Road to Perdition

Let me say right up front that this is not a review of the new movie Road to Perdition, which stars Tom Hanks, Paul Newman and Jude Law. I have not seen the movie, nor do I have any particular opinion of it, although after reading various reviews and interviews with Sam Mendes, the director, and with the stars, it all seems fairly calculated to be a Big Movie that will be nominated for awards. Indeed, one reviewer said that the title of the movie ought to be “Road to Pretension.”

I am writing here about the wonderful score of the movie by Thomas Newman, released on Decca, and that is available for listening via streaming on the Road to Perdition web site. Since I haven’t seen the movie, I can only speak in musical terms about what I hear on the soundtrack album.

Newman is one of the most prominent film music composers active today, and has been nominated for several Osacrs. One of his recent achievements is the striking main title music to the HBO series Six Feet Under, with its haunting oboe melody, pizzicato strings and gurgling synthesizers. “Six Feet Under” has the classiest title sequence on TV.

In film music the composer does not have long sequences to develop musical ideas, so these are little pieces, usually a minute or two in length, capturing midwestern Irish Catholic Americana. The opening track, “Rock Island, 1931” sets the tone, with brooding string music suddenly interrupted by Irish bagpipes. “The Farm” is majestic in its Copland-esque beauty, built from the simplest of musical materials, a gently rocking tune based on the intervals of a major second and major third in lombardic rhythm (short-long LONG; short-long LONG) , thus proving that musical simplicity is often best. The same tune returns, extended, at the end of the score in a track called “Road to Perdition,” with a magical coda on what sounds like a glass harmonica (a strange instrument invented by Benjamin Franklin in which the performer runs fingers over a wet rotating glass–think of running your wet finger around the rim of a crystal wine glass.)

The movement “Cathedral” morphs from slow string music into downward arpeggiated harp figurations, and eventually melts into an a capella Gregorian chant performed by the boys of King’s College Cambridge.

There are several more overtly dramatic movements (probably used for chases or murders), but all have striking and unusual orchestrations, including what sounds like an English horn playing harmonics–a weird, unworldly sound. The orchestrations themselves were composed by Thomas Pasatieri, a “legitimate” classical composer famous for a widely-performed series of operas in the 1970s and ’80s. (Whatever became of him, anyway? He just sort of disappeared from the contemporary classical music landscape.) The final track on the disk is a piano duet performed by Paul Newman and Tom Hanks. They should keep their day jobs. There are a number of vintage jazz band tracks included in the sound track.

Whatever the fate of the movie, the soundtrack for “Road to Perdition” is worth having.

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