How experimental musicians are reinventing the film score

Hereditary, Annihilation and First Reformed are just the latest examples in a new trend toward turning away from Hollywood’s composer establishment in favour of musicians from way out leftfield.

Samuel Wigley
Updated:

Indie horror Hereditary (2018), boasting a fearsome score from avant-garde saxophonist Colin Stetson

Indie horror Hereditary (2018), boasting a fearsome score from avant-garde saxophonist Colin Stetson

Ignore where the Oscars went, the best film scores of recent memory have come from musicians working well outside the formulaic traditions of film music. From the diabolical rumblings of Colin Stetson’s terrifying Hereditary score to the neon pulses of Oneohtrix Point Never’s music for Good Time, directors are increasingly turning to the experimental fringes to commission soundtracks that make an electrifying impression.

The Hollywood film-music establishment has been dominated for years by a small cluster of names. Between them, Hans Zimmer, Alexandre Desplat, Thomas Newman and – longest-reigning of them all – John Williams typically nab two or three of the five music Oscar nominations every year, each of them working within a noble tradition of lush orchestral harmonics that stems back to 1930s maestros like Max Steiner (Gone with the Wind) and Erich Wolfgang Korngold (The Adventures of Robin Hood).

Getting edgier talents from outside the movie world to knock up a score isn’t a new thing. Derek Jarman tapped up the likes of Brian Eno and Coil to soundtrack his films. Werner Herzog famously collaborated with kosmische legends Popol Vuh throughout the 70s. And avant-garde composer Toru Takemitsu’s fingerprints are on some of the most otherworldly Japanese scores of the 60s, from Woman of the Dunes to Kwaidan (both 1964).

What is new is that these commissions are turning up in major Hollywood releases – in talking-point films that you might see trailed across the side of a bus.

If the current trend has a moment of inception, we might look to There Will Be Blood in 2007. Beginning a collaboration that continued with The Master (2012) and Phantom Thread (2017), director Paul Thomas Anderson gave Jonny Greenwood free reign to channel his love of avant-garde titans like Messiaen, Ligeti and Penderecki, resulting in elementally strange, often atonal film music that triumphantly out-weirds his own band, Radiohead.

Since then, phones have been going off in the pockets of many lesser-known luminaries of experimental music. And, in the context of the dwindling financial returns of the streaming era, it’s not difficult to see why fringe musicians would snap up the opportunity for greater profile and payouts – particularly when the films and filmmakers in question are no slouches in creativity themselves.

Here are eight recent cases of film music looking to the underground.

Jóhann Jóhannsson

Sicario (2015)

Sicario (2015)

Key films: Prisoners (2013), Sicario (2015), Arrival (2016)

Key album: Virðulegu Forsetar (2004)

The saddest part of this story is that the man who encapsulates this movement between the avant-garde and the Academy Awards died in February this year, aged 48.

Iceland-born, Jóhann Jóhannsson started out in shoegaze-y indie before getting a name for himself blending minimalist classical music with subtle electronics on records such as Englaborn and Virðulegu Forsetar – both released on experimental British label Touch. At the same time, he was moonlighting writing music for Icelandic films, but the lush, sad strings and galactic scope of his 2006 album IBM 1401, A User’s Manual sounded like a bid for widescreen glory, and Hollywood soon came a-calling.

He was Oscar nominated for his relatively traditional work for The Theory of Everything (2014), but it’s with his collaborations with Denis Villeneuve that he really made his mark. Sicario (another Oscar nom in 2016) is the pick of the bunch: in Villeneuve’s drug-war thriller, Jóhansson’s Richter-scale-bothering score seems to rumble up out of the desert ground with dread-inducing menace.

Fruitful as it was, however, the director-composer partnership ended when Jóhansson’s score for Blade Runner 2049 (2017) was rejected in favour of music by a bastion of the old guard (and one-time Going for Gold theme composer), Hans Zimmer.

