Two Star Symphony, Titus Andronicus
It isn’t often I have to go back to the huge, dog-eared copy of Riverside Shakespeare I hung onto after college just so I can write a review, but sometimes, that’s just how it goes. I’m working at a bit of a disadvantage here, after all, having not actually seen the‘s rendition of The Bard’s earliest tragedy, Titus Andronicus, for which Two Star Symphony composed this score.
So instead, I’m delving into stuff I haven’t much touched since graduation, re-reading Titus while listening to the music and having very strange flashbacks to my college Shakespeare class. (I owe a very belated thank-you to the late Dr. Allan Grob, by the by, for showing me Shakespeare was actually worth paying attention to, once you pushed past the “Great Literature” crap.) I’m a little bemused by the whole thing, really, by even the concept of a ballet/dance performance of a play like this, presumably (since, well, it’s a dance performance and not opera or something) mostly without words.
Because honestly, Shakespeare work is all about the words. The man was a brilliant playwright, to be sure, but he had a habit of swiping his plots from lesser-known but more inventive authors (cough Boccaccio…). They just weren’t his strong suit. What was was the dialogue, the lightning-fast repartee between the characters that you sometimes can’t even get unless you see it performed. Will Shakespeare was essentially the Quentin Tarantino of his time, borrowing plots from obscure sources he loved and grafting interesting characters and vibrant dialogue onto ‘em. Try imagining a Tarantino film without words, and you’ll get why this has thrown me off somewhat.
If there are no words to drive things along, then, what does? In this case, at least, it’s up to the music to “speak” for the characters, and that’s no small order. Happily, quirky classical/chamber music/Gothic tango/whatever quartet Two Star Symphony tackle the task and pull it off wonderfully, imbuing their score with an eerie feeling of menace that feels amazingly appropriate for the grim, violent plot. Reading the lines as I listen, I’m somewhat amazed at how closely the music meshes with the underlying tension of each scene.
Opening track “Intro” sets the stage, grim and foreboding with titanic kettle drums, tense strings, and delicate, plinky toy piano-like sounds that seemingly foreshadow the bloody betrayal and vengeance to follow. Then there’s “Queen of the Goths,” all quiet and subtle, with sort of a “sneaky” undertone to it and a fitting hint of a gypsy-music influence that goes perfectly with the behind-the-scenes plotting by prisoner-turned-empress Tamora and her sons. Speaking of the two, there’s also “Chiron and Dimitrius I,” which is tense and dangerous-sounding, with two instruments pitted against one another like the brothers in the song’s title, each of whom wants to steal away Lavinia, the betrothed of Bassianus. The piece is interestingly circular, like two would-be opponents moving slowly around a ring, each waiting to see if the other will draw their sword first.
The hardest track to listen to, in part for very obvious reasons, is “Rape,” wherein Chiron and Dimitrius, having treacherously killed Bassianus and thrown him into a concealed pit, grab Lavinia and do terrible, terrible things to her. It’s unsettling and strange, with a plucked bass like a heartbeat and skirling, screeching strings that build and build into a final keening sound and then collapse into the sound of startlingly human, horribly cruel laughter and a woman weeping. Everything rolls downhill from there, and the music steadily gets crazier and more eerie, hitting its peak with the short, broken-sounding “Titus Gone Mad,” which is a minimalist movement basically composed of heavily-”plunked” toy keys.
There are a few tracks on here that don’t quite seem to hang with the rest, namely “The Silentist,” “The Wolf Outside My Window,” and “Salem Tango”; the first is gorgeous and slow-moving, feeling almost like part of the Trevor Jones score to The Last of the Mohicans, which the second comes off like an orchestral production manned entirely by goblins, all quietly-creeping feet and evil intentions. The last of the three is slinky and smooth, a sudden shift following Titus’s descent into insanity, sounding for all the world like the background music at a low-key (but still swanky) gala full of vampires.
All three are excellent, excellent pieces, mind you, some of the best on the album. It’s just that I’m not sure how they fit into the overall storyline — they’re the only three pieces I can’t fit into Titus itself, although they may fit better with the Dominic Walsh production than my more standard reading of the original. And hey, as quibbles go, it’s an extremely minor one, absolutely.
Overall, Titus Andronicus is an incredible piece of work. Two Star Symphony has managed to bring Shakespeare’s most gruesome play to life in a way I wouldn’t have guessed possible, truthfully, throwing any foolish preconception I’d had of the band as a “classical” outfit right out the window in the process. The result is something that works both on its own as music and put to the scenes from the play itself. That’s no mean feat, right there. (Oh, and I’m thinking, as well, that it’ll serve wonderfully as spooky music to scare the crap out of trick-or-treaters come Halloween, too, so that’s a nice bonus…)