Jóhann Jóhannsson is known for his modern composition skills, often working with stately piano and subtle electronics. But for his original soundtrack to the big new film Arrival, he follows the plot’s lead by centering his compositions around the voice. The results can sometimes recall Holly Herndon relocated to a dramatic orchestral context: e.g. really rather interesting. CD release on Deutsche Grammophon.
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Arrival, in my humblest of opinions, is one hell of a movie. From the complex themes of terminal illness and romance, to the struggles that humanity would face; both politically and linguistically when faced with first contact. (Spoiler alert!) The beings - who we later find out are named ‘Heptapods - arrive in a dozen pods all over the globe but attempt contact in an obviously unknown text. Amy Adams portrays Dr Louise Banks a languages lecturer at a university in the USA, and in turn is called upon to help decode the alien language. She discovers that once you understand their language you begin to perceive time and life as they do - interesting stuff.
But wait. This is a review of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s music score for the film, not the film itself.
The film score begins with Matt Richter’s On the Nature of Daylight. The reason Jóhannsson allows this piece to be such a crucial part of his score for the film is perhaps because the record that On the Nature of Daylight features The Blue Notebooks, was written in the run-up to the Iraq war. This piece of music usually plays when we see Dr Banks on screen, the films also portrays Banks as a strong pacifist who believes that the best way to communicate with the ‘Heptapods’ is via linguistic understanding not military power as the Chinese and Russians are wanting. The film and the film score follow this pattern throughout. Each track has meaning and use Jóhannsson’s classic method of writing and crafting music. His use of drones, electronic sounds and a heavy emphasis on strings allows for a complete and utter submersion into what is happening on screen and the emotions that Jóhannsson and director Denis Villeneuve are trying to portray in your ears.
As with most film scores, it is difficult to write about how brilliant (or not so brilliant) the music links up with the cinematography without actually viewing the film, too. This isn’t just a film score, it is a piece of art that can be both appreciated with or without the visual aid. More importantly, even if you didn’t know what the film was actually about, you would more than likely catch onto the whole alien theme.
Overall this is a marvellously good soundtrack and I highly advise that you listen to the score in detail after watching the film. What makes this score so good, is that Jóhannsson understands that the visuals and context are about language, hence he has made the score a language in itself. Music is a language and this soundtrack shows that off in the grandest of displays. If I could give it 10, I would. But nothing is perfect.
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