Under the Skin – Mica Levi
"If your lifeforce is being distilled by an alien, it's not necessarily going to sound very nice. It's supposed to be physical, alarming, hot."
Published on February 28, 2015 | Filed under Audiodrome: Music in Film
Under The Skin

The synopsis for Jonathan Glazer’s abstract sci-fi chiller could have been lifted from a Roger Corman B-movie: an extraterrestrial predator disguised as a beautiful woman (Scarlett Johansson) feeds on the lifeforce of unsuspecting men she abducts while driving around Scotland. As it happens, Under the Skin unfolds as a haunting and beguiling rumination on the idea of what it is to be human. The score, which writhes and pulses somewhere between sensual and deeply insidious, comes courtesy of Guildhall-trained violist Mica Levi, perhaps best known for her experimental pop outfit Micachu And The Shapes.

Levi described the process of writing and recording the music for Under the Skin, her first film score, as “immersive and obsessive.” Various parts were recorded in a shipping container she was using as a studio at the time and, in order to help her settle into a suitably insular space, the musician didn’t tell anyone she was actually working on it. Recording the music over a period of nine months, Levi primarily utilised traditional instrumentation – her viola – and then digitally manipulated the results, to create a vast and ominous soundscape, murmuring with dread. Citing John Cage, strip-club music and euphoric dance as big influences, Levi claims she sought out the natural sounds of her viola in order to find something “identifiably human”, then warped it by slowing it down or changing the pitch in order to make it feel and sound uncomfortable, slightly off. According to Levi “the more human feelings are expressed with synth strings. They can hold a chord forever with no flinching because its android, which in the score hopefully expresses a human yearning and foreverness.” The idea to follow Johansson’s character and create music that reacted to what she was experiencing forms the core of Levi’s approach: “If your lifeforce is being distilled by an alien, it’s not necessarily going to sound very nice. It’s supposed to be physical, alarming, hot.”

Under The Skin

Levi avoided listening to a lot of other soundtracks while she was writing, concerned about subconsciously absorbing outer influences, and the result is a work of singular beauty, eeriness and unsettling power. At times though she does evoke terrifying works by Krzysztof Penderecki (‘De Natura Sonoris’ and ‘The Awakening of Jacob’) and György Ligeti (‘Lux Aeterna’) heard in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and 2001: A Space Odyssey – which is hardly surprising given her classical background. Other moments echo Alan Splet and David Lynch’s sound design on Eraserhead; creepily bleak moodscapes comprised of rushing steam and clanking mechanised noises. It’s hard not to hear the likes of Bernard Herrmann during certain frenzied moments, such as ‘Meat to Maths’, while other shrill and spine-chilling moments echo Joseph Bishira’s nightmarish score for Insidious (though Levi’s approach is much more subtle and nuanced). Believe it or not, you can also hear the influence of Angelo Badalamenti collide with euphoric dance in the darkly ambient ‘Love’, which is no doubt what a slow-motion rave at the Road House bar in Twin Peaks would sound like. There’s a chilling sense of space and cosmic vastness throughout many of the tracks and Levi doesn’t shirk from incorporating moments of silence to heighten tension.

Recommended listening: ‘Lipstick to Void.’

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James is the author of Dario Argento (Kamera Books) and a monograph on The Company of Wolves (part of Auteur’s Devil’s Advocates series). He currently contributes to Exquisite Terror and Diabolique, and has also written for Film Ireland, Eye for Film, Little White Lies and The Quietus.
James Gracey