Trying Nothing

Every time I work on a new orchestration, I think of a story Carl Marsh told me of a conversation he had with another arranger—Ronn Huff, if my memory serves me correctly. One of them was having trouble with a spot in the orchestration they were writing, and lamented that they had tried everything they could think of but nothing worked. The other asked, well, have you tried that? So they did, and it was perfect. “Nothing” was exactly what the song needed from the orchestration in those bars.

I was reminded of this advice last night, sitting in the theatre as the credits rolled for Darren Aronofsky’s stunning, description-defying new film, “mother!” when I noticed that the Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson was credited as “music and sound consultant.” There are few things that turn me off to a movie more than a score that is working at cross purposes with the storytelling, and I kept being glad, watching “mother!,” for the pitfalls being avoided where a bad score would have ruined a scene. It turns out, I discovered after I got home and started reading about the film, that Jóhannsson actually wrote a 90-minute score but during the editing process arrived at a consensus with Aronofsky that the music—all of the music!—was taking something away from the storytelling. So he turned to creating a minimalistic score (playing a pane of glass with mallets, recording the key clicks of a sax player, etc.) and then his work was mixed in with sound designer Craig Henighan’s contributions. The result is a score that perfectly suites the film. Kudos to Aronofsky and Jóhannsson for having the kind of working relationship that allowed those discussions to happen (seemingly without conflict), and for digging until they discovered what exactly the film needed.