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THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING – Jóhann Jóhannsson

November 18, 2014 Leave a comment Go to comments

theoryofeverythingOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

In the annals of human history, it is likely that Professor Stephen Hawking will go down as one of our most important scientific figures, alongside Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo, Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. As a theoretical physicist, he is known for his contributions to the fields of cosmology, general relativity and quantum gravity, especially in the context of black holes; however, to the public at large, he is also known for being disabled, having suffered from motor neuron disease since 1963, a condition which has rendered him almost entirely incapable of voluntary movement or speech, and which gets progressively more severe each passing year. However, these overwhelming health problems have not stopped Hawking from becoming a scientific celebrity, working non-stop on his ideas and theories, making many public appearances, writing books, and even appearing in TV shows like The Simpsons and The Big Bang Theory, complete with his instantly recognizable American-accented speech generating computer.

What people tend to forget is that, prior to his diagnosis, Hawking was a normal young man, with the same ambitions and desires as anyone else wanting to make their mark on the world. Director James Marsh’s film The Theory of Everything tells Hawking’s life story, from his early years at Cambridge University, through his battles with his disease into adulthood, his scientific breakthroughs, and especially his relationship with his first wife, Jane Wilde, who stayed at Hawking’s side even as his own body began to betray him. The film features Oscar-tipped performances by Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones, and has an original score by Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson.

It’s interesting how a number of composers from Iceland have broken through into the comparative mainstream recently; Atli Örvarsson has been working on big-budget films for a couple of years, Ólafur Arnalds gained acclaim for his work on the British TV series Broadchurch, and Jón Þór Birgisson from Sigur Rós has been writing songs for big Hollywood productions, while others like Barði Jóhansson and Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson are working on acclaimed independent features. Jóhann Jóhannsson, who wrote the score for the highly praised thriller Prisoners last year, appears to be on the verge of a significant breakthrough, as he has been touted as a possible Oscar nominee for The Theory of Everything in 2014. From my point of view, any such accolade would be well-deserved. The Theory of Everything is an exceptional score that captures the essence of Hawking’s sense of wonderment and curiosity about the nature of the cosmos, but counterbalances this with some very grounded music addressing his personal issues here on Earth.

Jóhannsson is, by his nature, a musical minimalist, and The Theory of Everything is rooted in the ideas and forms of that style. However, unlike much of the music from the Philip Glass school of minimalism, Jóhannsson’s music is also very expressive and, at times, emotionally powerful. The score does not really have a recurring, standout main theme, but it is richly textured, and is written in such a way that reminds me of the sort of music Alexandre Desplat might write for a film like this. The music is written for a full orchestra sans brass, with special emphasis on strings, piano, flute and harp, and is recorded with a crystal clear precision that picks out all the textures in sharp relief – it’s perhaps no surprise that it was recorded at Abbey Road in London by Peter Cobbin, who emphasizes the same level of detail in Desplat’s scores.

The whole score is full of elegance, lightness, and movement, and during its opening moments immediately captures the listener’s attention with a series of very engaging cues. “Cambridge 1963” and “Rowing,” for example, have a sunny, optimistic outlook which is really delightful. “Domestic Pressures” features a beautiful classical piano accompanied by magical, pretty metallic textures; “Chalkboard” has frantic, neoclassical string runs that capture the breathless excitement of scientific discovery; “A Game of Croquet” has a gorgeous, pastoral piano solo as its centerpiece; “The Wedding” is a lush waltz with a guest appearance by a lovely classical guitar, that re-appears later in “Forces of Attraction,” while “The Dreams That Stuff Is Made Of” is graceful romance personified. It’s a perfect, idyllic depiction of a perfect, idyllic life. Hawking is a man with the world at his feet: a brilliant mind, with a loving wife, living and working in one of the world’s great centers of learning. But, as we know, things can change in an instant.

Things get darker in “The Stairs,” with more moody, introverted piano ideas; later, “A Normal Family,” “Coma,” “The Spelling Board,” and others try to capture Hawking’s sense of fear, frustration and sadness as the disease that eventually comes to define his life takes hold. “A Normal Family” is notable for the way it takes some of the motifs first introduced in “Domestic Pressures” and slows them down, giving them a reflective, bittersweet quality. It’s also worth mentioning the absolutely beautiful cello writing in “Camping,” one of the most striking cues on the album.

The score’s finale, from “A Model of the Universe” through to “The Whirling Ways of Stars That Pass,” continues in a similar vein: expressive piano and guitar solos, a more upbeat tone in the title track “The Theory of Everything,” and a satisfying crescendo towards the end of “London, 1988” and into the “Epilogue,” which re-works the cello theme from “Camping” into a pretty dance for piano and woodwinds..

Other than the gorgeous orchestral textures, one of the other significant things The Theory of Everything has going for it is emotion. Unlike Prisoners, which was sterile and emotionless by design, Jóhannsson imbues this work with a passion, encompassing all aspects of Hawking’s life: the joy of discovery, the celebration of intellect, the passion of first love and, later, the despair at the failure of his physical attributes. Jóhannsson’s score is not melodramatic, though, and doesn’t overwhelm or overplay the drama – instead, his understatement and taste makes the emotional moments, when they come, seem much more powerful than they would otherwise be. This is a perfect example of a score that benefits enormously from subtlety and restraint, instead of wallowing in mawkishness.

If you have not yet explored the work of Jóhann Jóhannsson, this is undoubtedly the place to start. It’s more accessible than his score for Prisoners, less obscure than things like McCanick, and less abstract than the classical and concert works that got him noticed in the first place. I will be absolutely astonished if Jóhannsson does not pick up his first Academy Award nomination for this score, especially as the film and its leading actors seem to be locks at this point, but this would not be one of those instances of a lesser score being dragged along on the coattails of a good film. The score for The Theory of Everything deserves every piece of acclaim it receives, and I predict that, in the years to come, we will look back at this score and pinpoint it as the moment Jóhann Jóhannsson’s mainstream career began.

Buy the Theory of Everything soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Cambridge, 1963 (1:41)
  • Rowing (1:42)
  • Domestic Pressures (2:37)
  • Chalkboard (1:05)
  • Cavendish Lab (2:31)
  • Collapsing Inwards (2:17)
  • A Game of Croquet (2:45)
  • The Origins of Time (2:21)
  • Viva Voce (1:36)
  • The Wedding (1:42)
  • The Dreams That Stuff Is Made Of (1:51)
  • A Spacetime Singularity (2:16)
  • The Stairs (1:07)
  • A Normal Family (1:41)
  • Forces of Attraction (2:03)
  • Rowing (Alternative Version) (0:37)
  • Camping (1:18)
  • Coma (1:03)
  • The Spelling Board (0:59)
  • The Voice Box (0:51)
  • A Brief History of Time (2:02)
  • Daisy, Daisy (2:21)
  • A Model of the Universe (2:52)
  • The Theory of Everything (1:08)
  • London, 1988 (2:52)
  • Epilogue (1:49)
  • The Whirling Ways of Stars That Pass (1:52)

Running Time: 49 minutes 31 seconds

Backlot Music 280 (2014)

Music composed by Jóhann Jóhannsson. Conducted by Ben Foster. Orchestrations by Nicklas Schmidt, Anthony Weeden and Pete Readman. Recorded and mixed by Peter Cobbin. Edited by Allan Jenkins. Album produced by Jóhann Jóhannsson.

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  1. Cole McLeod
    November 18, 2014 at 5:32 pm

    Hmmm… Now you have me very intrigued. It’s hard to keep up with all these good scores that seem to come out of nowhere!

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