The Sound of the Shimmer: Interview with Annihilation’s Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow

Emmy-nominated composer Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow, music producer and founding member of Portishead, speak with PopMatters about their original score for Alex Garland's science-fiction film, Annihilation.

Annihilation—Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Ben Salisbury & Geoff Barrow
Lakeshore Records
February 23, 2018

The home video release of Alex Garland’s 2018 film Annihilation is another development in the ongoing discussion about the optimum way for viewers to experience movies. Within the contemporary debate pitting theatrical distribution against streaming platforms, Annihilation is a special case. The film, starring Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Oscar Isaac, played in cinemas in the United States, Canada, and China, but in other markets, it premiered on Netflix.

Much of the discussion revolves around the comparative benefits of those releases. Some arguments for the Netflix release are compelling, such as the filmmaker Garland’s observation about the large number of international viewers who can easily access the film. However, the movie, adapted from Jeff VanderMeer’s novel Annihilation, was designed to be seen theatrically. The astonishing visual and aural designs are doubtless more effective at the cinema.

Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow are two essential contributors to the film’s spellbinding quality. Salisbury (Beyonce: Life Is But a Dream, David Attenborough’s Life Of…) is “an Emmy-nominated composer with over 100 film and television composing credits to his name.” Barrow is “a music producer and founding member of … Portishead” who was “the music supervisor and original score writer for [the] Oscar-nominated … Exit Through the Gift Shop.”

As a musical partnership, Salisbury and Barrow created the original score for Garland’s Ex Machina (2014). The two musicians previously collaborated on Drokk: Music inspired by Mega-City One (2012). Like those albums, Annihilation is a work of science-fiction film scoring, in which Salisbury and Barrow continue to break ground as musicians composing for the screen. Our conversation covers their involvement throughout the production of Annihilation, the film’s release, and how film music can be a gateway to discovery and experimentation.


I begin by asking them to comment on the cinema versus Netflix discussion. Barrow, straight to the point, says, “Unless you’re an NBA player that lives in Atlanta with your own private cinema, seeing anything in the cinema is going to be better than seeing it at home. So I think it’s a bit of a redundant, kind of weird question, now.” Salisbury echoes this perspective, concluding that the film’s bifurcated distribution “is a shame. You can’t pretend otherwise.”

He says, “The main thing is, that this film, in particular, we all made to be an immersive thing. You only really get the full immersive experience at the cinema. I mean, we’re up for people watching it, and the more people that watch it, the better. And I think from looking on Twitter and stuff, there are people who are getting a buzz out of it on Netflix as well. But there are definitely certain things, technically, as well as anything else that we did for a cinema screening.”

Salisbury and Barrow exhibit a strong commitment to, and investment in the film as a unified whole. Were they involved in determining how their music fit into the overall sound mix? Barrow says, “We wouldn’t be happy with ourselves if we weren’t. The thing is, with an Alex Garland film, everybody who’s in the post-production, whether it be the film editor, the music editor, the producers, the composers, Andrew who did all the computer animation stuff, CGI stuff, anybody at any point can make a point about each other’s roles and whether they think something works or doesn’t. And that’s why we like working with Alex, because you feel part of this gang that is making a film, rather than just making music for a film.”

Salisbury elaborates on their extensive contributions to the film’s sound, involving “two more weeks of literally mixing the music for cinema, going to town on the surround sound.” He says they “also talked regularly to the people doing the sound, and all turned up at various stages during the final mix and all had our views on how the music and sound sat together. That should be the way it is, really, and they’re a brilliant sound team. You know, we had our opinions on where it was getting to be too much sound or whether the sound should take over, and they had their opinions on music, so that side of it makes it more important to see in a cinema, as well, I think.”

