Jóhann Jóhannsson, Mother!, and Sound Over Score

One of my all-time favorite modern composers, Jóhann Jóhannsson, died this past Friday. I have been an admirer of his solo work for many years, and in 2013 he made his debut in the world of film with his score for the movie Prisoners (2013). He has since composed the score for two more Denis Villeneuve films (Sicario (2015) and Arrival (2016)) and won a golden globe for his music in The Theory of Everything (2014). Needless to say, this composer from Iceland excels at his craft. In 2016, Jóhann was commissioned to create the score for Darren Aronofsky’s very experimental film, Mother! (2017). It was a film that demanded an equally experimental approach to its music. Jóhann was no stranger to creating unorthodox pieces of music. His 2006 album, IBM 1401, A User’s Manual, features instructional tapes for performing maintenance on the IBM units of the 60s. It is also some of the most incredibly beautiful pieces of music I’ve ever heard. Anyway, Jóhann spent a year working on his score for Mother!. However, after viewing it alongside the final cut of the movie, he convinced Aronofsky to delete all of the music. Jóhann very selflessly realized that the film was better without a score.

Many films are more effective when they lack a traditional score. Andei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979) is fantastic example of this. While it does have a score, it is very sparsely used. It is a movie that relies on its incredible sound design, and does so in a way that reflects the surreal, time-bending nature of the film. Tarkovsky paints with sound much like he does with visuals, using them to create an experience rather than concrete communication. Sound can diverge from the images, return back, linger, or come from nowhere at all, connecting our experience of the film with the experiences of the characters in it, with long gaps in between the uses of music.

The sound in Mother! would go on to be solely diegetic. No musical cues that most other horror movies include. Aronofsky explains that he “…wanted the audience to lean into that, to not give them any relief by allowing them to lean back on something that easily gives you emotion.”

Jóhann did not waste his year of composing, though. The score needed to be written first in order to realize it was redundant. So in a sense, Mother! still has a score by Jóhann. The score is just silence…deafening, genius silence.

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