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Comments about the soundtrack for The Village (James Newton Howard)

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Filmtracks Sponsored Donated Review
• Posted by: Greta Brannan
• Date: Sunday, May 3, 2009, at 1:34 p.m.
• IP Address:

(The following donated review by Greta Brannan was moved by Filmtracks to this comment section in May, 2009)

The Village: (James Newton Howard) To mention that the Shyamalan-Howard partnership has been a successful one is an understatement the two have elevated the marriage of music to film to an ever-higher level in each of their films, so much so it leaves one in great anticipation of what project they will tackle next. It is clear these two understand each other at a fundamental level, and that is something quite exciting for film music lovers, as the increasing amount of trust placed in Howard allows for greater freedom to experiment in his interpretations.

In their fourth unique collaboration, we are presented yet another twist in the M. Night spirit, in the form of a score that is subdued, yet sensitive, gorgeously lyrical, yet taut with unease. Though there was disagreement among critics on the film, there was a resounding opinion that Howard's score succeeds beyond our already high expectations. The track record for Howard with Shyamalan's thrillers sets a high bar, with his ethereal score for smash hit The Sixth Sense, an urban, supernatural creation for Unbreakable, and one of the most intricate, impressive efforts of his career with Signs.

The title The Village refers to a small pastoral 19th century village nestled in a clearing surrounded by dense woods. The community lives a simple, seemingly idyllic life, but soon we discover there are rules they must live by, to placate unknown creatures residing in the forest. In spite of this paralyzing fear, the villagers live, love and do their best to cope with the danger of what is lurking just beyond the clearing. Howard's score does not set out to shock and scare, but to continually insinuate an aura of wariness and dread. Whereas this material could have been interpreted with overly dramatic, strident horror music, the director and composer decided two-thirds of the way through the process to change their approach and focus instead on the human drama and the deeper feelings created by the villagers' fear.

The decision to use young violinist Hilary Hahn as the solo voice for this score was an inspired one her vibrant personality and sweet singing tone directly communicates the nature of the young character of Ivy, the village's hope personified. One cannot help but imagine what it must have been like to hear this music read for the first time by Hilary and the orchestra. The performance itself in this score brings the notes on the page to life in a way we don't often get to experience in film.

"Noah Visits" introduces us to Hahn's plaintive violin singing a melody of stark and delicate beauty. Comprised of ascending intervals over a somber minor ostinato, it speaks to the fragile balance between what the village aspires to be, tempered with the sorrow of what it has become. The string-dominated orchestra enters as the solo violin plunges into cascading arpeggios, with the theme of "the village" - a simple but disquieting repeating motif, walking up and down the scale. Howard uses primarily these notes as his base for the score's themes, often using stepwise movement in keeping with traditional folk melodies common of a rural 19th century society.

"What Are You Asking Me?" presents the theme for Ivy's enduring, fearless love, stated simply on solo violin and piano. This theme is achingly beautiful in a personal, intimate way as if the hopes and fears of the village are laid bare before us. The violin begins with a questioning modal statement, and then answers with a singing, deeply nostalgic line around the major tonal center. It is a deceptively simple theme, but carries all the innocent, unashamed beauty of a fledgling love and hearkens back to a bygone era. We're reminded here of Vaughan Williams' The Lark Ascending, the winsome, bittersweet violin rising to float above the orchestra, wrapping us in worried tendrils.

It was a real treat to see in film how the music enhanced the overall experience (as with all of Howard's scores, I find). He has an exceptional talent in creating a tangible atmosphere with sound. In the "The Bad Color", the unsettling opening and off-kilter music box ostinato remind us it is not what is seen, but what is imagined to be lying in wait that terrifies. This cue highlights the unearthly, oppressive fear plaguing the village, with a slew of unearthly sounds and muted piano intoning the chromatic theme and ominous, subdued strings throughout. Hilary's playing is gorgeously interpretive here, as if the violin is speaking to the listener of Ivy's fear.

In "The Forbidden Line" and "Rituals," he uses rattling percussion and chimes, to signal the danger that lies ahead. A sense of dread and wariness sets in, as the cue closes with an eerie "bell-toll". Howard uses this "warning signal" to great effect throughout the film when we are about to be faced with "those-we-don't-speak-of." "The Shed Not To Be Used" closes the score with this "bell-toll," ominously leaving us wondering, what happens to "the village."

There are also startling moments in the score, they give an exciting contrast to its otherwise pastoral nature, and never stray into overblown territory. "It Is Not Real" and "Those We Don't Speak Of" feature a tribal, dance-like romp, with blaring horns, otherworldly synth effects and keening wood flutes. Ominous strings and dramatic drumbeats build to a sudden sharp silence - after which the tone shifts to a tender one. In one of the most exquisitely scored sequences in the film, Howard modulates into a lilting melody heard in angelic choral tones under urgent violin arpeggios. The ethereal line appears briefly in several touching scenes of the film, representing the developing love between Ivy and Lucius. This theme is heard notably on solo piano both when Lucius brings wood to his grieving friend and after he confesses his feelings, and as well when the elders speak of the hope they have for the young pair. However on CD, it's mystifyingly given short shrift, especially given its link to the special relationship that is at the heart of this movie.

"The Gravel Road," with its tremulous violin and delicate piano elaborating on the main theme, flows like a rippling, burbling brook, gradually gaining speed and urgency, and leaves us wondering what's around the bend. "The Vote," reprises "the village" theme on violin, slowly adding low, rich string harmonies and piano under the solo. Low strings and horn give this section movement with a short fugal counterpoint, trading a theme. And then the lilting, tender, Ivy and Lucius theme is heard and repeated as ostinato in the low strings, and built upon with lush string layers and solo horn rising above. Gradually he adds each section of the orchestra, finally weaving his themes into a tapestry of sound. Sublime. Howard brings us full circle with an elegiac extended cadenza for Hahn, her compelling performance here putting you under a spell.

One cannot help but be moved by this deeply affecting writing, showing a distinct sensitivity and maturity in the composer. It's all in the little details that Howard has seen to, from the delicate string counterpoint, to the noble color of a well-placed solo horn, to his dedication to letting the soloist feel the score and carry it with her performance.

As in most of his albums, Howard has resequenced the cues for a more cohesive listening experience, and here it results in an extremely fluent listen. At around 43 minutes, it's not a long release, but it doesn't have to be. The music is enchanting from beginning to end, and the significant cues are all here. The "End Credits" in the film (unfortunately not on CD) contain a suite of the best moments of the score release, and lead off with a rare "Featured Violinist" credit for Hilary Hahn. How deserved this credit is. Hahn seems to have an innate grasp of this score her nuanced interpretation, pure tone, and eloquent, poignant solo cadenzas are masterful.

The Village leaves a lasting impression with its haunting, gorgeous themes and proves to be a favorite of fans. As Shyamalan's films leave you thinking long after leaving the theatre, so does Howard's work for him. This score is distinguished by the fact that it stands on its own so well, listening alone vividly evokes scenes from the film, and the score in film elevates it to a more-involving emotional experience.

The recognition this score received by its Academy nomination is a welcome acknowledgement of Howard's extraordinary talent, and a testament to the consistently high quality of his scores. IMO, it arguably deserved the Oscar. Captivating, unique in its approach, and seamless in film, this score is an absolute joy. One of the best of 2004 - a real achievement for James Newton Howard. ****

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