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February 25, 2010

'Shutter Island' soundtrack packed with contemporary classical music

As someone who spends much more time watching pre-1960s movies than the latest releases (sorry, but I think they really did make them better in the old days), I may not be the best judge of what's going on right now when it comes to film scoring. But I think I can safely say that the "Shutter Island" soundtrack, available from Rhino, breaks new ground in at least one respect -- its heavy reliance on contemporary classical music, enough to fill the better part of two CDs.

And I'm talking seriously contemporary, as in fabulously atmospheric pieces by John Cage (including "Music for Marcel Duchamp"), Morton Feldman (the otherworldly "Rothko Chapel 2"), Krzysztof Penderecki, Alfred Schnittke, Gyorgy Ligeti, Lou Harrison (a movement from the haunting Suite for Symphonic Strings), John Adams (the eerie, riveting "Christian Zeal and Activity"), and Giacinto Scelsi. For good measure, a youthful work by Gustav Mahler, his darkly lyrical Piano Quartet, is in the mix, too. Pop songs from the likes of Kay Start and Johnny Ray, and a particularly intriguing treatment of Dinah Washington's "The Bitter Earth," also figure in the picture, but are outnumbered on the recording.   

It may be a while before I ever see the movie (that's what Netflix was invented for -- and besides, considering the reviews this flick has received, I don't see the need to hurry), but the soundtrack has certainly conjured up some intriguing images for me. The coolest image of all is

 unsuspecting fans of Martin Scorsese, Leonardo diCaprio, et al., drinking in the sounds of such adventurous, challenging composers.

The soundtrack, chosen by Robbie Robertson, could almost serve as a mini-intro course in 20th- and early 21st-century music. Maybe some of the moviegoers will feel compelled to get some of this stuff onto their iPods, will start scanning the programs of their local musical organizations anxiously searching for opportunities to experience compositions like these in live performance, will rush to those performances and become subscribers, will become such a positive and dynamic influence on those organizations that programming across the land becomes broader and more daring, will ..... oh all right, I don't even believe it myself. But I had you going there for a moment, didn't I?

Bottom line: This is a very cool soundtrack, with excellent artists, including the Vienna Philharmonic (with Claudio Abbado conducting), and the eclectic mix of material makes an unusually vivid statement, even without the benefit of the film itself.

AP Photo/Paramount Pictures, Andrew Cooper

Posted by Tim Smith at 5:27 AM | | Comments (2)


The tepid reviews of Shutter Island itself made me think about seeing it. Now when I read about the music score, I want to go.

When I saw the movie, I just had to try and find the soundtrack. The Gustav Mahler sound was perfect.

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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