By Stuart Barr
Although it is his music for Peter Jackson on the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit films that has brought Canadian composer Howard Shore his greatest success – topping classical music charts, ubiquitous on Classic FM, three Oscars – it is perhaps be his intense and long-running collaborations with director David Cronenberg that are his greatest works.
Beginning with The Brood in 1979, Shore has scored almost all of the films of the director once called Dave ‘Deprave’ Cronenberg. The hack who coined that sobriquet back in the seventies would no doubt be aghast at the subsequent careers of the director and his musical collaborator, Cronenberg into one of the godfathers of intellectual independent cinema, and Shore into the composer for the most lucrative and bombastic film series of the new century.
Cronenberg is one of the few undeniable auteurs in modern cinema, a filmmaker whose style and themes are so consistent that his movies are instantly recognisable. In fact his work is often compared to that of a scientist conducting an experiment, each subsequent entry refining and narrowing the focus of the last. Shore’s work with the director can be placed within the same analogy, in stark contrast to the epic orchestral attack and jaunty whimsy of his Middle-earth scores, Shore’s work for Cronenberg has tended towards the minimalist (with the exception of the operatic gothic score for The Fly) using a refined instrumental palate and featuring consistent musical ideas.
The frigid and frosty locations used by Cronenberg on his earlier films (a necessity of the tax breaks offered to Canadian productions at the time, which resulted in films being shot in Autumn/Winter) give them a distinct flavour. Equally Shore’s use of melancholy woodwind and strings to explore minor-key ideas contributes as much to the atmosphere of emotional detachment and often downbeat subject matter (noted genre critic Kim Newman has called The Brood one of the most depressing horror films ever made).
Crash may be the most innovative and daring score Shore has produced, fittingly for one of Cronenberg’s most divisive and controversial films. Adapted from the novel by J.G. Ballard, the film charts the bizarre and transgressive activities of a group of people who are attracted to the erotic possibilities of the automobile accident. The wet interface of cold steel with torn flesh, a wound created by the penetration of a thigh by broken gear lever representing a new pleasure orifice. Only Cronenberg could produce a film is so elegant, detached, and darkly humorous from such material, a terrific cinematic translation of Ballard’s literary genius.
Defiantly minimalist, the music for Crash is composed for a restricted set of instruments that are gradually broadened as the film progresses. The opening track, ‘Crash’, which played out to an equally minimal and elegant title sequence uses electric guitar to create an onomatopoeic soundscape. Single sustained notes sound like a windscreen shattering into a million tiny diamonds and ‘raining’ on hard asphalt, or the ‘tink’ of a stainless steel body panel cracking under stress. Longer sustained notes are bent and bowed like twisting metal through tremolo picking and production treatment.
As the score progresses through cues with evocative titles such as ‘Mechanism of Occupant Ejection’ and ‘Mansfield Crash’ Shore introduces more instruments. First harp joins the twanging guitars continuing the piercing metallic theme. Then woodwind and strings introduce a more organic, softer tones, a sonic symbol of the flesh that is penetrated and slashed by the harsh magnetised vibration of steel against pickup coils and the electric hum of amps on tracks such as ‘Two Semi Metallic Human Beings’ (the track listing could double as a programme for an unstaged exhibition of Francis Bacon paintings). All these elements are brought together in the closing title track ‘Prophecy is Dirty and Ragged’.
This as a score of glacial and minimal beauty.
Howe Records’ reissue (part of a series of Cronenberg-Shore releases from the label, Shore’s own) remasters the previous and now out of print Milan release but also adds several bonus tracks for added value. It is an excellent package and an essential purchase for fans of Shore’s work.
Crash: Collector’s Edition is out now from Howe Records