The Music Of 'The Martian,' Deconstructed

Oct 30, 2015
Originally published on November 12, 2015 1:08 pm

Outer space is silent, and that may be one reason why a lot of movies about space have iconic scores — in addition to helping advance the the plot, the music in films like Star Wars and 2001: A Space Odyssey must fill a literal void.

Composer Harry Gregson-Williams wasn't looking to take up that challenge: He's made his best-known scores for fantasy films like the Shrek and Chronicles of Narnia series. Instead, the challenge came to him.

"A script plopped through the letterbox one day, with a terse little note on it which said, 'Read it. Like it. Do it.' I plowed through the script in one hungry sitting, and it was a no-brainer," Gregson-Williams says.

That script would eventually become The Martian, the new Ridley Scott movie starring Matt Damon as an astronaut stranded on Mars, and featuring music by Gregson-Williams. The composer says his first meetings with Scott completely upended his expectations for how to frame the story and its lonely hero.

"His optimism for life, his love of science and problem-solving that he always seems to be able to handle with humor and charisma — all this should be reflected in the music. There's no reason for the music to be too dark for too long in this film," Gregson-Williams says. "And that was quite a revelation, to begin with, because I had thought there would be a lot of darkness and despair He's only hanging onto a tiny thread of belief that he could live. But for the most part, this is a guy who's up for the challenge."

In a conversation originally recorded for the Song Exploder podcast — in which host Hrishikesh Hirway asks musicians to deconstruct their songs part by part — Gregson-Williams explains how each moment in a particular scene from The Martian was matched to an instrument and a melody. You can hear the full breakdown at the audio link, and find more Song Exploder episodes at songexploder.net.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Outer space is silent. Maybe that's why a lot of movies about space have such memorable scores. The music in "Star Wars" and "2001: A Space Odyssey" fill the void with wonderful instrumentation. What you're hearing now is from "The Martian," the latest blockbuster about space.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: The film is about an astronaut stranded on Mars. The score was composed by Harry Gregson-Williams. We're going to spend the next few minutes listening to him explain how he created some of the score, courtesy of Song Exploder. It's a podcast that breaks down songs with the musicians who made them. Here, Gregson-Williams talks about creating the specific music, or what he calls a queue, for one scene in "The Martian." He says the process began with a job offer from the director, Ridley Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "SONG EXPLODER")

HARRY GREGSON-WILLIAMS: A script plopped through the letterbox one day with a terse little note on it which said read it, like it, do it. (Laughter). I plowed through the script in one hungry sitting, and it was a no-brainer - certainly something I really wanted to do.

Our first conversations were about tone and color. The outcome of the first meeting, really, was that I should focus on Watney - you know, Matt Damon's character - which was pretty clear that I should from the script. His optimism for life, his love of science and problem-solving that he always seems to be able to handle with humor and charisma, all this should be reflected in the music, you know, that there was no reason for the music to be too dark for too long in this film. And that was quite a revelation to begin with because I had thought there would be a lot of darkness and despair. He's only hanging onto a tiny thread of belief that he could live, but for the most part, this is a guy who's up for the challenge.

The piece of music that you've picked out here has the technological, scientific aspect of him talking into a camera, and no one else there - him alone on Mars. He looks like he's made up his mind that this is it, this is the day that he's going to leave. The queue's going to start with bass frets (ph) and low-celloian (ph) basses.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREGSON-WILLIAMS: This little theme, (singing), comes a couple of times in the movie, and it's quite austere. It's part of a Mars motif. And then the mood changes somewhat, brightens. We get to Watney, who's smiling. We hear a little harp thing...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREGSON-WILLIAMS: ...With a bit of delay on it, which gives us a little spring in our step.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREGSON-WILLIAMS: I wanted it to be an organic played instrument. I wanted a texture - I didn't want it to be guitar, I didn't want it to be piano. And that kind of limited me. The harp seemed absolutely perfect, and then I'd stick a left-right delay on it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREGSON-WILLIAMS: I wanted that feeling, like, a mounting excitement.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREGSON-WILLIAMS: Musically, I had to find a way of embracing a kind of scientific side of the fun he was having. To begin with, you know, I wanted to have some fun with little arpeggiated synths.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREGSON-WILLIAMS: In the past, sometimes I'd say my scores are synth with a little bit of orchestra poking its head through. This one, I think, is the other way around. I think it's more organic with some synths bubbling around in the background.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREGSON-WILLIAMS: So after the queue's been going for a little bit, there's a gap in what Watney is saying, and that seemed like a perfect place to start the melody, which is these open fourths and fifths.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREGSON-WILLIAMS: And it's getting higher and higher. It's very optimistic.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREGSON-WILLIAMS: For variation, I added a beautiful alto glockenspiel I have, which just gives the piano a sparkle.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREGSON-WILLIAMS: As we go forward, I needed to vary it one more time, and I add an autoharp, which is kind of a small instrument - very, very, very, very high.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREGSON-WILLIAMS: So these are the sort of things that one's looking to do, is to build, of course, development without taking the listener out of the movie for a moment. So instead of using piano all the way through, I'm just adding letters.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREGSON-WILLIAMS: So halfway through the first part of this queue, the synths give over to a string ostinato.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREGSON-WILLIAMS: So this little figure, (singing), really was looking for some release here.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREGSON-WILLIAMS: I realized that that could interweave itself with the synths.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREGSON-WILLIAMS: By the time we get a little bit further, the whole orchestra have been introduced.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREGSON-WILLIAMS: It needed to state his theme quite clearly without being too ostentatious, yet let Watney be the star of the scene, not the music. Because let's face it, I mean, Matt Damon's performance really, really pulls this movie and I really didn't want to get in the way of that.

A lot of my writing time was very pleasurable in this movie. I think it really helps when the movie's so darn good - the acting's good, the writing's good. It was very much a joy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEGEL: That was composer Harry Gregson-Williams talking about making music for the film "The Martian." The story came to us from the podcast Song Exploder, produced by Hrishikesh Hirway. It's part of the Radiotopia network from PRX. You can listen to other episodes at songexploder.net or wherever you get your podcasts.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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