After United 93, World Trade Center [WTC] marks the second major attempt to dramatize the awful events of 9/11 in a theatrical film, and several critics were surprise at director Oliver Stone's restraint in technique (no multi-stock media and over-kinetic editing), and the dramatized events.
Relying on story, characters, and real-life drama, the film's subject matter demanded a more measured and respectful tone, and like John Powell's subdued approach for United 93, Craig Armstrong's score maintains a mournful tone, centered around a singular elegy.
As performed by cello, orchestra, and chorus in the CD's opening track, Armstrong's main theme is a lovely, anguished statement that doesn't attempt to encapsulate the enormous horror of 9/11. The cello's melancholic voice perfectly expresses deep sadness and the triumph of the human spirit - aspects that can easily come off as familiar melodrama, but are kept in check through cellist Alison Lawrence's strong performance.
A piano version is augmented with brief synth percussion and bass, but the melodic structure - lilting tenderness, and surges of passion via strings - will be familiar to fans of Romeo + Juliet, which Armstrong co-scored with Nellee Hooper amid director Baz Luhrmann's use of heavy but effective contemporary songs.
In that film, one sensed Armstrong's confidence in writing powerful orchestral material with modest electronics for a drama that wore its overwrought emotions on its lapels. The composer also exploited the film's inevitable, tragic conclusion by reminding us of the couple's devotion while the audience knew the tragic finale was rapidly approaching. That same finality obviously dominates WTC - the fall of the towers and loss of life - and cues such as "The Drive Downtown" nicely underscore the melange of thoughts and emotions felt as the firemen converge and head to the doomed towers.
Armstrong colours the cue with grand orchestral surges, and as they recede, he leaves an ominous tonal undercurrent, conveyed through unwavering, sustained chords that link the moments which drew the two firemen into the towers, and the collapse that ultimately pinned them in the bowels of the complex.
WTC has its bits of melodrama, but the score as a whole is notable as one of the first mainstream efforts to draw from 9/11, and give pause to the many ordinary people who helped save lives that day. Some listeners may find the album rather repetitive, a problem that frequently plagued Terence Blanchard's scores for a number of Spike Lee's film (think Clockers), but Armstrong's cues are lush, elegant works that form an effective narrative.
Pivotal moments in history have moved composers to write chamber and large scale orchestral memorials - immediate examples include Franz Waxman's Song of Terezin, and Elliot Goldenthal's Fire Water Paper: A Vietnam Oratorio - and films have become a uniquely contemporary realm that allow composers to exploit the direct relationship we've bred between images, sound effects, performances, and music.
As recent tragedies are tied to key images from TV news reports and films, the music of WTC is arguably part of a contemporary experience in which the composer's statement can reach listeners and hit the emotional chord, but go much deeper - aided through our increasingly ingrained ability to associate music with iconic images, and the digitized voices from eyewitnesses and the fallen. It's for that reason that the two current statements on 9/11 - the dark and unrelenting tones and rhythms of United 93, and the more contemporized harmonics and expressive sonic design of WTC - are notable efforts to preserve history through music.
© 2006 Mark R. Hasan