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CD Reviews: Signs and The Sand Pebbles

The following reviews have beenedited down for FSD. For the full text, please see FSM Vol. 7, No. 7.

Signs ****


Hollywood 2061-62368-2

13 tracks - 45:30

Admittedly, it'd be pretty difficult to ignore Signs' gutsy opening sequence even had it been scored with "The Irish Washerwoman," but James Newton Howard achieves a lasting unsettling presence by presenting a diorama of the film's construction. The cue opens with the motionlessness of rural portent represented by a scordatura fiddle (meaning the strings have been retuned from their usual G D A E to G D A Eb). The top three strings are played as an open chord, and right off the bat Howard provides the key to the entire score/film. Everything following regards the perception of interactivity, namely the intersection of a very grounded rural framework with outside forces either threatening, inspirational or both. Howard quickly reassembles his D A Eb trichord into a three-note motive, A D Eb, which is spun into a swirling whirligig exploration of the three pitches. The overture so forcefully burns the rising notes into the audience's mind that each time they return we recall that forceful first statement and await their explanation.

That sense of expectation runs trough the entire score as Howard allows his three-note motives (set in the orchestra's highest registers, usually several piccolos, flutes, harp, piano, etc.) to slide over and through a slowly evolving bed of strings and horns. The two ensembles are kept entirely separate through the majority of the score, apparently for both the sake of clarity (notice that Howard uses no high brass anywhere in the score so that he stays out the "three-note range") and to underline the notion of one idea acting upon the other. Each element colors the other, affecting its cast but never changing its essence.

Howard continually rearranges the building blocks of the elements themselves, so as to keep the meaning of all this interaction veiled. The three-note motive is forever wandering to new pitches-at certain points it's presented as C G Ab, which plays over C triads switching between major and minor. One presents hope, the other dread. Likewise, the more grounded writing is colored with quartertones, bent pitches, overlapping pointillistic textures, touching string lines, and the smallest handful of brass bites.

But portent without payoff is a tease, and eventually Howard has to swing away. The score's ominous tones create a long-form build up of tension, and every ounce of amassed angst is directed towards Signs' penultimate sequence. This sequence makes good on the expansive promise of the overture as the two elements of the score are melded together into an enormously powerful statement that's violent and moving in equal measure. But as the film's plot elements are resolved, we find that the three-note motives do not disappear, they learn to coexist with the string palettes. Or perhaps they relearn, for as they're combined it sounds as if each has now found its missing partner -- as if the orchestral palette has been recombined and is now able to hit a comfortable stride. Howard refuses to peg down the message behind his three notes, as does the film. Did the pitches represent a threat or a comfort? Neither, it seems. They simply reflected the film's non-literal level -- the idea that the characters' lives had been acted upon by external forces. Did the score play the motive through the end to represent a victory, or to suggest that the pitches never represented the villains in the first place? It's up to the audience.

It's unfair to review Howard's work solely as a score or as a stand-alone piece of music. The film is so musical and the music so narrative that it functions nearly the same in either existence. Hollywood Records' album requires attentive listening, and there's always the risk that something this subtle and textural may go above the heads of non-musical listeners. As is becoming apparent, James Newton Howard can provide something much more than a big theme, loud horns and exotic percussion. This is the work of a distinctive stylist. I only hope that the high-profile nature of the score will persuade more filmmakers to come to Howard seeking his voice, allowing him to apply his notions as well as his skills. Signs is one of Summer 2002's best scores. Don't miss it.  -- Doug Adams

The Sand Pebbles **** 1/2


Varèse Sarabande VCL 0702 1010

30 tracks - 76:45

Reportedly Alex North was to have scored The Sand Pebbles but had to drop out at the last minute. Thus, it's to Jerry Goldsmith's enormous credit that only a half dozen years or so into his movie career, he was able to write a score that in all likelihood equaled, and possibly surpassed, what North might have done in his stead. The Sand Pebbles featured overtures based on two love themes written for the film: one popular tune written for Steve McQueen's (Holman's) romance with a missionary played by Candace Bergen, and another for Richard Attenborough's relationship with a Chinese girl. Goldsmith's title music set the template for later Asian-styled scores like Tora! Tora! Tora! and The Chairman, building from a whispered, bittersweet phrase and gathering shattering emotional power over the silhouetted image of the American gunship solidifying onscreen. The title theme forms the basis for Goldsmith's remarkable "Death of a Thousand Cuts" cue in which Mako's character is killed: in a sequence of tremendous violence and cruelty, Goldsmith chose to underscore the interior anguish of Holman rather than the brutality evident on the surface, a perfect example of the composer's loftiest instincts at work. Steve McQueen's all-but expressionless face was the perfect tabula rasa on which Goldsmith could paint his emotional landscapes, and while the composer fashioned thrilling moments of action, menace and spectacle, the emotive component of the Sand Pebbles score is enormously powerful.

A primary element of the score is Goldsmith's brassy, harmonic nine-note theme for the San Pablo, a melody which comes to speak not only to the sense of belonging that the vessel evokes in Holman, but for the binding element of patriotism that brings the crew together in their final conflict with the Chinese revolutionaries (it's no accident that the San Pablo theme is itself a variation of the score's primary love theme). On LP, the score was more a collection of set pieces than an epic journey, with two dynamic but rather shrill action cues ("My Secret" and "Maily's Abduction"), one stupendous action showpiece ("Repel Boarders") and one truncated climactic cue ("Final Mission") in addition to several incarnations of Goldsmith's love theme. Goldsmith favored his romantic melodies on the rerecording, which was only a disadvantage in that it showcased the weakest element of the film: the pat Hollywood love story between McQueen and Bergen. The new album shows Goldsmith's love theme more than capable of holding interest over several additional and quite lengthy developments, and the emotional journey of Holman is thoroughly illustrated from the first presentation of the love theme to the beautiful "Hello, Engine" and "Training a Coolie" -- two brief but pivotal cues that portray the engineer bonding with both his new vessel and Mako's character.

On the original album and rerecording, "Final Mission" ended its militaristic, driving horn treatment of the San Pablo theme midway through the cue -- here, finally, we hear the snare-driven transition as the ship theme crescendos brilliantly over the symbolic raising of the American flag as the ship steers toward a Chinese blockade at the film's climax. In the film Goldsmith's music climaxes sharply after suspenseful snatches of staccato piano and shrill string writing, leaving the final, brutal hand to hand fight over the blockade sanpans unscored. It's a technique that works well for the movie but leaves the score itself without a climax. Happily, Goldsmith actually wrote a final piece of battle music that thrillingly contrasts the jagged, serpentine action motif developed midway through "Final Mission" against heroic statements of the San Pablo theme for brass: not only does this provide the album with a stunningly satisfying payoff, it also has to rank as the most important piece of previously undiscovered Goldsmith music since the elaborate, unused "abandon ship" cue from Planet of the Apes.

On the down side, the score's signature action cue, "Repel Boarders," has somehow been lost and is now only available in mono -- everything else on the album sounds so terrific it's painful to make the adjustment to the shallower mono sound on this fantastic piece of action music. It's just too bad Varèse wasn't permitted to use the stereo album masters since the performances are identical. But it has to be said that the thrill of hearing "The Battle Continues" for the first time more than outweighs the loss of a stereo "Repel Boarders." Varèse's The Sand Pebbles easily qualifies as the best album in what's been a good year for film scores: Bob Townson, Nick Redman, Mike Matessino and everyone else who worked on this historic project deserve our sincere and profuse gratitude.  -- Jeff Bond

For the full reviews to Signs and The Sand Pebbles, check out FSM Vol. 7, No. 7...

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