Friday, August 28, 2015

Celebrating the End by Returning to the Beginning

I recently wrote about Orphan Black by way of its soundtrack album, a way of kinda-sorta acknowledging a show I should have been praising here on the blog from day one. (I have been watching it that long.) I now do the same for another show, Hannibal.

The titular character of the show is Hannibal Lecter; the series is an adaptation/reinterpretation of author Thomas Harris' books Red Dragon and Hannibal, but with a lot of prequel and invented material included. The series' unlikely showrunner and creator is Bryan Fuller, the man behind Pushing Daisies, Wonderfalls, and Dead Like Me. (Well... perhaps he's not that unlikely a choice. He's just removing the light-hearted streak from his clearly macabre sensibilities.)

Hannibal wraps up its third season this weekend. Thanks to ratings so low they can hardly be measured, it's sure to be the show's last season. This is another one of those cases where a brilliant show never got the viewers it deserved (even if it was critically acclaimed along the way). Hannibal brought a heightened style to everything it did. Its visuals, its dialogue, its acting -- everything about it was perched on the razor edge of becoming too pretentious and over-the-top, yet it stayed firmly on the right side of the line. When everyone was going gaga over True Detective in its first season, I was quietly thinking that there was nothing that show was doing that Hannibal wasn't doing far, far better.

Part of the perfectly balanced presentation of Hannibal was its moody score by Brian Reitzell. Part music, part ambient noise, the score slithers around in all the nooks and crannies of your subconscious, a key component to what the show was. Two albums each from the first two seasons of the show have been released, and I've been adding them to my music collection one by one. Each album covers half a season (six or seven episodes), presenting long suites curated from each episode. Most of the tracks run for 10 minutes or more.

Admittedly, it's tough to know the occasion to listen to the album. It hardly ever coalesces into a perceptible time signature. It's the sort of sonic landscape that would make a good background for some common activity... except that the show's imagery is so powerful that even just listening to the music in isolation can sometimes bring clear memories to mind. Still, I enjoy it very much.

Season 1, Volume 1 has so many distinct passages. It opens with the music from the pilot episode, "Apéritif," and a strangely noble drone accented with proud piano chords. The fact that you know the true dark subject it was composed for makes for an effective, unsettling contrast. The album closes with music from the episode "Sorbet," ending on a long bass note that sounds like a warrior's battle horn. In between, there's a full buffet of sounds: stereo panning tricks, echoing to imply a vast space, strange feedback like a rock band gearing up, pounding on water pipes, and so much more.

"Amuse-Bouche" features an odd opening that sounds like "futuristic" music from a 1980s sci-fi movie. It gives way to pulses that sound like an oscilloscope, and a mournfully muted piano. "Potage" is full of strangely sensual music (again, unsettling in the actual context). "Oeuf" features the woodwind section of the orchestra, but often in random-feeling notes that feel like a passing breeze is driving the sound more than a musician. "Coquilles" features skittering insects and a strange motor running as it files down metal. "Entrée" is dominated by wild and scattered drums, and a sound like electricity warming up just after a switch has been thrown. (It also includes one of the most conventionally musical sections on the album, as groaning brass leads up to a vaguely tribal rhythm with wood block accents.)

Along the way, you also get short bursts of classical-style music created for the show's cultured environments -- piano studies, soprano arias, and more. On the other end of the spectrum are sections that sound like pure sound effects; the show's signature for entering and moving through Will Graham's visions, for example, is actually Reitzell's musical score, not the work of a foley artist.

The soundtrack is not for everyone... nor even for me, all the time. But it is beautiful in its own twisted way, just like the show itself. And soon, it will be one of the best ways for me to remember the show after it's gone. I give the Season 1, Volume 1 collection a B+. (Perhaps more reviews of later volumes will come when I'm feeling nostalgic.)

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