Home > Reviews > KON-TIKI – Johan Söderqvist

KON-TIKI – Johan Söderqvist

kontikiOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

The Norwegians have always been great explorers, from the days of Viking invasions almost a thousand years ago, all the way through to the Antarctic voyages of Roald Amundsen, who in 1911 led the first team to reach the South Pole. One of the less well-known but no less heroic figures was Thor Heyerdahl, who in 1947 was the captain of a team of adventurers who successfully sailed across the Pacific Ocean from Peru to the Tuamoto Islands on a balsa wood raft named the Kon-Tiki to prove a scientific point. Heyerdahl’s exploits were captured in a famous 1951 documentary which won an Academy Award, and this new film – also called Kon-Tiki – is a dramatic reconstruction of the story for modern audiences. The film, which was filmed simultaneously in both Norwegian and English for domestic and international audiences, was directed by Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg, stars Pål Sverre Hagen in the leading role, and went on to be nominated as Best Foreign Language film at the 2012 Oscars, as well as one of the biggest-grossing Norwegian films of all time.

The music for Kon-Tiki is by Swedish composer Johan Söderqvist – a fairly late replacement for original composer Trond Bjerknes – who is still best known to film music fans for his scores for the original version of the vampire drama Let the Right One In, the Oscar-nominated 2006 drama Efter Brylluppet, the 2007 drama Things We Lost in the Fire which he co-wrote with Gustavo Santaolalla, and the Danish-language drama In a Better World, which won the 2010 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Let the Right One In had a spectacularly beautiful main theme, but the majority of the rest of Söderqvist’s most high profile scores have been small, intimate works that did not require a great deal of large-scale orchestral scoring. Kon-Tiki is different; to convey the sense of adventure, the vast open space and startling beauty of the Pacific, and the dangers and hardships the men faced, Söderqvist makes use of a large ensemble and an array of region-specific instrumental textures ranging from woodwind conch shells, tribal percussion, and even a medieval psaltery zither, resulting in an evocative and exhilarating score that truly captures the imagination.

The first things long-time film score fans might notice are the echoes of James Horner’s Avatar, as well as some less-obvious reflections of scores as diverse as Rachel Portman’s The Joy Luck Club and John Debney’s Passion of the Christ, both in texture and melodic structure. If you are fan of the gentle lushness and world-music flavor of any of those scores, Kon-Tiki will most definitely be to your liking. The central theme of the film is carried by a conch shell, a wind instrument carved from the discarded shell of a large sea snail, and which acts as a main theme for Tiki, the God of Sun in ancient Polynesian mythology. Söderqvist says, “Tiki is omnipresent in the score, even the opening that still plays in Norway has a foreboding episode with the conch horn playing over the frozen lake. In the end I think we found a very significant sound with an ‘ancient’ quality to it.” The cues which feature the conch theme – the “Start Credits”, the second half of “The Shaman”, the wondrous “Into Space”, and “Tiki” amongst them – provide the score with a haunting, mystical quality that illustrates the importance and significance of Heyerdahl’s voyage in a wider context of world history.

The most prominent secondary theme is more upbeat and stirring, and captures the wide-open vistas of the Pacific Ocean, and the bold and adventurous spirit of the crew. Written for larger orchestral forces, with a prominent trumpet line and an almost Brian Tyler-like tapped percussion accompaniment, the theme begins to appear during “Fatu Hiva”, and later in “Thor Meets Herman” and “To Peru”, but once the Kon-Tiki itself gets out onto the high seas, in “The Journey Begins”, you really get a feeling for the sense of pride and expectation of the sailors, determinedly facing the challenges ahead of them.

An idyllic-sounding syncopated piano theme, which is often accompanied by softly strumming guitars, seems to speak to Heyerdahl’s heritage and his affection for his family, but also his sense of determination, and indomitable spirit, and can be heard prominently in “Thor and Liv”, the opening moments of “The Shaman”, in the warmly appealing pair “On Course” and “Building the Raft”, and later in the lullabyish “The Crab”, the simultaneously joyous and relieved “The Seagull”, the tranquil “Thor Laughs”, and the lovely, lyrical “Epilogue”. The theme has some interesting juxtaposed emotions running through it that create some clever ambiguity – it tends to be heard at moments when Thor reflects on his successes, or achieves some kind of personal goal, but also accompanies some of his more introspective moments when he thinks about his family, his childhood, or his close bond with his raft-mates, making its deeper meanings difficult to unravel. The tick-tock variation of this theme in “Thor’s Failure” is especially fascinating in this regard.

Conversely, there are more turbulent and angry goings on in “The Whale Shark” and “Shark Attack”, which are all tense rattles and low-end brass rumblings, and do go some way to conveying some of the massive dangers the crew of the raft faced during their epic voyage. The dramatic finale from “The Raroia Reef” through “The 13th Wave” and “Reaching Land” brings the orchestral drama into direct conflict with the geographically appropriate tribal drums, underscoring the will-they-or-won’t they conclusion of the film with equal amounts of danger, excitement and adrenaline.

One of the things I enjoy about Kon-Tiki is how tasteful it is. It captures the heroic actions of Heyerdahl and his crew without going overboard with the histrionics, remaining appropriate and poignant yet musically fulfilling and entertaining; it also strives to really emphasize the almost religious aspects of Heyerdahl’s journey, and the way in which his discoveries about the origins of life in the South Pacific affect the way the world is viewed. If not the best score of Söderqvist’s career to date, among those that are known in the mainstream, it’s certainly the most accessible, and will hopefully encourage listeners to explore the less well-known back catalogue of this talented composer.

Rating: ****

Buy the Kon-Tiki soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Kon-Tiki (Start Credits) (2:08)
  • Thor and Liv (1:21)
  • Fatu Hiva (1:11)
  • The Shaman (2:23)
  • On Course (3:06)
  • Into Space (2:18)
  • Thor Meets Herman (1:12)
  • To Peru (0:56)
  • Calling Liv (1:41)
  • Thor’s Failure (0:52)
  • Following the Sun (1:48)
  • The Crab (1:26)
  • Tiki (2:16)
  • Building the Raft (1:59)
  • The Whale Shark (2:36)
  • The Journey Begins (0:35)
  • The Swede (0:51)
  • Luminescent Creatures (0:53)
  • The Parrott (1:53)
  • The Letter (1:57)
  • Herman Is Afraid (0:56)
  • Shark Attack (2:11)
  • Thor Is Sad (2:06)
  • The Seagull (1:00)
  • The Raroia Reef (2:14)
  • The 13th Wave (0:57)
  • Reaching Land (1:59)
  • Thor Laughs (1:12)
  • Kon-Tiki (End Credits) (5:05)
  • Epilogue (5:16)

Running Time: 56 minutes 18 seconds

Sony Classical (2013)

Music composed and conducted by Johan Söderqvist. Performed by The London Philharmonia Orchestra. Orchestrations by Patrik Andrén, Uno Helmersson and Tormod Ringnes. Recorded and mixed by Peter Cobbin. Album produced by Johan Söderqvist.

  1. Brad
    May 1, 2013 at 6:34 am

    Is this available only as a download, or also on CD?

  2. May 7, 2013 at 1:43 am

    I think it comes out on CD this week.

  3. careScare
    September 28, 2016 at 6:36 pm

    Jonathan, I’ve been looking for that Norwegian song played by the movie’s character/sailor with his guitar. All I can remember is the tune and the word “Vakker”. Any idea on the song’s title?

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