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Michael McLennen on The Golden Compass Soundtrack pt. 1

NOTE: This is a re-written version of my original soundtrack review, which appeared here. Having now seen the film, I felt it was worth re-considering the soundtrack with the film in mind. All questions are welcomed by PM

Music composed and conducted by Alexandre Desplat Orchestrated by Alexandre Desplat and Conrad Pope Performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, and soloists Album produced by Alexandre Desplat

If you’re after a much-shorter but well-written overview of this score, I recommend Jon Broxton’s review here. If you’re after a slightly longer, but still measurably more concise review, I recommend James Southall’s review here.

I also found these resources useful, and have tried to incorporate them into this revision of the article:

* An interview with Desplat from Music from the Movies.

* An interview with Desplat from one of the Pullman fan websites.

Note: For those only interested in Kate Bush’s ‘Lyra’, go to the end of the article. I don’t comment on it in the overview, as it isn’t really an integrated part of the whole.


Alexandre Desplat’s ascent in the American1 film-scoring scene over the last few years has largely featured him as a composer for dramatic features, a genre not known for the dynamism of its underscore. Despite this, he has produced a distinctive range of work that manages to meet the dramatic needs of each film. Compare the restrained ethnically-tinged thriller score for Syriana, the florid mickey-mousing of The Upside of Anger, the elegant romance of The Painted Veil, the stark gravitas of De Battre Mon Couer s’est Arrete, and the modern fairy tale cantata of Birth, and it’s remarkable to think that it all came from the same composer over a two year period. In a time where ‘it works for the film’, ‘noone listens to the music anyway’ and ‘there’s only so many notes to choose from’ have become the threefold foundations of most film-scoring, Desplat is one of a handful of composers whose work is a welcome reminder that film music can be a musical experience, not just a dramatic one.

The path has occasionally veered away from this ‘quality drama’ emphasis, with the unhinged leitmotif scoring of Hostage a particular highlight. The adaptation of Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass (aka Northern Lights) features the composer working in the genre that tends to put composers to the test both musically and dramatically – the epic fantasy film. This genre of film score, much like the western, rarely involves a composer breaking any new ground in how music interacts with a film, but I think there’s an enduring interest in seeing how unfamiliar compositional voices approach the interlocking structure of themes these films traditionally tend to demand.

I think Pullman’s trilogy – His Dark Materials – is for the most part a fascinating blend of science fiction (parallel universes), Milton’s Paradise Lost, with a thoughtprovoking reading of the Christian concept of Original Sin.2 Above all, Pullman is a gifted storyteller – his fictional setting of debates about religion, science and adolescence is a Quest narrative with an eerily omniscient authorial voice that recalls Kubrick’s use of the third-person narrator in Barry Lyndon. The reader is continually working to unravel mysteries. The first two novels, and the resolution of the third, are particularly strong.

I can’t call myself the greatest fan of the very highly budgeted film from Chris Weitz (About a Boy, American Pie) and New Line Cinema. The tiger hasn’t been tamed too much in the adaptation to $200 million family film, admittedly. There’s some strong casting and design work, but it contends with an over-emphasis on dialogue, significant re-arrangement (and truncation) of the narrative, and a rush-to-the-finish line editing approach. Mysteries are laid on the table and resolved with all the finesse of Ron Howard’s DaVinci Code, and the novel’s careful introduction to Lyra’s world – so like a slow-developing polaroid photograph – is sadly absent. The rich subtext and allegory of the novel has given way as well – to what, I’m not sure, as the film simply doesn’t pause between action and exposition long enough for something else to rise to the surface. On the page you could have lined up Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, and Pullman’s novel, and talked with no embarrassment about the thematic riches of each. Noone would think of doing so for their respective film adaptations.2a

Alexandre Desplat’s score, available on New Line Records stands out as one of the strongest aspects of the film. Recorded with the London Symphony Orchestra and selected soloists, the seventy-four minute album presents a dynamic orchestral work, dense in thematic detail. Pullman’s fictional landscape has been transposed to a musical level. Dust, the mysterious material at heart of the trilogy, is the most basic musical element, a five-note melody (often featuring Tibetan bowl in the lead) that pervades the work. Lyra, the girl at the centre of the tale, earns a theme for flute-andstrings that speaks to her childish grace and intrepid daemon Pan, the theme presented in its most stirring form in the latter half of ‘Epilogue’. And there are themes for so many of Pullman’s creations – a noble melody for Iorek Byrnison; a semi-romantic theme for his bond with Lyra; an heroic theme for Lyra’s adventures in general; a march for the Gyptians; a malevolent theme for the Magisterium, always seething in the lower voices of the ensemble; even a twisted piano motif for Iorek’s nemesis, Ragnar Sturlusson. There’s even a ‘main theme’, an ominous fanfare based on the chords of the Dust theme that’s never far away during the film’s many travelling sequence. A full list of themes with their dramatic function, and appearances on the album, is provided below, as is a track-by-track description of their usage in the score.

