Guest Post by Frank Lehman: Scoring the Decade

December 24, 2009 at 12:20 pm 1 comment

I’ve been thinking about the past decade in film scoring for a couple of days now. Trends we’ve seen, giants we’ve lost (2004 claimed three – Goldsmith, Raksin, Bernstein – in two months). The score I keep coming back to is John Williams’s for the dystopian psychodrama/bedtime story A.I.:Artificial Intelligence (2001). By no means a flawless film or score, it still sticks out to me as the best in from this lion’s output (above the fine Harry Potter III) and edges out some of other the scoring achievements since 2000 (which for me includes Howard’s Signs, Shore’s LOTR, Yared’s Troy, Shire’s Zodiac, and Greenwood’s seemingly sui generis There Will Be Blood). Critics didn’t seem to know what to make of A.I.‘s structure, much less tone, with its apparent thrashings from dismal “Kubrickean” sterility and gooey “Speilbergian” sentiment. A closer watching, together with some background on its production, reveals a tighter but more obscure movie, with simple mappings like Spielberg=>schmaltz / Kubrick =>nihilistic left quite unsettled. Williams’s score too swings widely, but never violently, alternating between these two opposed aesthetics. But, in a feat I feel few other composers could pull off, it not only manages to cohere, but move deeply as well.

A.I. is Williams’s most overtly “modern”[1] score of the 2000’s, exploring sounds not heard since Close Encounters (1977), with a generous helping of minimalism and post-‘45 non-serial atonality.[2] Yet for all the references – which are easy enough to discern, from Reich and Ligeti especially – most sound fresh and assured. Consider the (unreleased) cue “The Blue Fairy” (begins ~8:10, continues into next video) which begins in Ligeti Lux Aeterna land, hazy choral clusters and all. It then dissolves seamlessly into a more uniquely Williamsesque sound – still cluster-based, but full of cinematic touches, whispers of melodies, a tentative coalescing about a F-mixolydian-b6 collection. Above all, the music is quiet – for all its voices, breathless and suspended. The musical development neither mirrors the action obviously (in Spielbergian fashion), nor counterpoints it snidely (in Kubrickean fashion). Around the moment that the mixolyidan cushion is laid out, the protagonist David accidentally shatters the maddona/Fairy at whose foot he has been supplicating for the past two millennia. The musical accent is ambiguous, but not jarring – there is, as with all things from the point of view of this perpetual child [David the mecha/Spielberg/Williams], something wondrous here as well as awful.

Elsewhere, A.I.’s score is more prominent, but it is underscore like “Blue Fairy” that I believe crucially contributes to its aesthetic cohesiveness. For in the underscore William’s tonal and atonal instincts blend so smoothly, able to sculpt a scene in a way neither slavish nor uninteresting. The final reels boast most of the foreground scoring, where Spielberg relinquishes narrative and dialogue to privilige sound and image directly. The fly-through of submerged Manhattan (cue begins around 5:00) is surely the most remarkable in Williams’s collection of aerial-escapades. Over a mallet-driven ostinato of gyrating meters, he builds to a coruscating climax in c#-minor, with camera sweeping over huge art deco lions to the sounds of 7/8 arpeggios. With sonic architecture like this, the minimalist impulse is arguably channeled into drama more successfully here than Glass himself achieves in his numerous scores.[3] Again, the affect is not blatant – timbrally we are in wonderland, but the lack of accustomed Williams harmonic fanfare oddly desaturates it; it’s the closest to musical Futurism, keen but inhumane, I can locate in Hollywood scoring of the past 35 years.

Williams’s lyrical talent is also on full display. Motifs suggested during the first reels are developed as long-breathed melodies in the film’s denouement. One of the best, a piano melody, doesn’t even make the cut of the soundtrack. All are melancholy, adhering to what Williams interpreted as the overwhelming outlook of the film – sadness. A cantilena accompanies the final, weird reunion between resurrected David and virtual/cloned/one-day-to-live mother – “For Always” as the unnecessary Josh Groban cover titles it. Again, the flavor of minimalism enriches but does not dominate (hear the repeated ^3-^5 piano figure, a motivic link with the snarling “Abandoned in the Woods” cue and its predecessors in the first reel). The vocalise, as it appears in film, is generously treacle—perhaps egregiously, but precise in its effect – as Speilberg puts it “[Williams] can take a tear that’s just forming in your eye and he can cause it to drip.”  Even more poignant is the exquisite melody that accompanies David’s underwater prayer (around 2:14) – after which the movie could have easily ended, possibly to the permanent emotional scarring of many an audience member.

And there’s the wordless choral counterpoint for the flying pan over ice-incrusted New York (follows prayer scene above). It surely hosts among the film’s most unintentionally striking image – released months before 9/11, A.I. shows the Twin Towers frozen above a field of ice, dead but standing. The music, a wordless requiem for a monumental but unshown human tragedy, resonates oddly after this decade.

There is much more to discover in this score, of course. If you can get your hands on the Academy Award Promotional 2-disc version, you will have a more representative picture of the movie’s full sound palette, compared to the imperfect commercial release.


[1] There is also, it should be noted, electronica here as well, plus more standard fare Williams action scoring for the “Moon” sequence.

[2] And, not to be discounted, Williams’s own decidedly less tuneful concert style (cf Cello Concerto, Soundings)

[3] Earlier, with the entrance into Rouge City, Williams’s quotation from Rosenkavalier  is similarly seamlessly knit into minimalist texture (hear the churning Db pedal under the Eb theme!). Williams chose this, of all works, from an alleged (but non-specific) desire left by Kubrick before he died that Richard Strauss be heard in A.I.. One imagines how different Kubrick’s ouvre would have been if his penchant for classical music were integrated, rather than conspicuously unchanged, in his soundtracks.

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1 Comment

  • 1. hanseltansw  |  December 27, 2009 at 12:10 pm

    Thanks for the post! I’ve been a great musical fan of Williams’ for years, defending him from the prudishness of many a high-art upturned nose. The soundtrack from “AI” really blew me away for its ingenuity – just enough “Williams” to sound Williams, but some interesting uncharted tonal territory as well. Very clever. It’s great to see someone paying hommage to this beautiful score. One grip though – I couldn’t help grimmacing when the electric guitar kicked in for “Moon rising”; perhaps Williams should stay away from bass beats and rocker-chic material…


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