There are few composers better suited to scoring fantasy than Trevor Jones, his career so far spanning the excellent 1979 short, The Black Angel through the mini-series Dinotopia (2002) and this year’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Among many highlights one may discern an unofficial thematic trilogy encompassing Excalibur (1981) – still by far the finest heroic fantasy film ever made – the mini-series Merlin (1998), and the title under review, The Dark Crystal (1982). The first of these is John Boorman’s magisterial reworking of The Matter of Britain, the second is an ill-judged but sometimes atmospheric TV mini-series following the adventures of Arthur’s magical companion, and the third, Jim Henson’s puppet-realised fable rooted firmly in the realm of legendary archetypes and epic quests. The three are united by the wonderfully evocative sound-worlds of Trevor Jones, musical landscapes which do much to complete the illusion of an entire fantastical realm existing beyond the confines of both the screen and the screenplay. While Merlin was treated to an excellent 70 minute album, Excalibur remains unavailable – there was an LP of classical selections which fell into the "from and inspired by" category – and The Dark Crystal has not until now made it to CD; there was a 40 minute LP available at the time of the film’s cinema release.
Now all that has changed with the latest example of what is fast becoming a fashionable trend, a 2CD set containing the complete original soundtrack together with a remastered version of the LP (other recent examples include John Williams’ The Fury and Elmer Bernstein’s Hawaii). There is something of a case of swings and roundabouts here; disc 1 is the original LP and has rather better sound quality, and plays better as a musical entity divorced from the film, while disc 2 has a lot more music, suffers from slightly inferior sound quality (complete with a few rather abrupt fades and the occasional audio glitch) and is rather less well structured as a listening experience, coming close to outstaying its welcome. Let me add, lest this be taken in anyway as a negative point against this set, that both discs have considerable merits. Both enable the listener to hear the rich complexity of Jones’ score in a way not possible with the film, either in the original theatrical version or in the 5.1 Dolby Digital remix on DVD – a fine experience though that is. Truth be told, Jones created something of a film music masterwork for The Dark Crystal, delivering a score of a depth and complexity not likely to be appreciated by the main target audience of what is essentially a children’s film. Jones wrote for large orchestra and choir, as well as for ethnic and medieval instruments (such as the double-flageolet), as well as for a specially designed pallet of some 300 custom designed electronic sounds realised with Fairlight, Synclavier and Prophet 5. This combination of resources gives a fantastically broad musical sweep to the score, which would mean little if the music did not match the sounds available. Fortunately it does, from music of menace and suspense – with faint echoes of Psycho or Close Encounters of the Third Kind – to a wild and wonderful folk dance (which sounds fabulous despite being a demo Jim Henson decided he didn’t want changing) to a gorgeously lyrical and warm love theme. The LP version of this is particularly lush and romantic, though there are more variations on the melody in the full soundtrack on disc 2. The electronics meanwhile sit somewhere between Jerry Goldsmith’s work on Star Trek: the Motion Picture (1979) – think of the pitch bending effects – and the dense textures of Legend (1985), Goldsmith’s fantasy masterpiece which The Dark Crystal predates by 3 years.
While there are striking cues on disc 2 which didn’t make it to the original LP, this disc does eventually become a little repetitive, and it is unlikely anyone will want to sit all the way through, including the 16 minute final track, all that often. The best solution may be to edit one’s own personal favourite cues together from the two separate CDs. The difference between the two discs is very indicative of the way soundtracks have changed over the past 20 years. The 40 minute LP follows the old way of thinking, when limited by running time, composers created an independent product which was just the right length and structure for listening without thought of the film. Today many film music fans simply want every note of music in the order it appeared in the film, and the result is sometimes wonderful, sometimes rather overlong and fragmented. Disc 2 here exemplifies this perfectly, while for an example of the way the new way of thinking made possible by the greater running time of CDs has even reached such a mainstream place as Disney, one only has to listen to the newly released album of Thomas Newman’s score for Finding Nemo (2003). The disc is reviewed this month on FMOTW, and is a good example of a score being released with many short, wildly divergent cues encompassing seemingly every last note written for the film.
Back to The Dark Crystal; this is one of the great fantasy scores, and indeed one of the greatest scores of its decade. It belongs in every film music collection, and I have no hesitation declaring it the album of the month. Beautifully packaged, with a reprint of an interview about the score with the composer in the booklet, the only fault one can find is that David Firman is credited with playing the Project 5 synthesiser, rather than the Prophet 5. And that really is nitpicking of the highest order. Now lets have Excalibur.