• Music from the Movies

Music from the Movies
by Randall Larson

Crab Orchard is a gentle drama about a family torn apart by the September 11th 2001 attacks on America, and how they ultimately find their strength by returning to their roots. The film, which stars Ed Asner, Judge Reinhold, and Ruby Handler, is the directorial debut of Michael J. Jacobs, whose career thus far has been as stills photographer for dozens of movies since the late 1970s.

Alan Williams has provided an eloquently beautiful score that instantly reflects the heart of the characters – both those who survived as well as those whose presence post 9/11 is conveyed poignantly through flashback. The score’s instrumentation embodies a kind of American roots music flavor – lots of nylon and steel acoustic guitars, woodwinds, and piano. The gentle melodies are heartrending, providing a subtle Americana background to the film while echoing the human consequences and connections that lie within the heart of the film. The immense calamity of the 9/11 attacks is not conveyed musically; rather Williams focuses his small ensemble on a small group of characters, emphasizing the microcosm of their personal family crisis rather than the overwhelming national tragedy.

The result is music that is heartfelt and exquisitely beautiful. It is a beauty that arises in a very naturalistic way due to the score’s homespun acoustic orchestration. A tender melody for piano, usually echoed by violin and winds, is introduced in the touching ‘Remembering,’ and recalled in ‘A Hero.’ The melody becomes a moving and dignified theme for the fallen hero who is remembered in flashback. The melody becomes a recurring theme throughout the score – rather than separate themes for different characters, Williams summarizes and bonds all of them through a single, beautifully articulate motif that reflects directly back upon the fallen heroes of 9/11. This tonality will recur throughout the score, modified in texture, tonality, rhythm, and strength as the score and the story develops.

‘Morning Montage’ captures a lovely melody for acoustic guitars that really develops a compelling cadence that pushes the track persuasively forward; the contrast between the eloquently picked notation and the strummed rhythm is just wonderful; the embellishment of woodwinds midway through really elevates the music into something very special. ‘Burning Cabin’ is another somewhat more dramatic cue, with pulses of bass guitar driving an urgent semblance of steel string guitar, cymbal glissandi, and violins, before opening into the gentle main melody for flutes over powerfully thrumming guitars. ‘Rescue’ revisits the same approach, adding a piano and a fluently expressive resolution for strings.

The music for Crab Orchard is at once reflective, melancholy, hopeful, and resolute in its motivic delineation of a family that is determined to weather together the worse that life will bring. That is the culminating solidity of this score, to my way of thinking – its reflection of and connection with family (which is what roots music as a genre has always been about; by adopting that type of instrumentation for his score, Williams generates a convincing and immediate rapport with the American family, which is exactly what this film needed) is clearly echoed in the music’s tonality and texture. The music, as with the film itself, honors fallen members while also emphasizing the stability of one’s family as a respite and place of renewal and personal triumph.

Alan Williams remains one of the most underrated and dependably capable composers of film music in the business. His efforts for small yet unforgettable films like Crab Orchard are among the hidden treasures of film and film music, discovered by a fortunate few. Thankfully, many of his soundtracks are available in private pressings and can therefore be treasured by an increasingly greater audience.