June 2006 Film Music CD Reviews

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

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Salem’s Lot  
Music composed, conducted, orchestrated, and produced by Christopher Gordon
Performed by Pro Musica Sydney and Cantillation, with Lisa Gerrard (vocals)
Except ‘Salem’s Lot Aria’ composed by Lisa Gerrard and Patrick Cassidy
  Available on Varese Sarabande (VSD-6586)
Running Time: 63:26
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See also:

  • Master and Commander
  • On the Beach
  • When Good Ghouls Go Bad
  • Those familiar with Christopher Gordon through his contributions to Moby Dick (1998) or On the Beach (2001) who buy this Emmy-nominated score will find that while there are overlaps in style and technique, this is in many respects as far from those richly thematic scores as possible. If anything it’s closer to the textural emphasis of Master and Commander (2003), though the dramatic tone of this is nothing like that score either. The composer has remarked in interview that he was attracted to Mikael Salomon’s remake of the Stephen King tale Salem’s Lot (2004) primarily as an opportunity to provide “a textural score, where shades and colour are more important than melody, harmony and rhythm.” The score was to be a mixture of specific cues written pen-and-paper and a more free-floating group of short musical modules recorded for the purpose of mixing into the more properly-composed tracks. The result is a compelling work for orchestra (Pro Musica Sydney) and choir (Cantillation) with solo vocals by Lisa Gerrard, presented on this hour-long release from Varese Sarabande.

    The album actually opens with an independent work by Gerrard and one-time Zimmer collaborator Patrick Cassidy. Their ‘Salem’s Lot Aria’ is a melancholic ambient composition showcasing Gerrard’s iconic voice over low string murmurings. For those familiar with Gerrard’s broader work, this could have easily come from the recent Gerrard/Cassidy non-score album, Immortal Memory. Thereafter Gerrard’s voice appears rarely on the album, a colour in Gordon’s palette that emerges at critical moments.

    The score proper rests on a foundation of minor triads, of which Gordon says:

    "The relentless sound of minor triads brings not only an obvious sadness to the film but also an uncertain tonal centre...the ground is always slipping away. More complex harmony is constructed by vertically stacking up the minor triads on top of each other in various combinations."

    So it is in the excitingly textural ‘Thanksgiving’, where low strings double with sonorous choir, contrabassoon and ominous brass to prepare for an agitato assault. The groaning trombones, strings effects and Ligeti-like woodwinds are more avante-garde than much of Gordon’s previous film score work. The choir – and its individual voices – here serve more as an instrument within the orchestra as opposed to the dominant layer. (Those familiar with Guy Gross’s Farscape: The Peacekeeper Wars and Alan John’s The Bank will recognise the distinct sound of the small ensemble.) ‘Jerusalem’s Lot’ is gentle relief in comparison – a sensitive piano melody based on minor triads, but still enveloped by unsettling acoustic and electronic effects.

    The moment of light is soon lost, string arpeggios interspersed with weighty piano chords and timpani hits lend thrilling motion to ‘In the Woods’. After an unsettling opening for choir, ‘Straker’ develops along more thematic lines with mournful interludes for Bassoon, Trombones and Strings. ‘Dud and Barlow’ opens with another piano theme – more lilting than the ‘Jerusalem’s Lot’ theme – before the celli ground the piece in the dominant gloom. The choral passage at the close of this cue is a nice foretaste of things to come. ‘Eva’s Story’, with it’s delicate celli melody, is about as light-hearted as things get, a nice reminder of Gordon’s delicate handling of the love theme from On the Beach. That the composer keeps the screws tight but never bores in the way so much film music for horror does is a credit to his skill.

    The lengthiest cue, ‘Mike Ryerson’, sustains eight minutes of suspense by means of careful spotting and inventive orchestration. It’s like Ligeti’s ‘Adventurers’ in its seeming aleatorism, where the palette is a full orchestra with chorus, though of course, it’s as carefully composed and mixed as anything. It should not be listened to while jogging through unlit streets late at night. (Though it certainly made the exercise more interesting!)

    Gerrard’s voice appears for the first time in ‘Bloody Pirates’ amidst controlled chaos, sounding in the mix so textural that it’s almost like a theremin at times, a glass harmonica at others. We have a strong sense of the tremolo of her voice, but something of the emotional resonance is stripped away, leaving a strange shadow of her voice. (The composer notes in interview that her voice was miked and mixed to sound like it was coming from close behind the listener.) The cue is by turns riveting, then melancholy, as a solo piano theme rounds out the cue.

    My personal favourite cues all come in the album’s second half. ‘Approaching the Mansion’ introduces a subdued march metre in the strings, with solo horn slowly losing resolve as the cue changes imperceptibly into a weighty processional. At its outset ‘In the Cellar’ uses a solo female voice (too classical in its phrasing for Gerrard) to great effect. The bass trombone opening of ‘Converting the Priest’ is deliciously ominous, the following five and a half minutes quite a thing to imagine a brutal ‘conversion’ to. The priest embraces darkness to the sound of Gerrard’s voice (now richer in emotion, and more disturbing for it) and choral utterances that sound like the recitations of Gyuto Monks in a higher register. The climax of ‘Barlow’ is brilliantly orchestrated, echoing trumpets (think The Matrix, not Patton) and choral excess capping off a thrilling cue.

    Every album should have a masterpiece, and the standout here is ‘Mutans Evae Nomen and The Mansion Burns’. Motifs from earlier in the score come to the surface here as Gordon puts his background in choral work to good use. (The composer was a member of the Australian Boys Choir as a child.) A near-plainsong opening for Cantillation gathers in strength until about half way through, when it gathers the forces of Pro Musica Sydney unto itself in two minutes of macabre glory that raised the hairs on my neck like few cues have since ‘Corso and the Girl’ from Wojciech Kilar’s The Ninth Gate. In terms of Gordon’s canon, it’s closest to ‘Lacrimosa’ from On the Beach, though more rooted in the unease that has gone before on this album. Worth buying the album for. (I wish I had.) After this finale, the Gerrard solo piece ‘Free in Spirit’ gives an opportunity to recover, before the moving reprise of ‘Eva’s Story’ in ‘Salem’s Lot Theme’, Lisa Gerrard carrying the melody to its sad unresolved conclusion.

    As I mentioned in passing, so many horror scores are unrewarding listens out of the context of the film. I don’t want to name names and get in trouble, so I’ll just follow that up by saying that this is not one of them. It’s a true composer at work, writing music for a film, and it comes highly recommended – to the point that I chose to review it for this edition despite that fact that it’s a two-year old release. My thanks to the composer for providing access to an interview transcript where he answered many of the questions I had about the score’s production.

    Michael McLennan

    Rating: 4.5

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