First off, I should say that these editions of What’s The Score will be significantly shorter than the previous ones (the world cheers!), because they take a while to do and I’m trying to do one for each of the nominated original scores. Guys, that’s five WTS posts. I’m only one huge woman. So these will be condensed overview versions looking at a couple of important cues, rather than the closer looks I try to do normally – also, these are scores that have been nominated for an Academy Award, so there is already information out there about the soundtracks because they are obviously worth writing about. This is just my DTSFT take.
Congratulations to Steven Price for winning the 2014 Oscar for Best Original Score for his work on Gravity!
So first up, Gravity.
There are clips on Youtube with the score, but here’s the URL for the soundtrack on Spotify (you’ll need a Spotify account), and check out this preview from Soundcloud:
If you get this film on DVD or watch it on your laptop, whatever you do make sure that you either use headphones or a good surround sound system. Steven Price’s quite frankly brilliant score is meant to envelop you and create a simultaneous feeling of claustrophobia and expansiveness, which has been achieved by some masterful sound engineering and editing.
One of the things that makes this score so effective is the contrast between the loud and quiet moments in the film. Right from the off, we start with some words on screen telling us that there’s basically nothing in space apart from, well, space. In about 30 seconds, we go from quiet to ear-crunchingly loud over the title screen and then the sound cuts off – we’ve been reminded that there is no way for sound to carry in space, then we have no background score under the dialogue, which is transmitted through radios between the characters. This is actually one track called ‘Above Earth’ split in half, the other half starting when Kowalski stops to appreciate the view of Earth. There are a few instances in this film where the beautiful, appreciative shots of Earth from space are accompanied by this quiet, sweeping and reflective music. It’s space porn, quite frankly.
‘Debris’ cues up as the team get their orders from Houston to abort the mission, and here Price equates dynamics and volume with speed and distance; starting with an ominous and low two-note motif that repeats and builds tension, the music gradually builds with a shrill, rising chord as the debris starts to rush past and devastate the telescope. There’s a string ostinato low in the mix (melodically not unlike the Twilight Zone motif) that is just loud enough to enhance the spinning and rotating movements on screen, adding to the dizzying effect. There’s a lot of movement in this scene, not just on screen but in the music and sound which pan and sweep from left to right. It is followed more or less straight on with ‘The Void’, which continues the same material but with a focus on the synths and electronic noises, remaining quiet but tense while Kowalski tethers Stone to him and they plan to make their way to safety.
A little further on, we’re on board the ISS. The ‘Fire’ cue plays as Stone discovers that there is, well, a fire on board just as she thinks she’s safe. The music builds rapidly from the peaceful, reflective moments of Stone looking out at Earth, with an electronic alarm beep that cuts through and makes way for the shrill crescendo that builds with the panic. This is followed by ‘Parachute’; the actual bit with the parachute in the film is pretty intense and dramatic, but the cue starts before the problem does, with a quiet and foreboding bass that suddenly pics up as the parachute causes Stone more problems in her attempted escape to safety. That two-note motif comes back, accompanied by more militant strings. It continues as Stone goes out to fix the problem on the outside of her little shuttle, and as she reaches for the tool that slips from her hands, she notices the debris coming her way again – the music doesn’t spend too much time building up to it, supporting the earlier statement about no sound in space, so we’re just as oblivious as Stone is until we see the problem. The effect of the debris on the satellite is devastating, and the cacophony of noise overwhelms as much as the visuals do. A side note – I love the line that comes just as the wreckage passes: “I hate space”.
Skipping forward to when Stone is finally going to make it back to Earth, there is an insurgence of ethereal vocals and the strings start to edge out the synths and electronic sounds in ‘Tiangong’ and ‘Shenzou’, which both have a more traditionally symphonic form. I love that there is virtually no music as she watches the remains of the shuttle falling to earth, when the score just a few moments ago was so loud and dramatic while she was in space, contradicting the idea of there being no sound in space. It’s great.
There’s more of a melody here, one with a triumphant nature; soaring strings and female vocals paired with the beautiful visuals are again overwhelming and stunning. Price’s technique of building in dynamics and pitch to demonstrate approaching objects is used once more as Stone’s capsule hits the water, and after that the music is practically muted, a simple electronic ringing in the background with some quiet synths as Stone struggles out of her suit underwater. There is of course a reappearance of the dramatic and triumphant music as the final cue, ‘Gravity’, starts while we watch Stone shakily walk away, having survived the whole ordeal.
Sometimes less is more in music, but this is space and there is no ‘less’ – there’s nothing, which is why music fills the void. By pairing a loud, ominous score that combines electronic synths and orchestral instruments with low-key noises that reflect what the characters would hear in their space-suits – heavy breathing, clicks and smaller sounds – the soundscape of this score is huge and unforgiving, and I loved it.