The score for Shane Carruth’s eerie masterpiece Upstream Color was central to the film’s uncanny sense of narcotic immersion.

Composed on a laptop by the director himself, it’s a characteristically individual take on ambient electronica that, when divorced from the film’s intoxicating tumble of images, succeeds as a compelling work of art in its own right.

For the most part, the score – whose track titles are borrowed from fragments of Henry David Thoreau’s transcendentalist nature journal Walden – is comprised of a series of variations on a central theme, based around a wash of low, droning synth that builds like warm air gathering before a storm.

Striking a tension between beauty and ominous unease, Carruth imbues the music with a quasi-mystical sense of the power and mystery of nature.  Tones patter over its surface like rainwater, the dark vibrations of the main theme punctuated by gurgles, echoes and pulses. Though Carruth makes few concessions to progression in the conventional sense, this music never feels like it’s standing still, its slow transitions the aural equivalent of time lapse photography.

Occupying a space somewhere between armchair electronica and contemporary classical, Upstream Color  often shares the same sense of shivering organic energy as John Adams’ ‘Trembling and Shaking’ from his 1978 composition Shaker Loops.  Elsewhere, as it evokes the rumbling vibrations of horizons and landscapes, it brings to mind the work of Adams’ namesake John Luther Adams, whose slow moving soundscapes are also profoundly influenced by the natural world.

The variations initially seem homogenous but become more distinctive with repeated listening.  In ‘Fearing That They Would Be Light-headed for Want of Food and Also Sleep’, a simple, circular piano figure repeats itself over an undertow of chugging cellos. Meanwhile  ‘I Love To Be Alone’ is a moment of stark, tender beauty, arising out of a handful of forlorn piano notes.  In ‘A Low and Distant Sound Gradually Swelling and Increasing’, the score seems to finds its apotheosis:  over the rumbling main theme, dark horns blow, accompanied by the sound of garden chimes brushed by wind.

This is cosmic head music – less a record in the conventional sense and more a state of being, a place to reside in.  This music of micromanaged subtlety is slow to give up it’s secrets.  Fittingly for a film about the lifecycle of an organism, Carruth’s score is the sound of becoming.

 

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