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And The Oscar Goes To ... Mr. 'Star Wars' Or Arcade Fire?

By Mark Mobley | NPR
Thursday, February 27, 2014

By all accounts, 2014 is an exceptionally tough year for handicapping Oscar winners. But some of the most interesting races are among people who won't be asked who they're wearing on the red carpet.

The competition for best original score is particularly fierce, including musicians from the classical and pop worlds. The most familiar name on the roster is perennial contender John Williams, who scored the Holocaust drama The Book Thief. Jeff Lunden profiled Williams for NPR in 2012 to mark the composer's 80th birthday; he explained to Lunden that he doesn't begin composing until he's seen a rough cut of a film. "If I have the luxury of going into the dark projection room and being surprised when the audience is surprised and being bored when they're bored," Williams said, "I think that gives me a sense of what my job is, where I can press the accelerator button if I need to, or support an emotion or don't."

Williams' Star Wars scores famously brought the sound of classic Hollywood — lush, operatic — to outer space. Nominee Steven Price took the opposite approach with Alfonso Cuarón's orbital rollercoaster Gravity, writing music that has thundering climaxes but often floats at the limits of perception. Price also scored the film's companion short, the heartbreaking Aningaaq, directed by Cuarón's son Jonás.

Another film with muted musical effects is Philomena, about an elderly woman searching for a son taken from her and put up for adoption 50 years before. "Sometimes a sparse score is more difficult to do, much more difficult," Alexandre Desplat told NPR's Arun Rath. Desplat uses variations on a wistful waltz heard early in the film to conjure the main character's thwarted memories and emotional pain.

The remaining nominees are huge names — though in different fields. Thomas Newman is an often-nominated composer from a long line of Hollywood soundstage royalty that includes his father, Alfred Newman (Wuthering Heights, How the West Was Won), and cousin Randy Newman (Toy Story, The Princess and the Frog). Thomas Newman was last nominated in 2013 for Skyfall and in 2009 for WALL-E. This time around he is recognized for the making-of-Mary Poppins movie Saving Mr. Banks.

William Butler and Owen Pallett (aka Final Fantasy), composers of the music for Spike Jonze's Her, are imports from the indie rock world — not unlike Trent Reznor, Nine Inch Nails founder and 2011 Oscar winner (with Atticus Ross) for The Social Network. Butler is a member of the band Arcade Fire, whom Pallett has toured with and written arrangements for. Here's a clip of Pallett, Butler and Arcade Fire at work on their moody score, which blends electronic and acoustic sounds to match the film's exploration of artificial intelligence meeting human emotion.

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