A version of this article was originally published by The Silent Ballet, 23 February 2007.
When one thinks of the greatest composers ever to score film, one thinks of greats such as Toru Takemitsu, Philip Glass, Bernard Herrmann, and even John Williams. (I mean, really, who doesn’t know the music from Star Wars?) The music they composed was memorable, creative, and original. Most essentially, however, their scores heightened the emotion, drama, and suspense of the films of which they were a part, forever altering our perception of the images on the screen, linking them to the music. Can you imagine watching Hitchcock’s famous shower scene in Psycho without Herrmann’s shrieking strings? Clint Mansell has made a similar achievement, and will one day doubtlessly join the aforementioned greats in the cannon of legendary composers for film.
Although Mansell garnered critical acclaim for his prior collaborations with director Darren Aronofsky, it is with The Fountain that he has achieved his greatest work. The Fountain is simply extraordinary, capturing the power and beauty of the film, mirroring its symbolic architecture without becoming derivative or repetitive. Performed by the Kronos Quartet, continuing a relationship begun with Requiem for a Dream, and with some help from Mogwai, this soundtrack augments the film brilliantly. Make no mistake, however, these haunting melodies and powerful arrangements are no less so on their own.
Like Aronfsky’s film, unfortunately, Mansell’s soundtrack is not getting the respect it deserves. Although I am confident that the public will one day be able to explore the message of the film and embrace it as the masterpiece it is, there is no reason that Mansell’s powerful music should be neglected until then. Because of the Academy’s failure to even nominate the soundtrack, I felt it was necessary to take a closer look at these compositions, and move beyond subjective impressions to defend the greatness of this score.
A basic understanding of the film will enrich one’s appreciation for the score, for without it, one cannot fully empathize with the progressions and emotion of the piece. The Fountain is a non-linear film, exploring concepts of attachment, love, and death through three parallel story-lines taking place over the course of 1,000 years. Aesthetically, the film relies on correlation, symbolism, and metaphor, and visually relies on the images of a ring, a tree, and the great void of space. The three story-lines which make up the film mirror each other in many ways, and the soundtrack similarly echoes this technique. Aronofsky and his collaborators found a way to make The Fountain look unique, in addition to embracing a style of f/x that is in harmony with the message of the film and the philosophy of the production team. The principles which govern the universe, whether you call it logos, the Tao, physics, or God, work on the infinitely big just as it works on the infinitesimally small. Mansell’s score is able to replicate this mood as well, through a cohesive score which perfectly blends repetition, minimalism, and complexity.
Although an overall unity is easy to comprehend, the individual movements manage to cover a broad spectrum of styles, tones and moods. At times the score is quite minimal, little more then slow bowed strings and a steady, yet slow, tribal-like drum beating in the background. At its peak, however, the cacophony of voices, strings, guitars, and drums are as bombastic as anything else, made even more so as it is preceded by a sudden, dramatic silence. The Fountain begins with “Last Man,” a gentle piano driven piece which introduces some of the themes which develop over the course of the score. The string quartet enters after about 1 minute, oscillating between two chords, slowly building tension and developing a melodic progression which will span the entire record. “Holy Dread!” evokes exactly the kind of mood one would expect from a song with such a title. A slow drum beat lurks beneath somber strings, with occasional bells, plucked strings, and low piano chords, effectively calling to mind creeping Mayans preparing to ambush Spanish Conquistadors. For those who have seen the film, this music will always bring to mind a Pyramid deep in the Mayan jungles, concealing the Tree of Life. The last minute uses tribal rhythms and higher frequency, dissonant strings, with a choir, or perhaps Mogwai’s synths, in the background, evoking a crowd, a mob, ready for a sacrifice. Just as the Pyramid in the film reveals the Tree of Life, this tracks serves as an introduction to “Tree of Life” in which the main melodies of the Fountain are introduced.
The theme of circularity is present in the score, as in the film, with subtle melodies reoccurring throughout, and the opening and closing tracks beautifully complimenting each other. The album, with 10 tracks, almost perfectly mirrors itself. The same melody appears in the 4th and 6th songs (“Stay With Me” and “Xibalba”), the 1st and 10h songs, (“Last Man” and “Together we will live forever”) and the 3rd and 8th, (“Tree of Life” and “Finish It.”). These songs are also related thematically with regard to film, in the scenes they accompany. The 5th song, (“Death is a Disease”) firmly in the center of the album, is a short, repetitive track with no analogue, serving to separate the two halves, without managing to feel at all disconnected. The 7th song, “First Snow,” begins a tension building crescendo which will carry on for 3 tracks, finally climaxing at the end of “Death is the Road to Awe.” These three tracks, “First Snow,” “Finish It,” and “Death is the Road to Awe,” encapsulate the score, almost a microcosm of the whole, working together, culminating in the final track which itself incorporates all the melodic themes of the entire piece. “Death is the Road to Awe” also brings back the tribal drums from the 2nd song, “Holy Dread!,” again preserving the unity of the whole. These tracks mirror each other, but imperfectly. They express the progression of understanding taking place across the film. As Isabella covets eternal life in Spain, Izzie accepts death in the present. And as Tommy fights to cure Death in the present, he accepts death as necessary to life in the future. The progression, freedom from ignorance, and coming to terms with death as an aspect of creation, perhaps we can call it enlightenment, are made present in the evolving mood of the music. This is so when one examines the titles of the songs and scenes of the movie they accompany, and is also true when strictly analyzing the music alone, as chord progressions change and are resolved.
Like the film, the score also functions as a concentric cryptic, with melodies recurring, mirroring the thematic circularity of the film, culminating with the dramatic climax, releasing both Tom (Hugh Jackman) and the listener. No other release this year that I am aware of maintains the singular unity and cohesion of The Fountain, while remaining so beautiful and dynamic. Essentially one composition in 10 movements, complete with the climactic “Death is the Road to Awe,” and the dénouement of “Together We Will Live Forever,” the music to the Fountain will stay with you long after the film is over or the record has stopped. We can only hope that the remix album is not far behind.