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How Reznor and Ross shaped a decade of film scoring

It's a little over 10 years since Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross teamed up on 'The Social Network'. Their electronic scores embodied the sound of cinema in the 2010s

Trent Reznor and (right) Atticus Ross in the studio. Photo from Nine Inch Nails Tumblr
Trent Reznor and (right) Atticus Ross in the studio. Photo from Nine Inch Nails Tumblr

The Social Network begins with Jack White’s dirty blues riff from Ball and Biscuit. That track appeared on the White Stripes album Elephant, released in April 2003. The Stripes were inescapable that year, especially in bars—and a Boston bar in October 2003 is where David Fincher’s film opens. Having used the American Graffiti approach—pop music as a marker for a time and place—Fincher doesn’t do it again. The rest of the film is scored, not soundtracked, the only prominent exception being the Beatles’ Baby, You’re A Rich Man in the final scene.

As the bar breakup scene ends, we hear three descending keyboard notes. Three more notes, a slightly different combination, as we see the bar from the outside. After a minute, there’s a bass drop, not loud but deep, and a low buzzing sound like a string quartet worrying the same note, or electric bees. I can’t picture the sequence where Mark Zuckerberg, played by Jesse Eisenberg, cuts across the Harvard campus without the score playing in my mind. But that’s true for so many other scenes in the film: the sleazy thumping techno when the town girls are bused in for the final club party; the rolling percussion barreling past Eduardo Saverin’s misgivings during the ‘Sean-o-thon’; the demonic reworking of Edvard Grieg’s In The Hall of The Mountain King cut to the exertions of the rowers.

This was the first time Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross had teamed up to score a film. They'd already worked together on four Nine Inch Nails albums, Reznor as the industrial rock band's frontman and lone permanent member, Ross as producer/programmer (he also produced an album Reznor recorded with his wife, Mariqueen Maandig). Both men had soundtrack experience: Ross on New York, I Love You (2008) and The Book of Eli (2010), Reznor on Lost Highway (1997) and the video game Quake (1996).

Fincher had previously used an electronic score by the Dust Brothers on Fight Club (1999). The Social Network, though, was something new: layered, ominous, an extension of the gleaming photography and the burning igloo that is Mark Zuckerberg. Academy voters, in their wisdom, handed the Best Picture Oscar to The King’s Speech (2010), but Ross and Reznor won Best Original Score. It was only the second time, after Giorgio Moroder for Midnight Express (1978), that a full-fledged electronic score had been awarded the prize.

Ross and Reznor followed this with two more for Fincher. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) opens with a supercharged cover of Led Zeppelin’s already deafening Immigrant Song, and the score takes off from there. The violence and Scandinavian gloom are matched by eerie swirls of sound, atonal plinks and plonks, stabbing basslines. Hypomania’s squalling fuzz is made more grating by a piano seemingly played all wrong, Perihelion sounds like a robot orchestra warming up. But the duo also taps into the film’s pitch-black humour—Hidden in Snow combines plucked notes with muted electronic wails, a fascinating mix of menace and lightness.

After The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo—which won them a Grammy—came Gone Girl (2014), one of their cleverest efforts. When I first saw the film, I was struck by the slightly rancid sweetness of the score, romantic but screwed up. I later read that Fincher told them about a time he was at a chiropractor’s place and found the music there “inauthentically trying to make him feel alright”. With this as a guiding emotion, the duo created tracks with a nagging insincerity, perfect for a film about deception and image management.

The body electric

Electronic scores in cinema date back at least to the 1940s. The keening wail of the theremin was used in films like Spellbound (1945) and The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). Stanley Kubrick created a stir by using Wendy Carlos’s synthesized versions of classical standards for A Clockwork Orange (1971). Bands like Goblin and Popol Voh and composers like Eduard Artemyev experimented with electronics in the '70s. Then came the glory days of the synth soundtrack...Moroder, Tangerine Dream, John Carpenter, Vangelis. Yet, the default in Hollywood was always the orchestral score, for prestige and popular films alike.

It might seem simplistic to say Ross and Reznor changed film scoring with The Social Network, but they kind of did. Pitchfork credited the film with creating “a template for industrial-tinged electronica on-screen”—which proved to be the dominant sound of the decade. It wasn't accidental change either: the music was intended as a break from the past. “We got an idea from David that he wanted something that was not orchestral and not traditional,” Reznor told The L.A. Times. “In another interview, he said: “We really spent the time wanting it to sound like it came from a place. We wanted it to sound like it came from this movie, in which the way a track from Blade Runner sounds like Blade Runner.”

Obscure films rarely yield influential scores. That Fincher’s film was hugely successful, that it won Oscars and captured the spirit of the times, was a big reason other directors and studios reached for similar sounds. Suddenly, electronic scores were everywhere. Cliff Martinez, who’d done stellar work with director Steven Soderbergh in the '90s and 2000s, hit big with his retro synth score for the neo-noir Drive (2011). Martinez also partnered with Skrillex on Spring Breakers (2012), which alternated monster bass drops with blissed-out synthscapes.

