CD Review: Cloud Atlas

Our lives are not our own. From womb to tomb we are bound to others—past and present.
And by each crime and every kindness, we birth our future.

David Mitchell’s “unfilmable” 2004 novel of six interlinking stories makes for a wild ride at the cineplex. As the stories cut back and forth (in a superb case study of film editing) and actors inhabit multiple roles, crisscrossing generations and sexes, you wonder how directors/scriptwriters Lana and Andy Wachowksi (THE MATRIX trilogy) and Tom Tykwer (RUN LOLA RUN) are going to pull it all together. But pull it off they do, with a surprisingly emotional payoff. With such a complicated, non-linear story structure, it was up to Tykwer and co-composers Johnny Klimek and Reinhold Heil to find the musical glue that binds the many storylines together.

As he had done on previous films such as PERFUME: THE STORY OF A MURDERER, Tykwer wanted the entire score recorded prior to filming. Tykwer, Klimek and Heil composed the score over a period of several months leading up to the start of principal photography in September 2011. The team wrote a small number of themes that were then deconstructed and layered on top of each other to use as musical adhesive for the multiple storylines. The score is structured in such a way that none of the themes are associated with a particular storyline or character. The nearly three hours worth of recordings served as the film’s temp score, and was played during the actors’ first read-through of the script, the actual shooting and the editing process.

The film bookends with one of three main themes in the score, a tender piano melody (the “Cloud Atlas March”) that was featured in the trailer and serves as everything from the primary theme for Frobisher’s (Ben Whishaw) work with the elderly composer Vyvyan Ayers (Jim Broadbent) to the love themes for Frobisher and Sixsmith (James D’Arcy) and Somni-451 (Doona Bae) and Chang (Jim Sturgess). At other times, the theme takes on more of the martial quality that its title suggests (“All Boundaries Are Conventions”), stately and all-encompassing, suggestive of the steady march of time.

Cloud Atlas – All Boundaries Are Conventions
Click Track: All Boundaries Are Conventions

The centerpiece of the score is the “Cloud Atlas Sextet,” which connects all six stories. Though an actual sextet version of the piece was written and recorded according to author Mitchell’s description from the book, that version never made it into the film. Instead, the sextet is heard primarily in various orchestral combinations—borrowed, dissected and layered on top of other themes and motifs, as with the rest of the score. The sextet’s yearning, minor-key melody takes on different aural qualities depending on the story or character it conveys at any particular time—from its creative genesis with Frobisher to Cavendish’s (Broadbent) long lost love  (“Temple of Sacrifice”) and a requiem for the genetically engineered fabricants.

Particularly impressive are the actions cues, combining the primary themes as the characters over the various storylines face various dramatic events in their lives. In cues like “Won’t Let Go” and “The Escape,” Twyker, Klimek and Heil employ rapid sixteenth notes in the violins and galloping dotted rhythms in the lower strings to propel the music forward. On top of the constant movement, the team layer a third dramatic theme made up of elongated note values in the brass that give a sense of gravitas and impending doom.

Cloud Atlas – The Escape
Click Track: The Escape

Because of the vast range of time periods that may occur within the space of any particular cue, the score combines orchestral and electronic elements seamlessly. While some cues for the stories set in the future, such as the surreal “Papa Song” restaurant or the post-apocalyptic “Sloosha’s Hollow,” are primarily electronic, other tracks like “Chasing Luisa Rey” cleverly mix the two, resulting in interesting textural combinations.

Much of the enjoyment of the score comes from recognizing bits and pieces of the themes in various guises, a process made even more enjoyable once you’ve seen the film. Whether it’s an augmented version of the “Cloud Atlas March” hovering in the background of “Travel to Edinburgh” or snippets of the sextet punctuating “Cavendish In Distress” on the glockenspiel, this unique compositional technique keeps the score fresh and engaging.

CLOUD ATLAS is a score that continues to provide new aural pleasures with each successive listen. Much like the film itself, the score is a musical puzzle that is all the more ingenious for how cleverly the themes take on new lives as they pass through the various stories. The movie is an audacious experiment that by all rights shouldn’t work at all. A large portion of the film’s success is due not only to the trio of directors, but its trio of composers. By focusing their efforts outside the boundaries of time, Twyker, Klimek and Heil have created a score that is quite simply timeless.

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