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by Wojciech Kilar

With The Ninth Gate, Wojciech Kilar makes a long-awaited return to Hollywood film scoring after the critically acclaimed effort for 1996's Portrait of a Lady.  However, Ninth Gate instead hearkens back to Kilar's most famous score, 1992's Dracula.  The Polish composer seems most adept at intelligent horror films, always writing pieces heavy on dark orchestral timbres in hypnotic, minimalistic cues.  A major complaint of Dracula was that it only had one major theme, repeated ad infinitum throughout the running time.  Fortunately, Ninth Gate has almost five unique themes, each used in different ways throughout the album, thus making for a satisfying listen that never becomes dull or uninspired, instead maintaining its dark intellectual charm.  One of the score's most memorable aspects is Kilar's use of operatic singer Sumi Jo, whom I've only heard in one other place - as a soloist in a recording of Mahler's 8th Symphony.  There is obviously no comparison between the two works, but suffice it to say that Jo provides a warm, intellectual voice to Kilar's simplistic and haunting wordless vocals.  Ninth Gate is performed by Silva's favorite group, the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus.  Whereas they sometimes flub up the difficult scores of the standard repertoire, they seem perfectly comfortable with this, which has its fair share of challenging moments.  Sound quality is clear and pristine, and the length, at an hour, is perfect - neither too short nor too long.  The liner notes are interesting - they are comprised of drawings of the nine gates of the film's title, each with an explanation.  Fans of Kilar will definitely want to pick this one up, as will anyone else looking for a dark, hypnotic, melodic thriller score.

Track by Track Analysis:

1. Vocalise - Theme from The Ninth Gate (3:58)
This opening track is arguably the main highlight of the album, a concert arrangement of Kilar's main theme, which interestingly never appears anywhere else in the score except for the vocalise's reprise.  As soon as the dark major/minor alternating ostinato of the opening, scored for piano and harpsichord, came on, I knew I was listening to a new favorite.  Then, Sumi Jo enters with the main melody line, composed in an Aeolian mode, the predecessor of A minor.  Only the opening of the melody foreshadows the minimalism ahead in the score - a continually alternating E/F series.  The rest of the melody features lilting movements around the mode, as well as a few soaring vocal intervals that give the track the feeling of a haunting, forlorn siren's song.  Kilar has undoubtedly composed a masterpiece in The Ninth Gate's Vocalise.

2. Opening Titles (3:35)
Dark (I think I'll be saying that word a lot in this review) string stylings open this track, establishing a hypnotic ostinato, over which the true main theme of the score eventually enters in cellos.  This is quite different from the Vocalise, more like John Barry's Black Hole main title or Raise the Titanic.  Still, it greatly adds to the lush stylings and serves as an interesting companion piece to the Vocalise.

3. Corso (3:28)
This features some of the most unexpected music of the album with the introduction of Corso's theme.  Instead of the expected continuation of the dark strings, Kilar introduces almost a comical ostinato in low harpsichord with an off-kilter, yet attractive rhythm.  The theme appears as almost a jazzy trumpet solo, and later in a clarinet version.  The final minute returns to the ominous main title theme in another arrangement for low strings, later joined by the ostinato.

4. Bernie is Dead (4:32)
Probably the most unnerving material heard thus far: after a few seconds of almost dissonant strings, everything suddenly dies down into a single pulsing double bass pizzicatto note.  Soon, a passionless clarinet figure enters, creating a hypnotic minimalistic atmosphere.  It gets more evil with trills, later adds strings, and finally a dissonant piano idea.  All of this continues to build and accelerate, turning into a modernistic monster.  Kilar lightens the tension, however, with a return to Corso's mischievous ostinato in woodwinds.

5. Liana (3:03)
You guessed it - more minimalism!  This cue features some great subtlety, with minute chord changes amongst the shimmering orchestration of strings, piano, and celeste.  Be careful, though - it could drive you insane.

6. Plane to Spain (Bolero) (4:48)
Kilar applies his minimalism techniques to this fun bolero track, which takes Corso's jazzy trumpet theme and puts it against a pulsing string ostinato.  You're not going to believe this - in the second half there is actually a *gasp* tempo change!  (Me? Sarcastic? Never!)

7. The Motorbike (1:19)
This is easily the most dissonant track on the album, beginning with bitonal piano ostinati, later joined by shrieking brass and Sumi Jo singing a variant of the Vocalise.

8. Missing Book/Stalking Corso (4:41)
After a preliminary return to the main titles theme, Corso's theme and ostinato takes over in several interesting variations, including a version of the ostinato for atonal piano.  "Stalking Corso" applies Kilar's minimalism to an action scene, scored for low piano ostinatos, one of the better moments of the album.  In the final minute, the sound that will come to define the finale cues enters - pulsing scherzo timpani ostinati under a bed of exciting orchestral effects.

9. Blood on His Face (1:13)
A sensitive piano ostinato opens this track, later joined by Sumi Jo.

10. Chateau Saint Martin (4:06)
The main aspect of this cue is a return to the intelligent subtleties that characterized "Liana," scored for the same shimmering ensemble.

11. Liana's Death (2:39)
Kilar now builds upon his new action sound, beginning with hints of piano and violin which soon escalate into a harrowing action cue using the material from track 8, mutating Corso's theme into a terrifying cadence.

12. "Boo!"/The Chase (4:29)
This could be called a sequel to the previous track with the pulsing timpani (which sounds almost like tribal drums now) and shrieking woodwind glissandi.  A triplet ostinato in the strings soon takes over, and Kilar transfers the glissandi, drums, and brass licks to this new format.  The final section is subtle, yet terrifying with a series of ominous piano chords repeated ad infinitum.

13. Balkan's Death (3:52)
Kilar combines his dark string stylings with outbursts of the exciting action material.  A highlight of the score comes next as the composer moves Corso's theme to an apocalyptic choral movement with Sumi Jo ringing out above it all in an increasingly malignant tone - simply awesome.

14. The Ninth Gate (1:14)
Sumi Jo opens this track with an entrancing call, soon overtaken by dissonance in the brass and harp arpeggios.  A dense string arrangement of the credits theme rounds out the track.

15. Corso and the Girl (3:21)
The soprano returns for this final underscore track with another hypnotic, beckoning song that actually shuns minimalism and instead brings the album to a satisfying resolution with mystic strings and harpsichord.  The second section, however, plunges us back into dissonance with a return to the Goldsmithian bitonality in strings and piano, again with Sumi Jo's haunting voice.  The apocalyptic choir reenters with Corso's ostinato, with Jo carrying it to a harrowing finale.

16. Vocalise - Theme from The Ninth Gate (reprise) (3:56)
Kilar ends this satisfying album with a reprise of Sumi Jo's showpiece.

In summation, if you search for an interesting minimalism album with a twinge of terror and moving strings, give The Ninth Gate a try.  Surprisingly, there are only a few tracks that might drive you insane due to repetitiveness.


The Ninth Gate: The Final Score
Music Rating 8/10
Packaging/Liner Notes 7/10
Sound Quality 9/10
Length 8/10
Orchestral Performance 9/10

The Ninth Gate is Copyright 1999 by Silva Screen.  Review Copyright 2000 by Andrew Drannon.  All Rights Reserved.