UNFINISHED SPACES – Giancarlo Vulcano


Original Review by Alan Rogers

Unfinished Spaces is a film that documents the creation and subsequent decay of the National Schools of Art in Havana, Cuba in the 1960s. Commissioned by Fidel Castro, three architects designed a radical series of buildings that reflected the sense of optimism and the opportunity of change during the early years of the Revolution. However, as the actual realities began to set in, construction of the schools was halted and the architects, together with their designs, fell out of favour with the established political climate. Film-makers Alysa Nahmias and Ben Murray’s documentary follows the three original architects as they return to Cuba at the invitation of Fidel Castro 40 years after their dream projects were halted, in order to attempt to restore the school.

The music for Unfinished Spaces is composed by Giancarlo Vulcano, a composer of independent projects who has been co-music director for the comedy 30 Rock for the last five years. Over the last two years, Vulcano has collaborated with the directors to give the film a score for a small ensemble of musicians (string quartet, trumpet, saxophone, percussion (from Cuban percussionist Dafnis Prieto) and additional guitar and synths (played by the composer himself)). In his score, there are two distinct aspects. On the one hand there’s music that embodies the Cuban life at the time of the Revolution (optimistic, light-hearted, etc). There is also a more orchestral score that is quite modernistic in style and reflects the schools’ radical architectural design. But it also reflects the decay of the buildings over the years and their symbol of a wasted opportunity. 

It is the orchestral music that makes up the majority of the score. There’s very little in the way of romantic string melodies here. The music is very bare for the most part, very structured (e.g., pizzicato strings are used frequently in the score). The cues tend to have the various instruments being used in a very structural (architectural?) fashion, being added layer upon layer as the cue progresses. Tracks such as “Planos” and “Special Period” highlight this technique well: pizzicato strings are used as a framework over which different instruments are then added (piano, trumpet, saxophone) to generate the finished product. The use of saxophones, as well as the minimalist slant of using building-blocks in the form of small motifs (and variations of these motifs), all leads to a very Michael Nyman/Philip Glass feel to several of the tracks (“Lo Ideal del Campesino”, “Pisar Tierra”, “Cuba Is Free”). This can be a bit distracting to the listener.

Five of Vulcano’s cues for Unfinished Spaces feature Cuban-influenced rhythms and inject a bit of lighter relief from the modernistic score. Dafnis Prieto’s use of percussion is the foundation for these playful tracks and Vulcano adds piano (“Me Siento Bien Aquí”, “At The Country Club”), saxophone (“At The Country Club”, “Something Different”) and strings (“Escuela de Gottardi”) to give very listenable pieces of music. “Todavía Nos Queremos” brings all these elements together in a very satisfying penultimate track. Mention should also go to “You Take It Or You Leave It”. Here, Prieto’s use of the drum kit sounds almost improvised, jazzy, leaving the listener breathless with his playing.

As with a lot of scores for documentary films, Vulcano’s music for Unfinished Spaces is more a series of ideas that are stated at the outset of the track and either repeated, or built upon and modified as the cue progresses. A connecting thread between the cues is seen more in the re-appearance of musical techniques such as the pizzicato strings or specific musical ideas (such as the spare trumpet motif heard in cues such as “Lo Ideal del Campesino”, “Planos”, “The Best In The World” – which I tended not to like). These aspects of the score, together with the inclusion of several Cuban-influenced tracks, makes Unfinished Spaces an interesting and mostly enjoyable album and well worth tracking down either at the usual online digital download stores or on CD through the label’s website (www.distantsecondrecords.com).

Audio samples can be found HERE and then click on arrow next to running time for samples of entire album or individual tracks.

