Writer’s Music: Mychael Danna V

The Good Dinosaur Soundtrack Cover.jpgI never thought I would include a Disney score, especially when they have such a choke hold on their music files (shakes fist at The Nearly Omniscient Mouse). This is why you don’t see a complete song at the bottom of this post. (Update: Special thanks to fellow writer Michael Dellert for helping me find a YouTube video of the music!) But how can I not write about Mychael Danna, especially when he outdoes himself yet again?

Having lived my life in the woods and farmlands of the Midwest, I couldn’t help but adore Danna’s The Good Dinosaur. The story itself is an old one: think of a family out west working the homestead. The boy is thrust from his home by the elements, and must now cross the wilderness to return home. Now substitute the boy for a dinosaur. Ta da–movie!

Opinions on the film run a pretty wide gamut, so I’m just going to leave them be. What I love is the western flavor Danna uses in this score. It’s sweet, almost bittersweet, in the strings. The occasional fiddle tune comes along, some banjo, some woodwinds and piano. The brass swells, lone and strong. His mix of percussion at tense moments reminds us a child is the hero, that he must be so despite the terrors of the sky.

Yet of all the orchestral elements, I still find the strings to be the true stars in this score. Violins are such a unique instrument in their ability to relate whimsy or sorrow at the turn of an eight note, which I think is one of the reasons Danna uses them so much here. They bring a reader to tears when the protagonist mourns his father, to laughs when he’s running away from dino-chickens. There’s a majesty to the strings I have not heard in a long time: a melody so simple, yet elegant, like leaves rustling in the sunshine.

Poetry without words.

Click here for more on THE GOOD DINOSAUR.

(Fortunately, the Amazon page for the score has sample tracks, so you can listen to the work.)

Click here for more on Mychael Danna.

Writer’s Music: Mychael Danna IV

91ilvkdjfkl-_sl1500_One of the many reasons I write with music in the background is to help me feel outside of myself. To clarify: if there’s a feeling I’m going for in a scene, it helps to sense that feeling elsewhere than in my brain. If I hear music that reflects the feeling, I am better able to relate the feeling with language. This goes for music that lifts up as well as music that drags down.

Today, I want to focus on the “lift up” part. Mychael Danna, the unshakeable rock of my movie score library, both drags and lifts with Little Miss Sunshine. The story itself—a dysfunctional family coming together to help the young girl reach a beauty pageant—calls for such pendulum swings in mood. The genius here is that the music seems to symbolize the dysfunction: one hears some strings, but not many, drums, a squeezebox, a tuba and trumpet. Some other little percussion odds and ends, like a xylophone. These are not the instruments one hears together often, save for, hmm, a polka party? But then strings are not usually involved… ANYWAY. You have an eclectic batch of instruments with their own very unique sounds, but together, they not only create harmony, but a genuine song.

And what a song. “We’re Gonna Make It” builds as more instruments join, and while the sounds are so very different, the melodies played by each instrument are very much the same. Add to this the percussion, which builds up the rhythms with a little help from the tuba, and you’ve got a song that runs through the dirt, leaps into the air, and soars.

Help your characters see that, though odd ducks they may be, they are better as a unit than apart. Give them the hope and determination they need to rise over the conflict. Danna’s got just the wings for the flight.

Click here for more on LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE.

Click here for more on Mychael Danna.

Writer’s Music: Mychael Danna III

51tlmvsqpelMy love for Mychael Danna’s music originates here, with Capote. This is the music that pulls the floor out from under your characters and crashes realization down upon them. Hard. Crudely put, Capote’s perfect for the moment your character whispers, “Oh, shit.

At some point, our characters discover just how far out of depth they are from their comfort zones. This may be the introduction of fresh conflict, a singular plot point, or even a change of setting. I rely heavily on Capote when describing the moment my protagonist learns her sister is missing. This moment comes in the country, with few facts based in reality for her to follow. I suppose that is why I love the strings and piano in Capote—they disturb my emotional base with their harsh simplicity. Nothing can just be beautiful. There is a menace underlying every track, even in “Epigraph.”

