Review: Memoirs of a Geisha
I don't know why John Williams has taken so much flack this year. His "War of the Worlds" was a dark, brutal, brilliant sci-fi action score that took us into the darkest, most primal realm of orchestral music. Frightening stuff, excellent writing. "Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith", again, was, in my opinion, one of the best scores of the series... epic, dark, beautiful, sad... but because it didn't have many truimphant fanfares or passages of sweeping romance, people complained it wasn't as exciting, thus they considered it to be the least of the series. Now, here's "Memoirs of a Geisha", which is one of the sublest, most intricate, beautiful scores I've heard this year. I can hear the complaints about this one all ready. But enough criticism of Williams critics, let's get on to the score, shall we?
The notable element of the score is the pairing of cellist Yo-Yo Ma and violinist Ithzak Perlman, performing together for the first time. There are no musicians better at these particular instruments then Ma and Perlman. With William's excellent material to work with, they are even better. Originally, I suspected that the only reason Williams got them for this score was to get Oscar attention, and that may be true, but they have a genuinely good reason for being here, as well. They represent two of the film's characters in the film. The first, and primary theme, is performed often by Ma, for Sayuri, the film's main character. The theme is slightly darker than one might expect, but nonetheless tender and exquisite. It appears quite frequently throughout the score, with Ma giving subtle variations on each performance, sometimes accompanied by strings or various ethnic instruments, and sometimes on his own. The other, less prominent theme is "The Chairman's Waltz", performed by Perlman on the violin. While Sayuri's theme is indeed wonderful, "The Chairman's Waltz" is downright stunning. The way Williams works with it is fascinating. It's a waltz that seems poised to build, ready to explode into a sweeping statement by one hundred strings at any moment... but it doesn't. It builds, and strains, but the only emotional release is granted to Perlman alone, who performs with so much passion and heart that the listener is swept away on a sea of gentle sound.
There is another, much more playful theme that appears in "Going to School" near the beginning, and indeed, the score feels a tad lighter in it's opening passages, though not comic in any way. As it progresses through the mid-section performances of "The Chairman's Waltz" and head towards the final portion, it grows darker in tone. Rather than taking things to level of being more intense and brutal musically, ala "War of the Worlds", Williams makes things even more spare, making the music feel desolate and cold. "The Fire Scene" features some a very odd-sounding wailing woman who works quite effectively in context, namely because Williams only utilizes her the one time, rather than over-using her every time something sad happens. "A Dream Discarded", performed almost solely by Ma on cello, is a perfect example of musical loneliness, it makes one think of a dead leaf fluttering about in the wind over a barren landscape. In fact, the instrumentation on most of the score is much sparer than most of Williams work, making it one of his quietest scores. Williams has a full orchestra at his disposal, but he doesn't use it too often, and he doesn't really use it fully until the end credits, when he presents a variety of fascinating variations on Sayuri's theme. Most of the time, Williams presents Ma and Perlman with only a little bit of percussion, or chimes, or a few strings. Also contributing the score on a regular basis are the koto and shakuhachi, giving the score an added feel of authenticism. Not that Williams needs it, his work his sounds as authentic as anything Tan Dun has written, this isn't oriental music filtered through "E.T."
Overall, again, the score is very restrained, and very quiet, one has to listen closely to the score to hear the gentle tapping and plucking going on in the background, and a few sections are barely audible. The restrained emotions, I suspect, suggest that the film is powerful enough to suggest any emotions that the score refrains from trying to make obvious. Often a composer will be asked to "fill in the gaps", providing sweeping, grand emotions to give the movie something it otherwise wouldn't have. Williams has enough confidence in this film to accentuate the characters, and the subtleties, rather than the scope or the broader ideas of the film. Obviously, this will make the score a slightly more challenging (though constantly lovely) listen on album. In terms of actual musical enjoyment, "Geisha" may rank lower than something like "E.T.", "A.I.", or even "Seven Years in Tibet". But in terms of writing skill, and of achieving what he attempted, Williams has aced it. Highly Recommended.
Rating as Written for Film: *****
Rating as Heard on Album: ****
Overall Rating: ****1/2