Tuesday, 9 September 2014

The Knick Score Review

Check it out... if you're a fan of Cliff Martinez and his electronically-based scores for Drive and Only God Forgives, and crave another score of his which lie within this vein of musical style 

Skip it... if you're not one for questionable use of synthetic pulsing in or outside of visual context, and desire a well rounded listening experience which at least sounds as if the composer has gone into detail and effort

"Constant bass pulses and repetition lead to a constantly recognizable sound, one that's not particularly pleasant to listen to, nor intellectually fine tuned."

The latest in episodic entertainment from the great Steven Soderbergh, responsible for most recently Behind the Candelabra and Side Effects, is The Knick, a medical period drama set in the early twentieth century. The series depicts the professional and personal lives of the staff that work at New York's Knickerbocker Hospital, and stars Clive Owen, Jeremy Bobb and Eve Hewson. Currently still running, the series has received numerous critical and widespread acclaim from all corners, thanks to it's gritty tone and beautiful cinematography, capturing the New York landscape and location with particularly beautiful ease. Composer Cliff Martinez, whose more recent projects included two Nicholas Winding Refn films, those being My Life Directed by Nicholas Winding Refn and Only God Forgives, both of which had particularly jarring musical scores, is the composer for the series. One would be forgiven for asking the obvious question; "What does the primarily-electronic style of Martinez have to do with twentieth century doctors and nurses?" This question arose within me prior to my turning on of the album, and I shall still stand by this reasonable question; why exactly was Martinez chosen for this project? 

The Knick is a thoroughly punishing listen; not nearly as poorly constructed as the recent John Debney Houdini debacle, both Volume's 1 and 2 proving to be disgusting arrangements of music on album, though The Knick is certainly in the same vein as these dreadful scores. The score is an electronic overload, as is becoming a sudden trend with period pieces in television, and this makes for some overbearingly boring and mind-numbingly painful periods of music, from beginning to end. Bear McCreary made a comment recently whilst discussing his most recent release, Da Vinci's Demons: Season 2 (which I shall hopefully get around to reviewing soon), exclaiming that he doesn't understand the recent tactic undertaken by modern composers in regards to period television; he couldn't grasp the motivation behind an electronically-rendered score for such a time period as the one being undertaken within The Knick. And honestly, that opinion is shared by myself and numerous other members of the scoring community. So why have composers and directors began to opt for this kind of sound for their television shows recently? Why don't more period works go down in the vein of Da Vinci's Demons, which has for two seasons consecutively proven that providing an orchestral score of epic proportions, slightly aided by the use of synthetic instrumentation, can prove to be a massive hit with the scoring community, all whilst rendering fantastic results within the visual entertainment context? As a spectator of this growing trend, I can only help by worrying and reporting on the wrong that encompasses such composition in today's television medium. Cliff Martinez has just now added to the slew of intolerable and unnecessary electronic television scores, and disappoints for The Knick.

The main issue evident within this project is something that strangely didn't seem to riddle the aforementioned Houdini, of which I will no doubt be making comparisons to often in this here review; the lack of music which seems full of heart and effort. Whilst Debney's work within Houdini was led astray, with the final result proving to be far more monotonous and irritating than the composer would've predicted, at least it seemed as if Debney was interested in the project, and was trying. His instrumentation and thematic material seemed to be full of moments of obvious enthusiasm for the project, and when his material truly did shine through the abysmal electronics, it made for some memorable highlights. The Knick, on the other hand, is just boring and unenthusiastic cue after boring and unenthusiastic cue, and after listening to such dullness for 51 minutes, you may very well feel saturated enough with sombre and uninspired material enough to go round for years. It's not ever particularly original in it's phrasing or construction, the instrumentation is forever repetitive and uninteresting, and the overall tone of the score is quite unclear from beginning to end. It's not often I come across a score filled with this little vigour and willingness to do anything outside the box, but The Knick certainly ranges into the numbers of scores that provide little more than background music to a visual form of entertainment.

