Perhaps the biggest issue for the producers of this CD is how to distill the 5-hour experience of John Woo’s Red Cliff / Chi bi into an album that runs just over 63 mins. (Those in North America will have a difference perspective, because Magnet Releasing has chosen to release the film not in its original 2-part format but as a 2 and a half hour condensation.)
The score by Japanese composer Taro Iwashiro (Nihon chinbotsu / The Sinking of Japan) is ostensibly a western orchestral design, but it goes against the epic format by staying relatively low-key through much of the film, with a few more overt action cues.
Much of the score is based around a rather elegiac melody that’s comprised of three parts: a rather whimsical, buoyant intro with strings and rustic fiddle; a soothing neo-contemporary melodic line that encapsulates the colourful characters within the historical battle between an imperial northern power and two allied southern powers; and a militaristic line with subtle trumpet fanfares, as well as a tense motif that figures throughout the film’s tense action scenes as each side wages assaults before the final (and magnificently realized) battle sequence at Red Cliff in southern China.
One could approach the film and score as a massively realized mini-series, but while Parts 1 and 2 were released to the rest of the world in 2008 and 2009, the time gap is a traditional intermission before the pivotal battle is chronicled over 2.5 hours.
There are some striking musical parallels in Iwashiro’s score with American Civil War scores: the expansive use of dense strings, heavy, foreboding lower brass, and a rustic string solo that sounds like a southern, bluesy jig, but is later tied to an ancient instrument that’s more of a freeform acoustic table harp than western fiddle.
Its use and the performance onscreen is truly fascinating, because its sounds are almost abstract, save for the shift in single notes –almost resembling a slide guitar – and textural strokes similar to a tightly tuned sting bass. The ancient instrument does make an appearance in “Sound of Heartstrings,” with heavy drums thundering underneath.
Perhaps Iwashiro’s intention was to create a musical link for western audiences, but to keep the theme and intonations distinct, it’s also heard on a bamboo flute as performed by a warlord’s son, in a sequence where hardened warriors stop and take note of the imperfect innocence of the performance, as well as the beauty of melody in their daily world of combat and self-sacrifice.
“Secret Stratagem” is similarly invigorating for its sweeping, yet lightly drawn string and woodwind figures, and crystallizes the energy of a plot or carefully thought out plan which surprises the brutal conquerors in battle by sly deception, and sometimes following the natural rhythms of the water or wind – factors that ultimately help the alliance win the battle.
Iwashiro occasionally makes use of solo drums in a few kinetic action cuts like “On the Battlefield” and particularly “Shooooot!” but the score’s design is to help orient viewers between the emerging alliances and conflicts between the devilishly clever Prime Minister, and the allied warlords.
Moreover, cues like “Shadow of Evanescence” give formal and poetic dialogue styles accessible emotional context, and intensify the relationships among former rivals, as well as their personal conflicts in contemplating war, the pecking order between a family, and the small shreds of humanity even in the Prime Minister.
“Closing Upon the Enemy” is a repeated percussion motif – part drum, part metallic clang – over which Iwashiro varies the density of his brass and strings, as well as layers of extra drums as the alliance uses an old-fashioned formation to bait and ensnare rival soldiers to their bloody doom.
Within the film’s two parts, the use of the main theme and its segments never becomes repetitive – the whimsical intro often lightens things after a violent clash, as well as establishes the humour in the tomboy sister who sneaks into the Prime Minister’s camp, and strikes up a friendship with a witless but genial soldier.
Silva Screen’s crisply mastered CD, which gathers most of the main cues (but could easily have worked as a 2-disc project) also comes with the vocal theme songs of the “Red Cliff” theme that closed both parts of the long version, as well as an orchestral cue (“Outroduction of Legend”) that bridges the cues with a mournful summary of the score’s tragic theme variation, as well as a flute version, resetting the tone into something more hopeful. The vocal segments in Part 1 is balanced by lengthy instrumental parts (a small chamber orchestra), and a gilded orchestra with contemporary rhythm section and spare electronics supports the more formal song structure for Part 2’s closing cue.
For a director best-known for his epic and violent action films, it’s refreshing to hear a rich score that rises above standard aural kineticism and embraces the diversity of characters in one of the most striking and memorable epics in recent years.
© 2010 Mark R. Hasan