The Highlights

Perhaps the most impressive musical characterisation is Mrs Coulter. Played in the film by Nicole Kidman, Desplat lends considerable weight to the character’s strange influence over the minds of others. Giddy harp and piano runs circle her ascending string melody as she makes her presence felt in ‘Mrs Coulter’, winning over young Lyra’s affections and plying the Master of Jordan College for custody of the child. She even exerts her charisma in the melodic vacuum of ‘The Magisterium’, the piece ending with a trumpet fanfare variation on her theme. In much the same way as Pullman’s trilogy holds off on condemning her absolutely, the theme speaks to her ambiguity. Is Coulter wholly evil, or does she do what a woman needs to do in a world controlled by the Magisterium? (Bernard Herrmann, and Jerry Goldsmith’s Basic Instinct come to mind.) There are obviously some threatening readings of her theme – as towards the end of ‘Mrs Coulter’ where her theme interweaves with the dark Magisterium theme, but for the most part the ambiguous portrait Desplat paints of her is a nice reminder that the composer's background is more in dramatic films, where a simple ‘good’ or ‘bad’ theme will rarely suffice.

I’m particularly impressed with the Svalbard portion of the score, which covers the tracks from ‘Samoyed Attack’ through to ‘Iorek’s Victory’. (Svalbard is the home of the panserbjorne, the armoured polar bears seen in the trailer.) This is the part of the score where Lyra meets Ragnar Sturlusson, usurper of Iorek’s throne. The usual orchestral trappings are banished for a stark unhinged passage for low-range pianos and a small body of dryly-recorded strings that recalls Stravinsky chamber music. Ragnar’s motif journeys from a resonant idea for six pianos (!), to an unwieldy circus bear portrait, to the climactic statement of an arena fanfare as the main theme swells for orchestra and choir. This is also the part of the score where Iorek, to rescue Lyra, lays a challenge to the throne of the armoured bears. The theme for their relationship is presented in its most mature form, and Iorek’s noble theme finds its strength and wins the day.

There’s also more action setpieces in this section, generally few and far between in the score (and rather short at that). ‘Samoyed Attack’, ‘Lord Asriel’ and ‘Ice Bear Combat’ are thrillingly orchestrated by Desplat and Conrad Pope. One only wishes there were more of it. There are hints of the composer’s energetic Firewall (also orchestrated with Pope) in the brilliant opening of ‘Ice Bear Combat’. The use of Iorek and Ragnar’s themes for the thrusts of each is a real delight, a reminder that melodically active punch-up music is rare these days. Desplat often concentrates the strings on the rhythm in these sequences, leaving percussion, woodwinds and brass free to hit the on-screen action – and perhaps this choice contributes to the balletic motion of these sequences, as they’re more like the allegro movements of a Ravel or Stravinsky ballet than either of the two modern standards of action music - Jerry Goldsmith and Hans Zimmer. After this chapter, the Bolvangar climax of the score can’t help but feel a little anti-climactic in comparison, a factor partly explained by the reversal of the positions of those sequences in post-production.

The wealth of good ideas on display means that it’s hard to pick one definitive cue out from the album. The careful placement of the ‘Dust theme’ throughout – sometimes as the lead melody, sometimes in counterpoint with a sickly motif that probably stands for the Magisterium, sometimes as a minor detail of the orchestration – is another idea that works well. ‘Letters from Bolvangar’ introduces the score’s most moving idea, a fragile rendition of Billy’s theme as kidnapped children write letters to their parents that they know will never reach them. This soft piece grows into a lament later in the score in ‘Riding Iorek’. ‘Sky Ferry’ is charged with the same energy as Desplat’s ‘Driving in Geneva’ from Syriana, now resplendent with flourishes more appropriate to a fantasy epic than an oil industry expose. I really like the brief counterpoint of trumpet with the main theme in ‘Epilogue’ – reminiscent of the best final notes from a film score in recent years, John Williams’ War of the Worlds. Perhaps the most satisfying moment in the score is ‘Lee Scoresby’s Airship Adventure’, which certainly fits the cinematic mould of music for flying, though unfortunately whatever scene the cue accompanied has been lost in the released film’s reshuffled narrative.

