Analysis – Eternal Recurrence of Sound: The Soundtrack of “Cloud Atlas”

As a novel that heavily centralizes on music, I was very interested in seeing how the composer, Tom Tykwer, would convert musical ideas from text to actual sound. Unfortunately, I do not have much to say about the majority of the score because of how “standard fare” it feels. Most of the music is empathetic and serves to direct the motion of action, whether it be to build tension up to some revelation in terms of the plot, or to mimic the movement of what is seen on screen with orchestral hits and such. However, these themes are still cleverly used to help draw the connections between each timeline and to establish parallels on an aural level. In this analysis, I’d like to take a closer look at two of the more prominent tracks, particularly at my favorite track on the CD.

“Revolutionary or gimmicky? Shan’t know until it’s finished, and by then it’ll be too late…” ~ Robert Frobisher

The entire score is based off of two main themes, or motifs, that recur throughout the film. The first I’ll mention is the motif that is composed by Robert Frobisher in the story, in which the basic form can be seen here:

Theme of the “Cloud Atlas Sextet.”

This theme is composed for the “Cloud Atlas Sextet” and has a very different feel from the other main theme. This one is decidedly minor, and the style of the sextet is very legato, free, and fluid. The sense of time is often lost with the prevalence of rubato and creates an interesting feeling of “atemporality. ” This is very much like the overall composition of the film, in which personae and time periods tend to flow together as the distinctions between them blur beyond recognition, or even beyond the need for recognition. One interesting thing of note is how the piece ends with a high wavering sustained pitch from a violin, almost as a message from Frobisher to have resolve, even in the face of life’s fragility.

The second theme is used in the opening track entitled “Prelude: The Atlas March” as well as the “Cloud Atlas End Title” and looks something like this:

Main theme of the film.

The basic iteration of the theme is major and quite simple. My personal favorite track is “All Boundaries Are Conventions,” which also happens to utilize this form of the theme. It begins with a solo piano introducing the theme, with accompanying strings playing shimmering long tones. The accompaniment then switches to low strings providing pizzicato downbeats, establishing a certain unrelentingly pull of forward motion like the flow of time itself. The upper strings return with a sixteenth-note ostinato with a more legato, organic, and flowing feel, contrasting with the rigidity of the low strings. The theme is then handed off to a solo flute, while the the upper strings switch to a triplet-figure ostinato which alludes to the ever-growing complexities of life. After this, the soundscape becomes even more complex as the melody is given to a solo violin, along with a countermelody played by a companion violin, as well as the addition of a male chorus singing long tones. At this point, the distinction between melody and countermelody becomes muddy, as different parts come and go and echo one another. Occasionally, there are powerful bass drum hits, galvanizing the piece to life like a heartbeat drives a person to action. Eventually, the triplet ostinato returns and the main theme is played tutti, with instruments and voices performing in unison. The entire piece crescendos, with the addition of tubular bells, and builds up to a great brass fanfare, but only to abruptly cut off, leaving only the solo piano and a half-finished iteration of the main theme.

The reason why I think this track is so great is the fact it addresses so many of the film’s, and the novel’s for that matter, central themes. The entire piece is built on a simple melody, representing life’s humble beginnings, as well as the rigid passage of time which causes us to grow and age. As the piece progresses, intricacies are added and often to appear and disappear, much like how certain aspects such as people and places in our life tend to just come and go. Complexities and uncertainties may occur, while the only certainty in life is time and its harsh impassiveness. The end of the piece is particularly evocative, yet still optimistic, with its sudden cutoff and a return to the beginning, alluding to the cycles of life. This sense of the natural pervades the piece, from aspects such as the inclusion of human voice to something known as materializing sound indices (MSI’s). These MSI’s include little details in the recording such as the clacking of bows, rustling of pages, or the audible inhalations of the performer. While these may seem to some as imperfections and an inevitability of the recording process, they actually ground the work in the “real,” giving it an organic touch and sense of tangibility. It’s as if a piece of the human soul was infused into the music.

Although I would consider many of the tracks to be nothing special, I can’t deny the attention to detail that went into the reinterpretations of the two main themes into the entire score. The way that music is used to reflect the entire nature of film is really quite amazing, and I believe that the score makes the film to be as great as it is.

Other noteworthy tracks: “Travel to Edinburgh,” “Temple of Sacrifice,” “Cloud Atlas Finale”

B.W.

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