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CD Reviews: The Conversation and Affair of the Necklace

The Conversation *****


Intrada Special Collection Volume 2

14 tracks - 37:19

In Francis Ford Coppola's 1974 thriller The Conversation, Gene Hackman plays a surveillance expert, a voyeur with a microphone who specializes in recording the private things people say to one another. Worried that his work might hurt a young man and woman, he begins to listen to his tapes obsessively, spending long hours transforming electronic noise into understandable information. The process wears on Hackman's sanity, however, and soon his need to control the recordings controls him.

Few movies ask so much from their audience's ears. The film's anarchic sound, designed by Walter Murch, constantly shifts from dialogue to noise to David Shire's jumpy score. A woman's troubled voice dissolves into static, for instance; men scream at each other through a haze of jazz music; city noises choke out the sound of singing voices. Relentless, this sonic montage augments the feeling of unpredictable danger which constantly threatens the film's characters, and without it, chances are good that Coppola's film couldn't succeed as it does. At the same time, it seems unlikely that the sound track could succeed without the haunting score. But how does Shire's music sound when separated from the contexts of the screen and Murch's editing? Twenty seven years after the movie's premier, Intrada has made the original score available for the first time, releasing a collection of 14 jazz-stoked tracks, re-mastered for stereo with their beginnings, middles and endings intact.

So, does the music work? You bet. The album starts with a brilliant spray of piano notes and soon the main melody materializes. Skulking like a cat along the top of a fence, Shire paces the theme quickly, then slowly, switching its tone from joy to melancholy, across the first three tracks. On "Blues for Harry (Combo)," the collection's fourth track, he replaces the solitary piano line with a bop band that swings around a sax, evoking the swagger and fun that made mid-century Greenwich Village jazz so great. Then, in the middle of the album, electronic distortions seep in, fusing ugly, broad, urban sounds into the dancing piano rhythms, a technique that counterbalances the intense prettiness of the tracks which come before and after these numbers, expanding the album's emotional range significantly, as well as recalling and reinforcing the film's preoccupation with unpleasant contrasts. As the score nears its conclusion, another Charlie Parker-type song titled "Harry Carried" appears, and then the album's double coda, the gorgeous "Finale and End Credits," and "Theme from The Conversation (Ensemble)," a song which, according to the liner notes, didn't make it into the movie. Lacking the intense anxiousness that characterizes the other material, this track integrates the piano and combo jazz motifs, running the main melody through the saxophone in a way which sounds rich, elegiac and almost calm. A denouement of sorts, this piece cathartically relieves the score of its earlier tensions, and it is also a rarity: a bonus track that doesn't sound tacked on.

One of the great mysteries of life has to be the way in which the movie industry abandons many of its brightest lights long before they want to abandon it. Such is the case with David Shire. The music man behind big hits like All The President's Men, Norma Rae and Saturday Night Fever lost his privileged status decades ago. (For reasons why, take a look at Jason Foster's Diamond in the Rough series, which Film Score Monthly ran in 1999.) And what a terrible shame, because, as this score indicates, Shire's talent is somewhere in the genius range -- the sort that warrants fame, exultation and frequent assignments.  -- Stephen Armstrong

The Affair of the Necklace ***


Varèse Sarabande 302 066 318 2

21 tracks - 40:04

David Newman manages a small hat trick with The Affair of the Necklace, scoring a period romance without it sounding like the umpteenth combination of Bach harpsichords and 19th-century bombast. (The score does have both, but sparingly.) Newman's ability to craft lovely melodies is still very much in effect; his "Jeanne's Theme" captures a sense of yearning romanticism without overkill. If the score doesn't exactly fall together in an album format, Newman at least deserves credit for leaving you with the impression that you've heard a skilled and varied approach to a somewhat dry genre.

Dark and light moments mix smoothly together as the first portion of the album unfolds, with "Rohan's Arrest" shifting the album's tone from that of gently melodic intimacy towards a feeling of grander scope and aggression. "In Court / Childhood" mixes haunting choral patterns with a more beatific, jaunty section for flutes and plucked strings, before taking an abrupt shift towards more threatening territory. The delicate primary theme is what keeps the album focused, even through the sturm-und-drag stylings of cues like "Feast of the Assumption" and "Rohan Meets with Fake Antionette." (The latter cue does have a terrifically rhythmic combination of harpsichord stylings, synthesized backbeats and choral patterns.)

Newman's more modernistic flourishes seem at first a little out of place next to the more straightforward orchestral writing, but he uses them just sparingly enough so that they fit into the score's framework. (Newman is certainly not as gleeful about being anachronistic as, say, Craig Armstrong was for Plunkett and Macleane.) "Going Home" is a particularly delicate cue, with the primary theme getting fleshed out and developed in rewarding ways. The album eases down slowly, with the choral material of "Antoinette is Finished" and "Arrival of the Necklace" serving as the climax of the score's more bombastic elements. "Jeanne Reads Her Memoirs" rehashes the primary theme and sends the album out on much the same note as it began. All in all, Newman's music is a slight cut above what you might expect from such a film; the chances that the score takes are what makes it stay in your memory.  -- Jason Comerford

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