Home > Reviews > ARRIVAL – Jóhann Jóhannsson

ARRIVAL – Jóhann Jóhannsson

November 15, 2016 Leave a comment Go to comments

arrivalOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

Serious science fiction, that eschews cheap thrills and pyrotechnics in favor of more thoughtful contemplation, is still comparatively rare in Hollywood these days, but it does seem that more and more filmmakers are willing to take the risk and explore deeper, more sophisticated philosophical topics against a fantastical background. Director Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival is one of those films, exploring one possible way the world may react when confronted with the real ramifications of a first contact with an alien species. I’m not going to give away much of the plot, except to say that it stars Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner as a language expert and a theoretical physicist, respectively, who are approached by the US military to help them make contact with one of the dozen or so alien spacecraft which have appeared over Earth. The film explores a number of weighty topics, including death, loss, destiny, time, and language, and explores them with a profound seriousness and respect for the genre; it’s a slow film, which takes time to reveal its layers, but it’s worth the wait. It’s also a very beautiful film; Villeneuve’s visual composition and sense of space is as much responsible for the film’s sense of grandeur as the screenplay, dialogue, and performances. Similarly, the sound design is a very important aspect of the film, including the unusual ambient score by Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson.

This is the third film collaboration between Villeneuve and Jóhannsson, after Prisoners in 2013 and Sicario in 2015, the latter of which earned Jóhannsson an Academy Award nomination. Villeneuve is not a director who employs broad, thematic musical strokes in his films – he tends to prefer music which is quiet, ambient, closer to sound design – which makes his collaborations with Jóhannsson so fruitful because that’s where his musical philosophy also lies. While his scores are undeniably effective within the context of their film, and while his scores always contain a deep level of intellectualism, this unfortunately often renders them quite difficult to appreciate as a standalone listening experience. This is most certainly the case with Arrival; this is a challenging listen for anyone more in tune to music that plays within the familiar world of themes-and-variations. However, one thing I cannot take away from Jóhannsson is the fact that, in contrast with drone scores by composers like Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, Jóhannsson’s drones are highly specific and targeted to the film. The drones have a genuine purpose, and are underpinned by a great deal of compositional intelligence and complex musical depth.

While writing the score Jóhannsson found himself inspired by the concept of language, specifically the circular visual language that the aliens in the film ‘speak’, and decided that the best way to convey this concept was through human voices, albeit ones which are manipulated to such an extent that it renders them almost unrecognizable. Jóhannsson was specifically inspired by a piece called ‘Stimmung Model 11’ written by German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen in 1968, which uses repeated cells and circular looped motifs in combination with tape-loop experiments and overtone singing, similar to Mongolian throat singing. To re-capture the essence of this sound, Jóhannsson worked with the prestigious Theatre of Voices vocal ensemble, baritone Paul Hillier, soprano Else Torp, and artists such as Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe and cellist Hildur Guðnadóttir, as well as the traditional sound of the City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. Jóhannsson also integrated some “found sounds” from the legendary avant-garde vocalist Joan La Barbara into his score.

The end result is something that is unrepentantly challenging, intentionally designed to take the listener into a musical world that is somehow familiar, but is also defiantly alien. Some film reviewers called it “spooky and sonorous, a spectral hum,” while others called it a “gaunt score,” and these are very apt adjectives. The entire score is underpinned by a relentless electronic and acoustic drone, over which Jóhannsson layers and combines his other-worldly sound palette. There are no real themes to speak of, but certain textures and instrumental ideas do re-occur from time to time throughout the score, giving it a type of musical architecture that speaks to the concepts the film is addressing, without going so far as to present actual returning melodies.

There is an idea which sounds for all the world like whale song, a deep and booming sound which reverberates in your chest cavity, and which can be heard in cues like “Arrival,” “Sapir-Whorf,” the ominous “Hydraulic Lift,” and the imposing, overwhelming “First Encounter,” as well as in later tracks like “One of Twelve”. Overlapping vocal effects, in which the voices sing rhythmic, staccato phrases that sound like ‘nananana na na na nananana’ and variations on the word ‘water’, can be heard prominently in cues like “Heptapod B,” “Hammers and Nails,” “Rise,” and the conclusive “Kangaru”. It’s clear that these voices are intoning syllables, and that the vocalizations are intended to sound something like familiar words, but they are completely unidentifiable in terms of what they are actually trying to say. This relates directly to one of the films primary conceptual questions which asks how we, as a species, can communicate with another species that processes sound and information in an entirely different way.

Elsewhere, Jóhannsson uses highly processed, ethereal vocal effects in cues like “Sapir-Whorf,” “Transmutation at a Distance,“Ultimatum,” “Principle of Least Time,” “Non-Zero-Sum Game,” and “Decyphering,” further adding to the sense of other-worldly isolation. Occasionally, these vocal effects remind me of some of the experiments Maurice Jarre conducted with electronic writing in the 1980s, especially on scores like Enemy Mine and (oddly) Dead Poets Society.

