Ever since the introduction of sound ended the silent film era, lush orchestral arrangements have traditionally been the bread and butter of filmmakers looking to accentuate the nuance of human emotion or the bombast of spectacle. From the maestros of the 1930s like Max Steiner (Gone with the Wind) and Erich Wolfgang Korngold (The Adventures of Robin Hood), to modern day legends like John Williams, Hans Zimmer, Alexandre Desplat and Thomas Newman – orchestras have defined the sound of big and small screen stories (outside of musicals).
But for a while there, in the post-Tarantino boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s, that whole practice was replaced by simply dropping a director’s entire record collection into a movie. Crate digging soundtracks from Pulp Fiction, Trainspotting, and Romeo + Juliet were all the rage, evolving into the indie-leaning sensibilities of films like 500 Days of Summer, Garden State and Juno. Although latter day movies such as Baby Driver have found a way to inventively keep that spirit alive, this appears to be phase that’s on the wane.
In more recent times, independent filmmakers seem to be trending towards alternative talents from outside of Hollywood’s establishment. But of course, utilizing experimental composers is nothing new, largely due to a cutting-edge crop of directors between the 1950s and 1970s. Derek Jarman worked with Brian Eno, George Lucas used Lalo Schifren for THX 1138, Werner Herzog collaborated with kosmische legends Popol Vuh, Miles Davis improvised jazz for French films, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner featured one of the very first all-synth scores by Vangelis, while avant-garde composer Toru Takemitsu’s work proliferated in Japan.
Now in the 21st century, a new wave of experimental musicians have come into prominence in the film and television industries, thanks to similarly forward-thinking arthouse auteurs looking to set more unconventional moods. And while these original scores aren’t likely to win Oscars or garner mainstream popularity, they do offer a refreshingly leftfield antidote to the tinkling keys and swelling strings of traditional movie soundtracks. These are just some of the very best experimental composers redefining the sound of film and TV today.
Oneohtrix Point Never
Key scores: Good Time, Uncut Gems
Daniel Lopatin aka Oneohtrix Point Never was an acclaimed experimental and ambient producer long before he came to film. Albums such Replica, R Plus Seven, and Garden of Delete are great start off points if you’d like to get into his complex, genre-defying works. When it comes to his soundtracks, Lopatin’s hypermodern, boundary-pushing compositions have become the go-to for The Safdie Brothers’ breathless, anxiety-inducing crime films.
Key scores: Hereditary, Color Out of Space, Uzumaki
Saxophonist, multireedist, and composer Colin Stetson is best known for his cerebral avant garde jazz albums. Notably, he also frequently collaborates with jazz groups, a black metal band and indie rock acts like Arcade Fire, Bon Iver and Bell Orchestre. Most recently he’s used his talents to blood-curdling effect for arthouse horror films from Ari Aster and Richard Stanley. Next up is an anime adaptation of the legendary horror manga, Uzumaki.
Key scores: Under The Skin, Jackie, Monos
Also known as Micachu – Mica Levi is an English singer, songwriter, composer and producer. After finding success with her experimental pop band Good Sad Happy Bad (formerly Micachu and the Shapes), Mica moved on to creating an eerily atonal score for a weird Jonathan Glazer sci-fi film called Under The Skin. After receiving her first Oscar nomination for her work on Pablo Larraín’s Jackie, she most recently wowed critics with Alejandro Landes’s Monos.
Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross
Key scores: The Social Network, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl, Mid90s, Waves, Soul, Watchmen
Besides being members of industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross are probably the most sought after composers today. After first breaking out with their Oscar winning score for The Social Network, their brand of industrial-tinged electronica has been a feature of David Fincher thrillers. In recent times they’ve varied their palette with titles as distinct as Waves and Watchmen. Next up, is their jazz and blues effort for Pixar’s upcoming Soul.
Key scores: There Will Be Blood, The Master, Inherent Vice, You Were Never Really Here, Phantom Thread
Many point to Jonny Greenwood as the catalyst for this modern trend of experimental scores, starting with his screeching, dissonant score for 2007’s There Will Be Blood. Since then, the lead guitarist and keyboardist of Radiohead has remained a regular Paul Thomas Anderson collaborator, earning an Academy Award nomination for Phantom Thread along the way. Able to excel in multiple genres, it’s no wonder this multi-instrumentalist is so in demand.
