The Great Scores: 'The Fountain' and a Sonic Road to Awe

Clint Mansell’s score for Darren Aronofsky’s metaphysical science fiction film, The Fountain, is a masterpiece of both film music and contemporary art music.

The Fountain

Director: Darren Aronofsky
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Rachel Weisz, Sean Patrick Thomas
Release date: 2007-05-15

Clint Mansell

The Fountain OST

Label: Nonesuch
US Release Date: 2006-11-26
UK Release Date: 2006-11-20
This column marks the inaugural edition of The Great Scores, a series within Notes on Celluloid that deals with those film scores that, over time, have shown themselves to be legendary, essential works.

“I was in Los Angeles in the summer of 2000,” Clint Mansell tells me over email earlier this month, “on a film called Knockaround Guys. Darren [Aronofsky] came out and we saw Jenny Lewis at the Roxy on Sunset and then walked to Mel’s Diner further east. He told me the story of The Fountain on that walk.”

The harmony of the intimate and the transcendent is one of the key elements of Darren Aronofsky's divisive labor-of-love, The Fountain, which had its release in 2006 after a long and tumultuous period of filming and development. The film, starring Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz, charts the love of a single couple across three different time periods and places:15th century Spain, 21st century America, and then far off into the year 2500.

Its themes include coming to grips with mortality, eternal love, and immortality. But while some directors may have taken these huge concepts and channeled them through the lens of the grandiose epic, Aronofsky brings them down to earth.

A woman asks her husband to go on a walk with her. A doctor searches for a cure to cancer. In an eco-bubble spaceship, a lone astronaut recalls a woman in a hospital bed. These are the moments that make The Fountain the masterpiece that it is; it shows that, over time, the little occasions that add up to humankind’s biggest quests never change for the people involved. The 15th century conquistador must, like the 21st century cancer doctor, find a quiet time to meditate as he struggles with the challenge that burdens him.

Above all else, however, is the fact that the love someone can have for another person can drive him to the most radical of actions, whether it is voyaging to a newly discovered continent or shooting straight out into the recesses of deep space. Thus, it’s fitting that Mansell answers my question about the origins of his involvement with The Fountain in the way he does; the film’s cosmological aspirations are always rooted in basic experiences. A great many things can happen on a walk to a diner.

Like The Fountain the film, The Fountain the score is intimate yet simultaneously resonant in ways its small roster of players might not indicate. Initially, Mansell had conceived of the score as primarily percussive, though as Aronofsky’s vision for the movie evolved, so did his music. “The film became much more intimate than we had first imagined, and this prompted a more contained score that could break out when called.” Over the course of its development, The Fountain took on several lives.

Beginning in 1999 as an idea shared between Aronofsky and his frequent collaborator Ari Handel, the film then followed a trajectory that resulted in its initial budget of around $70 million cut down to $35 million, as well as the replacement of the once-listed leads of Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett by Jackman and Weisz. Aronofsky details much of the goings-on behind the scenes of the movie in the commentary track released on his personal website.

The film split critics right down the middle, and amongst the dissenters one popular opinion holds that because of the compromises that had to be made in order for it to be released, the work Aronofsky intended is not the one viewers see on the screen still today. The late, great critic Roger Ebert wrote of his experience viewing The Fountain, "I believe we have not seen the real film. When a $75 million production goes into turnaround and is made for $35 million, elements get eliminated. When a film telling three stories and spanning thousands of years has a running time of 96 minutes, scenes must have been cut out. There will some day be a Director’s Cut of this movie, and that’s the cut I want to see."

For those on the other half of the critical divide (this writer included) the scars The Fountain bears in its final product only make it all the more beautiful. And, perhaps most incredibly, the film’s struggles resulted in a score by Mansell that sounds hardly broken at all. In fact, few scores in movie history are as self-contained and tightly composed as this one.

A “Post” Soundtrack

When I ask Mansell about his compositional influences in constructing The Fountain, he responds, “[Aronofsky and I] talked about percussion and Jerry Goldsmith’s Planet of the Apes score, Baraka and Koyaanisqatsi.” (“But we always talk about those,” he qualifies.) The scenes in the film involving the conquistador, particularly those where he engages in combat with the Mayans, do show the influence of Goldsmith in their percussive patterns, and the calmer moments of Philip GlassKoyaanisqatsi bear their influence plainly in the chamber quality of the music overall.

While these influences are indicative of Mansell’s skill of synthesis, much is to be said about the new groundwork he laid down with the organization of this score, particularly in his choice of post-rock as a signpost. “I love what Godspeed You! Black Emperor do with their instrumentation,” Mansell says, “I wanted to capture a transcendence and both The Kronos Quartet and Mogwai fully understand how to achieve it.”

The strength of Mansell and Kronos Quartet as a collaborative union is made obvious by the ubiquity of "Lux Aeterna", the centerpiece of their work on the score for Requiem for a Dream. With the incorporation of Mogwai, however, Mansell adds a new dynamic to the music, bringing into the mix a band most well-known from going 0 to 60 in a single second (see: "Like Herod") and telling it to harmonize with a string quartet playing mournful, contemplative music. Post-rock’s tendency to go for the crescendo, one would imagine, likely made it difficult for Mansell to reconcile his players.

From the sound of the final score, released on CD by Nonesuch, there’s little to no evidence that any such difficulties ever existed. “Both elements of composition were in play,” Mansell says, describing how he balances writing for a rock-oriented group and a chamber classical quartet. “My writing evolves through the process, each piece influencing each other.” The Fountain is a watershed post-rock film score, but Mogwai’s role in the music is not to amp up the mood until boiling point on each track. (There is the matter of “Death is the Road to Awe”, which shall be addressed shortly.) The guitar chords are frequently played in light strums, with held violin notes usually dominating the foreground of these compositions. Those tracks that do lean towards the bombastic side, such as “Holy Dread” and “Tree of Life” (both prominently featured in the 15th century segment of the film), are still far from the likes of Hans Zimmer.

