The Two Masks of a Modern Day Film Composer

This year I have become very aware of the number of  current film scores that are now heavily weighted towards sound design – the drums and distorted guitars of Mad Max, the rumbles and crashes of Sicario and the eerie atmospheres of Gravity. I love each of these scores and appreciate their effectiveness as an element of the entire film. They also very much reinforce the 1950’s director, Arthur Lubin’s observation that “The key to a good score is finding a function for the score that is not being filled by any other element on the picture”.

I have also been enjoying re-visiting the music of composers like John Williams, John Barry and Ron Goodwin on CD as I embark on countless motorway journeys. These tend to be concert works compiled from themes so tend to work very well as pieces in their own right. This is not always the case with film music and neither should it need to be. It is no indication of the success of a score. It is, however, something that I consider interesting l to explore and consider though, both from the position of a composer and a viewer/listener.

If we take a set of established composers and create an overview of their work, we end up with terms like “Williams-esque” or “Hermann-esque”. This is the nature of classification and historical collection, and all composers from Bach to Beethoven to Schoenberg experience this. I understand why this is done but we shouldn’t let it undervalue or pigeon-hole the diversity and skill of these composers. Along with Williams’ Indiana Jones and Star Wars scores, we have his 1970 score for Images – far more avant garde and spectral than we would usually associate with his music. Along with Bernard Hermann’s Physco score we have his Taxi Driver jazz-based score; Takemitsu’s Empire of Passion along with his Black Rain score. Of course, over time these composers establish their own general voice, a huge achievement in itself, and for this reason they are hand-picked by directors, but each of these composers still makes an informed decision about how to approach each score on a project by project basis.

One current composer that I feel is doing a very good job at avoiding the danger of becoming pigeon-holed is Jóhann Jóhannsson. His last two film scores, The Theory of Everything (2014) and Sicario (2015), could not be any more different. This, of course, also reflects the content of the films. The Theory of Everything covers a thirty year period of the live of Stephen Hawking. It covers his private life and health, his family life and his professional life. It draws on emotion from a number of perspectives and gently merges Hawking’s humour along with all that he is experiencing, adding a dimension of inspiration to the film. Sicario follows the Mexican cartel and the challenges that American government forces face in their task of tackling such an organisation – a land of lawlessness built on fear and brutality. Whilst there is an unspoken bond and connection between the American law enforcement team, this is not an open affection that can be displayed. Decisions, both moral and physical, have to be made on the spot and any lapse in timing or judgement will have immediate consequences.

Jóhannsson became involved with The Theory of Everything (dir. James Marsh) once the filming was complete and early into the edit. The first theme that he settled on was the four note theme, introduced right at the start of the film. From here on, the piano took dominance as an intrusumnet representing characters and subject. Piano and other keyboard instruments appear alongside an orchestra of forty strings, double winds and two horns. Such instrumentation lends itself to an incredibly warm texture that can really realise the potential of such simple, emotional motifs. Both the strings and keyboard instruments have huge ranges, and this score is orchestrated using very particular registers to provide particular effects. For example, high strings with high piano produce a thin, slightly vulnerable texture whilst sections focussing on middle range bring a very warm, secure bedding to the score.

The first theme that we hear in The Theory of Everything is introduced on the piano with a four note motif (D Eb F Bb). The motif is in 3/4 lasting for two bars (six beats), meaning if placed in 4/4 it comes around to land on the first beat of the bar every other time. This is a great rhythmic device in that when the string line enters in 4/4 it is very difficult to get a firm grip on the pulse. It is a light-hearted, youthful theme that goes well with the excitement of university life in the summer. This four note motif feeds into much of the score from here-on.

Themes over this four note motif (in very guises) are developed and orchestrated with a strong use of the different pitches. By the time we reach Domestic Pleasures and the Epilogue the music has moved to a lilting waltz with held high string lines above a lower, rich string melody. This idea is further developed melodically with counter melodies and scales played by the flutes and glockenspiel providing a diverse sound combination, whilst always keeping the melody at the focus.

