Fans of Martin Scorsese know that the director is almost as creative with the sound of his films as the look and the story. Shutter Island is a moody, spectral tale — and you don’t need to have seen the film to know that. The score, assembled mostly from well-chosen excerpts of 20th-century classical music, does two things: It creates and sustains a mood of unease, of haunted landscapes and uncertain journeys; and it displays the striking emotive power of so-called “avant-garde” music, which is often dismissed as being unnecessarily cerebral or academic. Here, electroacoustic soundscapes by Ingram Marshall (his masterpiece, Fog Tropes) and Brian Eno rub elbows with the high modernism of Krzysztof Penderecki, the prepared piano experiments of John Cage, an early tape-and-orchestra piece from John Adams, and the post-minimal/post-Romantic music of Max Richter. In this setting, hearing Johnnie Ray’s classic single “Cry” almost sounds like an aural hallucination.
The individual pieces are all worthy, and most can be found separately on eMusic, but to get the full effect of this remarkable score, you have to hear it all the way through. (Not that you have a choice — this is a full-album download.) In the arts as in so much of life, context is everything, and hearing Dinah Washington sing “This Bitter Earth” over a plaintive string work by Max Richter hits with a real emotional force after you’ve been through the sonic rollercoaster of Morton Feldman’s eerie choral piece Rothko Chapel and Giacinto Scelsi’s alien Uaxuctum. Divorced from the film, this is a rare soundtrack that not only works as pure music, but still has an inevitable sense of narrative.