Home > Reviews > MARY MAGDALENE – Hildur Guðnadóttir and Jóhann Jóhannsson

MARY MAGDALENE – Hildur Guðnadóttir and Jóhann Jóhannsson

Original Review by Anže Grčar

The unfortunate and unexpected passing of Jóhann Jóhannsson in early February, sent shockwaves through the film community, and lovers of modernist music at large. Not only was he flourishing and enjoying a fruitful career highlight since the indie world took his scores for mainly Denis Villeneuve-helmed films to the heart, but the death of any person at barely 48 years of age is a sad reminder of how fragile our existence can be. Jóhannsson is leaving behind a stunning body of work, ranging from independent studio albums in his native Iceland, that gained a loyal following due to their experimental sonic blends of traditional orchestration with contemporary electronic elements, to his recent film scores, which exposed so many traditional scoring aficionados to variety of post-modernist styles – all coming from an artist who always managed to encapsulate life from a different, more introverted angle that was singular only to him.

In 2017 Jóhannsson worked on a variety of film projects, including Darren Aronofsky’s controversial Mother and the much anticipated Blade Runner 2049. Both scores were subsequently rejected from their respective films, but apparently due to reasons amicable between him and the film directors. After completing Mary Magdalene in January, he was supposed to commence scoring work on the Marc Forster-directed Christopher Robin, a family friendly live action continuation of the Disney franchise based on A. A. Milne’s book Winnie the Pooh, as well as Johan Renck helmed mini-series about infamous Chernobyl disaster. But fate interfered and thus, Garth Davis’ biographical reimagining of a disciple of Jesus was the final film score Jóhannsson completed before his regrettable passing. We have one more on the way – a Nicolas Cage Sundance favourite, a shocker titled Mandy that will receive a proper, official release sometime later this year – and then, if his unused scores remain kept in the vault, impervious to the general public, the prospect of hearing another Jóhannsson score will be done forever.

Unfortunately, Mary Magdalene won’t only be remembered by fans as the one carrying the final completed Jóhannsson score, but also for its production history – or, better yet, distribution situation – which regrettably coincided with the time when the contentious Weinstein company financially imploded due to the Harvey Weinstein exposé. While the film is a receiving limited release in few select European art house theaters, it has been pulled from wide release schedule in North America and pushed to a different, unannounced date. As someone who shares zero religious affiliation of any kind, I was actually pretty excited for Davis’ follow up to his warm hearted directorial debut Lion, as he (himself not religious as well) set upon an ambitious task of rescuing the character of Mary Magdalene from the claws of an age-old tradition of patriarchal condescension, creating a revisionist biblical film fueled more by feminist ideals of female empowerment than the conservative, dogmatic teachings more aligned with “God’s not Dead” type of crowd. Joaquin Phoenix stars Jesus Christ, while Rooney Mara takes on the mantle of the titular character. Their performances have been widely praised, despite the response from critical public being somewhat polarized on the film as a whole.

Davis originally sought out solo musical services from the classically trained Icelandic cellist and vocalist Hildur Guðnadóttir, who has been quickly rising to international prominence with her vast array of meditative-like solo albums and various performing collaborations with established artists like Hauschka, as well as being a regular contributor to Jóhannsson’s opus, both as a musician (cello performances in Sicario and Arrival) and a co-composer (on Icelandic director Baltasar Kormakur’s series Ófærð). Her involvement with Jóhannsson spans much greater lengths, however, as they originally befriended each other as far back as the late 1990s while Jóhannsson was one of the driving forces of the collective Kitchen Motors. In 2004 they recorded a track ‘Tu Non Mi Perderei Mai,’ which subsequently led to Guðnadóttir closely participating in the creation of his studio album of the same name.

Guðnadóttir’s compositional stylistics aren’t too dissimilar from Jóhannsson’s in certain areas, and her signature sound has been described as ‘when acoustic meets electro’. Guðnadóttir tends to navigate organic performances in an amplified setting with detachable resonating chambers, which open up an almost spiritual dimension to her modernist work. Her cello writing, exemplified in the solo offering “Without Sinking,” showcases an introverted, classically trained artist that appreciates European subtlety over more the pompous exaggerations that have been predominant in traditional western music, channeling calmer, quieter and more restrained approach to music. With Jóhannsson, they both shared an affinity for solemn vocal work that brings humanity into the music, verbally communicating with a listener in a non-intrusive way, an approach they opted for on various projects, including Mary Magdalene.

