pair almost avoided a violin-heavy score. Tapping into classical Eastern European sounds, said Zwick, seemed too obvious ("a world of cliches that we live in fear of," Zwick said).

Ultimately, however, Zwick noted that the pair "both concluded that the violin, even though it wasn't the first time it'd been used in this context, was the right way to go."

Howard discussed some of the paths the score almost took, which he composed with a relatively small orchestra of 50 to 60 musicians (most major Hollywood scores feature an orchestra of a hundred or more players), and was recorded at London's Abbey Road studios. "I looked at the possibility of the cello. I looked at the possibility of a clarinet. I even toyed with the idea of Klezmer music," he said, referring to a more traditional Jewish sound.

No one, however, asked Howard for his opinion on the music division of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The score to "The Dark Knight" has been taken out of Oscar consideration because too many names were listed on the official music cue sheet for the film.

--Todd Martens

Defiance poster courtesy Paramount Vantage