How creativity and finances are fuelling more disobedient and unpredictable soundtracks
Experimental film scores by alternative artists and composers have long been a part of film history. The score for 1956’s Forbidden Planet by John Cage affiliates Louis and Bebe Barron marked the first ever entirely electronic soundtrack, and an unnerving one at that. By the time of the 1970s, such curious and stimulating film scores were commonplace across both mainstream and independent cinema. Works by the likes of Wendy Carlos (Clockwork Orange), Tangerine Dream (Sorcerer), Giorgio Moroder (Midnight Express), Popol Vuh (Aguirre, Wrath of God) and Can (Deadlock) were all seminal, along with a rising movement of directors who scored or co-scored their own films: David Lynch (Eraserhead), Tobe Hooper (Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and John Carpenter (Halloween, Assault on Precinct 13).
As times moved on, scores didn’t necessarily disappear (countless pivotal works continued throughout the decades including Vangelis’ Blade Runner to Air’s The Virgin Suicides) but during the CD retail boom of the 1990s, along with a shift in cinematic tone, the high octane or hip soundtrack began to take the place of more mood-based scores by outsider artists, the exception being big hitters like Hans Zimmer and John Williams, who’ve remained omnipresent in the upper echelons of Hollywood.
As the 2000s rolled on, the countless Quentin Tarantino and Wes Anderson mimicry soundtracks grew stagnant and directors once again began to explore the idea of alternative artists performing original score. In recent years this has flourished not only into a boom period but arguably moved into a phase of innovation to match the 1970s explosion. Such key scoring artists from non-traditional composing backgrounds include Clint Mansell, Geoff Barrow, Nick Cave & Warren Ellis, Ben Frost, Mogwai, Liars, Johnny Jewel, Oneohtrix Point Never, Colin Stetson, Scott Walker and Trent Reznor. Alongside these are those who have some form of compositional or classical training but have continued in the lineage of Philip Glass, Krzysztof Penderecki and Steve Reich by ditching lush, sweeping, bombastic strings for more disobedient and unpredictable pieces, such as Mica Levi, Max Richter, Jonny Greenwood and the recently departed Jóhann Jóhannsson.
Mogwai’s Stuart Braithwaite unquestionably feels we’re in a boom period. “I think how good – and well received – Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ soundtracks have been has opened up the film and TV industry to using more non-traditional soundtracks,” he says. Having been scoring projects since 2006’s Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, Braithwaite says he’s seen a noticeable shift. “From our perspective, after The Social Network (2010) more people were willing to talk to us about these things.”
Another landmark release was Mica Levi’s Under the Skin (2013). “That was just a moment of absolute brilliance,” says Geoff Barrow. “I remember hearing it and I just said, ‘what the fuck is that?’ It’s influential. It’s a massive step forward.” Braithwaite echoes this. “Her work is so good that I think it made people take a step back. People heard that music and saw how well it worked in a film and maybe then realised that just because someone turns up in jeans and a t-shirt, it doesn’t mean they aren’t brilliant or technically valid or reliable.”
The film industry is a notoriously tough place to work in. Mogwai were sacked from their first ever project and so was Geoff Barrow. “The film industry makes the music industry look like Paddington,” says Barrow. So what keeps artists gravitating towards it? “Doing soundtracks has definitely set up some kind of working process,” Warren Ellis tells me. “There was a freeing up of things and this fed back into the band. Each project keeps informing each other. It’s help set up a foundation for how Nick and I work that carries on to this day.” Braithwaite also sees this as something that can reinvigorate the working process of a band. “It’s a challenge,” he says. “We’ve been put in situations where people have asked us to do things that we wouldn’t normally do. Doing things in a different way then informs your own music.”
What, then, is attracting directors and film studios to work with these less traditional artists? “There’s a generation of directors who have come from a non-standard film school background,” says Ben Salisbury, who co-scores a lot of work with Barrow but is a trained composer. “They’ve grown up with a much more sophisticated understanding of music for picture and are open to more things. Also technology. If you don’t need to book out a massive studio or bring in an orchestra for something then directors can become much more experimental because they can afford to be – they can just try something and see if it works.” Warren Ellis feels it’s both “creatively and financially driven.” This is something that Barrow concurs with. “The more independent the film is, the less budget and therefore the more chances it will be able to take and the more interesting the scores will get.”
