The big surprise in last week’s announcement of the Oscar nominations—at least from a film music standpoint—was the inclusion of Gary Yershon’s score for MR. TURNER. Mike Leigh’s biopic of English landscape and maritime painter J.M.W. Turner (1775–1851) had received acclaim for Timothy Spall’s excellent portrayal of the grumpy artist (which won him Best Actor at Cannes) as well as Dick Pope’s (or “Dick Poop” in the embarrassing nomination announcement from Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs) masterful cinematography. But Yershon’s score apparently flew under the radar. Thankfully, the Academy’s Music Branch rectified that situation.
What makes MR. TURNER so unique? First of all, its chamber group instrumentation centering around a string quintet (including double bass) and a saxophone quartet (two sopranos, one alto, and one tenor). Since Adolphe Sax’s invention wasn’t patented until 1846, five years before Turner died, Yershon explains in the liner notes, “The choice of saxophones meant that period pastiche would be impossible as well as undesirable.”
The string quintet harmonic language is more in line with late Beethoven than the elegant salon music of Mozart or Haydn. The use of glissandi in the strings and woodwinds is the score’s most distinctive (and controversial) element. (Solo flute and clarinet play a significant role in the score as well.) The notes slide from one to the other in sighing pain and tortured loneliness.
A tuba gives “added weight” to the bass while the timpani conveys the rolling sea (“Lashed to the Mast”) and the Royal Academy’s grandeur (“Old and New”). The harp is used sparingly, and surprisingly, as a rhythm section.
Turner does a lot of walking in the film, giving Yershon multiple opportunities for musical sequences sans dialogue. Yershon smartly and judiciously spots the film’s lengthy running time, making every musical moment count. As a result, the memorable score does precisely what film music is supposed to do—it offers a window into the emotions of the gruff, grunting Turner far more elegantly than visuals or dialogue can provide.
Rounding out the album is Yershon’s score for Mike Leigh’s 2012 short A RUNNING JUMP. The film was one of four shorts co-commissioned by Film4 and BBC Films as part of the Cultural Olympiad and the London 2012 Festival, which ran parallel to the 2012 Olympics. The slim plot revolves around a young man’s (Lee Ingleby) attempt to buy a used car from dodgy East End car dealer Perry (Eddie Marsan).
A RUNNING JUMP is the polar opposite of MR. TURNER’s musical brushstrokes. “Once I’d watched the opening shot of Eddie Marsan bustling along a busy street, the recurring musical idea—a kind of extended finger-exercise for piano—came pretty quickly,” said Yershon in the liner notes. The addition of a pair of trumpets, electric bass and congas give the score an upbeat, rhythmic Cuban energy to complement the piano’s constant movement.
The pairing of these two diametrical scores showcases Yershon’s musical range and makes for an enjoyable listen. And while his work on other Mike Leigh films like TOPSY-TURVEY, HAPPY-GO-LUCKY, and ANOTHER YEAR further demonstrate Yershon’s chameleon-like voice, MR. TURNER is something special. Hopefully the Oscar nomination will bring Yershon even more work and focus attention on this fascinating film and wonderful score.