Industrial rocker turned film composer on the likes of Black Swan and now High-Rise, Clint Mansell is bringing his Uneasy Listening project to Glasgow. Delight in the dissonance, writes Fiona Shepherd
You know you’ve made it as a film composer – or, indeed, in any art form – when your name is applied as an adjective. Clint Mansell has reached such lofty heights with his score for High-Rise, Ben Wheatley’s new screen adaptation of JG Ballard’s retro dystopia. So what if it was the director himself who coined the term?
“He called it Mansellian…a bit like Ballardian,” chuckles Mansell down the line from his Hollywood home. “I think that’s fantastic. I suppose you can probably tell my work after hearing a few pieces. There’s a certain dissonance or a certain rub of notes that I like. When I go to see a film, I want to hear something I’ve not experienced before.”
READ MORE: Read Alistair Harkness’ review of High-Rise
Mansell, a former rocker from the West Midlands, is not the most likely candidate to make it as an acclaimed composer for the silver screen. It’s true there is a certain unsettling quality to his work but that could be down to the projects he chooses, from Barbet Schroeder’s thriller Murder By Numbers via Duncan Jones’ existential sci-fi Moon to Park Chan-wook’s twisted family drama Stoker and Jon S Baird’s gleefully unfettered adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s Filth.
But the director whose work he is most closely associated with is Darren Aronofsky – he has scored every one of his films to date, starting with his audacious, claustrophobic debut Pi. Prior to that, Mansell was best known for bouncing around, dreadlocks akimbo, on Top of the Pops as frontman of indie industrial rockers Pop Will Eat Itself, who were leading lights of the short-lived “grebo” movement in the late 1980s and still pop up – sans Mansell – on sympathetic alternative rock bills around the country. When the band initially split in 1996, Mansell holed up in New York, and continued to write without ever quite being able to finish anything.
“I was definitely rudderless and lost,” he says, “We’re very much defined by the things that we do with our lives and when you suddenly aren’t doing that anymore, it’s a really weird experience, and it takes a bit of time to find out who you are that’s not the person who was doing that thing.”
Mansell has always been a lover of film and film soundtracks and it was an entirely chance meeting with Aronofsky which set him on that unexpected path. Having forged a successful partnership on the no-budget Pi, the pair achieved their mutual big break with the trippy Requiem For A Dream in 2000. The doomy, dramatic Lux Aeterna theme became Mansell’s calling card and has since been used to soundtrack trailers – most famously Lord of the Rings – plus adverts, sporting events, and even America’s Got Talent where its martial pomp was deemed appropriate intro music for the judges.
Mansell is tickled by the life this composition has taken on. “It’s like having children – they go off and have their own lives, these works,” he says. “I’ve got to be honest, I think it’s really funny. If you could try to do it with everything you write, you would but it’s like an alchemy that is almost unrepeatable.”
Speaking of alchemy, Mansell likens his relationship with Aronofsky to that of a bandmate, starting out together and sharing influences across diverse works including The Fountain, The Wrestler and the deliciously dark Black Swan. “It can be a tempestuous affair really,” he says, “but I suppose that’s the relationship that I understand easiest because I did it for so many years.”
Mansell is a true maverick in his realm – untrained and instinctive, he prefers to work in the abstract, getting a feel for emotion from the script, rather than hanging about on set or writing to order. He’s a fan of the repetition of minimalism and utilizes samples beside original orchestration – in fact, his sampling of Tchaikovsky excluded the Black Swan soundtrack from Oscar nomination. Not that you imagine Mansell cares much.
“I’m not really what you might call a jobbing composer,” he says. “I don’t think I would really flourish if I was asked to do The Fast & the Furious 27. I like projects that speak to me, with people who inspire me. It’s like any relationship, it’s about chemistry, and if you haven’t got that chemistry, I don’t think you’re going to have the fire. The best and most successful collaborations are the ones where you work together and end up being in a place that neither of you could have imagined getting to on your own.”
The pull of live performance is another legacy of his days in a band. Mansell has been performing his soundtracks as a son et lumière extravaganza, dubbed Uneasy Listening, since 2008. The John Wilson Orchestra this is not.
“I was very much influenced by bands like Mogwai,” he says. “They would play mostly instrumental songs that were quite long, that had big dynamics in them, that were very cinematic, and I felt that there wasn’t that much difference between what we were doing and maybe I could also perform it live. It took a bit of time but once people started seeing it they got what I was trying to do. There’s undoubtedly a narcissism that’s a big part of being a musician and I guess you can’t quite shake off that thrill of playing music to people and being engaged together in it.”
Mansell was originally due to perform the Uneasy Listening show in Glasgow in 2014 but was forced to cancel in tragic circumstances following the death of his girlfriend. It was important for him to reschedule and deliver a requiem of sorts.
“Life is strange,” he muses. “You just never know what’s going to come your way. All those years of watching movies and writing my own music had kind of prepared me for this opportunity when it arrived. And there’s such a lot of comfort and connection in music. It will be very special, and I’m really looking forward to it.”
• Uneasy Listening: An Evening with Clint Mansell is at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, Glasgow on 29 March, www.glasgowconcerthalls.com