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The Theory of Everything (Johan Johannsson)

December 14, 2014

Cover_TheoryofEverythingTHE THEORY OF EVERYTHING

Johan Johannsson, 2014, Backlot Music
27 tracks, 48:59

It’s only a theory of everything… no pressure! This may be composer Johan Johannsson’s biggest gig to date. I think he may need to start preparing his speech.

Review by Pete Simons

WINNER “Best Romantic/Dramatic Score”, 2014 Synchrotones’ Soundtrack Awards.

What is it?

Directed by James Marsh, “The Theory of Everything” is a drama based on the memoirs of Jane Wilde Hawking. She was the first wife of famous physicist Stephen Hawking. They married in 1965, but divorced in 1995 after having already been separated for several years. The book deals with both his success in physics as well as the diagnosis and progression of his motor neuron disease. The film stars Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking and Felicity Jones as Jane. The original score comes courtesy of Icelandic composer Johan Johannsson, who started writing music for plays in the late 90s and has since built up a formidable curriculum vitae with music for films, shorts, documentaries and television.

What does it sound like?

The overall tone of the score reminds me mostly of Abel Korzeniowski (“Romeo & Juliet“, et al). Also of Dario Marianelli’s romantic dramas, such as “Pride & Prejudice” and “Jane Eyre”; and maybe of Jan AP Kaczmarek’s “Finding Neverland” or Rob Simonsen’s “The Final Member“. Occasionally, though to a lesser degree, it reminds me of James Horner. Now that’s a pretty good line up. Piano and strings dominate this score, though woodwinds and mallets play a enhancing role.

The album opens with “Cambridge, 1963”, which features a 12-note piano motif and string chords that reminds a little of “A Beautiful Mind”. Staccato strings and woodwinds come in to make this one of the score’s most vibrant cues. Only occasionally does the score build towards something grander. As said, the opening cue is the most vibrant cue, by some margin, though the two “Rowing” cues also conjure up some energy. One of the score’s key themes is introduces in “Domestic Pressures”. Written in waltz-time it has a classical air about it; and reminds me of Abel Korzeniowski. It is, of course, orchestrated for piano, with harp providing rhythmic accents and glockenspiel providing a free-flowing variation. Strings initially provide counterpoint, then take centre stage before returning to a supporting role. This interactive play between piano, strings and woodwinds is typical for this score.

“Cavendish Lab” stands out as its tremolo strings and filtered piano create a hazy atmosphere. It serves as an immediate precursor to “Collapsing Inwards”, which sort-of reminds me of “Interstellar” with its dense atmosphere, courtesy of its low undulating bass drone and fragile high strings. In contrast, “A Game of Croquet” is such a bitter-sweet cue for piano and just the thinnest of strings. It fills me with warmth and yet I almost want to cry. I love this kind of writing – it is so simple, but oh so vulnerable.

“The Origins of Time” and “Viva Voce” draw from the same stretched 8-note melody for strings. Piano takes a backseat in these cues. Strings and guitar take the lead in “The Wedding”, which superficially wants to remind me of Alan Silvestri’s “Father of the Bride”… only in that it has a similar, unworried feel about it. “A Spacetime Singularity” relies mostly on long drawn out notes for strings and synths and is totally fascinating, though it shouldn’t be! It’s has such a warm feeling, as if you’re being embraced by a cloud of goodwill. (Yeah – I’m not sure what I’m saying either!)

The score caries on like this. Pianos, strings, woodwinds continue to take turns for the lead. Whilst strings dominate “A Normal Family”, it’s the faint see-sawing flutes that really set the tone. “Forces of Attraction” is a particularly pretty cue for piano, guitar and solo strings. You could argue that it’s fairly ‘typical’, in that it’s the kind of stuff you hear often enough, including  in sincere adverts. Still, it’s very pretty. “Camping” sees the theme from “Domestic Pressures” performed by a string quartet (possibly even a trio) and glockenspiel. It’s so small and so beautiful. Very arty, I have to say. The theme reappears later in “Daisy, Daisy”, though with a focus on harp, winds and glockenspiel.

“Coma”, “The Spelling Board” and “The Voice Box” (as well as some other cues I haven’t mentioned) are pleasant, but otherwise not extraordinary underscoring cues, primarily for strings. “A Brief History of Time” sees various instruments playing a clock-like rhythm, while strings provide a slow melody. With “Model of the Universe” it feels like the album is beginning to draw to a close. The chords are reprised from the opening cue, but the melody on top of it is much more see-sawing than before. It actually reminds me of the gentlest parts of Hans Zimmer’s “Interstellar”. Sheer coincidence, without a doubt, but it certainly evokes similar feelings.

Titular cue “The Theory of Everything” is basically a shorter version of “Forces of Attraction”. The joyful mood it sets doesn’t last, as “London, 1988” offers melancholy strings with hints (but no more than that) of the ‘Cambridge’ chords and the ‘domestic’ theme. “Domestic Pressures” is reprised in “Epilogue”, whilst the albums ends with the melancholy tones of the harp in “The Whirling Ways of Stars that Pass”.

Is it any good?

At the time of this writing, the score has just received a Golden Globe nomination. I have no doubt that an Academy Awards nomination will follow – and that he will win at least one of these. Johan Johannsson’s “The Theory of Everything” is an exquisite little work. It is beautiful, full of pathos and melancholy. It’s modern, but still feels classical. Fans of the romantic works of James Horner, Dario Marianelli, Jan AP Kaczmarek or Abel Korzeniowski should find plenty to enjoy here. The classical-tinted piano melodies and fragile string chords frequently remind of these composers’ works. Part of me wishes the cues were a little longer, giving the music more time to develop. Some cues, short as they are, are clearly made up from multiple pieces. On the other hand… each cue (or: most of them) are perfectly rounded little pieces.

As a reviewer it is difficult to abstain from the same old clichés, or phrases that don’t seem to make a lot of sense. Yet, I want to describe this score as honest and vulnerable. The composition is, for the most part, fairly simple. Everything hangs on the actual performance of the music. Every note is heard, and every note is felt.

Rating [4,5/5]

Tracklisting

01. Cambridge, 1963 (1:41)
02. Rowing (1:42)
03. Domestic Pressures (2:37)
04. Chalkboard (1:05)
05. Cavendish Lab (2:31)
06. Collapsing Inwards (2:17)
07. A Game of Croquet (2:45)
08. The Origins of Time (2:21)
09. Viva Voce (1:36)
10. The Wedding (1:42)
11. The Dreams That Stuff Is Made Of (1:51)
12. A Spacetime Singularity (2:16)
13. The Stairs (1:07)
14. A Normal Family (1:41)
15. Forces of Attraction (2:03)
16. Rowing (Alternative Version) (0:37)
17. Camping (1:18)
18. Coma (1:03)
19. The Spelling Board (0:59)
20. The Voice Box (0:51)
21. A Brief History of Time (2:02)
22. Daisy, Daisy (2:21)
23. A Model of the Universe (2:52)
24. The Theory of Everything (1:08)
25. London, 1988 (2:52)
26. Epilogue (1:49)
27. The Whirling Ways of Stars That Pass (1:52)

Availability

For audio samples, visit Backlot Music‘s soundcloud page.
Find out more about Johan Johannsson on his website.

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