Those dismayed at the departure of Howard
Shore from last year’s King Kong remake have received an unexpected boon
in early 2006 with the release of over an hour of original score for orchestra
and choir written by the composer for a Korean video game called Soul of the
Ultimate Nation. It’s the composer’s first video game score and a sign of
the growing significance of applying cinematic techniques to new media, marking
probably the first time an A-list film composer has been brought to the genre
of game scoring to write an entire score in his own voice. (It’s worth pointing
out that both Bruce Broughton and Graeme Revell have written complete game
scores previously – Hearts of Darkness and Call of Duty 2 respectively
– though neither were really A-list composers at the time.)
I can’t say whether this is the greatest
game score ever written or not, as I don’t have more than a passing
acquaintance with the genre. What little game music I’ve heard has always felt
overly action-oriented (no surprise, since games are dominated by action
sequences), with an overall lack of dramatic arc to make the albums come
anywhere close to rivaling good film scores. To me what’s interesting here is
whether this score is as engaging and dramatically thought out as Howard Shore’s music for film. It’s hard to get a sense of this here, as the lavish sleeve
notes, including track-by-track descriptions of the scenes accompanied by each
cue, are unfortunately mostly in Korean. (Except for the part we already know,
the summary of Howard Shore’s career to date.) This makes it hard to discuss
thematic development and structural ideas throughout the score in terms of the
story it illustrates, which is unfortunate, as these are usually a strong point
in Shore’s work. Only the track names give any indication of the content. With
titles like ‘The Forest of Beasts’, ‘Valley of Dragons’ and ‘Graveyard of
Aiort’, and graphics of stylized primitive warriors and hand-drawn maps, it
seems like a fantasy role-playing game with elements of Tolkien’s Middle Earth
an undeniable influence.
Which makes it no surprise that Howard Shore was headhunted by the producers of this game to provide its musical score.
Initially typecast as composer for psychological thrillers and the occasional
comedy, Shore’s aptitude for epic fantasy scoring was showcased in the three Lord
of the Rings scores for the Tolkien adaptations. And it is that type of
approach that the commissioners of this score have clearly sought to replicate.
After a brief introduction of one of the main themes by shakuhatchi, the opener
‘Sancturary of Ether’ develops along the lines of the ‘Rivendell’ material from
the trilogy, with arcing arpeggios, female choir (choral text by Jin Soo Park) and harp figures. When the growling male vocals enter ‘Empire Geist’, you’d
swear you were in Moria again, a feeling also supported by the syncopated percussion
of ‘Requiem for the Dead’. With the trilogy’s ubiquitous v-motifs bouncing from
the trombones to the horns amidst an expansive mixed choral line, ‘The Triumph’
could easily be mistaken for missing cue from The Two Towers, a feeling
strengthened by a near-cameo by the Fellowship theme in the trumpet towards the
end of this cue.
But it sells this composition short to say
it is merely another Lord of the Rings score, when it is clearly a
composition that allowed Shore’s an opportunity for freer development of his
musical ideas. ‘A Prelude to Revolt’ is an extended journey for orchestra and
choir – presumably to accompany an expositional sequence in the game. It opens
with a brass fanfare – a variant on the main theme – followed by an Aviator-like
counterpointing of strings and brass, building to the entry of a woman’s choir.
A virtuoso oboe solo over light 5/4 percussion over which male choir appears.
And so the cue keeps going – a fluid track of significant length that
continually sustains interest through inventive counterpoint and orchestration
– and it’s hard to remember the last time something so ‘classical’ in its
development of ideas was written for film. Another strong cue is the highlight
of the action material, ‘The Valley of Dragons’. It thunders to life with
syncopated brass and percussion hits before Lydia Kavina’s theremin takes the
fore in a solo reading of one of the main themes. The cue as it continues is a
dynamic oscillation between the full orchestral attack (again with resonant
percussion, trilling horns and trombones) and the unique timbre of the theremin.
It’s the best action cue Shore has ever written.
The early cues vary nicely in temperament,
with ‘Tides of Hope’ delivering a warm trumpet/horn dialogue of the main theme
with gentle string harmony, followed by a counterpointing of a string reading
of the main theme with gentle arpeggios. ‘The Epitaph’ balances the high
strings nicely against women’s choir, the melody here surprisingly reminiscent
of the later Michael Nyman. Together with ‘Sanctuary of Ether’, these cues
ensure the score is not merely one long action cue.
