Mao's Last Dancer Composed by Christopher Gordon
Lakeshore Records (2010)
Soundclips below from AmazonMP3
“MAO’S LAST DANCER
is the kind of score that stays with you, not only for its strong
themes but for the sheer strength of its musicality, which
transcends the film and actually stands very favourably on its own.
A Dance to Remember
Review by Marius Masalar
The music of CHRISTOPHER GORDON will no doubt already be familiar to
readers of Tracksounds since we recently covered the Australian’s dark
score for DAYBREAKERS. In that review, I mentioned that GORDON’s most
notable score was not DAYBREAKERS or MASTER AND COMMANDER, but MAO’S LAST
DANCER, and now that the film has been widely released in theatres since
August, it’s finally time to take a closer look at this fine score that
earned him a Best Original Score award from the American Film Institute.
Considering the almost documentary-level intimacy of the story, it’s no
surprise that the musical score is, for the most part, quite reserved.
That being said, when highlighting the movie’s most dramatic moments,
GORDON allows himself to unleash the full breadth of his considerable
musical abilities. This is immediately evident in the rousing and mystical
opening track, “Out of the Well” (1). The film’s primary theme is
introduced softly on a Chinese flute before the more active secondary
theme takes over. Over the course of just under two and a half minutes, we
are presented with an extremely attractive and charismatic blending of
Eastern and Western sensibilities with some very idiomatic writing for
both hemispheres of instrumentation.
The predominantly Chinese sound is more evident in these opening tracks
that take place in the protagonist’s rural town. “Village Life” (2) opens
with a light and airy take on the theme that gives way to a crashing
percussive middle section and winds its way back where it started in a
wonderful montage featuring the Chinese instruments exclusively. This
sound is continued through the haunting guzheng solo “Lullaby” (3) and
“Story of the Frog” (4), where the flute once again takes up the main
theme, this time passing it off to a less rich ensemble for the secondary
“Family” (5) is where the western instruments start entering again, with a
solemn string section accompanying the Chinese flute as it cries out a sad
lament. As the story begins to develop, “The Archer” (6) offers a noble
glance at the main theme as the story moves into a more Western zone. The
erhu blends beautifully with the orchestral string section and together
they set up the introduction of the score’s other major theme: “Pas de
Deux” (7). This solo piano piece is heart-wrenchingly beautiful and the
theme itself will come to represent the bittersweet experience of ballet
throughout the rest of the score as the love theme. “Turning Points” (8)
is a brief but dynamic cue that brings in the last of the score’s major
themes. After a brief traditional string solo opening, the orchestra takes
over and presents the new theme, a dramatic and showy affair that’s almost
heroically graceful in its presentation.
The orchestra continues to dominate in the first of the arranged tracks
that appear on the album. In this case, it is “Giselle: Hunt and Peasant’s
Dance” (9), GORDON’s arrangement of a classical piece written by Johann
Friedrich Franz Burgmüller, a fairly obscure German composer of the 1800s.
The piece is unmistakably Classical and very lively — a fitting
combination for accompanying ballet. The next track is a bit of a chimaera
in that it’s actually a collection of several solo piano exercises used
for ballet practice. In this way, “Sirhc Nodrog’s Book of Ballet Exercises
for the Pianoforte…” (10) changes the pace of the album since each
exercise is only a few seconds long and there are ten of them played end
to end that make up the track. Despite this, the effect is not disjointed
and the individual pieces are truly charming. Astute readers will note
that the mysterious ‘Sirhc Nodrog’ is in fact ‘Chris Gordon’ backwards,
which explains why the style is so consistent with the Pas de Deux — and
why each of the exercises are just as beautiful.
“Madam’s Model Ballet” (11) is one of the album’s standout tracks. Serving
up the recently introduced noble ballet theme introduced in “Turning
Points”, this extremely brassy and boisterous arrangement is hopelessly
catchy and blends Eastern harmonic progressions and instruments with the
Western orchestra masterfully. Truly a spectacular piece of music that
you’ll wish was longer. “Becoming a Dancer” (12) tones things down with a
peaceful and contemplative montage cue. Several of the film’s themes weave
in and out, including the nostalgic solo flute riff and its accompanying
erhu dance that mirrors the opening track almost perfectly.
“Free Dance” (13) brings us into the score’s latter portion that consists
of several more arranged works. This first track is a study in energetic,
piano-led jazz though. It’s an extremely contemporary and bouncy piece of
music and the minimalistic percussion accompaniment adds some extra fun.
“Dance of Longing” (14) slowly builds into a stirring violin-led elegy
that shimmers and whispers and only very patiently builds to the level of
stirring emotion that one expects to represent longing. Ludwig Minkus, the
Austrian composer, is the next source music cue in “Don Quixote: Pas de
Deux” (15). GORDON provides a very authentic arrangement, bristling with
orchestral energy. The classic “Sonata in D K576: Andante” (16) by Mozart
follows; the peaceful piano standing in sharp contrast to the previous
track. And no ballet film would be complete without some reference to
Tchaikovsky’s ubiquitous Swan Lake, and so “White Swan Lake” (17) and
“Black Swan Lake” (18) both present excerpts from the work, one calmer and
the latter more dramatic.
The album continues with “The Consulate” (19). The longest track on the
disc is also among the finest, with a fantastic build that breaks off into
blissful passages of Chinese flute solos before concluding orchestrally.
“Pas de Deux (Reprise)” (20) is a short and fading rendition of the love
theme and is nearly forgotten as we advance into the album’s final tracks.
“Brush Dance ‘Zhang Ban Qiao’” (21) is a minimalistic but evocative
atmospheric cue, and its transparency lends weight to the dramatic
entrance of the love theme in “Break up and Reunion” (22). MAO’S LAST
DANCER finishes strongly with “Village Dance and Finale” (23), an amazing
and intensely satisfying recapitulation of the score’s themes that simply
MAO’S LAST DANCER is the kind of score that stays with you, not only for
its strong themes but for the sheer strength of its musicality, which
transcends the film and actually stands very favourably on its own. It’s a
very dynamic listening experience, but not an incoherent one despite the
source tracks and clashes of Eastern and Western aesthetics. CHRISTOPHER
GORDON shows us his best, and if nothing else, this look back at his
strongest work reminds us that he is a talent to watch for.