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Tale of the Sleeping Giants (2021)

Panu Aaltio is a Finnish composer who I first heard of with his score to The Home of Dark Butterflies in 2008, which I reviewed then. Over the past decade, Aaltio has been busy with a variety of projects, ranging from film and tv to video games and documentaries. These include two documentaries in a Finnish series, Tale of a Forest (Metsän Tarina) from 2012 and Tale of a Lake (Järven Tarina) from 2016. The latest in this series, Tale of the Sleeping Giants (Tunturin Tarina) tells the story of the wildlife and mythology of the Fells, or barren mountains, of Sápmi, the northern-most region of Scandanavia. To produce the full spectrum of the cold winter through the colorful summer of the northern region of Lapland in Finland, Aaltio employed the Tapiloa Sinfonietta and the Finnish vocal group Tuuletar to perform the score.

Aaltio brings a strong sense of melody to all of his scores, and this was reflected wonderfully in his first two Tales scores. The first score, Tale of a Forest, is full of woodwinds and lush melodies representing the animals living in the forest, such as in the cue “A New Beginning”, which then blossoms into a majestic cue with the full orchestra. “Tale of a Lake” brings the same playful woodwinds and strings to the mix, but takes a more ethereal tone for the watery world, exemplified in the opening and closing cues “Atitar the Water Spirit” and “The Water Cycle”. Both documentary scores had their own themes that Aaltio develops across the score. The main theme for the second score can be heard best in the momentous and emotional “The Birds’ Farewell” in one of the occasional uses of brass, and at the end of the final cue.

Ethereal vocals by Tuuletar opens the album in “The Message” for Tale of the Sleeping Giants backed by percussion. Low brass and strings build with the vocals showing a very different style score for this third Tales film. The three-note main theme is introduced along with a longer secondary theme in the low brass in this lengthy and impressive cue. This pattern, thematic development in the orchestra backed by amazing vocal solos and choir as well as percussion, mark a strong addition to the now-trilogy that feels part of the story but with its own unique tone and voice. Some other highlights include the emotional “Birth of a Reindeer”, the cold tones of “Crown Snow” and percussion and vocals of “Battle of the Birds”. All the elements come together for other cues like “Muskoxen” and the penultimate cue “The Giant Era”.

I had the chance to chat with Aaltio about his score for the Tale of Sleeping Giants.

What is scoring a documentary like compared to your approach to film or television show or video game?

I think nature documentaries especially are a music genre of their own. It's sort of the inherent diversity in nature that gives license to the music to be just incredibly varied in style and instrumentation. Also the interplay between the editing and the music can be quite different, as sometimes it's the music creating a structure within a scene, whereas in a traditional drama you're almost always bound to a structure that's already there.

What elements of these three documentaries guided your choice of instrumentation or tone?

Especially now in Tale of the Sleeping Giants the cold and barren landscape in the north drove the more minimalistic and colder tones. There are also some animal stories within the film, and in wanting to show the personality of these individual animals I often go for a more orchestral approach. Tale of a Forest was the most animal-oriented of all these films, and you can also hear that in the score with its mostly traditional choice of instruments.

This score has a distinct main theme, the rise and fall 3-note motif. Did you use any thematic material from either of the other two "Tales" for continuity?

We've wanted to keep the scores separate, as the films are not intended to be sequels, but instead they're a film series. So I've made a conscious effort to try to not repeat any themes from the previous films, although there are certainly moments that are reminiscent of the other films.

I also asked him about his overall use of melody and thematic development in all his scores:

I had a wonderful teacher at the USC film scoring program, Jack Smalley, who told me to just use a theme every time you can in a movie, as you're not going to get that many chances to teach it to the audience. I think it's really insightful advice, because when you listen to your own music hundreds of times while composing, you'll most likely get very bored by it, and then you start to make things overly complicated. It's important to keep in mind how the audience will react when they hear the music for the first time. Developing the thematic material is such a crucial and difficult part to me that it almost feels like the rest of the scoring process is just automatic in comparison.


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