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THE CLAIM – Michael Nyman

December 29, 2000 Leave a comment Go to comments

theclaimOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

I’m not really given to making lofty proclamations here, but this is one guaranteed to ruffle a few feathers: The Claim is Michael Nyman’s best score to date. I’m not talking best as in the complexity of the music, or the craftsmanship: rather, The Claim is Nyman’s first film score in the sense that it overflows with emotion. It’s lush, it sweeps, and it features one of the most attractive central themes the enigmatic Englishman has ever written. Michael Nyman writing for a big-screen adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge; that I can believe. Michael Nyman writing for an epic Western set at the height of the gold rush; well, that’s another proposition entirely.

I’ve always been of the opinion that every composer should do at least one cowboy movie at some point in their career, just to see how they approach it. This is Nyman’s, and it’s a hum-dinger. Set at the time of the Gold Rush in 1849, The Claim is directed by Michael Winterbottom (Jude, Wonderland) and stars Scottish character actor Peter Mullan in the lead role as Daniel Dillon, a prospector in the snowy mountains of the Sierra Nevada who struck it rich and is living the life of a wealthy man in the town of Kingdom Come. However, Dillon’s peaceful idyll is shattered by the arrival of surveyor Wes Bentley, who tries to wrestle control of the town from Dillon’s grasp on behalf of the railroad company. Meanwhile, mother and daughter Nastassja Kinski and Sarah Polley also arrive in Kingdom Come, bringing with them a dark secret from Dillon’s past…

Scores like The Piano, Gattaca, and his various works for director Peter Greenaway are popular with both film score fans and the classical set, the latter seemingly regarding Nyman’s work in this arena as the acceptable face of commercial film music. Personally, I have always considered Nyman’s work to be beautiful, but sterile. Clinically rendered, perfectly written, but lacking in dramatic and emotional potency. The balance was redressed somewhat with Nyman’s last Winterbottom film, Wonderland, and has finally come to fruition here in a score which virtually overflows with beautiful melodies and emotional power.

The things that set The Claim apart from Nyman’s other acclaimed works are twofold. Firstly, he uses a hauntingly beautiful (but uncredited) voice within his underscore, making especially worthwhile remarks in several cues. The opening ‘The Exchange’, and subsequent cues such as ‘The First Encounter’ and ‘The Explanation’ build upon the score’s recurring central theme, a hopeful melody with the familiar circular touch of a minimalist, but which is greatly more affecting than anything he has written since the days of The Piano. Secondly, the music is of a much greater scope and scale than previously, and makes wonderful use of an increased brass and percussion element to add depth and volume to the familiar string section of Alexander Balanescu and the Michael Nyman Orchestra.

With cue titles like ‘The Explosion’, ‘The Fiery House’ and ‘The Shoot Out’, one might be forgiven for thinking that Nyman might have finally relented and composed some action music. In fact, these cues are notable for their increased tempo and urgency, with ‘The Fiery House’ making some bombastic statements via a series of brass and piano ostinatos, while ‘The Shoot Out’ is the only track which descends into anything approaching dissonance, and which features a superb solo trumpet performance. However, ‘The Train’ does see Nyman engaging in some wry mickey-mousing of the on-screen action, allowing his basses to mimic the constant throb of a stream engine running over tracks. Throughout his career, though, Nyman has always been a composer strictly from the “themes and variations” school of writing, and there’s very little of this new-fangled musical chaos on display.

Nyman’s romantic sensibilities are brought to the fore with a new theme for soft strings in ‘The Betrothal’, which is subsequently recapitulated with more gusto in the ebullient ‘The Firework Display’ and the moving ‘The Snowy Death’, with its noble snare drum undercurrent. Things reach their zenith in the epic, 9-minute ‘The Burning’, a magnificent cue which weaves each of the different orchestral and thematic elements of the score into a superb whole, encompassing the entire complement of performers, the stunning vocalist, and with a heartbreaking emotional punch that is impossible to ignore. I have heard over a dozen Michael Nyman scores during my time, and listening this cue was the first instance of him almost moving me to tears.

Whether The Claim emulates The Piano and becomes a successful crossover hit in the classical market remains to be seen. Personally, I don’t think it will, simply because it is too emotionally wrought, and too “manipulative” for the classical crowd. However, it is this very same thing which should make it one of Nyman’s more popular works among film scores. Admirers of The Piano, Gattaca, The End of the Affair, and especially Wonderland have a treat in store here.

Rating: ****½

Track Listing:

  • The Exchange (2:38)
  • The First Encounter (3:45)
  • The Hut (1:16)
  • The Explosion (1:35)
  • The Recollection (1:35)
  • The Fiery House (4:19)
  • The Betrothal (1:55)
  • The Firework Display (3:23)
  • The Train (2:34)
  • The Shoot Out (5:07)
  • The Death of Elena (1:34)
  • The Explanation (2:01)
  • The Burning (9:19)
  • The Snowy Death (4:51)
  • The Closing (4:03)

Running Time: 50 minutes 05 seconds

Virgin CDVE-935 (2000)

Music composed and conducted by Michael Nyman. Performed by The Michael Nyman Orchestra. Orchestrations by Michael Nyman and Gary Carpenter. Recorded and mixed by Austin Ince. Edited by Robert Worby. Album produced by Michael Nyman.

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