THE MORTAL INSTRUMENTS: CITY OF BONES – Atli Örvarsson
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
The Mortal Instruments is a series of “young adult” fantasy novels written by Cassandra Clare, following the adventures of teenager Clary Fray. After her mother mysteriously disappears, Clary discovers that she is part of a line of Shadowhunters, a secret force of young half-angel warriors locked in an ancient battle to protect our world from demons. Teaming up with a larger group of shadow hunters, all of whom are invisible to regular humans (“mundanes”), Clary heads into a dangerous alternate version of New York called Downworld, where she and her cohorts attempt to rescue her mother, and stop the demons from spilling over into the real world.
The first installment of the series, City of Bones, forms the basis of director Harald Zwart’s film, which stars Lily Collins in the lead role, and features Jamie Campbell-Bower, Lena Headey, Jonathan Rhys-Myers and Robert Sheehan. Despite being an immensely popular series of novels, the film has been criticized for its similarity to other entries into the fantasy genre, notably Harry Potter, Twilight and the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series, although a film based on the second film in the series, City of Ashes, has been greenlit and is scheduled for release in 2014.
The music for The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones is by Icelandic composer Atli Örvarsson, whose late appointment as a replacement for the film’s original composer, Gabriel Yared, left him with just nine weeks to write and record the entire score. Apparently Örvarsson was hired on the spot after director Zwart came out of a screening of Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, having been enormously impressed by Örvarsson’s music for that film – despite the fact that Zwart had previously rejected Örvarsson’s score for his Karate Kid remake in 2010. Örvarsson is a composer who has both impressed me (Babylon A.D., The Eagle) and left me indifferent (Vantage Point, The Fourth Kind), but I have to say that throughout his career the positives have vastly outweighed the negatives, and The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones is definitely a positive. The score is massive, written for a large symphony orchestra augmented by all manner of unusual percussive and metallic specialty instruments, a large Gothic choir, and a fairly large bank of contemporary electronics, all wrapped up in a mysterious, religioso soundscape that is compelling and interesting to the ear.
The opening piece, “Clary’s Theme”, is a whopper; it has a little hint of Hans Zimmer’s Sherlock Holmes music to it through the use of a tinkling cimbalom, but whereas Zimmer’s theme was all mischief and whimsy, Örvarsson’s has a real sense of epic grandeur to it. A chanting Latin choir and string accents are gradually added to the mix, and by the half way point theme has grown into an enormous tour-de-force. A sensitive piano interlude brings things down a little, before the whole piece climaxes with a large, major key explosion of angelic strings-and-chorus. It wouldn’t be hyperbole to say that this is probably the most powerful and emotional cue of Örvarsson’s career to date.
Clary’s Theme is one of several which weave in and out of the score, giving the piece a sense of itself, a structure, and a leitmotivic identity which captures different aspects of the story – listen especially for the creepy music-box version of the theme in “Demon Doll”, and the excellent extended restatement of theme in the penultimate cue. A subtle piano love theme for Clary and her fellow shadow hunter Jace is heard at several of the score’s more emotional more, notably in “Midnight in the Garden”, and there is also a darker, more dance-like theme for the film’s main antagonist Valentine Morgenstern, which is all chanted vocals, throaty brasses, dark electronic effects and unyielding, remorseless percussion.
Much of the rest of the score unfolds via the same palette; “City of Bones” uses a boy soprano to add an air of mystery to the proceedings, while the high-register metallic percussion, bells and chimes, and the unique use of an ancient string instrument called a viol continues to ramp up the score’s liturgical air. The viol, which is performed by an specialist in ancient music named Richard Boothby, who is a professor at the Royal College of Music in London, acts as a musical marker for the “mortal cup” – one of the eponymous mortal instruments – an ancient and mysterious artifact which acts as the film’s maguffin, and can be heard prominently in “Pretty Far from Brooklyn”, parts of “The Angel Rune”, the creepily imaginative “Madame Dorothea”, and in the first moments of the enticing-yet-dangerous “Valentine” .
The action music is loud, fast, and complicated, especially in the way Örvarsson works in various distorted electronic textures, complementing the thrusting orchestral lines, and illustrating the concept of two vastly different worlds existing side-by-side, but apart from each other. Cues such as “The Angel Rune”, “Magnus Bane”, “Where’s the Cup” and “J.C.” are tremendously exciting, and at times reach quite monumental heights of power and volume. Some of the twisted, fade-in-fade-out synths remind me a little of the sort of thing composer Olivier Derivière wrote for the well-received video game Remember Me earlier this year, and are very impressive indeed; “Vampires and Werewolves” is a notable example of this.
Some of the choral crescendos, especially in the score’s second half, are goose bump-inducing, spine-tinglingly good, especially when they combine with large-scale performances of Clary’s Theme in cues such as the epic “You’re a Morgenstern” and in the first half of “She’s Not a Mundane”, while the lovely finale, “The Portal”, rounds out the score on a dreamy, hopeful note. With the exception of a few moments in Babylon AD in 2008, this is a side of Örvarsson we haven’t heard before, but it’s one I absolutely hope to hear in future.
The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones is one of the most unexpectedly pleasant surprises in film music in 2013, a year which has, for the most part, failed to deliver many outstanding scores during its first eight months. Considering how quick his turnaround was from when he was hired, Atli Örvarsson’s work here is astonishingly accomplished, emotional and exciting, with plenty of enjoyment to be gleaned from its three main elements: orchestra, chorus and synths. He continues to be a chameleon whose scores are impossible to predict beforehand, and this a good thing; I hope he continues down this road with his next series of scores.
Buy the Mortal Instruments: City of Bones soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Clary’s Theme (3:22)
- City of Bones (3:40)
- Your Secret is Safe (2:52)
- The Clave’s Curse (3:18)
- Pretty Far From Brooklyn (2:32)
- Close the Dome (2:54)
- The Mortal Cup (2:56)
- The Angel Rune (4:06)
- Madame Dorothea (3:11)
- Magnus Bane (2:50)
- Demon Doll (2:38)
- Where’s the Cup? (3:47)
- You’re a Morgenstern (4:02)
- J.C. (2:39)
- She’s Not a Mundane (2:24)
- Valentine (3:52)
- Midnight in the Garden (2:15)
- Vampires and Werewolves (4:31)
- Mortal Instruments – The Opening (3:31)
- The Portal (2:22)
Running Time: 57 minutes 49 seconds
Milan 36644 (2013)
Music composed and conducted by Atli Örvarsson. Orchestrations by Julian Kershaw. Additional music by Dave Fleming. Featured musical soloists Richard Boothby, David Daniels, Sandro Friedrich, Sally Heath and Satnam Ramgotra. Special vocal performances by Alexander Line, Hilda Örvarsdóttir and the Tiffin School Boys Choir. Recorded and mixed by Steve McLaughlin. Edited by Kevin Banks and Cliff Bennett. Album produced by Atli Örvarsson.