Much is being said about John Williams’ and Steven Spielberg’s long lasting professional relationship with forty years they’ve been working together. But it's worth remembering that Howard Shore and David Cronenberg are also celebrating an astonishing 35th anniversary this year, spanning fifteen feature films. Judging by titles like The Fly, Naked Lunch, Crash, and eXistenZ, it is an incredibly fruitful artistic collaboration as well, so it's only fitting that both gentlemen decided to take a look back at their life’s work - with expanded re-releases of several previous scores to be released this Autumn. And there is also a brand new film as well to be widely premiered around the same time - Maps To The Stars.
The first taste of Howard Shore’s latest opus could be sampled back in May when he released a single promoting the film. Now, several months later, through his own label Howe Records, the composer has released the full soundtrack album. It is worth noting that the promo track doesn’t appear anywhere on this disc, so it might be worth considering a purchase as well. The score has been composed for a very small ensemble, including two violins, two basses, viola, cello, celesta, piano, harp, electric guitar, and percussion (including Indian drum tabla). All of that is spiced-up by an array of synthesizers programmed by James Sizemore. With this eclectic group of performers, Howard is creating an eerie and mysterious portrait of Hollywood’s dark side, not completely unlike that served to us by Mark Isham’s Crash from 2005. It has the same kind of minimalist feel that nevertheless creates a surprisingly wide spectrum of subtle emotions.
The disc opens with the ethereal ‘Greyhound’, with gently plucked bass/guitar swamped in thick layer of synthesizer textures. In the following piece (‘Set Me Free’) they are joined by the steady rhythm of Indian percussion - a sound that will be one of the defining elements of this score (heard later on in tracks like ‘Secrets Kill’). In other cases, it is the sound of electric guitars that enriches the soundscape (‘A Little Crazy’ and ‘Walk of Fame’). That last aspect brings back the fond memories of Elliot Goldenthal’s similarly experimental Heat. ‘Stolen Waters’ marks a change of pace, where the small string ensemble, with the occasional accompaniment of piano, leads this elegiac and contemplative piece. One the other side of the pond, “Asylum Corridor’ offers no comfort under its thick, bleak and almost non-musical synthesized blanket.
The nocturnal electronics, with the aid of live percussion, paint the soundscape of Hollywood nightlife in aptly called ‘Wildfire’, with a similar kind of hypnotic material is later presented in ‘Burn Out’. It is quite likely that by these two pieces, fans of Howard Shore’s brighter orchestral textures of Middle-Earth might be completely lost. The string ensemble returns later on, and ask a question whether 'Love Is Stronger Than Death'. The exquisitely mournful tone might suggest this isn’t necessarily true, but as painful and sorrowful it might be, this piece is probably the most accessible and easily enjoyable track on this soundtrack album. Things never go the easy way in Cronenberg films, however, and it is only natural that the unforgiving bleakness of ‘I’m Sorry' soon takes over. This time strings come back to offer a little bit of classical comfort towards the end.
There is no real musical denouement in Maps To The Stars, nor could there have ever been. The ethereal lament of the final track is all we’re given. But then, the film presents a unforgiving vivisection of darker aspects’ plaguing celebrity’s lifestyle. That, filtered with David Cronenberg’s sense of macabre and sardonic sense of humour, is not an easy thing to digest for most listeners apart from film. Or even in its context, for that matter.
Far removed from his now-popular orchestral sound, this score serves us something completely different. Sandwiched in between two The Hobbit scores (just like last years’ Jimmy P), it is a refreshing interval and a nice way to cleanse the pallet for Howard Shore. Even at the age of 67, he’s still willing to experiment and stretch the creative muscles, almost as if no time has passed since 1979. That fact in itself is a good reason to give Maps To The Stars a fair chance. Atmospheric and contemplative, the 38-minute album is challenging but always intriguing.
Maps To The Stars will be released by Howe Records on September 9th