Column: Slicing Score: Dolores Claiborne (1995)

By Maria Mitchell

Dolores Claiborne (1995, soundtrack). Composed by Danny Elfman.

Depression is a horrid thing. It can take something promising and turn it into a nightmare. Why is this emotion worth expressing in literature, music and other artistic mediums? It often needs to be expressed so that this emotion can be coursed towards another, more productive experience, even if the emotion isn’t always expressed in a coherent way. Dolores Claiborne, the film adaptation of the book of the same name written by Stephen King, boasts a score which interprets this emotion in a relentless, visceral way.

The story is of a woman who must be prepared to do anything to protect her daughter. She must also be prepared for the consequences, no matter how seemingly unjust. It is also the story of the daughter who grows distant from that mother. The music is the backdrop to 18 long, suffering years in which Dolores Claiborne carries the secrets of her family, and becomes hardened and embittered by them. Secrets grow distorted by the passage of time. Sometimes, into nightmares and sometimes, into oblivion. Any truth buried in that oblivion will invariably be resurrected.

I wonder about the difficulty of conducting slow music versus faster music. It’s not so much the tempo as the meter that judges a musical piece‚Äôs complexity once the music reaches the performance stage. More plainly put: if the music is written in multi-meter, especially if it has abrupt metrical shifts (such as 6/8 to 5/4), the piece may be more difficult for less-experienced members of a musical ensemble to perform.

Most of Dolores Claiborne‘s score is very slow, winding alongside the film like an endless, bleak horizon. It is a fine backdrop to the bleak, oppressive community in Maine where the story takes place. The score also must compliment the 18 years suffered by the title character. The orchestra performed a score that relied heavily on strings to stretch those notes out into that long horizon. Why are strings used so often in film music? Strings are easier to sustain than brass, woodwinds, and other instruments.

Dolores Claiborne‘s score doesn’t just voice strings. The cue “Sad Room” utilizes string orchestration. It is mostly voiced in piano. It winds, as does the rest of the score, around that bleak cornerstone of emotion at the heart of the story: oppression. Oppression is many things. It is inadequacy, fatigue and the wasting away of life. It is suffered by all social classes, all races, all people, and is perpetrated by all people in one capacity or another. Music like “Sad Room” reminds the listener that this horror is not only real, but a reality that has been suffered by more people than it seems. Pretty though it is, this score isn’t one you want to listen to if you’re already feeling depressed. This one should be saved for a contemplation of things to come rather than listened to as a counterpoint to bad already experienced. I feel its also a score with a note of warning, especially in the end titles: a cue where the music becomes furtive and fast. That warning may be subjective, depending on the individual listening to it, but the warning to me says to be wary of doing willful harm to someone.

Dolores Claiborne‘s soundtrack is available through