Unless you're a fan of film scores or alternative music, Clint Mansell might not be the most recognisable name to you. However, you can be sure you've heard his music, not least if you've watched Sky Sports in the last few years. Born in Coventry, Mansell's stock has risen greatly over the years, especially with his partnership with filmmaker Darren Aronofsky, and that stock is now about to go through the roof with his score to Aronofsky's latest, the massive biblical blockbuster Noah.
Best known before his film career as the lead singer of Pop Will Eat Itself, Mansell followed composers like Cliff Martinez and Danny Elfman from the pop world to the scoring stage in 1998 after the break-up of PWEI. His first assignment would be the beginning of a relationship that has defined his film music career, coming together with first-time director Darren Aronofsky to score the surreal thriller PI. Joining songs from dance-orientated artists such as Roni Size and Aphex Twin, Mansell's score was influenced by the drum-n-bass movement as well as the industrial side of things, and was a perfect fit for the idiosyncratic film and its stark black and white photography. The unconventional score heightened the paranoid sense of the lead, Sean Guillette's Max, and was its own intense character in the film.
But while Pi was a success and a huge sign of the potential both Mansell and Aronofsky had, the score that would follow would introduce a piece of Mansell's music into pop culture iconography. Requiem for a Dream is probably the best anti-drug film you'll ever see, a haunting and horrifying work that follows the journey of four characters in a downward spiral of addiction. Mansell's music for the film used the Kronos Quartet to provide a cold and needling soundscape for the film, personified by the driving 'Lux Aeterna'. The latter would become Mansell's calling card, later becoming a theme for Sky Sports News and exploding further in a re-orchestrated "epic" rendition for the theatrical trailer for The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.
While Aronofsky looked at rebooting Batman and toiled away on a mysterious project known as The Last Man, Mansell worked on gangster film Knockaround Guys, horror film The Hole, thrillers Murder By Numbers and Suspect Zero amongst others, before ending his Aronosfky-less period with two Hollywood blockbusters, Sahara and Doom. These scores allowed Mansell to add more strings to his violin, combining his unique alternative sound with more conventional scoring techniques that brought a fusion that would further enhance his reputation in the score world. The following year, in 2006, Aronofsky's secret project that had gone through several iterations finally came to fruition. It was called The Fountain.
Mansell's score reunited him with the Kronos Quartet for a film that was an attempt at heady hard science fiction, with religious and philosophical overtones. Echoing the three different storylines in the film, Mansell collaborated with Kronos Quartet and Scottish post-rock band Mogwai to create a sense of musical convergence that would suit the decidedly non-traditional film. What they brought to the film was a sense of force, of awe. Emotional intensity. The Fountain was critically acclaimed, with the score seen as a huge part of the success of the film. While it remains as one of Mansell's great achievements, it also serves as a precursor for events to come for both parties.
Mansell went on to score The Wrestler for Aronofsky, as well as films such as Smokin' Aces, The Rebound, and Duncan Jones' well-received science fiction thriller Moon. Patterned after the more esoteric SF films of the seventies such as Silent Running, Moon demanded music that was typically cold and almost computerised, but with a sense of introspective emotion for the character of Sam Bell. In response, Mansell's score was alien and eloquent, with a wonderful warm piano for Sam and electronics for the moon base. As the film neared its climax and Sam made his discoveries, more traditionally orchestral elements were introduced to mirror the human element with brilliant effect.
His next score was another Aronofsky collaboration, Black Swan, where he adapted Tchaikovsky's ballet score for the intense psychological thriller. Following this was drama Last Night, action film Faster, and video game Mass Effect 3, before moving on to Park-chan Wook's Stoker and the Irvine Welsh crime flick Filth. And then the flood came.
Noah is a bold move by many of the people involved. By the producers of the film, by Aronosfsky, and certainly by Mansell, who again employed the Kronos Quartet along with a huge orchestra to build a sound nothing quite like he had made before. Aronofsky's film is massive in scale and as such, Mansell's score had to match that while simultaneously providing intimate grounding for the title character and his family. And it's one hell of an achievement, with the soundtrack neatly chopped into four acts.
Noah begins with chugging strings and percussion that sounds like lightning. It immediately emits a "biblical" feel, and the mysterious motif that cuts through the opening of the act named 'Wickedness' sets a foreboding tone. What follows is a wave of cacophony, with biting Herrmannesque strings birthing a chaotic atmosphere for a jagged three-note repeating motif to slash its way through. It's overwhelming and terrifying, providing an instant doom-laden 'storm is coming' feel that is briefly soothed through a beautiful viola solo before the mysterious motif returns with driving percussion. Uncertainty is built through more strings and guitar, before brass and percussion take over to remind you of the sheer scale of the thing.
Mansell refuses to go into what would be considered the traditional approach with over abundant choir, instead using the strings of the Kronos Quartet to play out the more emotional and familial side of things with the orchestra providing the texture and colour for the force of nature and wrath of man, and god. The second act - 'Innocence' - opens with the excellently-named 'Make Thee An Ark', which uses strings as percussion with a guitar overlay to build into a huge brass section with a gorgeous viola line. It's a modern equivalent to 'The Shark Cage Fugue' from Jaws, and certainly provides ample ark-building music. What's astonishing in Noah is the way it seamlessly switches from absolutely massive to microscopically intimate, so indicative of the way of nature, then driving back upwards with wondrous choir (it's not used as often as you'd expect, but when it is, it's so, so good).
In counterpoint, there's a malevolent tone to the darker music, with thundering war drums and sinister cello, as well as the return of the three-note motif, now getting closer and closer. In return, family is key and the viola and violins represent this, with the strings ending the act on a powerful and optimistic note. The third act - 'Judgement' - begins small with guitar, but quickly intensifies with some massive percussion, before the devastating 'By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed' that really qualifies as some of the best disaster music I've ever heard. It's just unrelenting, overwhelming, chaotic, with bellowing brass lines and haunting violin, along with the thunderclap percussion. Amazing. Electric guitar gives way to a discordant choir and some huge brass sections not only reprising the mystery motif but also developing it further, with a massive statement ending the track.
A dose of serenity is injected with delicate guitar and viola, providing a small sense of respite before the storm returns and we are battered once again before the final act - 'Mercy' - takes hold. Here Mansell's music is calm and thoughtful, with an emotional viola used to reflect and philosophise. With the storm gone, the strings are left to pick up the pieces, and it's an act of catharcism that Mansell puts us through, one that's greatly needed. The Kronos Quartet are here at their most beautiful, as we reach a sense of finality. What's here is a celebration of survival, and an embracement of hope. The score ends on an absolutely beautiful note, both musically and thematically, before the album's denouement, where the song 'Mercy Is' - sung by Patti Smith - provides a mythic ending to the experience.
Having listened to it a few times now, I don't think there's any doubt that Noah is not only Clint Mansell's greatest score, but also a new chapter in the evolution of his career. The through-line has shown how quickly his sophistication and scoring intelligence has increased, and you can see a clear path from The Fountain to Noah, both in the ambition of the film, and that ambition being met by Mansell's music. A great career, and a great score that makes us hungry for what comes next.
- Charlie Brigden
Follow Charlie on Twitter for more excellent film music tips: @entractemg
Follow @AssortedBuffery on Twitter
Or like our Facebook page