Sharps and Flats

By Joe Rosenthal
Published December 17, 1996 8:00PM (EST)

it is said that the critic's heart is a small, cold and dessicated thing, that its owner is incapable of being moved even by the most poignant musical or dramatic spectacles. Much as I would like to confirm this notion, I am forced to confess that I have a pronounced tendency to cry at the movies, often before the trailers are through. As a child I wept at "Bambi"; as an adolescent I wept at "Terms of Endearment"; as an adult I weep at the mere thought of "Gone With the Wind." At a showing of "The Accompanist" last year I was moved to such a demonstration of grief that I found myself being escorted from the theater before the protagonists had even had a chance to die. I fully expect to weep at "Mars Attacks."

So it was with great anticipation that I unwrapped the soundtrack to Jane Campion's new movie "The Portrait of a Lady" (based on the Henry James novel), with music by Polish composer Wojciech Kilar and Viennese composer Franz Schubert. Soundtracks are, after all, the great lubricants of the tear ducts. I curled up with my tearstained security blanket, a box of kleenex, and the CD notes, replete with photographs of Nicole Kidman posing with somber, absent facial expressions. I had within easy reach a cutting board with a knife and a large Vidalia onion on it, to prime the pump should my eyes remain dry past the first few tracks. I listened to this disc in good faith.

But I switched it off in very bad humor. Mr. Kilar is evidently a fan of minimalism. So am I, as it happens; but minimalism's accomplishment is to create out of the repetition of small units the illusion of vast spaces. Minimalism at its best is about architecture, monumental strength, atomic structures, the relationship of the very small to the seemingly infinite.

It is difficult to say what Mr. Kilar's minimalism is about. It is not about strength or architecture. It is certainly not about Henry James; I hope for Ms. Campion's sake that this music is not about her movie. The units the composer chooses to repeat are comparatively large ones, sentimental themes that would normally reduce me to a salty puddle sloshing around in my popcorn container; but after the umpteenth repetition these themes become so cloying and unfortunately infectious that after one audition of this disc you will not be free of them for at least a week, if ever.

The chamber music by Franz Schubert should have come like an oasis in this desert of relentless and ruined sentimentality; but the spectacle of poor Schubert abandoned in the middle of this particular desert was so ghastly and surreal that I found myself too depressed to drink.

I have concocted a home remedy for this depression, which I confidently recommend: one Henry James novel, a half-dozen Schubert chamber works chosen at random, one security blanket, one box of kleenex. No onion is required.

Joe Rosenthal

Joe Rosenthal is an associate music editor for Prodigy Music Services. His writing has appeared in Hotwired and Rolling Stone Online.

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