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SUSPIRIA – Thom Yorke

November 13, 2018 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Giallo – a popular Italian cinematic sub-genre comprising dark, violent, erotic horror and thriller films – arguably reached its creative peak in 1977 with the release of director Dario Argento’s Suspiria. The story followed a young American dancer named Susie Bannion, who arrives in Berlin to audition for a world-renowned ballet company. However, as she becomes more involved in the work of the company and the lives of the dancers, she begins to realize that the studio is a front for a coven of powerful evil witches. The original Suspiria was a groundbreaking success, and is now considered one of the greatest examples of its genre. This new film, directed by Luca Guadagnino as a follow-up to Call Me By Your Name, takes the story of the original film and its grisly violence and adds a new level of socially aware commentary about female empowerment and politics. It stars Dakota Johnson as Susie, the naïve and wide-eyed all-American girl whose descent into fear and madness is charted by the film, and features Tilda Swinton and Mia Goth in supporting roles.

The score for the 1977 Suspiria is as well-regarded as the film itself; it was written and performed by the Italian prog-rock band Goblin comprising composer-musicians Claudio Simonetti, Massimo Morante, Fabio Pignatelli, and Agostino Marangolo. The 1977 score has been variously described as being ‘”darkly melodic” with a “palpable sense of dread,” making inspired use of a Mellotron synthesizer along with guitars, drums, and unusual vocal effects. As such, it stands to reason that the new version of Suspiria would also feature music by a rock musician: Thom Yorke of the British band Radiohead, who with this film is making his debut as a film composer. Whereas Yorke’s band mate Jonny Greenwood embraced film music, and is now the respected Oscar-nominated composer of scores such as There Will Be Blood and Phantom Thread, it took a while for Yorke to be convinced. He had never written music ‘for hire’ before, and although he initially found the idea daunting, he eventually found the experience liberating and enjoyable, implying that this may be the first of many soundtrack commissions the Englishman takes on in the future.

Yorke describes Suspiria as having ‘a pervading sense of melancholy’ as well as a significant ‘female energy,’ and much of that translated into the music Yorke wrote. Interestingly, Jonny Greenwood advised York to NOT work to picture as much as he could, instead using only his impressions of what’s needed, and so a great deal of the score was written during shooting, before post-production and editing even began. Usually I’m against this type of approach because it reduces the cinematic specificity of the music – I have strongly railed against Trent Reznor’s repeated use of this method, as well as against Mica Levi’s approach in scoring Jackie this way, for example – but what’s different about Yorke’s score is that he and Guadagnino worked closely together to understand the underlying context of the film and what it was trying to convey, which is much closer to the way Hans Zimmer and Ennio Morricone have worked without picture. This stands in stark contrast to Levi, who by all accounts is entirely uninterested in the film making process, and appeared to resent the fact that there was a movie in the way of her ‘musical vision’. I still don’t like it, but at least I can sort of understand it.

In fact, the only piece of music that Yorke composed to picture was the dance sequence “Volk” which had been shot several months before Yorke came on board the project. Yorke said of that piece “one’s instinct in that sort of situation is to respond to the movements of the dancers, and I had four or five aborted attempts at doing that before I realized that I had to sort of disconnect myself from the dance … eventually, Walter Fasano the editor, suggested something. I was trying all this percussion to go with all the movements, and he said, “We have what we’ve recorded.” All the dancers’ feet banging on the ground, and all the swishing of the weird garments they’re wearing. So it’s this bizarre combination of events that turned into the final thing.”

A bizarre combination of events is probably a very apt description for the album as a whole. It’s a wild, unorthodox, somewhat trippy ride through Yorke’s musical mind; a soundtrack which combines several original songs performed in the composer’s iconic fragile falsetto with more than an hour’s worth of highly experimental orchestral and electronic music – eerie and hypnotic modular synths, strings stretched and warped in post-production so they sound freakishly strange, percussion elements that have their time signatures stretched out all over the place so that they sound bent out of shape, and eclectic musical inspirations ranging from Ennio Morricone at his most challenging to Wendy Carlos, Kraftwerk, and several other 1970s German ‘krautrock’ bands.

