Original Review by Alan Rogers

Writer Ruta Sepetys approached musician and recording artist Gavin Mikhail and asked him to write a piano score for her first book, Between Shades of Gray. Between Shades of Gray is a novel aimed at the young adult (but has appeal to older readers also) that follows the experiences of 15-year-old Lina, her 10-year-old brother and their mother in 1941 Lithuania after they are rounded up by the Soviet secret police and transported to a Siberian labour camp. Based upon meticulous research and drawing from interviews with survivors of the Soviet genocide, Sepetys’ book is (by all accounts) a powerful story.

Gavin Mikhail, working together with the author, has chosen characters and events from the book and has written eight pieces for solo piano. Mikhail’s score is melancholic in tone and has an emotional impact that is easily felt in both the music he has composed and by the way in which the music is played. The music doesn’t really touch on the horrors described in the book. There is no dissonance, no soundscapes that make this a difficult album to hear. However, there is a sadness underpinning most of the tracks (“Ice and Ashes”, “11 Cigarettes” and “Far From Home” are good examples) but there is also a sense of strength (e.g,. “Ice and Ashes” with its powerful rendition of the melody), patriotism (e.g., “Krasivaya” has not a celebratory patriotism but rather a feeling of stoic resoluteness in the face of adversity), love (e.g., “The Last Lullaby”, a stand-out track) and triumph (e.g., “Between Shades of Gray”) that ensures that every track is memorable. Only on one occasion does the music have a feeling of peril or worry to it: “Run To Something Beautiful” has an injection of speed to its tempo that translates to a sense of urgency. By the end of this short album (it runs to just over 20 minutes) you come away having been touched my Mikhail’s music in a way that is, in the end, uplifting. 

I have occasionally come across soundtracks that have been written for books (Joel McNeely and Star Wars: Shadows of The Empire and J.R. Flynn’s Dark Tower: The Gunslinger come immediately to mind). And I have wondered how composers approach such a project. I presume when writing for film that they are particularly interested in characters, emotions and the situations the characters find themselves in rather than the specific on-screen images (tweaking a score to these specific comes later in the mad dash that is the final edit). This process of composing to characters and emotions would work equally well for writing music based on a book. Whatever the mechanics, Mikhail’s music has a beauty about it that makes for an enjoyable listen in isolation. Perhaps there may be some additional insight into the music by having first read the book. Or maybe reading the book is enhanced by having heard the music beforehand. Whatever the link between the music and the book, Mikhail’s Between Shades of Gray is a collection of beautiful piano compositions that will reward any listener regardless of whether or not you have read the book. I heartily recommend this album. The score can be downloaded at the usual digital online stores and can be bought as a CD from the composer’s website.

Audio samples can be found HERE and then click on arrow next to running time for samples of entire album or individual tracks.

Rating: ***½

  1. Ice and Ashes (2:26)
  2. Smoking Books (3:06)
  3. Run To Something Beautiful (2:09)
  4. Krasivaya (3:00)
  5. 11 Cigarettes (2:54)
  6. The Last Lullaby (3:13)
  7. Far From Home (2:21)
  8. Between Shades of Gray (3:07)

Running Time: 22:18

Tower Window Records, Inc. (2011)

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