BROADCHURCH – Ólafur Arnalds


Original Review by Alan RogersBroadchurch

Broadchurch is the critically acclaimed crime drama that hit British TV screens in the spring of 2013. Shown over 8 weeks, it has been compared with quality Scandinavian dramas such as The Killing and The Bridge partly because of Broadchurch’s whole feel and look. One of the reasons the drama gripped the audience was the story’s focus on how the death of a young boy affected both the boy’s family and the wider community and how both family and the close-knit community showed severe signs of strain as the police investigation progressed to a conclusion. Icelandic composer Ólafur Arnalds – who wrote a strings and piano-based score for the drama Another Happy Day – compliments the over-riding sense of tragedy, melancholy and grief that is carefully created by writer/producer Chris Chibnall by composing a sparse score that focuses on highlighting the underlying emotions felt by the protagonists rather than being just a mirror for on-screen developments.

Ólafur Arnalds’ music is recognised for it’s emotionally-charged, melancholic feel (think Max Richter or Zbigniew Preisner), and his use intimate groups of instruments (particularly strings and piano) augmented with a variety of electronic instrumentation. Ideally suited to the tone of Broadchurch’s “slow-burn” pace and focus on loss, grief and suspicion, Arnalds’ music for Broadchurch is a key “virtual character” and has rightly been singled out my many for specific praise. Written for string quartet and piano and with the addition of loops and electronic beats, the score centres around a central theme for Beth Latimer (“Beth’s Theme”) – the mother of the boy whose murder is at the centre of Broadchurch. Consisting of a short alternating motif that is heard most frequently on solo piano, this theme repeats over-and-over again, moving through a series of 3-4 chords in a circular fashion before repeating. The theme gives both a sense of melancholy to Beth’s character but is also suggestive of the unending grief and loss the mother feels; emotions that even the conclusion of the murder case cannot dispel. To add to the melancholia of this piano motif, a descending line of low strings adds colour and further shrouds the score with a darkness that permeates throughout the drama. This alternating piano motif is powerfully introduced in the first track, “Main Theme”, as a slow, isolated statement of Beth’s emotional vacuum. The majority of the remaining tracks on this short album are drenched with the same feeling of grief. Brooding strings at the start of “Suspects” and during “Broken” links these tension-filled tracks with Beth’s theme and the string lines that counterpoint the see-sawing piano motif. The composer’s decision to record the string quartet in an empty church in Reykjavik rather than in the comforts of a studio adds to the powerful tone heard in the strings.

The score to Broadchurch is not all pure grief and loss. The inclusion of electronic beats into the mix (e.g., towards the end of “Main Theme” and “Suspects”) adds a dynamism and tension that’s required particularly towards the end of each episode where various strands of story are recapped or if there’s an important plot development unfolding (a similar device was used in The Killing). “Arcade” is notable as the point in the album where there is a brief light of optimism (though this is relative and is not THAT optimistic). As the remaining members of the Latimer family spend a few hours at a local seaside arcade, piano and strings provide a nostalgic backdrop suggesting an echo to better times. The composer’s skilful suggestion of nostalgia is tempered though by the musicians restrained approach the piece and it is not long before the briefest of respites from events dissolves and the piano’s optimism falls apart and the sense of loss returns. The album also features the end credits song (though for some reason it appears as the second track on the album). Sung by Icelandic band Agent Fresco front-man Arnor Dan (Arnór Dan Arnársson) and written by Arnalds, “So Close” retains the tone and feel of the score (helped in no small part by the quality of the singer’s voice) and therefore the song feels an integrated part of the soundtrack as a whole. In fact, the composer has hinted that the song’s lyrics contains clues that help identify the killer. These hints may have been lost on most of the viewing audience due to TV channel’s love for providing voice-overs during credits and by the fact that most people don’t sit through the end credits of TV programmes.

Ólafur Arnalds’ score is a prime example of a piece of music that, when heard, takes the listener back immediately into the show for which it was written. The grief, sense of loss and the melancholy infused into the score mirrors the same emotions that have been skilfully recreated by the programme-makers. And this connection between film and score shows how significant an impact the score has on screen. Although the score does focus on darker emotions such as grief and melancholy it is not a depressing listen. It is a score worth tracking down because of the quality of the music itself: it is a great example on how to wring out the maximum amount of emotion from a minimum amount of effort (that’s not to be dismissive of the music in any way as sometimes the simplest-seeming music can be the most difficult to create).

It’s also worth commenting on what has actually been released by Mercury Classics. I would have thought that for an 8-hour drama there could have been more music released than the 20 minutes actually made available for purchase. Perhaps what’s in the release represents the main ideas of the score and any more would just be repetition. I do get the impression that the score is made up of numerous short cues and that for release several of these small cues may have been combined to make for a better listening experience (e.g., “Main Theme”). For those who have already seen Broadchurch, the music will be an immediate reminder of what was so good about the show. Those people who have yet to catch this drama will find value as a separate listening experience and will find it an excellent “primer” for this quality British drama. Ólafur Arnalds’ score for Broadchurch is available as a digital download at most online stores but is currently unavailable on CD.

Audio samples can be found HERE.

Note: Mercury Classics released a 50-minute digital album featuring music from Broadchurch Seasons 1 and 2 on January 15th, 2015. This expanded album contains all the tracks from this EP release (excluding the track “Arcade”) plus an additional 8 cues.

Rating: ***½

  1. Main Theme (3:01)
  2. So Close (3:52)
  3. Suspects (2:47)
  4. Arcade (1:33)
  5. Broken (4:24)
  6. Beth’s Theme (5:15)

Running Time: 20:54

Mercury Classics (2013)

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Comments

  1. Great review Alan. I too am sure there is more music worthy of release. I got the impression that, at the time, the album was put together fairly quickly to concide with Ep. 7.

    Please check out the review I wrote on synchrotones.wordpress.com, thanks.

    • Thanks for the comments. I came across your blog when I was researching for this review and I found it great to read someone else’s opinion on the score. It was interesting to read so many similarities in your review to the thoughts that I had already had myself (honest!). It would be interesting to hear if there is any more music that would add to what has already been released – for example, I am sure some of the music that was featured in a video showing the string quartet recording some music is not featured on the EP release.

      II will certainly be following your blog from now on.

      • There is, at the very least, some percussion-heavy action/suspense music that I’d really like to see released; and it would make the album more varied. And as you said, it’s an 8 hour show! There’s a bit of repetition going on, but I’m sure they could easily squeeze a respectable 45-50 minute album out of it.

  2. Mark Taylor says:

    Thanks so much for mentioning Max Richter! All through the series I was sure I had heard “Beth’s Theme” somewhere before and finally now I have the answer: “Vladimir’s Blues” by Max Richter.

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