In The Nursery has long been known for their sweeping, cinematic music. For the last few years, the most interesting ITN releases have been part of their "Optical Music" series, in which the Humberstone brothers compose new music to accompany classic silent films. While albums like Groundloop help to chart the ongoing refinement and gradual broadening of ITN's established sound, the Optical Music discs give the brothers a far greater opportunity to break the boundaries of their music. Hindle Wakes is their biggest test yet; controversial in its day, this "classic drama of a strong-minded girl and families in crisis" requires a very different approach than In The Nursery's typically broad-based Gothic grandeur. (For the uninitiated, the word "Wakes" doesn't refer to dead folks; in British factory towns of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, "wakes week" meant that the factory shut down for a week or so and all the workers took their vacations together.)
Not having seen Hindle Wakes -- with or without ITN's new music -- I can't truly judge how well the soundtrack works, but I can say for a fact that it's a distinct change of pace for the group. Like the other Optical Music releases, this is a subtle score, remaining respectfully in the background rather than attempting to steal focus from the visual elements of the story. One of ITN's trademarks -- massive bursts of swelling, slightly syrupy strings -- is almost completely absent here. Strings are applied lightly and gently, and are typically accented by trebly, minor-key piano tinkling. Even when the group's "standard" interplay between strings, keyboards, piano and wind instruments is at its most familiar, as in "Hindle Theme 1 and 2", there are no cathartic peaks. Though it plays out on a big screen, the music tells us that this is a small story -- a tale of intimacy and shifting relationships rather than huge heroic gestures.
The central "Hindle Theme" is deconstructed in various instrumental combinations, and it appears, in fragments, throughout the score, typically during a dialogue between two instruments. More often than not, ITN isn't going for an overtly "period" sound; there are several moments in which
a keyboard line sounds distinctly modern, but while this is initially anachronistic, the execution remains faithful to the mood and spirit of the scene. Most intriguing are the pieces that accompany a visit to the seaside town of Blackpool -- "Blackpool" and "Big Dipper" are filled with a hazy sort of childish wonder, wrapped up in the crashing of waves and the giddy delight of a roller-coaster ride. "Ballroom Sweetheart" follows, and it's ITN's biggest stretch yet: a delightful, rollicking big-band dance with clarinet, saxophone, tuba and guitar in its mix. Jazzy and exuberant, it sneaks a few glances back at the "Hindle Theme" whenever there's a break in its sea of dancing bodies.
Like most movie scores, Hindle Wakes repeats -- belabors, even -- a small number of key thematic sequences. If you're not a big fan of orchestral soundtracks, Hindle Wakes, with more than 110 minutes of gentle, mood-developing music, probably won't float your boat. I can, however, pay it the same compliment I'd offer to any sublimely enjoyable score: it stands on its own as an eminently listenable work, while leaving me curious to see the film that it supports.