Critic’s notebook: ‘Shutter Island’ as a new-music haven


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The trailers at the cineplex the other day included the usual summer blockbuster suspects showing off their special effects -- one cartoonish morph after another after another. Every soundtrack was loaded down with the same super-deep, but sonically shallow, electronic bass. I wasn’t sure what felt more depressingly manufactured: a deserted and alienating L.A. Live, where I happened to be, or the expensive nonsense in the nearly empty new Regal Cinema, which boasts very big subwoofers.

Then “Shutter Island” began, and yet more bass. But this time it was the sound of a foghorn, and it had the rich, compelling texture of music. It was music. It was also a real, old-fashioned foghorn. Out of this sonic relic grew French horns, as if they had been there all along struggling to get out. The misty Boston harbor was on the screen, compelling and mysterious as a painting by Turner. I was transported. Music, sound effects and cinematography joined to evoke a sense of place and mood as only they can in great cinema and only, these days, when Hollywood looks the other way.


That opening music turned out to be Ingram Marshall’s haunting “Fog Tropes.” The 1981 new-music classic found its way onto the screen thanks to the famed singer, songwriter and guitarist Robbie Robertson, who was music supervisor for “Shutter Island.” And Marshall’s wonderful piece, which was a hit of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s recent West Coast, Left Coast festival, is only the beginning of a remarkable and gratifying collection of classic avant-garde scores Robertson has assembled for Martin Scorsese’s new, and I think mostly misunderstood, film.

You certainly wouldn’t know it from the awful album cover – which looks like your typical schlock horror film soundtrack recording – but Robertson’s two-CD set of music from “Shutter Island,” released by Rhino, proves to be an excellent compilation of short pieces by John Cage, John Adams, Morton Feldman, György Ligeti, Lou Harrison, Alfred Schnittke, Max Richter, Nam June Paik and that otherworldly Italian, Giacinto Scelsi. Brian Eno, Mahler and Dinah Washington also find their welcome way into the mix.

How did this happen?

After seeing the film, I reached Robertson on the phone. He explained that he has been a fan of these composers for decades. In fact, he said that sometime around 1969, in his years as a member of the Band, he was so moved when he first heard Penderecki’s disturbing “Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima” that he began a correspondence with the Polish composer, and they became musical friends.

As for “Shutter Island,” Robertson said, “the opportunity to show off these brilliant composers really makes me feel good.” It has been something he’s wanted to do for a long time. “I’d always thought Cage’s ‘Root of an Unfocus’ ” – which is for prepared piano – “would be great in a movie. And when Marty sent me the script, this is just where it went.”

That script is, on the surface, a psychological thriller, and it is being obnoxiously marketed as a scare-athon. The reviews have been, as they say, mixed, with the music thought of as melodramatic. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Robertson says he wanted something that didn’t sound like typical film music and it is the boldness of these composers that appealed to him. “In the back of my mind was the thought, why don’t we have some geniuses who could really amplify the emotional ideas?”


At first, Roberston says, this notion threw even Scorsese -- whose relationship with Robertson began with the 1978 documentary of the Band, “The Last Waltz.” “ ‘Shutter Island’ is the eighth movie I’d worked on with Marty, and it was the first time his response was, ‘Oh, man, I don’t know what to do with that.’ ”

But Scorsese is a musical director and he clearly did know what to do with it. Although he didn’t ignore the throbbing possibilities of the Passacaglia movement of Penderecki’s Third Symphony, most of the music is used so subtly that even the geekiest new-music geek will have trouble identifying everything. I think I got maybe 60%.

Robertson went through a lot of trouble to make things work as well. He pointed out that while everyone agrees the Berlin Philharmonic’s recording of Ligeti’s “Lontano” is the best, he chose the Vienna Philharmonic recording under Claudio Abbado because he thought the warmth of the Vienna sound suited the film better.

But the real brilliance of this score is that the music doesn’t cue the action or explain anything. It adds emotional texture, serving as an alternate universe for a film that has at its essence an alternate universe. Still, I do think it’s one alternate universe too many to present this excellent introduction to late 20th century music on CD as horror film music.

-- Mark Swed


Betsy Sharkey’s review of ‘Shutter Island’