When a movie has little dialogue and even fewer sound effects, what keeps the audience tethered emotionally to the story? And how can a film seamlessly blend the idea of death and a child's wide-eyed wonderment? Through its music, of course. Here are four composers whose work covers all of the above as well as a solemn spirituality and a playful pizazz.
JOHN WILLIAMS, 'The Book Thief'
"It was not a hard decision for me at all because I'd never confronted this combination of ideas in a book or play in my lifetime," says the 81-year-old Williams. "There's a double track: Literature, words and writing offer solace and immortality; the other side of the track is the Voice of Death, which I call 'Providence,' and that track also offers solace and immortality. These are two powerful notions that are highly original and poetic subjects for music to deal with."
The second-most nominated person in Oscar history with 48 nods, Williams is known for some of cinema's most iconic music, from the dark majesty of the Imperial March of the "Star Wars" series and the dread-generating double bass in "Jaws," to his fanfares for the "Superman" and "Indiana Jones" movies. His task on "The Book Thief," the story of a young girl who discovers a love of reading in World War II Germany, was relatively delicate.
Williams says he and director Brian Percival ("Downton Abbey") agreed "the film should be reflective of beautiful things. I think it is that."
The composer dotted scenes with fragile piano notes and bolstered the film's ideas with recurring motifs.
"The first one is a theme that accompanies the Voice — of Providence, if we're to call it that. We hear it three or four times, when he speaks. So that's what you hear at the end but it's been resolved musically."
One of the others, he says, was "the result of conversations with Brian about magic or magnetism — a motif, if not a melody — that is presented most importantly when [the girl] goes to Elsa's library and sees all the books. It's a magical moment for her."
Percival says, "Some of us are lucky enough in our lives that somebody has an effect on us — the world opens up to you and anything is possible. To convey that in just a few notes, I don't understand it. It did everything I'd hoped for."
STEVEN PRICE, 'Gravity'
"Every cue was a big experiment," says composer Steven Price of his gigantic, aurally astonishing score for "Gravity," director Alfonso Cuarón's 3-D outer space disaster film. The galaxy offered an enormous, soundless black canvas — his task was to be equal to it as he guided the viewer emotionally.
"My role was to be very much with [astronaut] Ryan Stone from the start — expressing her state of mind, whether she's panicked, desperate, lonely, overwhelmed," says Price, who also recently scored the Earth-bound British comedy "The World's End." Given the absence of sound waves in space, Cuarón had ruled out percussion instruments, so Price achieved menace and muscle with "Jaws"-like pulsing, percussive bowing and other unnerving effects, and ethereal wonder via glass harmonica and choir. "Every element was manipulated through a synthesizer so that you're never sure what's organic and what's electronic," says Price. "We were very keen to avoid the conventions of a typical action score."
The recording method was innovative too. "We mixed it to be immersive, as if things were moving and transforming around you in an untethered way," Price explains. A creative breakthrough came on the cue titled "Don't Let Go," which plays as Stone (Sandra Bullock) gets separated from Matt (George Clooney), the other astronaut who survived the debris storm.
"I was trying to write emotional music but none of the conventional instruments were cutting it," says Price. "I spent a full day throwing ideas at it — then I got a cello and played it through a guitar tremolo pedal. It had a fluttering effect, which really got the melody going. It was the start of what became Ryan's theme, which you experience in its fullest version at the end of the film."
Another striking effect: the loud, intense "zzzzzip!," followed by silence, that occurs near the beginning and again at the end of the score. "You don't realize how silent something is," says Price, "unless there's a big noise before it. This was the most extreme example of that idea we could create."
— Amy Dawes