Something Is Happening (But You Don't Know What It Is...Do You?)

While eager young graduates of scoring programs at Berklee, USC, Columbia College, Royal College of Music and a dozen other institutions of less renown fight it out for a small piece of sod in the brutally Darwinian media music market--angling for brand recognition and the attention of agents and music supervisors--and fewer than a dozen big-name film composers continue to command the high ground like generals from the ramparts of an impregnable fortress, the ground beneath all of them is being tunneled out by a new kind of interloper. A new kind of film music that's emerging almost more like an indigenous folk tradition than a top-down or academically-ordained trend.

Call it the Sigur Ros Effect...there are probably better labels, but Iceland--or at least, the frozen north, does seem to be entwined with this sound. A good bit of Radiohead is in there, too, along with post-rock acts like Explosions In The Sky and artists even more obscure and recondite: Kwoon, Anoice, and other latter-day "shoegazers" in that long lineage from Pink Floyd to Tangerine Dream to M83 and beyond, all making deeply introspective music in the least introspective of times. The sound does sometimes seem to emerge from the cavernous, subarctic realm: murky, half-formed, with blurred edges and strange artifacts, but when it surfaces, the wind blows clean through it, and that makes it a natural draw for filmmakers like Denis Villenueve, Derek Cianfrance, Jeff Nichols, Jonathan Glazer. These guys are also, in their own way, shoegazers. To their number we can add veterans like Terrence Malick and Martin Scorsese, whose latest efforts, Knight Of Cups (Music by Hanan Townshend) and Silence (Music by Kim Allen Kluge and Kathryn Kluge) lean in this direction. 

And then there's Arvo Pärt, the most influential film composer never to have scored a film, whose Für Alina, Spiegel Im Spiegel, and Fratres suffuse contemporary film music from American Beauty to Perfume to There Will Be Blood and a score creditable to the subject of this blog, Foxcatcher.

Mica Levi (Jackie, Under The Skin), Danny Bensi & Saunder Jurriaans (Enemy, The Gift), David Wingo (Take Shelter, Midnight Special) and the above-mentioned Townshend and Kluge/s are part of this underground wave, to which we can now add the name of West Dylan Thordson--a name, by the way, that any composer would kill for. West, as he is called, is also a man of the great north, in this case, Minnesota, and when he speaks of his native ground, it almost seems to conjure music: "I love winter in Minnesota. It evokes the depth and complexity of the people... There's an unspoken darkness about them, unresolved from generations ago." Good music begins with good thoughts. Johann Jóhannsson once told me that before embarking on his composing career, he had studied Icelandic mythology. That says a lot about why he is where he is professionally. 

The Sixth Sense, M. Night Shyamalan's extraordinary first feature film, was endowed with narrative gravity and all kinds of terror by one of the finest scores of the last twenty years (the subject, also, of the first chapter in Scoring The Screen). So when I read a Daily Variety review of what some are calling M. Night's "comeback film," SPLIT, checked IMDb (inexplicably and inexcusably, Variety is no longer listing composer credits) and saw that James Newton Howard's place in the music block had been taken by someone called "West," I was at first surprised, then doubtful, and finally, intrigued. A seventeen-year string had been broken, and there was something sad about that, but the review of the film was so strong that, despite its omission of any mention of music, I felt there had to be something musically potent going on. 

Refreshingly, and a little incredibly, West Thordson's IMDb listing featured nothing but an email address. Not a "corporate" address but a personal one. So I wrote, and he responded, and a dialogue commenced. He sent me two cues from SPLIT, the cue that plays behind the main titles (I wouldn't describe it as a "main title cue") and one from the body of the film. 1M1 was a very, very frightening piece of sonic architecture built around what seemed to be a snarling pack of feral contrabasses, bowed aggressively at the bridge and then processed into fragments of aural menace. I hadn't (and still haven't) seen the film, but I heard what M. Night must have heard. It was madness as music. The second cue, There Are Things That Are Hard To Believe, was far gentler, even pretty, but equally disturbing. In a slightly Herrmannesque way, it makes use of that fluid succession of common tone triads, linked only to one another and not to any recognizable key center, in order to obliterate time and alter perception while still allowing us the comfort of consonance. This is the style that some theorists are calling that masquerades as tonal but really isn't...and it's a harmonic language that has been enthusiastically appropriated by film composers and is likely to be with us for some time. I can't say whether or not West Thordson was aware of any of this stuff as he wrote. He says he is self-taught, and that his musical bequest came by way of an old Wurlitzer upright in an abandoned room of his parents' Minnesota house, on which he taught himself to play Henry Mancini's Pink Panther theme. "Farmhouse Piano" is how he characterizes his sound and style.

Thordson's tracks, both those he's created for films like Foxcatcher, Joy, and the HBO series, Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, and for his extra-curricular band project, A Whisper In The Noise, are so determinedly lo-fi and first-take basement demo-ish that at first listen I thought he might be having me on. This is neither virtuosic playing nor bravura production, but it is moving in that shaggy, unkempt way prized by indie filmmakers. It makes perfect sense that West's entry to the scoring trade was in creating rough temp scores as style models for more experienced composers like Mychael Danna and Rob Simonsen. A lot of those temp cues wound up in the films, some through the influence of music supervisor Sue Jacobs. But it doesn't appear that the credited composers were ungrateful. West seems to have given them a window into the director's mind, and in return, they taught him a few tricks. It shows in SPLIT. That's how it works. 

It's not possible to understand where someone like West Dylan Thordson "comes from" without taking a trip through the world of indie art-rock bands with 10+ members and only 9,573 views on YouTube. This is the matrix from which bands like Arcade Fire and Edward Sharpe emerged, and where Sigur Ros found its nearly religious following. It's also where Jóhann Jóhannsson's voice was heard prior to his film breakout on Villeneuve's Prisoners, with pieces like The Sun's Gone Dim and the Sky's Turned Black and Fordlandia, and where he continues to turn ears with his Gorecki-like A Pile Of Dust from his recent album project, Orphée. On a hidden channel of this same indie underground, West Thordson also became visible/audible, with pieces like As We Were and Your Hand, to people like Sue Jacobs, and ultimately, to M. Night Shyamalan. Pieces with the wind blowing clean through them. It seems entirely fitting that West's introduction to M. Night happened by way of his arrangement of Bob Dylan's The Times They Are A'Changin'.