Alexandre Desplat: Music from the (Elysian) plains

If I wasn’t already convicted that French film composer Alexandre Desplat (day-SPLAH) is the best thing happening in the music world today, discovering his score to The Painted Veil this past week would have put the coda on that proverbial sheet of music.

Desplat’s delicate, gauzy orchestrations and his (seemingly) inexhaustible reservoir of memorable melodies puts him at the front of the pack of current film composers. (He has not unseated John Williams from his throne in any way, but Williams is all but retired anymore, so he hardly counts in this discussion.)

I first encountered Desplat’s music when I heard The Curious Case of Benjamin Button in 2008. Since then I’ve followed him with fascination, and fallen in love with scores like Lust, Caution, Twilight: New Moon, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, and now The Painted Veil.

There is something distinctly old-fashioned about Messr. Desplat’s approach to scoring films. He doesn’t shy away from strong, long-lined melodies to represent characters or progress the storyline. His orchestrations are very “classical” and organic, free of modern rock/pop elements, and clearly the product of a more classical education (a trait that, in itself, ushers him into the ranks of the hallowed composers of a now bygone age).

Desplat, whose French surname literally means “from the plains,” liberally employs every section of the symphonic orchestra in his scores. Airy piano figurations, romantic melodies carried by strings, regal horn passages, and oh the woodwinds! Those beautiful, breath fueled instruments—which have been all but replaced in modern scores by electric guitars and synthesizers—seem to be the Frenchman’s favored sons.

“My orchestrations are my orchestrations,” Desplat told me in a 2008 interview. “They leave my room with bones and flesh—then there’s of course some makeup to add. But it’s all there.

“It’s very important for me, because the first time I did not orchestrate a movie I was so sad to not put my hand on the paper. To give away one of the best moments, which is when your pencil is dreaming instead of your head…I think a good orchestration is crucial. When I start writing I think both in terms of instruments and melodies. It’s not just the melodies; I know exactly who’s going to play it.”

Perfectionism and a master’s attention to detail characterize Desplat’s music. These are not themes that he plunked out on a piano and handed to a team of orchestrators to “symphonize.” He is interested in the full picture, down to the smallest brushstroke, and that obsession with every layer of his creation raises the quality of his work to an unmatched height in our time.

“I think the challenge of a creator is to always be in danger. That way you get forward. Otherwise life is boring. You become a bourgeois artist, and I wouldn’t like that.”