Review by Brad Green:
A couple of weeks ago I reviewed Tan Dun’s meshing of Occidental and Oriental styles on the Hero soundtrack. Bringing together musical compass points is Dun’s trademark, and even though a Samurai Epic hardly invites a hybrid, the composer made good mileage out of the universal humanity to be found in fusion. Here we have another East meets West exploration, and the contrast in both narrative and music couldn’t be more striking.
In this instance, the film practically demanded a stylistic amalgam. Elizabeth Drake says that as soon as she read the screenplay she realised that “this was a gift to the composer… there was the opportunity for the inter-weaving and layering of elements of Japanese culture… with western orchestral instruments, tonality and harmonic composition”.
The story involves a local geologist (Toni Collette) playing host to a Japanese businessman, and then becoming stranded with him in the remote regions of the Pilbara. Drake’s score tackles the theme of cultural displacement by evoking the outback with minimalist timbres and integrating them with Japanese modalities and instrumentation. Central to the score is the Okinawan folk song Chinsagu No Hana. Traditionally sung by a trio, the solo performance here by Shelley Scown, a Western vocalist well schooled in Eastern technique, sits well with sparse arrangements. It is a sweet and simple melody, readily accessible to Western ears, and manifests the idea of Japanese personality dislocated from its usual comfort zone and surrounded by the vibrating haze of the desert.
One of the scores strengths is that it never sounds contrived. In the opening titles cue a Shakuhachi blends with an ancient aboriginal melody, setting up from the start a dialogue of cultural influences--the separate strands of the one conversation. Drake uses ostinato to great effect in the extensive cues built around the folk melody. A plinking shamisen, sometimes complemented by koto, plays a major key phrase over and over as a small ensemble of strings vary the harmony, unfolding their progressions slowly with long, graceful voice leading. In other cues an ascending four note string phrase, a minor tonality in this case, repeats inexorably, measuring out the beat of passing time. This is where the cultural lines blur, where an Eastern sense of ritual washes into the haze of a vast and timeless landscape.
The CD also contains a couple of bonus tracks, one a more elaborate orchestration of the cue At The Waterhole, which is built around the string ostinato and used in the American version of the film; and the other a rather dark, psychologically penetrative cue played by the string ensemble, which didn’t make it to the screen. The official movie trailer is also included, providing not only promotion for the film but contextual imagery for anyone who hasn’t seen it.
While hardly ear-grabbing in a dramatic sense, Drake’s score forms a soundscape that successfully embodies and combines the delicate sensibility of a Japanese tea party with the shimmering ambience of the Australian outback. There are many rewards here for the patient listener.
Published October 9, 2003