Apparently, somewhere in relatively early embryonic stages of brainstorming the sound for Mary Magdalene, Davis and Guðnadóttir amicably decided that the score needed a secondary voice, similar to the composing process in aforementioned Lion, where two artists (Dustin O’Halloran and Hauscka) ended up simultaneously tackling one cohesive storyline split into two separate time frames. As such, Jóhannsson was asked to offer his take on the spiritual, out-worldly sound for Jesus, while Guðnadóttir was provided with more free space to put her primary focal point on the character of Mary. The result is a fairly nontraditional score for the biblical genre, rooted in restraint and a geographically non-specified cultural identity, that has much more stylistically in common with Guðnadóttir’s solo works than it does with fairly traditional voyages like John Debney’s Passion of the Christ, which is something that some listeners may initially find disappointing. I should mention that I find it quite brilliant.

Funnily enough, the first association I drew in my head was actually with Sicario, a score that, with its tonally unmelodic clusters of dread, couldn’t be more dissimilar from what he wrote for the spiritually solemn Mary Magdalene. But, just as Sicario’s main conceptual idea revolved around a never ending crescendo that at never fully asserts and develops, continuously heightening and enhancing a sense of fear, Mary Magdalene’s similar constant escalation is rather raising the tone to awe inspiring heights, something that becomes more prominent when Jesus enters the picture. The “earthly” sound is thus rooted with fairly moderate and phlegmatic ideas, with minimalism being more prominent as the repetitive ideas intentionally reoccur over and over without resolution (like a palindrome of sorts). However, the “out-wordly” and heavenly textures are dominated by lively ostinatos and woodwind writing, augmented by organic vocal interpolations that, in the finale with Jesus’ resurrection, culminate in full lyrical statement, with thematic ascension steadily commencing as the caravan of Jesus’ disciples approaches Jerusalem.

The other-worldly textures are encapsulated in the “ascension theme,” first heard in “The Mustard Seed,” where a vigorous piano ostinato is fused with flutes, minor electronic pulses, and experimental percussion elements. It makes a comeback in the closing and best track on album, “Resurrection,” where Jóhannsson and Guðnadóttir counterpoint it with a vocal “messiah” theme, subsequently playing both layers on top of one another, creating unity and mirroring Jesus’ divinity.

The “messiah” theme is introduced in its entirety in the masterful fourth track, “Messiah,” which is constructed solely of variations of central seven note theme, performed at different speeds on various string and woodwind instruments. Initially, various sections overlay one another, but slowly they start transitioning and amalgamating in unity that reasserts in full lyrical statement. Despite being a consoling and solacing piece of music, there’s a major intellectual punchline to it: the fragmentation of the same motif covering itself is a conscious reflection of the Christian overview that God is three consubstantial persons or hypostases in one, manifesting in different forms like the seven note theme does. The final lyrical statement of the “messiah” theme appears in three separate, instrumentally altered forms reflecting the idea of “one God in three Divine Persons” – the Father, the Son (Jesus Christ), and the Holy Spirit.

Otherwise, the theme first appears 54 seconds into opening track “Cana” and receives a heart wrenching, yet intimate and hopeful string statement at 1:10 of “Ravine,” once more manifesting in three separate variations. As I mentioned before, it peaks in climactic “Resurrection,” when (spoiler alert?) Jesus rises from the dead and with his divinity fully manifested. To musically represent this concept, Jóhannsson and Guðnadóttir decided that the best way to convey it was is through human voices, albeit ones which are manipulated to such an extent that it renders them almost unrecognizable. The vocalists murmur words and interjections, almost in awe of this salient occurrence and, given that the narrative is painted from a female perspective, the female singer takes the lead, with different colors of voices slowly establishing unity between different tonalities, thus insinuating that divine love is a universal concept among all ethnicities. Choral interjections are actually present throughout the album, but are deliberately degraded to a secondary position and are only reinforced when Jesus enters Jerusalem, so it made perfect sense that Jóhannsson and Guðnadóttir restrained themselves from displaying the crowning choral statement before ascension. For instance, in “End of Journey,” that is placed right in between the crucifixion and resurrection, the underlining idea is revolving around verbal performances that are intentionally never fully asserted and not yet attested with sense of majesty.

Content for Mary is more thematically widened and, stylistically, is dominated by light hearted string passages and tender-hearted piano performances. Guðnadóttir’s music here is lyrical, bearing a very poetic tone, eschewing overbearing heaviness, almost fluidly breathing with images and coming across as enveloping. It’s innocuous dreamlike ambiance encapsulates Mary’s inner strength and moral goodness with the third track, “The Dress,” containing an affecting theme statement at 0:51 as the strings perform the motif at highest registers. “Crucifixion” narrates Jesus’ redemptive death through Mary’s point of view, with the score reaching a sorrowful highlight that is profoundly poignant and emotive. Thus, the earthly finale has a real sense of heightened emotion and pathos, almost entirely performed by harmonious chamber string orchestra that cocoons a sense of sadness.

