Tranquility Meets Cacophony
Clint Mansell began his musical career with the alternative rock group Pop Will Eat Itself. However in recent years, he has emerged as one of Hollywood’s better-known composers. His discography includes an impressive string of collaborations with acclaimed director Darren Aronofsky – including The Fountain, Black Swan and Noah. Mansell has also written a handful of orchestral cues that have enjoyed significant mainstream exposure, most notably “Lux Aeterna” from Requiem for a Dream.
Unlike many composers who rely on a more conservative, string-centric method, Mansell has always pushed the stylistic boundaries of film composition. His scores do occasionally make use of the large symphony orchestras typical of Hollywood music; yet he will implement smaller, unconventionally configured ensembles on other tracks. The cue that plays during Abandon’s opening titles incorporates a unique blend of fingerstyle guitar harmonies, eerie vocals, and subtle digital elements. “Together We Will Live Forever” from The Fountain, offers a beautifully understated piano line and a highly accessible piece of modern cinematic music. Mansell’s Moon soundtrack – particularly its seven-minute standout piece, “Welcome to Lunar Facilities” – utilizes minimalist structures that are rich in atmosphere.
Recently Mansell has provided us with another refreshingly inspired soundtrack for Ben Wheatley’s dystopian thriller, High-Rise. The film is an adaptation of a J.G. Ballard novel of the same name in which a doctor moves into a seemingly chic London skyscraper that is insulated from the outside world. However as the plot unfolds, rising class tensions within the infrastructure slowly drive its inhabitants to chaos and violence.
Using a stunning array of orchestral and digital textures, Mansell’s score is able to effectively convey the superficial opulence of the high-rise whilst simultaneously communicating the underlying themes of disorder and despondency. Through his use of imposing string and brass sections paired with beautifully delicate harps, xylophones, and pizzicato strings, Mansell captures the skyscraper’s elegant façade. “Critical Mass” offers a triumphant blend of staccato strings and brass instrumentation. “The Circle of Women” captures a similarly upbeat mood by adding a gently plucked harp to the mix. However throughout the course of Mansell’s soundtrack the cues become more foreboding. “The World Beyond the High-Rise” and “The Vertical City” both transition into darker progressions towards their respective conclusions; the former becomes somber and the latter discordant. As the soundtrack progresses, Mansell slowly begins to capture a sense of frantic desperation by employing cacophonous and dissonant orchestral timbres (e.g. “Danger In the Streets of the Sky”).
High-Rise’s score regularly experiments with dissonance in order to achieve this feeling of instability yet it rarely eschews tonality. Instead Mansell adeptly uses ‘accidental’ notes to rattle the listener. For example, the shrill piccolo notes briefly heard at the end of “Silent Corridors” and the opening of “The Circle of Women” clash with the relative consonance of the underlying xylophone and harp lines, respectively. This juxtaposition between harmonious and dissonant tones efficiently encapsulates the ominous undertones that characterize the film’s subject matter.
However, while High-Rise may not be quite as accessible as some of Mansell’s previous works due to its use of dissonance, it still offers an ancillary listening experience that can be enjoyed autonomous from the film. The twelve tracks that comprise High-Rise’s soundtrack are teeming with rich orchestral timbres and exciting melodic flourishes. Mansell captures a wide range of instruments – from strings, to brass, harps, pianos and woodwinds, to virtually everything in between. These diverse orchestral ensembles will maintain even the more avant-minded listener’s interest, while Mansell’s hypnotic harmonic progressions and captivating melodic numbers prevent the score from ever delving too deeply into esotericism.
Many of these musical figures repeat themselves throughout the course of the soundtrack. The rousing melody first heard in “Critical Mass” and “Danger In the Streets of the Sky” is reiterated with different instrumentation in “The Evening’s Entertainment”. “Somehow the High-Rise Played Into the Hands of the Most Petty Impulses” clearly reverses the arpeggiated xylophone harmony introduced in “Built, Not for Man, But for Man’s Absence.” However by modifying his instrumental formats, Mansell ensures that these recurring motifs never feel stale. Instead, they allow High-Rise’s score to both capture the film’s thematic content and to achieve a decisively cohesive album-listening experience.
Mansell’s latest soundtrack is perhaps his most adventurous one yet. His willingness to experiment with dissonance and eccentric timbres is refreshing. For these reasons however, High-Rise (OST) is surely not his most accessible work to date. For those unfamiliar with the composer, perhaps it is time to brush up on his catalog, starting with some of his more popular releases (e.g. “Lux Aeterna”). On the other hand, Mansell fans and cinematic/classic music aficionados alike should definitely give this soundtrack a listen.