• Ben Erickson

The Dark Crystal

Please excuse the preamble, but I felt it was necessary to offer a short explanation as to why an older film was chosen for review on The Click Track. Generally, I do not look at older films for review, and as you can guess I had intended to review the new The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Netflix series, released all the way back in August. Unfortunately, due to want of time there was no way I would be able to examine the new score with any level of depth. But now that the holiday season has begun (and everything anyone could want to write on Daniel Pemberton's music has been written) I thought it would be more beneficial to discuss the original score. So, without further ado, enjoy!

The Dark Crystal is a 1982 puppet-animated epic fantasy produced by Jim Henson and Frank Oz. Riding on the success of the highly popular The Muppets series and films, The Dark Crystal was intended to be Henson's crowning achievement. He invested enduring amounts of time and dedication toward creating a broad universe, full of strange and unfamiliar beings and places. A world that had no time for the optimistic, morally reassuring fantasy predecessors of its day, but instead was steeped in dark, desperate circumstances that made it singularly fulfilling in its own right. All that is to say, if The Muppets came from Henson's dreams, then The Dark Crystal was surely from his nightmares.

Unfortunately, the film was neither critically nor commercially successful, and after its failing box office returns Henson fell into something of a depressed state. As the years passed it became a cult classic, and Henson's confidence in the film industry returned somewhat with the success of the 1986 Labyrinth, featuring David Bowie. A musical fantasy produced by Henson's studio, Labyrinth has often been regarded as a spiritual successor for its continuation of style and dark subject matter.

Hired to score The Dark Crystal was Trevor Jones, a South African composer who had his start working on university projects with friends and colleagues, breaking out in 1981 with The Bottom Dollar. Jones has since gone on to become an indelibly gifted film and television composer, writing such scores as Cliffhangar, Notting Hill, and The Last of the Mohicans. He has been nominated for two Golden Globes and three BAFTA awards, and he has collaborated regularly with (besides Henson) John Boorman, Andrei Konchalovsky, and Michael Mann over the course of his career.

When the Dark Crystal was released Jones was still a relatively unheard-of composer, which gave him something of an advantage as a pioneer in electronic and acoustic scoring. However, after Henson requested a more traditional, orchestral score the composer took the request as a pleasant challenge, pushing him to test new styles. The resultant score ended up being a rare interplay, at the time, between the (predominantly) orchestral ensemble and electronic elements, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra.

This cross synthesizer-meets-orchestra mash-up gave the score the best of both worlds: sounds that were broad, sweeping, and beautifully expansive against unwelcome, alien, and even threatening noises. Over three hundred electronic effects were produced specifically for the score, realized on various technologies such as the synclavier and fairlight CMI computers, and the Prophet Synthesizer. Fused with ritualistic intention, these bleeding effects are never more present than with the appearance of the Skeksis, a malevolent race of beings who have taken guardianship of the crystal and perverted its power to their will. And while the Dark Crystal theme, as well as its secondary love theme, exist principally in the orchestra, there are a number of other musical approaches that en masse make Dark Crystal really quite sophisticated for its time.

These alternative approaches included the use of medieval instrumentation and spontaneous singing, particularly as they were concerned with the diegetic aspects of the film. For instance, Jenn, a Gelfling and the main protagonist of the adventure, plays a double-reed flute at whiles, which used a double flageolet in the recording sessions. The Mystics, a benevolent race of beings who intrinsically oppose the Skeksis, use harps and throat singing tone clusters as components of their art and livelihood. Other instruments unique to this medieval scope include lute, crumhorn, tabor pipe, and psatlery, chosen because they were best able to reflect the invented instruments visible in the film, such as those played by the Podlings ("The Pod Dance"). In this cue, which Jones had not expected to make the film, it is clear the studio session players were having an absolute blast. Said Jones,

"From the very first in scoring the music for The Dark Crystal, I set out to find two melodic ideas - one for the Mystics, the other for the Skeksis. These two motifs, when counterpointed, fuse to become one, and in the great conjunction at the film's climax they join to become the central theme."

As Jones intended, the theme ("The Dark Cystal Overture") has more to do with the fate of the crystal itself (interlinked with that of the urSkeks, the union of Mystics and Skeksis) than it does any one character. It is also quite fascinating in so far as despite its aiming for a romantic, Western art music approach, this theme - to my ear - follows in the tradition of Japanese fantasy in style, not unlike what you might hear in a Hayao Miyazaki film. Not to say it is any less romantic in application, only that it subsumed a less familiar musical idiom than what may have been expected of it to engrossing effect.

The Dark Crystal Theme

The theme is written in E-flat locrian, opening with a tritone leap from the E-flat root to the raised fourth (A natural) and stacking horn clusters beneath. Already, the character of this theme sounds wholly foreign to our ears, employing techniques that hardly qualify as conventional, even among other orchestral scores. The wide-spaced intervals of this opening 'A' section, combined with the routine departure from the E-flat tonic, present the illusion of a pentatonic (anhemitonic) scale beginning on F natural, acting as an invisible local tonic (hence the Joe Hisaishi "Japanese" idiom).

In the 'B' section the harmonizations move elegantly away from the tonic pedal through a sequence of tonicizations (♭VII - ♭VI - ♭V) with each secondary dominant constituting a major seventh chord. Just before the sequence reaches ♭V we experience a harmonic elision, taking us directly into the key of E major (as opposed to resolving on ♭V, which is what our ears expect to hear). When spelled out enharmonically, the ♭V chord becomes the new major tonic chord, with the theme resolving a semitone higher than it began.

Love Theme

The love theme for Jenn and Kira is in affectation a hybridization of Antonio Lotti's "Crucifixus" and a Bryan Adam's ballad, abiding with poignant suspensions and unfulfilled promises of love, while the last motif to be mentioned here is that written for the landstriders, the gangly steeds of the Gelflings. The score's components were organized intellectually by the composer, in a way that can be readily broken down and analyzed by virtue of their consistent use of tone colour, motivic devices, and pitch renewal. But more than that, the score perfectly compliments the film's dramatic demands, supplying wells of emotion for the animated puppets and providing the world of The Dark Crystal with a sense of breadth and discovery unlooked for.

The Dark Crystal seems to have become a hidden success, earning a cult following in the years after its release and eventually prompting its own prequel series, on top of the many books and related paraphernalia it inspired. It is my opinion that the score should, to a considerable extent, be indebted for this success. Obviously there was a lot that went into this film and contributed to its longevity, be it the innovative visual aspects, the design aesthetic, or the complex narrative fabric. However, lest we forget this crucial function, a good score will make itself integral to the viewing experience. The viewer may not be aware of how effective a role the music plays in drawing them in to a particular narrative, but it has an effect such that if you removed the music altogether the product would cease to be the same film. By this logic therefore, I maintain that Trevor Jones' score for The Dark Crystal was an enormous achievement for its time.