Jóhannsson, Jóhann – “Arrival (Original Soundtrack)” – [Deutsche Grammophon]
The soundtrack to Dennis Villeneuve’s time-bending science-fiction suspense film is strange and otherworldly with unusual voicing and heavily modified instrumentation that is as mellifluous and soothing as it is abstract and unfamiliar. Deep drone, alien vocal arrangements, strings from The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra and beautiful if bizarre vocalizations from the Theatre of Voices, sparse percussion and an overarching minimalism convey distance, introspection, and liminal phantasmic qualities. Arrival was composed by the late Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson (Blade Runner 2049, Sicario, Mandy), and was scored during the apex of his relatively short but voluminous and perhaps influential cinematic career (the third of four films films with Villeneuve). He died like a rock star, at the peak of his game, his system flooded with alcohol and cocaine which, in my mind, makes him a legend and and also kind of an asshole. However, that is of little consequence, the sound(s) that he generated were brilliant, often employing near sub-sonic drones that would utilize the incredible range and volume of modern theater sound systems to mesmerizing and visceral effect. Rivaling both Motörhead and Holy Mountain era Sleep in obscenely over-the-top volume, I saw Blade Runner 2049 (another example of a [less than amazing] film that just happened to be an exceptional vehicle for Jóhannsson’s sound design) in a nearly empty theater and was thrilled at the way my rib-cage would shudder at the unearthly sound. It became tactile. I was immersed in a compressible fluid that was both turbulent and resonate. When the medium of air becomes that warped and disturbed we can be transported to a place that is foreign and dire. Not unlike outer space or the chambers that house the hyper-evolved “Heptapods”, the extraterrestrial demagogues in the film. Our atmosphere is as untenable to them as theirs is to ours so the linguistic protagonists must meet with these beings separated by a transparent barrier in an attempt to learn, with some great difficulty, to communicate with them and the consequences that come with first contact with a species that is technologically and militarily superior. This separation from the familiar is important to the sound and ultimately the feeling of the film. Jóhannsson was aware that “people are hungry for new sounds, and for the experience of listening to unfamiliar music…” and this awareness was what compelled him to make an extraordinary film score for a striking film, with one gnarly twist, about love, determination, and communion with our extrasolar squid overlords.
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