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Seven Years in Tibet: First Look

by Doug Adams

John Williams must be a happy man. James Horner once claimed that part of his job as a film composer was to "manipulate the hell out of the audience," and I suppose that's probably true a lot of the time. But, I'm not sure if there was ever a point in John Williams' career where this was strictly the case. Even on the occasions that Williams' scoring has hit saccharine highs, I don't think that it was meant as a manipulative gesture. It just seems that his emotions run deep--and we as listeners find it very easy to get swept up in his enthusiasm. That doesn't mean that the musicality is always at 100 proof brilliance, but I don't think he often makes statements that he doesn't mean at least on some level. I'd wager that his compositional sincerity has brought him a great deal of the acclaim that he enjoys. Well... that and his considerable abilities, which are pretty much a foregone conclusion at this point.

So why do I say that John Williams must be so happy? Just listen to his music these days. So much of it is geared towards the inherent good of the natural world, or the existence of some sort of underlying order to everything. Even Rosewood, with it's horrific visages was portrayed as occurring in a basically good world. The town is painted in shades of gentle, nostalgic Americana. One of the great themes through Williams' work is the representation of an orderly existence and the placid and safe countenance it provides. Life is a noble thing in these worlds. Then as the plot thickens and these honorable worlds are distorted, we truly want to return to them. And when the music does reform, we are home again. Some day I'd love to put some time into a decent analysis of how he's done this so well in so many scores.

Though I haven't seen the film yet (it's not out as I'm typing this), this journey is what I hear In John Williams' score to Seven Years in Tibet. It sounds as if it's been written by a composer who doesn't feel the need to jolt or jostle us with compositional fireworks. It seems to seek to paint a complete world where events carry a dramatic weight, not a flash-in-the-pan moment to moment thrill. In short it sounds like it's been written by a person who has seen a lot of the world and understands that at times it's petty, that its denizens can be ultimately insignificant, but still believes that even within our own little spheres of existence there is a true importance to what we go through. Judge this as you please against the en vogue nihilism of the '90s (which isn't necessarily bad). For better of worse, Williams is a true Romantic.

But cut to the chase, how is the score? Well, it definitely makes me want to see the movie. Over the last few years, Williams has paid homage to several different ethnicities--the Irish Far and Away, the Jewish Schindler's List, the black Rosewood, and of course, most of Williams early work, even the fantasy scores, bowed to whitebread WASPish America. Seven Years in Tibet seems to be Williams' love letter to Asian cultures. Yo-Yo Ma's cello playing is treated both in Western and Eastern senses. The focal point of the Western element is another wonderfully constructed string melody. Williams manages to takes a slippery collection of minor chords and make them sound positively warm and loving. (The progression of the opening is C minor, B minor, Bb minor, F minor, Db major, C minor, G major.) The non-functional progression of the triads also serves to lend the score an intimate-epic sound, and that's an incredibly difficult balancing act for a composer. It stands in stark contrast to the bloated nothingness that the Dragonheart music used in the trailers provided. The Asian scoring is surprisingly textural for Williams. It tends to sway back and forth between genuine ethnic instruments and Western timbral approximations--like pads of harp, celeste, crotales, and wind chimes. I imagine that that's probably very appropriate for the story, plus it probably makes the music far for palatable for those unacquainted with true Asian music. As a matter of fact, I was very surprised with the authenticity of the Asian writing. The actual instruments of the region are used very often (save for one cloying synth patch in the mix) and the harmonic motions are dead on the money. The Gyuto Monks can even be heard chanting their overtone rich compositions in a couple of tracks. The cello writing is very detailed and surprisingly modernistic at points--the cue titled "Premonitions" is a fine Twentieth Century cello solo and Ma's playing makes it leap off of the page. There are all sorts of interesting pitch bends, enharmonic trills (trilling the same note of different strings), quarter tones, and non-vibrato techniques used throughout the solos. Even more so than the violin writing for Perlman in Schindler's List, this music is tailor-made for the soloist. And it never sounds like instrumental trickery--it's an integrated and structural part of the score.

With the exception of a couple of fright tracks, and one nicely pumped "actiony" cue, most of the album is pretty low-key. There seems to be a bit of a repetitive sag in the middle--one low string motive turns up just a few too many times. Maybe this will be rectified when one has a dramatic context to place the score in. We shall see in a week or so--we'll take another look then. I think Rosewood will probably end up as the better Williams score of 1997, but I still think this CD is worth a listen. And if you're a Williams completest, at least you'll now have something to prop the right side of the flimsy Lost World disc again. I mean that in several ways.

Very Brief ER Thought

I've never been a fan of the music on ER, but I've still managed to enjoy the series on the few occasions I've been able to watch it. However, I thought that the ultimate statement about modern television music was made on the recent live episode where the majority of one cue was played by a guy whacking drumsticks on a window for about four minutes. Probably the scariest thing was that it sounded perfectly in place. On the plus side, the Cubs game the doctors were watching in the lounge was the actual live feed from WGN in Chicago. And George Clooney gave the accurate score--the Cubs were losing 1 to 8. Go Cubs.

See you next time.

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