Expectations can change with bigger budgets however. “The problem is when you get people intervening who have no clue at all,” says Ellis. “The more money that is involved, the more morons become involved.” Barrow too has experienced this. “When I make music with Beak> or Portishead there is nobody telling me how it should be done and a film executive is worse than any music executive you’ve ever met in your life, saying stupid stuff that makes absolutely no sense. The weaker the executive, the more notes you get about the music because they are afraid to criticize the film directly so they direct it at the music instead of the edit.”
The unique position that these artists find themselves in is being able to dip in and out of this world. “It’s not something I would like to be doing as a job,” says Ellis. “I wouldn’t want to have to do everything that came along. I like to feel that each project that we do we bring something unique to it.” Again Barrow mirrors this. “More traditional and professional composers can glide between doing a comedy and a drama but I think for us lot it’s more a case of waiting for the right film to come along.”
This leads to a consistency in the quality of the score work from these artists, as well as work being created in less pressured environments that results in more risks being taken in the final music. For Barrow, this area is the most exciting place to be hearing contemporary music at the moment. “The most interesting noises, sounds and productions that I’ve heard in the last ten years have been soundtracks.”
FURTHER LISTENING AND WATCHING
Film: Good Time
Synopsis: Robert Pattinson is a bank robber on the run with his disabled brother.
Soundtrack artist: Oneohtrix Point Never
Listen for: Daniel Lopatin’s eerie drones rumble alongside big, squelchy, bubbling, oscillating synthesisers, sounding like a lost gem from the weirder corners of 1970’s science fiction.
Film: West of Memphis
Synopsis: Documentary about the West Memphis Three, a trio of teenagers wrongly convicted of the murder of three 8-year-olds.
Soundtrack artists: Nick Cave & Warren Ellis
Listen for: A step away from the violin-heavy score that permeated Cave’s work on The Proposition in 2005, West of Memphis shifts into more synth-based ambient explorations. It’s a key piece of work that would go on to shape the Bad Seeds’ following album, ‘Push the Sky Away’.
Synopsis: Nicholas Cage in a bonkers, 1980s-set horror film about ravaging cultists and supernatural creatures.
Soundtrack artist: Jóhann Jóhannsson feat. Sun O)))’s Stephen O’Malley
Listen for: The last ever project that the Icelandic composer worked on, which also features guitar from monster drone titan O’Malley. Expect menacing synth gurgles, gut-churning guitars and dense atmospherics. Obviously.
Film: Delete Beach
Synopsis: A short animé film by acclaimed artist and Turner Prize nominee Phil Collins.
Soundtrack artist: Mica Levi
Listen for: A less well known release compared to her game-changing Under the Skin score or her Academy Award-nominated Jackie, Delete Beach is a score that is just as innovative, fusing static hisses, discordant string work, sputtering to sweeping electronics and eerie clangs.
Synopsis: A sci-fi crime drama starring James Franco as a crime lord.
Soundtrack artists: Mogwai
Listen for: “The music in the film is some of my favourite Mogwai has ever made,” says Stuart Braithwaite. It’s heavy on electronic ambience, looping pianos and big spacious atmospheres that give way to post-rock eruptions.
Synopsis: The directorial debut from Jeremy Phillips about a 20-year-old girl in rural Pennsylvania and her struggles with sex, drugs, love and loss.
Soundtrack artists: Liars
Listen for: The final Liars recordings before Aaron Hemphill left the band. 1/1 is a skipping, jolting and often abstract electronic score that is dark in mood. Such is the uniqueness of the tone and structure of this soundtrack that, unusually, some of the film was edited around the music itself to make room for it in the film.
Synopsis: A sci-fi psychological horror that follows military scientists into a mysterious quarantined zone known as “the shimmer”.
Soundtrack artists: Geoff Barrow & Ben Salisbury
Listen for: A deeply varied and texturally rich score that feels like it uses the width, breadth and power of a full studio whilst remaining thoughtful and restrained. As a result, it shifts from ghostly drones to intense paranoia constantly.
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