MANCHESTER BY THE SEA – Lesley Barber
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
Manchester by the Sea is a contemporary drama, written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, who was nominated for Academy Awards for writing You Can Count On Me in 2000, and Gangs of New York in 2002. The film stars Casey Affleck as Lee Chandler, an irritable loner with an ex-wife (Michelle Williams) and a ton of skeletons in his closet. Lee is forced to return to his hometown, the eponymous seaside city in Massachusetts, following the unexpected death of his older brother Joe (Kyle Chandler). Having finally returned home after many years away, Lee is not only forced to face the tragedies in his past, but is shocked to learn that he has been made the guardian of his teenage nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges), a decision which brings him into conflict with the boy’s mother, Joe’s ex-wife Elise (Gretchen Mol). The film has been an enormous critical success, receiving nominations from dozens of awards bodies over the winter of 2016, and looks likely to be a major player at the Academy Awards.
The score for Manchester by the Sea is by Canadian composer Lesley Barber, and is the first score of hers to make any mainstream headway in over a decade. For those who don’t know, Barber was born in Toronto and began composing at the age of 10. She was an award winner in Canada’s SOCAN National Competition for Young Composers, and went on to complete a Master’s Degree in Composition at the University of Toronto, before making her film music debut in 1995, working for director Patricia Rozema on When Night Is Falling. She has since worked on several notable films, including A Price Above Rubies in 1998, Mansfield Park in 1999, and Lonergan’s You Can Count On Me in 2000, but her primary focus over the last 15 years or so has been music for the theatre and the concert hall, where her credits include groundbreaking Canadian plays such as Unidentified Human Remains, The Warriors, and Escape From Happiness, and commissions for classical works from The Canadian Electronic Ensemble, harpist Erica Goodman, percussionist Beverly Johnston, and pianist Eve Egoyan.
After such a long time away from the mainstream, it’s good to see Barber coming back into the spotlight a little. I’m actually surprised that she hasn’t been more prominent in recent years; she cites composers like Steve Reich, Carter Burwell, Ennio Morricone, and Philip Glass as influences, and her chamber-music minimalism would seem to be a perfect fit for many more indie dramas in addition to this one. Furthermore, and without wanting to get too far into gender issues, it’s also pleasing to see a female film composer attached to a movie with this level of acclaim and success. Barber is a member of the Alliance for Women Film Composers, and premiered her score for Manchester by the Sea at the Women Who Score: Soundtracks Live concert celebrating the work of female film composers, which took place in Los Angeles in August. Hopefully this is a step in the right direction, and vindication for all the hard work that people like Laura Karpman, Lolita Ritmanis, and Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum have put into making that organization a success.
In musical terms, Manchester by the Sea is a quiet, minimalist, emotional work, written mainly for strings, piano and voices. Barber’s contributions to the soundtrack comprise around 20 minutes of music in total, and revolve around a small core of inter-connected themes. According to an interview she gave to writer Jon Burlingame for Variety, Barber initially found inspiration in the Calvinist hymns the Puritans brought to 17th-century New England, and decided that a certain amount of restraint was necessary in the score. You can hear that influence from early church music in much of her writing, especially the vocals, which were performed entirely by Barber’s daughter, opera singer Jacoba Barber-Rozema. Barber-Rozema’s voice is the cornerstone of several pieces, including the opening “Manchester by the Sea Chorale,” and subsequent cues such as the “Plymouth Chorale” and “Floating 149 A Cappella.” These tracks are soft, solemn, and very beautiful, if a little on the doleful side, although “Floating 149” does have a slightly more praise-worthy, hymnal quality that is very appealing. Barber-Rozema performs her own harmonies, which were recorded individually and subsequently layered over each other.
