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Artwork copyright (c) 2005 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. and DreamWorks LLC; review copyright (c) 2005 James Southall



Williams hits top form with sensational, colourful score


Arthur Golden's exquisite novel Memoirs of a Geisha always seemed ripe for a film adaptation, and it was no surprise when it was announced that Steven Spielberg had acquired the rights and was to direct it.  Years passed, and Spielberg projects came and went, before finally the project was picked up by Rob Marshall, director of Chicago.  Naturally, John Williams expected to score it for Spielberg, and such was his love for the novel that he actively pursued the assignment, probably the first time he's done that in a good many years, even foregoing the fourth Harry Potter film for the chance to score this in the process.  The novel tells of a Japanese woman's journey from innocent early childhood in a tiny fishing village through to becoming one of Kyoto's most famous geisha; it is poignant, funny and very beautiful.  

I haven't yet seen the film, but was a little alarmed at Marshall's involvement (he made Chicago with flair, but this requires an utterly different approach); but it certainly looks the part, with the album packing featuring some stunningly beautiful photographs from the film, and indeed the album cover being one of the most enticing I can remember.  Not only does it look the part, it sounds it too, because Williams has fashioned one of his most exquisite scores in years.  The veteran composer is still at the very top of his profession, these days bringing a touch of elegance and class to films that other composers just aren't able to match.  It's no wonder he's still so highly-sought, and still so popular; no other Hollywood composer can touch him.

Much has been made of the "casting" of two of the world's most famous musicians, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and violinist Itzhak Perlman (both of whom have worked with Williams in the past); and much though I'm sure their solo parts could have been played by any of the talented musicians in the Hollywood orchestra playing the score, their peerless presence adds another layer of beauty to proceedings.  The two have their own solos, sometimes one plays in counterpoint to the other, sometimes they play, weaving around one another; frequently, additional colour is added by shakuhachi, with the solos written intelligently to dance around the fabric of the larger orchestral group.

Williams has written more instantly-identifiable themes than any other film composer, living or dead, but ironically many of his recent scores, even while being outstandingly good, haven't featured them to nearly the same extent.  Memoirs of a Geisha contains several noteworthy themes; while people aren't likely to come away from watching the film humming them, repeated listens to this album sees them placed firmly in the mind, from where they are reluctant to disappear.  The first, and the film's main theme, is "Sayuri's Theme", an alluring piece dominated by Ma's playing; it captures all of the tragedy and beauty of the main character, with Williams showing considerable skill in doing so (she is a singularly complex character, and to capture her conflicting nature would not have been easy).  "Going to School" offers the more playful side of the character, and is a subtle but delightful vignette.  Finally, "The Chairman's Waltz" is a dignified and charming theme, this time offering Perlman the spotlight.

Williams doesn't just present and then re-present his themes, however; he builds on them, uses fragments here and there, offers the occasional standalone piece.  The Japanese-flavoured "Brush on Silk", slightly edgy "Dr Crab's Prize", particularly gentle, but dramatic "Destiny's Path", deeply dark "The Fire Scene and the Coming of War", the anguished "As the Water..." - these show off a composer who has evidently spent a long time considering the score, and treating it as a journey from one place to another.  Two pieces stand out as being particularly noteworthy.  "Becoming a Geisha" is a stunning set of variations on Sayuri's Theme, showing Williams at his very best; and "Confluence" begins with a wistful flute solo before the orchestra really swells for the first and last time in the score, sending a shiver down the spine.

Memoirs of a Geisha continues a fine run of scores by Williams, with the action-packed War of the Worlds and exceptional Revenge of the Sith already behind him this year alone (and Munich still to come), but this one is something special indeed, surely destined to lie alongside the composer's most brilliant works.  It's a touching, emotional, very powerful work and is easily the best Hollywood film score of the year. 

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  1. Sayuri's Theme (1:31)
  2. The Journey to the Hanamachi (4:06)
  3. Going to School (2:42)
  4. Brush on Silk (2:31)
  5. Chiyo's Prayer (3:36)
  6. Becoming a Geisha (4:52)
  7. Finding Satsu (3:44)
  8. The Chairman's Waltz (2:39)
  9. The Rooftops of the Hanamachi (3:49)
  10. The Garden Meeting (2:44)
  11. Dr Crab's Prize (2:18)
  12. Destiny's Path (3:20)
  13. A New Name... A New Life (3:33)
  14. The Fire Scene and the Coming of War (6:48)
  15. As the Water... (2:01)
  16. Confluence (3:42)
  17. A Dream Discarded (2:00)
  18. Sayuri's Theme / End Credits (5:06)