Thory of Everything - Cambridge '63

There are strong elements of minimalism throughout this score. It tends to occur to the listener that themes are derived from earlier ideas, though it is often difficult to quite place one’s finger on where exactly they have come from. The mode may be altered, the order of the notes, the time signature or it may just be in a similar style. This, for me, is a great example of taking a few ideas and really expanding them to get the most out of the material in the name of supporting the picture and development.

Jóhannsson became involved with Sicario right from the beginning, even pre-shooting, having worked with director Denis Villeneuve on Prisoners in 2013. Villeneuve did not provide Jóhannsson with a temp track, instead favouring a discussion providing Jóhannsson with a blank slate from which to work (apart from the  specific guide of “subtle war music”).

The instrumentation throughout Sicario is extremely percussive with a 65 piece orchestra with an emphasis on tom-toms and military snares (with the snare off), and a large brass section focussing on the lower end of the register. Whilst there are contributions from solo singer, Robert Lowe, cellist, Hildur Guðnadóttir, and bass guitarist, Skúli Sverrisson these are rare, and only provide a break from the sheer relentlessness of the surrounding percussion and sound design. The score is, in the main, orchestral although unlike a traditional film score the orchestra was recorded in blocks to allow for more focussed sound manipulation post-recording. Sound designer, B.J. Nilsen, assisted with this. Whilst Jóhannsson mentions that there is melody involved in the score, he also admits that this is not particularly evident due the elongation of the themes and the textural manipulation surrounding it.

Jóhannsson uses two main rhythmic ideas throughout – one providing a war-like rhythm, almost from the underground (a pulsating, threatening motif), and the other providing the loneliness and solitude of the desert whilst  mirroring the difficult life and loneliness of the character, Alejandro. The rhythm and drive in Sicario is strongly dominant over any melodic content. The restlessness of the throbbing brass and hard hitting drums, is directly reflective, of the world that we are taken to. Even if there is no immediate violence, there is always this underlying threat banging away that dominates the Mexican life around the cartel.

“Armoured Vehicle” has a regular muffled drum rhythm with brass cluster chords growing and falling around it, often effected to the point of sounding like distorted guitars. The drums become more and less filtered throughout the piece, gradually adding slightly more movement, whilst the brass wrapping it together remains the same.

“Convoy” has a musical blanket of sound-design and eerie effects surrounding the regular drums. The orchestral parts have more movement than in “Armoured Vehichle”, this time with cello lines accompanying the war rhythm and brass tuttis often sounding like semi-improvised parts to create a particular sound around these lines. .

“Desert Music” isn’t full of the driving underground rhythms, and generally has no clear indication of a pulse. A lyrical cello line fits beneath the higher held strings in its own space. Over time the higher strings take begin to play the melodic lines, with recurring flute ostinati. Such cues provide a break from the pulsating music with some emotional input. We know that the emotion cannot last long, however, always returning to the daunting, uncomfortable drums, strings and brass.

The Theory of Everything and Sicario are films that cover two entirely different emotional worlds. The scores directly reflect this with the first being a much easier listen, taking the listener on a journey in its own right, and the latter being a much more difficult, especially when taken away from the picture. Each score responds directly and effectively to the picture and content. The Theory of Everything follows a man and his family through their lives and aims not to be set in one particular time. It underscores and mimics this journey, with the theme introduced at the start being used as the spark for much of the later material (the motif from the beginning re-appears in the lecture scene 35 years later where he imagines himself getting out of his wheelchair and picking up a pen). Sicario doesn’t allow this progression. There is un-ease throughout. There is un-certainty and although we glimpse quasi-emotional moments these never last, and come through with more of a sense of loneliness than anything else.

Composition and sound-design are a key part of modern day composition and are very much becoming increasingly blurred. Jóhann Jóhannsson demonstrates this perfectly with these two scores, and in doing so shows his versatility and that that is required of a modern day film composer.

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