Jónsi & Alex Shape MANHATTAN’s Atomic Atmosphere With Eerie Sounds
By Alicia Lutes on August 25, 2014
When it comes to man’s drive to experiment, no show better illustrates the magnitude of human discovery than WGN America’s Manhattan, a story about the creation of the atomic bomb and the toll it took not only on the world, but the people who helped create it. To construct the perfect soundtrack to complement the show’s blustery, unpredictable atmosphere, Jónsi & Alex ( Sigur Rós‘ lead singer and his long-time partner and collaborator, Alex Somers) experimented themselves, discovering the emotive differences between music and sound.
Jón Þór Birgisson and Alex Somers are a veritable force when it comes to breaking new ground in eclectic musical artistry and texture. Their world is filled with sights and sound as much as it is music, and the ambiance they create thrives in a world as fervent, unknown, and electric as Los Alamos, New Mexico. Brought to life with striking visual aplomb by creator Sam Shaw and director Thomas Schlamme, the historical-scientific-drama-with-liberties taps into the emotional resonance of the world altering Manhattan Project.
“It’s really different,” Somers explains. “We read the first three scripts and they were really cool — we liked what they were saying and the kind of ideas they had in the show: to be a bit different, a bit darker, a bit slower.”
The era was also a big draw for the couple. “I was really excited to do it because it was a period piece based in the 1940s. That was a really big pull for me. That, and I don’t think Jónsi and I really know how to write music for any sort of action stuff,” Somers jokes. “Mainly the stuff we listen to around the house is music made before and in the 40s and 50s, so it really resonated with us…I really like the old, crusty fidelity of what the records sound like back then.”
Consequently, the score for the series is entrenched not just in the sounds of the 40s, but also the disquieting and erratic sounds that bring to life the frenetic energy of life on “The Hill.”
“Jónsi and I both are really into sound as a thing separate from music, and also really into how to make sounds musical and have it possess two worlds–having the line blurred between our score and sound effects.”
To achieve the diverse melodies and aural textures that enshroud the show, the duo employ a variety of techniques.
“We record things and slow them down. Once things become slower they tend to lose the compression, and a lot of the sounds you hear might just be simpler instruments or percussive things but they’ve just been slowed down to a lower pitch and pace to where they’re a bit strange. We definitely wanted it to be moody and subliminal.”
Nothing is off-limits when it comes to creating those sounds. “We play most of the instruments ourselves for Manhattan, but we’ve also brought in a string ensemble and brass ensemble. I’m thinking about getting a humming choir — I think that’d be another cool texture.”
As appealing as those themes and constraints are, they are also a challenge. “Normally when you work on music or work with a band you tend not to have grand themes like that when you start; you just make music,” Somers says. “For TV, it’s music in a context, and it can’t be cheesy or overly dramatic. You can’t be afraid to go there and make people feel something. Music is so much about, you know, you close your eyes and it exists; you feel it. You can’t really do that with music for [television]. There’s way more cycles of emotion, way more ups and downs.”
For instance, one of the major sonic forces in the series is the scientific and frenetic mind of its star, Frank Winters (John Benjamin Hickey). His mind is troubled by so much, and pushed by an ambitious desire to change the world for good — even when it comes at a deadly cost. “There have been a few cues where we’ve tried to [create] this unpredictability and the side of genius that’s scary and inhuman,” Somers explains. Jónsi and Alex do this with granular delay, a technique that “takes grains from the sound and delays it like crazy, so it’s kind of this unpredictable and weird delayed effect. And we do these things with strings that are unintuitive.”
“Frank, Tommy [Schlamme] and Sam [Shaw] really wanted to develop a sound for Frank’s inner thoughts and the outer world,” Somers says. “So we’ve been trying to do that. It’s tricky, but there’s kind of a different sound-world for when you’re inside Frank’s head.”
Through their immersive and holistic approach, Jónsi and Alex are able to enhance and elucidate the emotions and relationships manifesting among all of the characters. “We’re kinda trying to develop new things between characters as they drift apart or come closer together and draw these new musical bonds between people.”
“It’s kind of cool because all the characters are on thin ice,” Somers says. “There’s so much tension that’s pretty under the surface, but there’s this cool brewing that’s happening, and it’s really exciting to see which characters are becoming more unraveled, or finding their feet more and using their energy toward something good. Or what they think is good.”
The duo’s passion for theses characters and their highly tense circumstances keeps them moving forward. “We’re definitely influenced by the subject matter on the show. Maybe it doesn’t translate in a literal way, but the bleakness and the overwhelming darkness of what it was definitely permeated into the kind of work that we’re doing,” Somers says.
“We’re really learning a lot and trying to be open-minded.”