By Stuart Barr
Mr Turner, Mike Leigh’s biopic of the later years of painter J.M.W. Turner’s life, was one of the highlights of 2014’s cinema releases. Leigh’s film avoided hagiography and attempted to present a cinematic sketch of the artist that both revealed the virtues and exposed the flaws of his character. Gary Yershon’s score for the film is similarly questioning, and often frustratingly unresolved, as fits the examination of a complex subject.
An unusual score, the music is performed in the main by an ensemble consisting of string and saxophone quartets, with the addition of occasional tuba, timpani, flute and harp. Given that the saxophone was not patented until five years before Turner’s death, it is clear that Yershon is not attempting period pastiche. This is not a score composed in a style contemporary to the films period setting.
As noted in the liner notes, Yershon makes use of glissando (a musical term meaning the sliding between notes) something possible with strings and sax, this gives the music a strange, almost woozy texture. The key musical refrain seems to float apart from the bass textures beneath, gliding through a downbeat, austere, almost dour musical landscape. Occasionally it hits washes of timpani and harp led percussion, such as on the cue ‘Lashed To The Mast’ which plays during one of the film’s visual set-pieces as Turner is tied to a ships mast so that he can experience the violence at the heart of a storm. The cue ‘Action Painting’ explodes in a skirl of strings that emphasis motion but out of this chaos emerges the familiar refrain that runs through the music.
It’s a sombre score that deliberately plays against the often lighthearted and humorous nature of the film. The effect in combination with the visuals is to create a musical subtext. Being that this is a film about the final years of a great life, the spectre of mortality is always present. The melancholy music is a constant reminder of this. However listening to a score in isolation is a different experience than it is when listened to alongside the visual elements of the film.
As a stand-alone piece of music, Yershon’s score is likely to disappoint those looking for big themes, and hummable refrains, this is much more about mood and texture. Not without moments of bombast, such as the aforementioned ‘Lashed To The Mast’ and the cues that accompany scenes set in the Royal Academy (which occasion necessary pomp and circumstance), this is a quiet and contemplative selection that pursues repeating musical themes at the expense of the variety.
Included on the disc as a bonus is music from A Running Jump, a short film also directed by Leigh that was commissioned for the London Olympics. This is a marked changed of pace, a series of cues based on a simple piano scale with a Caribbean inflected brass and drum accompaniment. The piano gives pace, and drive, and the brass adds a multicultural flavour, which given the source of the commission was clearly intentional.
Later tracks and cues present deliberate breaks in the rhythm and alterations in pace, presumably to reflect the course of the narrative and the obstacles encountered by characters (clearly, I haven’t seen the short), however the tracks pursue a consistent theme with the piano refrain stopping and starting, but always a constant thread through the music.
Mr Turner is not a score that I would imagine listening to a lot, it’s too focused on a constant tone and mood to be a totally engaging listening experience however it is a bold and unusual choice that works superbly in the context of the larger work of art of which it is a key component.
Mr Turner is available now on CD and digital from Varèse Sarabande Records