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Helping 'Bourne' rise to the occasion

  • Story Highlights
  • Powell is the composer of all three "Bourne" films, plus "Shrek," "Robots," "Antz"
  • Powell credits Matt Damon's performances as Jason Bourne for inspiration
  • Moby's "Extreme Ways" again ends the latest film in the "Bourne" trilogy
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By Porter Anderson
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(CNN) -- When was the last time you were told at work that they wanted "nothing new" of you? For "The Bourne Ultimatum" composer John Powell, it's actually one of the most telling compliments he could have.


"The Bourne Ultimatum" opens with composer John Powell back in the seat as a key contributor to character.

Powell darts with Matt Damon through alleyways and over rooftops, calling this "pushing 'round the corner" -- his term for making music that drives a tense scene right through the cinematic ceiling of a film like "Ultimatum."

"Not new," he says. "And That was the first thing I got from Paul" Greengrass, the director of the film that went into wide release Friday in the United States, Powell says.

"The music, he feels, is part of the character now" of Jason Bourne, played by Matt Damon, "and I have to say it makes me very pleased -- this has to be one of the greatest contributions a composer can feel he can make." Watch an audio slide show with John Powell's comments and music from the soundtrack »

Listen, then, for what might be called Jason's theme. First heard as the rogue espionage agent was found by fishermen floating in the Mediterranean in "The Bourne Identity" (2002), it only became an eerie, mournful bassoon solo because Powell couldn't make it heard over the sound effects of a storm otherwise.

"That was a happy accident. The opening for the first film used to have the tune written for bass guitar," says the 43-year-old British-born veteran of Hollywood. "I was trying to find something that would cut through the sound effects. What could I use that isn't too cliched? ... So in the end I used a high bassoon, not too cliched but efficient, poke through the sound effects. And I've kept it through all three movies."

In fact, right to the moment that Moby's "Extreme Ways" kicks in for the credits, you'll hear in the final musical sequence in "The Bourne Ultimatum" a passage called "Jason Is Reborn."

The Moby piece, reconfigured for its latest outing, Powell says, is a welcome addition to his soundtracks with its apt lyrics for the films' tale of an agent whose memory has been taken away: "Extreme ways are back again / Extreme places I didn't know."

Jason's theme is still haunting, even lonely, inevitably Bourne.

And it's augmented this time by a small, Baroque-era pipe organ Powell says he found and moved into the studio for the recording sessions. "It's the only other wind" instrument "in the show," he says. "It's what you'd use in Handel. But it has such a special sound. I'd always missed having any other winds in these film's soundtracks. And this felt so melancholic. I loved it.

"And so you're hearing the bassoon and the Baroque organ playing together."

It turns out that this kind of mix-'em-up creativity is a double-edged sword for a man of Powell's clout in the industry. It's his Trinity College training in London -- he got into composition by applying as a violist, he laughs -- that helps him go where no classicist likely even knows one might venture.

Consider the svelte sass of "Mr. and Mrs. Smith," the slashing opening theme for "Paycheck" and the bravura, escape-boat-in-Venice triumph of "The Italian Job" soundtracks.

Then listen to "Shrek." He's that composer, too. And "Antz." And "X-Men: The Last Stand." And "Ice Age: The Meltdown." Also "Robots," the 2004 "Alfie," last year's "Happy Feet" and next year's "Horton Hears a Who."

From caress-soft romance to pounding shake-apart chases in no less exotic a setting than "Ultimatum's" Tangiers, Powell is fluent in the secret language of the great film composers working today: The secret is you don't know they're there, guiding your emotions, pacing your reactions, churning up your attention, easing you out the door during the credits.

Could there be a downside to such melodious power over all of us?

Well, yes. It comes when Powell and other major film composers try to put their own shows on the road. Some can re-orchestrate fairly directly into a symphonic mode; Howard Shore, for example, created a radiant "Lord of the Rings" concert piece from his soundtracks, and John Corigliano's "Red Violin Concerto" is being released September 5 by Sony in a Joshua Bell-led recording.

But for the men who make each syllable of "blockbuster" ring with jaw-cracking sound -- Powell, Hans Zimmer, John Williams, James Horner and others -- "It's not as easy as it seems," Powell laments.

He has made attempts to put his music onstage -- including a round of "Bourne" music he performed at Belgium's Flanders Film Festival in Ghent, site of the Soundtrack Awards.

"But to get the kind of heavy programmed beat used in the soundtrack from orchestral percussionists, we had to get these huge, great drums played with a giant mallet, and we got the guy to lean against it so it wouldn't ring, all to get the sound of an 808," the Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer drum machine, a staple in many recording scenarios but not common instrumentation for symphonic work.

However, when Bourne is in his element, so is Powell.

That "pushing 'round the corner" technique is a matter of craftily dropping back, in orchestration, pacing, melodic development and "pushing 'round the corner" you didn't expect.

On the "Ultimatum" soundtrack CD from Decca, you hear this, for example, in "Assets and Targets," and the 10-minute ride straight up the hillside of your nervous system called "Waterloo."


And while he gets a wry kick out of listening to a compliment about a part of a recorded soundtrack that no longer is in the film you're about to see -- "they have to start pressing the CDs before they finalize the edits," he chuckles -- Powell is humble but obviously intensely proud of how integral he has become to what will likely be a defining role in Damon's heralded career.

"I finally realized I should damned well thank Matt Damon," Powell says. "That's where the consistency of this series comes, it's completely in his head and his eyes." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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