Texturally, The Golden Compass is a score full of odd ensemble choices. The Gyptians, a gypsy-like people from Pullman’s novel, are characterised with instruments associated with Eastern Europe and Turkey – the sinuous woodwind melody that often appears for them reminds me of depictions of Oriental cultures in late Romantic music (e.g. Borodin’s ‘In the Steppes of Central Asia’). There’s also a strange catchy march for the Gyptians – it appears in full in ‘Lyra’s Escape’ and ‘Lord Faa, King of the Gyptians’. Desplat credits the influence of Greek music in his youth as an influence here, though the ensemble is more eclectic than any one country – Romanian clarinets play alongside the bouzouki and taiko drums for these nomads. There are other curious touches – I imagine the Tuvan throat singer and shrill eastern woodwinds heard occasionally stand for Pullman’s Tartars. Electric cello and electric bass, both favourites of the composer, appear regularly – the former opening the score, and lending its eerie voice to the ‘Intercision’ process.

The Heritage

Overall in tone, this is a Romantic work, with the clear presence of many modern compositional devices and textural choices. There are as many themes, and they are as frequently summoned, as in a Korngold score3 – though since Desplat has cited Prokofiev’s ‘Peter and the Wolf’ as one of Chris Weitz’s desired references, that’s the more likely template. At its brightest moments the music has the romance of both composers, but the atmosphere of the work as a whole, and the cell-like form of key motifs, bring to mind Bernard Herrmann, another of Desplat’s cited influences. The opening violent scramble of ‘Lyra’s Escape’ in particular recalls that composer roughand- tumble music – screaming flutes and all. But Desplat can also tread very softly – the lightness of touch in something like ‘Rescuing the Children’ or ‘Mother’ brings to mind Maurice Ravel or John Williams more than Herrmann. What the score shares in common with all these composers is that it is music actively involved in the storytelling, unafraid to be heard. The active contrapuntal writing on display throughout the score marks a refreshing change from the bombastic unison voicing typical of music for the modern blockbuster. Maurice Jarre is another touchstone, the score’s main travelling theme intended by composer and director to tap into the kinds of feelings the main theme from Lawrence of Arabia summoned.

It would be wrong to suggest that this work is merely an accretion of good ideas from former maestros. The eclectic orchestrations and transparent recording, glistening with layers of unusual tone colours, grant this spin on the epic theme-and-variations score template an element of uniqueness. The presence of minimalism in the score is another novel ingredient. While its usage is hardly dominant, it adds a cerebral sensibility to the composition that distances it from the more primal mythic tone more at home in Star Wars or Conan the Barbarian. It’s surprising, given Philip Glass was apparently sought for this film at an early stage, and that Desplat cited The Illusionist as a highpoint of recent film-scoring in an interview last year, that the work doesn’t lean more to Glass’s minimalist style. What minimalist ideas are here feel closer to Herrmann if anything.

Some may wonder how themes are developed in the score. As in Desplat’s other scores – such as The Painted Veil recently – there is very rarely a stretch of underscore that is not in some way derived from one of his themes. (Picking out all the subtle references is a process I haven’t quite got to the end of yet, despite many listens.) Sadly, we do not get the kinds of concert suites of themes that have helped key John Williams scores endure, and which Desplat has often included on previous albums.4

The longer-lined of Desplat’s themes are, much like Williams’ Star Wars melodies, idée fixee (‘fixed ideas’) that preserve their melodic shape when reprised. Emotional variation communicated through shifting orchestration rather than a transformation of the basic shape. ‘Lyra’s Courage’ is used this way for example, as are the themes for Iorek and Iorek/Lyra. This is in contrast to a more strictly Wagnerian leitmotif style, where melodic ideas grow along with the narrative, as for example with the music for Ahab in Christopher Gordon’s Moby Dick, the music for Aragorn in Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings, or even the love theme from Herrmann's Vertigo. The shorter motifs, such as the Dust theme, or Ragnar’s motif, or the motif for the Gobblers are used more in this fashion, their short form probably enabling such flexible usage. The most satisfying transformation of a melody over the course of the score is Billy’s theme, so spry and energetic in ‘Lyra, Roger and Billy’, by the end of its journey nearly unrecognisable in lament.

The Caveats

The score does have its limitations, and I must admit I felt them on the first couple of listens. Without the orientation of on-screen action, many will find it hard to ‘unpack’ the listening experience into the various themes. (Hopefully the list of themes and track-by-track description below will help.) Third and fourth listens will pay off more than first and second listens. (Something I find to be a point in any score’s favour – Thomas Newman’s The Good German was like that too, and what a fantastic work that is.)

