‘Upstream Color’ score uses synthetic sounds to elicit resoundingly human emotions.
Composed by Shane Carruth
February 20, 2013
There’s an ostensibly incomprehensible quality about Shane Carruth’s work that initially makes it difficult to write about. There’s also a genuine and earnest desire to be heard and understood that makes grappling his output irresistible. Where this is true of his films, it’s also true of his score for Upstream Color, a nebulous concoction of synthetic sounds and ponderous rhythms that reflect the filmmaker’s fondness for technology and the more enigmatic aspects of our world.
This description may make the music sound inaccessible, but it’s not. Carruth’s score for Upstream Color is actually more interested in finding its own interpretation of beauty than alienating the listener. However, reviewing the music for Upstream Color proves a distinct challenge in that it doesn’t follow the traditional narrative structure of most film scores. It instead consists of disparate vistas of sound that are bound by a strong undercurrent of electronic ambiance, making for a more impressionistic musical experience.
The score opens with “As if it Would Have a Universal and Memorable Ending”, which begins with a repetitive, pulsating drone that sustains the rest of the piece. This drone is later accompanied by two simple strings of ascending and descending tones that together recall something both mysterious and childlike. These two contrasting musical ideas are further explored in “A Low and Distant Sound Gradually Swelling and Increasing”, another longwinded, yet descriptively titled track that immerses the listener in a tension-soaked soundscape filled with rumbling percussion, extended horns, and whispering strings. The weight of the piece is juxtaposed by soothing chimes and a tinkling piano, which complement each other beautifully. It’s a compelling track that effectively interweaves the ominous with the ethereal.
While Carruth enjoys infusing the light with the dark throughout Upstream Color, he smartly finds time to embrace each quality fully. “After Soaking Two Years and then Lying High Six Months…” is at once tranquil and triumphant, comprised of rich, oscillating chords that hint towards some hopeful, higher place. These chords are accompanied by an organ-like instrument releasing airy bits of sound that reverberate throughout the entire piece. Conversely, “Stirring Them Up as the Keeper of a Menagerie His Wild Beasts” seeks to explore darker territory using amorphous noise, a sporadic, sonorous cello and intriguing chimes to create something atmospherically dissonant and foreboding.
Despite Upstream Color’s generally gauzy quality there are notable instances of sonic texture sprinkled throughout the score. “I Love to be Alone” is a curious track made up of various elements that all seemingly operate on their own, one of which being a piano that alternates between something delicate and oddly fitful, as if its mallets were striking incorrectly. “Fearing That They Would be Light-Headed for Want of Food and Also Sleep”, one of the more propulsive tracks on the score, uniquely boasts a gong amidst more traditional stringed instruments. These inventive tracks inject the score with a peculiar color that prevents it from becoming too monotonous.
Upstream Color closes with “A Sullen Rush and Roar”, which calls back to the structure of “After Soaking Two Years”, but replaces much of its transcendence with a melancholy tenor, wishing to leave the listener in a calmer, more pensive state than when they started. Not unlike Brian Eno or Max Richter, Shane Carruth manages to elicit organic qualities out of these synthetic sounds, creating music that’s both inviting and resoundingly human. His score for Upstream Color exists as a testament to his experimental nature as a cinematic polymath and is undoubtedly something experience.