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Night After Night

Say what you will about the films of M. Night Shyamalan, I don’t think there’s any doubt that the eight of them scored by James Newton Howard are made so much better thanks to his contribution. The composer has built up numerous directorial relationships over his long career and enjoys ongoing collaborations with many of them – I think it’s the one with Shyamalan that has inspired him the most, resulting in the very best of him, and it’s a great shame that it appears (for now at least) to have ended.

Those eight scores are drastically rearranged for Howard’s first album in a new deal with Sony Classical, Night After Night, celebrating his music for the director. The composer hasn’t done anything like this before – even when he did a concert tour a few years ago, the pieces performed were generally the same arrangements as we heard in the film. Here he has crafted new, piano-centric arrangements (still for full orchestra) and the results are very nice indeed, bolstered by the mesmerising playing of Jean-Yves Thibaudet.

James Newton Howard

Don’t expect to hear any of the big action cues that are present in many of the scores – understandably Howard concentrates instead on more emotional music. The first suite is from perhaps the composer’s single greatest work – Signs. That brilliant three-note motif is everywhere, so fluid in the way he uses it – the flute giving a slightly spooky sense, the piano a sort of reassuringly domestic feel, the “Hand of Fate” climax absolutely beautiful.

The Village is another beauty – Hilary Hahn returns to perform the solo violin part as she did on the original soundtrack. The duet between her and Thibaudet in the opening part, “Morning”, is just sublime. I know the Vaughan Williams influence is very apparent, but Howard makes it his own. The tension of the middle section, “Noah Visits”, which includes a virtuoso passage for piano, is realised beautifully itself and also serves to heighten the emotional impact of the two pieces which sandwich it.

The film that started the relationship – and which remains the director’s most highly-regarded – was of course The Sixth Sense. I think the composer has really bolstered the score for the three pieces here – “Lonely Boy”, “Ghost in the House” and “Acceptance”. The second in particular really takes the score’s wonderful central motif and makes it shine as a great theme on its own terms.

It has its fans but personally I thought Lady in the Water was as ludicrous a film as I’ve ever seen and I could never quite believe how it inspired Howard to write as spectacular score as he did. The four-part suite here (with choir added for good measure) perhaps doesn’t quite reach the heights of the original soundtrack but it still packs quite a punch, from the beautiful but gentle fantasy of the opening “Prologue” through the spectacular emergence of the piano like a fast current running through a river in “Charades”, the gentler, more pastoral “Story” and finally the graceful, lullaby-like conclusion, “Return to the Blue World”.

Unbreakable is represented by two pieces – the melancholic “Survivor” is very moving, the piano played with such emotion; then comes the stirring “Destiny”. It’s a little surprising that the brilliant The Last Airbender only gets a single track here, but what a track it is, the brilliant “Flow Like Water” undoubtedly one of the composer’s very best. In this arrangement it loses some of its grand theatrics, deconstructed down to basics, but I still find it to be wonderfully powerful. As a bonus track at the end of the album, it is deconstructed even further, to just a solo piano arrangement, which is also impressive.

The three-part suite from The Happening is rearranged to make is sound almost like a sister score to Signs, with the spooky air coming this time from cellist Maya Beiser. There is a fair bit of tension evident through the suite – a hint of Bernard Herrmann in the ghostly solos written for Beiser. It’s not as melodically striking as most of the rest but that’s countered by really interesting textures. Finally, Howard extends After Earth – not, perhaps, one of his more interesting scores for the director – into something really quite wonderful, beginning with a piano melody full of longing before developing a rousing motif that builds and builds to a great conclusion.

I love albums like this, with film music rearranged in sometimes very different ways from the original performances, the composer free of any restrictions imposed by the film yet able to benefit from whatever it was that inspired the music in the first place. Some may not like the homogeneity of sound – what were originally really quite different-sounding scores are made to sound much more similar to each other here – but I think that makes it a really strong album. Throughout it is full of class – the arrangements, the performances, and most importantly the music itself. Howard is one of the finest film composers of his generation and his music shines here – I hope there are many more albums like this to come from him.

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  1. Marco Ludema (Reply) on Wednesday 25 October, 2023 at 19:28

    A shame, indeed, that said partnership has dissolved. Unbreakable is one of my favorite superhero scores, and I’d love to hear more of that. I did really like West Thordson’s on Shyamalan’s Split and Glass, though.

  2. Ian Simpson (Reply) on Thursday 26 October, 2023 at 15:20

    Signs has become one of my favourite film scores, it’s one of the most replayed albums in my collection, so it’s great to find a release with more of the same sort of style.

    I note that they’re not straight repeats of what’s available in the individual scores. Naturally there is overlap but it helps to make the release fresh as well. For example “The Cornfield” has some rather different music to “In the Cornfield” in the Signs release, and the dissonant chords that he uses early on remind me of some of Thomas Newman’s scores, e.g. he uses similar chords in WALL-E and Road to Perdition. “Hand of Fate” also has similarities with some of Thomas Newman’s showier music but that versatile three note motif makes it clear that we’re still in Signs territory. (As I’m a big fan of Thomas Newman’s stuff, this is a compliment).

    I find a lot of the subsequent tracks comparably enjoyable too. It’s hard to pick out individual highlights as most of the tracks have their strong points. I’ve struggled to get into James Newton Howard’s film scores with the exceptions of Signs and Maleficent, and didn’t know that he’d written this much other music that I can get into – clearly I’ve been looking at the wrong scores when checking out his music.