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Guest Column - A brief history of scoring Stephen Hawking film The Theory Of Everything

Guest Column - A brief history of scoring Stephen Hawking film The Theory Of Everything
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Not only does Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson release albums in his own right, he is also a much in demand film scorer having worked on a series of interesting and compelling productions. His latest score is for The Theory Of Everything, a film about the life of astro-physicist Stephen Hawkins. Fresh from winning a Golden Globe for his score (see below) on Sunday (11 January), he’s written Q an exclusive column explaining his thoughts behind soundtracking a genius love story.

When I heard about this project about the life of Stephen Hawking, I knew it was something I would be very interested in. I read a Brief History Of Time when I was at university and I have since been quite fascinated by his ideas and with Hawking as a person.

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When I learned that James Marsh would be directing, it really sealed the deal for me. I’ve been an admirer of James’ work since I saw Man On Wire years ago. I loved his earlier documentary Wisconsin Death Trip also, as well as Project Nim. They’re all films that treat serious subjects in a very thought provoking and poetic way and I’ve always liked how he uses music. I had met James a few years ago when he was a consultant on a film I scored called The Good Life. So I was very happy when he got in touch with me about scoring Theory Of Everything.

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I came into the project when the editing was already quite far along, so it had some structure to it already. I watched a rough cut of the film and was immediately struck by the strength of the performances, especially Eddie Redmayne‘s [Hawkins] obviously, but also Felicity Jones‘ [Jane Wilde Hawking]. Their interplay is amazing and their performances were really my biggest inspiration for writing the music.

The opening scene (Cambridge, 1963) was the first piece I wrote for the film and much of the score grew out of that piece. The film begins with a four note piano motif or riff that loops and meanders throughout the opening scene and then builds and builds until it explodes into a kind of very vibrant and kinetic piece of music that accompanies Stephen and Brian’s [Hawkins room mate in the film] bicycle ride through Cambridge, which shows Hawking in the full vigour of his youth, before he became ill. Elements of this initial piece appear at various points through the score. For example, I use the harmonies from the opening to create a delicate piano piece for an intimate scene between Stephen and Jane Hawking around the middle of the film – a piece which then reappears in a more melancholy mode later during their break-up scene. So this little motif from the introduction slowly blossoms into this florid tapestry of patterns and motifs that permeate the film.

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After scoring Denis Villeneuve‘s Prisoners, I deliberately chose a very different film that would reflect another side of my musical personality. The Prisoners score is really dark and brooding, quite stark and bleak, with more emphasis on texture with a strong contrast between the more delicate lyrical sections and other more abrasive and sometimes quite brutal sections where in addition to strings and woodwinds I used pipe organ and strange instruments like the Cristal Bachet, which is a kind of glass harmonica and the Ondes Martenot, which is an electronic instrument from the 1920s.

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Theory Of Everything on the other hand offered opportunities to play with a more colourful palette, using orchestration to create a quite lush and ornate sound that kind of shimmers and sparkles like the firmament. The film gave me an opportunity to play with orchestration in ways that I hadn’t done before quite in that way. Theory Of Everything is music that is scored for an orchestra playing in a room, as opposed to Prisoners, where the orchestra is just one element of many that are assembled together.

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It’s also lighter and sometimes more joyful than a lot of my solo work – something which stems from the tone of the film and the nature of the story, which is a very human, very warm. The film has a large scope, spanning several decades, but mainly it’s a film about relationships. It’s a film about a physicist, but it’s in essence a rather odd love story.

What I tried to do with the music was to emphasize the tension between Hawking the man versus Hawking the physicist. There are scenes in the film that communicate the wonderment that Hawking feels towards the universe and its mysteries and in those scenes I was inspired by the poetry of his writing about the physical world which I first read in A Brief History Of Time all those years ago.

Jóhann Jóhannsson@johannjohannss

For more head to Johannjohannsson.com.


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