James Newton Howard is the most versatile composer that has ever lived. I am confident declaring that because if anyone knows his music, they know it to be true. He has tried his hand at every conceivable genre and style and has succeeded enormously in them all. His ability to create a musical pallet that belongs distinctly to the film it is for, is unmatched. The biggest composers around are known for their recognisable sound, that in only a few seconds of hearing, are easily identifiable. James Newton Howard doesn’t have a style, he has whatever style the film requires, and that makes him an extremely valuable person in film, especially today when originality is needed more than ever.
With ‘Pawn Sacrifice,’ he blends his masterful use of electronics and orchestra, to create something that sings when the strings break your heart, and pulsates when the electronics drive the listening experience forward, like the internal conflict happening within a chess match.
You can feel every move of the chess pieces, and every thought behind those moves as he hits your ears with interesting sounds and movements. The piano that fires out periodically in the piece ‘Bobby Plays Carmine,’ makes you imagine neurons firing in the brain. The floating high strings, the plucking strings and the woodwinds that come in during the second half of the first piece ‘There’s Usually One Right Move,’ are breathtaking. You can feel intellect in those notes.
The Score has its care-free fun moments as well, ones that have the essence of 1970’s and 80’s synthesized sounds, especially in the piece ‘Ping Pong,’ which has pleasing chord progressions that take you back to that time.
With a story-line of Jewish undertones and an American against a Russian, a lesser Composer would no doubt plaster the film with Jewish instrumentation and cliché Russian male choir, but while that would feel at home in an action film of that genre, a deeply introverted film that explores the battle within and outside of ones own mind, would suffer if that approach was taken. Instead James Newton Howard employs softer, more subtle tones in the low strings and the heavier woodwinds to highlight those aspects, but never to an extent that it feels obvious.
The two main characters are clearly represented in the score; with Tobey Maguire’s character of Bobby Fischer being layered with strings and woodwind, heard towards the end of pieces like ‘There’s Usually One Right Move’ and ‘Forfeit,’ while Liev Schreiber’s character of Boris Spassky is decorated with a descending piano motif, present in the namesake piece ‘Boris Spassky.’ Both of their colours are beautifully blended in the piece ‘Reading about Spassky.’
As this short score of only twenty-three minutes draws to an end, the final pieces illustrate the big chess match between both characters, and in ‘Forfeit,’ the synthetic nature takes over again as the pressure builds. The final piece has the unfortunate spoiler-filled title ‘Bobby Wins,’ but it is the most beautiful and serene piece on the Score. At over five minutes long, it is twenty-five percent of the entire score, and it is one of those pieces that makes you gasp. It resolves the whole musical story in gorgeous strings that perform both sides of the chess board; black and white, light and dark, winner and loser. The weight of the competition is lifted and you can take a breath as the orchestra washes over you.
Let us know what you think of the Score below, by giving it a rating. Once ‘Pawn Sacrifice’ is out I will add a rating for the usage of the music in the movie itself.