December 2006 Film Music CD Reviews

Film Music Editor: Michael McLennan
Managing Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster: Len Mullenger

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United 93  
Music composed and produced by John Powell
Performed by Unnamed Orchestra, featuring Oliver Powell (solo vocals)
Orchestrated by John A. Coleman and John Ashton Thomas
Conducted by Gavin Greenaway
  Available on Varese Sarabande (VSD-6740)
Running Time: :
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Given Paul Greengrass’s docudrama Bloody Sunday featured no underscore at all, I was surprised to learn that he’d elected to work with John Powell on his new film of the events in the various control rooms and on board United Flight 93 on September 11th 2001. Powell had produced a strong score for Greengrass’s installment of the Bourne series, The Bourne Supremacy, effectively dramatizing the character issues of that film without relying on familiar ideas. But it seemed that the director’s documentary mise-en-scene and aversion to sentimentality would lead to him in United 93 to err on the side of no music at all to minimize accusations of over-egging an already incredibly dramatic pudding.

Having seen the film – one of the most beautifully realized attempts to interpret recent events since The Insider – the director’s strategy for music, and the music that resulted, seems like an inseparable part of the project’s success. It’s a different film to the music-less Bloody Sunday, a film where various witness viewpoints of a seminal national tragedy were edited together, but the film’s immediacy and the connection between events was supported by the physical proximity of all characters to each other during that event. United 93 is a far less spatially integrated film, an abstract collection of air traffic control rooms and the interiors from the titular flight edited together with scrupulous use of news footage to create something like a real-time narrative of that morning. The physical immediacy of the Bloody Sunday tragedy does not apply here (save in the incredible moment when the second tower of the World Trade Center is hit), and Powell steps in to provide a sense of unified sense of tension across the film’s disparate locations.

Thick textures of percussion loops and amelodic writing for brass and strings characterize the cloud of confusion that descends over those who tried to make sense of the warning signs of the impending attack. At times the score appears to cross over the diegetic barrier in the film and confound the confused characters  – as in the hiss and rumble of the loop in ‘Pulling the Tapes’ that obscures an air traffic controller’s attempt to clearly discern words that might hint at more than one hijacking. Familiar and unusual colours drift through the cloud of tension, including a processed duduk in ‘Making the Bomb’, and a child’s voice elsewhere. Powell ever supports the sense of something that cannot be stopped now that it is in motion, as in the unresolved open brass chords of ‘Take Off’ that only truly come full circle with ‘The End’.

The spotting is careful, almost invisible to the casual viewer. (Many are surprised when I tell them there are nearly 45 minutes of music in the film.) Powell and Greengrass rarely let the music assert resolved emotions before the full tragedy has run its course, something lesser film-makers might not have been able to resist. The sealing of the hatch on United 93 before take-off is an unscored, almost perfunctory moment. On occasion, the rule is breached – ‘The Take-Off’ is scored with ominous significance, but these moments are all the more effective for the discipline that guides the work as a whole. Above all, there’s an indifference to the action of the film in this music – a general refusal to reference (and potentially trivialise) on-screen events with musical gestures. Even the type of scoring that subtly phrases character action, such as Powell’s ‘Funeral Pyre’ cue from The Bourne Supremacy, is eschewed in favour of a series of cues that drift out of time with the image. The connection between image and music is occasionally asserted to devastating effect - the defining brass chord of ‘2nd Plane Crash’ and the resounding final chord of ‘The End’ – but for the most part these moments are so effective because the score has been liberated from accompanying the literal unfolding of the action to develop an atmosphere of tension. Musically, catastrophe strikes unexpectedly from a seemingly-stable rhythmic foundation.

Four standout cues deserve special mention. It seems silly to commend a track for having a really compelling percussion loop, but ‘Phone Calls’ rumbles away compellingly for four minutes on exactly that humble base, bookended by two extended child vocal performances. It’s the film’s longest musical setpiece, as the end game draws near. The first section of ‘Prayers’ opens the film, but I seem to recall the rest of it accompanies to great effect the juxtaposition of hijacker and passenger prayers before the latter attempt to seize control of the plane. Best of all is ‘The End’, which to some cynics will seem yet another uninspired reprise of Media Ventures / Remote Control action scoring devices, but to the more open-minded is a fresh fusion of sound and image, and as effective an emotional climax as could be imagined for a film like this. That the resounding conclusion is a single chord that the whole score has been leading to is a sign of Powell’s economy of construction – he makes a resolved chord matter like it’s the first time its ever been used in a film score. (Personally I can’t recall a better suspense setpiece cue since James Newton Howard scored ‘Zuwainie’s Arrival at the UN’ in Sydney Pollack’s The Interpreter.) ‘Dedication’ is an appropriately elegiac coda – releasing the feelings built up in the high speed ‘The End’, and sure to call forth tears from all but a few.

The perfect score to one of the finest films produced in the last few years will not be for everyone though. I personally found it an intensely dramatic experience before I’d even seen the film, but to some, even the experience of the film will not lift music that is as restrained as it is because of the visuals it accompanies. A case of a good film composition not being a good standalone composition perhaps? I don’t know – for my part I don’t listen to it often, but I’m never unmoved when I do.

Michael McLennan

Rating: 5
On Album: 4

Adam Andersson adds:-

2006 has indeed been quite a year for John Powell. With the swinging fun of Ice Age – The Meltdown and the grand action drama of X-Men: The Last Stand he has proven his diversity and skill as a composer. With the score for Paul Greengrass’ film United 93, he further extends his territory and proves that he can skillfully handle the drama of history’s most spectacular act of terrorism.

United 93 is a film about the fourth airplane of the 9/11 attack: the one that never reached its (unknown) target, and instead crash-landed in a field with no casualties other than those aboard the plane. From a number of phone calls made from the plane and voice recordings from the plane’s cockpit we can form a vague opinion of what happened aboard the United 93 flight. It is a highly dramatic story of courage, despair and violence – and could have been scored in many ways. Powell has written a subdued, slow and textural small-scale score that ultimately is very moving – indeed much more moving than I think a more traditionally-orchestrated, theme-led drama score would have been for this story. In its low percussion rumblings and slowly moving string and brass chord progressions I hear a highly emotional and realistic picture of the panic, insecurity and despair that must have been present on United 93.

The album opens with some low percussion hits, after which a short motif is intoned by John Powell’s son Oliver Powell’s solo vocals. There is something about this vocal solo, which reappears a couple of times in the score, that I am deeply moved by. It feels a bit like a picture of innocence – maybe a picture of a child-like innocence that is no more in the world after September 11, 2001. Maybe I am just reading too much into it – but I am highly impressed with music that can get you thinking like that. And it is a very moving textural choice – this fragile solo vocal gives a gripping, dramatic feel to the score.

Moreover, the music is mainly based on a lot of percussion effects (electronic as well as acoustic), above which long lines of string and brass chords progress. Rather than any actual outspoken themes, the solemn feeling of the brass and the more emotional quality of the strings carry the score and unify it into a coherent listening experience. The brass create a solemn dramatic atmosphere when they rise above the percussion – for example at the end of ‘Pull the Tapes’ and ‘The Pentagon’. These moments are not that many but are nonetheless notable. Otherwise, the percussion is indeed this score’s gift as well as its curse. The percussion effects are truly what drives this score forward, what stops a score as textural as this from becoming boring. But at the same time, some of the synthetic percussion elements that are used frequently (as in ‘The Pilots’) can become quite annoying to listen to at length and detracts somewhat from the overall listening value of the score as a whole. Sometimes it can also get a little repetitive, like in the beginning minutes of ‘Phone Calls’, where the same percussive figure is repeated for over a minute.

But since there are many highlights on the way, there is always something that catches your attention again and brings you back into the music. As it reaches its eighth and longest track (‘Phone Calls’ at nearly eleven minutes) these highlights seem to come more often – and when the score arrives at its blissful ninth track, ‘The End’, we have reached the definitive highlight of this score. This track is a dramatic, percussion-driven cue with powerful string and brass writing that almost reaches operatic proportions, just climbing and swelling towards the end of the cue. It is then directly followed by the contemplative ‘Dedication’, where Oliver Powell’s solo vocals return, followed by a beautiful string part that rounds off the album in a quite sad and moving elegy over the casualties of United 93.

United 93 demands a lot of concentration to be a rewarding listen. It is quite dark and essentially unthematic – it progresses along long, slow lines in the orchestra with driving percussion underneath, and listening to it with too little attention may result in not noticing the many textural qualities of this approach. The risk is that a less concentrated listen only really notices the magnificent ‘The End’ and misses out on most of what has happened before. It is a score as if composed for headphone listening with no disturbances. When given the proper attention it displays many good sides, but also some less interesting material. Overall it comes across as a very well written work, especially when compared with other more textural material that is produced now and then. Often that kind of music can feel uninspired and uninteresting to listen to, but that is not the case here. Powell does not do anything particularly new in this score, but he successfully creates an effective atmosphere with these restrained means.

United 93 is not a flawless or overtly emotional work, but with time and concentration it is a rewarding and interesting listen. John Powell has created a highly dramatic and emotionally powerful score with means that I never would have expected could create such an atmosphere. If only for this fact, it should be noted as one of the more stylistically interesting pieces of the year so far.

Adam Andersson


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