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Five Oscar-Contending Film Scores That Got Under Our Skin

Five Oscar-Contending Film Scores That Got Under Our Skin

The scores of LA Film Critics winner Mica Levi (Under the Skin), Hans Zimmer (Interstellar), Alexandre Desplat (The Imitation Game), Jóhann Jóhannsson (The Theory of Everything), and Marco Beltrami (The Homesman) got under our skin in the best possible ways.

1. It wasn’t easy conveying the otherworldly presence of the predatory alien played by Scarlett Johansson, but Levi has come up with the year’s most fascinating score. She summons the visceral strangeness of György Ligeti (who Stanley Kubrick used to great effect in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “The Shining,” and “Eyes Wide Shut”) as inspiration for capturing a range of beautiful, deadly, and horrifying moments.  Levi says the idea was to follow the alien and depict her experiences in real-time — to be “physical, alarming, hot.”

The score combines organic and processed sounds, with Levi exploring the natural qualities of an instrument to keep it “identifiably human.” But then she slows the tempo or changes the pitch to creep us out. One of the best effects is a beehive of strings that swarms into a dust cloud, according to Levi and director Jonathan Glazer.

READ MORE: Composer Mica Levi on Why Going “Under the Skin” Was Really Mental

2. After composing a “fragile, intimate piece” about parental love, Zimmer built his score around a new language for the pipe organ. It was the best possible metaphor for the composer, who views the instrument as one of the great technological feats of science and engineering, akin to a rocket booster. The instrument is awe-inspiring and the sound is very natural — you can feel the lowest C — it’s like breathing.

And if the pipe organ evokes the iconic “Also sprach Zarathustra” from “2001,” Zimmer says it was purely unconscious. However, it was no accident that the sound team picked up on the sound of the organ to help propel the lowest register of their thrill ride soundscape. Christopher Nolan appropriately gave Zimmer a watch with the inscription: “This is not a time for caution,” and the composer was primed for a musical journey into the cosmos.

3. For six-time Oscar nominee Desplat, his frantic score takes us into the genius mind of Nazi code-breaker Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch).  It’s all about counterpoint, befitting the tone of the movie, propelled by keyboards, clarinets, celeste harp, and fast arpeggio. For instance, the opening track introduces a descending, rippling keyboard theme that reappears in variations in later tracks, first as a string accompaniment that sets the bittersweet mood.

And in keeping with the electronic motif of the computer prototype (which Turing names Christopher in honor of his first love), Desplat combines computerized piano samples from Abbey Road Studios with spare orchestration. Some of the piano notes are precise and others are random, capturing the mathematician’s asynchronous thought process.

READ MORE: How Composer Alexandre Desplat Captures Different WWII Vibes for “Imitation Game” and “Unbroken”

4. To convey the genius mind of physicist Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne), Jóhannsson composed a pattern-based score with mathematical precision. And yet for this unusual love story, the composer added a lyrical component as well for this collision of science and emotion. 

Jóhannsson first tackled the intro: a four-note piano motif layered with harmonies and overlaid with orchestra before building up to a Big Bang of sorts. For the end, when Hawking comes to terms with his conflicting views of science and the cosmos, Jóhannsson composed “a more philosophical, serene version of the opening piece.” His score, like the movie overall, is the marriage of space, time, and hope.

5. Beltrami and associate Buck Sanders went rogue for their innovative score, making the wind an integral part of the musical experience in keeping with Tommy Lee Jones’ iconoclastic Western about the harsh frontier life for women. Beltrami and Sanders created instruments (including an Aeolian wind piano tethered to a water tank) and experimented with recording techniques in their Malibu studio and the nearby Santa Monica mountains. They were dramatically successful in manipulating the wind as a musical element.

They took an old piano and attached strings to it and placed it on top of a hill. When the wind blew, it created some bizarre sounds. During one scene when Hilary Swank gets lost and runs around in circles, Beltrami avoided any warmth and made the sound dissipate into the air, reminiscent of the odd sounds created by his idol, Ennio Morricone, for the spaghetti Westerns with Sergio Leone.

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