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THE PROMISE – Gabriel Yared

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The Armenian genocide that took place between 1915 and 1917 was the systematic extermination of more than 1.5 million Armenians by the government of the Ottoman Empire in what is now Turkey. It’s one of the most overlooked examples of ethnic cleansing of the 20th century – and one which the current Turkish government still refuses to acknowledge – but it is now starting to become more widely recognized. Director Terry George’s film The Promise looks poised to be one of the first films to examine the historical importance of the period; it’s a sweeping epic set during the final years of the Ottoman Empire which focuses on the love triangle that develops between an Armenian medical student (Oscar Isaac), an acclaimed American journalist in Paris (Christian Bale), and an Armenian-born woman raised in France (Charlotte Le Bon), and which uses the backdrop of the genocide for social context.

The score for The Promise is by French-Lebanese composer Gabriel Yared, whose career in Hollywood faltered significantly in the aftermath of his score for Troy being rejected in 2004, when he engaged in a very public spat with the executives at Warner Brothers. Since then Yared has worked mostly in European cinema, and with much success, earning praise for his scores for acclaimed films such as The Lives of Others (2006), Le Hérisson (2009), A Royal Affair (2012), Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet (2015), and Chocolat (2016). The Promise is one of only a handful of English language films that Yared has scored over the last decade or so and, interestingly, it draws a great deal of musical inspiration from what is arguably his most celebrated score, the Oscar-winning The English Patient.

To capture the two focuses of the film – the love story, and the terrible atrocities occurring around them – Yared’s score treads a delicate balance between passionate romance and serious drama which occasionally adopts a tone of tragedy. Yared’s orchestral palette is large, making especially prominent use of strings and piano, and is often enhanced by solo performances of that most Armenian of instruments, the duduk , an ancient and iconic double-reed flute traditionally made of apricot wood. Composer Elia Cmiral can probably be credited with bringing the duduk to mainstream Hollywood via his score for Ronin in 1998, but it has since gone on to be something of a musical cliché, a lazy musical shorthand for anything vaguely ethnic or Middle Eastern. However, here its use is perfect and necessary; the instrument is the core sound of Armenian folk music, the Armenian musical identity, and Yared uses it to capture the soul of the people whose lives are being exterminated by an oppressive government.

The score’s main theme is introduced in the opening cue, “Voyage to Constantinople,” a slow, elegant piece for strings and woodwinds that reminds me a little of John Barry, and which features a lovely swell of emotion with soft choral accompaniment at the 0:55 mark. Further performances of the main theme litter the score, usually to accompany scenes of intimacy between the three central characters. “Promenade” is a lovely statement for gentle piano and strings; “Ana Invites Michael” takes the same palette and melodic line but offers it in a more hesitant, almost reluctant fashion; “Ana and Michael,” the score’s longest cue, presents several deconstructed variations on the main theme, alongside an undulating 9-note motif which oscillates between strings, woodwinds, and piano in a way that I find very attractive.

The enormous tragedy of the Armenian genocide is captured in several cues which range from dark, aggressive action, to moments of profound sadness and loss. “Exodus” is one of the score’s few action cues, building out of an opening sequence for low drones, whispering voices, and threatening duduk tones, into a collision of frantic string runs, heavy percussion, and brutal, turbulent brass. The subsequent “Labor Camp” is an abject depiction of loneliness and desperation built around a harrowing duduk solo, while “Way Home” combines some rather abstract textures – clattering dulcimers, very low woodwind chords – with a soft choir that makes for an effective depiction of the drudgery suffered by the interred.

The score builds to its conclusion through pieces like “Confession,” which is anchored by some deeply emotional cello writing; “Leaving Refugee Camp,” which again focuses on the duduk, albeit this time with a slightly more hopeful tone; and “Massacre,” which adds ghostly synth textures underneath the duduk as a spectral reminder of the souls of those killed. The opening moments of “Going up the Mountain” have a religioso quality through the prominent use of brass and choir, before it becomes much more aggressive and turbulent during its second half. The final cue, “Mourning,” sees the score make a welcome return to the sweeping version of the main theme from the opening track, offset by a performance of the love theme on cello.

