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CD Reviews: The Clearing and The Thorn Birds

The Clearing ** 1/2


Varèse Sarabande 302 066 585 2

25 tracks - 55:17

The fact that Craig Armstrong was tapped to compose the soundtrack for Pieter Jan Brugge's The Clearing should be the first clue that this film does not fit neatly into any one category. After all, Armstrong is perhaps best known for his collaborations with Baz Lurhmann, a director who has gleefully refused to be confined to one genre throughout his career, much less within a single film. The Clearing proves to be cut from the same mold. Its advertisements promote it as a standard summer thriller, and it certainly has elements from that genre, but for the most part the movie transcends neat categorization, emerging as a complex psychological character study.

Armstrong's score matches the director's vision. In action/thriller scores, most composers gradually build tension by stacking on more and more instruments as the movie progresses. They accompany the climax with an explosion of sound and then allow everything to die away in the denouement. Armstrong subverts these expectations completely. His score for The Clearing is, for the most part, a quiet affair. The drama is underscored by soft, slowly modulating string chords with wind, percussion and electronic instruments layered above the bed. For the rare explosion of tension, Armstrong uses percussion and electronics together, as in "Arnold On His Way." But these moments are few and far between.

Armstrong also undermines convention by using only one theme for the entire score. This theme is presented in three instrumentations in three cues each titled "The Clearing Main Theme." This dirge of a theme climbs to an aching note of longing through arpeggios that become the score's characteristic gesture. The theme's most beautiful version is as a piano solo performed by the composer. As we know from Armstrong's album of solo piano works, the composer is gifted at bringing a rich, round sound to the piano and this cue further solidifies that reputation. This meditative take on the main theme, accompanied by a relentless ostinato, is reminiscent of George Winston's unique piano music in its tone and minimalist trappings, and proves to be the score's emotional and structural high point.

Unfortunately, while it works for the movie, the score for The Clearing does not stand up well on its own. It is too much of the same for much too long. The necessary moments of catharsis are present, especially in Armstrong's poignant and concise manipulation of the main theme in "I Have Everything I Need." Indeed, the album shines whenever the piano is added to the mix, because the composer seems to focus in on exactly what he wants to say. But there are not enough of those moments to sustain interest beyond waiting for the next structural marker.     -- Andrew Granade

The Thorn Birds (1983) **** 1/2


Varèse Sarabande 302 066 564 2

Disc One: 23 tracks - 56:56    Disc Two: 25 tracks - 60:25

This year marks the 10th anniversary of Henry Mancini's death, and yet this release is one of the precious few restored and remastered releases of one of his scores. That said, Robert Townson now presents us with nearly two hours of Mancini's fine work for this landmark miniseries.

Though often best remembered for his cool and hip sound that defined a whole generation of movie music with the jazz/rock elements of The Pink Panther, Peter Gunn, A Shot in the Dark, etc., Mancini's more straightforward orchestral writing (The Creature from the Black Lagoon) is often sorely ignored in favor of the former category. The Thorn Birds falls squarely in this latter field, containing some of the most heartfelt writing in the composer's canon. Mancini had a gift for melody, and the main theme kicks things off right away in "Main Title," simultaneously conjuring up nostalgia, romance and the Australian outback, without the use of a didgeridoo.

The main theme dominates the score, but Mancini provides a handful of other fully developed themes, at times even evoking his previous score for The White Dawn, and even hinting at his future score for Lifeforce. All the album highlights are too numerous to mention, but include "Baby Hal Dies," "Beach Walk," "It's Shearing You're Hearing," and "Arrival at the Vatican." And it's not only a full, lush orchestral sound Mancini uses; there are several quieter reflective moments for solo flute or guitar with string backing. It's great to hear a composition written for television from the days before synthetic drones and looped electronic backbeats and shrinking music budgets took the art down a few notches. Furthermore, the music is allowed to develop; unlike today's television projects with most cues less than a minute in length, there are several lengthy tracks here, averaging two- and-a-half minutes long.

Finally, much has been made on the internet message boards regarding the dulcimer missing from the "Main Title." Having been an adolescent when The Thorn Birds first aired, I can't remember if I even watched it, let alone what the music was like. If there is a great missing cue, that's unfortunate, but my review is based on the material at hand. The dulcimer does show up on the album during "The Thorn Birds Theme" on the first disc, so it's not entirely absent. If you pass over this album because of one missing cue (albeit a unique one) you'll be depriving yourself of two hours of some of Mancini's most heartfelt and beautiful writing.     -- Darren MacDonald

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