Scorsese, Robertson, and the Music of Shutter Island

Teddy Daniels

Mahlerman returns with a post celebrating the exceptional soundtrack to the film Shutter Island, one of many successful collaborations between Martin Scorsese and Robbie Robertson…

The time was Thanksgiving, 1976. The place was the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, and the last performance of the Canadian-American rock group The Band. It marked the start of an almost 40 year friendship between the guitarist Robbie Robertson, and the Italian-American film director Martin Scorsese.

The first fruit of that union came in 1978 with the release of perhaps the classic rock movie, a record of that memorable final concert that became The Last Waltz. But it wasn’t the last waltz for Robbie, who went on to create, produce or ‘supervise’ on a number of Marty’s films – most recently the insanely over-the-top, The Wolf of Wall Street, a movie that, at three hours, didn’t seem overlong. But it was back in 2010 that the director started flexing his auteur muscles with the two hours twenty minutes of Shutter Island, a spooky thriller that I didn’t fully understand, but found myself enjoying for the unusual (for Scorsese) soundtrack, which moved from dark, to black-as-a-coal-hole-on-a-November-night.

I’m guessing, but after a long friendship, and no little success, the director must have trusted Robertson enough to allow him the freedom to find existing non-diegetic music that would not ‘describe a scene’, but would add emotional texture, and create (as it did for me) a sort of parallel universe of sound.

As the film begins we hear the ominous Gothic sprawl of Fog Tropes, for brass sextet and tape, by the post-minimalist American ‘expressivist’ Ingram Marshall. As with a lot of ‘music’ of this kind, it started life in one form, and gradually transmogrified into something more complex – in this case, from a set of field recordings of fog-horns around San Francisco Bay, made in 1979 for performance artist Grace Ferguson, it was manipulated and expanded, with added brass, into a dense neo-symphonic structure that works wonderfully well as a bleak, modern, stand-alone tone-poem, of the kind that Richard Strauss might have composed had he lived to 150 years.

A little later in the film, as the main protagonist Teddy Daniels and his partner Chuck first see the forbidding island, we are treated to the striking Passacaglia movement from the Symphony No 3 by one of the giants of 20th Century music, the Pole, Krzysztof Penderecki. Written in ‘arch’ form, the composer immediately sets the tone of the piece with a repeated ostinato in the low strings, and the movement builds to a shattering climax, before subsiding into quietude. The painting, as densely packed as the music, is Painting, 1948 by the Dutch master Willem de Kooning.

Can you remember the last piece you heard by Morton Feldman? Well no, neither can I – but I have sought out the music of this Russian-Jewish New Yorker and have concluded that he should be numbered among the greatest composers of the 20th Century – but he is not. I will not attempt to describe the unique style(s) of his various periods of composition – more able writers than I have tried, and failed – but I will say that his acceptance into the mainstream has been hampered by one simple fact: his music needs to be not heard, but ‘listened to’ with rapt concentration. And who, today, concentrates on anything for longer than 9 seconds? Who is prepared (and you would need to prepare) to invest the six hours needed to perform Feldman’s String Quartet No 2 (1983)? Whatever is the polar opposite of lift-muzak, it is probably written by Feldman.

In his early years, Feldman was very much a part of the turbulent artistic scene in New York, and became close to Jackson Pollock, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and many others – and a visit to the non-denominational Rothko Chapel in Houston, Texas inspired one of Feldman’s best known (and most approachable) pieces. The fourteen paintings by Mark Rothko contained in the building are site-specific, and were completed shortly before his depression-induced suicide in 1970.

Scored for, unusually, viola, celeste, percussion and choir, Robertson chose a section of the second part for the movie.

Finally, as Leonardo diCaprio stalks through Block C of the psychiatric hospital, a large orchestra depicting the opening and closing of ‘a window on long submerged dreams of childhood’ (Ligeti) intones ominously. The tone painting Lontano (1967) by the Transylvanian Gyorgy Ligeti, another neglected 20th Century giant, is again working its magic realism, as it had many years ago for Stanley Kubrick in The Shining. A marvellous union of diatonic melody, and dense, slowly shifting microtonal harmonies, this work, after many years of ‘experimentation’ (Poeme symphonique for 100 metronomes, 1962) in a sense ‘made’ Ligeti into a world renowned figure.

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Mahlerman's life was shaped by his single mother, who never let complete ignorance of a subject get in the way of having strong opinions about it. Facing retirement after a life in what used to be called 'trade', and having a character that consists mainly of defects, he spends his moments of idleness trying to correct them, one by one.

One thought on “Scorsese, Robertson, and the Music of Shutter Island

  1. Brit
    July 23, 2014 at 14:08

    I notice that Robertson is credited as ‘Music Supervisor’ for Shutter Island – so essentially instead of a composer you have someone who puts together a mixtape (the sort of thing as a kid I would call something like Awesome MegaMix 7).

    But as anyone who knows music or film knows, that is indeed a real skill. Who first made it an acceptable approach to film music (as opposed to hiring a composer to make an original score)? Scorsese, then Tarantino?

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