It seems on a number of levels the
opportunity to score a video game opened up creative opportunities for Shore.
There is an eclecticism to the writing here. The theremin has rarely strayed
outside the genre of science fiction, and to hear the melodic use of it here
(the opening of ‘Night of the Crescent Moon’, the extended solo of ‘Hymns of
Battlefields’, ‘A Pernicious Plot’) is fresh indeed, this reviewer wishing
there was more of it. It’s very different from the referential use Shore made
of it in Ed Wood, in this score sounding more like what Elmer Bernstein did
with the instruments aural cousin, the ondes martinet in Heavy Metal
and The Black Cauldron. Together with the shakuhatchi (‘Sanctuary of
Ether’, latter half of ‘Poem for Nemesis’ with male choir) and organ (‘Immortal
Emperor’), the range of instrumentation open to Shore here would not have
suited the pre-modern palette the composer restricted himself to in the Tolkien
It’s endemic of a series of subtle
differences to Shore’s writing in this score. While the choral-orchestral blend
may suggest the trilogy superficially, overall the composition is closer to the
two-voice writing of The Aviator. (Take the string and theremin
counterpoint in ‘Hymns of Battlefields’.) There are other modern flourishes –
the oboe in ‘Prelude to Revolt’ feels almost baroque in its self-conscious
formalism. Overall the cues feel less constrained to the economical demands of
film music storytelling, with tracks of extended length like ‘Requiem for the
Dead’ and ‘Menace of the Army Wings’ where ideas are able to develop to their
full extent (and in some cases, past it).
Similarly there’s a freedom to the
orchestration – an array of more expressive brass and percussion touches than Shore’s
music for the trilogy. In ‘The Triumph’ the unusual blend of snare drums
rhythms and divisi string writing towards the end of the cue, as well as the
trilling horn dissonances, would never have been heard in the trilogy
soundscape. Note particularly the percussion of the concluding ‘Menace of the
Army Wings’, and the many aggressive dissonances in the action tracks. There’s
even a cue based on material never used in the score for The Two Towers, the
shimmering two-voice brass melody and arpeggios in ‘Forest of the Beasts’ that appeared
in a slightly different form for an excised cue in The Two Towers that accompanied
Not that you’d know it from all this, but it’s
not an album without flaws. Firstly, the album is poorly structured, the best
of the cues generally out there in the first half, with little of the second
half that quite matches up to that early material. Why does the score end where
it ends, at the climax of an action track? Some cutting of minor cues and
rearrangement of the track order might have fixed this, though even then there
might be the problem of this album’s persistently stern tone. There’s little
relief from the tension.
Secondly – and this is inherent to the
genre of game scoring – some of the cues have that feel of ‘waiting for the
game player’ to get through the round, particularly in ‘Requiem for the Dead’
and ‘Menace of the Army Wings’. It is action music, but it’s trying to sustain
a mood of action that can be conceivably looped for as long as the player takes
to complete that scene, and to someone used to the relatively concise
development of film action cues, this more protracted development gives the
action a strange existential feel.
Thirdly, the mixing approach that Shore and
Kurlander have gone for on multiple successive scores suppresses the detail in
the writing for the sake of the power, so that even the solo parts escape with
some difficulty from the bassy mix. I remember hearing all manner of detail in
the Lord of the Rings Symphony mixes that were mixed out of the albums, and I
suspect there’s some fine orchestrations disguised here too. Why not remix for
album so that the music can be heard as a composition, independent of its
dramatic role in the game?
However I shouldn’t make too much of these
problems. I haven’t heard that many game scores, but this is certainly the best
of what I have heard. For fans Howard Shore acquired among the Tolkien set,
it’s a nice return to action on the scale of Lord of the Rings after the
more psychological approaches to The Aviator and History of Violence.
I can’t say I like it as much as the score album of the Scorsese Howard Hughes
biopic for the reasons discussed above. It does whet the appetite though for
his score for the Scorsese remake of Infernal Affairs, and for whatever
he managed to complete on King Kong before he left the project.