Jóhann Jóhannsson‘s soundtrack work has picked up speed and stature in the past few years, and The Theory of Everything is his highest-profile release to date, arriving on the heels of last year’s Prisoners. Our readers first came to know Jóhannsson as the composer of superlative albums such as Virðulegu Forsetar and Fordlandia, as well as a founder of the Kitchen Motors label and the Apparat Organ Quartet. This is the rare case in which an instrumental-minded artist makes the shift into the scoring world without compromise. We couldn’t be happier for Jóhannsson; his body of work makes him a great ambassador for instrumental music, and his success has been well-earned.
The Theory of Everything is the story of Stephen Hawking, but it’s more of a love story than a journey into astrophysics. The film traces the life of the theorist from his early days in college through the progression of his illness. Based on a book by his wife Jane, the film manages to uplift and inspire, which is why it’s being released on Christmas and New Year’s Day in some European markets (although it’s been out since November 7 in the States). Most people know Hawking as the brilliant scientist in the wheelchair, but this film is about Hawking the man – and the lover.
With this angle in mind, Jóhannsson was challenged to write a dramatic, yet romantic score. His choice to concentrate on piano and strings pays off, because the composer is an expert at deceptive simplicity: wringing the most from the least. The opening track works as an overture, with nine piano notes quietly repeated, strings simmering in the background until they burst forth in harmony. One already senses that the film and the score will each be emotional: tear-inducing yet cathartic. Small scenes require small segments of sound, and the album contains 24 of these, all under three minutes, but the end result is a well-woven tapestry. While Jóhannsson revisits themes throughout, the album flows well as a separate work, the pauses between tracks like spaces between micro-movements. The composer shifts from waltz (“Domestic Pressures”) to feverish blast (“Chalkboard”) to slow simmer (“Cavendish Lab”), varying approaches in order to cultivate a sense of progression.
The strongest tracks are each distinctive in their own right. The drone-like “Collapsing Inwards” surges in its final seconds, then stops; one imagines an accompanying scene in which Hawkins falls and loses consciousness. The woodwinds and chimes of “A Brief History of Time” sound like shooting and twinkling stars, calling to mind Hawking’s most famous work. But in the same way as the film is meant to be seen in full, so is the album meant to be heard in full, as a flowing sequence of songs that imply transcendence: not a transcendence created by science, but by love. (Richard Allen)