A.I. Artificial Intelligence: Limited Edition (La-La Land Records)
Music Composed and Conducted by John Williams
A Review by Mikko Ojala
A.I. Artificial Intelligence is a futuristic fantasy from 2001 born out of imaginations of two extraordinary film makers, Steven Spielberg and Stanley Kubrick. Unfortunately the latter famed director passed away before the film could be brought to filming stage and Spielberg was left to finish the movie alone as a sort of an homage to Kubrick. Set in the future of late 21st century the film deals with an experiment of creating a robot capable of love and how a young robot boy named David is sent to a home of the Swinton family whose own real son is terminally ill and cryogenically frozen. The mother of the family, Monica, imprints David to herself, in essence evoking affection and love for her in his programming. Trouble between humans and this mecha boy slowly begins to appear and when Martin, the son of the family is suddenly cured and comes home and David is no longer needed as a substitute. Abandoned by the family after several incidents that lead them to believe David means harm to their family out of jealousy, the robot boy inspired by the story of Pinocchio and the Blue Fairy of that tale goes on an odyssey that spans not only the world but millenia to try to become a real human boy to win his mother’s love.
The film itself has proven to be divisive among movie buffs even after nearly 15 years have passed since its initial release, whether it is the story, the direction, the authorship of the movie (Spielberg VS Kubrick) or the ending of the piece, but one almost universally praised aspect of this project was the musical score by John Williams, which at the time received a lot of praise in the film music circles. It was indeed the second score of the new millenium for the Maestro and also his second iconic score of the year with the fantastical Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. Now some 14 years after its initial release La-La Land Records and the producer Mike Matessino have created in collaboration with the composer and the director a complete and one of the most comprehensive John Williams releases of the last few years. Boasting three discs and featuring the film score as Williams originally wrote it on discs 1 and 2 plus an hour’s worth of extra and alternate material on disc 3, this is truly a treasure trove of great music.
The original soundtrack album of the score was released in conjunction of the film in 2001 and contained about 60 minutes of Williams’ music and two different versions of a song created from Monica’s Theme titled For Always with lyrics by Cynthia Weil and performed by Lara Fabian and Josh Groban. As with most of these longer Williams scores, especially for Steven Spielberg films, the original soundtrack album provides but a programme of selected highlights from the score. But given the scope and depth of the whole work much of this musical journey was left unheard. Until now that is.
Whereas Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone of the same year was full of colourful and whimsical orchestral magic stylistically closer to the Romantic era sensibilities, A.I. Artificial Intelligence took Williams into the musical future through its evocations of orchestral minimalism, unusual orchestrational techniques and more prominent employment of electronics as part of the compositional palette. And while the score is stylistically rich and varied the composer provides a unifying voice to all these different impulses that inhabit the musical landscape. Making conscious homage to the musical eclecticism of Stanley Kubrick’s films, Williams’ music varies from the aforesaid minimalism in the style of Steve Reich, John Adams and Philip Glass to cantilena melodicism complete with solo soprano and back by the way of eerie choruses a la Ligeti and musical shadings of Aram Khachaturian while still remaining firmly and emblematically Williams despite the varying musical idioms.
Even though the musical world of the score is often shaded with a darker and atmospheric tint in its opening half and the composer delineates the mechas and humans through the alternating use of acoustic orchestral forces and the synthesizers, at the centre of the score stand several supremely lyrical themes, chief of which is Monica’s Theme, a gentle warm piano melody that seems to carry all the love the protagonist David feels towards his adopted human mother. The Blue Fairy, embodiment of David’s dream to become a real human boy, receives an equally tender yet melancholy motif which builds in prominence through the second and third acts of the movie, enhancing David’s spiritual journey with equally emotionally charged melodic content and the use of the voice of soprano Barbara Bonney to convey the depths of the boy’s longing. David himself is depicted by two themes, one of which is synthesized and repeats in robotic fashion, while the orchestral long lined melody illustrates his burgeoning humanity and love for his mother but also the sorrow his loss has caused to his parents, he a robotic reminder of lost children. In slew of these main themes there are several secondary ideas that inhabit various parts of the musical world of this epic yet intimate score.
