MILO – Music for a Small Orchestra – Guy van Nueten

Original Review by Alan RogersMilo

Milo (2012) is an Irish-Dutch co-production starring Lorcan Bonner as 10-year old Milo, a boy living a rigidly controlled life. Milo has a skin condition, the nature of which is revealed later in the movie as events unfold. Rebelling against the strict rules he lives under, he runs away and falls into the hands of a criminal couple. Milo enjoys the freedom the couple offers him but that enjoyment ends when he find out the truth about his “sensitive skin” condition. Part a study of a dysfunctional family, part road movie, the music for Milo is written by Belgian composer and producer Guy van Nueten.

The album begins with “Milo’s Theme”, a beautiful piece that opens with a solo piano line over a pacey ostinato pattern. It’s a lyrical but wistful theme and it recurs throughout the entire score. Joining the piano are strings and winds that heighten the melancholic tone of the young boy’s theme. Statements of the entire theme are commonplace (frequently on piano) but it is versatile enough to make a significant impression when presented as shorter fragments, such as in the reflective “Target Practice”, where low strings offer the theme alongside flute and a harp ostinato pattern. At the other extreme, “Cream Routine” provides one of the theme’s fullest statements and the 20-piece orchestra combine to great effect. This is one of the few times in the score where the orchestra can be heard together. This, together with “The Reveal” where van Nueten creates a resoluteness for this main theme, is one of the many of the score’s highlights.

Milo is not a mono-thematic score. “Nadja” presents a couple of additional musical ideas that recur often. Low piano tones open this track, playing a sinister ostinato pattern in support of an unhappy melodic line. In the latter half of this track we then hear the piano play a secondary idea: an unsettling motif where the sequence of notes are – to my ears – quite dissonant and “off-kilter.” This latter motif is very unnerving, particularly as “Nadja” segues immediately into “The Reveal” which (as already mentioned) features a strong and determined statement of Milo’s theme. This unsettling motif is heard to good effect in tracks such as “Nightfall”, “Dysfunctional Family Climax”, and “Reprimand”. “Mickey’s Ruins” juxtaposes Milo’s theme (played on low brass) with a quick tempo version of the second “Nadja” motif. It’s a startling pairing and is a moment that reminds me of the minimal scores Bernard Herrmann penned for The Twilight Zone, where innovative use of musical ideas and orchestrations add significantly to the emotional punch of a score. This familiarity with the scores of The Twilight Zone occurs several times in Milo; the use of low register winds and dissonant high strings in “Thirty Silver Coins” and solo flute, off-kilter piano and slashing string chords in “Nightfall” are two immediate examples.

What adds significantly to the enjoyment of the score is how closely miked the instruments are. Piano, winds (including flute, oboe and bassoon), brass and strings are all crystal clear and the soundscape that’s created is so front-and-centre that the whole package creates an excellent aural experience. And it’s these acoustic dynamics that contributes to the feel of van Nueten’s score being on a par with those scores written for Rod Serling’s anthology series. To cite one final example, the harp features strongly in Milo. “Darkscape”, “Target Practice” and “Cream Routine” are early examples of where strong harp arpeggios add a distinctive colour to the score, bringing pace as well as a troubling feel.

“Dysfunctional Family Theme” is a sonically unusual track. Created purely from what sounds like synthesisers, the entire two minutes is a dreamy sequence of various hypnotic synth ostinato patterns. Goodness knows how that fits into the film!

Lighter, brighter moments in the score are few and far between and it’s not until the final third of the album that we begin to emerge out of the melancholia. The strings opening “Mixed Celtic Emotions” have a semi-religious feel to them with their drawn-out chords (similar to Michael Nyman’s Gattaca), before quick-tempo harp ostinato and an optimistic melody on flute then strings offers a hint of some positive resolution (though this is halted temporarily by “Caitlin’s Trampoline” and “Dysfunctional Family Climax”). “Reprimand” brings together many elements of the chamber orchestra to establish a lively and upbeat conclusion to the score though, again, things are not clear cut as several of the suspenseful and disorienting aspects of the score (e.g., the latter theme heard in “Nadja”) invade van Nueten’s lighter music. The final track on Music for a Small Orchestra, “Milo Exit Music” offers a classical-sounding ending with another strong statement of Milo’s theme.

Music for a Small Orchestra is a very good album. Although not a particularly happy listening experience, Guy van Nueten’s music for the film Milo is a beautifully crafted piece and makes the most of the orchestra (the “Milo Chamber Orchestra”). The composer’s thematic material is very memorable and sticks in the mind long after the final track ends and he expertly blends the various individual elements of the ensemble into orchestrations that heighten the emotional requirements of the film. Despite there being a number of themes, the score is quite textural in style. Perhaps those who prefer significant development of themes and ideas may find van Nueten’s score to be too static. But, the combination of the themes, the ostinato patterns and prominent arpeggios combined with the orchestrations make for a very satisfying whole. I did wonder at the choice of album artwork, i.e., seeming to tone down the association with the film for which the music was written (there’s no still from the film on the cover, the minimising of the film’s title and the use of an alternate title for the album). I’d assumed that this was because the moderately successful film had originally been released in 2012; three years before the appearance of this album. However, having listened to the score now it’s clear that the music is strong enough to stand apart from the film for which it was originally written. Music for a Small Orchestra plays like a neo-classical album where a composer takes a few ideas and emotions and plays with them over the course of the forty-five minute running time. I found this to be a very strong album and I would recommend it to anyone.

Music for a Small Orchestra can be purchased at the usual online digital outlets and can be streamed on Spotify.

Rating: ****

  1. Milo’s Theme (3:11)
  2. Darkscape (2:33)
  3. Target Practice (3:32)
  4. Thirty Silver Coins (2:11)
  5. Cream Routine (2:52)
  6. Nadja (2:46)
  7. The Reveal (2:22)
  8. We’re Seeing Him Home (1:35)
  9. Mickey’s Ruins (2:18)
  10. Talking To The Police (2:04)
  11. Nightfall (2:58)
  12. Inevitable Conclusion (1:00)
  13. Dysfunctional Family Theme (1:47)
  14. Mixed Celtic Emotions (2:03)
  15. Caitlin’s Trampoline (1:45)
  16. Dysfunctional Family Climax (2:16)
  17. Reprimand (3:14)
  18. Milo Exit Music (2:28)

Running Time: 43:03

Bolli Records (2015)

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