What is Cinematic Electronica? Five Original Scores that Helped Define an Emerging Genre
Music in film can be a bit all over the place. Put on a movie made within the last few years and you might hear epic orchestral string arpeggios with pounding percussion hits, or swirling synth pads layered atop textural drones. Maybe some sparse, emotional piano? An entire score based around the use of pipe organ? Or the glitched out sound of bowed strings running through a granular synthesizer? We live in an age of experimentation, where new technology has not only made it easier than ever to create music, but has also given the average person access to more music than they know what to do with. This has definitely led to some interesting blending of genres not only in film music, but in music overall. And it’s the reason that categorizing and labeling music has become more difficult than ever.
When I first started scoring films, I had no idea how I could possibly explain what I do to another person, let alone a potential client. You can throw all kinds of descriptive terms at people, but somehow “Electronic Ambient Post-Industrial Soundtrack Music” doesn’t quite roll off the tongue so nicely. Eventually, I started calling it Cinematic Electronica. It’s a term that is simple and not overly technical, but that still narrows things down enough without being overly vague. In fact, I would say it describes a pretty wide range of modern music that is becoming more and more relevant in the worlds of film, TV, and video games.
Below, we’ll explore five original film scores that helped pave the way for a new generation of media composers.
No list of this sort would be complete without mentioning Blade Runner. It is a perfect example of a movie that would not be what it is if not for its iconic soundtrack. Composer Vangelis created a true masterpiece of retro-futuristic sounds that very accurately represents the dystopian sci-fi world depicted in the film. Relying heavily on the use of analog synthesizers, most notably Yamaha’s legendary CS-80, Vangelis pushed the envelope of the technology that was around at the time to create a sound that is truly unique and will forever go down in history as one of the greatest and most innovative film scores of all time.
The Dust Brothers created a very different kind of cinematic electronic sound for David Fincher’s 1999 film Fight Club. Theirs was a more groove-based approach that relied very heavily on sampling, as opposed to traditional analog synthesis. Cycling drum beats are used to great effect in driving this story forward, giving a glimpse into the mind of our unnamed protagonist. Severely disassociated, but always moving forward. Going through life as a passive observer, merely in the passenger seat of somebody else’s ride. All in all, the film’s score is a unique and strange blend of electronic sounds that really complements the surreal nature of the film’s story and characters.
David Fincher surprised many with his stylistic shift on 2010’s The Social Network. Having become well known for his grittier style on films like Fight Club and Seven, few expected him to make such a compelling movie about Mark Zuckerberg and his starting of Facebook. However, it turned out to be one of his most successful films, in large part due to the score written by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross of Nine Inch Nails. The music blends intricately designed ambient textures, mostly used underneath dialog, with highly animated, futuristic synthesizers reminiscent of sounds used in some of the earliest video game soundtracks. A perfect fit for the subject matter of the film, the score manages to really get across the fact that technology is the primary thing moving this story forward. In 2011, Reznor and Ross even won an Oscar for the score, a rare feat for a soundtrack using primarily synthesizers. This opened up the door for a whole new generation of film composers interested in synth-based music.
The rise of Cinematic Electronica over the last several years has not been exclusive to the film industry. Sam Esmail’s original series Mr. Robot, much like The Social Network, uses electronic music to tell a story rooted heavily in computers and technology. Mac Quayle uses a plethora of analog-style synth textures to convey a feeling of isolation in an increasingly detached, technological world. He manages to really get inside the head of main character Elliot Alderson, giving the audience a glimpse into his lonely, anxiety-ridden inner world.
Last but not least, Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein deserve a mention for their score to the Duffer Brothers’ Stranger Things. Dixon and Stein have a distinctly 80’s sound, which lends itself perfectly to a story that takes place during that decade. The score goes from moments of pure synthetic chaos, much like their previous work in electronic band SURVIVE, to moments of childlike wonder coupled with a sense of nostalgia. All these elements make for a rather unique blend of sounds that feels both retro and modern all at once. Cinematic Electronica may still be in its infancy as a genre, but these artists have each contributed something new to the style and pushed the envelope of what can be done with technology. Music for media is evolving, with electronic music poised to become the new standard. Not limited by a pre-existing palette of traditional instruments, Cinematic Electronica has the potential to be completely custom tailored to the atmosphere of a film. Looking for an electronic score for your next project? Contact Signal Soundlabs today.