“Epigraph” is unique in two ways: piano dominates the track, and the menace of the strings is weakened by the kindness in the piano’s melody. One feels an almost-hope in this song, and that can translate well to characters unsure of where they stand, especially after a downfall.

Which brings me to that second uniqueness: that “Epigraph” is music to bring characters together. So much of Capote can be utilized to alienate your characters, to make them feel cut off from everything they know. “Epigraph” is almost physical in the way it helps characters connect, be it in their resolve, their consolation, or even grief.

Bring Capote into your world. Watch your characters grow as they fall…and come together in almost-hope.

Click here for more on Mychael Danna.

Click here for more on CAPOTE.

Writer’s Music: Mychael Danna II

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As I wrote in February, Danna’s music has helped me a great deal as a writer. While The Sweet Hereafter creates an unsettling atmosphere (see “Writer’s Music: Mychael Danna,” posted on 2/27/2015), Breach provides an air of mystery no plot should live without.

Say what you will about writing for a specific genre: if you want a page-turner, you’ve got to have a puzzle of some sort to be solved. Characters must work out causes of events, sources of conflict with others, and their own inner flaws. These puzzles can’t just sit on the table half-finished until the last ten minutes; someone’s always got to be working on them or the reader’s going to leave, bored, and never return.

Danna’s Breach utilizes an extensive string section, keyboard, and a few brass and woodwind instruments to build upon each other with musical rhythms. As “A Full Day” begins with the keyboard, I can watch my characters start with little, and slowly begin to piece the different elements of their mystery together, just as Danna brings in layers of short rhythmic melodies, each played by different instruments. By the time the keyboard pulls together its melodies over the crescendo of strings, my characters have uncovered a clue vital to uncovering the kidnapper and where he’s hidden the protagonist.

One other note on Danna: the timing of his music. While I may start a track over and over during the writing process, I expect my story to read in time with the music. If my scene lags—and it does, shamefully often—I know it must be tightened. Writers constantly hear they must “keep up the pace,” but apart from using a metronome, how does one pull it off? In moments where mystery dominates the plot, use Breach’s rhythms to drive your characters onward.

Selection: “A Full Day”

Click here for more on Mychael Danna’s BREACH and other albums.

Writer’s Music: Mychael Danna

 

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I use several of Danna’s albums when I write, The Sweet Hereafter especially when I need an atmosphere of unsettlement. There is no orchestra here; often only a few string or woodwind instruments play at a time. Percussion is limited. Harmonies come and go like sunlight beneath a breaking cloudbank.

My protagonist flees an abusive home. She finally is in control of her fate…until a bizarre accident wrecks her bus. No one questions the circumstances, nor does anyone think it strange when another bus, empty of passengers but filled with everything the stranded travelers need, just so happens to come along on an otherwise abandoned stretch of interstate. Only the protagonist feels the wrongness of it all, from the ground beneath her to the sudden stillness of the trees.

I could not have closed my eyes and worked this through if not for Mychael Danna’s The Sweet Hereafter. I visualized the empty road easily enough, but I enjoy the quiet of Wisconsin’s empty places. I could not make myself uncomfortable. And then I put the tracks “Bus,” “Bus Stop,” and “Why I Lied” together, and found myself shivering inside my protagonist’s skin.

Danna’s music also makes a writer’s point: use only what you need, and use it well. It’s all too easy to dive into sweeping descriptions of the world’s logistics. Background, right? Context? Readers need it!

No, no they don’t. Keep it simple. Share just enough to catch the reader’s eye, keep him following you a few steps behind, and broaden the reader’s vision as the story advances. Danna’s “A Huge Wave” is the perfect track to reflect this idea.

I include here a sample of The Sweet Hereafter. If ever you need your characters to feel unsure of the world about them, lose them in Danna.

Selection: “Bus”

Album available for purchase through Amazon, link below. Music file shared with permission of Mychael Danna. Yes, he is that awesome.

Sweet Hereafter, composed by Mychael Danna