Most of Jóhannsson’s string writing is challengingly abstract, scraping and bending its way through cues like “Sapir-Whorf,” and even occasionally adopting an insect-like sense of insistent agitation in cues like “Hazmat,” in a manner that Krzysztof Penderecki would approve of. This is counterbalanced by string tones which are softer and warmer, adding an edge of humanity to cues like “Around-the-Clock News” and “Properties of Explosive Materials.” Although they are nothing more than simple cello phrases, they feel like warm blankets of musical familiarity against all the extra-terrestrial coldness and demanding dissonance elsewhere.

Percussion plays a part too, adding a sense of heightened tension and urgency to cues like “Heptapod B,” “Xenolinguistics,” “Principle of Least Time,” “Hammers and Nails,” “Properties of Explosive Materials,” and the unusual “Xenoanthropology” with its chain-like rattles and pizzicato effects. The closest the score comes to action music is in the cues “Ultimatum” and “Escalation,” where angelic voices, emotionally heightened string figures, and throbbing brasses collide with rapid, pressing percussion rhythms.

The final cue on the album is “On the Nature of Daylight” by composer Max Richter, which was taken from his 2004 classical album The Blue Notebooks. It’s a beautiful, slow, rich lament for a string quartet, very different in tone from the rest of the score, and in the film it tends to accompany scenes dealing with Amy Adams and her relationship with her family. Its performances during the film’s opening scene, its final scene, and during the end credits, is cathartic for the audience, and it performs a similar function on CD, allowing the listener to return to the world of the human, the familiar, and to emotions we understand. Interestingly, this is the second time that the most ‘normal’ piece from a Jóhann Jóhannsson score has been by another composer; the end credits piece from his score for The Theory of Everything was actually a cue called “Arrival of the Birds” from the score The Crimson Wing – Mystery of the Flamingos by The Cinematic Orchestra.

While watching the film I had toyed with the idea that Jóhannsson might have been writing musical palindromes, as a reference to the way the heptapod aliens think and communicate; music that presents a certain noise, or chord, reaches a midway point, and then presents the same noise or chord in reverse. It does appear that some of the processed vocal ideas have this quality to them, especially the ‘nananana na na na nananana’ texture, and if that’s the case then I’m enormously impressed at the way Jóhannsson was able to take one of the film’s core ideas regarding communication and distill it down to a musical construct of such clear simplicity.

However, despite all my scholarly dissection of the thought processes behind the score, and my admiration of Jóhannsson’s wholly unique approach to it, there are still large numbers of people who will find this type of scoring terribly dull. On the one hand, I completely agree with them; this is not fun film music, in any way shape or form. It drones and groans and throbs unremittingly for over an hour, without a single hopeful melody or memorable thematic idea in sight. 99% of the time this is not the type of film music I would ever choose to listen to for enjoyment; I don’t especially enjoy having my senses manipulated and assailed in this way, and I never connected, emotionally, with either Karlheinz Stockhausen or Krzysztof Penderecki, the two composers whose music Jóhannsson’s most closely resembles here. If this description fits your musical taste, than I can absolutely understand how Arrival would make absolutely no connection with you at all.

Instead, as I have made clear throughout this review, Arrival appeals to my intellect. I find Jóhannsson’s approach to solving the film’s musical problems absolutely fascinating, and the way he was able to musically convey some of the film’s more challenging cerebral ideas involving language and communication is astonishingly accomplished. From a purely technical point of view, the intricate layering of the numerous vocal effects is astounding, and in the context of the film the score illustrates the concept of humanity coming into contact with a wholly alien culture with staggering results. As I have repeated time and again, my basic question upon hearing any drone-score that people say ‘works in the film’ is to ask “what else does it do?” Hopefully, my answer to this question for Arrival should be clear.

Buy the Arrival soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Arrival (2:50)
  • Heptapod B (3:42)
  • Sapir-Whorf (1:16)
  • Hydraulic Lift (3:32)
  • First Encounter (4:49)
  • Transmutation at a Distance (1:34)
  • Around-the-Clock News (1:34)
  • Xenolinguistics (3:29)
  • Ultimatum (1:52)
  • Principle of Least Time (1:20)
  • Hazmat (4:48)
  • Hammers and Nails (2:31)
  • Xenoanthropology (3:08)
  • Non-Zero-Sum Game (4:17)
  • Properties of Explosive Materials (3:31)
  • Escalation (2:02)
  • Decyphering (2:05)
  • One of Twelve (3:09)
  • Rise (1:47)
  • Kangaru (2:56)
  • On the Nature of Daylight (written by Max Richter) (6:14)

Running Time: 62 minutes 36 seconds

Deutsche Grammophon (2016)

Music composed by Jóhann Jóhannsson. Conducted by Anthony Weeden. Performed by The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra featuring Theatre of Voices. Orchestrations by Anthony Weeden, Sam Jones and Nicklas Schmidt. Sound design elements by Simon Ashdown and Rutger Hoedemaekers. Recorded and mixed by Jan Holzner and Daniel Kresco. Edited by Clint Bennett. Album produced by Jóhann Jóhannsson.

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  1. November 16, 2016 at 5:50 am

    Excellent review Jon especially as this is a score that I wouldn’t know how to review. It is an important score in it’s references, it’s application and in it’s meaning. It will be on my one of the best of this year.

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