Perhaps more significantly, The Golden Compass is an album that explores a lot of ideas in its seventy-four minute running time. Unlike Birth, where a single theme was carefully explored in all its permutations, or The Painted Veil, where several themes were explored over longer stretches (as tends to be the case in drama), this score often operates on a kind of thematic shorthand, always moving forward to the next idea. This is symptomatic of the film’s edit, which rarely escapes the feeling of rushing to get the story over with. If you know the basic elements of the score, telling the story in your head while listening can be quite enjoyable, but for some this will make for an overly fragmented listening experience. It’s not a score with a lot of ‘mickeymousing’ in the true sense of that term, but some will label it so anyway because of this aspect.

The third problem will rankle those with a taste for a large orchestral sound. Desplat’s film music is fairly recognisable by its very layered, transparent sound. He writes carefully for each voice, and likes the detail to be heard. (And I would suggest he would be one of the few these days who could record in that way without shame.) I normally find it very attractive, but must agree with those who have remarked that the overall result is a bit lacking in power on album. Particularly during the moments when the musical action is thickest, such as ‘The Battle of the Tartars’, the sound as a whole feels a little weak. Ironically it’s the opposite of the problem of John Kurlander’s recordings of Howard Shore’s Lord of the Rings music. There power was preserved over detail, perhaps befitting the ancient feel the filmmakers were seeking, but often losing some of the softer details in Shore’s music. Here, as in Thomas Newman’s Lemony Snicket, we have detail over power, perhaps befitting the more modern, ideas-driven narrative of Pullman. I’m a bit divided on how important this is as every harp, singing bowl and violin line does need to be heard in Desplat’s music, and something of the elegant feel of the music might have been diminished by a push for greater ‘oomph’.

Perhaps the most significant problem for me is the lack of a proper sense of climax to the album, but to be fair this is no fault of Desplat’s. Much has been made of the decision of the studio to not include the film’s intended finale, ending the story before the final act with Lord Asriel; and also of the late swapping of the Bolvangar and Svalbard acts. Considering how late in post-production that mandate came, I imagine there wasn’t much that could be done to adjust the score to a film that had to climax earlier than it was intended to. (I rant a little about this in my track-by-track description below after the ‘Epilogue’ cue.)5

I Liked It

One thing that certainly isn’t a problem is the amount of music included from the film. At seventy-four minutes, it doesn’t feel like the album needed to be any longer.

There is one short cue from the film (as Lyra destroys the intercision machine) that probably would have made the last third a bit more energetic, but other than that and the unreleased opening bars of ‘The Magisterium’ (for choir and organ), this feels like about as much music from this film that could be taken in one sitting. (The film runs barely forty minutes more than the album, and I’d guess about twenty minutes of that at the most is scored.) The album indeed has one significant advantage over the film score – as mentioned before, ‘Lee Scoresby’s Airship Adventure’ is not even in the film, and the album would certainly be poorer without it.

Those caveats don’t limit the enjoyability of this album for me, but a balanced review should mention them. I probably won’t play this one so often as the score that has so rarely left my CD player this year – George Fenton’s Planet Earth – but this is certainly one of the better scores, and probably (next to Giacchino’s Ratatouille), the best studio tentpole release score from the year in film-making. It’s also the strongest new science-fiction / fantasy score since John Williams’ Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.6 That composer’s landmark score for AI, Artificial Intelligence also comes to mind. There’s a richness of detail in Desplat’s score that is worthy of the comparison.

This is not quite the score I expected from Alexandre Desplat for The Golden Compass. His one previous entry that might be called a ‘fantasy genre’ score was Une Chance Sur Deux, the Patrice Leconte film with Jean-Paul Belmondo and Vanessa Paradis. The earlier score is more rhapsodic and extroverted, but it accompanied a highly romantic story, and Leconte films tend to call for that kind of music anyway. His Dark Materials is, if nothing else, dark, and the music of the film reflects that. It is heroic and effervescent when it needs to be, heartfelt and warm also at times, equally dire when that is required – quite often, as it turns out. I hope the sequel scores in the trilogy develop this foundation well. (That is, assuming there is a trilogy. Financially, things are not off to a good start.)

It won’t be to everyone’s taste, but it certainly pushes the right buttons for me. If someone wanted to sample the work of Alexandre Desplat, I wouldn’t recommend starting here – I’d go with Hostage, or The Painted Veil, or Birth over this as a listening experience. But for someone interested in this music in particular, whether a Philip Pullman fan or a film music afficianado, I’d recommend it. Dig a little, and there’s a lot to appreciate. I seem to discover more with every listen. I can’t remember the last time that happened with the music of a major tentpole release, but it probably involved John Williams in some way.