Lustmord

Hear Lustmord’s music in the First Reformed trailer

Key film: First Reformed (2017)

Key album: Heresy (1990)

Paul Schrader has worked memorably with the likes of Giorgio Moroder (American Gigolo; Cat People) and Michael Brook (Affliction) before, and he was among the first to commission film music from Philip Glass (Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters). But who better to score his astonishing new faith-in-crisis drama First Reformed than the man who once played a live show for the Church of Satan?

As Lustmord, Welsh musician Brian Williams is the godfather of the dark ambient subgenre, all but inventing this more doom-laden and sepulchral cousin to Brian Eno’s ambient music in the early 1980s.

Williams has also worked prolifically as a sound designer and additional composer on countless Hollywood films (including The Crow and Strange Days) – and the odd video game too. Yet First Reformed is a rare score under the Lustmord name, and it’s the perfect intro to his world, creating an unbearable sense of foreboding and desolation through monolithic drones and reverberations. 

Oneohtrix Point Never

Good Time (2017)

Good Time (2017)

Key film: Good Time (2017)

Key album: R Plus Seven (2013)

As Oneohtrix Point Never, Massachusetts-born Daniel Lopatin has been pushing things forward in electronic music for a decade. With influences ranging from noise music to new age, his succession of albums on labels such as Viennese underground bastion Editions Mego and Warp Records evoke the crisis of information overload, with a constantly mutating, hypermodern sound-world of synthetic shards, drones and breathy presets. It’s the kind of music you might hear in your inner ear if you stared at the screens in Blade Runner’s LA for too long.

By getting Lopatin to score their breathless NYC crime thriller Good Time, the Safdie brothers were drawing a conscious line to that spell of the 1980s when all self-respecting genre films came with their own synth score – the days of Tangerine Dream and Giorgio Moroder. As Robert Pattinson’s after-hours odyssey trips and twists, OPN’s urgent, streamlined arpeggios build to loud and electrifying climaxes of intensity.

Mica Levi

Under the Skin (2013)

Under the Skin (2013)

Key films: Under the Skin (2013), Jackie (2016)

Key album: Jewellery – Micachu (2009)

The path from the underground to the Oscars for Surrey-born Mica Levi goes via a stint at Guildhall School of Music, the formation of angular avant-pop outfit Micachu and the Shapes and that band’s subsequent collaboration with the London Sinfonietta on the Chopped and Screwed project in 2011.

Then Jonathan Glazer got in touch and asked her to write music for a weird sci-fi movie he was making called Under the Skin. “I think he wanted a novice,” Levi has said, “someone who didn’t know how to write film scores.” The result bears little resemblance to her work as Micachu, and a lot more to that of microtonal avant-gardists such as Ligeti or Giacinto Scelsi. Scoring the alien seductress’s entrapments of a succession of lust-blind men, Levi’s music invokes a spiralling nightmare dread with its scraping strings and three-note siren’s call.

An Academy Award nomination came with only her second (considerably less scary) film score, for Pablo Larraín’s Jackie.

Colin Stetson

Hereditary (2018)

Hereditary (2018)

Key film: Hereditary (2018)

Key album: New History Warfare Vol 3: To See More Light (2013)

Although known for his collaborations with the likes of Bon Iver and Arcade Fire, it’s Colin Stetson’s own solo recordings that find him at his most sonically adventurous. Released between 2011 and 2013, his New History Warfare albums are a fire-breathing trilogy of avant-garde saxophone workouts, using overblowing and other extended techniques to generate visceral sheets of cascading sound.

If that sounds like an unlikely fit for the multiplex, this hasn’t stopped directors including Steve McQueen (in 12 Years a Slave) and Jacques Audiard (in Rust and Bone) from licensing Stetson tracks for their films. And, more recently, Stetson has turned original composer too – his most notable credit to date being on Ari Aster’s indie-horror sensation Hereditary.