The songs are actually quite good. “Suspirium,” the main song, is dream-like and poetic, with a rhythmic and hypnotic central piano motif, accompanied by Yorke’s unusual vocal stylings – a combination of Neil Young, Elliot Smith, and Sufjan Stevens. Others, including “Open Again,” are a little more aggressive and urgent, while “Unmade” is an odd combination of both styles which makes the listener never quite sure what the effect is supposed to be: soothing, or uneasy? Relaxed or intense? Director Guadagnino clearly has a thing for high-pitched male vocalists, as evidenced by the songs he commissioned for Call Me By Your Name; the ones in Suspiria have a similar timbre.

In terms of the rest of the score; well, it’s a challenge. Cues like the opening “A Storm That Took Everything,” “Belongings Thrown in a River,” “The Inevitable Pull,” “Olga’s Destruction (Volk Tape),” “A Light Green,” and “The Universe Is Indifferent” are unusual exercises in manipulation and sound design, and are difficult to experience. Yorke’s music buzzes and groans, often in highly dissonant and unpredictable ways, making the entire experience highly uncomfortable for the listener. But, of course, this is the point – this music is intended to represent this coven of witches, their manipulation of young Susie, and the evil they put out into the world as they do so. Yorke has captured their warped malevolence well.

Other cues of note include “The Hooks” and “The Conjuring of Anke,” oddly phrased pieces for solo piano and voices, haunting and desolate, which are often studded with disturbing sound effects including breathing, groaning, encroaching footsteps, and splattering liquids. Elsewhere, “Has Ended” has sort of a soft rock vibe, with jazzy percussion and distant, distorted vocals layered over an endless drone. “Klemperer Walks” has a touch of Vangelis to it through the use of throwback synths to drive the sound. “Sabbath Incantation” has a darkly liturgical feel to its massed choral voices. Perhaps the most challenging cue is the epic 14-minute “A Choir of One,” an extended sequence of Yorke manipulating the sound of his own voice on a microtonal level. Yes, it’s as demanding as it sounds.

Suspiria is another one of those scores where my appreciation for it vastly outweighs my enjoyment. I completely understand why the score sounds the way it sounds – Guadagnino wanted to create a bizarre, hallucinogenic, surreal sound setting for the coven of witches at the core of the story, and Yorke succeeded entirely in doing that. The technical mastery at work in the score, from the micro-tonal recording of his own voice, to the layers of synth sound design, to the enormous amount of post-production manipulation, is of course enormously impressive too. I’m also very pleased that an artist as acclaimed as Thom York is even working in film – yet another way in which film music is becoming accepted by the mainstream. But, as an album of music one would actually want to sit and listen to, I’m afraid it passes me by entirely; it’s too confrontational, too abstract, just too damn weird for my personal taste – so, make of that what you will.

Buy the Suspiria soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • A Storm That Took Everything (1:47)
  • The Hooks (3:18)
  • Suspirium (3:21)
  • Belongings Thrown in a River (1:27)
  • Has Ended (4:56)
  • Klemperer Walks (1:38)
  • Open Again (2:49)
  • Sabbath Incantation (3:06)
  • The Inevitable Pull (1:36)
  • Olga’s Destruction (Volk Tape) (2:58)
  • The Conjuring of Anke (2:16)
  • A Light Green (1:48)
  • Unmade (4:27)
  • The Jumps (2:38)
  • Volk (6:24)
  • The Universe Is Indifferent (4:48)
  • The Balance of Things (1:08)
  • A Soft Hand Across Your Face (0:44)
  • Suspirium Finale (7:03)
  • A Choir of One (14:01)
  • Synthesizer Speaks (0:58)
  • The Room of Compartments (1:14)
  • An Audition (0:34)
  • Voiceless Terror (2:30)
  • The Epilogue (2:46)

Running Time: 80 minutes 27 seconds

XL Records (2018)

Music composed by Thom Yorke. Conducted by Hugh Brunt. Performed by The London Contemporary Orchestra and Choir. Orchestrations by Hugh Brunt. Recorded and mixed by Tom Bailey, Thom Yorke and Sam Petts-Davies. Edited by Sam Petts-Davies and Walter Fasland. Album produced by Thom Yorke and Sam Petts-Davies.

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