The major setpieces of the previous soundtrack album are all here as well, in their film appearance order and many of them further extended from their original form. Cybertronics, Hide and Seek, Replicas, Journey Through the Ice (two very different versions no less), Stored Memories and What Is Your Wish (the three last mentioned made up the Stored Memories and Monica’s Theme on the OST) and the emotional finale of Reunion and Where Dreams Are Born are all here as powerful and impressive as before but now feel much more than before like logical stepping stones and a culmination on a journey thanks to all the added material found on this wonderful set.
The new 3 disc set provides numerous before unreleased highlights beyond those already heard on the original soundtrack programme where Monica’s Theme dominated the proceedings. Here Williams’ whole collection of thematic ideas becomes much more evident and the way these themes interact through the storylines and chart the progression of David’s journey. David’s Arrival introduces the curiously searching repeating “robotic motif” that is combined with composer’s beautiful writing for solo woodwinds before going into the first rendition of David’s own nostalgic theme, a gorgeous melody entirely absent from the original soundtrack album, which now comes to its own in this presentation. Wearing Perfume continues this musical storyline and further develops and extends David’s theme in a melancholy but gorgeous meditation on solo piano and the motif finds its culmination in the powerfully tragic and poignant Monica’s Plan where it is combined with the minimalistically rising and falling figures related to the “Lost” theme. A longing wisp of the theme rears its head for the final time in the delicate and luminous piano and harp duet in Remembering David Hobby after which is only appears in small fragments.
The “Lost” theme is an ominous idea related to David’s abandonment by his family after their real son returns home after a long illness and is featured in addition to Monica’s Plan in David Studies Monica and Abandoned in the Woods(Extended Version). The composer treats the melody in former with a lighter yet foreboding touch and in the latter with powerful emotional minimalistic ebb and flow, the theme rising from a forlorn piano reading to a storm of orchestral forces, the string section and brass full of anguished desperation, piano pounding violently in the upper register. Williams devised a concert suite styled version of the theme for the original soundtrack album, heard here on disc 3 Abandoned in the Woods (Album Version), which was originally meant to be part of the end credits of the film was not ultimately used. Now both this and the film version of the cue have been fully presented on this set.
The opening half of the presentation does feature a good number of very low key pieces like the impressionistic and luminous Of Course I’m Not Sure, David and Martin, eerie passages like Martin Is Alive, David and the Spinach/The Operating Scene and the dark and ominous pieces The Scissor Scene and The Pool Rescue. These eschew the highly melodic thematic content in favour of moody or ethereal sound painting apt for the scenes and all part of the same sonic world of the score, the composer often combining orchestra with subtle electronics to create these soundscapes dealing with the clashes between humanity and mechas.
The rare piece of action music is introduced in The Moon Rising/The Biker Hounds where aggressive and apocalyptic chorus erupts through menacing orchestral textures and goes into a powerful driving churning steely ostinato figure for strings that thunders forth relentlessly, all done with Williams’ customary panache. This piece was on the original album but severely truncated with the cues shifted around mangling the original dramaturgy of the piece and omitting the slightly playful coda of a swirling strings and oboe. Now the full piece is finally restored to its intended form but following the logic of presenting purely John Williams compositions in the main programme of the score, the producer has moved the Joseph Williams composed additional techno/industrial music from the middle portion to disc 3 as its own bonus track, a wise choice in my opinion.
