Among many other things, one of my favorite characteristics of composer Cliff Martinez’s work is his ability to casually and unpretentiously present thematic elements to his scores. Whereas some composers of similar ilk ensure the listener is boldly aware of a given score’s direction and ultimate destination, the magical ability of Cliff Martinez unrelentingly draws in the listener, making them a parallel observer, but almost as if through tinted or broken glass. Martinez’s unique and undeniably classy style of wavering ambient electronic usually contributes to feelings of despondence and desolation yet has the uncanny ability to define and validate the plots intertwined with the scores he creates, creating a sense of closure and yearn that many other composers have long emulated but not duplicated. Such was the case with last year’s absolutely stellar scores for Drive and Contagion, the first being an intense gritty and violent film but with a horrifyingly sedated (in a good way) ambient score, and the second displaying an apocalyptic and tumultuous global entropy with a similarly brooding, bleak, and oppressive score that’s still one of my favorites to date.
Thus, I was not surprised at all when, after listening to Martinez’s score for the film Arbitrage, I found that the story centered on a character played by Richard Gere, who is trying to balance family life, high-traffic financial business on the verge of epic failure, and a marital affair, when he makes a bloody mistake that causes it all to come crashing down. As with erstwhile Martinez efforts, the top-level themes seep through in the score, trapping the listener in a cage of emotional reticence and yet captivating beauty. Calm, melancholic, and sometimes cold ambient interludes weave themselves in and out of all the score’s twenty tracks, sometimes scaling the aural cliff to pieces containing electronic percussion before careening to careful piano and guitar resolutions, giving the impression of a gentle and familiar emotional foundation coupled with scant but increasing periods of fracturing stress and heartache. As Martinez continues and furthers the sound of not only Traffic, but the instant classics Solaris and Drive, it’s nigh on impossible to select one track that’s more effective than the others in encapsulating elements associated with Arbitrage’s character losing ultimate control of his life’s amorphous fragments, however, it seems every track is paramount in assembling the jigsaw puzzle of the gently hewn score. Whereas one would expect later tracks to illustrate juxtaposition or certainly shattered instrumentation due to the supposed Arbitrage storyline, Martinez’s score instead captures the resplendent beauty of such a collapse while entwining the listener until the very end.
Interestingly enough, in the CD’s liner notes, Arbitrage director Nicholas Jarecki says, “When we were making the movie, we asked each other the question: ‘What happens when it all crashes?’ Cliff answered it with his sound.” This is a perfectly fitting description of Martinez’s score for the film, which both contains legacy ambient electronic elements as well as a seemingly newfound granular beauty yielded therein. Make no mistake, Cliff Martinez’s Arbitrage sits comfortably ahead of Drive and barely behind Contagion as one of his best works to date, and from start to finish, feels like the aural equivalent of warm, serene solace suddenly exposed to benevolent, bitter chill. Very highly recommended!
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