1. Desplat was active in French film scoring long before he came to English-language films for The Luzhin Defence and Girl with a Pearl Earring. The highlights of his early French career include Les Milles, Patrice Leconte’s Une Chance Sur Deux, Inquietudes, and the films of Jacques Audiard (the award-winning De Battre Mon Couer s'est Arrete and Sur Mes Levres most recently). He remains the regular collaborator of Jacques Audiard, Xavier Giannoli (Les Corps Impatients) and Florent Siri (Nid-de-Guepes, L'ennemi Intime) among others.

2. I must note, by the way, as a Christian of an Australian Pentecostal church, I understand why the worldwide church is very defensive towards the novels, but I think the innate quality and fictional character of the series should be kept in mind. Many who object to the series take the narrative too literally, or complain from a position of ignorance fed by rumour, uncritical interpretation, and hardline institutional reaction. (And tellingly - it's often about big media games - this wasn't worth opposing when it was a classic trilogy of fantasy novels, but make a $200 million film...) Mind you, there’s doubtless a handful of Pullman fans out there who exhibit the same failings in their understanding of Christianity, and the fact that many of its practitioners have feelings.

2a. Pullman’s tragedy of course is that his vision requires the best special effects money can buy, while the other two mentioned rely on less elaborate and expensive cinematic tools. On that note, this article is interesting reading. 3. I had recently acquired the Morgan-Stromberg rerecording of The Sea Hawk at the time I wrote that – hence the mention of Korngold.

4. Having recently been to a John Williams concert, it’s hard to not compare all comers to Williams’ canny packaging of his music for pure album enjoyment. Those concert hall suites of his themes really play a strong part in staying power. Desplat has tended to do this as well, with unique album arrangements of thematic material the highlights of his recent Lust, Caution and Painted Veil scores. I don’t doubt that a fair bit of editing has taken place in putting together this album, but perhaps a concert suite or two –devoted to Iorek’s theme alone, or ‘Lyra’s Courage’, might have strengthened the listening experience.

5. It probably also doesn’t help that the Svalbard portion of the story provides a composer with more room for expressive scoring than the Bolvangar portion. (Svalbard=bear fights; Bolvangar= systematic child torture.) The reversal of those sequences in the film narrative means the music is at its biggest before the final act.

6. Admittedly the competition, scores like Stardust, Bridge to Terabithia, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Last Mimzy, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, The Chronicles of Narnia, and Pan’s Labyrinth, do not represent the genre’s strongest run. Only Jane Antonia Cornish’s thunderous Island of Lost Souls and James Newton Howard's Lady in the Water from the last couple of years are as interesting as this one.

The Themes of The Golden Compass

Thematically, The Golden Compass is an involved work, perhaps the most detailed structure of themes and motifs since Gabriel Yared’s Troy, and Howard Shore’s Tolkien scores before that. There’s always something going on, the story is always been interpreted and commented on via the music – often on more than one level at any one moment. Here’s a list of the main themes and motifs of Desplat’s score, with my best guess as to what they represent. Brief remarks are included on the appearances of each theme, with a timecode reference to one statement of each theme for listener referencing.

