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SNOW FALLING ON CEDARS
Arresting dramatic score veers from bleak desolation to stirring examination of humanity
A review by JAMES SOUTHALL
Music composed by
JAMES NEWTON HOWARD
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Album running time
Album cover copyright (c) 1999 Universal Pictures; review copyright (c) 2007 James Southall
A week, Harold Wilson once famously observed, is a long time in politics. I now - probably not-so-famously - observe that a decade is virtually eternity in film music appreciation. It gives time for a polar shift in appreciation of a film score, reflecting the growing maturity and experience of the listener. Back in 1999, I was pretty chuffed with my wittily dismissive tagline "Boredom falling on Southall" for my review of James Newton Howard's Snow Falling on Cedars; here in 2007, I am left in bewilderment as to the folly of youth, the constant ability of the shifting sands of time to frame the same thing in an entirely different light... and to wonder, was I ever that young?
Snow Falling on Cedars is, in this writer's opinion, the finest American novel of its generation, an exceptional examination of racial attitudes, the ability of external events to shape ordinarily rational people into pig-headed bigots. Set in post-war Washington state, it sees a Japanese-born fisherman falsely accused of murder, and looks at the community's reaction to him and his fellow immigrants. Unfortunately, Scott Hicks's muddled film captures none of the novel's intricacy or beauty.
Fortunately, James Newton Howard's wonderful music captures it brilliantly. If ever a film score album could be summed up by the album cover, it's this one - the vivid beauty shining through a monochromatic palette, the dominance of clean, sterilising white, the desolate landscape framed within innocent characters' faces. Howard's music - with a much-discussed and striking resemblance to Arvo Part, used by Hicks throughout the temp-track - contains all of these ingredients, in a striking and affecting dramatic portrait of the novel.
The orchestration is key here: strings dominate, with solo cello used for colour, and shakuhachi added for flavour, with much of the dramatic impetus being provided by percussion and choir. Howard's capturing of the colour white is at the heart of everything - sometimes deep and rich, sometimes reflective and indeed deceptive, sometimes subtle and poignant, others striking and all-enveloping. He extracts a wealth of texture and, ironically, colour from this approach - there's an extremely consistent sound, but even over 67 minutes it does not lose its power because the composer does so much within the confines of his relatively constrained approach.
There are two main themes here, each very fine; but one piece in particular stand out. "The Evacuation" is the score's longest piece - and the one that owes the biggest debt of gratitude to Part - but in its soaring approach to tragedy, it is profoundly moving. Later, much of the same material is reprised in "Tarawa", and a choral chant appears from nowhere to give the score its most assertive and powerful moment. While sometimes such pieces simply come over as being melodramatic and insincere, here it feels as if everything has been building to this grand statement.
James Newton Howard has never written a finer score than Snow Falling on Cedars - it is intelligent, dramatic, beautifully-constructed. There are elements it shares with his best work for M. Night Shyamalan, but broadly this stands alone in his lengthy filmography; hopefully someday he will find another opportunity for writing such a vibrant, potent score.