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"Suite Benjamin Button"

Title Suite Benjamin Button
ComposerF.G.J. Absil
Instrum.Studio Orchestra
DateJuly 2014
StyleFilm Music
Meter4/4 - 3/4
Tempo96-108-168-120 BPM


A musical score excerpt
  • Clarinet 1-2, Bass Clarinet 1-2, Bassoon 1-2, Contrabassoon;
  • Horns in F 1-2-3-4;
  • Celesta, Glockenspiel, Harp, Percussion (3 parts: Bar Chimes, Bass Drum, Finger Cymbals, Piatti, Snare Drum, Suspended Cymbal, Tam-tam, Timpani, Triangle, Woodblocks);
  • String section: Violin 1, Violin 2, Viola, Cello, Contrabass;
  • Synthesizer Bass, Synthesizer Lead, Synthesizer Strings, Electronic Sound Effects (Native Instruments Reaktor).


This film music suite for studio orchestra is based on the film 'The Curious Life of Benjamin Button'. It was submitted to the Hollywood Music Workshop - Vienna Symphonic Library International Film Music Competition 2014. The competition regulations dictated a five-part suite based on pre-determined scenes from the movie, with a maximum duration and using a dominantly symphonic sample instrumentation.

The primary element

Four combinations of two transpositions of PC-set 4-3 (0-1-3-4):
      c c
    b   b
    bb bb  
  a   a  
  g# ab    
g   g    
f# f#      
I7 I9 I11 I1 I3

The main source element of this suite is the pitch-class set (PC-Set) 4-3, with the pitches 0-1-3-4 (c-c#-d#-e) and interval vector [212100] (seconds and thirds, no fourths and diminished fifths). This set is used as a melodic motif M, as a harmonic cluster H, and as a bass line B. In the score the use of the PC-set is labeled, indicating the transposition-inversion form, e.g., the melody M: I11 (with pitches bb-ab-g-b; note the order of the main motif).

Combinations of these sets were used to create multi-part clusters, where the voicing controls the dissonance level (from close voicing dense clusters, to wide open voicing with careful distribution of consonant intervals). The four combinations are shown in the table. Since the 4-pitch set is symmetric, there is double labeling as both original (O) and inverted (I) set. The combinations are I7+I11, I9+I11, I11+I1, and I11+I3:


The secondary element

Bitonal six-part chords: triads in two layers H[S1/S2]
S1 triad Gm Abm D Ab Top layer
S2 triad Abm Am Eb A Bottom layer

The secondary element is a set of bitonal chords. These are shown in the table. The six-part clusters contain either two minor or two major triads, and are set in opening contrary motion, with a (chromatically) stepwise ascending lead voice.

Occasionally there are tonal phrases with regular harmonies in thirds. The low woodwind section is an instrumentation favorite of film music composer Bernard Herrmann. The synthesizers are doubling the string parts at low volume to create either more brilliance in the high frequencies or a stronger sub-bass.

The form of the suite

The suite is in bridge form and consists of the following five parts (Scenes 1, 3, 4 and 5 contain voice-over and dialogue, Scene 2 is full of action and battle sounds, Scene 4 originally has source music):

  • Scene 1: Mr. Gateau (0:01). Andante tranquilo (m. 1-22, 96-106 BPM). The blind man makes a backward-running railway station clock. High string counterpoint based on PC set is juxtaposed with bitonal woodwind sustained harmonies over WW1 military snare drum. Harp, celesta and woodblocks are mimicking the clock ticking.
  • Scene 2: Sea Battle (0:54). Allegro misterioso - furioso (m. 23-51, 108 BPM). Night mood at sea with sustained string PC set clusters. Suspense and tension. Woodwind, brass and percussion accents depict the Pearl Harbor naval battle. Ship sinking by PC set strings from high to low.
  • Scene 3: Daisy's Fateful Day (1:57). Waltz vivace - Moderato (m. 52-95, 168-104 BPM). Paris ballet studio dance for lead violins and pizzicato strings. Taxi driver and car accident with tremolo strings and melodic percussion. In the movie the image switches back and forth from the dance theatre (waltz based on PC set) to the Paris streets (bitonal and symmetric chords) until the taxi driver hits Daisy.
  • Scene 4: Montage (2:59). Boogaloo - Allegro molto espressivo (m. 96-123, 120-112 BPM). Decorating the newfound house in the 1960s. The source music on the radio is a Beatles song; therefore it is replaced with a boogaloo with PC set melody for clarinet. Happiness and romance is supported by a tonal variant of the main theme for unisono high strings in tutti orchestration.
  • Scene 5: Postcards (3:58). Andante tranquilo (m. 124-144, 96 BPM). Watching old postcards on the sickbed. Leaving the family for a trip through Asia. PC set low string counterpoint with percussion background. Morendo on lowest contrabass note.

The electronic sounds (sea waves, sonar ping, submarine engine, radio transmitter, car traffic, Asian mood) were created with NI Reaktor.

CAUTION: This film music composition is Zimmer-frei. Some samples and the audio mix are mediocre; the submission did not impress the jury. Copying this approach may be detrimental to your career.

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