FIRST POSITION – Chris Hajian


Original Review by Alan Rogers

Receiving positive reviews when it did the rounds at film festivals last year, Bess Kargman’s debut documentary First Position is now having a (limited) theatrical release in the US and Canada in May 2012 with the prospect of a wider release later in the year. The film follows, over the space of a year, the experiences of six gifted ballet dancers (aged nine to nineteen) as they focus of competing in the Youth American Grand Prix, a youth ballet competition that awards ballet school scholarships to the best young ballet performers of the world. New York composer Chris Hajian, perhaps best known for his scores for several Alex Zamm comedies including Inspector Gadget 2, Beverley Hills Chihuahua 2 and Tooth Fairy 2, continues to add to his portfolio of documentary scores (e.g., Nursery University and Unraveled) with a contemporary score which highlights the emotional highs and lows that accompanies the sacrifices and pressures of disappointment placed on both dancers and their families.

As an experienced documentary score composer Hajian is aware of the need for there to be a fine balance between enhancing the emotions felt by the audience to the film but not dictating the audience’s emotional response. Hajian’s use of small-scale arrangements (e.g., solo piano or acoustic guitar) to support the emotional events on-screen rather than musical devices such as swelling strings finds the right balance needed in a documentary feature. As well as emotion, the composer is able also to convey a tension that must be an ever-present feature of a film of this kind. Hajian’s use of contemporary influences such as prominent drum and synth rhythms as well as string ostinato may be a surprising choice for a film featuring a significant amount of references to classical ballet music and it posed particular problems for the composer as he tried to meld the score with the source music. It’s difficult to gauge how successful Hajian is in achieving this fusion in a pleasing way without hearing his music in the context of the film itself, but comments from those who have seen the film have been positive and seem to vindicate the composer’s extensive efforts at integrating his contemporary score with the classical source music. The contemporary aspect of the score includes the use of the solo instruments heard in the slower-paced, more emotional parts of the score and seems to link these two aspects of the score together. When listening to the score, elements combined seem to musically reinforce the film’s attempt to highlight the children’s commitment to hard work as being the important “take home message” rather than the drive for success (winning) at any cost.

For the purpose of this review I was only able to listen to a few chosen highlights from Hajian’s score. But Hajian’s score for First Position does seem to to complement the film’s subject in a sympathetic way. Although there are a couple of occasions where the limitations of the synth strings can be heard (this is a personal thing where I tend to be disappointed when scores use samples that betray their electronic origins), my overall impression of his music is very positive. A commercial release of Hajian’s music for First Position would be most welcome and hope that a full release of the score will happen as a result of the success of the film.

Rating: ***

  1. The Competition – The Opening (2:06)
  2. Sacrificing It All (1:47)
  3. Missing His Family (1:14)
  4. Trip To NYC (1:49)
  5. Michaela’s Moment (1:06)
  6. Epilogue (1:44)

Running Time: 9:48

Composer promo (2012)

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Comments

  1. Andrew G says:

    I’m sorry, this is one of the most ridiculous “reviews” I’ve ever read. A film score functions primarily to serve the film. You haven’t seen the film. You can’t presume it “finds the right balance”, you can’t assume anything about how his instrumentation is surprising, in fact you can’t comment on anything with authority. You can’t even comment on it is a soundtrack album as you’ve only heard 10 minutes of it. The way it’s written looks like you’re friends with the composer. This is a joke, right?

    • Thanks Andrew for your comments. I am sorry that you do not believe that there is any merit whatever in the review(s) that I am doing. Whether film/TV/game music has a place outside the medium for which it was written is something that is constantly being discussed in the film music community (I don’t know if you are familiar with this through visiting any forums). Peoples’ opinion is split, with supporters of both sides of the argument forever defending their position on the subject. Even the music’s composers are split; many can only think of their music as part of the film but there are others who are happy that their music can have a life outside the film and can stand alone as a musical work. Someone must think that the music can stand up away from the movie and has some commercial value, otherwise the music would not be released on CD or as a digital download.

      For reviewers of this genre of music there is a similar argument to the one outlined above: can the music be reviewed only once the film has been viewed or can the music be assessed as a piece of music. Obviously, in order to truly “get” what the composer has tried to do with a score then the music should be viewed in context. But for a lot of the time it is just not possible to see the film. From my perspective, I do believe that there is merit in giving an opinion on scores. Having the music in front of me I can get a feel for what the composer is trying to do by scouring the internet, gathering as much information as possible (though film reviews, film synopses, composer interviews) and extrapolating the information for the basis of my reviews. Having listened to film & TV music for over 40 years I believe that I have some idea of what a composer is trying to do when they do what they do in a film or TV project for which I have an idea of what the subject is.

      You have obviously presumed, when coming to my reviews, that I have seen all the films for which reviews have been written. Not so. I’d like to think that I can give an opinion on both what I believe was the composer’s intention when writing the music. But I try to give an idea of what it may be like for someone who has not seen the piece for which the music was composed. Readers of my reviews may be interested in the music and may seek it out.

      Your final point is interesting in that you seem to suggest that the review wasn’t critical enough. Do you believe that review should focus on being critical? What if the reviewer actually LIKES the music? Should they still focus on negative criticism? And does a positive review mean that the reviewer must be “in the pocket” of the composer? If you have taken the time to look at reviews to other films/TV shows that I haven’t seen you may see that I am critical where I think criticism is warranted. By the way, I was in contact with Chris Hajian (through his agency if I recall) since it was he who provided me with the “promo” showcasing the ten minutes of music. Subsequent to me writing the piece here I was sent a 30+ minute selection of cues and I reviewed the music based on that CD. You can find that review here – http://www.maintitles.net/reviews/first-position/

      Again, if you’re still reading this, thanks again for taking the time to look at my blog. Perhaps there’s SOMETHING you might like here. But if not then at least you know of one less film music review site to visit.

      Alan

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