PILGRIMAGE – Stephen McKeon

Pilgrimage is a powerful Irish historical drama directed by Brendan Muldowney and is set in 13th century Ireland. A group of monks leave the sanctity of their monastery and, under orders of the Vatican, must escort a sacred relic across a hostile Ireland and onwards to Rome. The faith and devotion to their task are tested from without and within as they come up against savage local tribes, Norman soldiers and even members of their own group. The low budget film stars a strong cast including Tom Holland, Richard Armitage and Jon Bernthal, and has a wonderfully dramatic score by Stephen McKeon. His score for Pilgrimage won the Irish Film and Television Awards (IFTA) for Best Music in 2018.

Irish composer McKeon has scored for over 80 films including the Irish comedy The Flag (2016), My Name Is Emily (2015) and Savage (2009). Two of McKeon’s scores for Jon Boorman films – Queen & Country (2014) and The Tiger’s Tale (2004) – received Best Music IFTAs and his score for the Finnish drama, Absolution (Henkesi Edestä), was highlighted in my 2015 Reel Music Awards as being one of the Top 5 drama scores of the year. The composer has also written music for television, including episodes of Ireland’s The Clinic, the UK sci-fi action show Primeval and a selection of episodes of Agatha Christie’s Poirot. He has also scored the Black Mirror episode, “Fifteen Million Merits” (2011). Pilgrimage is an evocative score, haunting and moody in its feel and mirrors well the atmospheric feel of the movie. The music also reflects on the film’s focus of the moral and psychological battles that are constantly taking place during the relic’s journey. Although there is little in the way of identifiable ‘traditional’ themes, McKeon uses a number of distinct music ideas and motifs – I counted at least 9 – to reinforce the shifts in locations and points of view.

McKeon has described three main elements to his score – percussion, low male voices and low brass – to represent the 13th century setting, the evil that men do in the name of religion and the transformative power of love (Muldowney’s brief to McKeon was to composer a score of “skin, bone and iron”). A major aspect of Pilgrimage is the use of the human voice. Solo and choral parts are expertly delivered by the Crux Vocal Ensemble, under the direction of Paul McGough who also provides the overtone (throat) singing heard on the score. A solo female voice (soprano Colette Delahunt) is also featured in an otherwise male-dominated ensemble (acting and vocal). The opening cue, “Prologue – The Relic”, begins the album with a brief summary of a number of musical ideas used in the score with male voices (quasi-Gregorian chant), overtone singing and a chorus of low male voices immediately establishing a religious feel to the music.

The most obvious use of the voice is when soloist and the ensemble recite religious texts or chants (e.g., “Prologue – The Relic”, “Sacrifice”, “Escape By River”). This is perhaps the religious voice at its ‘purest’. The presence of long passages using groups of male voices (e.g., in cues such as “The Blackest of Their Deeds – The Heretics”) reinforces the spiritual feel of the score but also introduces a more threatening aspect to the music (“The Torture of Ciarán”). This is not only a threat to the monks from outside forces but also when the danger is from within the group. The use of vocals continues with the presence of dissonant voices (think György Ligeti) – a startling effect against the spiritual voice – which is combined with what sounds like Middle Eastern woodwinds (the latter reminding me of the Master Musicians of Jajouka’s woodwinds in Howard Shore’s The Cell) (“Crossfigil”, “Ua Mórdha Attack – Part 1”, “Battle On The Beach – Part 2”). It’s interesting that this dissonant motif seems to be associated with the mute character (Bernthal) who accompanies the monks in their quest and may indicate in musical terms a past suspected but hidden to some of the on-screen characters. There are very few, if any, women credited in Pilgrimage but a female human voice features in the score. Representing, as McKeon recalls, “hope and our more noble possibilities” the soprano voice is heard at points where characters exhibit purity and caring traits whilst treachery and evil intent are present all around them (e.g., “Cappadocia AD50”, “The Clearing – In Timore Dei”).

Although the human voice dominates this score, sections of the orchestra (members of the RTÉ Concert Orchestra) also play pivotal roles, particularly during several of the battle scenes. Propulsive percussion rhythms in tracks such as “Ua Mórdha Attack – Part 1” and “Battle On The Beach” (Parts 1 and 2) add an energy to realistic skirmishes between opposing factions. The aggressive percussion and rasping brass heard in “Ua Mórdha Attack – Part 1” are reminiscent of passages in Elliot Goldenthal’s Alien³. More restrained martial drums – and a memorable brass phrase motif – are associated with the Norman invaders (“Arrival of the Normans – In The Hollows”, “Severed Heads”). Strings offer some of the few less threatening parts of the score with tracks such as the opening “Prologue – The Relic”, “The Journey Begins” and the concluding “Epilogue – The Novice”. These cues feature a beautiful but somehow restrained string motif (reminiscent of the strings heard in Arvo Pärt’s Silouans Song).

Although Pilgrimage doesn’t contain any obviously memorable, full-blown themes McKeon has amassed a bag of impressive motifs or cells of musical ideas that he has fashioned into cohesive whole. The result is a musical world that adds significantly to the movie, particularly to the film’s portrayal of faith and the power associated with religious symbols such as relics. On some occasions the feeling generated by the music almost tips over into one of the supernatural. The composer’s music is so powerful that you are almost transported to 13th century Ireland where religion is all-powerful and is in a constant conflict with pagan beliefs and tribal savagery. This is a score that needs the listener’s attention: it’s not a score for listening whilst doing something else. Pilgrimage is a demanding listen and rewards the time and effort put into it. True, the score does dip in the middle momentarily when a couple of longer tracks feature a bit too much ambient meandering but this can be forgiven because of the strength of the music as a whole. This score is available as a digital download from MovieScore Media via the usual digital stores and is available for streaming. Audio clips can be heard HERE. Pilgrimage will be released on CD by Quartet Records in May 2018.

Rating: ****

  1. Prologue – The Relic (3:05)
  2. The Journey Begins (2:08)
  3. Cappadocia AD50 (3:19)
  4. The Blackest of Their Deeds – The Heretics (2:24)
  5. Arrival of The Normans – Into The Hollows (3:41)
  6. Crossfigil (2:12)
  7. The Poisoned Stream (2:15)
  8. Severed Heads (1:58)
  9. Judas (3:35)
  10. Ua Mórdha Attack – Part 1 (2:50)
  11. The Clearing – In Timore Dei (3:08)
  12. The Lake (3:51)
  13. The Journey Continues – The Lightning Strikes (2:10)
  14. Ua Mórdha Attack – Part 2 (3:03)
  15. The Cistercian and The Mute (5:07)
  16. The Rescue Attempt (3:43)
  17. The Novice (2:09)
  18. The Torture of Ciarán (2:50)
  19. Pursuit (2:00)
  20. The Forest (4:14)
  21. Escape By River (2:35)
  22. Sacrifice (4:40)
  23. Battle On The Beach – Part 1 (2:52)
  24. Battle On The Beach – Part 2 (4:50)
  25. Epilogue – The Novice (3:41)

Running Time: 78:32

MovieScore Media (2018)

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