Monday, November 23, 2015

Music for Another World

Last month, I praised the film adaptation of Andy Weir's sci-fi novel, The Martian. For me, the movie has lingered over the past several weeks, in the form of its score. I picked up the soundtrack album, composed by Harry Gregson-Williams, and I've had it in fairly heavy rotation. At the most general level, the score for The Martian takes a fairly typical approach to music for a science fiction film: it blends synthesizer elements with a full orchestra. But how Gregson-Williams chose to do this is a perfect match for this particular story.

The synth elements of The Marian's music are almost always rapid fire ostinato accents -- fast eighth and sixteen note patterns that feel artificial and inhuman at times for their speed and repetition. This technique is often showcased when the story is in full on "science" mode, when a character is working a problem and essentially rising above in a display of ingenuity.

Meanwhile, the orchestra represents the more grounded, emotional elements of the story. Usually playing quarter notes or slower, this component of the music creeps along, often four times slower than the frenetic synth. This anchors the film. The Martian works as a movie because you care for the characters and not just the science, and the traditional orchestra is the part of the music that speaks to this.

There are several highlights in the score. It starts strong right out of the gate with "Mars," a track that at first might be just as right for a horror movie as for this. It opens with an ominous chord to rattle the subwoofers, punctuated by occasional eerie sprays of synth notes in the treble. It then establishes the slow melody that will represent the Red Planet itself throughout the movie -- sparsely placed pairs and trios of mournful notes.

"Sprouting Potatoes" is one of the most purely uplifting tracks on the album, and is particularly interesting in that it opens with a solo cello -- an instrument so much more often used for somber music. "Hexadecimals" is almost exclusively synthesizer, with intriguing staccato patterns that ever so slightly evokes Vangelis' work on the original Cosmos mini-series.

Gregson-Williams establishes his approach to this score so consistently that the few moments where he breaks formula really stand out. Human vocals are showcased in just two cues. The first, "Crops Are Dead," uses a solo vocalist to really emphasize one of the lowest emotional points of the movie. The final track, "Fly Like Iron Man," uses a full choir to stress one of the highest. And the synth element gradually recedes in the final section of the movie, dropping out almost completely by the finale.

I've found the music from "The Martian" to be great background for different parts of my day. I'd give the album a B+. It's not a "must own" soundtrack for people who aren't normally enthusiastic about them. But it is a good addition to the collection for fans of movie music.

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