William Susman

Fate of the Lhapa

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There are only three surviving lhapas, or Tibetan shamans, and since the Chinese occupation of Tibet in the 1950s they have been living in a refugee camp in Nepal. In her film Fate of the Lhapa, director Sarah Sifers documents both their personal stories and their shamanic practices so the traditions will not be entirely lost if no heirs appear in time for the lhapas to transmit their wisdom to a new generation. William Susman's score uses conventional western orchestral sounds integrated with indigenous instruments such as bells, gongs, and drums to create an atmosphere that amplifies the wonder, beauty, and melancholy of the film's story and imagery. Some of the sections have a typically minimalist sound, but like the best middle period minimalism, the repeated patterns create a sense of momentum while they are in fact constantly morphing and evolving in their patterns and orchestration, and close listening reveals there is in fact very little exact repetition. Meeting with the Dalai Lama, the track whose music is most closely reminiscent of that of Philip Glass, may be a conscious (or unconscious) homage to the composer, who has been a tireless advocate of both Buddhist principles and the cause of Tibetan autonomy. The 11 sections of the soundtrack recorded here are richly varied in orchestration and mood. Cellist Joan Jeanrenaud's expressive playing adds a layer of soulful melancholy, and Tibetan vocalist Tsering Wangmo is especially haunting; her keening contributes immeasurably to the score's emotional resonance. The score is strong and directly communicative enough that it stands on its own musically and doesn't depend on the film's narrative and images to be appreciated. Its effectiveness has been affirmed in the awards it has received: the Seahorse Award at the 2007 Moondance Festival and the Gold Medal for Excellence for Best Impact of Music in a Documentary at the 2008 Park City Film Music Festival.

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