The 10 Best Uses of Avant-Garde Music Scores in Movies

6. Caravaggio (1986) scored by Simon Fisher Turner

Derek Jarman was much like Peter Greenaway, an influential representative of British postmodern cinema. Like his countryman, he liked to push the aesthetics of his works to the limits. The decorations, the camera work, the usage of light and color, and of course, the music – they were all not only elements of the craft of filmmaking, but also means to a spectacle that absorbs senses.

As a child of the punk revolution, Jarman had a rebellious sense of style far different from classical cinematography canons. “Caravaggio”, the biopic of the Baroque painter, isn’t an exception to that. It’s a historical film but Jarman puts 20th century objects onto the screen, making it feel totally modern.

In many of his films, he used music from New Wave artists like Adam Ant and industrial legends like Coil, but most of his works had scores composed by Simon Fisher Turner. The artist is a true renaissance man, as he combines modern classical music with folkish instruments from the past, electronics and field recordings. This gives us a diverse soundtrack that works in the same way as Jarman’s films do – it’s tradition filtered by modernity, the old deconstructed by the new.

The soundtrack for “Caravaggio” is beautiful in many ways, but Jarman’s swan song “Blue” is definitely the movie where the music is most important, as the whole film consists on one single blue frame. In “Blue”, Fisher Turner’s works are mixed with other artist’s music (Eno, Szymanowski, Coil).


7. The Last Temptation Of Christ, released as Passion OST (1988) scored by Peter Gabriel

Martin Scorsese’s film became a scandal, just like Nikos Kazantzaki’s novel by the same name. It’s so controversial because it breaks the fundamental story of Jesus Christ with the alternative vision of his life.

In this story, Jesus decides to live a long and happy life with Maria Magdalene instead of dying for our sins. It may shred biblical dogma, but the novel and movie both gave something else than just blasphemy. They were a reconfiguration of Jesus’s story, and they were telling it in a more humanistic and existential way.

What does this have to do with the score? Well, Peter Gabriel’s music was probably one of the least controversial things about this production. The former Genesis frontman’s love for world music shows up in full range on this soundtrack. There’s quite a bit of Middle Eastern folk inspirations here, but Gabriel also took a bit from the roots of African music.

Finally, he mixed it all with an ethereal New Age ambience. It’s no surprise that for many listeners, this is Gabriel’s most adventurous and diverse musical work to date.


8. The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989) scored by Michael Nyman

Peter Greenaway was not only a big experimentalist in the aspect of montage and film sets, but also in the use of experimental music in his pictures. He worked with the famous post-minimalist composer Michael Nyman in most of his 80’s productions (“Draughtsman’s Contract”, “A Zed & Two Noughts”, “Drowning By Numbers”).

These two had definitely found a similar artistic vibe. This film is Greenaway’s masterpiece, a theater-like film with baroque scenery, constructed in wide, long shots and hypnotizing colors, with a cathartic and aesthetically insatiable score.

Like many other composers from his generation, Nyman had to decide if he wanted to continue on the avant-garde path in contemporary music, or become a more eclectic author, a revivalist of classical music from before the 20th century. He chose the right path, as he combined both.

This score presents Nyman at his best with the power of minimalist repetition and orchestral sounds stylized on romanticism (and baroque like the choral track Miserere). The soundtrack for “The Piano” likely was more essential for Nyman, but here he expresses himself in far more ways.


9. There Will Be Blood (2007) scored by Jonny Greenwood

Jonny Greenwood is mostly known for being the guitarist of the critically and commercially acclaimed band Radiohead, and he has never hidden his sympathy toward classical composers like Penderecki or Reich (at some point he even had the opportunity to play live with Penderecki).

First, he tried to implement some of those sounds to his band, but soon he went further with those fascinations as he started working on avant-garde soundtracks. It wouldn’t be possible if not for Paul Thomas Anderson, who gave Greenwood the credit and decided to work with him on his recent films.

“There Will Be Blood”, Anderson’s darkest film approach to date, would be less terrifying if not for the quirky, dissonant score that was largely inspired by Penderecki’s sonorist works. Greenwood shows that he’s highly adept with 20th century avant-garde composing techniques.

His scores for “There Will Be Blood” and “The Master” are full of sharp strings and bursting dynamics; they transport the feeling we heard in the works of Ligeti and Xenakis (Greenwood plays their pieces live with an orchestra, mixing them with his own works). Anderson is often compared to Kubrick when it comes to his perfectionist cinematography. The fact that he uses experimental music is another fact that proves he plans to continue the philosophy of great directors.


10. The Revenant (2015) scored by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto

“The Revenant” is a newer film and another great example of how the score can improve the cinematic experience. Alejandro Innaritu’s existential, snowy western needed a soundtrack that is cold as ice and at the same time organic, much like the music of Aphex Twin. The Mexican director’s previous Oscar-winning film, “Birdman”, presented a completely different approach.

That film’s soundtrack concentrated on violent jazz pieces, which resonated with the claustrophobic theatre where the film’s action took place. The vast landscapes of “The Revenant”, the monumental nature of America’s virgin territory so vividly captured by director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki, couldn’t get a better score than the intense marriage of strings and electronic music from this eccentric duo.

Sakamoto has experience in composing film scores; he began a couple of decades ago and contributed to such movies as “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” and “Little Buddha”. He has a good hand with New Age and Oriental sound,s but he also knows how to make harsh minimalist music, as heard in “The Revenant”.

Alva Noto comes from a slightly different musical world – he’s the great deconstructionist of techno and ambient music, a prominent representative of the glitch genre. The fact that these two combined created such a meditative and spatial sound is a huge achievement, and it shows that two creative and opened musical minds can improve their style when together.

Author Bio: Michał Weicher comes from Poland where he graduated Cultural Studies. He is a music and literature critic but his love for film is also very strong. He is a huge fan of French New Wave cinema and the music of David Bowie. Dreams of becoming a famous writer.