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Is it possible for a score to be too subtle?  James Newton Howard has enjoyed a landmark year with the well-earned success of the intelligent thriller The Sixth Sense and now turns his minimalistic, dark, intelligent style to this slow drama.  Whatever the merits of the film, Howard provided one of his most thoughtful scores that reaches greatness quite often with the use of both a choir (the LA Master Chorale) and a simple, moving theme made up of parallel block chords.  Also adding to the atmosphere is a collection of ethereal, transcendental cello solos.  He provides an excellent cultural foil in the form of several ethnic instruments such as the shakuhatchi (don't worry - it's never taken to the blatant extremes of James Horner.)  Unfortunately, this 68-minute album hides these moments of grandeur in a bed of unbearably dull underscore.  It is here that the subtlety becomes too overbearing, bordering on boring.  In fact, the album would have scored considerably higher if it had been released as one of those 30 minute CDs.  Still, I'd rather be complaining about too much than too little - as stated above, Howard includes many moments of absolute genius, such as the 6-minute "Evacuation," which keeps building across its running time into a monstrous choral chant.  The sound quality is a little murky, and the score would have benefitted greatly at several points with a more pristine mix to bring out the intricacies of the chamber-style work.  Overall, however, this is well-worth a listen, if only for about half of its tracks, which demonstrate Howard's impeccable talent.


Track by Track Analysis:

1. Lost in the Fog (2:59)
This opening track personifies elements of the entire score.  After a few seconds of a low synth, Howard subtly introduces hints of the main block chord theme in sustained strings coupled with sounds from several ethnic instruments.  Like several other tracks, there is no true melody line, only a collection of instrumental sound effects.

2. Carl's Fishing Net (2:52)
Another of the main themes finds its introduction in this track.  Performed effectively by Ron Leonard on solo cello, it introduces a snowy ambience that adds a decidedly classical sound to the proceedings.  The second half finds an offshoot of this theme performed by a small string ensemble, followed by a continually-building introduction of the main theme for strings and choir.  In the end, this proves to be one of the album's most entertaining tracks.

3. Moran Finds the Boat (1:12)
Howard continues the soundscape of a snowy frontier with another similarly themed cello melody.

4. Hatsue and Ishmael Kiss (1:42)
The main theme's powerful Gothic chords form the basis of this track, chanted quietly by the LA Master Chorale under a bed of ethnic sound effects.  The minimalistic theme continues to build in dynamics, climaxing in a finale for quiet percussion.

5. Kendo (0:51)
This short cue is made up of a lengthy sustained minor chord in strings and more sound effects.

6. Driftwood Hideaway (1:49)
An evocative soprano solo opens this track, followed by several alternating minor-major chords in the voices.   The final half consists of yet more ethnic instruments, including the introduction of the sakuhatchi.

7. The Strawberry Field (3:54)
Another new theme finds its introduction here - almost a folk-like violin solo somewhat in the style of Mark McKenzie's Durango, although much more subtle and coupled with the typical flutes and recorders.

8. The Worst Kind of News (1:07)
The solo cello returns playing another warm folk melody, which reminds me of parts of Williams' Seven Years in Tibet.

9. Seven Acres (1:53)
The main theme makes a welcome return in its typical string arrangement, although now minus the chorus.  Snowy string structures and ethnic instruments round out the track.  The strings build into what is possibly the loudest part of the album thus far.

10. The German Soldier (3:13)
This introduces striking atonality to the mix: it is comprised of almost a minute of a pulsing solo synth tone, another minute of ethnic instrument sounds, and a section of more gothic choral moments with an atonal cello solo that builds into a modernistic monster.

11. Snowstorm (1:53)
This is a prime example of one of those tracks that could easily have been removed for a more coherent listening experience - it simply reprises two of the solo cello themes from "Carl's Fishing Net" and the piece for string ensemble.  These melodies are still as impressive as ever, but they are repeated verbatim from the previous track.

12. Coast Guard Report (1:12)
See above.  Except this time it simply reprises the material from the opening track, although now coupled with a threatening timpani motif.

13. Typeset (1:39)
This continues the characteristics of the other tracks, now with the main theme beneath yet another instance of ethnic instruments.

14. The Evacuation (6:34)
This is probably the most impressive track of the score, which begins with a timid, arching, and yearning permutation of the main theme.  Over the course of the next six minutes, Howard puts this through numerous variations, each more grandiose than the last.  Finally, a gargantuan choral chant enters, yet the music continues to build, adding the ominous beats of a bass drum and augmentations of solo cello.  The marvelous track, after a massive climax, brings itself full circle with the theme fading into eternity.

15. Courtroom Montage (1:34)
Howard composes this track in the vein of several others - a desolate string arrangement of the main theme augmented by ethnic instruments.

16. Susan Marie Remembers (1:36)
As one would expect, another yearning string melody comprises this track, minimalistically building across the running time.

17. The Defense (1:46)
Another example of this album's useless tracks, this is made up of sound effects from the ethnic instruments and nondescript string notes.

18. Snow Drive (1:29)
Howard forms another highlight of the album with this track, which features a minimalistic, hypnotic solo cello ostinato and a subdued Latin chant from the chorale.

19. Typing (1:41)
This highlights the ethnic elements of the score with a track for a hypnotic ostinato and synths.

20. Tarawa (4:09)
This is another highlight of the score in the vein of Evacuation, although now providing more instant gratification with the chants in exchange for the subtle, intelligent coherence as a musical work found in its predecessor.  It also shows the quietness of the murky mix, making the choir sound far and distant when it should blow the speakers out, although it could have easily been an artistic decision on the part of the composer.  Still, the choral writing here is probably the most exciting of the score.

21. The Battery (0:46)
An airy sakuhatchi background showcases a minimalistic cello solo.

22. Carl and Kazuo Negotiate (1:44)
More of the same atmosphere found elsewhere, with the main theme.

23. Humanity Goes on Trial (4:47)
This is another of the tracks in the vein of Tarawa and Evacuation, and, although it introduces plenty of awe-inspiring choral moments, does not quite reach the level of excellence present in the others.  It also has a large collection of ambient instrumental effects.

24. New Evidence (1:23)
This powerful cue takes the desolate material from the opening track and adds a menacing timpani part and a sinister bass clarinet augmentation that actually conjures up images of Elliot Goldenthal and Alien3.

25. Snow Angels (2:30)
This features another new theme in the style of some of the more folk-like material on the album, along with Howard's characteristic orchestrations.

26. Can I Hold You Now? (4:47)
The rustic folk theme from "Strawberry Fields" makes a welcome return in this track, as well as reprises of several of the other minor motivs.

27. End Titles (6:14)
Howard provides a genuine concert suite of all his themes in his substantially-developed end credits, including the "Strawberry Field" folk theme for solo violins, the main solo cello theme, the entrancing section for string ensemble, and of course the gothic main theme.  In fact, he even reprises several of the more minor motivs, making this a true concert suite.

In the end, those looking for either a richly textured drama score or some effective background music would be wise to look into Snow Falling on Cedars.  Those searching for the latest action blowout or a return to Howard's Waterworld style had best stay away.



 
Snow Falling on Cedars: The Final Score
Music Rating 7/10
Packaging/Liner Notes N/A
Sound Quality 6/10
Length 5/10
Orchestral Performance 7/10


Snow Falling on Cedars is Copyright 1999 by Decca.  Review Copyright 2000 by Andrew Drannon.  All Rights Reserved.