My Life in Soundtracks

I’ve listened to what I have to call new age music since high school, when I was switching channels on the stereo and chanced upon a station from the next state playing pieces from George Winston’s “December” and Pat Metheny’s “Still Life (Talking).” I was astonished. I had thought all instrumental music was classical — that’s what the local NPR station had taught me — and suddenly there were these beautiful, creative instrumental pieces on piano and guitar, with the occasional vocal but no lyrics… I was hooked. The next year and a half sent me on a Windham Hill spree in which I discovered Shadowfax and Nightnoise and Michael Hedges… If I hadn’t already been an outcast in my school, I’m pretty sure this would’ve finished me off.

But it wasn’t until I got to college that I discovered something else life-changing: there were instrumental movie soundtracks out there, too. I was poking through the local Tracks Music, looking for “A Charlie Brown Christmas” on cassette, when I happened across “A River Runs Through It,” the soundtrack by the film-music champion of the ’80s, Mark Isham. I’d just seen the movie with my boyfriend and remembered the lush music accompanying several scenes, making what might’ve been a mildly dull fly-fishing expedition worthy of appreciation of its light and tones and scenery…The movie would’ve meant very little, I thought, if it had had less appropriate music.

Well, that was it. I was hooked.

Since then I’ve probably amassed as many soundtrack CDs as I have by any of my Windham Hill gang of favorites. I’ve grown to love John Williams all over again, from the majesty of “Superman” to the poignant watersounds of “Memoirs of a Geisha” to the angst and heartbreak of “Munich.” I’ve discovered that while James Newton Howard, star of the ’90s soundtracks, can be over the top at times, he’s perfectly in tone with the film at others, like “Grand Canyon” and a terrific movie from earlier this year, “The Lookout.” I’ve enjoyed Randy Newman’s “Avalon” for years without ever having seen the movie, and found that the best part of the mind-and-butt-numbing “The Fountain” was the haunting music by Harry Gregson-Williams. I’ve been known to drop James Horner’s “Lord of the Rings” CDs into the 3-disc player and spend most of the afternoon dithering away, reading or writing while Middle-Earth plays out its grand saga in the background. And I think Thomas Newman is the greatest of them all. He first drew me in with “The Shawshank Redemption,” then “Meet Joe Black” (another one where the music trumps the actual film), and then the weepy beautiful granddaddy of all perfect soundtracks, “The Green Mile.”

Does this mean I’m some kind of dopey wannabe-hippie new age freak with a house full of crystals? Nah. In the car I listen to Nine Inch Nails followed by the Eagles followed by Springsteen. I’m aggressive when I drive or run, and most of the music I listen to just proves this true. But for downtime, I have to turn into someone else. If I stay the person who drives fast and swears creatively when I’m at home, I’ll never get any sleep. So Thomas Newman and James Horner are what I have instead of alcohol, turning off the noise in my head bit by bit, like going through the house switching off all the unnecessary lights until I’m down to a lamp and a candle or two.

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11 Responses to “My Life in Soundtracks”

  1. I’ve never really gotten into Movie soundtracks. I’m definitely a sucker for a Windham Hill CD though

  2. thirdculturemom Says:

    I don’t usually notice the music in movies too much–I guess I should be paying pay more attention. Very interesting essay!

    (And I love your tag line.)

  3. thirdculturemom Says:

    Strike pay 🙂

  4. Jesus Christ Superstar (movie version) is the only soundtrack you’ll ever need.

  5. I love soundtracks too. I have the Harry Potter movie soundtracks (the first three movies) and the one for Da Vinci Code is awesome. One of my favorite instrumental soundtracks is to the movie Chocolat. I also love the ones with lyrics, such as American Graffiti where the music was a character in the movie, and many others.

  6. I loved the idea of you turning out the lights, down to a candle or two with the music.

    Not to change the subject, but I have to slightly change the subject. Urban Outfitters offers exact replicas of the Charlie Brown Christmas tree. We ordered 2. One for the house and one for Kevin’s office. I thought of you when I ordered it and realized I would probably think of you every time I looked at it in the future. 🙂

  7. LOL I heard the music from “A Charlie Brown Christmas” tonight on the radio and thought of you.

  8. pandemonic Says:

    I love George Winston and have seen him several times. He’s down to earth and engaging. People sometimes pooh-pooh John Williams, but he’s a freaking genius! He studied piano at Julliard, so he’s no lightweight, and Memoirs of a Geisha was his best work yet.

  9. I’ve seen George Winston 3 or 4 times and I was surprised (the first time) at how much fun he was. I didn’t expect it from the guy who made such somber, contemplative music; he turned out to be like a party guest who could play the piano wonderfully well.
    Scout, I have Chocolat too! It actually reminds me of cooking something with chocolate. There’s a frothiness to it that I enjoy. I listen to it in early spring, when the flowers are just coming up.

  10. I also saw George Winston in concert – it was awesome and totally turned me on to Hawaiian slack key guitar – if you haven’t discovered that yet you are in for a huge treat. And boy would I love to drop by your place for an afternoon and browse through your music collection. It sounds like my kind of stuff.

  11. Pan and Trees, you’re both welcome to stop by anytime. I’d even burn copies for you both.

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