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Soundtrack review: House of cards symphony (Jeff Beal – 2018)

Film scores

Soundtrack review: House of cards symphony (Jeff Beal – 2018)

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As a film music journalist I get a lot of promos and scores to write about. Each week I think somewhere between 60 and 80 scores are released and there is a limited amount of time to listen to them and even less to write about them, so over the years I’ve decided to just review proper scores, not compilations, not EPs, not collections. And yet there are those rare cases when I just can’t stay away because I love a particular score too much to not share my thoughts and feelings about any form it might be presented in.

The music of “House of cards” has probably become, over the years, my favorite collection from TV Land, with all due respect to Ramin Djawadi and his phenomenal “Game of thrones” scores. There were times during these years when those scores faltered a bit while Jeff Beal’s composition have just gotten better and better. It’s a coin toss but my point is, if I were to choose which musical fresque I wanted to explore more, to hear constructed differently, to basically get more, much more, endlessly more from, it would be “House of cards”. Often while listening to those compositions, while watching the show and while writing about all this I found myself trying to isolate specific themes, specific arcs, character based, situation based, from the collection of magnificent cues from each 2 CD set. I tried to correlate character and behaviors with motifs and themes from the music, I looked for them in other cues, I made connections, I built my own narrative and story from the music. I rarely do this, I must admit, usually I just listen, write about how the music makes me feel and move on but Jeff Beal’s HoC scores are so uniquely intelligent and layered that they challenged me. As it turns out, I wasn’t the one thinking it. The composer himself saw a different way of arranging and presenting his music, he saw movements and idea that went beyond the on screen story. This is the thing with great music, it gets a life of itself and grows out of its initial confines and if the creator, the one who crafted it is close enough to listen, the inspiration will come to turn it towards a different medium, the medium from which all music stems, the classical, symphonic medium. Jeff Beal is one of the composers who took his music on the road, to the concert hall, because his “House of cards” idea could work so well outside the context of the TV show as well. I imagine the abundance of intriguing ideas that befall him while he wrote all these hours of music demanded to be heard, to be arranged, to be presented.

So this is how the “House of cards symphony” was born. There’s always been a dilemma among film music fans and journalists as to the merits of a score within the context of the movie or TV show it was written for or on its own. I’ve always been on the edge, leaning more towards the standalone listening experience, since I don’t like restrictions that much and, let’s face it, I get to listen to 80% of the scores before the movie even gets released. For me the standalone listening experience needs to be rich, fulfilling and that is why I am always interested in hearing film music live, or having access to recording sessions or suites made by the composers. A couple of years ago Christopher Young presented his “The killing season” score in a standalone form, arranged completely different from the film version and I loved it. Before being into film music I was a classic music fan; my uncle was one of the most famous conductors from Romania while his father was director of the local Opera for years; I was exposed to symphonic music from my childhood and I love to be able to experience film music like that as well.

There are 10 long movements on this album, each one built around a thematic idea or character and right away I notice that, just as me, Jeff Beal has a soft spot for Robin Wright’s character Claire Underwood, since she is the only one with a separate theme; I remember talking a big with Jeff Beal after the season 4 music review and how he dealt with that particular emotional arc for the character. Before that though there are the first three movements, one that includes the magnificent main titles, one for “Betrayal” where the flute plays a big part and “New deal” which is frantic and, in a way, almost Bernard Herrmann like in the suspenseful and intricate way it twists and tangles. Claire’s movement is somber and elegant, quieter and more calculated while in the same time staying melodic with the piano and the trumpet motif at the end that mimics her trademark, superior smirk.

The core instruments we all got used to hearing on “House of cards” are still present here to anchor the music; after all these instruments are the trademark of the scores, the sneaky piano, the velvety flugehorn, the powerful strings, the guitar. The sound of this TV show is quite unique and easily identifiable for me and I find myself in familiar places as I listen to this score. Oh how I love the determined stride of “Russia” which includes moments louder and more violent than the scores usually provide while also bringing the sneakiness, the shadows that are usually much more present during the show than on this symphony. For me this is the biggest difference between the symphonic arrangements and the cues: the tension which isn’t as palpable on these pieces.

It is hard for me to choose a favorite movement from this album but if I had to, I would probably go with “Portrait of a marriage”; this right here is why Jeff Beal is one of my favorite composers, this composition right here, the sixth suite from this symphony. The way the music moves, the silky horn motifs, seductive as both their romance and the cat and mouse games the Underwoods always play, the loud and rich passages when the music gets angry, it is a portrait that is as real as it’s relatable. It is serious, melancholic, deep and hypnotic and truly one of the pinnacles of the entire “House of cards” musical legend.

The “House of cards symphony” is the album I didn’t know I needed, but wished for. This is definitely a concert I would love to see live and it’s part of the farewell to this musical world which will likely see its last chapter this year with the music of season 6. Don’t worry though, Jeff Beal has found a way to keep the music alive beyond the duration of the show. Simply a must have album that will please fans of both worlds.

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Mihnea Manduteanu

I have been listening to film music for 25 years and writing about it since 2014. I've written over 1000 reviews and I can't imagine myself doing anything else. I am also a member of IFMCA (International Film Music Critics Association).

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