In Annihilation, Portman is “Lena, a biologist and former soldier that joins a mission to uncover what happened to her husband inside Area X — a sinister and mysterious phenomenon that is expanding across the American coastline.” (source: press release) This plot, including a series of increasingly disturbing discoveries within the area known as The Shimmer, intertwines with a soundscape that delays the most spectacular bit of scoring until late in the movie. Did Salisbury and Barrow face any resistance to that pacing? “No,” says Salisbury. “In fact, we did a few things musically that hit, which had a big impact. The first time they see the Shimmer, they walk towards it — you know, when you do music for Alex’s films there are lots of versions of the music — and in one version of it, early on, you think, this is a big music cue. We did a big theme, which was related to the theme that you hear at the end. It worked, and everyone liked it, Alex liked it, we liked it. But it was sort of removed or changed in the end for the reason that we all felt — one of the things that you constantly do with Alex’s films, we did it with Ex Machina is, just watch it and gauge the temperature of things… We knew that that endpoint had to have an impact, and in order for it to have an impact, you had to gradate what goes beforehand.”

The soundtrack album, available digitally from Lakeshore Records and Invada Records with “CD and vinyl editions forthcoming”, unfolds in the same sequence as the music within the film, which Salisbury points out, is also true of the soundtrack album for Ex Machina. “There are lots of different ways you can do soundtrack albums,” he explains, “but we thought in both cases, with both those films, the soundtrack, the score has a sort of journey and a narrative arc.

“We thought it would be missing a trick if you didn’t try and replicate that narrative arc on the record. That makes it, possibly, a harder listen if you haven’t seen the film and don’t know that you’re going to get your money’s worth towards the end. But it also hopefully makes it a better one if you are a fan of the film. That’s what you make it for, I think, people who have seen the film and liked the music.”

Narrative themes of Annihilation, in form and content, include fragmentation and coalescence. One of the ways that the climax of Salisbury and Barrow’s score reinforces those themes is by integrating their original music with a short piece of an existing composition from Moderat, called “The Mark”. Barrow describes how “The Mark” became a tent pole within the soundtrack, recalling “We went into the edit, but kind of like on the first week — we were on it for a year and we were part of the process as it was written as an adaptation of the book. I did a bit of searching and found — I forgot all about this ’til the other night — a Stevie Nicks tune for the start of the film, and then that led to — I don’t know whether that led to Alex finding the other one–” Here Salisbury reminds Barrow that Garland “couldn’t clear the Stevie Nicks tune.”

“That’s right,” Barrow remembers, “She wanted a hundred grand, that’s right. So the idea was, he was really into the Crosby, Stills & Nash, and that was there. It was another track, but it was there. And the end of the film — you know, Alex is very, very good… there isn’t a music supervisor. We all work on it together. But he knows his music well. And there was a choral piece, and there was “The Mark” [by] Moderat. To be honest, we knew what we had to get to; it was helpful for us, to get there.

“We also had to work out, because we had our four-note riff which was going over to walking into the Shimmer, we’d have to tie that into “The Mark” later on in the film as well. So it was a jigsaw puzzle, it really was. And then we lost the walking into the Shimmer as a theme, and rightly so, and then when we got to ‘The Mark’, we had done this piece of music and we were like, ‘well, are you going to keep ‘The Mark?’ because in theory you don’t necessarily need it.”

Barrow describes “The Mark”‘s presence in the film as being ultimately about “trying to make a great film”, commenting that “we understood, if you were going to keep it — and he [Garland] did, and so they licensed it — and we just had to work a way around it and try and look into the veins of it and expand on it from there on. It’s like a minute long, or something. So we had to expand that then, and expand it into the classical nature of it, the psychedelic-classical part, and then the choral part, which then tied it back into the start of the film. It doesn’t bother us. Ex Machina had a tune we brought into it, from a guy called CUTS, and so the big heavy scene in Ex Machina came from a track that we had brought in and sourced. So we’re not particularly precious about it, and we don’t feel funny about it.”

Salisbury credits film editor Barney Pilling for finding and first using “The Mark” in the editing process. “Alex sourced a lot of the music; I think Barney was the one who found ‘The Mark’ to go there. In lots of films, there’s temp music, and it stays, it becomes temp and it goes, this was about halfway house. Is it temp music? Are we going to do something different? Or are we going to just expand on that? And in the end, it worked really well and expanding on it was the option we took. As Geoff said, it was like a pillar. It was good to have these two pillars–the Crosby, Stills & Nash and the Moderat. They’re miles apart. How do you get from one to the other? That’s oversimplifying it, but it was that to a degree.”