I personally find this music to be enthralling, but some may find some of the passages of more solemn and thoughtful writing to be a little insubstantial. Yared has always had a tendency to make his thematic ideas somewhat flimsy, as if a stiff breeze might blow them away, and that is the case again here. The themes aren’t strong and forceful; they’re ethereal, gossamer, drifting lazily through the orchestra, almost like an afterthought. It’s a recurring compositional tic that has followed Yared through much of his career, and I personally find that it gives his music a rather dream-like quality that I enjoy a lot, but I can certainly see how others may find its lack of bold definition frustratingly elusive.

Lakeshore’s album also includes three pieces of traditional Armenian folk music: the lively “Kach Nazar’s Dance” aka “Kotchari,” which is performed as a virtuoso violin solo by Ara Malikian; the profoundly emotional and stirring “Gohanamk,” performed with liturgical reverence by Liparit Avetisyan and the Hover Choir; and “Sari Siroun Yar,” performed by Serj Tankian with the Authentic Light Orchestra and Swiss vocalist Veronika Stalder. Most readers will best know Tankian as the lead singer and guitarist of the Los Angeles-based Armenian-American metal band System of a Down, but many will be surprised at his powerful, operatic singing voice on display here. The final track is the title song, “The Promise,” co-written and performed by Chris Cornell, a dark ballad based on Yared’s love theme, which is very enjoyable.

It’s very pleasing to see Gabriel Yared returning to the Hollywood mainstream once more with this score, especially as it also sees him doing so with what I consider to be his best genre – the epic romantic historical drama. Although it’s unlikely that The Promise will ever receive the critical acclaim The English Patient did, and although the score never comes close to eclipsing the brilliance of his career best – the rejected score for Troy – there is still plenty to admire and enjoy, especially for those who have already developed an appreciation for Yared’s style. Along with Mychael Danna’s score for the 2002 film Ararat, another film which explored similar historical topics, The Promise is a fitting musical testament to the suffering endured by the Armenian people.

Buy the Promise soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Voyage to Constantinople (2:01)
  • Kach Nazar’s Dance (Kotchari) (traditional, performed by Ara Malikian) (1:58)
  • Promenade (1:13)
  • Ana Invites Michael (2:30)
  • Exodus (2:54)
  • Gohanamk (traditional, performed by Liparit Avetisyan and the Hover Choir) (3:38)
  • Labor Camp (2:18)
  • Way Home (2:08)
  • Ana and Michael (6:20)
  • Confession (2:24)
  • Leaving Refugee Camp (1:33)
  • Massacre (2:20)
  • Going up the Mountain (3:25)
  • Ana Comforts Michael (1:46)
  • Mourning (3:30)
  • Sari Siroun Yar (traditional, performed by Serj Tankian with the Authentic Light Orchestra and Veronika Stalder) (7:37)
  • The Promise (written by Gabriel Yared and Chris Cornell, performed by Chris Cornell) (4:23)

Running Time: 52 minutes 06 seconds

Lakeshore Records (2017)

Music composed by Gabriel Yared. Conducted by Jeff Atmajian. Orchestrations by Jeff Atmajian and Andrew Kinney. Recorded and mixed by Peter Cobbin. Album produced by Gabriel Yared and David Menke.

  1. April 29, 2017 at 4:45 pm

    Thanks for bringing this film and score to my attention, it certainly has been a while since I’ve heard anything from Gabriel Yared! I must argue your crediting Elia Cmiral with bringing the duduk to the mainstream in film scores, with Grame Revell featuring it in work going back to at least the mid-’90s (The Crow comes immediately to mind), and Peter Gabriel’s Last Temptation of Christ long before that!

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