by Dan Goldwasser
Every time John Williams writes a dramatic score, people take notice. It might be because he's inarguably one of the best film composers alive, and has been writing amazing pieces of music for the past forty years, non-stop. Earlier this year, he wrote music for Steven Spielberg's sci-fi thriller War of the Worlds, and will later this month be recording his score to Spielberg's drama, Munich.
Sandwiched in between the two Spielberg projects was Memoirs of a Geisha, directed by Chicago director Rob Marshall. Originally, Spielberg had been attached to direct the film for years, and in the end, serves as a producer on the project. Williams recorded the score in late summer, at Royce Hall at UCLA. With him, Williams brought along two soloists with whom he had worked before: Yo-Yo Ma (Seven Years in Tibet), and Itzhak Perlman (Schindler's List).
The resulting work for Memoirs of a Geisha is a beautiful yet somewhat restrictive score. There are a lot of cello solos, and not as many pieces for Perlman to be involved in. Stylistically, it has a lot of Eastern influences, and can easily be held up as a nice companion album to Seven Years in Tibet, with some of the emotion found in Angela's Ashes.
As tends to be the case with our First Listen articles, SoundtrackNet has not yet seen the film, and so what follows is a track-by-track description, without context from the film. Please keep in mind that we don't have the benefit of liner notes, and portions of this article might be rendered inaccurate once the final album and film are released. We hope you enjoy this exclusive "First Listen" of the soundtrack to Memoirs of a Geisha.
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1. Sayuri's Theme (1:31)
A lone cello, performed by Yo-Yo Ma, emotionally plays out the main theme ("Sayuri's Theme"), backed by soft mutterings in the strings. A Japanese flute mirrors the theme, and plays off of the cello. The track ends with a soft statement of breathy shakuhachi.
2. The Journey to the Hanamachi (4:06)
Low gamelan and shakuhachi slowly build up with ethnic percussion. Japanese flutes pop in, and it builds slowly until the string section comes in with a strong statement of Sayuri's Theme. Then we're back to a cello solo, which is backed by the rest of the orchestra.
3. Going to School (2:42)
This track has a playful rhythm with a new theme that is more positive in nature. With Ma on the cello, this new theme is bounced between the cello, a Japanese flute, and a koto.
4. Brush on Silk (2:31)
A koto and tabla-like drums play a fast-paced bit of music, then a Japanese flute joins in high up, before a dissonant swell in the orchestra ends the cue.
5. Chiyo's Prayer (3:36)
The track starts with shakuhachi, then the strings create a soft ostinato backing another cello solo. Harp and flute then take over, before moving into tonal chimes, and a cello ostinato which ends the piece.
6. Becoming a Geisha (4:52)
Strings play Sayuri's Theme, over a soft plucked ostinato, and is then joined by an oboe. As the track progresses, the theme builds in strength. The strings play a counter melody, and now, with soft percussion backing it, it has become a playful track that builds to a climax - then suddenly drops out. We now have a taiko and hand-percussion rhythm that gives way to oboe and the orchestra. Another statement of Sayuri's Theme plays, as a sweeping melody that builds up to a finale.
7. Finding Satu (3:44)
Chimes introduce the track, and a solo cello plays out a soulful theme. There are a few koto notes, and a quiet ostinato by the strings in the back. A few harp strums, and the orchestra and cello build before settling down to a low vibe ostinato, which gives way to heavy low strings, with sad overtones. French horn chords give way to a string ostinato, with an oboe. The strings settle down to a soft delicate moment, before giving way to ambient synth, which ends with a burst shakuhachi and koto.
8. The Chairman's Waltz (2:39)
A solo violin (Perlman) plays a new theme over the harp and strings. It's in a chromatic minor key, and builds in a very traditional "Williams" way. It's full of emotion, and a very enjoyable cue.
9. The Rooftops of the Hanamachi (3:49)
Atonal dissonant rumblings with harp, chimes, and shakuhachi start out the cue. This track is full of orchestral effects, including "sliding" cello and low harp tones. It sounds very "modern". Tense cello bits build with the percussion, and then horns appear to play a brief statement. Now the strings build with the percussion to a climax, and the track ends with percussion hits.
10. The Garden Meeting (2:44)
The Chairman's Theme is back, with Perlman on violin, backed by a harp. Soon strings and cello take over, and then an oboe plays the theme. Now Perlman plays a rendition of Sayuri's Theme as quiet strings play tremolo in the background, with harp gliss adding to the atmosphere.
11. Dr. Crab's Prize (2:18)
The best way to describe this track is that it is a solo shakuhachi piece.
12. Destiny's Path (3:20)
A string ostinato builds in layers, creating more of a texture than a theme. Koto slowly plays out, and towards the end of the track, there is a low-end hit, then it builds up to a more energetic finale.
13. A New Name... A New Life (3:33)
Chimes introduce the solo cello, backed by lush dark strings. A shakuhachi calls in a low string ostinato, and now Ma and Perlman play Sayuri's Theme together, accentuated by koto. Cello and harp soon give way to cello and flute. Now there are clearly two harps, and even a soft glockenspiel, and the cello returns for the final note.
14. The Fire Scene and the Coming of War (6:48)
Low shakuhachi plays over a bottom-end drum roll. Timpany bangs out, with dissonant strings. Now the French horns slowly build up, then dissonant strings and timpani give way to an excerpt from "Ogi No Mato (The Folding Fan as a Target)", a classic Japanese opera. With a woman singing the vocals, and a pounding drum over a very low end pad. Soon lush chord strings and shakuhachi come in, and it has a very mournful tone, and deep drum hits. A string otinato starts to play, and we heard a variation on the Chairman's Theme, performed by the French horns. It's a very dramatic rendition, and ends the cue on an ominous tone.
15. As the Water... (2:01)
Harp and oboe play a new theme, which gives way to a cello duet with Yo-Yo Ma and Steve Erdody. It's an emotional yet pleasant track.
16. Confluence (3:42)
A Japanese flute and a harp slowly give way to an oboe playing Sayuri's Theme. Soon Ma is back with his cello, mirroring the oboe. Strings now build up to an optimistic variation on the theme. French horns come in, and now the cello plays a confident version of Sayuri's Theme. The track ends with the whole orchestra tenderly playing the theme and it all feels very hopeful.
17. A Dream Discarded (2:00)
Yo-Yo Ma has a cello solo here, and is playing what sounds to be a bit like a variation on the theme from "Going to School".
18. Sayuri's Theme and End Credits (5:06)
This lengthy end-title track starts of with two harps and a flute ostinato behind the strings playing Sayuri's theme. Soon glockenspiel and a flute appear, and pulsing string chords build with the French horns playing the theme. The excitement builds until it suddenly cuts off - leaving us with the violin rendition of the theme. Now the cello returns, with a string ostinato. Now the oboe comes in, introducing soft percussion in 7/8 in the background. The theme is played between the strings and the oboe, then the cello plays with them all as it builds - with the percussion - to a dramatic final note.
Memoirs of a Geisha will be released on November 22, 2005 by Sony Classical.
Special thanks to Beth Krakower, Jeremy Meyers, and Chris Tilton