  • ‘Dust / The Golden Compass’ – A repeated five-note motif, frequently performed subtly for gong and Tibetan singing bowl, also for piano and flute on occasion. Reprised throughout the score whenever the mysterious substance ‘Dust’ comes to the fore, or when Lyra uses her alethiometer. (The alethiometer is the golden compass spoken of so often in the film’s trailers.) Appears in ‘The Golden Compass’, ‘Dust’, ‘Intercision’, ‘Lord Faa, King of the Gyptians’, ‘Serafina Pekkala’, ‘Mother’ and ‘Epilogue’. (Example: Track 1, 0:01-1:16.) When not the leading melodic idea, often present subtly in cues, (e.g. read ‘Lee Scoresby’s Airship Adventure’ notes below).
  • ‘Main Theme (Travelling)’ – Desplat doesn’t list this as a separate theme when he describes his score for the film, primarily as it’s based on the same chords as the Dust theme. This is the Lawrence of Arabia style-theme that Weitz speaks of – providing suitably grand accompaniment for many of the numerous transition scenes. Appears twice in energetic form in ‘Sky Ferry’, in a more dire arrangement at the opening of ‘Lord Asriel’, as Svalbard prepares for a battle in ‘Ragnar Sturlusson’ (an album highlight), as Iorek races with Lyra to Bolvangar in ‘Iorek’s Victory’, as Lyra works at ‘Rescuing the Children’, and in the subdued ‘Epilogue’. (Example: Track 16, 0:01-0:25.)
  • ‘Lyra’s Theme’ (see below note – possibly ‘Lyra and Roger’) – A beguiling innocent melody for the story’s child hero. Initially I wondered whether it might have depicted her a bit too childishly, but having recently read The Amber Spyglass I have a slightly more mature impression of Lyra at the moment. Early in the story in particular, there are some playful variations, possibly representing her interactions with Pantalaimon. Appears often in the score – hinted at the end of ‘The Golden Compass’, and reprised in ‘Battle of the Tartars’ and ‘Epilogue’. There’s a more childish form of the theme – over a gentle bobbing string rhythm - that appears in ‘Rescuing the Children’, ‘Mrs Coulter’ and ‘The Golden Monkey’. (Example: Track 25, 2:20-3:29.)
  • ‘Mrs Coulter’ – An off-kilter theme for the gold clad temptress, capturing her alluring effect on others. Hinted at during ‘Sky Ferry’ and ‘Letters from Bolvangar’, explored extensively in ‘Mrs Coulters’, also appearing in ‘The Magisterium’ (as a fanfare), ‘The Golden Monkey’ (for her enigmatic daemon) and ‘Mother’. Frequently preceded by a bewitching harp figure. (Example: Track 5, 0:01-0:20.)
  • ‘Iorek Byrnison’ – A noble melody for the exiled armoured bear, frequently performed for brass. Appears initially as Lyra comes to know the bear in ‘Iorek Byrnison’, but not achieving its grandest form until Iorek challenges for the throne of Svalbard in ‘Ragnar Sturlusson’ and ‘Iorek’s Victory’. Appears as an action motif in ‘Ice Bear Combat’, and as the opening blow of the ‘Battle of the Tartars’. (Example: Track 19, 0:08-0:29.)
  • ‘Iorek and Lyra’ (see below note on ‘Lyra’s theme’) – The score’s most romantic idea, for Iorek and Lyra’s unlikely bond. It is a more mature theme than Lyra’s own, but in her dealings with the king of the bears, she is already beginning to leave childhood behind, so this is perhaps appropriate. Hinted at during ‘Sky Ferry’ and ‘Iorek Byrnison’, given a grand performance in ‘Riding Iorek’, and reprised in its most gentle form prior to the armoured bear duel in ‘Ragnar Sturlusson’, and immediately following it in ‘Iorek’s Victory’. (Example: Track 17, 5:08-5:45.)
  • ‘Lyra’s Courage’ – The most heroic theme of the score is probably not confined to Lyra (it appears with Serafina Pekkala), but more than once in the tale it is connected to her heroism. It is hinted at in the opening track ‘Golden Compass’ (as we see the eclectic citizenship of Lyra’s world), recurring in ‘Serafina Pekkala’ (as Lyra meets Serafina), ‘Lee Scoresby’s Airship Adventure’ (from a scene that didn’t appear in the film), and twice during ‘Battle of the Tartars’ (including a fantastic statement as the witch suddenly appears to rescue Lyra). (Example: Track 9, 0:10-0:37.)
  • ‘Billy’s Theme’ – This melody begins life as a carefree, energetic theme in ‘Lyra, Roger and Billy’ (as the three run through Oxford), recurring in ‘Mrs Coulter’ (as Roger and Billy wait for Lyra outside the college, track 5, 3:15- 3:44). It’s next appearance is in ‘Letters from Bolvangar’ (as Roger and Billy write letters home) in lullaby-like form. It’s final appearance comes in ‘Riding Iorek’, as Lyra comes across the intercised Billy. (Example: Track 14, 3:52- 4:27.) One of the most satisfying melodic journeys in the score.
  • ‘The Thought of the Gyptians’ –The first Gyptian theme is a woodwind melody for a Romanian clarinet, with lots of nice little melismatic hooks in it that bring to mind the depiction of Oriental cultures in late Romantic program works like Borodin’s ‘On the Steppes of Central Asia’ or Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘Scheherezade’. This melody appears in ‘Lyra, Roger and Billy’, ‘Lyra Escapes’, ‘Lord Faa, King of the Gyptians’, and it perhaps hinted at in ‘Riding Iorek’. (Example: Track 4, 1:14-1:29.)
  • ‘Gyptians at War’ - The second theme, and more distinctive perhaps, is a march for the Gyptian people, with a catchy percussion idea underpinning a quirky melody. It can be heard in ‘Lyra Escapes’ and ‘Lord Faa, King of the Gyptians’, and the general sound is foreshadowed in the vibrant ‘Lyra, Roger and Billy’. There’s an undeniable South Eastern European feel to the music, perhaps due to the similarity of Pullman’s Gyptians with our world’s gypsies? It’s an unusual sound – but Desplat has shown a knack for catchy off-kilter combinations in the past. (Un Heros Tres Discret has a fantastic march for string quartet and piano.) For more details on the origins of the Gyptian sound, see the first interviewed referenced above this article. (Example: Track 6, 1:52-2:25.)
  • ‘The Magisterium’ – I found this melody hard to distinguish from Mrs Coulter’s theme at first, but having now seen the film, it’s clearly a major presence throughout the score, though related to the theme for Kidman’s character. Frequently performed for the low end instruments. It is heard as the Magisterium debate affairs (the last section of ‘Mrs Coulter’), also appearing as Lyra and Mrs Coulter observe the Magisterium’s centre of power (‘Sky Ferry’). It appears as Mrs Coulter and Fra Pavel discuss whether Lyra is the subject of a prophecy (the second half of ‘Letters from Bolvangar’), and is hinted at as the Magisterium is first glimpsed during the prologue (‘The Golden Compass’), and during Lyra’s escape from Mrs Coulter (‘Lyra Escapes’). While the Tartars initially do battle with the escaped children and Iorek, this theme appears as a fanfare in ‘Battle of the Tartars’. (Example: Track 2, 0:50-1:15.)
  • ‘Ragnar Sturlusson’ –A four-note motif for the imposter bear king, often performed by for multiple pianos. The antithesis of Iorek’s noble musical standard. Appears briefly in ‘Lord Asriel’, as Asriel sights Svalbard, briefly in ‘Mrs Coulter’, and more extensively in ‘Ragnar Sturlusson’. (Example: Track 17, 0:01-0:34, 2:14-2:35.)
  • ‘The Gobblers’ – This simple idea is somehow wrapped up in the activities of the Oblation Board, the Magisterium and Mrs Coulter. Fans of Desplat may recognise it from the darker variation of ‘Kitty’s Theme’ from The Painted Veil. (Keen ears may have also spotted its brief cameo in the cue ‘Sacrifice’ from the composer’s recent Lust, Caution.) It can often be heard in the background during the score’s tenser moments. ‘The Magisterium’ is full of it, and it rears its ugly head again towards the end of ‘Lord Faa, King of the Gyptians’ (as Lyra uses the alethiometer and sees Bolvangar), ‘Lyra Escapes’, ‘The Ice Bridge’ and ‘Intercision’. (Example: Track 7, 0:43-0:56 – violins.)
  • ‘Lee Scoresby’ – A quizzical flute idea that appears in connection with Lee in at least three places, so it possibly could be a motif for him. The motif appears at the start of ‘Iorek Byrnison’, as Lee tells Lyra of Iorek’s captivity, and in two unreleased cues – (i) where Lee helps end a stand-off between Iorek, Lyra, and Iorek’s human captors; (ii) where Lee and Iorek discuss how they have failed Lyra. (Example: Track 11, 0:01-0:15.) Desplat remarks in the interview listed above with www.hisdarkmaterials.org that Lee’s theme will not be fully expressed until the sequel film, The Subtle Knife. I wonder whether a development of the motif can be heard in the brass at the climax of the unused cue ‘Lee Scoresby’s Airship Adventure’.

