GRAVITY – Steven Price
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
There has never quite been a film like Gravity. In terms of plot, it’s fairly thin – two astronauts, played by George Clooney and Sandra Bullock, suffer a disaster while repairing the Hubble space telescope, and are left floating stranded in space, desperately trying to find a way to safety, and to home. Instead, it is the scope and majesty of Alfonso Cuarón’s film that takes audiences to a completely new sensory place. Space has never seemed so vast, so vivid, so beautiful, so terrifying. The cinematography and design of the film makes the viewer feel like it was genuinely shot in space, such is the sense of realism. Much more will be written about the film to convey how stellar it is, but I’m here to talk about the music, which also plays an enormous part in the success of the entire project.
The score for Gravity is by English composer Steven Price, and this is the second of his two major scores in 2013 (the other being the comedy The World’s End) – truly his breakout year. Price is a guitar player by trade, who first cut his teeth in the film scoring world working with Trevor Jones on scores such as Dinotopia and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. A sideways move into music editing led him to working with composers as varied as Howard Shore, Anne Dudley, Patrick Doyle, Hans Zimmer and David Arnold – not a bad pedigree! – before he made his feature composing debut in 2011 with the British sci-fi comedy Attack the Block. With these two scores in 2013, and Gravity in particular, Price has announced himself as major new talent in the film scoring world with a bright future ahead of him.
Price’s major problem in scoring Gravity was self-imposed. As space is a vacuum, and as there is no sound there, and in order to make the film as realistic as possible in that respect, director Cuarón kept the sound effects to an absolute minimum – meaning that Price, to compensate, had to both convey the film’s emotion through music, while also providing some of the sound effects elements. In an interview with the Huffington Post, Price said “Cuarón was only interested in allowing sounds that the astronauts would hear themselves. You’d hear stuff within their spacesuits; if they touched something, you’d hear the vibration that they’d hear, but you don’t hear any exterior noises. We kind of knew the music would be responsible for all the other things. I was asked to try and tonally represent things that would ordinarily be sound. You don’t hear an explosion in the film, but you might hear some pulsation in the music that reflects it. The score is doing the job of traditional sound, while the sound crew was able to do an interesting job on their own”.
The end result of all this is a score which treads a fine line between being traditional film music, and being a dissonant effects track, and under normal circumstances this is a kind of score that I would tend to shy away from. However, for some reason, Gravity is different. The music has a compelling, fascinating aura that captures the attention, not with traditional themes and melodies – although there are some of those – but instead with a challenging collision of sounds and styles that draws the listener in. Some of the sounds are enormous and overwhelming – the electronic pulse that opens the score in “Above Earth” is simply ear-shattering – but these are tempered by some beautiful, almost celestial spacey ambiances accompanied by the merest hint of a solo vocal and an electric cello. This is the wonder of Earth, as seen from high above.
The two-note electronic pulse, ominous and persistent, accompanies every bad thing that happens to Bullock and Clooney, from the devastating disaster as the “Debris” hits, to the terrifying blackness of “The Void”, and the breathless energy and sense of panic in “Don’t Let Go”. The opening 20-plus minutes of the score are very much rooted in this dark, oppressive style, and listeners will find these cues are the most challenging, and the most difficult to swallow in terms of conventional ‘enjoyment’. The electronic tones build and overlap and swirl around each other in frightening ways to the point of sheer cacophony, although the voices and the cello are never too far away to keep the listener grounded in the human world. The action returns later in the score in the frantic and frenzied pair “Fire” and “Parachute”; the latter of these two is especially notable for the cracking cello ostinati and unexpected flutter-tongued brass triplets that really help raise the sense of urgency.
The first hint of anything remotely hopeful begins to appear in the first portion of “Don’t Let Go”, which retains the same orchestration and electronic palette as before, but twists things around to make the stark tones of the electric cello and the soulful, plaintive vocals into a forlorn lament speaking of loss and self-sacrifice. Later, “Airlock” features a peaceful piano solo – a moment of calm amongst the chaos. Subsequent cues such as “ISS”, “Aurora Borealis”, the blissful “Aningaaq”, and the gossamer-light “Soyuz” also continue the trend with dreamy, swooning ambiences that are very appealing indeed.
The score’s finale, comprising the cues “Tiangong”, “Shenzou” and “Gravity” and running for just over 16 minutes, is where Price finally allows the thematic presence and emotional content to rise to the fore and shine at its fullest. “Tiangong” and the first half of “Shenzou” are all about painful, desperate anticipation, as Price gradually but relentlessly raises the tension levels through stepwise changes in key and gradual layering of vocals over acoustic instruments over electronics. The soaring vocal effect and increased melodic performance of the orchestra in the cue’s second half, and in the conclusive “Gravity”, bring blessed relief, sounding almost like something Ennio Morricone might have written on one of his more emotional days, perhaps recalling the vigorous anthem-like statements at the end of Queimada or The Mission. It’s a wonderfully powerful and compelling – and human – conclusion to such an other-worldly story, and it’s perhaps telling, and appropriate, that the closer the film gets to Earth, the more prominent the voices of those souls upon it become in the score.
Gravity is not a score which will appeal to the masses. A large part of it is made up of challenging, uncompromising electronic dissonance, and if that sort of music leaves you running for the hills, then you can expect to be going there after listening to the first 15 minutes of this score. Similarly, anyone who immediately expects space music to be grand and symphonic, á la Holst, will also be disappointed; this is not that kind of score, and it would have overwhelmed and undermined the film if Price had gone down that road. What more adventurous listeners will find instead is a bold, difficult, enchanting score by a talented newcomer which scares and crushes the listener as much as it entertains, but builds to a rousing and cathartic finale.
Buy the Gravity soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- Above Earth (1:50)
- Debris (4:25)
- The Void (6:16)
- Atlantis (3:43)
- Don’t Let Go (11:12)
- Airlock (1:58)
- ISS (2:53)
- Fire (2:58)
- Parachute (7:41)
- In the Blind (3:08)
- Aurora Borealis (1:43)
- Aningaaq (5:09)
- Soyuz (1:43)
- Tiangong (6:29)
- Shenzou (6:11)
- Gravity (4:35)
Running Time 71 minutes 57 seconds
Watertower Music (2013)
Music composed by Steven Price. Orchestrations by David Butterworth. Recorded and mixed by Gareth Cousins. Edited by Christopher Benstead. Album produced by Steven Price.