An admirer of Israeli writer Etgar Kerret, Pakistani author Moni Mohsin and everything in between, Tirna Ray revels in the column spaces of life. A sports enthusiast, she is passionate about literature, language, music and art

Tirna Ray

Jóhann Jóhannsson's powerful music-narrative

| Updated on March 09, 2018
Jóhann Jóhannsson

Johann   -  Reuters

A publicity still from The Theory of Everything

still

So many times, while listening to our iPod or Mp3 player in the middle of a crowd, we create our own orb.

While our core consciousness remains aware of the life-flow around us, we try to imagine a parallel consciousness, a ‘space-time-singularity’ and scoop out a personal rhythm much like our thoughts.

And akin to our expressions following our deepest thoughts — ranging from a puckered eyebrow or an involuntary smile — music tends to trigger an internal manifestation that is difficult to articulate.

While sometimes it may make our hearts swell, at others, it may propel us towards an elastic space where we defy gravity. Rarely, if it touches the right chords of our soul, we soar, stretching our wings, ready to explore infinity.

But, it is such a personal — and unknown — journey that even the ‘I’ embedded in the self would perhaps not know what would connect one to one’s soul strings.

An intimate experience

Defying the logistics as well as hypothesis of such an intimate experience, Jóhann Jóhannsson composes a powerful music-narrative for the James Marsh-directed, The Theory of Everything.

Based on Jane Wilde Hawking’s Travelling to Infinity: My Life with Stephen, the screenplay of the biopic-romance traces three decades of the famous theoretical physicist’s life, which evolves gradually through Jane’s story.

The opening cue of the film (Cambridge 1963) uses a four-note piano ostinato — a reiterating motif — engulfing us in an ecstatic swirl, which sets the pitch for a young Jane and Stephen to meet each other through a course of furtive glances before they start the beginning of a 25-year intense journey.

This motif creates a melodic fulcrum throughout the film, which reveals several departure points in due course including the diagnosis of Hawking’s motor neuron disease, finding the theme for his thesis (time), wedding, birth of children, his rise to fame, speech loss and troubled domestic front.

One may wonder why the Icelandic composer chose piano as the lead instrument, apparently for a physicist with a heavily punctuated life and overwhelming preludes — both professionally and personally.

As Jóhannsson himself explains in several interviews, he chose piano because it is one of the instruments that can hold a dualistic dimension — of precision and an expressive quality — thus unifying mathematics/physics and emotions in alignment with the storyline.

Independent narrative

Further, one cannot help but acknowledge that Jóhannsson has a very difficult task at hand of having his protagonist in a wheel chair within a short while of being into the film.

For a visual medium, where the story is of a considerably realistic texture, where the ‘mobility’ factor is not much within the contexts of physical movements, but more on an intangible mind-level, the music needs to evolve as an independent narrative to steer the course of the cinematic progression. Jóhannsson does that like an uncontested master.

Considering that Hawking’s subject is time, the composer builds a musical frame. He then works on it in terms of expanding and winding it back. In fact, he deconstructs the four-note motif using it in a minor mode and expanding it throughout the score, deconstructing the natural progression of time, in-sync with Hawking’s desire to reverse time to know what happened in the beginning of the universe. Also, an acoustic-electronic blend in certain compositions adds a spatio-temporal dimension to the scores.

In the end, Jóhannsson succeeds to build an infinite realm within the binaries of a finite humane story. This results in a happy paradox. On the one hand, his repeat-notes seem to remind us of the man, his physical exuberance, deteriorating health, loss of speech and everything about the ‘body’ experience.

On the other, the mind soars, breaking the restraints of the ‘physical’, the mind triumphs. It is at this juncture that the music and Hawking blend into timelessness — like ‘one elegant equation.’

Published on January 30, 2015

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