Note on ‘Lyra’s Theme’: In interview, Desplat refers to three themes for Lyra – one for Lyra, one for Lyra and Roger, and a third for Lyra’s courage. I’m not sure of the difference between the themes of Lyra and Lyra and Roger – the melody I call Lyra’s theme seems to play whenever she and Roger are together. Strangely enough, he doesn’t list what seems to me to be a clear theme for Lyra and Iorek, distinct from both Lyra and Iorek’s respective themes. Very possibly what I call ‘Lyra’s theme’ is actually ‘Lyra and Roger’, while what I call ‘Lyra/Iorek’ is actually what Desplat calls ‘Lyra’s theme’.

Note on ‘The Samoyeds’: Desplat has also remarked on a theme for the ‘Samoyeds’, the vicious dogs who attack Lord Asriel, kidnap Lyra, and who later participate in the battle at Bolvangar. There is a short action motif that appears in ‘Lord Asriel’, ‘Samoyed Attack’ and throughout ‘Battle of the Tartars’ that could be this motif. There’s a strong sense of force, with little emotional colouring beyond that, which suits the susceptible-to-instruction minds of the Tartars, the human halves of the Samoyed daemons. (E.g. track 24, ‘Battle of the Tartars’, the ostinato from 1:14-1:30; track 15, ‘Samoyed Attack’, 0:20-0:30.)

Note: ‘Ambiguous Motif’ – This intriguing idea for high register violins appears twice on the album, firstly in ‘Serafina Pekkala’ as the Witch Queen tells Lyra of the ominous signs of what is happening on Bolvangar, and during the ‘Epilogue’, as Lyra tells Roger that she is taking her father ‘what he needs’. There are hints of this motif elsewhere in the score, but those are the fullest expressions. Could it be an investment in later films in the trilogy, perhaps a hint of the ‘great betrayal’ to come? (Example: Track 25, 1:31-1:59.)