Freaking people out has always been the raison d’être of a good horror score, but Stetson truly ups the ante with this one. Leaning heavily on clarinet and alto-sax, his signature, circular tones are put to blood-curdling effect. Even in the film’s calmer moments, his music seems to linger threateningly in the Graham house, its paranoid ambience embedded like dark matter in the walls and floorboards.

Geoff Barrow

Ex Machina (2014)

Ex Machina (2014)

Key films: Ex Machina (2014), Couple in a Hole (2015), Free Fire (2016), Annihilation (2018)

Key album: Dummy – Portishead (1994)

As turntablist and multi-instrumentalist in Portishead, Geoff Barrow helped to birth Bristol’s moody 90s trip-hop scene. Debut album Dummy teamed Beth Gibbons’ lonesome torch-singing with a bedrock of old soul samples and ominous vinyl static to create a mutant nocturnal strain of hip-hop – one that felt rooted in the urban decay of modern Britain.

Famed graffiti artist Banksy’s career developed out of this same Bristol underground, and it was as composer on the 2011 Banksy film Exit through the Gift Shop that Barrow got his major soundtracking break. Since then he’s scored Tom Geens’ backwoods oddity Couple in a Hole and Ben Wheatley’s kinetic shoot-em-up Free Fire – the former with his new band, Beak; the latter in collaboration with TV composer Ben Salisbury. But his widest exposure so far has been via the scores that he and Salisbury wrote for the sci-fi visions of Alex Garland: first Ex Machina in 2014 and then Annihilation in 2018. 

For the most part, the music in Ex Machina uses twinkling ambience to match the sterile modernity of the house where Oscar Isaac is conducting his AI experiments. But it’s not a soundtrack you can fall asleep to: at a crucial juncture, the composers let loose with abrasive blasts of industrial noise worthy of the more confrontational moments on Portishead’s brilliant 2010 comeback record Third.

Scott Walker

The Childhood of a Leader (2015)

The Childhood of a Leader (2015)

Key film: The Childhood of a Leader (2015)

Key album: The Drift (2006)

Memories of the velvet-voiced art-crooner of the 60s have taken a series of beatings since the 1990s, when Scott Walker began trolling his old fanbase with ever more stark and confrontational records like Tilt and The Drift, and with names like Bish Bosch.

Repositioned as a late-blooming figurehead of avant-garde music and composition, he wrote his first full-length film score – by turns elegiac and pummelling – for Leos Carax’s 1999 film Pola X. Post-Bish Bosch, however, it’s a brave filmmaker who’d send a commission Walker’s way.

Step up Brady Corbet, the actor-turned-director who did just that, getting Walker to pen the music for his disturbing chronicle of inchoate fascism, The Childhood of a Leader. Marshalling a full orchestra in the service of shrieking, Bernard Herrmann-esque cues that propel Corbet’s story along, it’s fair to say the results are typically terrifying.

Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto

The Revenant (2015)

The Revenant (2015)

Key film: The Revenant (2015)

Key album: Vrioon (2002)

Legendary for his career in avant-pop, forward-thinking classical and electronic music, Ryuichi Sakamoto has a long-running sideline in film scores too, including his memorable work for Merry Christmas, Mr Lawrence (1983) and his Oscar-winning score for The Last Emperor (1987). But he’d been out of the public arena for some time, battling throat cancer, when Alejandro González Iñárittu contacted him about writing the music for his wintry frontier epic The Revenant.

So massive was the project that Sakamoto brought in a long-time collaborator to supplement his orchestral score with glitchy digital textures and manipulations, which might seem anachronistic in the old west but help to enrich Iñárritu’s dense, sensory adventure. This was Carsten Nicolai, alias Alva Noto, the German founder of experimental techno imprint Raster Noton, who Sakamoto had worked with on a series of albums of clipped and glitchy piano in the 2000s.

Sadly, this meant that the resulting score was disallowed at the Oscars, for being the work of too many hands. Iñárritu despaired to Indiewire: “The Academy is demanding that the way young musicians approach making music for film is narrow […] It’s the wrong message to send to everybody, it will paralyze anyone who seeks to try something different.”

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