The score for Annihilation deviates from the synthesizer sounds audiences have come to expect from a science fiction film of this sort. Regarding acoustic instrumentation, Barrow says, “for me, and for Ben, we did Ex Machina, and before that we did Drokk, and we want to do the opposite of what’s happening, a little bit. I mean, if we could have done Annihilation completely acoustically, even if it was altered acoustics, and processed acoustics, we would have. What happens is, it becomes a trend, and instead of going deeper into it we kind of go against it, because it keeps it interesting, I think.”

“There’s definitely that aspect of it,” Salisbury agrees, adding, “But if it had been a film that cried out for synths, then we would have used synths. We’d have tried to find a way of doing them in a way that isn’t currently on trend I suppose. But it was more that in the first conversations with Alex, we had very early conversations where he said, ‘human voice and organic’ and ‘going from suburbia to psychedelia.’ And we just thought, how could we — it’s just instinct really — being in the Shimmer, although it’s strange and sci-fi, it’s sort of real, earthy.

“We wanted to try and use real instruments… all the stuff that might sound like synths early on in the score is all real instruments. Whether anyone notices that or not, I don’t know, but it’s all bowed waterphones and bells and things like that. It’s interesting for us as well. I think anyone who makes music, if they try and find a different way to make music; they’re into it whilst they’re doing it. Using the waterphone, which is this sort of uncontrollable, weird beast that you can’t really keep in tune and you don’t know what note you’re going to get out of it. It sparked us off into ways of writing music that we wouldn’t have done in any other way, I suppose, so that’s a good thing as well.”

They hadn’t worked with the waterphone prior to this score. Barrow describes becoming acquainted with the instrument. “Like a lot of composers, like a lot of music people do, they just, they get on YouTube, don’t they? They look for interesting sounds and instruments and so on. It was really weird, we were kind of aware of the sound of it because of Lalo Schifrin’s (of Dirty Harry, Enter the Dragon) use of it, and also through ’70s horror films. But we wanted to use it in a different way.”

He continues, “When I found it on YouTube and then tracked down a guy, we actually had one made, a bass one, from a guy in California. Because the ones you can get over here are not very good. So we got a proper one. And then instantly we were just like, ‘wow’, I mean if we could have done the whole score on the waterphone, we would have.” Salisbury jokingly offers, “If anyone’s out there doing some weird animation that wants a complete waterphone, out-of-tune…” Barrow says his recent return to the instrument reminded him of its peculiarity. “Yeah, I went on it the other day and was like, ‘oh no, not again’. You get this perfect note and then it just goes on and just bores your ears out.”

The piece of music Barrow referred to earlier as a “four-note riff”, which was excerpted from the climactic composition “The Alien”, seems to continue the tradition of John Williams’ five-tone motif from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Had that film or score inspired the four notes? Barrow answers “no” and acknowledges “We had this same question on Ex Machina.” Salisbury follows, “The answer is no for both of them. We are naturally — it’s weird that Ava’s theme [from Ex Machina] and the four-note theme both sound like Close Encounters. I wrote Ava’s theme, Geoff wrote the four-note theme, we both like themes, you know, and Close Encounters is a classic theme, I suppose. There’s not a deeper meaning to it, I don’t think.”

Salisbury addresses Barrow, “Geoff, you came up with that four-note theme, you weren’t thinking of Close Encounters. I think there’s possibly a sort of — the history of sci-fi films and film themes always plays a part in anything you do, I suppose, but not in specific terms. You’re just thinking, do these notes sound right? The reason they sound right might have to do with the historical underlying connection, but, no. And actually, I don’t hear it, either. I don’t even hear it in Ava’s theme either, which is even closer…” Barrow interjects, “But at the same time, we love Close Encounters” — a circular admission that causes both of them to laugh. Barrow concludes, “It’s somewhere in there, swimming around in our brains.”

The four notes, “The Alien”, and the score as a whole cause the viewer to identify with Lena and the other characters as they move from disorientation to uncanny dread and beyond. For viewers in the cinema with a proper sound system, the physical and psychological effects come in waves. Barrow says as composers, he and Salisbury are “absolutely” thinking of how their music will affect the viewers who are experiencing the movie as a narrative, as images, and as sounds. Of the “waves” observation, Salisbury says, “The waves thing is interesting, because that was a definite, purposeful thing on our part.” Barrow adds, “The Shimmer is growing, you’ll remember that the Shimmer is growing, so it’s like a sea coming in. So that would be waves. That was discussed pretty early on, wasn’t it, Ben?”

“Yeah,” Salisbury responds, “and we sort of struggled with a way of representing it. I think the waterphone has it, and then towards the end we were recording strings, and I did this weird — I don’t normally conduct strings — but I sort of had a moment in front of the strings with waving my hands at them and getting them to pulse in and out. We all instantly went, ‘wow, that’s great’ and that became these sort of pulsing strings gradually going out of tune with each other and then coming, literally like a wave.”

Barrow observes, “What you were doing was, the wider your arms got, the more out of tune they’d become. And also, the longer they would do between notes,” a technique Salisbury says “was a brilliant thing to do. I recommend, if anyone has the chance to stand in front of a — you feel like you’re some sort of superhero… That became a thing that we wove in, this pulse, this wave, and we tried to weave it in gradually, in the film, along with the sound effects, because the sound that the guys were doing was a sort of wave thing as well.”

Because the sequence of the Annihilation soundtrack follows the narrative order of the film, pieces such as “The Beach” and “Lighthouse Chamber” vary the wave theme in ways that correspond to locations within the plot. Barrow explains that “the wave thing was talked about a lot and Alex specifically asked… to go and record on a beach, you know, white noise and stuff like that.” During the film’s third act, as “The Alien” approaches, the music becomes an almost overwhelming force. Salisbury points out that “there’s a psychological thing about the musical wave becoming more psychedelic. It’s quite unsettling when you hear these things, whatever it was, thirty, forty, strings we had, all gradually going out of tune with each other and then coming back in tune.” Barrow describes the effect of mixing for the theatrical exhibition, in which the sound team used “5.1 to make them push past you in the cinema. So as it waves, it goes, around and behind you.”

That a soundtrack album of an experimental score such as Annihilation will be available on multiple formats seems to signal a demand for owning entire albums of film music. Of the appetite for physical media, Barrow says, “It’s great for me ’cause I own Invada Records… I think that people have got an appetite now for owning a record deck in a kitchen or a dining room area or even where they’re reading books. If they’re slightly older, then they’ve had their bands, and they’ve been sold a band that makes a three minute pop tune and there are twelve of them on an album. And the idea of listening to an ongoing, evolving, emotional, kind of classical, electronic piece of music, I think they’re finding it interesting. I think people are dead into it. I think they’re fed up with- maybe not into the pop stuff, maybe you like your old rock bands, you don’t want to be sold a new version of, I don’t know, a new version of the Strokes… I mean, it’s a physical thing… it’s the act of getting home, choosing a record, and putting it on. I think people really like it. It’s an experience, isn’t it?”

Salisbury distinguishes soundtracks as a unique form of listening experience, saying “Because the music’s written for a film, which doesn’t follow the laws of the three-minute pop song — it can take strange turns. And its form is governed by the film, quite often, the film that you’ve written it for, alongside the fact that there is a vast array of different sorts of music being written for films, of all genres and types. But if it’s good film music, the film is its primary function. Somehow, that can make it an interesting listening experience as well, because it takes strange forms.”

Salisbury and Barrow are part of a generation of musicians, composers, and producers that are succeeding in crossing boundaries between different categories of music. Barrow offers an example in “someone like Ben Frost, the electronic artist, who’s going into films or has been in films for a while, and that’s crossing over a lot, where maybe it didn’t do in the past –people that came from music that was released not for film, what I come from, really. And also, Ben and I discovered film music from being exposed to these amazing experimental pieces, like we were talking about, Planet of the Apes, Jerry Goldsmith — that was our first venture into experimental music, was hearing that stuff.”

Salisbury is optimistic about the space that remains to be explored in films and film scores, especially as they have the potential to point listeners in the direction of experimental music. He says, “They open a gateway into loads of interesting music. I think I’ve said this before, but I didn’t know who Steve Reich was when I was growing up, but then I saw Risky Business and listened to Tangerine Dream and thought, ‘this is great’ and then read that that was related to Steve Reich and then you’re off… there are loads of examples of that. Film music can do that. It can be a sort of gateway into an interesting world of music. And hopefully, it still is.”