Key scores: Suspiria
Speaking of Radiohead, their frontman Thom Yorke once admitted to NME that he was jealous of his bandmate’s film scores. As it turns out, Yorke proved to be no slouch himself when he tried his hand at scoring Luca Guadagnino’s remake of Dario Argento’s horror classic Suspiria. From choral miniatures and piano passages, to unsettling electronica and minor-key strings – Yorke tackled a broad range of styles to convey the film’s sense of slow-building suspense.
Geoff Barrow & Ben Salisbury
Key scores: Ex Machina, Annihilation, Black Mirror, Devs
While both have scored for films and TV independently, it’s their unique partnership that truly took them to the next level. And you’re looking to score the beautiful wonder and unnerving fear that comes with technological or biological dystopias – Portishead’s Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury are your pointmen. In particular, the duo have made an art out of turning the unsettling modernity and body horror of Alex Garland’s heady sci-fi into striking sonic dimensions.
Key scores: Prisoners, Sicario, Arrival, Mandy
The late Jóhann Jóhannsson is the godfather of this modern trend of experimental film scores. The Icelandic producer’s solo work often blended neoteric electronic elements with traditional orchestration, and he brought that same style to his many collaborations with Denis Villeneuve. From the ominous muscularity of his Sicario score, to his otherworldly arrangements on Arrival, to the meshing of black metal and doom drone on Mandy – Jóhannsson was a genius.
The Haxan Cloak
Key scores: Midsommar
When he’s not busy producing for the likes of The Body, Bjork, Serpentwithfeet, Father John Misty, Khalid and many others – The Haxan Cloak’s solo works of drone-drenched electronica and apocalyptic ambient have come under great renown. Recently, his first foray into film scoring for Midsommar proved to be just as acclaimed – infusing Ari Aster’s sunlit horror with atonal, atmospheric and ritualistic compositions that transfix and terrify all at once.
Key scores: Ad Astra, My Brilliant Friend, The Leftovers, Mary Queen of Scots, Waltz WIth Bashir, White Boy Rick
Even among this illustrious list, Max Ricter is by far the most acclaimed musician here. As the leading figure in postminalism, Richter’s melding of his classical training and electronic music has made him a revered solo artist, as well as a sought-after composer of stage, opera, ballet and screen. From contemplative sci-fi and historical biopics to lavish period pieces and animated war documentaries, Richer’s poignant scores are as evocative as they come.
Key scores: Super Dark Times, Fortitude, Dark
A minimalist, instrumental and experimental composer of great renown – Ben Frost’s influences range from classical minimalism to punk rock and black metal. Hailed for his work with musical theatre productions and contemporary dance companies, as well as his numerous solo albums – the prolific Australian has most recently turned his attention to TV and film. From mind-bending sci-fi to indie thrillers, Frost’s eerily atmospheric compositions are perfect for paranoid stories.
Key scores: Merry Christmas, The Last Emperor, The Sheltering Sky, Little Buddha, The Revenant
As the longest tenured entry in this list, Ryuichi Sakamoto has been redefining the sound of film and TV for the last 40 years! This Japanese composer, songwriter and producer pioneered many of the electronic genres others on this list claim as influences – and he continues to push the boundaries today! His oeuvre is voluminous, but as his score for Luca Guadagnino’s new short film This Staggering Girl proves, the avant garde legend is still in his prime.
Nick Cave and Warren Ellis
Key scores: The Proposition, Wind River, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Hell or High Water
Both members of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds are accomplished in their own right. While the former is recognized as one of the finest songwriters of the post-punk era, the latter is a maverick multi-instrumentalist who is hugely influential in instrumental rock. And though they’ve individually produced fantastic scores, it’s their works as a team that have wowed. Specializing in Westerns, the duo have a knack for evoking barren landscapes and humanity’s grim interior.
Key scores: Fruitvale Station, Creed, Black Panther, Community, The Mandalorian
Although he’s won Grammys as Childish Gambino’s production partner, Ludwig Göransson is most famed for his film scores. After cutting his teeth on TV comedies, the Swedish composer’s collaborations with Ryan Coogler led to dynamic scores for Fruitvale Station and Creed, while his work on Black Panther showcased the vibrant multiplicity of African music. Recently, his unconventional take on The Mandalorian recontextualized what Westerns could sound like.