- Composed by Steven Price
- WaterTower Music / 2013 / 72m
A wonderful cinematic experience, Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity sees Sandra Bullock and George Clooney play astronauts stranded in space after their shuttle and space station are hit by space debris, and plays out their desperate struggle to get back home. It’s that rare thing – a film which most critics agree works better in 3-D – and it’s the best use of the form since Avatar. Cuarón cleverly makes the audience member feel like he’s there, helped through intelligent sound design (more on that shortly!) and visuals. It’s a fine film and seems to be the rare blockbuster that also becomes a critical darling.
Steven Price was not a well-known film composer when he came on board the film. In fact the director hired him to spend a few weeks helping out with the sound design – which, as mentioned, is hugely important to the film, the director having decided that for once Hollywood would note that there’s no sound in a vacuum. But Price stayed on – and on – and eventually became the film’s composer. He has been a music editor for much of his career to date, working on a few smaller projects as composer – perhaps most notably on 2011’s Attack the Block. I think it’s fair to say that his predominant career from this point forward will be as a film composer.
Music, obviously, plays a very important role in this film. A lot of the time, it’s the only thing you hear. Cuarón’s previous composers had some serious chops – Patrick Doyle, John Williams, even John Tavener! – so it’s fair to say that he knows what he’s doing with music. And so does Steven Price. The great travel writer Paul Theroux wrote in his masterpiece The Old Patagonian Express about how the journey is far more important than the arrival – “Summits matter, but what of the lower slopes of Parnassus?” – and while I’m not going to launch into another boring tirade against modern film music (read my review of Man of Steel, if you can be bothered) – a lot of film composers who have no concept of what I would have thought would be a fundamental tenet of the profession seem to have risen to its very top. How often does a film score offer – no doubt in an attempt to fulfil the perceived audience requirement for instant gratification – a constant series of highs? Scores for modern blockbusters seem full of climax – “this is SO IMPORTANT!” screams the score, before a moment later it screams it again, then again, then again. Of course, the music loses its impact very quickly when it does that. A chef knows that throwing several powerful ingredients together is likely to leave the diner tasting none of them; to rise to the top of film music, it seems, requires no such knowledge. How refreshing it is, therefore, to discover a young composer scoring a big blockbuster who knows the power of contrast, the importance of the journey. Gravity is a tremendous film score. I’ve read numerous online barbs – “it’s mostly boring but gets great at the end” – so it’s clearly not for everyone. Perhaps people have been conditioned into believing that the modern way is the only way. That’s fair enough – tastes differ. This isn’t music for the instant gratification brigade.
The music’s journey matches the film’s journey. It goes from fascination and wonder, through chaos and onto catharsis. It opens with the brief “Above Earth”, a plaintive call leading to a couple of bars of electronically-manipulated excitement before things really begin with a beautiful expression of awe. “Debris” is gripping: electronic pulses, string ostinati, gnarling brass – here’s the start of the chaos. “The Void” contrasts that sound with that of the human voice – desperation the key here. It’s dark, bleak – perhaps even oppressive. A lot of people will find it musically unattractive, I’m sure. I think it’s brilliantly effective, both within and without the film.
“Atlantis” is subtler – a predominantly electronic landscape, orchestral sounds buzzing around underneath – dramatic, vibrant and above all hugely tense. “Don’t Let Go” is particularly potent – eleven minutes long, it’s an emotionally exhausting ride through a whole host of feelings. Again, there’s that feeling of desperation, also now isolation in the way little solo figures appear and then fade out, as if lost. The arrangement is fascinating: the way electronics are used, not just to provide instrumental colour but also to manipulate orchestral sounds, particularly impressive. It’s very much in the modern film score vernacular – hints of John Powell, clearly of Hans Zimmer – what’s so impressive is the subtle building of ideas, the constant contrast of light and dark, the reluctance to overstep the emotional mark which actually makes its conveyance of emotion all the more potent.
“Airlock” pares things down again – a piano solo is beautiful, glistening, a brief respite and a hint of relief. “ISS” introduces an electronic effect sounding like distorted radio waves, which lead into an almost hymnal passage of electronics, joined finally once again by the solo female voice. Suddenly, dissonance reigns: “Fire” is a cacophony of orchestral chaos, punctuated by unnerving passages of quiet electronics providing the ironically enveloping effect of the silence of space. “Parachute” is another lengthy cue; the same feelings continue to be at the fore. It’s cold, it’s bleak, it’s desolate. Electronics flutter around the stereo space – confusion, alarm, once again chaos. Complex brass trills join: shades of Elliot Goldenthal at his best. “In the Blind” is a complete musical contrast: simple, long notes, subtle electronic effects. But it’s still unsettling. And again Price plays darkness against light, the vocal a haunting counterpoint to the chilling driving force.
Suddenly, amongst all this, a powerful, poignant moment of serenity: the beautiful “Aurora Borealis”. “Aningaaq” sounds like slowly waking from a dream: a repeating electronic figure plays out as a current rises beneath it, like a flow from semi-consciousness into alertness. Once again, the beauty is striking – the balance tipping between despair and hope. Then the scales are become ever more laden in the latter’s direction through “Soyuz” and then “Tiangong”, which opens with the now very familiar keyboards and voice, before a solo cello is gradually joined by more orchestral forces to suggest the battle may be being won. A sweeping wash of strings emerges mid-cue, then energetic electronics, evocative synth choir.
This leads into “Shenzou”, an exciting journey full of nerves, hope, excitement. Listening to the music, you can feel the extreme heat building around the re-entry craft, then the relief as it builds to its conclusion. This is the culmination of the journey: the exhausting ride over, the emotional release finally unbounded. It’s not in isolation anything strikingly original and out of the context of what has gone before, people might think of it as a good but familiar finale piece again not unlike a few by Hans Zimmer. But experience it in context and it’s on a whole different plane – full of feelings so much more vivid because of the experience of what’s gone before, emotions that are earned.
The score isn’t quite done – there’s still the outstanding “Gravity” to top things off, a powerful and thrilling statement of the main theme. And that draws to a close an exceptional album. I’d have been impressed with an A-list film composer who managed to score this film so effectively, keeping in mind the intelligent sound design, and accepted that the score for a film like this might not work so well on the album; that it doesn’t just boost its film considerably but makes such a fine piece of music away from it – and that it’s been composed by a relative novice – makes it very hard to do anything but express the highest praise for Steven Price. It feels like the most intelligent and most satisfying score for a science fiction movie since Ennio Morricone’s stunning, dishearteningly lambasted Mission to Mars. It’s the finest film score I’ve heard in 2013 and marks the emergence of a major new talent.