The trailers at the cineplex the other day included the usual summer blockbuster suspects showing off their special effects — one cartoonish morph after another after another. Every soundtrack was loaded down with the same super-deep, but sonically shallow, electronic bass. I wasn’t sure what felt more depressingly manufactured: a deserted and alienating L.A. Live, where I happened to be, or the expensive nonsense in the nearly empty new Regal Cinema, which boasts very big subwoofers.
Then “Shutter Island” began, and yet more bass. But this time it was the sound of a foghorn, and it had the rich, compelling texture of music. It was music. It was also a real, old-fashioned foghorn. Out of this sonic relic grew French horns, as if they had been there all along struggling to get out. The misty Boston harbor was on the screen, compelling and mysterious as a painting by Turner. I was transported. Music, sound effects and cinematography joined to evoke a sense of place and mood as only they can in great cinema and only, these days, when Hollywood looks the other way.
That opening music turned out to be Ingram Marshall’s haunting “Fog Tropes.” The 1981 new-music classic found its way onto the screen thanks to the famed singer, songwriter and guitarist Robbie Robertson, who was music supervisor for “Shutter Island.” And Marshall’s wonderful piece, which was a hit of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s recent West Coast, Left Coast festival, is only the beginning of a remarkable and gratifying collection of classic avant-garde scores Robertson has assembled for Martin Scorsese’s new, and I think mostly misunderstood, film.
How did this happen?
After seeing the film, I reached Robertson on the phone. He explained that he has been a fan of these composers for decades. In fact, he said that sometime around 1969, in his years as a member of the Band, he was so moved when he first heard Penderecki’s disturbing “Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima” that he began a correspondence with the Polish composer, and they became musical friends.
As for “Shutter Island,” Robertson said, “the opportunity to show off these brilliant composers really makes me feel good.” It has been something he’s wanted to do for a long time. “I’d always thought Cage’s ‘Root of an Unfocus’ ” – which is for prepared piano – “would be great in a movie. And when Marty sent me the script, this is just where it went.”