The proliferation of made-for-television dramas and their scores has stretched the patience of film music afficiandos for unintrusive piano-and-strings scores. Even highly proficient and moving works like James Horner’s House of Sand and Fog , Philip Glass’ The Hours and Rachel Portman’s The Human Stain fall of deaf ears simply due to the saturation of the market. In fact scoring the serious drama can be the most difficult thing of all for a composer seeking to make an impression – the current received wisdom is that music for films like this should be a nearly continuous yet unintrusive support to the performances and the script. The result is unsurprisingly frequently an anonymity of score and score concept.
The proliferation of made-for-television dramas and their scores has stretched the patience of film music afficiandos for unintrusive piano-and-strings scores. Even highly proficient and moving works like James Horner’s House of Sand and Fog, Philip Glass’ The Hours and Rachel Portman’s The Human Stain fall of deaf ears simply due to the saturation of the market. In fact scoring the serious drama can be the most difficult thing of all for a composer seeking to make an impression – the current received wisdom is that music for films like this should be a nearly continuous yet unintrusive support to the performances and the script. The result is unsurprisingly frequently an anonymity of score and score concept.
So it’s always a pleasure to see a score for a character drama that breaks free from this received wisdom, particularly when the film is obscure to the point of being unlikely to have a score release at all. Bruce Broughton’s Last Flight Out and Alan John Three Dollars stand as recent cases in point, and they are joined here by Richard Gibbs unique score for the Michael Miner film Book of Stars, released by fledging label La-La-Land Records.
If you go by the extensive liner notes by Richard Gibbs and Michael Miner, the 1999 film Book of Stars can be seriously discussed in the context of the flowering of art in the aftermath of the bubonic plague in Europe (Chaucer is mentioned) and the peak of 1960s counter-culture. If such hubris is to be believed, it would make the film one of the greatest TV movies ever made. It seems to have a drama about two sisters, one of whom was (judging from production stills in the liner notes) a sensible well-adjusted part of American society, while her sibling was a somewhat arty individual with a passion for children’s books.
Whatever it was about, the score imparts a strong ethereal atmosphere, most of its unique character coming from the use of the Indian violin. The ‘Main Title’ opens with a repeated ascending-descending melody on celesta, the Indian violin entering soon with the main theme. Keyboard-based harmonies give the piece an airy lightness and the violin arcs its way in almost improvised fashion. Gibbs doubles the violin with a soft female vocal towards the end of the cue, adding to the ethereal feel.
This theme appears frequently throughout the course of the album, usually for Indian violin, although ‘New Friend’ plays it for harp initially, and ‘Transcendence’ features keyboards prominently. The film’s ‘End Credits’ give the piece over to a series of ill-advised gospel-variations. Fortunately Gibb’s (presumably original) ‘Alternate End Credits’ restore the theme with a harp-and-Indian violin performance, before a slightly-gospel infused keyboard enters in counterpoint. In a fitting album conclusion, the three instruments play off each other before they are rejoined by the orchestra and female vocalist.
The many pleasures of the album are too many to list. Marimba and wood percussion (suggestive of Spanish dancing) open ‘The Prisoner’s First Letter’, the addition of tremolo strings keeping the piece away from sounding too much like Thomas Newman. ‘Mary’s World’, with its minimalist use of piano and Indian violin, suggests Bernard Herrmann. Weighty strings are nicely doubled with celesta in ‘Painted Lady’, a piece also featuring what sounds like a jew’s harp towards the end. Occasionally the album takes on a darker hue, as in Overdose / The Grim Reaper / Hospital’, although usually the balance is corrected by the end of the cue, as in the shimmering sustained strings chords that end that cue.
One of the things both Miner and Gibb comment on in their notes is the content of the temp track – Morricone’s The Mission, Nino Rota, Shankar on Peter Gabriel’s Last Temptation of Christ, and world music icons Dead Can Dance. Gibb did remarkably well to keep his score sounding as influence-free as he did. Though obviously the use of the Indian violin is a reference to Shankar, no-one could really object to the resulting work as being a “mish-mash” of the highlights of previous works.
Nevertheless, moments give away the sources – the doubling of accordions with Indian violin in ‘The Refuge’ point to Rota, even though the lovely theme Gibb presents here is all his own. The rapturous orchestral crescendo in that cue (revisited many times throughout the album) suggests that Morricone’s famous ‘The Falls’ was a template, though Gibbs’ version of it is commendably novel. (And eerily prophetic of ‘Plasma Orgasmata’ from Thomas Newman’s Angels in America.) The string accents and woodwind accompaniment towards the end of ‘Storm Warnings’ suggest Jan Kaczmarek’s wonderful Bliss, though again, the result is suggestive of, not identical to the earlier work.
For those who like uplifting drama scores, have time for a bit of world music, and are interested in hearing a different side of Richard Gibbs (who remarks in his liner notes that he has become typecast as a comedy composer), this La-La-Land release is heartily recommended. Hopefully the positive reviews the score has received will encourage the retrospective release of more obscure scores like this one. The liner notes are extensive, though as remarked before they seem to imbue the film with an importance that seems a little spurious, and while excellent on the preparation of the music, seem a little short on commenting on the role of specific films in the musical tapestry of the film.
The only objection really against the CD is the length – the pleasures may be too many to list, but they are also too many to listen to in one go for this reviewer. La-La-Land and Gibbs have clearly gone to the trouble of including as much of the score as possible – including an alternate track and unused music. The pro-active listener will have no problem determining what needs to be programmed out when listening to the CD, though listeners who like their album producers to do that kind of work for them might find the hour a bit of a stretch. Still – better too much than too little, and this release is one of the unexpected gems of 2005.