Film Music Review
The Sammy awards









Music composed by Clint Mansell.

16 Tracks (Playing Time = 52:38)

Album produced by Darren Aronofsky. Conducted, and orchestrated by Matt Dunkley. Music from Swan Lake by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky adapted and arranged by Matt Dunkley. Album recorded and mixed by Geoff Foster at AIR Studios, London, UK. Music edited by Nancy Allen. Booklet editing, art direction, and design by WLP ltd.

Sony Classical 88697813562

Rating: ***


Darren Aronofsky’s highly anticipated BLACK SWAN sets its sights on ballet and winds an engaging thriller through the story of a ballet dancer who finds herself slipping into madness. The story takes Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake as its backdrop and inspiration for the role reversals of the film’s main character played by Natalie Portman. Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake informs much of Clint Mansell’s score as snippets of thematic material get transformed into more of the composer’s own stylistic approach. This is the fifth feature film collaboration between the composer and director and perhaps the most ambitious so far. At present it is up for five Golden Globes and a host of additional “Best Film” critical acknowledgements with Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis both getting notice for their performances. The score no doubt helps the film tremendously if what is heard here is any indication.

“Mother Me” has the beginnings of an intriguing thematic component and it is followed by “The New Season” which has a melancholic elegance. Both are set for chamber orchestra and lie in stark contrast to the rich harmonies that open “Nina’s Dream” from Tchaikovsky’s ballet. The gentle melodic idea (reminiscent of Burwell) for Nina that serves as a connecting thread for the score weaves in a variety of different directions in smooth balletic motions with open harmonies and an almost minimal classicism. This latter idea does work well to provide some connective tissue. There are still moments when the more experimental design elements appear in this score creating a rather macabre atmosphere. When this happens in “A New Swan Queen,” the sound moves into an unsettling segment led by bassoons further creating an eeriness that is just as effective with acoustic instruments as the ambient sounds. Somehow all of this works as compelling listening even when the purely orchestral backdrop features electric guitar and design elements that are intended to somewhat contemporize the music. The most dramatic collision and intense musical moment begins in “Opposites Atract” where Mansell’s music overpowers that of the quoted music and things get quite harrowing musically as ideas dissolve and odd sounds begin to appear. The music continues this dramatic thrust played against the Tchaikovsky source material in very effective scoring that makes up the bulk of the release’s longest cue, “Night of Terror.”

What makes BLACK SWAN an interesting score is the way the 19 th-century music collides with the macabre design elements that represent madness while also maintaining a firm grip on creating an engaging musical experience that should stand on its own. Rather than simply record the Tchaikovsky excerpts as standalone tracks (though the penultimate track, “Perfection,” is mostly source material), the score integrates them into its fabric so that they are inevitably linked. In the final track, “A Swan Song,” Mansell brings the familiar Swan Lake theme together with his own thematic idea, set for piano against ambient backgrounds, and we get a brief glimpse of the way the one develops out of the other and the way the one overpowers the other as the shattering glass in the music indicates.


Fans of Mansell’s style will hear some of the same atmospheric unfolding of slowly moving music with subtle harmonic shifts set against occasional sound elements that have made his music an intriguing alternative to the larger orchestral Hollywood sound. It is a fascinating accomplishment made even more so by its fine presentation here.


-- Steven A. Kennedy, 5 January 2011

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