Home > Reviews > WITNESS – Maurice Jarre

WITNESS – Maurice Jarre

February 12, 2015 Leave a comment Go to comments

witnessTHROWBACK THIRTY

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Witness is a thriller set in Pennsylvania’s Amish community. The film stars Harrison Ford as John Book, an honest cop, who is forced to travel to rural Pennsylvania to protect a young Amish boy named Samuel, played by Lukas Haas, who unintentionally witnesses a murder while visiting the big city with his mother Rachel, played by Kelly McGillis. To keep his witness safe, Book tries to maintain a low profile within the community, which shuns modern conveniences and technology, but unexpectedly begins to develop romantic feelings for Rachel, causing friction among the elders, who view Book as an interloper and outsider. Worse still, the murder suspects have discovered the whereabouts of the one eyewitness to their crime, and are coming after the young boy. The film was directed by Peter Weir, and was one of the major cinematic successes of 1985, receiving critical acclaim and eight Oscar nominations, including nods for Best Picture, Best Actor for Ford, and Best Score for the film’s composer, Maurice Jarre.

Witness marked the second of four collaborations between Weir and Jarre, the others being The Year of Living Dangerously in 1982, The Mosquito Coast in 1986, and Dead Poets Society in 1989, and found Jarre deep in his divisive ‘synth phase’. It’s not difficult to understand why Jarre embraced electronica so wholeheartedly in the 1980s; composers like Vangelis, Harold Faltermeyer, Giorgio Moroder, Brad Fiedel and, to a lesser extent, Wendy Carlos, Jack Nitzsche and John Carpenter, had all enjoyed enormous success with their synth writing on a number of significant and popular films, while his son Jean-Michel was becoming equally successful in his own right as a pop and rock artist. Not only that, the popular music charts were full of electro-pop and synth-pop bands taking advantage of the growth of technology and the increasing sophistication of the samples that were available at the time. As such, it’s understandable that film composers would want to tap into that then-progressive zeitgeist.

The difference, of course, is that Faltermeyer and Moroder and Fiedel were electronic specialists; that was what they did, how they worked, how they saw music. Jarre, on the other hand, was an old-school orchestral symphonic composer with scores like Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago under his belt. To me, and with just a couple of notable exceptions, the majority of Jarre’s electronic music always sounded like the work of a composer trying to capitalize on the popularity of a fad, shoehorning his compositions into a sonic world that did not suit the way he wrote. Too often the music came across like orchestral music badly rendered on an unsuitable keyboard, thinly orchestrated, tinny, and weak. Such was the case with Witness.

To perform his musical ideas on Witness, Jarre employed a group of 10 synthesists – Michael Boddicker, Randy Kerber, Stewart Levin, Michel Mention, Chris Page, Pete Robinson, Clark Spangler, Nyle Steiner and Ian Underwood – and organized them like a band, with each person performing a different keyboard/sampler, while Jarre conducted them as if for a chamber ensemble. As such, the score does have a little more depth in its sound palette than one might expect: the fact that all the performers were in the room at the same time is a positive as it gives the recording an immediacy, negating the sterility that can sometimes come across in synth scores. However, in hearing the finished score, it begs the question why Jarre didn’t just use live instruments? One keyboard is clearly programmed to sound like a flute, another programmed to sound like chimes and high end metallic percussion, yet another programmed to give an as-close-as-possible approximation of brass, another programmed to mimic a piano. This is what I mean when I say the music sounds thinly orchestrated, tinny, and weak: if you want a flute, use a flute, not a synth pretending to be a flute. I suppose one could hypothesize that, in using a solely electronic palette to score a film set in the Amish community, Jarre may have been making a point about the encroachment of the modern world into older, simpler communities that eschew technology, but this is most likely a stretch.

Despite all that, the score for Witness still contains a fair amount of melodic writing. The famous main theme first appears in the opening cue, “Witness (Main Title)”. Later, “Delirious John” presents a deconstructed version of the main theme with a dream-like, slightly off-kilter aspect, before a final performance in the conclusive “The Amish Are Coming”. A secondary theme, a depiction of the simple and uncomplicated Amish way of life, appears on elegant synth flutes offset by watery, glittery textures in the second half of the opening cue, “Journey to Baltimore,” and again later in the aforementioned “The Amish Are Coming”. The score’s love theme, “Rachel and Book,” is pleasant but rather insubstantial.

However, several of the score’s middle album cues tend to get bogged down in generally uninteresting rumbling and gloomy textures. Tracks like “Book’s Disappearance,” “Futility of an Inside Job” and “Book’s Sorrow” are for the most part little more than downbeat ambiences: lots of sustained chords, one-note percussion hits, and morose, introspective melodies, again featuring the elusive woodwind sound and those watery vibes. Elsewhere, “The Murder” and “The Beginning of the End” are action tracks, but have a disappointing tendency to sound messy and chaotic, with layer upon layer of jumbled textures and peculiar stabbing rhythms competing for prominence. Although the cues do create an appropriate enough sense of confusion, they lack focus and cohesion, and if I didn’t know better I would think they were just created by having each of the ten keyboardists pound on their instruments at random.

The score’s most famous piece, “Building the Barn,” is a rousing and celebratory track underscoring a key scene in the film, where Book is invited to take part in a traditional Amish barn-raising, as a sign of the community’s growing respect for him. The piece takes the main theme and runs it through several different variations, culminating in a superb, stirring finale. Interestingly, Jarre re-recorded this piece with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra for a compilation album called ‘Jarre by Jarre’ released in 1987, and subsequently included it on Milan’s double-CD of The Year of Living Dangerously/Dead Poets Society released in 1996. In this re-recording, the cue really comes alive, and you can hear a tantalizing glimpse of what the score could have been: lively, energetic strings with a romantic, idyllic edge; stirring brasses which speak of strength and honor; lyrical, warm woodwinds; a touch of Mozart in the chord progressions.

Listening to the score for Witness, especially in comparison to the RPO re-recording, the only phrase which springs to mind is “missed opportunity”. Despite the prevalence and popularity of all-synth scores at the time, I still can’t believe Jarre made the decision to score the film for keyboards, considering the superb orchestral ensembles he had at his disposal. Anyone curious to experience the sort of music Jarre was producing at this point in his career might find Witness to be an interesting novelty, especially as it was Oscar-nominated, but from my point of view there are a multitude of other, better Jarre scores out there to experience first, ones which actually take advantage of his excellence as an orchestral composer. Oh, and one last thing: be careful out among them English!

Buy the Witness soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Witness (Main Title)/Journey to Baltimore (6:24)
  • The Murder (1:22)
  • Book’s Disappearance (3:29)
  • Futility of an Inside Job/Delirious John (3:08)
  • Building the Barn (4:58)
  • Book’s Sorrow (2:45)
  • Rachel and Book (Love Theme)/Beginning of the End (4:40)
  • The Amish Are Coming (3:21)

Running Time: 30 minutes 07 seconds

Varèse Sarabande VCD-47227 (1985)

Music composed and conducted by Maurice Jarre. Performed by Michael Boddicker, Randy Kerber, Stewart Levin, Michel Mention, Chris Page, Pete Robinson, Clark Spangler, Nyle Steiner and Ian Underwood. Recorded and mixed by Humberto Gatica. Edited by Richard Stone. Album produced by Maurice Jarre, Michel Mention and Tom Null.

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  1. Cosmicindifference
    April 4, 2015 at 11:48 am

    Please don’t write about synthesizer scores.

  2. Ana
    January 5, 2016 at 9:17 pm

    This is an amazing score. You all sound like you’re just butthurt it wasn’t Goldsmith.

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