Otherwise, the “earthly” sound, is much more intellectual than strictly thematic. Listen to the introduction of the opening track, “Cana,” as the music tries to break free from slow repetition of chords, only to quietly give up at the end. In “Leaving Home,” the repetitive strings counterpoint the lyrical melody that is slowly transforming and developing on top of it, and in “Golgotha,” the final track before crucifixion, as the hope seems absent, the throbbing pulse consisting of recurring elements, takes the charge.

To contrast the dreamlike aural soundscape and balance the light with darkness, a very common dichotomy in Abrahamic religions, the “Goats” track is diametrically shifted, with series of aggressive electronic pulses and totally deconstructed, unmelodic strokes sounding absolutely hell-raising. It’s an all out aural assault, and if overwhelmingly dissonant music isn’t your cup of tea, expect your brain going into survival mode.

The avoidance of utilizing regional instrumentation is derived from the idea that the emotional and spiritual catharsis characters encounter in the story is universal to any person regardless of ethnicity, time frame and culture, so Guðnadóttir and Jóhannsson wisely excluded themselves out of pinpointing the beating heart of the story to one particular geographical region. At certain points through the score (most noticeably in the beginning and end of “Mustard Seed”) an acoustic woodwind instrument may seem to indicate geographical setting for some listeners, but I think it serves the same purpose as the implementation of other wooden instruments into the orchestral palette – to breathe a lively, organic breeze to the music. There’s just something so particular about wind instruments in general: the idea of producing sound by splitting an exhaled air stream on a sharp edge and hearing the performers breathing air into the tube, makes the music utilized to underline character’s emotional journey so organic that you can feel their existence in vast physical space.

I’m still under the influence of Jóhannsson’s passing, so in such circumstances, it is tempting to give into sentimentality and to allow it to cloud your judgment in giving what turned out to be his final score an impartial review. Not surprisingly, the first album spin naturally turned into an emotional rollercoaster, but after subsequently digging into the score on several album listens, dissecting the intellect that went into its creation, I genuinely and firmly believe that the “ascension” tracks that so tirelessly worked on in his final moments, easily showcase some of his finest film music oriented contributions into his relatively short lived scoring repertoire. To those expecting the more emotionally manipulative powerhouse and commercial accessibility of Rózsa’ biblical scores or regionally conservative sound of Debney’s Passion of the Christ, Mary Magdalene may come across as being somewhat anonymous and puzzling with its emotive moderation, but, trust me, there is much more to it than it meets the eye. Yes, it will appeal more to the “indie crowd” of people like myself who appreciate artistic subtlety more than we do extraversion, but that shouldn’t stop you from experiencing this cerebral and impressively composed effort. Thus, as it stands in my opinion, “Mary Magdalene” is somehow both a tender farewell letter to Jóhannsson and a welcoming embrace to Guðnadóttir, containing that lively spark of substance that made Jóhannsson into what he is today and what is about to propel Guðnadóttir into a long overdue mainstream spotlight.

For the final words, let me redirect you to director Davis’ statement shortly after Jóhannsson ‘s passing:

“I had printed out a picture of a painting I had found and it’s two people standing, looking up into the light. There are all these angels that become more and more dense the further they get into the light. I was trying to explain to Jóhann that for me it’s an experiential piece of music, its not about memory or emotion it’s about the experience of ascension.”

When they were recording the vocals, Garth recollects “I remember looking over to Jóhann and he had a tear and I had a tear and he just had this little smile on his face. He was a quiet guy and an introverted genius but I know the project really touched him.” Jóhann, thank you and may you rest in peace.

Buy the Mary Magdalene soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Cana (1:39)
  • The Mustard Seed (2:11)
  • The Dress (1:31)
  • Messiah (3:36)
  • The Goats (5:07)
  • Ravine (2:01)
  • Leaving Home (4:58)
  • Rooftop (2:07)
  • Golgotha (2:56)
  • Crucifixion (3:12)
  • End of a Journey (2:49)
  • Maundy (3:19)
  • Resurrection (4:31)

Running Time: 39 minutes 57 seconds

Milan Records (2018)

Music composed by Hildur Guðnadóttir and Jóhann Jóhannsson. Conducted by Viktor Orri Árnason. Orchestrations by Viktor Orri Árnason, Thomas Eggensberger and Clarissa Farran. Recorded and mixed by Geoff Foster. Edited by Timeri Duplat, Evan McHugh, David Menke, Cecile Tournesac and Mark Willsher. Album produced by Hildur Guðnadóttir and Jóhann Jóhannsson.

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  1. Michael G
    April 13, 2018 at 11:20 am

    I’m not gonna lie that ending made me tear up a little with the words from Davis.
    I wasn’t the biggest fan of Johansson’s style but still liked some of his works and kudos, this was very respectfully done.

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