Disasterpeace channeled Carpenter and Goblin and experimental musicians Krzysztof Penderecki and John Cage in his score for the 2015 horror film It Follows (the theme for the Netflix series Stranger Things, by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, followed in its wake a year later). Daniel Lopatin contributed pulsing synths to the Safdie brothers films Good Time (2015) and Uncut Gems (2019). Jóhann Jóhannsson’s cavernous drones accentuated the moral quandaries of Sicario (2014); Lustmord’s compositions did much the same on First Reformed (2017). Even a few big studio films mixed traditional scores with subtle electronics, like when experimental electronic music legend Ryuichi Sakamoto paired with producer Alva Noto on Alejandro Iñárritu’s 2015 film The Revenant (Sakamoto told Rolling Stone that “Alejandro wants acoustic music, like strings or whatever and very, um, edgy electronic music”).

The 2010s were also an exceptional decade for experimental film scores. Jonny Greenwood had kicked that door open with the sawing, shifting harmonics of Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007), and continued in the same vein with Anderson’s The Master (2012). Mica Levi made a huge impression with Under the Skin (2013), a soundtrack whose dissonant screeches have the same destabilising effect as Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, used memorably in Twin Peaks: The Return (2017). Similarly harrowing was Scott Walker’s nails-on-blackboard score for Childhood of a Leader (2016). Hildur Guðnadóttir won an Oscar for Joker (2019), though an even more adventurous work was her soundtrack for the HBO show Chernobyl, in which she sampled sounds from reactors and turned them into music.

Renzor and Ross’ scores aren’t nearly as complex or demanding as any of these artists. Their contribution has been to push the baseline to an extent that challenging, non-traditional scores now turn up in everything from prestige dramas like The Revenant and sci-fi thrillers like Annihilation (2018; Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow) to arty horror films like Susprira (2018; Thom Yorke), and no one seems to mind.

The duo's work was integral in bringing about another big shift: the recasting of film scores as sound collages rather than discrete melodies. With a few exceptions—Hand Covers Bruise from The Social Network, or Sugar Storm from Gone Girl—you can’t hum a Ross/Reznor score the way you would a John Williams (you can go “grrrhhhhnnnnn” but it’s not the same thing). The drone, the wash, the blare were essential markers of film music in the 2010s—and all staples of the Ross/Reznor sound. In a decade where the most recognisable movie sound was 'BRAAAAM' from the Inception (2010) trailer, this was a fundamental change.

Branching out

Having set the tone for a decade of film music, Reznor and Ross have since been expanding their own sound. A turning point, perhaps, can be located in Before the Flood (2016), an environmental documentary produced by Leonardo DiCaprio, on which they collaborated with Scottish post-rockers Mogwai and world cinema favourite Gustavo Santaolalla. There’s an openness to And When the Sky Was Opened, a willingness to trust an easy melody and not bury it. One Perfect Moment, with its delicate guitar picking over a wash of sound, has a choral joy. Disappearing Act, while less comforting, is brilliantly conceived and light on its feet: a tinkling melody—perhaps a treated glockenspiel or celeste—joined by reverberating bass and electronic squeals.

Before the Flood is still recognizable as Reznor/Ross. Who could say that about their two scores from last year, Mank and Soul? Somehow, the guy who once growled “I want to f**k you like an animal” is now composing for a Pixar film and writing tunes that Al Jolson might sing. Both scores are nominated at the Golden Globes and longlisted for the Oscars; both are marked departures from the Reznorossian sound. They collaborated with John Batiste on Soul: he handled the jazz bits, they did the rest. It’s nothing like their forbidding early work—instead, waves of sound shimmer and thrum, like a Brian Eno creation. The only prior film work of theirs that resembles it is Mid90s (2018), simple piano melodies with little electronic screwing around. There’s more distortion on Soul, but it’s the hopeful kind.

Mank is an even crazier punt. Fincher’s film about the writing of Citizen Kane (1941) is set in the 1930s. It would have made sense to go with an orchestral composer, someone like Alexandre Desplat. Yet Fincher stuck with his trusted composers, probably curious to see how they’d go about it. The duo immersed themselves in the music of the '30s, including the work of Bernard Hermann, Kane’s composer. They then constructed tracks out of string samples from music libraries. Once these were finalized, they recorded them again with actual musicians, all isolated in their own homes.

The score—52 tracks!—quotes from big band jazz, '30s pop, early Hollywood arrangements and Hermann’s score. The pastiches are very clever, and the slower tunes are plaintive and pretty. Yet, Ross and Reznor have gone so far in their quest for authenticity that I can’t hear them in the music (I felt this about Fincher and the film as well). It’s an achievement to disappear so completely and yet come up with something of high quality. But it’s Soul that’s a more natural progression of their sound, from the dark into the light. A decade in, cinema appears to be an open field for Reznor and Ross.

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