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SPIDER – Howard Shore

December 20, 2002 Leave a comment Go to comments

spiderOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

Following the critical and commercial success of his scores for the Lord of the Rings trilogy, it has somehow been forgotten that, prior to the world at large hearing his work for Peter Jackson’s epic masterpieces, Howard Shore was known as a “dark” composer. His scores, for directors such as David Fincher and David Cronenberg, were predominantly moody, themeless, atmospheric works which thrived in the grimmer aspects of film music, where evil things lurked in the shadows. Before Lord of the Rings, no one really knew that he was capable of the grand, orchestral-and-choral majesty he ultimately delivered, and since then his musical nightmares have almost been forgotten. But, with Spider, the latest film from David Cronenberg, Shore proves that he has not completely abandoned his roots.

Based on the novel by Patrick McGrath, Spider stars Ralph Fiennes as Dennis Cleg – whose nickname gives the film its title – a mentally disturbed man in his thirties who lives in a halfway house in London. Dennis, who was given his nickname by his mother (Miranda Richardson) has been institutionalized with acute schizophrenia for some 20 years, and although he has never truly recovered, he has now been released into society. However, Dennis’s sanity is still precariously fragile, and as he struggles to cope with his new surroundings, disturbing flashback sequences reveal the poor man’s terrible past. Of course, being a Cronenberg film, there is much more depth and resonance to Spider than merely a portraying man’s madness, but to reveal more of the film’s intricate web would take more space than I care to take up here.

Musically, Spider could not be more removed from Howard Shore’s recent work. Written predominantly for strings, and featuring a performance by the Kronos Quartet with additional parts for clarinet, trumpet and harp, it acts as a vivid musical illustration of Fiennes’s tortured mind: fractured, splintered, never fully resolved. The entire score is dominated by stark piano chords, groaning string lines, shifting tones, and eerie harp scales, all of which seek to build up on the film’s key themes of loneliness, distraction and confusion. There is nothing remotely engaging in this score, no warmth at all, no sense of hope or cheer- and this, of course, is the whole point. Shore is trying to convey the psychological horrors of mental illness through music, and in this he has succeeded admirably. The only problem with this is that it makes for a quite depressing listening experience.

In many ways, Spider reminded me of two classical pieces Shore wrote in the 1990s – “Hughie” and “Piano Four” – and at times it also revisits some of the markedly abstract scores he wrote for Cronenberg in the early 80s, notably Dead Ringers, and especially The Brood. Shore has long been known as a composer who can effectively embrace the darker side of the human psyche in his music, and he generally accomplishes this by having his instruments perform in an almost completely tuneless environment, which makes the soul and the mind nervous. Spider’s only concession to theme is through the hymn-like ‘Love Will Find Out The Way’, which is based on a traditional English tune, and which features a broken, hesitant vocal performance by Patricia Kilgarriff in the opening cue. It is briefly recapitulated in ‘Hieroglyphics’, in ‘The Dog & Beggar’ on trumpet, vocally in ‘The Allotments’, and in the conclusive (and surprisingly nice) ‘Fade To Black’. However, the majority of the performances are all quickly deconstructed by Shore’s orchestrations, meaning that even when the theme DOES come in, Shore manipulates it so that it seems out of place, unworldly, almost threatening. The remainder of the score’s highlights are all to do with color and instrumentation: a highlighted string passage in ‘Gasworks’, a plaintive trumpet in ‘Spleen Street’, and a string rhythm in ‘Mrs. Cleg’ which at least brings a sense of pacing to the score. But beyond these brief piques of interest, Spider is largely dispiriting stuff.

Spider was only ever released in France, on the Virgin label, and may be difficult to obtain outside of mainland Europe. In summary, it is difficult to know what to say about Spider. As an exercise in musical abstraction, it works, but as an engaging film score, its intentional emotional void left me cold. I want to like it for its intellectual qualities, for its strict adherence to standards, and for Shore’s careful, precise writing. All of these things are totally admirable – but despite my brain’s protestations, I’m afraid Spider left a distinctly negative impression on me. Those whose only exposure to Howard Shore’s work is through Lord of the Rings, beware.

Rating: **

Track Listing:

  • Love Will Find Out The Way (3:20)
  • Kitchener Street (1:21)
  • Mrs. Wilkinson’s Kitchen (0:49)
  • Gasworks (4:20)
  • Hieroglyphics (2:34)
  • Spleen Street (3:43)
  • Mrs. Cleg (3:30)
  • The Dog & Beggar (3:06)
  • The Allotments (2:38)
  • The Earl of Rochester (3:56)
  • Infected Memory (3:20)
  • Fade to Black (3:31)

Running Time: 36 minutes 08 seconds

Virgin France 72345-803712-8 (2003)

Music composed and conducted by Howard Shore. Performed by The Kronos Quartet. Orchestrations by Howard Shore. Featured musical soloists Ethyl Will, David Harrington, John Sherba, Henry Dutt, Jennifer Culp, Mike Nuccio, Robert Sullivan and Stacey Shames. Special vocal performances by Patricia Kilgarriff. Recorded and mixed by Tom Lazarus and Bruce Buchanan. Edited by Jennifer Dunnington. Mastered by Jonathan Schultz. Album produced by Howard Shore and Chris Rinaman.

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