NOAH – Clint Mansell
Original Review by Jonathan Broxton
The story of Noah, in terms of the Christian bible, is a fairly simple one: having become displeased with the corruption and cruelty of mankind, God makes the decision to essentially ‘wipe the slate clean’ and destroy humanity by way of a great flood. In order to preserve some semblance of life, God tasks Noah with building an enormous wooden ark into which he can fit a male and female specimen of every animal and bird on the planet – every creeping thing that creeps – so that life may begin again once the flood subsides. According to the story, which originally appears in the book of Genesis, it rains for forty days and forty nights, all of the evil of the world of washed away, and humanity began again anew. Darren Aronofsky’s visually staggering, theologically progressive film builds on the original biblical story and adds more action and fantasy elements, including a vicious antagonist who rebels against God and wants to take the ark for himself, and featuring a race of beings known as The Watchers, fallen angels cursed to be bound in a stony prison. Russell Crowe headlines the cast as Noah himself, with support from Jennifer Connelly, Anthony Hopkins, Ray Winstone and Emma Watson.
The score for Noah is by Darren Aronofsky’s regular musical collaborator Clint Mansell, working together for the sixth time after Pi (1998), Requiem for a Dream (2000), The Fountain (2006), The Wrestler (2008) and Black Swan (2010). Despite my affinity for Sahara – still his best work in my opinion – in the past I have been hard on Mansell, especially when it comes to his Aronofsky scores: I described parts of The Fountain as being “like listening to a car alarm for four minutes; the sound is so incessant you just want to shut the damn thing off”, and likened another particular aspect of it to “the sound of something solid disappearing down a plug hole.” With that in mind, I’m very happy to report that Noah is, by quite some significant margin, the best score of Clint Mansell’s career to date. While Sahara was drowning in testosterone-laden crowd-pleasing action courtesy of conductor/orchestrator Nicholas Dodd, and whereas Black Swan had the brilliance of Piotr Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake to fall back on, Noah is all Mansell, and he delivers a score which is epic in scope, but also keeps the intimacy of the familial relationships at the center of the story.
Mansell’s score is fully orchestral, with featured solo performances by members of the famed Kronos Quartet – violinists David Harrington and John Sherba, Hank Dutt on viola, and cellist Sunny Yang – augmented by various ethnic instruments, some more modern rock-like elements including guitars, and subtle electronic tones and drones, including the composer himself performing a prepared piano, a Mellotron tape keyboard, and a Moog synthesizer. Although the score does have a clear thematic core, and although those themes work as recognizable leitmotifs, thematic ideas and repetition of those themes are not Noah’s true strong point, and may be less obvious to listeners who do not want to spend time probing the score’s intellectual depths. Instead, for the most part, Mansell takes a more textural approach, using different instrumental combinations and variations in volume and speed to frame his emotions. Noah is a very emotional score on many levels, ranging from anguish and torment, anger and despair, to hope, celebration and joy.
The harshly aggressive opening cue, “In the Beginning, There Was Nothing” (all of Mansell’s evocative cue titles have their roots in bible passages) introduces the two main recurring ideas: a prominent two-note motif which seems to depict the brutality and self-aggrandizement of the descendents of Cain, which is often performed by high strings accompanied by harsh synth tones, and a longer-lined, undulating nine-note theme which seems to represent Noah himself, and his task at hand, and which tends to have a more elegant aspect to it.
The theme for Noah and his family is most often depicted with performances for solo violins, solo cellos and acoustic guitars, in cues such as the intimate middle section of “Sweet Savor”, the deconstructed and understated “For Seasons, and For Days, and Years”, the tribal “Every Creeping Thing That Creeps”, and especially the sensitive, spiritual “Make Thee An Ark” with its swooning cellos, high-pitched searching synths and euphoric choral finale. Having said that, once in a while even Noah’s theme has a more brutal aspect: its appearance in “The End of All Flesh is Before Me”, for example, drowns in electric guitar chords and insistent percussion writing, while its fanfare performance as an action motif in the violent, anarchic “By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed” is outstanding.
Conversely, Tubal-Cain’s two-note theme appears frequently and with variations in some of the score’s more unforgiving and jarring pieces, notably “The World Was Filled With Violence”, the insistent and guttural “I Will Destroy Them”, and the cacophonous “The Wickedness of Man”, whose music seems to depict humanity at that time as a lawless biker gang. Buzzing, high-register synth pulses and insect-like organ tones often accompany the motif, possibly commenting on Tubal-Cain’s parasitic nature, and these carry on into the central quartet of action cues where Noah and his family face off against the Tubal-Cain’s army.
