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Counterpoint

Gravity composer Steven Price: Music out of this world

(Warner Bros)

(Warner Bros)

Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity has been celebrated for its technical breakthroughs. But its music by is equally innovative, argues Clemency Burton-Hill. She sits down to talk with the film’s composer, Steven Price.

As Hollywood fairy tales go, it doesn’t get much more magical than the story of Steven Price. The 36-year-old composer from Nottingham in England grew up digging through his parents’ pop record collection, buying Beatles albums on cassette tape and watching Kubrick films, dreaming of one day writing for the movies himself. Having been in the film-music world “in literally every capacity from tea-boy to music editor for the past 15 years,” he tells me during a brief touchdown back home in the UK, it was only in 2011 that Price was given the opportunity to score a film, the low-budget British monster movie Attack the Block. His second film, in 2013, was the equally low-fi The World’s End.

When he first met Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón a few years ago about an upcoming film called Gravity his assumption was that he was “having a meeting about helping out for a couple of weeks, as they needed some music for a screening.” Price adds with characteristic humility: “I never imagined what would happen next.”

On 2 March, Price’s name will be read out in contention for best original score at the Oscars, alongside some of the industry’s most heavyweight titans including John Williams, Alexandre Desplat and Thomas Newman. Cuarón’s faith in the unknown young Brit certainly paid off; Price has been nominated in the same category in all the major awards this season, including the Golden Globes and the Baftas.

Before Gravity, Price composed the score for The World's End. (Focus Features)

Before Gravity, Price composed the score for The World's End. (Focus Features)

For the man who reveals that his childhood was spent “doing two things: music and making up stories”, he must be pinching himself. “Essentially the job I have now is a combination of those, in that I get to help filmmakers tell their stories through music,” he admits. Remembering the first time he worked as a film composer, Price recalls “the realisation that, depending on where we changed from one note to the next in a melodic line, the music could subtly influence the entire meaning of a scene in so many ways was like a door opening to this amazing new world for me.”

The sound of silence

At the beginning of Gravity we are told, explicitly, that there is no sound in space. That must have thrown up an interesting challenge. “From the first meeting, Alfonso was clear that he wanted to honour the truth of space as a vacuum,” Price says. “The only sounds you would hear would be either the radio communications both astronauts would receive in their helmets, or the vibrations that would pass through the spacesuits when they touched anything.  So music was given a dual role.  Not only was I asked to underscore the emotional journey of Ryan, Sandra Bullock’s character, but also to find ways to reflect the action onscreen in a tonal, inherently musical way… We really wanted the audience to feel they were up there in space, almost like a third astronaut, and going through everything Ryan went through.’

Cuarón wanted realistic soundscapes that convey the silence of the vacuum. (Warner Bros)

Cuarón wanted realistic soundscapes that convey the silence of the vacuum. (Warner Bros)

There was one major advantage to the silence of the sound-world Price was dealing with. “I was in the rare position of not having to battle lots of explosions and violent sound design!” he jokes.  “Whilst a lot has been said about the technical achievements of Gravity, and we were trying to do something very cinematic, very immersive, sometimes crazily ambitious, all of the experiments were really just developing the tools to tell this very pure story… taking Ryan from a place where she had given up on life and turned her back on the world, through all of the adversities that she faces, and culminating in her ultimate decision to live.  She chooses to celebrate life and we take that journey with her.  So the majority of my time was spent continually reviewing how the music was supporting that journey.” 

Film is a famously collaborative art form, yet the role of the composer must be quite isolated. “It’s true, most of my days are spent alone in a dark room!” he admits. “I don’t really want anyone to see me trying and failing to nail the 40th take of a simple piano cue.  But then, after the writing process, I get the great moment when I emerge, bleary eyed, and hear the music played by amazing musicians, so it kind of justifies any of the lonely, despairing moments!”

Right tracks?

There’s an ongoing debate in the classical world about the role of film music. Roger Wright, head of the BBC’s classical station Radio 3 as well as the Proms, the world’s largest classical music festival, recently had to defend the station’s playing of movie and TV tunes after accusations of ‘dumbing down’.  To Wright, this music is key to opening up classical music to a new generation.

Price, who studied classical music at Cambridge and admits to being “a little bit obsessed” with contemporary classical composers like Steve Reich, heartily agrees. “For me, anything can be music!” he insists. “I can get huge enjoyment and be moved totally by the purity and perfection of some Renaissance polyphony, but equally I can feel emotion in the expectant hum of a big old guitar amp just before the strings are hit. It’s all alive, and, depending on the context, can be of impact emotionally – whether it be in a film or on a record or in a concert.  Every one of us has a response of some kind to music, so I don’t think it’s fair to ever judge what is proper and what’s not.

György Ligeti's compositions in 2001: A Space Odyssey influenced Price. (MGM)

György Ligeti's compositions in 2001: A Space Odyssey influenced Price. (MGM)

 “I speak from the experience of seeing, say, a Kubrick film and being so fascinated by the sound of the composer György Ligeti,” he adds. “Or hearing the use of Krzysztof Penderecki’s Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima in Alfonso’s Children of Men and immediately running off to find a copy.  If you’re the sort of person who’s constantly interested in hearing new things and enjoy that wonderful process of following a lead and seeing where it takes you, there are a lot of movies whose music will take you off on a new, incredible journey.”

For now, Price is on his own incredible journey. Before our interview is over, I have to ask one final question. What would his chosen soundtrack be, were he ever to be stranded in space himself? “I’m assuming I’m going to be stuck for a long time, so I’d need something where there’d always be something new to discover no matter how many times you listen,” he ponders. “Maybe some Bach, or the later Beethoven string quartets.  Or maybe I’d just go with some classic Bob Dylan and endlessly revel in the phrasing. The likelihood is, though, I’d just take The White Album. [There’s] something for every mood on there. I’d just have to make sure to turn the radio off so mission control couldn’t hear me singing along.”

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