Minimalism goes mainstream…

Arrival OST

Jóhann Jóhannsson

DGG 28947 96782 (CD) or 479 6786 (double 180g LP)

By Roy Gregory

Movie soundtracks have long been a fertile source of impressive recordings, discs that score on musical and sonic grounds. With big spaces to fill, big systems to do it with and big action on the screen to reflect, recordings of film scores rarely seem to suffer from the dynamic constraints or moderating influences that are imposed on more audio orientated productions. When it comes to action on the screen, it’s pretty much a case of ‘anything goes and the bigger the better’ – with music expected to add to the scale and impact. But the quieter, more reflective and more emotionally nuanced passages are productive too, often making for music that is as varied as it can be impressive. From Dusty’s ‘The Look Of Love’ (Casino Royale) to the atmospheric scores for The Missouri Breaksor David Mansfield’s work on the beautiful Heaven’s Gate; the scores for The Deer Hunteror Gloryto earlier blockbusters like Ben Hurand The Seahawk, Hollywood has produced more than its fair share of audiophile collectables, while Hans Zimmer has joined John Williams and Ennio Morricone as a modern, bankable, orchestral composer.

While there’s a regrettable trend amongst too many recent movies to simply rely on pillaging the classic pop and soul back catalogues to string together a set of seemingly appropriate hits into a saleable package (arguably a trend that really hit its stride with Pulp Fiction) even the great composers of Hollywood’s heyday shamelessly ransacked the classical canon. When Dmitri Tiomkin won the Oscar for his score to The High And The Mightyin 1954, his acceptance speech famously (and scandalously – at least in conservative America) thanked:

“Johannes Brahms, Johann Strauss, Richard Strauss, Beethoven, Mozart, George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov.”

That wholesale ransacking of classical masterworks continues to this day, with both Star Warsand Gladiator, two of the more popular and recognisable modern soundtracks, owing more than a little to Gustav Holst! But alongside those classical ‘homages’, there are also genuinely innovative scores that standalone on purely musical grounds. Hans Zimmer’s GladiatorOST is undeniably catchy, exciting and sonically impressive, but his earlier work on Terrence Mallick’s Thin Red Line is musically more subtle, varied and deeply evocative. It’s work like this where you’ll find the real musical gems…

Which roundabout route brings me to the subject of this review – the soundtrack for the alien encounter movie, Arrival. A movie that’s (almost) devoid of explosive action, it relies instead on immobility and suspense, layered tension and suppressed fear of the unknown to draw the audience in. That’s always going to be fertile ground for musical accompaniment and Jóhannsson’s score doesn’t disappoint, mixing the varied textures of the Prague Philharmonic with synthesised sounds, loops and contributions from Theatre Of Voices. It is as atmospheric as it is complex and heavily layered, a sort of Phillip Glass meets Brian Eno mash-up, in current parlance. And as a film that features mysterious, dark and massive alien objects/spacecraft, it should be no surprise that the low-frequencies get a serious workout. But this isn’t the pounding power and intensity of the adrenalin rush that is Gravity (another soundtrack that’s seriously worth checking out). This is brooding, foreboding, threatening and unnerving – layer on layer of deep and deeply textured bass that sets the scene and establishes the mood for the occasionally shocking interjections that punctuate the movie’s narrative. Above them Jóhannsson weaves the pulsing, repetitive, shifting and shimmering patterns of strings, keyboards and vocals, switching moods from expectant to reflective, spooky to downright jaunty. There are even a few tracks where the rhythms move up-tempo and an air of insistent urgency takes over. But with prolonged listening it’s the sheer range of textural variation that fascinates. For anybody familiar with Adams, Reich and Glass, these will be well-trodden paths, but the difference here is the scale of the forces involved. The music might be minimalist in style, but the composer certainly doesn’t spare the horses.