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The Handmaid’s Tale (Adam Taylor)

May 7, 2017

THE HANDMAID’S TALE

Adam Taylor, 2017, Lakeshore Records
17 tracks, 37:19

Dark, slow, aching, melancholy – doesn’t sound like a bundle of joy, but fans of ‘Nordic Noir’-type scores should rejoice. The Handmaid’s Tale is a bit of a slow-burner, but it’s very effective and ultimately quite emotional.

Review by Pete Simons

What is it?

Adapted from the classic novel by Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale is the story of life in the dystopia of Gilead, a totalitarian society in what was formerly the United States. Facing environmental disasters and a plunging birthrate, Gilead is ruled by a twisted fundamentalist regime that treats women as property of the state.  As one of the few remaining fertile women, Offred (Elisabeth Moss) is a Handmaid in the Commander’s household, one of the caste of women forced into sexual servitude as a last desperate attempt to repopulate a devastated world. In this terrifying society where one wrong word could end her life Offred navigates between Commanders, their cruel Wives, domestic Marthas and her fellow Handmaids – where anyone could be a spy for Gilead – with one goal: to survive and find the daughter that was taken from her. The Handmaid’s Tale stars Elisabeth Moss, Joseph Fiennes; and was created, written and executive produced by Bruce Miller (The 100). The original score is by Adam Taylor (August: Osage County).

What does it sound like? And is it any good?

In creating the score for The Handmaid’s Tale, I recalled a conversation with series creator Bruce Miller where he describes a world which is dark, but hopeful,” said Taylor. “That description shaped how I approached the creation of a theme that would emotionally connect the audience to the various systems at play in the series.

Themes are subtle; perhaps closer to chord progressions than melodies. The score relies mostly on atmosphere. Unsurprisingly, the music is dark and melancholy, orchestrated predominantly for strings and synths. The composer explains: “We knew from the start that we wanted to use classical instruments, as well as synths and atonal elements. One idea for the score was to reiterate sounds and instruments through processes that would create a loss in fidelity, like a poor quality photocopy… much like how life in Gilead was a distorted replica of normal life.” He experimented with an old tape echo to achieve this sound. “I went as far as tracking an instrument, then changing the speed of the tape to ‘fake’ melodic changes. It took some time to get right, but was worth it in the end – and ended up being crucial to making, what was essentially a two-note theme, sound emotive and interesting.

The slow pace and the bleakness of the music reminds me of ‘Nordic Noir’ and the influences they’ve had on UK shows such as Shetland and Broadchurch. Much of the Handmaid‘s creepiness is achieved through minimalism and processed sounds. There is one particular sound that seems to function as a signature throughout the score. It’s an uneasy, distorted, pitch-shifting noise that comes and goes like waves. It’s not exactly pretty, but it’s effective and quite intriguing in its own right. “The systems are the antagonist of the series, a relentless and indifferent force that is slowly disfiguring society and the inhabitants of Gilead,” Taylor explained. “I thought about it like waves of sound, waves that slowly grew in volume and dissonance until it overcame the senses. This led to what we landed on as the opening theme, and also how we approached the dynamics and shaping of the orchestral elements of the score.

Piano occasionally appears. It’s recorded in such a way that you clearly hear the mechanics of the piano itself, a technique I particularly associate with Nils Frahm and to a lesser extent Max Richter and Olafur Arnalds. It’s something that I’m quite fond of, especially when combined with soft strings or softly distorted synth pads, as in “They Were Once Madly In Love”. Yes it’s simple and hardly original any more (all the neo-classicals seem to be at it these days), but for me it works every time. When the slightly more gritty synth-sounds fade in I am strongly reminded of Arnalds’ Broadchurch, though I dare say that the latter is a little more forward with its melodies.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a beautiful score. I love that dark, aching sound; it’s very effective. And it is really quite emotional; but you have to be in a certain subdued mood to really enjoy this kind of music. It relies heavily on its sound design and atmosphere and as such needs time to get under your skin. And it will, if you allow it to, but there is no instant gratification here. The lack of a strong(er), more recognisable main theme is holding back my enjoyment of the score a little – it just makes it that little harder to really connect with it. I must also note: there is a little bit of dialogue in two cues. On this occasions I don’t mind it. I think it actually helps tell the story and adds a bit of meaning to the music. It comes highly recommended to those who love minimal-ish, bleak, slow-burning, melancholy ‘Nordic Noir’-type scores.

Rating [3.5/5]

Tracklist:

01. Escapes Within – Adam Taylor & Elisabeth Moss
02. Chased
03. River Walk
04. Ofglen and Offred
05. He Wants To See You
06. The Smell of Caves – Adam Taylor & Elisabeth Moss
07. Descending
08. Nick and Offred
09. Offred Explores Her Room
10. Moira and June Escape
11. Their First Time
12. Felt Like Love
13. They Were Once Madly in Love
14. It’s Happening
15. Promenade of Stolen Children
16. Forbidden Love
17. He’s Alive


Review (C) 2017 Synchrotones

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