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‘Arrival,’ ‘Passengers’ Composers Explored Bold New Worlds of Sound

There are many classic science-fiction scores, from the all-electronic “Forbidden Planet” to the all-classical “2001: A Space Odyssey.” So the challenge for today’s film composer working in the sci-fi genre is to find a fresh approach.

For “Arrival,” Iceland-born, Berlin-based Johann Johannsson used the film’s theme of communication between humans and extraterrestrial visitors as his starting point, with much of the music based on unusual vocal sounds. For “Passengers,” set on a spaceship traveling to a distant planet, L.A.-based Thomas Newman employed a hybrid orchestra-plus-electronics approach for the people on board and the crises they face.

Says Johannsson about his third film for director Denis Villeneuve: “I knew from the time I read the script that the human voice would play a big part in the score, and that there would be a lot of writing for voices. But I wanted very unconventional, avant-garde, extended-technique choral writing as opposed to the more traditional choir sounds.”

Johannsson’s unearthly soundscape, which unfolds as Amy Adams’ linguistics-expert character tries to understand the alien language, involves both voices and modernist musical techniques. “There are circular motifs in the film — the logogram the aliens use, their written language. So I wanted to work with loops.

“We created a 16-track tape loop and used that to create a variety of textures, one of which was based on three different grand pianos, layered. We recorded only the sustained tone and not the attack, so it’s a continuous, ever-shifting texture of low piano wire, acoustic instruments recorded on tape at various speeds, and layered. Purely analog sources.”

As for the voices, Johannsson reports, there are no lyrics. Rather, “we are using vowels, sounds, the voice as a textural instrument. I wanted to approach the voices in a way that I hadn’t heard before in cinema.”

He went to Copenhagen to record “the very trained and disciplined” choir of contemporary-music ensemble Theatre of Voices, then recorded “more individual voices that came from an entirely different direction,” including singers Robert Lowe and Joan La Barbara and cellist-singer Hildur Guonadottir. Lowe, for example, conjured “a very ethereal, otherworldly” sound in his throat which Johannsson mixed into the analog tape loop to send Villeneuve during the first week of shooting.

The director liked what he heard and asked for more. “I tried to keep the voices as natural and pure as possible,” Johannsson says. “They are very much layered, and to a certain extent recorded in unorthodox ways. But the overtones and harmonics you hear in the vocals are human sounds, produced by the singers themselves.”

As for the orchestra, “it’s not very melodic. It’s influenced by spectral music and a very textural way of using the orchestra; there is layering and processing of various elements.” Low strings, low woodwinds and some brass predominate. He spent “nine to 11 months” on the score

As with his previous score for Villeneuve’s “Sicario,” music and sound design often blend in “Arrival.” “I work very much with sound,” says Johannsson, “and, increasingly, the lines are being blurred.”

Morten Tyldum’s film “Passengers” marked Newman’s second foray into science fiction; previously he had done Pixar’s “WALL-E.” This, however, was live action, and very different: much of the movie deals with just two humans (Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt) on a journey to a far-off planet.

The composer wrestled with the notion of the right sound. “What is the notion of future? What kind of music would they be listening to?” he asks, adding that he didn’t want to “get caught in the trap of trying to create futuristic music, which then has to be a kind of justifiable language.” Ultimately, he decided, “I had to play to the conventions of what a space movie would sound like. “

But, he points out, “It wouldn’t just be moody space music. It’s a relationship that takes place over time. There were opportunities for many different tones. Late in the movie, it goes into an action realm; before that, it’s more in a relationship realm with some curves and mazes in it.”

Starting in July, Newman enlisted the help of key soloists, writing and recording with woodwind player Steve Tavaglione, programmer John Beasley, guitarist George Doering and percussionist Dan Greco, finding sounds that seemed right.

“There was a lot of experimenting,” Newman admits. “What is she thinking right now? What is he thinking? And how is that expressed in music? Is the music supporting loneliness? Or humor? It was a huge discovery process. You put two pieces of music against the same scene and they do slightly different things.”

Newman doesn’t define the score as piano-driven but he concedes that there is considerable “featured” piano – which he plays himself – and a liberal use of electronics. “I would like to think that it’s not overly electronic, but it is electronically based,” he says.

The piano and electronics lend a very contemporary sound. “There is drive and pace to a lot of the music,” Newman says. Yet he also did seven orchestra dates, including 60 strings and 13 brass players, finally recording a total of 96 minutes of music. The more traditional orchestral sounds add a size and dimension befitting a space odyssey.

“The big thing was that it had to refine and sharpen the tone of the images and the sense of character interaction,” Newman says. “It was just trying to make the movie more of what it already was.”

Back in September, “Passengers” writer Jon Spaihts tweeted: “I wrote ‘Passengers’ listening to Thomas Newman. Now he’s scoring the film. Dream come true.”

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