Stranger Things to Uncut Gems: a golden age of electronic soundtracks

March 13, 2020

Leftfield electronica producers have become cinema’s go-to composers, blurring the boundaries between the dancefloor and the visual arts

It is not hard to see why first-time feature director Nick Rowland looked to Benjamin John Powers for the soundtrack to his film Calm With Horses. It is a violent crime thriller set in rural Ireland, full of bleakness and tension – and if Powers’s music as Blanck Mass and half of Fuck Buttons is anything, it is bleak, tense and violent. But this is not the only recent use of a producer from the world of leftfield electronica and club music in the movies and on TV – far from it.

Warp Records mainstay Oneohtrix Point Never (Daniel Lopatin) has reached new audiences thanks to his work on the Safdie brothers’ Good Time and Uncut Gems. Hyperdub alumni Fatima Al Qadiri and Laurel Halo made their feature soundtrack debuts with, respectively, last year’s Atlantics and the upcoming Possessed. Hildur Guðnadóttir’s Oscar-winning score for Joker is shot through with her immersion in underground electronica, as is her score for Chernobyl. Perhaps the biggest recent example was Stranger Things’s 80s-style synth-driven score, by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein of the electronic band Survive.

This is definitely part of a trend. In recent years we have seen Clark, another Warp artist, get major attention for his 2016 Last Panthers soundtrack; Mica “Micachu” Levi really find her feet as an artist with multiple soundtracks since 2014’s Under the Skin; and Ryuichi Sakamoto move back to his electronic roots alongside Alva Noto for The Revenant. And all the while, Clint Mansell and the team of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross have painted Hollywood all kinds of shades of black with their moody synthscapes. Similar work has been put in by the likes of Underworld (through their relationships with Danny Boyle and Anthony Minghella) and Leftfield, too.

It makes sense, of course. Electronica producers deal in the kind of fine detail and gut-rumbling noise that really comes to life with full immersion in a Dolby-equipped cinema. Since the EDM explosion in the US, too, global ears have become acclimatised to synapse-twisting electro sounds, and as raves and festivals become visual extravaganzas, musicians increasingly create their sound with images in mind. The likes of Alva Noto and Al Qadiri have always been equally at home in galleries as at raves. As Warp’s creative director Stephen Christian says: “We exist a lot in the contemporary art world because of the people we work with, be it video directors or designers. We put an emphasis on the visual side of things.”

In fact, we are in a golden age of electronic soundtracks not seen since the era of Tangerine Dream, Walter/Wendy Carlos and John Carpenter. So will all this one day sound as kitsch as those 70s and 80s synths? After all, as Philip French said of the Carlos-scored film A Clockwork Orange: “Nothing dates the past like its impressions of the future.”