Instead of going shopping, which is what I was planning to do today, I want to talk to you about my favourite album: Clint Mansell's soundtrack to The Fountain. Then I will proceed to meander wildly.
The Fountain, in case you haven't heard of it, is a film by Darren Aronofsky, who also directed Pi and Requiem for a Dream. I'm a bit ambivalent about the film itself, though I'm not sure why. Perhaps because the film is hard to digest emotionally. It's about death , and its inevitability, specifically your death and the death of your loved ones.
It's a film you need to accept fully, including the silly character names, to enjoy at all. If you do, it's extremely powerful and moving. If you don't, there's not much there: mostly some people talking and some pretty special effects. Or you may find the film entirely too powerful, and end up taking refuge in emotional distance and careful appraisal, at which point the film's little flaws do become apparent. This is what has happened to me, I think.
Anyway, the film's soundtrack was made by Clint Mansell, who also made the soundtracks for (some of) Pi and (all of) Requiem for a Dream. The piece you're most likely to have heard is Lux Aeterna, which was used in the trailers for The Two Towers, The Da Vinci Code, and Lost, among others.
While I like the other soundtracks, I'm truly in love with the one for The Fountain. It's haunting and timeless, suitable for the film's themes of death, loss, and the promise of eternal life.
Before I start talking about the music itself, I need to point out that I have no musical education or skill to speak of. I cannot read, write, or make music. I can play "Jelly on a Plate" on the piano. I can discern the flow and rhythm, the point and counterpoint, the movement of music well enough. But like a mini-Melkor, I couldn't create a piece of music, only imitate and repeat another. So I'm sure that many of the things I want to talk about have perfectly good names, but I don't know them, so bear with me as I grapple with anologies. Equally, I may fail to identify instruments. Please translate accordingly:
The CD contains ten tracks.
It starts with "The Last Man", a slow and rather melancholy piece that relies mostly on string instruments, underlain with a slow, deep rhythm of a single violin playing two alternating notes. Towards the end, a piano is introduced. After a few bars of accompanying the music, it turns to a repeated, echoing sound like a bell, leading into the next song.
"Holy Dread!" begins with drums beating out the rhythm that continues from the previous song, a simple alternating beat. The string instruments join in, as do some hints of chanting. The music turns ominous, reminiscent of some prehistoric time of monoliths and rituals. The string instruments and the drumming work well together, and give a taste of the album's signature sound. "Holy Dread!" rises to an early crescendo of chanting and frenzied strings towards the end, hinting at the main theme - the main chord progression or rhythm - of the album.
Then it abruptly launches into "Tree of Life", and we encounter the main theme: two beats, followed by another, more rapid pair. The first wave of sound soon calms down and the music is joined by the strings again, and the next wave begins. The track continues in this manner, waves of increasing intensity breaking to give way to calmer parts filled with drumming, chanting and faint, high-pitched string sounds, almost painful. Ultimately, it relents, and is replaced by
"Stay With Me", which is the first of the quieter, melancholy piano pieces that alternate with the more overwhelming string-and-drum ones. In the film, these correspond to the scenes set in the present time dealing with the struggle against cancer. While they are equally beautiful, I have to say that I tend to skip these songs sometimes, as I don't always feel like being reminded of my mortality!
"Work" is a subdued string piece, contrasting a slow rendition of the melody in "Tree of Life" with a repetitive, hurried alteration of two high-pitched notes that clearly represent the work (the cancer research) being done in the film. The track ends after two and a half minutes, dying away without ever reaching a climax or conclusion.
"Xibalba" sets out much as "Work", but replaces the hurried strings with a chanted melody, ending in softly echoing piano. A mood of desperation infects the piece.
"Finish It" continues the mood set out in "Xibalba". Slow, ethereal strings are eventually joined by a progression of beeps or perhaps piano chords that make me think of red lights seen blinking atop faraway buildings at night. Then, with a sigh, the music launches back into the main theme of the two double beats. The music begins to rise and intensify before pausing. It starts again, slowly and quietly, making a rhythm with plucked strings. But soon, there is a sense of something gathering, as if the music were backing away before breaking into a run and leap. Then it accelerates and becomes stronger, joined by drums. Early crests alternate with quieter periods, and then the music stops and is replaced by a series of screeching, whining, rushing sounds.
"Death is the road to awe" begins, reprising the now-familiar theme on the piano, which is soon joined again by the strings, and soft drumming. The melancholy of "Finish it" seems mellowed at first, but then the theme is picked out by the violin - and subtly shifts into a darker tone. This is the point where the shivers inevitably start running down my spine, as they do now as I write this. As the music goes on, the sense of gathering returns. It comes in waves, nearly coming to a halt before picking up again, more urgent. Each wave only lasts a few seconds before the next interlude, but each wave is stronger. Then the drums join again in force and the violins' sound becomes tortured. The next wave feels as if you were running towards a cliff with all your might, somehow expecting to lift off when you reach the edge. It's followed by a last silence before the music returns for the final time, everything at once, no longer quite music, a screeching, wailing, sublime blast of sound. It fades away, leaving the piano to play
"Together we will live forever", about grief and loss and the jarring flashes of remembered happiness within. At the end, it just fades into silence.
(What follows are thoughts about the record, not about the film. Don't try to fit them to the film, because they don't.)
When I listen to this record, the orchestral portions bring up images of visits to natural history museums - skulls and labels and display-cases, ammonites in colourful minerals.
I love natural history museums. Not the modern kind with kid-friendly computerised displays and big, colourful, information-scarce panels. The kind that contains nothing than near-endless glass display cases of fossils and preserved animals. The kind where, if you bother to look, you can see the shapes of life and their evolution and get a feeling for the immense flow of time and its forces. You can see the patterns hence formed, their combination of utility and symmetry, mathematical glory. A reminder of the beauty and depth of the world, and an antidote to the mundane tedium of everyday life.
Other people find such museums gruesome or boring, I think. Full of dead staring things and little yellowed type-written notes. Too clinical, too reminiscent of your own status as a creature that will die and leave behind one of those skeletons. They would rather go out and chat with people, or watch TV, or take a walk, and not be in the same room as these dead things.
But I've always found them quite comforting. I'm an atheist, and one who slid into this view quite naturally, with no great struggle of faith. I'm well aware of death and its consequence of near-certain total oblivion. Sharing a space with things that are already dead makes no difference to that. I have no delusions of my own significance in the universe, but in the presence of fossils, I can see myself as part of life, and I can see life's shapes as a mirror of the universe's mathematics.
And the vast expanses of time across which life plays make my own death appear immaterial. Given that the present is a sham invented by my brain to let me reason about the world, when I look at the world sideways in time, I am part of the same organism as my mother, my father, my unborn children and everyone else. Take the dimension of time into account, and the demand to live forever is like the demand to have infinite width: absurd. Things have to be bounded to be real. The present exists exactly as much and as little as the past, so after I die, I will go on existing exactly as much as I always have: as a reflection of the universe.
At the end of "Death is the Road to Awe", in the last fifty seconds, the music explodes for a last time in an almost physically painful burst, containing everything in the song at once. Its afterglow morphs into the piano that leads into the final song. You would then expect to hear a point where the orchestral crescendo again becomes the mundane piano, where the quality of the music shifts to the mundane. But the music is one piece.