Two pieces provide examples of minimalism as part of Williams’ musical toolkit in this score and both are related to the idea of the travelling in the world of the future. Journey to Rouge City ticks forth busily with percussive undercurrent of marimbas and cyclical string figures that provide some excellent propulsive travelling music. This time around it is presented complete with the musical homage to Stanley Kubrick as Williams weaves a luminous quote of the waltz from the opera Der Rosenkavalier by Richard Strauss into the busy textures as the director had specifically requested it to be employed in the movie. The Mecha World, which opened the original album is here extended considerably to cover the entire lengthy sequence, soars with the same motoric figures for percussion, strings and fanfaric brass calls creating in the process a spectacularly dazzling musical moment of wonder and forward momentum that underscores a visually striking flight to the submerged New York City, the music brimming with emotional and evocative power through all the varied moods it goes through and being one of the definitive high points of both the old and this new release. Similar minimalistic devices would appear in several Williams scores of 2000s but here we can hear the origins of the trend.
The above mentioned main themes and emotional anchors of the score are revealed in further depth on this new presentation as well. Monica’s Theme’s original subtle introduction is heard in Reading the Words which mainly revolves around ethereal textures before culminating in Monica’s melody. Canoeing with Pinocchio sees the composer joining the still and ominous repeated string lines of the Khachaturian-styled “Cybertronics theme” with another lovely warm piano reading of Monica’s thematic idea.
The part poignant part sad theme for the Blue Fairy receives perhaps the largest expansion on these three discs. It was heard but a single time on the previous album but is here revealed to be a major element of the whole music story. We hear its modest beginnings in Immaculate Heart where it is introduced by the woodwinds and immediately after in To Manhattan where piano articulates it tenderly. Williams recorded several different variations of this theme and A.I. Theme (Instrumental Version) and A.I. Theme (Vocal Version) heard closing discs 1 and 2 are orchestral and solo soprano renditions of this beatific lyrical melody that were done purely as concert arrangements and the latter version was actually heard on the OST in the end half of the track Search for the Blue Fairy. Williams’ original version of Finding the Blue Fairy features a long development of the melody and heard here for the first time is the performance which balances the solos of the soprano Barbara Bonney with the orchestra close to the way they are heard in the film and it is a joy to hear it in this form after all these years. The theme’s final appearance comes in The Specialist Visits, which is truly one of the previously unreleased highlights of the entire score, where Williams arranges the Blue Fairy theme for two harps, strings and solo cello, a stunning showcase of the composer’s lyrical powers.
And speaking of additional material, disc 3 houses almost an hour of extra music, including several alternate versions of cues that illustrate the scoring process and how the music was revised or revisited at the sessions e.g. including an alternate thematic approach of Canoeing with Pinocchio, another new powerful take on Abandoned in the Woods, enchanting alternate orchestrations for Finding the Blue Fairy and Williams’ own whimsical selection of synthesized source muzak for the computer interface of the encyclopaedic Dr. Know programme in Inside Dr. Know’s, blending music and sound effects in a way he hasn’t quite done in this fashion before.
I think I can safely say that La-La Land Record’s presentation of the music of A.I. Artificial Intelligence in this expanded archival form is without a doubt one of the best releases of the year. The sheer power of this music will speak for itself and the score features some of Williams most gorgeous and emotional melodies all the while the composer adventurously branches out into new stylistic directions. The presentation Mike Matessino has created for the music on these three discs is as flawless as could be with the discs 1 and 2 forming a strong listening experience of the complete score and the third disc offering all the bonus material in approximate order of the film. The sense of occasion of this release is further enhanced by the lavish and eye-catching art direction by Jim Titus and all topped by an insightful analysis and essay by the author and film music journalist Jeff Bond.
This is John Williams truly at his finest and A.I. score heard here in its entirety is revealed to be nothing short of a soulful modern masterpiece, a revelation worth waiting for 14 years. La-La Land Records has simply struck gold with this one and while this may not stylistically be one of those classic adventure and action scores Spielberg and Williams are famous for, I without a shred of reservation recommend this masterful release to all the fans of the Maestro’s varied work and those who would like to experience a musical epic of the thoughtful kind. I would dare to recommend this also to the more casual fans wanting to experience a little bit different John Williams, the composer in a mode we have rarely had the privilege of hearing before or after 2001.