Friday, October 14, 2005

Emotional claim

It is recommended to view the movie beforehand, but the now epic "The Burning" can only be heard in its entirety on the soundtrack. Heavily dramatic and emotional.

Michael Nyman
The Claim (Virgin, 2001)

Urban Cine File
The pulse strides as steadily as a ponderous pixie or a tiptoeing giant. Up and down march Michael Nyman’s strings, relentlessly yet ambiguously, in regular four and eight beats that make emphasis an art-form. It has been the Nyman trademark since the earliest Peter Greenaway films, where the solid musical figures provided ballast and framework for Greenaway’s highly pictorial, cinematic vision.

Although he is now most recognised for his score for The Piano, Nyman’s signature soundtracks became a feature of almost a dozen Greenaway films, until director and composer split over the use of the music in Prospero’s Books. The fact is that Nyman often didn’t prepare scores for Greenaway in the traditional way; they weren’t usually a series of perfectly synchronised cues, just themes that Greenaway pasted against his images as he saw fit. Sometimes the soundtracks even drew from previous Nyman compositions, unrelated to the particular film. Which makes it less surprising that Nyman’s music forms magnificent partnerships with very different filmmakers to Greenaway; and without requiring a significant shift in the composer’s style.

Director Michael Winterbottom does share one particular attribute with Greenaway. Both of them are masters of mise en scene. Winterbottom’s scenic landscapes are as much a work of art as Greenaway’s most intricate set pieces. The nuances of Nyman’s music are the perfect compliment to such powerful imagery. The predictability of his rhythms affords us to the chance to revel in sublime chord changes and lyrical motifs.

Nyman has a very British sense of controlled emotion. His melodies follow a measured arc of sentiment, and instead of poking out from his rhythmic beds they fold neatly over the surface. They are short and accessible; one here is even reminiscent of the Genesis pop hit Land Of Confusion. And you won’t find more precision in orchestral voicings; each instrument articulates its own melodic contour, yet knits seamlessly into the tonal fabric.

The result is hypnotising. The pulse continues on its mesmeric way and the melodic lines entrance us with their coiled, potential energy. For we are not to expect dramatic climaxes from the man who coined the term “minimalism”. Nyman’s scores, and this one is no exception, soar on the back of no excess and fine refinement. It is a little glib to state that that the less the Michael Nyman orchestra play, the more they say; but with a stripped down version – the Michael Nyman “Band” – touring Australia in early 2002, audiences should hang on every note.

-Brad Green

Michael Nyman's sweeping score to director Michael Winterbottom's film The Claim might contain the most mournful compositions of the composer's career. Nyman's most successful scores in the past have been those where he explored baroque minimalism, as seen in his film scores to many Peter Greenaway films, and those where he tackled strong emotions, as in his score to Jane Campion's The Piano. With The Claim, Nyman composes in broad strokes; the minimalism of past compositions is still on display, but it's buried under a wall of evocative strings and weary brass through most of tracks. Some critics have called The Claim Nyman's answer to Ennio Morricone's score for Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West. It's not really a fair assessment of either score. It's true that there are echoes of "Jill's Theme" from Once Upon a Time in the West, perhaps most clearly in "The Burning," but the two composers display entirely different intentions and emotions. Morricone's score had overtures that sounded like rock music; there are moments in Morricone's score where a paranoid harmonica and raging distortion suggest infinite menace. As accomplished as Morricone's score is, there are definite camp underpinnings; that's the nature of a spaghetti western score. Nyman operates in a far more restrained set of boundaries. There's never a moment when the music sounds anything less than classical and refined. Each of Nyman's individual compositions strive for a myriad of feelings, whereas Morricone used his compositions to display the mood of the on-screen action, be it pensive, tense, or horrifying. The Claim almost gets bogged down in strings, as Nyman piles them on quite heavily. It's safe to say that the score probably works better when paired with Winterbottom's images than it does on its own. Since the movie deals with serious themes and generally avoids frivolity, Nyman's score seems almost deadly serious. The music is beautiful, but more variation would make it more palatable as a separate entity from the movie. It's much easier to appreciate most of Nyman's film scores after viewing the source movies, and The Claim might be the best example of a score that seems a bit overbearing when one can't place an image or a character to an emotion within the music. There are minor echoes of Morricone, and The Claim is a work of great artistry and much beauty, but it works better in Winterbottom's film than it does as an album. 3/5
-Tim DiGravina

Note: Score ratings in bold are Select Reviews, and "( )" the authors cited.