Utu (1983) was the Geoff Murphy film which preceded The Quiet Earth and also featured a John Charles score which was previously available on a Southern Cross LP. The film deals with the native Maoris’ ultimately violent resistance to British imperialism in 19th century New Zealand—”utu” is the Maoris word for “revenge”—and so Charles’ score, in keeping with the culture clash explored in the film, is a fusion of native folk music and orchestral scoring. It opens with a haunting main theme with a neo-classic, almost Spanish feel, linked to a grandiose passage for militant brass and percussion. The contrast between the two conflicting worlds is further etched by native chants representing the Maoris. and symphonic scoring symbolizing the colonizing British. The vocal chants are also effectively woven into orchestral testures, as in “Destroyed Village” in which the native music counterpoints the main theme. In one haunting cue, “Waiata Tangi; Kura and Henare,” two voices are heard in an acapella duet which is followed by a plaintive passage for solo native flute accompanied by orchestra only near the cue’s conclusion. Some of the orchestral scoring is in a deliberate neo-Tchaikovsky 19th century mode, but much of the score has a distinctively original sound as well, particularly in the cues that fuse the vocals and orchestra. Charles’ orchestral style, with its use of fragile, mysterious, almost new age lines for bells, celestra and harp, solo cello passages, and brief cryptic brass fanfares, has an uusentimental sweetness which is both appealing and elusive, and subtly suggests exotic, alien and sometimes doomed cultures and environments. It can also be stiring and epic, yet never bombastic. The liner notes comment that the music “never intrudes but rather enhances” and both scores do seem more discreet and appealing with each hearing. At first I preferred The Quiet Earth but Utu has grown on me.
Both are recommended.