Sicario is a complex film. It’s frankly a horse pill to be swallowing as the first of five films nominated for the 2016 Academy Awards, at least for an orchestration review.

Firstly, I just want to say right here that I don’t accept the narrow view of Mexico that the film portrays – a horrific wasteland of 3rd-world lawlessness. Of course, this view is excusable from one perspective, that of the ongoing drug war. I’m sure DEA and FBI agents routinely see the worst of things, and that perspective must be shared in a film about that war. But there’s very little shown of the beauty of Mexico and its people, and I found that disturbing as someone whose grandfather was awarded the Aztec Cross.

However, that gloomy perspective is the driving force behind the emotional architecture of the film, and therefore integral to the character of the gloriously macabre score by Jóhann Jóhannsson. Sicario is structured in some ways like a modern horror film, with long stretches of visual and emotional exposition evolving a vision of brutality and alienation. These passages are lushly scored for full orchestra with heavy processing. Whenever something is really starting to happen, the music joins the narrative with intense complicity.

That said, I was surprised at the sparseness of the music throughout. Usually in a two-hour film, a soundtrack covers individual scenes, sequences, and commentary. There’s almost none of the last, no bits of music effortlessly weaving in and out of a scene. It’s really all or nothing. This leaves wide spaces absent any music whatsoever, in which the plot develops and the characters are introduced. The inevitable outcome here is that when the music starts, we know that something awful is going to happen. Sometimes it’s introduced abruptly, and sometimes it insinuates itself quite subtly, but the effect is the same. The unity of this editing is so complete that I’m not surprised to read a comment posted to the Orchestration Online group by a composer who said that he didn’t notice the music. Perhaps in a perverse way, it wasn’t mean to be noticed, only absorbed as enhancements to scenes.

Of course, this type of scoring is so reliant on processing that the composer’s job approaches that of a sound editor more and more, with music becoming more of an effect than a narrative. Nevertheless, this music was orchestrated by Jóhannsson and his conductor Anthony Weeden, and recorded by a live orchestra. Listening closely to certain tracks, I found the amount of nuance and finesse behind the saturation of effects to be convincing, indeed integral to the whole feeling of the score. This might easily have been recorded with sound sets, but a certain human touch would be lost, making many of the gestures into parodies rather than emotional enhancements.

That said, it makes my job all the more difficult in reviewing the orchestration by ear, without a copy of the score – something usually quite simple otherwise. But I’ll do my best. Let’s examine four cues from key scenes and sequences, unpack what the orchestra is doing, and see how that fits the action of the film.

The first two cues we’ll examine occur at the beginning of the film. If you’re listening through the soundtrack yourself, you’ll notice that several tracks are simply continuations of the same idea. For instance, the opening track, “Armoured Vehicle,” is nearly the same as track 03, “The Border.” Both share that same 3/4 drum beat and ominous harmony. In fact, the third track is mostly just the drumbeat with very gradually altered filtration and volume. So I recommend focusing mainly on track 04, “Drywall,” which includes nearly every feature from these first two tracks and other related cues.

“Drywall” starts with the same 3/4 drumbeat meant to convey the mindless mechanism of greed and contempt for human life that drives the drug cartels. Over this, ominous chords slowly crescendo in and out – a signature of Jerry Goldsmith from his 70’s scores, now so ubiquitous that it’s doubtful that many who use the trick know its provenance. Here, we have low E octaves in lower strings, with trombones playing E minor 3rds behind them. These chords grow in intensity as the horror of the scene becomes ever more apparent. You can hear tuba and contrabassoon grumbling away at the bottom, very nicely controlled by the players so as combine and not to dominate. The fourth iteration is preceded by the sudden introduction of high strings playing a high D minor 6/3 chord, which gives way to randomised cinematic tremolo. But the voicing of the harmony below is more interesting: a C 6/3 chord under an E 6/3 chord. Inherent is the conflict between E minor and F minor, which is underlined following this by low strings on a low E octave against low brass on an F. I like the way the rest of this track capitalises on the tension between harmonic elements in opposing sections, and the way the strings win out in the end with a simple but gruesome little melody: E – F# – G – B.

Another frequently used groove is that of the second track, “The Beast,” which starts with downward-glissandoing low strings from C to A. This iconic riff eventually became the signature hook associated with the film’s promotion. I was questioned by one Orchestration Online member if it were even appropriate to review such a soundtrack, when it seemed to be entirely composed of drones. As I hope I’ve shown above and will expand on more below, this impression is inaccurate – but for what it’s worth, those cues that were specifically drone-like, such as this one, are masterfully crafted. They are lessons in what’s possibly texturally with a live orchestra and effects, and how great it is that trained composers are notating such tracks rather than just playing them through a sound set. I like the way the texture builds, with touches of low winds and brass delicately pushing at the root and the overtones. The slowly emerging drum pattern has a deliciously chaotic sound, with both an overly wet mix and clipping on the attack. It gives the sense that things are out of control, that an uncontrollable appetite for destruction has been unleashed.

Out of all the tracks listed out of 18 on the soundtrack album, I feel that the one which really deserves the most attention is 06 “The Desert.” The textural scoring throughout is superb, all the more so as it doesn’t really rely too much on effect, but might well be completely playable by a live orchestra. Let’s set up that texture from the beginning of the track: double basses on an open pedal low E, under tremolo middle strings and upper string playing various voicings of an E minor chord senza vibrato a poco sul ponticello (including a high natural E harmonic). Into this is introduced a lonely muted solo cello played by cellist Hildur Gudnadottir, close miked to the fingerboard giving it a very chesty tone without much room resonance. It’s restricted in its richness. There’s not a terrific amount of low body to the tone. Yet this gives it an enormous amount of presence against the slowly evolving background as upper strings evolve a countermelody and flutes and clarinets emerge in an alternating pattern. The lush theme that takes hold at around 2:44 is first-rate lyrical epic scoring, and I like the little touches of oboe here and there. As the patterned winds run down around 3:56, listen for the contrabass clarinet tones on a rock-bottom written low F# (sounding E). It’s clever how this pedal E provides a centre of gravity to which the muffled double basses return again and again throughout the remainder of the cue, while above the lightly resonant upper strings continue to shudder and wisp. It’s the best cue in the film, and one of the few which suggests any mystery or beauty in the landscape.

Other tracks in the soundtrack are mixtures of different elements from the main tracks, with a few unique and original touches here and there. It’s not the kind of soundtrack one could just drop into their Oscars party mix, unless it had a seriously Goth guest list. But it does have experimental music cred – I could easily imagine some tracks being performed at certain contemporary electronic or art music concerts I’ve attended and reviewed. The tracks have an intellectual validity, regardless of their shock value in this film. The cue which most underlines this view is the final track of the collection, 18 Alejandro’s Song. It features piping wordless high B’s and C’s above the staff by strained falsetto voices in improvisatory intersecting lines, strongly reminiscent of certain works I’ve heard by contemporary Scandinavian composers of the past generation. The occasionally wide vibrato was like a modulation wheel at times, underlining the oddness of the mix between acoustic sound and electronic effect.

But was it for stylistic reasons that the Academy gave Sicario’s score a nomination? And does it have a chance of winning? I’ll mull over these points in the final instalment of this 5-part series. For now, stay posted for the next 2016 Oscars Orchestration Review on Carter Burwell’s score to the film “Carol.” See you very soon.

An excellent interview with composer Jóhann Jóhannsson discussing his work on Sicario: