Composers Lorne Balfe and Ludwig Göransson were each given the keys to epic fantasy worlds in 2019, each with the potential for amazing musical development. Those scores are now available, with two seasons of each charting their development.
For a little over a year, HBO and Disney have each run a high budget and iconic fantasy series, practically side by side on their streaming services. HBO has His Dark Materials (2019-) – a multiverse drama about angels and daemons, based on Philip Pullman’s popular children’s books. Meanwhile, Disney has the much famed The Mandalorian (2019-) spinoff series from Star Wars (1977), which is pitted chronologically just after the first Star Wars cycle (IV,V,VI), as a kind of “Deep Space Spaghetti Western”, served with a salad of exotic ingredients, including an adorable main character and a small green puppet. Although, on the surface, these are very different fictional animals, it’s hard to avoid comparing the series, not only because they run contemporaneously, but also because they showcase the talents of two superb film composers. Each soundtrack, in its way, represents a bold statement from a member of a new generation of relatively young composers – one that has a radically different skill set from the masters of yesteryear.
The two series are scored respectively by Scottish Lorne Balfe for His Dark Materials, and Swedish Ludwig Göransson for The Mandalorian. Balfe has been lurking in the shadow of film composer Hans Zimmer and his band of merry co-composers for a number of years, while Göransson is only a few years into his meteoric career, and has maintained more independence. Both are highly talented and versatile composers. Balfe has always struck me as one of the more interesting composers from the Hans Zimmer printing press – more edgy when he’s occasionally allowed to shine. It must be difficult to make inroads (and a living) as a new composer for film, without the kind of shield and fame that Zimmer has generously shared with his disciples. That comes no doubt with a commercial price. Göransson, by contrast, was a virtual unknown until his breakthrough score for Creed (2015) followed by a run of films in 2018 propelled him to stardom.
Both composers are steeped in classical traditions, but are also part of the generation that grew up with modern electronica – a genre that ranges from Forbidden Planet (1956) to the soundtracks of Vangelis to Future Sound of London (including its harsher collaborations with Max Richter) and Trent Reznor. They know the art of expressive collage and incidental texture in music, distinct from the more widespread art of popular songs and melodies that fill popular film. That more experimental musical form has also been advancing and is now entering a new phase. That’s not to say film music hasn’t been building slowly to this point for many years. It’s not just about the new tooling made possible by computers, MIDI, and sampling. It’s more about the blend of styles that cogitates in music, taking elements of jazz, pop, rock, and blending them back into a symphonic style and back again. The great musical intelligence of the world is constantly introspecting and reinventing itself, using us as its pawns. Adding a little synthesizer here, or a few violins there. Rock beats on top of Bach or disco on Beethoven. On and on.
The way Balfe scores orchestral pieces is something like rock’n’roll, based on pumping rhythms, as if an outgrowth of Riverdance elevated onto a new astral plane – occasionally veering into a John Barry-like James Bond-like flair at times. Elements of the electronica shine through too – which he used to great effect in earlier scores, such as his very beautiful (but tragically withdrawn) score for the Hollywood remake of Ghost in the Shell (2017). These influences make an appearance from time to time in His Dark Materials, without intruding on the integrity of the unique compositional universe he’s created.
The His Dark Materials opening theme is almost poppy, compared to the more exalted and sombre mood of the episode contents. That theme haunts the backing textures like a spectre, usually in the high violins, while piano, harp, as well as gypsy percussion provides the impetus for its more ponderous action. At times, the music feels reminiscent of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings films, though more listenable in the long run than Howard Shore’s grim dirges. The sound mix is churchlike and massive, with heavy brass giving heft, and a choir filling any gaps in the brickwork to create wall to wall sound. There is also plenty of Balfe’s trademark electronica here too, but generally served on more sedate cues, alongside gypsy rhythms and with a multicultural flair.
Balfe’s synthesis of styles is pleasing, but – of the two universes – the subtleties take longer to appreciate than the more “in your face” approach used in the score for The Mandalorian. After all, His Dark Materials has a more paced narrative than The Mandalorian and its rag tag fleet of chance encounters that slap you around while only gently dropping hints of an emerging story. Each soundtrack has its own fantasy world to construct. Each is impeccably done. Balfe’s world is pastoral, recalling great rolling landscapes and the stern governance of a Magisterium – its pompous and authoritarian militarized church, while Göransson’s is that rag tag hive of scum and villainy first introduced into Star Wars by the creator of Mos Eisley spaceport.
The Mandalorian doesn’t borrow much from earlier Star Wars music, except for a brief hint of “The Force Theme” at the end of the second season. Ludwig Göransson, named apparently after Beethoven by tiger parents, ten year junior to Balfe, has come up with something totally new for an altogether different kind of story. Göransson developed his signature style around films like the Death Wish (2018) reboot, Venom (2018), and Black Panther (2018), for which he won numerous awards. This year he also scored Christopher Nolan’s confusing and palindromic Tenet (2020). He has television credits too, but I’ve not heard any of them. As a listener, I find those trite blockbuster movies (however ingeniously scored) to be limited worlds for composition, but nonetheless exquisitely done. By contrast, The Mandalorian can only be described as a composer’s gift – a series that allows a composer’s talent to explode in every direction. It has clearly established Göransson as the most interesting up and coming composer to appear for many years.
The spectrum of musical ideas on display in The Mandalorian is as diverse as the series itself. Frequent tempo changes mirror the complex cutting of action sequences. At times, the musical wallpaper could almost draw comparisons with mini Bach fugues, before lapsing into Morricone spaghetti-style standoff confrontations, or dissolving into sweet melancholic strings for the heartwarming moments of affection. You could be forgiven for hearing evidence of spy drama, Mission: Impossible, Bond, etc in the bravado. The subtlety of Göransson’s instrumentation is mesmerizing and impressive, touting Max Richter in one breath and Ravel in the next. We are clearly dealing with a major composer of rare talent, not just a wham bam thank you stand-in who delivers popular cliches. But you have to like the electronic roots of his style to grok these pieces. As he is just beginning his career, one can’t help but tip one’s hat to the fates that handed him those keys to a musical kingdom of rare riches so early in his career.
Another interesting aspect of The Mandalorian score is that enthusiasts have been able to follow the unfolding music blow by blow. The soundtracks to the first series were released promptly after each episode, with a separate collection for each, albeit only as MP3 media. This yields a fascinating insight into the writing process. Week by week, one can follow the thematic development and experimental instrumentation, like a brain scan of the composer. The second series has settled into just two collections, split along the first and second halves of the season. But that’s ok. A lot of the material is now familiar to the composer and the listener, so a new approach is perhaps needed.
While the first season developed gradually and plumbed the depths of a fairly stable thematic content, the second season goes off the musical reservation more extensively to deliver an edgy and experimental score – fully modern, more atonal, and more electronic and sound effect-based in its style. Pulsing synthesizers, exuding dark overtones of menace – with middle Eastern flavour for Sandpeople, Blurgs, like Bedouin raiders. What might have been played by a fanfare of Imperial horns by the composers of a past era now transforms into a bonging of giant electronic chimes, wielding a sawtooth edge for brilliance. Even the series theme appears on multiple levels, from the simple piping recorder to the extended fanfare version which comes at the closing titles.
The sudden change of tones and emotional colours in The Mandalorian is what makes it a totally different piece, compared to His Dark Materials. At home with orchestral instruments or electronica, Göransson loves to juxtapose the two. The result is never overbearing. It fits perfectly into the storyline and the editing. What I find most impressive with Göransson’s music is his vast range of musicality, the sudden transitions that elevate or calm the mood, always with a surprising harmonic (or anharmonic twist) to delight the listener. He isn’t just a whizz with the technology, but a music wizard too. Clearly, Göransson has not been in a commercial prison of composition in the same way other up and coming composers endure to make their livings. He has surely been blessed with some good luck, which (happily) is more than justified by his talent. At times, his composition reminds me of the way John Williams or Michael Kamen would score suspenseful scenes.
I feel both these scores stand out in what has been an impoverished year, by all accounts. We are lucky to have their music in such a timely fashion. The Mandalorian is hands-down the more complex listening experience. But, if you need melodies to carry your attention, then it may be harder to listen to than His Dark Materials. In their second seasons, introduced almost at the same time, both composers stepped up their games, veering towards complexity in the harmonic content, as the jeopardy in each series rises. One peculiar similarity between the scores is in Roger Parslow’s theme from His Dark Materials and the Mando’s theme from The Mandalorian: both use a recorder (i.e. a common or block flute) for their instrumentation, which is not a common instrument in `serious music´, adding another curious parallel, between scores that surely knew nothing of each other in advance.
In closing, I should not get into a long rant about music publishers and their infernal practices to milk money from fans, but perhaps a short one is due. The music for The Mandalorian was released solely in electronic MP3 format – there is no CD or high resolution digital release. Meanwhile, His Dark Materials has been fully released in all formats as two anthologies followed by an exhaustively minted collection of the full season. As far as I can tell, the His Dark Materials anthologies are extended material, which is welcome, in contrast to the annoying habit of releasing endless new versions of extended or remastered works that force one to buy the same material many times (think Star Wars, Solo (2018), Interstellar (2014) etc.), drip feeding fans with scraps to bleed them slowly.
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019), for example, was – in my opinion – an impoverished release that was missing important material, by our time’s most sought after composer, and the recording was generally lower quality than the previous two films, which were also rereleased multiple times in multiple versions to extract the maximum dollar from fans. It’s infuriating and not particularly trust-building. It’s a practice that encourages rather than discourages piracy. We should be allowed to pay for music when we want it – not be taunted with mind games. Although The Mandalorian’s 320kb/s MP3 files are relatively high in quality for MP3, the 24 bit masters for His Dark Materials are far more welcome for a connoisseur and cost no more to release. Disney’s strategy of publishing music in chunks to maximize payment is understandable, but also misguided, This is not pop music, with remixes one at a time. Fans of film scores are a different breed of enthusiast.
In summary, if it’s not already clear, I highly recommend these two musical worlds. Both of the complete scores offer many hours of rich and enjoyable music – and every sub part of them is independently enjoyable too. They aren’t perhaps the most immediately accessible soundtracks, though. Unless you are an avid follower of fashion in soundtracks, or fluent in over six million forms of communication, it will surely take some time to lean into them and become fluent in their languages.
But if you do, I think these scores will be classics that you revisit frequently.