Original Review by Alan Rogers

Comforting Skin writer and first-time feature film director Derek Franson originally began on this project back in 1994 and, after various setbacks and false starts, his surreal film is at last a reality. Recently premièred at the Vancouver Film Festival, Franson’s supernatural thriller follows Koffie (Victoria Bidewell), a lonely woman who lacks any self-confidence and who feels that she neither fits in nor stands out. One night, seemingly on a whim, she decides to have a tattoo and she becomes enchanted by it, but is then disturbed by it as the tattoo starts whispering to her (voiced by Bidewell) and moves around her body. Her relationship with her body art takes a downward spiral, affecting the few relationships she does have around her. But is the animated tattoo real or just a figment of a fracturing imagination? Canadian-born composer Alain Mayrand, whose playful orchestral score for the animated film The Legend of Silkboy (released in 2010), has written a score for chamber orchestra (strings, woodwinds and piano) that concentrates on the fragile mental state of Koffie and her ultimately destructive relationship with her tattoo. He uses atonal and somewhat dissonant techniques – and how these methods are contrasted with more melodic musical interludes – to build an aural world that’s both gloomy and claustrophobic, establishing mood rather than following any action.

The album opens melodically enough with a beautiful yet sombre piano melody that reflects the mood and emotions of the Koffie (“Tears At The Mirror”). There’s a sad resignation feel to the piano theme that runs through the whole cue. It ends with an ominous but subtle phrase that suggests that things are about to get a whole lot worse. Mayrand’s score continues with “Making A Change” that features a piano melody that has a dance-like quality and hint of child-like innocence to it, suggestive of a level of enjoyment (and maybe even adventure) for Koffie. But, even here, Mayrand maintains the sense of unease with some subtle use of dissonant strings and slightly sickening woodwind colours. One of the stand-out tracks of the album, “The Arrival”, signals the movement of the score away from melody and into dissonance. Scurrying tremolo strings, off-kilter piano chords and other avant garde effects herald the appearance of the tattoo and its true “identity”. It’s a very effective cue that imbues the tattoo with a character of its own and the majority of the remainder of the score wallows in this dissonant soundscape, emphasising just how much of the main character’s world is dominated by the insidious body art. Tracks with titles that in other scores would signal wonderfully romantic, tender music (e.g., “I Love You & Bar Scene”, “Come Back To Bed”) are instead aural nightmares. “Love At First Touch”, for example, continues the dissonance established earlier in the score and a rising crescendo of rhythmic strings suggests some sort of a nightmarish tryst between two lovers rather than any tenderness.

There are some respites from the festering world Mayrand’s dissonant music establishes but these episodes are short-lived and only serve as reminders of just how nightmarish things actually are. The tattoo has clearly taken over Koffie’s life and world, tainting and spoiling everything Koffie (and by extension, the tattoo) comes into contact with. One such respite appears briefly towards the end of the penultimate track “Leave Us Alone”, another highlight cue. Here, the piano melody heard in “Tears At The Mirror” suddenly surfaces from amongst the disconcerting low-register rhythmic piano chords and sinewy strings for one brief full statement before it is lost again in a glissando of strings and the unsettling music takes hold once more. It’s difficult to know the precise outcome of the film without having seen it, but the fragmented attempts at the piano melody in the final track (“Tears and Razor Blades”), as well as the absence of the dissonance music associated with the tattoo suggests that here, in the end, no one wins. This is a score that probably works best when heard as part of the film itself but it is a measure of Mayrand’s depth of writing and his grasp of the chamber orchestra (as well as the excellent Vancouver recording), that the music works so well as a separate listening experience. A relatively small budget meant that the digitally animated tattoo was not seen on-screen as much as perhaps the director would have wished. Mayrand’s effective score substitutes for the tattoo when it is not seen, so that the audience is never allowed to forget the poisoning body art’s ever-present influence (there is some similarities here with John Williams’ shark music in Jaws). And it is this pivotal role for the score in the film that shines through in this album. Released in a digital-only format from the new Screamworks Records label, Alain Mayrand’s score for Comforting Skin is available from the usual digital online retailers and is well worth checking out by those who enjoy challenging film music.

Rating: ***

  1. Tears At The Mirror (1:08)
  2. Making A Change (2:27)
  3. The Arrival (4:47)
  4. Love At First Touch (2:35)
  5. Day Out With Peg (1:33)
  6. Just Leave Me Alone (4:34)
  7. Nathan and The Tattoo (2:09)
  8. Girl Talk (1:58)
  9. I Love You & Bar Scene (2:32)
  10. Nathan Investigates (3:26)
  11. Old Photographs, Vacuums and Pop Rocks (4:20)
  12. Last Talk With Peg & Christmas Haze (2:26)
  13. Come Back To Bed (3:11)
  14. Coming Undone (1:15)
  15. Leave Us Alone (6:55)
  16. Tears and Razor Blades (2:03)

Running Time: 47:28

Screamworks Records SWD0001 (2011)

  2 comments for “COMFORTING SKIN – Alain Mayrand

  1. Gene Ramsbottom
    November 21, 2011 at 4:44 pm

    Without knowing the movie these 16 miniatures sound compelling as a very listenable new-music concert piece for chamber ensemble. Repeat listening increases the pleasure of the well-written score and would be an interesting companion piece to Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire or Berio’s Folk Songs.

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