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Soundtrack review: Snow falling on cedars (James Newton Howard, 1999)

JNH Thursday

Soundtrack review: Snow falling on cedars (James Newton Howard, 1999)


“Snow falling on Cedars” is a movie based on a bestselling novel, about a Japanese-American man accused of murdering a respected member of the local community in post world war II America, when then anti-Japanese sentiments were the strongest. 
“Snow falling on cedars” is James Newton Howard’s “Last samurai”. It is his sensible and amazing take at a Japanese inspired composition. It’s a theme tailored for him, because there aren’t many composers in the world right now with such a level of sensitivity and subtlety. He took his finest brush and painted an almost monochrome picture, having snow and fog as inspiration. Actually, this is one of the very few scores for which the cover of the album stuck with me. There was something about it… light blue and white, with two faces with frozen expressions blended into the image, almost transparent. There’s no sadness on those faces, and they are as still and beautiful as a winter landscape.  The image stuck with me because it is the perfect representation of the music. Nothing heavy, nothing flashy….just a gentle winter haze that dissolves the frozen blue and white tones…The score is string based with some electronic inserts. The cello and the violin take center stage most of the time…in other moments Newton Howard introduces the shakuhachi flute, a Japanese woodwind instrument that works perfectly in this score.
Sometimes when I listen to James Newton Howard’s music I imagine seeing perfect miniatures where every detail is carefully crafted. And just as you have to use a magnifying glass to better appreciate a miniature, so you have to listen a little louder and more carefully to “Snow falling on cedars”. Listening to this score is like being outside on a winter evening, right before sundown, and listening to the wind. You cannot see much because of the winter mist and the deceiving light of dusk, and this makes you hearing more astute. You just listen to the wind and catch a wealth and variety of sounds you didn’t know existed…most of the times it’s a whisper, other times it’s a soft howl…
 …and once, suddenly, the wind turns into a typhoon that comes from nowhere and sweeps you of your feet. As in almost every James Newton Howards score, there is a 6 star perfect cue, one immortal piece of music that I can’t ever forget or get out of my mind. Here, it’s “Tarawa”.  The choir explodes from all directions and makes the cue so deep that I feel completely naked in that winter landscape. The goose bumps make me shiver and I feel this track down to my bones. It’s the revolt, the snow storm, and it quiets down as suddenly as it started, leaving me with a void inside.
In “The evacuation”, the longest track of this score, I hear the seeds of “Harvey Two-face” and the first appearance of the magnificent choir that makes Tarawa a perfect cue. “Humanity goes on trial” is another soft choral highlight; a beautiful, sad and haunting piece of music.
“Snow falling on cedars” is one of those scores that are very hard to break and interrupt. It’s a continuous work of art and one of the most beautiful showcases of James Newton Howards’ rare skills. All the elements blend together into an exquisite listening experience. Just close your eyes and let the winter haze gently take you over…
My ratings:
Cue rating: 87 / 100
Total minutes of excellence: 62 / 67
Album excellence: 92%
Cues to listen to:
Lost In The Fog 
Carl’s Fishing Net 
The Strawberry Field 
The German Soldier  
The evacuation
Courtroom montage
Susan Marie remembers
Humanity goes on trial
Can I hold you now?
End titles 
Mihnea Manduteanu

I have been listening to film music for 25 years and writing about it since 2014. I've written over 1000 reviews and I can't imagine myself doing anything else. I am also a member of IFMCA (International Film Music Critics Association).

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