May 2000 Film Music CD Reviews

Film Music Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster Len Mullenger

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Editor Recommends June 2000


Snow Falling on Cedars
DECCA 466 818 2 [67:30]
Purchase from: Crotchet  Amazon USA

Yes, I know that we carried a review of this score on this site recently but our reviewer Paul Tonks got his review copy way before most other UK reviewers including myself. Paul was unenthusiastic and awarded the score only one star. I beg to differ. But that’s what Film Music on the Web is all about -- why we like to include more than one review to embrace a spectrum of opinion.

Snow Falling on Cedars, based on David Guterson’s best selling novel is set in 1954 on an island in the Pacific Northwest. It is a story of love thwarted by social pressures and familial customs. The drama stems from the crisis of Pearl Harbour following which there was a general feeling of paranoia and suspicion towards Japanese-Americans who were relocated to internment facilities where they remained for the duration of the war. The film focuses on the Anglo and Japanese-Americans who had lived in relative harmony on San Piedro a fictitious island off Puget Sound before the outbreak of hostilities. And the focus narrows to the childhood friendship and then the frowned-on teenage love of American Ishmael Chambers and Japanese-American, Hatsue. Nine years later, in 1954, Ishmael returns to find Hatsue’s husbnd, Kazuo is on trial for his life accused of murder.

James Newton Howards’s score is restrained and low key with its more vibrant colours provided by oriental instrumentation and harmonies. Tempi are slow, often very slow. There is no denying that this 67 minute-album does have its longeurs, as Paul Tonks intimates, particularly in the middle stretches where there is a measure of sameness that can become soporific. However, if one is selective of cues for future listenings (and they are worth it) there is much to admire here. The cues are played seamlessly without a break. Much use is made of a solo cello adding an autumnal glow and conveying a nostalgic sadness and poignancy. Voices add an element of mysticism.

The opening cue, ‘Lost in the Fog’, begins slowly, quietly and mistily with long held string chords and isolated bass drum strokes, gradually the music gathers momentum as though we see, through shredding mists, shapes gradually becoming distinct. The iron grip of winter, a desolate white landscape and a glassy calm sea is implicit in Newton Howard’s very evocative music. In many cues the intense winter chill is wonderfully sound-painted; the music glistens, it is crystalline and diamond hard. You can ‘see’ rows of cedars heavy with snow, gaunt’; the landscape frozen, still. At one point, what sounds like an aeolian harp allows random music to be plucked from the frosty air.

There are many cues that are very imaginative. ‘Moran finds the boat’ seems to suggest a boat rocking in a slight sea swell. ‘Typest’ and ‘Typing’ are little gems with most intriguing oriental orchestration and harmonies, very colourful. ‘The evacuation’ is infinitely sad and poignant speaking of alienation, separation and prejudice. A desolate chorale is followed by a battery of heavy, bass-drum gunfire that resounds around the sound stage.

One of the most moving cues is ‘Humanity goes on trial’, scored for strings and choir. It proceeds very much like Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, very cathedral-like. In the middle a solo voice poignantly suggests complete isolation and alienation.

A very interesting score and one of Newton Howard’s best of late


Ian Lace


Ian Lace

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