Really, The Fountain has only one crescendo—or rather, the crescendo—in its score and its footage: the climactic realization of “the road to awe” that Izzi (Weisz) tells her husband Tommy (Jackman) about, which culminates in the year 2500 astronaut being consumed by a nebula and bringing new life to the tree he has voyaged all the way into deep space with. The music backing this section, “Death is the Road to Awe”, is at this point in time Mansell’s pièce de résistance, topping even the much-imitated “Lux Aeterna” in its emotive power.

The piece begins by recapitulating motifs used all throughout the eight tracks that precede it, building up to what seems like the high point… at which point things die down, but only for a moment. Things pick back up again, and just as the music dips into silence yet again, the song triumphantly erupts, mirroring the implosion and rebirth of the nebula in the film. The minimalism of the soundtrack finally reaches the point where all the repetition stops and just lets itself run wild: the choir raises its voice to the heavens, the guitar is picked rapidly, and the strings wax euphoric.

Even without its stunning visual companion, “Death is the Road to Awe” remains a titanic feat in its own right, something any chamber classical outfit would do well to take on. With composers like Glass and John Adams still alive and thriving—the former just released his 9th Symphony last year—minimalism is still en vogue in contemporary art music. Though its status as film music will prevent The Fountain from being viewed alongside symphonies or other standard compositional forms by those aforementioned composers, Mansell has written something truly remarkable, a mystical chamber piece that is out-and-out strong as a work of music, not merely as a soundtrack.

On Cycles and Repetition

Given that The Fountain is a film whose focus is thanatophobia—the fear of death—it’s unsurprising that its score is draped in melancholy. G minor and D minor are the dominant key signatures. (“Well, I’m tempted to say that D minor is the saddest key of all,” says Mansell, channeling Nigel Tufnel.) The biggest reason why these key signatures become so distinctive is due to the minimalist style that drives The Fountain. Like the tripartite story of the film, the score draws on repeated motifs, usually spanning only a few notes. (Case in point: the five-note motif in gorgeous display on “First Snow”.)

“[The Fountain] is very much like a Rubik’s cube,” Aronofsky told The Washington Post, “where you can solve it in several different ways, but ultimately there’s only one solution at the end.” Mansell is clearly of one mind with Aronofsky, as his score takes two or three fairly straightforward motifs and manipulates them in all sorts of ways throughout the 46 minute running time of the CD soundtrack. Just as the three stories of the movie are one at their core, Mansell’s individual compositions all form one whole that cannot be taken in a piecemeal fashion. Certain melodies and motifs will sound pretty on an individual basis, but they become all the more engrossing when taken in the context of a larger piece.

This repetition culminates in what is both the prettiest and calmest movement in the soundtrack, the solo piano closer “Together We Will Live Forever”. In it, nearly every theme leading up to it is slightly or directly revived, all with a delicate touch by pianist Randy Kerber. The strings of the Kronos Quartet get the lion’s share of the beauty for the majority of the score, but for five rapturous minutes the piano steps up to the forefront, offering both a fitting coda and a space for breathing room following the emotionally draining music before it. If one lets herself fully invest in The Fountain, she will find that this is not “casual” listening, something one could play in an elevator and let blend in with the background. The way in which Mansell conceived of the music as in cycles makes the melodies sink deeper and deeper in with each successive movement, and after “Death is the Road to Awe” lets it all boil over, the score needs its moment of coming down.

Yet even as Kerber lets the final low note ring, it’s hard to walk away not feeling deflated. The Fountain is ultimately a triumphant film, one that accepts death as a reality but inverts its power and transforms it; “death is the road to awe,” as Izzi repeats. The final shot, where Tommy plants the seed of a tree above Izzi’s grave, tears still lingering in his eyes, gets at the precise feeling evoked by Mansell’s music. Death may sting, but it does not conquer; its victory is temporary, for all life that leaves the world will find a new home.

As the songs of the score flow from movement to movement, doing variations on and reviving the primary motifs, they reinforce the point being made by the cinema itself. This perfect marriage of footage and music is a rarity; unfortunately, a lot of scores are content to sit in the background, only swelling to a loud volume when a superficial emotional punch is needed. With The Fountain, Mansell challenges what it means to be a film composer, and as a result this is music not for complacent ears. Izzi spends much of The Fountain contemplating “death as an act of creation”. That is the task Mansell took to in building this score, and by any metric he succeeded. In other words: to really take on the challenge of this score, one must be prepared to die.

”A Ballet of the Visual and the Aural”

“I have never subscribed to the theory that film music shouldn’t be noticed,” says Mansell. Few composers have made a career out of rising above the faces that get famous for their images on the screen, but unlike any of his contemporaries Mansell is doing the kind of work that feels like it’s not just advancing music for motion pictures; it’s advancing music as a whole.

I ask Mansell why he thinks The Fountain and its music have connected so strongly with the cult following it’s built up, and he replies, “Darren is one of a few filmmakers whose films are an experience beyond the narrative. I think that makes a deeper connection possible.” Aronofsky is one of the present generation’s true auteurs without question, but Mansell’s passing of the compliment—though a humble move—underplays just how essential he is in making The Fountain a work of genius. To use his own words, cinema is “a ballet of the visual and the aural”, and this film is, to put it mildly, a ballet better than most.

The choice of The Fountain to be the first of Notes on Celluloid’s Great Scores was made without hesitation; this is music of the soul, and few albums—not just soundtracks, but albums, of any genre—are as transformative this one. If death truly is the road to awe, one can only imagine what lies beyond.

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