Rating: **½

  1. Unfinished Spaces (0:58)
  2. Me Siento Bien Aquí (1:16)
  3. You Take It Or You Leave It (3:02)
  4. Lo Ideal del Campesino (2:33)
  5. Planos (1:35)
  6. Muy Poca Suerte (1:50)
  7. At The Country Club (2:31)
  8. The Best In The World (3:04)
  9. El Arquitecto de Fidel (1:57)
  10. Pisar Tierra (2:19)
  11. Un Viejito Maravilloso (1:12)
  12. Papaya (0:55)
  13. No More Ballet (1:29)
  14. Something Different (1:57)
  15. Escuela de Gottardi (1:44)
  16. Pasamos por Muchas Cosas (1:54)
  17. No Era Fácil (1:58)
  18. Special Period (2:29)
  19. Todavía Nos Queremos (4:49)
  20. Cuba Is Free (2:20)

Running Time: 42:03

Distant Second Records (2011)

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Comments

  1. Does your rating system go up to 4 our 5 stars?
    In a 5 star rating system, a 2.5 (for me) would be considered a bit of a disappointment, actually.

  2. My rating system is out of five. You would give it…?

    When I was thinking about a score for this one it was borderline 2.5 or 3 out of five. It could have gone either way but I decided to go with 2.5 as I didn’t enjoy it as much as some of the scores I had given a score of 3.

    I consider a score of 2.5 to be a good competent listen – “average” has too much of a negative feel to it nowadays. There are some very good tracks here that are definitely worth a listen, but there are also some tracks that I am not so keen on. These take away slightly from a better score.

    I am assuming that “would be considered a bit of a disappointment” is a feeling you would have if you were Vulcano and read my score? Or are you saying that you have heard the score and think that the score should be a bit more?

    It will be interesting to hear what the composer thinks if he gives me some feedback. I will let you know.

  3. To start at the beginning (always a good point, I find):

    * I don’t know how many stars I’d give it as I haven’t heard it yet. It was just that the review is quite positive and based on that I would have expected (by my own standards) a 3-4 star rating. But then obviously I realise this is highly subjective.
    To me, 3 stars (out of five) is “decent; not sorry I bought it, but won’t listen to it often. Maybe carries a few good tracks”.
    2.5 for me would be “OK. Maybe one good track I will put in some playlist. But overall mediocre”.
    From your explanation it seems your 2.5 is roughly my 3. 🙂

    * “a bit of a disappointment” is solely meant as an expression of my own perspective. I generally don’t buy scores I expect (or hope) will be less than a “3.5” listening experience for me. So if they *are*, it’s automatically a little disappointing as I by definition would have expected more (for whatever reason)

    • Thanks for clarifying your points, Martijn. I better understand your point of view. I agree that scoring systems are a highly subjective thing, but I would hope that in my own scoring system I am consistent. This would enable people to get a better idea of what I mean when I give a score a particular rating – and it helps the reader of my reviews to get a sense of how a review and rating fits with their own expectations. I would imagine that through time people will get an idea of what a Reel Music rating of 2.5 actually means to them!

      It does look from your own rating system that I may tend to score my opinions lower than your own. As has been discussed over at maintitles.net, scoring systems can be a bit of a contentious issue. Questions such as should you compare individual scores with the scores in the composer’s other works or other scores from different composers, and if you give a score 4-stars and you listen to a score that you consider better than the 4-star score must you score it as a 5-star score even though you know it is not a perfect score, having driven yourself into a corner by awarding a higher score that perhaps you should have?

      Personally, I think that the majority of score I review will hover around the 2.5-3-5 region as most of the stuff I review will be titles I have bought myself – I am not going to buy something I believe is terrible just for the sake of reviewing it! This reflects that most of the music out there is reasonably good without being exceptional. And having most titles scoring 2.5-3.5 this gives me the leeway to score something higher to highlight that it is better than the average, but at the same time, leaving the rating of a “classic” available for true classics.

      And I think another important thing to bear in mind is that the rating score shouldn’t be taken in isolation. The review and rating should really go hand-in-hand. My comment that it is worth a listen and the rating of 2.5 together should indicate that it is one of the scores at the top end of the 2.5 grouping (I believe that each number does have a spread of quality even within the single rating)

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