I must confess that when I saw the film The Last Samurai I dont remember too much about the musical score. There could be two reasons why this would be the case. Firstly it may have been that the music was not very memorable and therefore didnt stick in the mind, secondly it could be that the film was so well suited to the film and fitted so well with the action and settings that it was representative of, that it became as one, a flawless addition to the overall effect of the big screen creation. On reflection having heard the music for its own sake and having revisited the film, I realise that the second scenario is deffinatley the case and good though the film was, the music in many ways surpasses it and becomes a star in its own right. There seem to be a select few composers who get the task of scoring the big name films and one of the current favourites is Hans Zimmer, known for such worthy musical creations as Black Hawk Down, Gladiator and since the Last Samurai score has been responsible for The Da Vinci Code score, itself a masterful work of dark atmospheres and grand ecclesiastical themes. Here though the influences are obvious to all, in a film about East meeting West the music had some interesting options available to it, the flowing orchestral creations of traditional western orchestration on the one hand, the exotic and delicate sounds of traditional eastern instruments on the other.
This mixing of Orient and Occident is first ventured into timidly in the opening theme, A Way of Life, opening on bamboo flutes and distant lute like strings being plucked, this has a Japanese edge to it but once underway moves into more western themes. The gradual build and change of style reminds the listener about the nature of film scores when heard as stand alone pieces of music. Whereas most classical compositions are written with the end user that is the listener traditionally sat in the auditorium, in mind, sound tracks are not. Soundtracks take their cue not so much from the unbounded imagination of the composer but from the screen action that they have to mimic or enhance. What you get then on albums such as this, is music that has to quickly evolve to match the films emotions and story and as such seems to move through many more ideas and changes than less restrictive projects. Purists may not see OST scores as being that vital to the field of classical music but in a world where the diner jacketed listener is no longer sat in the same room as the orchestra, is being replaced by radio broadcast, televised programs, CDs, I-pods, downloads and the like, film scores are very much adding to the popularity, if not the survival, of classical music. But back to the music.
If the opening track dips its toe timidly into the art of blending eastern and western themes, Spectres in the Fog plunges head first into those waters. It builds, again, on very oriental sounds, Taiko drums offer a powerful beat, creating a drama and atmosphere that matches the tension on screen and as these fade away into a ghostly mix of flute and percussion a typical Hans Zimmer big finish is given to use. Big orchestral string-dominated waves of urgency speed the music to its natural conclusion leaving the listener out of breath and on edge. Taken is a slow burning lull in this tension building from a brooding violin base it builds again to lofty heights adding drama and power as it goes. Taking a break from the grandiose side of things A Hard Teacher is a soft and romantic piece and with its dominant Japanese woodwind sounds is slightly less western than some of what has gone before. What Zimmer manages to deliver, especially on these gentler tracks is sheer beauty. People expecting the man to deliver a re-hash of his style setting themes from Gladiator or the pulsing rhythms from his other east-west score to Black Rain will be pleasantly surprised by the measured and soft tones of many of these tracks particularly those that lead in the more eastern direction.
To Know My Enemy can almost be seen as an overview of the CD as a whole as it seems to move through and capture the essence of all of the styles and ideas on the record. A wash of strings set the ground work, soon to be replaced by those stunning Taiko drums and some hardly heard woodblock percussion before briefly exploding into a dance of flutes and beats before falling back to the calmness of before. Large orchestrated passages rise and fall, threatening to take hold of the piece before building into a dramatic finish. To counter the drama Idylls End revisits the main theme of the opening track and again proves that even in a film, and a score, full of big statements, action and power, some of the most memorable moments come from the checked and restrained pieces, though this time around that main theme is built into a more involved passage. This theme is visited again in the closing track and in my mind is some of the most listenable and evocative music that Zimmer has ever written, and considering this project was the mans 100th film score, that is quite an accolade. 100 film scores in less than twenty years is not bad for a man who originally began working with synth music and whose work has long since overshadowed the fact that he help to bring the Buggles hit Video Killed he Radio Star to the world.
Whilst the track Safe Passage is one of the few that is less than immediate, though I hasten to add that there are no low points on this CD, Ronin is one just bursting with martial drama. Thumping drums emphasise the intensity of this short and sweet piece which comes as a massive contrast to the dreamy and gentle nature of the previous track. It does however act as a wake up call for the wonderful Red Warrior which features some voice work in the form of the shouted passages over tempestuous music, a real feeling of readying for battle is grasped from this piece as the film and its music race to the dramatic conclusion of the story. Incidentally the use of these warrior cries has been the source of much debate amongst music fans offending and thrilling people in equal measure. I think they work well and add tension and drama, you could say chants would be a fine thing well maybe not but at least you understand the strange choice of a title. The Way of the Sword takes us into battle and moves between tense anticipation to full-blown musical charges that capture the essence of the climax of the tale. It is a wonderful percussive and very exciting piece but never sounds like it was written purely as a vehicle for an action movie. All of these creations stand-alone very well and have a life away from the screen that many scores never achieve. The CD is rounded off by a return to the dulcet tones of the opening theme, which makes for a complete and orderly package and a fitting end to this majestic music.
Zimmer was clever in that he never set out to imitate oriental music, more to pay homage to its nature and the combination of the western orchestration that we are familiar with and the subtle strains of Japans musical heritage works so well. The combination of human voices and the usual subtle use of electronically created music and background rhythms add to make one of the finest film scores of recent times. Long may he continue to deliver quality music to the film industrys grand creations. They shoot, he scores.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
1 A Way of Life
2 Spectres in the Fog
4 A Hard Teacher
5 To Know My Enemy
6 Idyll's End
7 Safe Passage
9 Red Warrior
10 The Way of the Sword
11 A Small Measure of Peace