Home > Reviews > LIFE AS A HOUSE – Mark Isham

LIFE AS A HOUSE – Mark Isham

October 26, 2001 Leave a comment Go to comments

lifeasahouseOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

Despite his well-founded reputation as an accomplished jazzer, Mark Isham has shown on several occasions a real aptitude for writing quiet, emotional music that tugs at the heartstrings. His latest score, for the moving drama Life as a House, is one of these, and fits in well with earlier works such as Nell, October Sky and Fly Away Home, The film, directed by Irwin Winkler, stars Kevin Kline as George, a man for whom life is not going well: he has split from his wife Robin (Kristin Scott-Thomas), is estranged from his wayward son Sam (Hayden Christensen), has lost his job, and is diagnosed terminal cancer and given four months to live. Feeling a need to put his life and affairs in order before he shuffles off the mortal coil, George asks Sam to help him as he embarks on an ambitious project to knock down and re-build his house on the coast, in the hope that, through their shared experiences, father and will reconcile their differences before he passes away. However, Sam does not relish the prospect of working hard on a house with a father he has no interest in, when he could be drinking and partying with his buddies… that is, until mom starts to reappear on the scene, and he begins a tentative relationship with Alyssa (Jena Malone), the pretty girl-next-door.

It is often the case today that, had a less talented composer than Isham been asked to score the film, it would have been lumbered with blatantly manipulative music which beat the audience over the head with shouts of “cry now!” at any given moment. It is testament to Isham’s skill that Life as a House never does that – it is more mature than that, and elicits an emotional response by gently raising the stakes through the course of the album rather than going for broke from the first bar. Isham’s intelligence, and skill with a musical palette, are what make this score as good as it is.  In certain parts of Life As a House, Isham actually does a very passable Thomas Newman impression, capturing perfectly the idiosyncrasies of the composer of American Beauty and Erin Brockovich. Several of cues – notably the first and second tracks ‘If I Could Kiss You’ and ‘Round Robin’, and the subsequent ‘Sunscreen and Bicycles’- recapture the modern energy of such Newman’s scores, mixing an electronic pulse with piano riffs and a set of marimba-style percussions that tick along with a great sense of vibrant energy. However, this upbeat, poppy introduction to the score is something of a misnomer: as the album progresses, and the emotional content of the movie increases, Isham abandons his synthesisers and goes all out for restrained orchestral beauty.

Richard Ruttenberg’s light, expressive solo piano performances form the centrepiece of several cues, notably ‘Tear It Down’ and the introspective ‘I’m Happy Today’ and ‘A Promise’, while other cues are built around solid instrumentals performed by musicians from the Hollywood Studio Symphony, from the oboes which give way to stirring strings in ‘Love is Not Enough’, to the dancing violins in the short but infectious tracks ‘A Leap’ and ‘Building a Family’, which in parts are reminiscent of the pseudo-minimalist scores of Michael Nyman.

Theme-wise, Life as a House is not that memorable, in that none of the melodic material remains with you after the score has finished. However, this is probably the only negative aspect of the score as a whole. Isham instead relies on a series of major key crescendos towards the end of the score to push all the right emotional buttons. The tenth cue, ‘Leap of Faith’, simply soars, emerging from another beautiful piano solo into a soul-stirring cymbal-led presentation of the main melody just past the two-minute mark, while the extended finale in ‘I’ll Take This One’ and ‘I Built Myself a Life’ ranks amongst some of the most moving music Isham has yet written.

It’s frustrating to know that Mark Isham, given the right kind of project, is capable of creating some of the most gorgeous, expressive scores around in film music today, but that recently he has, with a couple of notable exceptions, been lumbered with writing scores for films like Varsity Blues, Save the Last Dance and Hardball, where his contributions are overlooked in favour of pop albums. Life as a House perfectly illustrates the more tender side of Isham, and comes highly recommended to those who appreciate the subtler side of his music.

Rating: ****

Track Listing:

  • If I Could Kiss You (3:39)
  • Round Robin (2:56)
  • Tear It Down (4:04)
  • Love is Not Enough (3:04)
  • I’m Happy Today (3:12)
  • A Leap (1:04)
  • Sunscreen and Bicycles (2:57)
  • A Promise (3:31)
  • Build This House With Me (2:15)
  • Leap of Faith (3:16)
  • Building a Family (1:56)
  • I’ll Take This One (4:05)
  • I Built Myself a Life (5:47)

Running Time: 41 minutes 45 seconds

Varése Sarabande 302 066 297-2 (2001)

Music composed by Mark Isham. Conducted by Ken Kugler. Orchestrations by Ken Kugler. Featured musical soloist Richard Ruttenberg. Recorded and mixed by Stephen Krause. Edited by Tom Carlson. Mastered by Pat Sullivan-Fourstar. Album produced by Mark Isham.

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