How Do You Score Outer Space? Silence and 'Overwhelming' Sound, Says 'Gravity' Composer
Steven Price worked closely with director Alfonso Cuaron to engineer a soundtrack for the soundless ether: "Virtually everything we did was designed to morph between electronic and organic."
Gravity, Warner Bros.' interstellar thriller out Oct. 4, stars Sandra Bullock and George Clooney as two stranded astronauts who must fight to survive when their space shuttle is damaged. The film is a visual spectacle with sparse dialogue, making sound an integral part of the cinematic experience.
Steven Price, who recently composed the science fiction comedy The World’s End, collaborated closely with Gravity director Alfonso Cuaron, whose vision was to take the scientific nuances of space and incorporate them into the score.
“Alfonso was very, very clear about sticking to that aspect, so the sound design element was always going to be vibrating, like what you would hear in a space suit,” Price tells The Hollywood Reporter.
Scientifically speaking, sound travels by making molecules vibrate. Price wanted to emulate those elements of pulsation in his composition. He was able to achieve the film’s warped sound through a lot of experimentation and by reimagining the traditional conventions of an orchestrated score.
Price said that while he did incorporate a lot of orchestra, the sound is disguised and synthesized. The result: increased difficulty in identifying the classic instruments utilized.
“Virtually everything we did was designed to morph between electronic and organic,” Price said. “There are sounds that seem electronic, but might have started out as a plucked string or maybe a bowed guitar.”
Instead of recording the orchestra collectively, Price recorded small groups or single instruments on their own. This allowed him to electronically process each sound and mix them to create a rich, layered effect that surrounds and constantly moves around the audience.
Many of the score’s digital elements were produced by technologically manipulating different components -- including the human voice -- until they became almost unrecognizable.
“The droning sound is actually derived from human voices that are pitched down and stretched out,” Price explained. “There are all sorts of strange computer algorithms where you can put a whole piece into the computer and slow it down thousands upon thousands of times and see what weird sounds you get.”
Although Price said that he received tremendous support during his experimentation, he was still careful about using unorthodox sounds. For example: the crackle and tuning of a radio, which is used in conjunction with the scenes in which the Bullock and Clooney attempt to reestablish communication with Houston. For Price, striking a balance between a melodic score and scientific interpretation of space was a big challenge.
“You had to be sure that what you’d done was working, and you weren’t just being odd for the sake of it,” Price said.
Even with a wide array of sounds used, Cuaron and Price didn’t neglect the eerie silence of outer space. They used silence as a convention to draw attention to suspense and to interrupt action sequences.
“It doesn’t have to be loud all the time,” Price said. “You can take things from incredibly quiet, nearly silent, to as a big as possible and then cut down to nothing again. That kind of emphasizes some of the intense moments in the film.”
The dizzying action and vibrations are only part of the intensity. Gravity is, in addition to stimulating the senses, emotional and vulnerable. Price said that a lot his score was influenced by the actions and feelings of Bullock's character, Dr. Ryan Stone.
“In an incredibly beautiful moment, the world around her is so stunningly beautiful but it’s equally massively terrifying,” Price said. “When she is overwhelmed, the music needed to feel overwhelming, but the more tender moments become very pure and everything feels very fluid.”
Price said that working on Gravity pushed him to delve deep into the intricacies of sound. It was a constant process, he said, and that by the time he got through it, he felt he had given everything to it.
“The biggest gift in this is that I was so busy throughout the entire time and there were so many challenges involved in doing it that I never got the chance to step back and sort of think about what I was doing,” Price said. “It was only afterwards when I saw the film in Venice when I noticed the role and the responsibility the music has.”