May 2001Film Music CD Reviews

Film Music Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster Len Mullenger

index page/ monthly listings /May01/

produced by the composer * conducted by Nick Ingman * orchestrated by the composer assisted by Andrew Green
BMG 09026-63737-2 * [43:12]
Crotchet  AmazonUK   AmazonUS

Here is an extraordinary score for a dubious film, a drama which takes composer Stephen Warbeck from the world's most respected writer in Shakespeare in Love (1999) to the most despised, the Marquis de Sade. Uncomfortably, Quills makes a liberal plea for artistic freedom, choosing its champion a man whose writings two hundred years later still have the power to revolt, disgust and nauseate. When I interviewed Stephen Warbeck he jokingly expressed the hope that the film would be controversial. Ultimately it proved a toned-down version of a stronger play, and did not attract enough interest to generate protest.

Whatever we may think of the film, Warbeck's music is a major achievement and should certainly have garnered at least an Academy Award nomination, if not the music Oscar itself. It is one of the most creative and original new scores I have heard from any film released in 2000 and deserves far more attention that it has yet received.

Scored for orchestra, Lunatic Band, (shwams, trombone and bucket, serpent, drum, cittern, mandolin and violin) and a small ensemble comprising specially created and/or treated instruments, this is music the like of which you have not heard before. Instruments include a bowed bass lyre, pipes and drain pipes (in and out of water), prepared bass, detuned guitars, bass trombone, didjeridu, bass clarinet, damnoni, filophone, whirring stick, pole-cheng, piano strings, cello, whistle and percussion. While reuniting Warbeck with Shakespeare in Love's Geoffrey Rush Quills is as far from that romantic sound world as can be imagined. Even so, it begins beguilingly enough, with 'The Marquis and the Scaffold' offering a lush valedictory melody complete with wordless female choir which suggests an altogether more gentle affair… that is until the cue turns to demoniac ambient atmospherics and builds to a fever pitch of strings. 'The Abbe and Madeleine' is a gorgeous melody for recorder, strings and choir which could have been at home in Barry's The Lion in Winter, while the equally lovely choral 'The Convent' will appeal to anyone spellbound by Preisner's La Double Vie de Véronique. Something of the ethereal wonder associated with Preisner continues through 'Plans for a Burial', woodwind carrying an ambiguous melody over shimmering textures. For a moment in 'Dream of Madeline' the cello carries a synchronistic resonance with Tan Dun's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, then the wordless choir returns, suggesting a world slowly slipping over the edge of reason into an abyss of malevolence. All hell is about to break loose, but before it does Warbeck generates a tension exquisitely shot with beauty, the electric eye of the storm painted in simple rising and falling chords.

The maelstrom begins with track 6, 'Rayer-Collard and Bouchon', a four minute essay in brooding textures and uncanny sounds which leads into the far more strange 'Aphrodisiac', as anti-erotic a journey into musical darkness as one is likely to hear. Here effects are achieved which lesser, lazier composers might approximate with samples and electronics, but, generated acoustically, the otherworldly sounds (they are indescribable - you have to hear them) have an organic richness beyond the digital domain. Seamlessly blending into a musical world with no clearly defined edges, the piece is an overture to the more formally structured set-piece which unfolds as 'The Last Story'. At over seven and a half-minutes this cue builds over a gradually accentuated rhythm, which gives way to driving strings and furious percussion in a delirious cavalcade of icily controlled madness climaxing as the choral melody from 'The Convent' returns in manic form. John Corigliano achieved similar effects in Altered States, while the only other composer offering such intelligently constructed psychosis Elliot Goldenthal in such scores as Titus. 'The Marquis' Cell at Charenton' offers a nod to both Psycho and Jaws in its cutting strings, what could become conventional thriller music elevated to a higher level by the stark purity of design, single-mindedness of intent and razor-sharp playing.

'The End: A New Manuscript' is another seven-and-half-minute set-piece, opening as full-blown Gothic choral drama and running the range of emotions, instruments and techniques to a new found peace. Fragmented, dissociated and utterly enthralling, this is epic portrait of mental turmoil retains the musicality lost in the headlong hellish descent of Christopher Young's The Cell. The eventual return to the mournful melody of the opening cue is, however inappropriate to the film's anti-hero, genuinely and lovingly romantic.

There is one more track, a piece of source music which Warbeck wrote himself as a warped period dance. Scored for 'challenged' tuning, the piece reflects the composer's humour, and sensibly the CD has been designed with a longer than usual gap between the finale proper and this additional cue. Quirky and entertaining it may be, but it does let the album end on a dying fall, and might better have been programmed somewhere in the middle. Sequencing aside - the opening cue should really be somewhere near the end - this is a powerful showcase in excellent sound for an amazing score.

Many film score collectors will hate Quills because it is not conventionally tuneful, though there are some rapturous melodies. It is not an easy listening soundtrack. But those who enjoy the reward of more confrontational scores from the outer limits of film music, those for instance raised on Alex North, will find here a respite from formula. After a well-deserved Oscar for Shakespeare in Love Warbeck proves again that he is one of the most imaginative, inventive and characterful film composers we have.

Gary S. Dalkin

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