Though apparently, this being according to a number of fairly close individuals, the music is actually quite poor within the visceral context. So what exactly does this score achieve, if it can't satisfy those who are interested in listening to the album outside of context, and those looking out for the music within it's intended purpose? It provides no satisfaction to any of the numerous audiences it could appeal to, so where were Martinez and Soderbergh's heads at throughout the discussion, writing and recording of the album? According to Martinez, Soderbergh had been using his music from Drive and Spring Breakers during the rough first edits of the series, and so called upon Martinez to compose the official score, intending an electronic, futuristic sound that he'd managed to find using these samples from the aforementioned Martinez scores. Many fans of the show and this conceptualization have claimed that this furthers a sound that represents a 'forward-thinking landscape', which is what the main characters of the show, doctors, have to do continually to provide medical aid to the public. This is an almost reasonable response to the criticisms that plague The Knick's score, and you have to somewhat respect the persistence of Soderbergh, to resist heavy pressure from sound mixers and even Martinez to change the sound of the music to a more contemporary 1900's-like sound. This doesn't change the fact that the music sounds as if it completely misses the mark; whilst it has more instrumental consistences than Houdini, it does contain far more insistent and pulverizing droning that will irritate the eardrums of many a listener. Constant bass pulses and repetition lead to a constantly recognizable sound, one that's not particularly pleasant to listen to, nor intellectually fine tuned. Even a little bit of variation could go so far in this context, though it's often avoided in favor of the consistently boring flavour of the rest of the score.

I say often, though not wholly. There are fleeting periods throughout the 51 minute running time which allow us a portion of hope; my trust in Martinez could almost be reignited by the cue "Never Read Him", which takes in a more sinister and cautious tone than any of the cues beforehand; slow and plodding xylophone plays over near-dangerously loud ambiance, though instead of the result coming out as intolerable, for once in this disaster of an album, some of the time, it seems somewhat experimental and enjoyable. What also makes "Never Read Him" so good in contrast to much of the rest of the score is it's lack of consistently heavy notes, which batter the ears until the listener decides it's time to turn down the volume, for health and safety concerns. This is demonstrated in the next cue on, "Aortic Aneurysm Junior", which takes on loud and uncompromising percussion phrasing, which forces the listeners hand in turning down the volume. Fortunately, though, apart from this obvious issue in regards to fluctuations of volume, the cue is reasonably well executed, with light woodwinds fluttering in and out every now and again, and varied, high-pitched electronics ruling over the ambiance, in contrast to the rest of the score, in which the exact opposite often occurs. The good dies out for another 4-or-so cues, until "Call Me Dad", which serves as another moody and danger-ridden piece of music, helped along by some wickedly edgy ambiance, which doesn't seem to impose or irritate as much as some of the other ambiance uses throughout the running time. Percussion hits well within the first half of this piece, before woodwinds rise up for a brief period of time throughout the middle portion of the cue, executing a different tone and mood. It's these small changes in volume, pace, rhythm and instrumentation that make all the difference, and show Martinez's capabilities. 

Unfortunately, his capabilities and capacity are squandered by Soderbergh's insistent direction; a direction that refuses to lose it's grasp on the score. Every now and again, a cool or ingenious sound pops up for a brief instance, though it's impressiveness is drowned out by it's overuse and insistence upon pulsing; I don't understand the current composer's obsession with bass and synthetic pulses. It doesn't sound good in this context, nor did it within Houdini. This sudden trend needs to stop in it's tracks, for it's doing nothing for the scoring community, nor the television shows being scored. Perhaps in the case of Houdini, the score may have worked well in context (I've heard nothing that would contradict this statement, up to this point in time); though according to numerous sources, as I've made mention, Martinez's efforts prove to only bring the series down. There is no colour or vibrancy here that was displayed in Drive or Only God Forgives, but only the most stereotypical and tiresome phrases and instrumentation possible from this often creative composer. The thematic material, which I've barely made mention of, is utterly abysmal, and just floats by without recognition or care. There's nothing memorable or consistently reigniting about these themes; they just appear and doze off into nothingness, and they will undoubtedly leave many a casual listener feeling confused. This is a cold album, filled with music that doesn't connect to myself, and undoubtedly a great deal of others. Unless you're a Martinez fan, steer clear away, and head towards McCreary's Da Vinci's Demons. You can purchase The Knick on Amazon or iTunes, here and here.


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