Despite featuring Robin Williams in a 'serious' but typically sentimental role, Awakenings as a score manges to carefully stray away from being mawkish, but retains a fragile texture of shimmering strings, piano and woodwind, with hardly a hint of brass and only the suggestion of percussion. This, sometimes mentioned to be Newman's own personal favourite of his scores, is his most restrained and relaxing score and is yet another example of Newman's uncanny ability to score this kind of drama with music that is both attractive, tuneful but pushes the right dramatic buttons without overkill. Scoring dialogue laden drama is difficult to do sensitively, but even more difficult to do sensitively as well as produce a score album that is worth listening to. In many cases, the composer is so desperate to not overstate his or her music, it just doesn't go anywhere, but this and his equally sublime score to Avalon show Newman as a composer who can balance these different pressures and come up trumps every time.
In common with the larger proportion of Newman's more dramatic works, the themes aren't perhaps the type that will stick in the memory, but are more likely to grow on you with repeated listens. I am hesitant to describe it as atmospheric as that is often taken as a euphamism for tuneless, however this is very much a score that relies strongly on creating a mood without bombarding the listener with stridently memorable themes. The main theme is introduced in Leonard and is a lilting string melody that is adorned with light flutes and is interpreted as both woodwind and piano solos. The piano does feature (played by Randy Newman himself) quite often, but is never left to carry the tune for long and seemlessly blends into the string textures but without simply playing the same thing.
The use of counterpoint that elevates the music beyond what it might be. A personal favourite of these is Newman's occasional use of violin harmonics (playing the violin in such a way as to produce a high, whispy sounding note) which adds poignancy beyond what the main body of the instruments playing can produce. These ideas, combined with some of the most unexpected and yet beautiful harmonies (most notably in the track entitled Awakenings) show this to be a written by a composer who can produce something that stands out above some of the less creative attempts at this kind of score which are all too common. Of course this is often due to directors who are scared of too much drama in the music and thus there is simply a whitewash of bland textures. Fortunately Newman is not the kind of composer who plays it ultra-safe, but has the dramatic confidence to write music that compliments the scene, but doesn't simply become lost in the background.
While there are hints of the more recent Pleasantville, this perhaps makes for a more cohesive album (assuming the song is omitted from the listening experience) as their are musical styles competing for play time. That having said, the album is not samey as such, but simply progresses and develops without any different musicals styles to break up the atmosphere which is carefully fashioned. I believe the score is becoming harder to find and thus must recommend anyone who see it buy a copy as it's one of Newman's finest efforts and when you've had brass and percussion overdose, you can simply let Newman's music envelop you and forget any stresses, a work of subtle and intimate beauty.
Read other recent reviews by Tom Daish: The Snow Files: The Film Music of Mark Snow
, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad