arnold

Photo: RTÉ

David Arnold Never Dies: Chronicles of Fantasy and Bondage

British composer David Arnold is a bit of a mystery – on the one hand, he is one of the great film composers of our time, on the other he is something of an undercover talent, by my reckoning. His movie output may not have been as prolific as some better known names, especially in recent years, but what he lacks in quantity is made up for in quality.

David Arnold hasn’t done a feature film since Paul in 2011, although he’s kept himself active in UK Television, most notably the popular Sherlock series and the upcoming Dracula. He also recently held a semi-humorous concert performance together with fellow composer Michael Giacchino at the Royal Albert Hall, and applied his trademark, Bond-esque music to a new ad for British clothes brand N.Peal (see ad at the end of the article), with fans immediately calling for his return to the spy franchise. So surely, it must be time for a new film score, David? Perhaps it’s time we all re-acquaint ourselves with his work, which demonstrates a broad technical competence for the orchestra as well as for electronica.

My first encounter with David Arnold was with the panoramic soundtrack to the 1994 movie Stargate. The sound quality was a bit thin, albeit acceptable in the CD release – but in the movie itself, it brought huge scenes to life with many powerful themes. The main theme was later used for the television spinoff series scored by Joel Goldsmith. In Stargate, Arnold also made use of a sub-theme which began a tantalizing musical mystery hunt for me when I heard the CD for the first time (back then, there was no Wikipedia to consult). More about that below.

Stargate (1994) was quickly followed by an even better score for the oddball blockbuster movie Independence Day (1996) and then the  Godzilla remake (1998) – all films of director Roland Emmerich. In the latter cases, the scores are far better than the movies they are supposed to support – a theme that seems to repeat all too often with big budget science fiction movies. Arnold won a Grammy for Independence Day, whose theme recently reappeared in the much unanticipated sequel Independence Day: Resurgence (2016), otherwise scored by Harold Kloser and Thomas Wander – Emmerich’s go-to composers after the director’s break-up with Arnold during the making of The Patriot (2000).

This trio of big budget science fiction movies established him as a highly competent composer and formidable orchestrator, although the influence of orchestrator Nicholas Dodd has been a “hot potato topic” in film music circles for decades.

Stargate (1994, dir. Roland Emmerich)

Arnold’s score for Godzilla (which is a perfectly awful movie) is really very nice indeed, with its Bernard Herrmann-esque, Cape Fear-like theme (perhaps an ironic reference to the way Godzilla arrives). This was ultimately released as a 3CD soundtrack, with all the details and retakes – a very worthy acquisition for any movie music lover.

In 2010, Arnold was commissioned to write a massive orchestral work for The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Although the music received some acerbic reviews for being too heavy in its use of every orchestral trick in the book, it never feels overdone. By all accounts (from what I’ve seen of the first film in the series), the story and movies are themselves a bit of a potpurri of every conceivable element thrown gratuitously and unceremoniously together.

Narnia is a pinnacle of fantasy music composition, surely stemming from the same musical lexicon as John Williams’ Harry Potter universe, or as a premonition of James Newton Howard’s Fantastic Beasts musicology – it’s intricate, filled with ideas and moods, occasionally resembling both of these as it shifts from style to style. The opening conjures images of flying through sweeping dreams, then melts into Bossanova rhythms, before moving on to bold, but serene chord changes atop a weeping harp. This is all somehow typical within the language of fantasy music, but impressively constructed nonetheless. As an amateur composer, I have to admire the dexterity of both Arnold’s orchestrations and his compositional prowess. For a brief moment, he apparently erupts into a bit of Bond in «The Lone Island».

I’d claim that my keen ear heard moments of phrasing that echo the oddly unique style of Emmerich’s present-day collaborator Harald Kloser — a coincidence? Then suddenly «The Green Mist» haunts us with echoes of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991) by Cliff Eidelman, whose dark march is lit with flashes of a raunchy flute in the style of Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson. Heavens above! And, in between, I could swear I heard the ghost of Sibelius in the calm passages of «1st Sword».

It’s a wild ride indeed, including its own mini-Carmina Burana. Never a dull moment, and without doubt a tour de force of orchestration, masterfully conducted. Whatever sceptical reviewers might say, I don’t think such a soundtrack could displease any film music enthusiast or fantasy- and science fiction aficionado. This work would be a respectable high point of any composer’s career. But let’s hope it isn’t.

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010, dir. Michael Apted)

Arnold has gone on to cover considerable ground, with films like the cult classics Zoolander (2001) and Hot Fuzz (2007), the remake of The Stepford Wives (2007), as well as the TV series Little Britain (2003-2006), the aforementioned Sherlock (2010-), and recently Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens (2019), as well as numerous pop music enterprises. But there’s one sequence which is arguably his most important.

By way of introduction, I can actually relate a funny David Arnold story of my own: I’m a listener with a better-than-average musical memory; I often get stuck on the names of friends and colleagues, but I can replay entire symphonies in my head in bizarre detail. As I was listening to Stargate, years after the film, a theme jumped out at me from the broad panoramic landscapes (the tracks «The Stargate Opens» and «Entering the Stargate», for instance) and conjured in my mind an uncanny image of Sean Connery flying over a mountain in a small helicopter. I later watched every Bond film to track down the music, eventually finding what I thought I had imagined in a theme from You Only Live Twice (1967). In retrospect, the theme is not as similar as my musical brain had claimed. Nevertheless, there was a weird recognition of a style and a dramatic presentation — an affinity to the style of writing and a mood. Little did I know that Wikipedia would later clear up the mystery for me:

In 1997, Arnold produced the album Shaken and Stirred: The David Arnold James Bond Project, featuring reworked innovative interpretations of the themes from various James Bond films–skillfully cast.  The album was a hit with John Barry himself, who composed much of the early Bond music, and this began a long standing entanglement with James Bond which came to explain the musical mystery I alluded to above.

Partly because of the album of songs, Arnold was commissioned to write the music for a slew of new Bond movies, starting with Tomorrow Never Dies (1997), The World is not Enough (1999), and all the way up to Quantum of Solace (2008). Apart from the John Barry references, there are some tantalizing hints at James Horner’s Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984) in The World is Not Enough. Once we reach Casino Royale (2006), the scores get less and less interesting (much like the action-dominated movies themselves). The James Bond music definitely works best when exploiting John Barry’s classic themes to the max.

These are very beautiful scores that masterfully capture the legacy of John Barry and the Bond themes. James Bond is something Arnold clearly has sewn into the depths of his soul. His modern take on the classic Bond themes does full justice to the tradition, while modernising the instrumentation. Just what Bond fans would expect.

By all accounts Arnold is a colourful character. He has worked extensively with pop bands and has even performed as a singer in James Bond Tribute concerts with the original John Barry. He also produced Shirley Bassey’s 2009 album The Performance. Bassey is (of course) famous for making James Bond songs an institution in their own right – cementing yet another bond to the world of Bond. The opening songs for Goldfinger (1964), Diamonds are Forever (1971) or Moonraker (1979) were forever immortalized by her unique style.

Arnold is a composer that I can revisit easily again and again. Although relatively out of the limelight, compared to other big name composers, I would place him alongside the best. We certainly need to hear his voice in feature films again.

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Here is Arnold’s Bond-inspired music for British luxury clothes brand N.Peal, released in October-2019:

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Ett svar til “David Arnold Never Dies: Chronicles of Fantasy and Bondage”

  1. Sigbjørn Vindenes Egge Sigbjørn Vindenes Egge sier:

    It’s interesting to read that you’re an amateur composer! Do you have anything available online for people to hear?

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