Musical loftiness in our era deserves our praise. Howard Shore's melancholy concert
hall-style pastiche for "The Yards" brings relief from the in-your-face
populism of current Hollywood; the symphonic grain is smooth and the atmosphere
refreshing. But listening beyond the admirable sound the music makes, the music
itself neither reinvents nor matures. The soundtrack addresses sensational highs
and lows, but rarely the dramatic nucleus that ought to propel it forward. I wonder
how true its emotions are when those emotions come by slender means.
The highlight cut is an excerpt from Gustav Holst's 'Saturn, Bringer of Old Age',
which opens "The Yards". (A film score featuring a selection from Holst's
"The Planets" and it isn't 'Mars, Bringer of War'... May the spheres of Sol rejoice.)
Shore aims for that early 20th century musicality, and he boldly misses. Director James Gray
pens in the album notes, "First, the strategy went, concentrate on writing melodies in
that operatic, turn-of-the-last-century style, focusing on broad emotional strokes; second,
create just three or four themes that would be repeated throughout the movie and vary only
in orchestration...; and finally, score simply the mood of a scene and never each individual
moment -- our attempt at accentuating the bigger picture." This approach is fine for a
symphonic movement, but for Shore's entire 'symphony' it backfires. The bigger picture gets
lost in a watery waste of sameness. Themes and orchestrations blur together despite their
individual beauty, undermining the well-intentioned whole.
Such a deceptively basic objection becomes frustrating in sight of the stated aspirations
and countless possibilities. It is not a composition so much as a demo for a composition.
A greater sequential drive can scarcely run amiss for any drama. Unfortunately, I cannot
speak for what might have been, only for what this music is now: a score with a right idea,
muddled by a wrong execution. When the disc ceases spinning, those past 40 minutes have my
ears itching for one action... I am off to listen to "The Planets".
Gary S. Dalkin is more enthusiastic -
Like Howard Shore's simultaneously released score for The Cell, The Yards is orchestrated
and conducted by the composer, the music in both cases performed by the London Philharmonic
Orchestra; yet the two scores could hardly be more different. For The Yards, a drama of
crime and corruption in the engineering yards of the New York subway system, director James
Grey notes, "I often surrounded the cast and crew with the likes of Holst, Ravel and
Puccini. In a very real sense, this helped create the film's aesthetic, but it also posed
an interesting dilemma: how to score a picture shot with such a specific tradition in mind."
Holst, Ravel and Puccini may have been writing at the same time in the early part of the
century, but being English, French and Italian respectively, their music in reality came
from very different traditions. What Shore has done is crafted a synthesis evoking all three.
Given the Italian/Mafia background to organised crime in New York - the story revolves
around a young Italian-American man played by Mark Wahlberg - the operatic spirit Puccini
is perhaps most appropriate. There is something of Ravel in the filigree writing for harp
and clarinet, and also something of an anglophile nature to the low-key, almost pastoral
quality of many of the cues. Although more detached, there is in this music a dark
romanticism which will be attractive to those who appreciated John Williams' score for
Angela's Ashes earlier this year. However, the most English aspect is the incorporation of
'Saturn' from Holst's The Planets into two cues - presumably the director became particularly
fond of his temp track. Happily this interpolation is credited; and while it makes a change
from filmmakers being besotted with "Mars" (Shore is a more skilful craftsman than
Zimmer) it is still jarring to hear Holst in this unlikely context.
Surprisingly for a thriller, much of The Yards is an almost dreamlike, lugubrious score;
the suspense music of cues such as 'Yardmaster' has a dramatic nobility and melodic grandeur;
modern day 'big city' music, which may not be especially distinguished as far as the great
Hollywood tradition is concerned, but in this disappointing year of 2000 nevertheless stands
as superior writing. The amber-hued romance of 'Erica in Silhouette' and 'Willing to Testify'
is attractive, while in the textures of 'The Hearing' are echoes of a warmer The Silence of the Lambs.
The downside is that these classically elegant short pieces rarely flower to their
full potential. This is, of course, the price of writing for the screen, making
The Yards the sort of score one hopes the composer would develop a suite from.
Certainly within these beautifully performed and recorded cues is the material for a
haunting symphonic poem. Meanwhile, if you enjoyed Christopher Young's The Hurricane,
I think you will like this too, for this is another gritty drama in which the psychology
rather than the action is given musical voice.
Gary S. Dalkin