by Jonathan Broxton, www.moviemusicuk.us.
I’m trying to remember the last time a composer in his 20s scored a film with as much importance, class and critical acclaim as Nico Muhly has with The Reader. Certainly none of the biggies ““ John Williams was 34 when he scored his first “serious” movie, The Rare Breed in 1966. Jerry Goldsmith was 33 when he scored Lonely Are the Brave in 1962. Elmer Bernstein was 33 when he scored The Man with the Golden Arm in 1955. The only one who springs to mind is James Horner, who was 29 in 1982 when he scored Star Trek II, but since then film composing has become, if not an old man’s game, then certainly a game for men older than Nico Muhly, who is but a comparative child at just 27. However, listening to his score for The Reader, one would be forgiven for thinking that it was the work of an older, seasoned, and more experienced composer, such is its confidence and technical strength.
The Reader is an adaptation of Bernhard Schlink’s devastating, best selling German-language novel Der Vorleser, and is directed by Stephen Daldry. Set in Germany in 1958, 1966 and 1995, it tells the story of lawyer Michael Berg (Ralph Fiennes), and his reminiscences about his life. As an adolescent, young Michael (David Kross) embarks on a liberated relationship with a free-spirited woman named Hanna (Kate Winslet), despite the fact that she was much older than him; their liaisons at her apartment were characterized by him reading out loud the literary works he was studying in school. However, a decade later, when Michael is in law school, he is horrified to learn that during World War II, Hanna was a guard at the Auschwitz concentration camp, and may have been personally responsible for the deaths of more than 300 Jewish women.
A little bit of background information: Nico Muhly was born in Vermont in 1981, studied at Juilliard and Columbia University with, among others, John Corigliano, and began his career as a protégé of Philip Glass, working as an editor, conductor, and keyboardist on film scores such as The Hours, Undertow, The Illusionist and Notes on a Scandal. In 2006 he released his first classical album, “˜Speaks Volumes’, and the same year wrote his first film score, for the unusual psychological drama Choking Man. His second score, for the disturbing horror movie Joshua, was released on CD by MovieScore Media. The Reader is his third theatrical score, but the first one to attain any kind of international attention.
The fact that Muhly is a protégé of Philip Glass is very apparent in his work. From the small thematic fragments that repeat throughout the score, to the prominent use of a reduced string section and solo piano, to the pervading sense of “˜minimalism’ which extends throughout the score, Muhly’s work is very much an extension of Glass’s compositional stylistics ““ although, ironically, Muhly actually surpasses Glass in one key element: warmth. Whereas Glass, and other classically-minded composers like Michael Nyman and Zbigniew Preisner, often composes scores which are technically superb but somewhat sterile, Muhly’s score for The Reader retains the classical intellectualism but imbues it with a more inviting emotional aspect. This is not to say that The Reader is in any way a conventionally emotional, romantic score, because it’s not, but there is still a great deal to admire and enjoy.
The score opens with an intimate, hesitant piano theme in “The Egg”, before opening up into an expressionistic, slightly troubling oboe piece in “Spying”, where it is accompanied by moody string writing and a percussive bass line which is, somehow, playful and vaguely unsettling at the same time. That’s the thing about The Reader: the most impressive things about it are not the themes, or the overwhelming emotions, but the intricacies of the orchestrations, the way certain instruments play off each other, the way timbres combine to form fascinating sounds. The score is full of little things like this: like the celeste and harp duet in “The First Bath”, which when underpinned by low cellos takes on an unexpectedly threatening air; or the tinkling pianos which combine with David Theodore’s gently soothing oboe in “It’s Not Just About You”; or the way the strings take on a mischievous pizzicato performance technique, and combine with lusher strings and more hooting woodwinds, in the lovely “Reading”.
As the score progresses, as one would expect given the nature of the film, the music becomes significantly darker in tone. “Go Back To Your Friends” is probably the best cue on the album; for the first time in the score Muhly introduces brass into his orchestral palette, and the effect is startling, giving the previously lace-thin music a more robust feeling. The churning strings, elegant woodwind lines, delicate piano melody, and increased sense of urgency make the cue a real standout. Later, “Handwriting” uses syncopated pianos to superb effect, and “The Failed Visit” uses the oboe motif from earlier in the score in a slightly frantic way, giving the cue a sense of frustration and resignation.
Some cues have a little more energy about them, using the previously established instrumental combo of strings, piano, harp and woodwinds to convey urgent movement in “Tram at Dawn”, or a sense of freedom and gaiety in the delightfully sunny “Cycling Holiday”, or a palpable sense of menace in “Not What I Expected”, especially through the way Muhly has his instruments hit aural pressure points simultaneously. Overall, The Reader is a quiet, intimate, restrained score which I’m sure some will find exceptionally boring, especially if your tastes tend to remain firmly in the action/fantasy genres. This is one of those scores where the devil is in the detail, where the little instrumental touches and clever combinations are more appealing than the swooning themes.
What strikes me most about it, though, is how mature and accomplished it all sounds, given Muhly’s tender years. There are many older, more experienced composers than Muhly who would give their right arm to be able to write music as dramatically intelligent and sophisticated as this; it’s also worth noting that, as well as composing, Muhly conducts and orchestrates his own work too ““ a rarity indeed in this day and age. What will be interesting is to see where Muhly goes from here: whether he takes the Glass/Nyman/Corigliano route of scoring films with art house pretensions and awards caliber while remaining firmly entrenched in the classical world, or whether he wholeheartedly embraces film music in all its multitude of genres and becomes a major player in the industry in years to come. Personally, based on the strength of the score, I hope it’s the latter.