In a similar vein, there’s some interesting use of high-register sounds throughout the score – see ‘The Gobblers’ motif below, and the high frequency ethnic string idea at the end of ‘Lord Faa, King of the Gyptians’.

Note on the musical cultures of Lyra’s world: A distinctive orchestrator first and foremost, Desplat’s musical canvas for this film also makes some interesting textural choices for different worlds. The Gyptian culture and its ethnic links have already been commented on above. As to be expected, The Magisterium has a very dark musical presence – low range piano chords, dissonant strings straining at the edge of their ranges. It seems there’s also some interesting material for The Tartars. Tuvan throat singers, shrill ethnic flutes, and a distinctive ethnic string instrument (the Mongolian cello?) hover threateningly at moments in the score when this people might be expected to make an appearance. (Listen to the end of ‘Lord Asriel’, the end of ‘Lord Faa, King of the Gyptians’, the segue from ‘Riding Iorek’ to ‘Samoyed Attack’, and the coda to ‘Samoyed Attack’).

Note on Lord Asriel: In an essay on how to interpret the ‘daemonology’ of His Dark Materials, Maude Hines observes that the three-part structure of Northern Lights lent itself to a reading as a metaphor for discovering and distancing oneself from one’s parentage.

Part One is ‘Oxford’, Lyra’s adopted home. Though she does not know the dynamics of her parents’ relationship or even their identities, she will eventually learn that her childhood experiences at Oxford, even down to different visiting weekends, have been determined their varying degrees of influence over Jordan College. Not knowing who her parents are is perhaps a metaphor for something that is true for most children – they do not truly know their parents, either due to lack of understanding or childish self-absorption. Lyra is drawn out of that world by Mrs Coulter – in other words, the first parent she is drawn to is her mother, alluring, feminine, personable. Mother’s charms soon wear off, and as Lyra escapes her influence, she learns that Coulter is her mother as she is beginning to learn more of her mother’s actions.

Part Two is ‘Bolvangar’, covering the journey to the base of the child-cutters, the discovery of the horrors there, and the liberation of the children. As Lyra comes to hate her mother’s despicable indifference to suffering and moral compromises, she comes to admire her father in matching proportion. This stern silent type who never offered her much more than attention (a grudging kind of ‘love’) becomes a prince among men.

And Part Three is ‘Svalbard’, where Lyra risks death to reach her father, overthrowing the monarchy of the panserbjorne in the process. When she does reach her father, she discovers he is not all she had fantasized, but as capable of cruelty as her mother, however worthy his ends. At the end of the novel, she is left alone with her conscience (or daemon) to make her own decisions, freed from the delusion that one can progress by taking sides with either parent.

Why I mention all this – apart from the fact that I find it all very interesting – is that I was dismayed the final film was not more about this search for models in life. One finds it first in one’s mother, the sympathetic feminine voice one is more at home with. Desplat’s cue ‘Mother’ captures these ideas beautifully. I am surprised however, particularly given his significance in later books of the trilogy, that Lord Asriel was not similarly blessed with a melodic presence in the score. He doesn’t appear much in the film admittedly – indeed, he is not even present when he’s off-screen in the way he is in the novel, where Lyra mentally compares her parents throughout the novel. If I could ask Desplat one question about the score, it would be this – given the significance of Asriel and the theme of coming to a mature understanding of one’s parents, why wasn’t the character given a theme? It’s not a criticism so much as a question.

Comments (4) — Add Yours

Is this an updated review? Your CineMusic review was written *before* you had seen the film, this one after. Whichever, it’s fab.

And thanks a bunch for the links to the two Desplat interviews, I’ve never seen them before.

# Posted by namster on 1:16, 21 February 2008

namster's avatar

I did rewrite this a couple of days after seeing the movie in late December 2007. I would have rather had this version put on cinemusic, as by the time they got my initial draft online, I’d done this version.

# Posted by franz_conrad on 23:17, 21 February 2008

This is possibly the most detailed review I’ve seen yet - impressive doesn’t quite cut it!  There’s a lot of stuff in here that I didn’t expect to find - references to all kinds of things that really stood out as I was coding it; you’ve obviously done a massive amount of research and it flows beautifully.  Here’s hoping TSK comes out so you can review that soundtrack too!

# Posted by ArcT on 12:21, 22 February 2008

ArcT's avatar

Thanks for your thoughts ArcT. I really do hope that THE SUBTLE KNIFE is made too, if only to hear the soundtrack else.

# Posted by franz_conrad on 3:17, 23 February 2008


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