“Manchester Minimalist Piano and Strings” is the score’s main instrumental element, and has a lot in common with the work of those composers I mentioned earlier, especially Reich and Glass. It’s pretty and mesmerizing, with a hypnotic undulating quality that gradually becomes more strident as it develops, and more forceful string writing during its second half. Two variations later in the score allow the theme to anchor itself as the score’s main recurring idea. “Smoke” is an understated cue mainly for subtly variable string harmonics, overlapping and combining as the string quartet ensemble repeatedly shifts its focal point. The subsequent reprise for bass and strings is equally slow and remorseful, but has shades of Johann Sebastian Bach and Air on a G String. The two string reprises of “Floating 149” and the main “Manchester by the Sea Chorale” theme replace Barber-Rozema’s vocals with deconstructed string textures that are slightly ambient, droney, but classical at the same time.
The album, from Milan Records, is rounded out by several classical tracks from composers Georg Friedrich Händel, Camille Saint-Saëns, Tomaso Albinoni, and Jules Massenet, including a couple of lesser-known pieces from Händel’s 1741 liturgical oratorio “Messiah” which complement the religious overtones of Barber’s score. The classical pieces are actually very-well chosen, as they have a similar tone and emotional weight as Barber’s writing.
It’s absolutely clear that the score for Manchester by the Sea is intended to be a reflection of Casey Affleck’s character Lee, ruminating on the remains of his shattered life, hinting at the tragedies in his past, and commenting on his dour, stern persona. It’s music which dwells in the bitterness of regret, of a man haunted by his actions, and as such is absolutely not a score which will appeal to listeners who need a great deal of life, energy, and rhythmic punch in their film music. Barber’s music is intentionally modest; it’s slow, serious, staunchly minimalist, and mostly concerned with mood and texture than recurring thematic ideas or memorable melodies, and as such it may simply float past some listeners without leaving much of an impression beyond some vaguely attractive string and vocal textures. Personally, however, I found Barber’s music to have a captivating, dream-like quality that is both dramatically appropriate for the film it accompanies, and has enough musical content to pique my intellectual curiosity. If the film does go on to become a major player at the 2016 Academy Awards, it’s more than possible that Barber could be in the frame for an Oscar nomination.
Buy the Manchester by the Sea soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Manchester by the Sea Chorale (2:20)
- Manchester Minimalist Piano and Strings (2:19)
- Plymouth Chorale (1:25)
- Pifa/Pastoral Symphony from The Messiah (written by Georg Friedrich Händel, performed by Musica Sacra Chorus & Orchestra) (3:00)
- Smoke (1:36)
- Floating 149 A Cappella (1:53)
- Floating 149 Strings Reprise (2:20)
- Sonata for Oboe and Piano, Op.166 – 1st Movement (written by Camille Saint-Saëns, performed by Gerhard Hanzian and Ed Lewis) (2:25)
- Manchester Minimalist Piano and Strings (Strings Reprise) (1:04)
- He Shall Feed His Flock Like a Shepherd/Come Unto Him from The Messiah (written by Georg Friedrich Händel, performed by Musica Sacra Chorus & Orchestra) (5:11)
- Manchester Minimalist Piano and Strings (Variation) (2:19)
- Adagio per Archi e Organo in Sol Minore (written by Tomaso Albinoni, performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra) (8:34)
- Smoke (Reprise with Bass and Strings) (1:37)
- I’m Beginning to See the Light (written by Duke Ellington, Don George, Johnny Hodges, and Harry James, performed by The Ink Spots and Ella Fitzgerald) (2:44)
- Chérubin (written by Jules Massenet, performed by the Munich Radio Orchestra with the Choir Chorus of the Bavarian State Opera) (3:01)
- Manchester by the Sea (Strings Reprise) (2:19)
Running Time: 44 minutes 18 seconds
Milan Records (2016)
Music composed by Lesley Barner. Conducted by James Shearman. Orchestrations by James Shearman. Special vocal performances by Jacoba Barber-Rozema. Recorded and mixed by XXX. Edited by Mick Gormley. Album produced by Lesley Barber and Stefan Karrer.