I wanted to create music that had an underlying tension and a sense of coming from below the earth, like a throbbing pulse that resonates from underground or the pounding heartbeat of a wild beast that is charging at you. I also wanted to evoke the sadness and melancholy of the border, the border fences and the tragedy of the drug war.
- Jóhann Jóhannsson on scoring Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario
Film scores have an unfortunate tendency towards mimicry. This is not something that is unique within the music industry – from famous, serious offenses of blatant theft to more sincere forms of flattery – but its made worse by a technique common in film scoring: the temp score. A temp score is what it sounds like; it’s a piece of music (often from another soundtrack but sometimes non-film music as well) used in editing to create a flow for a film before they bring a composer into the mix. While this helps to reduce budgets, it can put an artist in the uncomfortable place of having to score to the speed and feel of a pre-existing piece of music, making it difficult to create something unique. For Denis Villeneuve’s latest film, Sicario, this was not an issue that composer Jóhann Jóhannsson had to wrestle with. “Denis doesn't like to work with temp, he wants the music to evolve organically with the film. So he involves me early on in the process, before filming starts. This way, I can work on the score over a longer period and let ideas stew over time… I love this way of working, it is very open and it allows a lot of experimentation and you can take more risks,” the Icelandic-based composer explains of his process.
For those familiar with the French Canadian director’s work, this should come as no surprise. With recent films like Enemy and Prisoners (which Jóhannsson worked on as well), Villeneuve has proven that he can bring a high sense of artistry to commercial cinema, and has become a major presence in the industry. Having the composer along for the whole time means a lot of things. First, as Jóhannsson describes, it means that the composer has an intimacy with the subject matter and style that would not otherwise necessarily be present. It also means that the scenes can be shaped around the fusion between Jóhannsson and Villeneuve’s combined visions. It creates a connection between the imagery and the music, and allows for Jóhannsson to become a stronger presence in shaping the outcome. Thus, the music is a result of the images and the themes, rather an existing, separate work.
Sicario’s score sets the mood for the film in perfect form. While influences from former releases seep in – an inevitable component of any artistic creation –, Jóhannsson’s work feels fresh and exciting. But not exciting in any sort of upbeat, happy manner, it’s a very moody and dark work. Its drips with a sense of tension: tension in tone, in emotions, in styles. The cohesion of which results in a seething whole, a brooding depiction of despair told aurally. Jóhannsson wrestled with the best emotion to be pushed forward. He often wrote the same piece in numerous ways, “The first scene I scored with the long helicopter shot of the desert and the border fence, as the convoy is driving over to Juarez. It really set the tone for the rest of the score. I sent Denis 3 or 4 different ideas, all quite different in mood and character and he chose the most violent and extreme idea, which delighted me - it was my favorite as well.” Violence is contrasted with a sense of sadness inherent in this work. From the war-drum-like rhythm of the record’s third track, “The Border,” to the insect styled buzzing of strings in “Explosion,” and coming to an end with the crying instruments in the record’s final track, “Alejandro’s Song,” Jóhannsson weaves a powerful, symphonic exploration fitting of Villeneuve’s vision.