These action cues have a real sense of portent and drama to them, taking the central set of instrumental textures and increasing their power with more insistent percussion, faster rhythms and tolling bells. The superb, highly ethnic “Your Eyes Shall Be Opened, and Ye Shall Be as Gods” combines the string quartet with guitars, a staccato percussion section and choral accents to excellent effect. “The Flood Waters Were Upon the World” has an almost Morricone-like quality to it, nervously setting the scene for the action to come with an anticipatory drumbeat and metallic percussive clangs. Everything explodes into carnage during the aforementioned “By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed”, which has the most prominent brass performances of the entire score. Later, both Noah’s theme and Tubal-Cain’s motif play off against each other, back and forth, mano-a-mano, in “The Judgment of Man” and the finale of the subsequent “What Is This That Thou Hast Done?”, where the antagonists take their final stand.
In addition to these two main themes, a secondary “God motif” for The Creator appears occasionally, as God appears occasionally to Noah. A serpentine, ancient-sounding piece which often uses echoing synth effects to increase its sense of mystery and wonder, the theme appears prominently in “The Spirit of the Creator Moved Upon the Face of the Waters” and “And He Remembered Noah”, acknowledging the protagonist’s personal relationship with the Almighty and musically recognizing his interventions, messages and signs. This penultimate piece, which also includes several prominent performances of Noah’s theme, segues into the conclusive “Day and Night Shall Not Cease”, a tender piece which ends the score on a soaring and optimistic high note through a majestic final performance of Noah’s theme.
The end credits song, “Mercy Is”, was written by the influential singer-songwriter and poet Patti Smith and her long-time collaborator Lenny Kaye, and is performed by Smith with a dark, evocative vocal style that actually reminds me of the uniquely-voiced Gothic artist Diamanda Galas. The song includes arrangements by Mansell based on his score’s musical palette, and fits in with the style of the rest of the work well, although Smith’s difficult, nasal intonation may prove off-putting for many.
Some may find the more contemporary aspects of the score anachronistic, or unpleasant in their abrasiveness. Mansell certainly doesn’t shy away from having his electronic and rock-oriented instruments appearing front and center, especially when they convey the darkness and brutality of Tubal-Cain and his minions, but you would never have caught Alfred Newman or Miklós Rósza writing anything like this, and fans of their more classic conventional biblical writing may be aghast to hear Mansell’s take on the genre. However, I feel that this way of composing fits in with Aronofsky’s modernist viewpoint of the story, which manages to touch on such equally contemporary ideas as the big bang theory, evolution and environmentalism, while remaining relatively faithful to the bones of the original story.
Although there are many comparisons to be drawn, musically speaking, between Noah and The Fountain, I personally find this score to be significantly more satisfying than its predecessor. The larger concentration on the orchestral core, the much less severe electronic and experimental aspects, the significantly heightened emotional content, and the generally improved dramatic sensibility that Mansell has developed over the course of the last eight years make Noah, for me, a much more fulfilling experience. People who loved The Fountain will likely love this score too, while those who – like me – found too much of that score unpalatable, will most likely find more in Noah to enjoy.
Buy the Noah soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store
- In the Beginning, There Was Nothing (4:08)
- The World Was Filled With Violence (1:30)
- The End of All Flesh is Before Me (2:15)
- Sweet Savour (4:28)
- The Fallen Ones (3:58)
- For Seasons, and For Days, and Years (2:25)
- Make Thee An Ark (5:09)
- Every Creeping Thing That Creeps (5:46)
- I Will Destroy Them (2:53)
- Flesh of My Flesh (1:43)
- The Wickedness of Man (1:39)
- In Sorrow Thou Shalt Bring Forth Children (3:55)
- Your Eyes Shall Be Opened, and Ye Shall Be as Gods (2:24)
- The Flood Waters Were Upon The World (3:01)
- By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed (3:33)
- The Judgment of Man (2:45)
- The Spirit of the Creator Moved Upon the Face of the Waters (3:00)
- Forty Days and Nights (3:20)
- What Is This That Thou Hast Done? (2:11)
- The Fear and the Dread of You (4:23)
- And He Remembered Noah (4:18)
- Day and Night Shall Not Cease (5:50)
- Mercy Is (written by Patti Smith and Lenny Kaye, performed by Patti Smith with the Kronos Quartet) (4:11)
Running Time: 78 minutes 49 seconds
Nonesuch Records 542164 (2014)
Music composed by Clint Mansell. Conducted by Matt Dunkley. Orchestrations by Matt Dunkley, Tony Blondal and Richard Bronskill. Featured musical soloists David Harrington, John Sherba, Hank Dutt, Sunny Yang, Vanessa Freebairn-Smith, Mike Fonte, Mark Stewart, Nigel Wiesehan and Clint Mansell. Recorded and mixed by Geoff Foster. Edited by John Finklea. Album produced by Clint Mansell and Geoff Foster.