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Not a song, really, but an excerpt from a soundtrack, though just like a song, compact, with a clear beginning and end, only two minutes and ten seconds of the most beautiful, sorrowful, yet not quite despondent music.

Thomas Newman has been my favourite of the modern crop of film composers ever since I first heard his score for the lovely 1990s remake of Little Women. He combines popular, folk, and traditional themes and instrumentation with classical elements in a way that I’ve always found haunting and intriguing, and his uncanny ear for structure, melody, and inherently melancholy keys has lent moments of wonder, joy, sadness, and deep, philosophical contemplation to many of my favourite films. He’s done a fair bit of work for Pixar, adding heft to some of the most emotional scenes ever rendered in animation, such as the moment at the start of Finding Nemo, when the papa clown fish Marlin finds just a solitary egg left after a predator has taken his mate and a whole nursery of little clown fish to be, and the beautiful scene in Wall-E, as the robots perform a sort of euphoric minuet out in space, scored to a segment titled Define Dancing. I blogged about that one, a couple of years ago:

The Farm comes from the terrific and strangely overlooked drama Road to Perdition, a moody period piece set in the 1930s starring Tom Hanks, Jude Law, and Paul Newman, which on the surface is about life as a foot soldier in Al Capone’s mob, but’s really a story about fatherhood, tragic loss, moral ambiguity, painful choices, and the terrible, inevitable momentum of events that can push everybody knowingly and yet unwillingly towards the only possible outcome. It’s the score for a montage in which a worried son waits to see whether his dad is going to survive and recover after being shot, as he’s nursed back to health by a kindly old couple who happen to live on the first rural property the child could find, after he drove his dad away from a shoot-out, desperately looking for help. The father does recover, but the music is written from that sad, frightened place that precedes the good news, when the boy isn’t sure whether he’s soon to be orphaned, and all he can do is wait.

It’s almost funereal, but not quite. There’s hope there too. The outcome isn’t certain. Things are grim, but might still turn out all right, and it’s that delicate combination of fear and hope that makes this little piece so special.

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