Composing An Otherworldly And Intimate Soundtrack To 'Arrival'

Nov 13, 2016
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

"Arrival" has arrived. In the sci-fi mystery film, Amy Adams plays a linguist hired by the government to try and decipher the language of aliens whose spaceships have touched down around the globe. The soundtrack was written by Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson. NPR's Elizabeth Blair talked to him about writing a score that is both otherworldly and intimate.

ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: "Arrival" is a global crisis science-fiction movie. It's also a very personal story about a mother and her child. Without giving too much away, Johann Johannsson says he knew his soundtrack needed warmth.

JOHANN JOHANNSSON: It was very apparent to me the moment I laid down the script after reading it that the human voice would play a big part in the score.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHANN JOHANNSSON SONG, "KANGARU")

BLAIR: Johannsson enlisted the help of the group Theatre of Voices.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHANN JOHANNSSON SONG, "KANGARU")

BLAIR: In the movie, the aliens' motives are unclear. The linguist tries to learn their language. Wearing protective suits, she and a physicist enter a massive oval-shaped spaceship. It's dark and spare. To create that feeling of dread as they walk through a large tunnel towards the aliens, Johannsson uses a combination of rapidly-gliding strings, low and high horns and woodwinds.

(SOUNDBITE OF "ARRIVAL" FILM SCORE)

BLAIR: A glass wall separates the humans from the giant squid-like aliens. They're made even more ominous because you can't really see them. They're shrouded in a kind of white mist. The linguist holds up a small white board with her name written on it.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ARRIVAL")

AMY ADAMS: (As Louise Banks) Louise - I am Louise.

BLAIR: An alien sprays black ink on the glass that forms a kind of mandala with irregular-shaped embellishments.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ARRIVAL")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) What is that? Is that a new symbol? I can't tell.

BLAIR: This symbol was one of the first images from the movie that Johannsson saw.

JOHANNSSON: The sort of circular calligraphic writing, it's really beautiful shapes. And those were very inspiring to me.

BLAIR: The shapes brought to mind a piece that Theatre of Voices performs. It's by the German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen.

(SOUNDBITE OF THEATRE OF VOICES PERFORMANCE OF "STIMMUNG: MODEL 11")

JOHANNSSON: It's these kind of the repeated cells and kind of circular motifs or looped motifs. and uses this kind of overtone singing.

(SOUNDBITE OF THEATRE OF VOICES PERFORMANCE OF "STIMMUNG: MODEL 11")

JOHANNSSON: That's been a favorite of mine for a long time.

BLAIR: Communication, or lack of it, is one of the central themes of "Arrival." To communicate with the aliens, the linguist studies every detail of their strange symbols. Theatre of Voices soprano Else Torp says Johannsson captured that quest to understand with his score.

ELSE TORP: There are actually patterns that sounds like words, that sounds like something you want to understand because you pick up these bits of information and you have to put them together. At some point, they start sounding really familiar and then suddenly you crack the code. I mean, I can totally see it building from a musical point of view as well into the linguist point of view.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOHANN JOHANNSON SONG, "RISE")

BLAIR: "Arrival" is the third movie Johann Johannsson has worked on with Canadian director Denis Villeneuve. He also scored "Prisoners" and "Sicario."

JOHANNSSON: He has a very strong understanding of where and how to use sound and music and where not to use it as well, which is almost as important.

BLAIR: He says he and Villeneuve communicate with communicate with each other throughout the entire filmmaking process.

JOHANNSSON: We are in complete symbiosis with that. You know, we have very similar sensibilities.

BLAIR: Sensibilities that don't need a whole lot of translation. Now he and Villeneuve are working on a sequel to "Blade Runner" due out next fall. Elizabeth Blair, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.