Altered Carbon – Television Score Review

Jeff Russo, known for his recent work on Fargo, Legion, and Star Trek: Discovery, was hired by Netflix to lend his unique musical stylings to their science fiction epic Altered Carbon. What has served Russo best in his previous scores and now on Altered Carbon is his ability to dodge clichés and mix in only specific elements of what is expected in these respective musical genres.

Russo’s ‘Altered Carbon Main Titles’ begins with ethereal soprano voice, mandolin, looped whispering voices, and electric cello. As the cue moves along, the whispers, mandolin, and soprano provide soft accompaniment to an otherworldly motif on the electric cello. Sweeping strings and deep percussion join the cue later and provide a pickup that makes the cue drivingly rhythmic and downright eerie. This sets the stage for a score that feels spookily futuristic, but also finds its roots in a few supernatural and old-fashioned techniques.

‘Consciousness’ begins this score combining what seems to be a children’s chorus, a somewhat old-fashioned technique, with synthesized vibraphone-like tones, culturally synonymous with musical scores of the future. On subtle strikes of percussion, the chorus or solo voice echoes out a tritone above synthesized tones ringing a minor third interval. In the context of the show this track is often cued under shots of the cityscape and shots of travel, and it helps describe the desolate yet lustrous futuristic environment well. Later in the cue, electric cello and strings are heard in sweeping consonant intervals portraying elements of home, family, and tight-knit groups. This type of string section is intermittent in many cues, just as the elements it’s associated with are irregular in the futuristic environment of the show.

‘Last Stand Kovacs V1’, ‘Bancroft Show Kovacs’, ‘Her Daughter’, ‘Passing The Book’ are ominous cues involving strings, synthesized tones, and extended percussion techniques. They are cued mostly under scenes of dialogue that are very important to the narrative of the show, such as why characters have been brought to life in this future environment, what their investigation is headed towards, and important flashbacks to characters’ back stories. These tracks aid the pacing of the overall show, and enhance the thrills and suspenseful emotions that the show-runners desire the audience to feel.

Differing from the previous cues, ‘The Patchwork Man’ is utilized in a flashback showing part of Kovacs’ (Joel Kinnaman’s character’s) back story. Synthesized tones and chilling strings accompany a child’s voice as it sings a poem about a frightening imaginary character he and his sister read stories about. The entire cue is made to sound as if it’s an innocent and carefree song that might be heard on an elementary playground, while the subject matter is anything but fitting for those musical and real-world environments. The ‘Patchwork Man’ is the product of the biological tampering and body-splicing of the future that provides the show’s base subject matter. The cue feels as sinisterly pieced together as this man, and provides an antithetical and frighteningly child-like sound to the scene.

‘Attacked By Troopers’ and ‘Let My Baby Ride’ are short and upbeat cues using distorted stringed instruments, synthesized tones, and loud percussion to accompany action and fight scenes, though they are not always the cues used in those scene types.

Most notably, ‘More Human Than Human’ provides a purely unnerving accompaniment to a few fast-paced fight scenes through sweeping strings and a quick theme on solo piano that is akin to the theme from the ‘Halloween’ film franchise. Composed by Sune Wagner, the most memorable cue of this track occurs as a masked figure brutally slays multiple assailants before rescuing the show’s main characters.

‘Ain’t No Grave’ is a cover of the song made famous by Johnny Cash, and its lyrics fit perfectly into the futuristic life portrayed in Altered Carbon. It begins at a stroll and builds into a rather spacious track. Renee Elise Goldsberry’s vocals on “Ain’t no grave gonna hold my body down” paired with thick supporting strings accompany the mysterious nature of eternal life in Altered Carbon perfectly.

Overall, this score does what Altered Carbon does as a show, which is combine futuristic and old-fashioned elements and techniques in order to tap into our wandering, mysterious minds (and frighten us a bit in the process). Russo should be commended for his avoidance of the stereotypes set by futuristic scores such as those for Blade Runner and others. He has utilized every technique at his disposal to craft a chilling and exquisite score for Netflix’s grand science fiction story.

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