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Soundtrack review: The city & The city (Dominik Scherrer – 2018)

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Soundtrack review: The city & The city (Dominik Scherrer – 2018)

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“The City And The City” is a British television miniseries, first screened in April 2018. It is a science-fiction/crime drama, based on the novel of the same name by China Miéville. The storyline (the crime/police procedural aspect) involves the investigation of the murder of Mahalia Geary, a student residing in Ul Qoma whose body is found in Besźel. The investigation is led by Inspector Tyador Borlú, a Besźel detective haunted by the disappearance of his wife, Katrynia. Like Mahalia, Kat was a student of the theory of a mythical third city, Orciny, hidden between the twin cities. Borlu’s investigation, first in Besźel, then across the border in Ul Qoma, leads him to confront political extremists, sinister business interests, the possible existence of Orciny and the fate of his wife, and eventually Breach itself. Dominik Scherrer wrote the score.

Dominik’s TV work has been quite inspired lately and after the horror of “Requiem” it’s time for a dark sci-fi score. “Temple of light” opens the score and it’s an anthem like electronic opening that I must admit makes me think of “Blade runner”; it builds up slowly into a beautiful, epic sci-fi opera piece that gives me hope and excitement. I just love my sci-fi music like this, vast and evocative. I am just joking here but since BR has its blues, “The city and the city” has a waltz, the “Beszel waltz” and the simple and melancholic combination of solo piano and violin is, well, music to my ears. This is a clever way for the composer to extend the musical world of this show by not only focusing on the tension but also giving the place life, a soul.

As the score progresses I am more and more fascinated with it. The smooth retro electronic vibe often combined with a subtle and soulful string motif just does something to me, it gets to me. The most important thing for me when listening to a score is if it makes me feel and this one just sucks me in and captivates me with nuggets of brilliance like reflective synth sounds, Balkan like choirs (Yolanda hits quite close to home, the choir sounds Serbian or something, reminds me of Goran Bregovic scores) and unexpected sonic combinations. It’s not just the voices in this particular cue but also the way the quiet piano follows them, the palpable emotion, the melodic tension.

I like it when composers experiment and play instruments in a different on unusual way, especially when they tell a story with it. The dissonant piano in “Like a melancholy owl” (love the cue title by the way, I imagine it’s from the show) sounds broken and scared and makes me think of an abandoned place; it makes me feel like I am part of the story, it makes me feel that pain, that melancholy. Every now and then the cello and the guitar join in and this cue is something worth exploring and experiencing over and over again. There is a wonderful little music box feel to the sound of cues like this one and “Star crossed lovers”.

The best part of “The city and the city” is that it’s not a score to just be listened; outside the context of the TV show it’s a composition to be taken in an experienced separately as it evokes those sensations, the doubts, the tension, the mystery on its own. I remember earlier this year Rupert Gregson Williams tried to do the same with “The Alienist” but for me missed the mark; Dominik Scherrer though creates his own musical world, just as dark and desolate but just as fascinating as the one in the TV show. The way he plays the synths in “Orientation school – UI Qoma Simulator” for example is just perfect and I am not mentioning “Blade Runner” in this review for nothing. This particular cue is the right homage and could have been on that score without anybody noticing the difference. The entire UI Qoma soundscape is reminiscent of that world.

“The city and the city” is a dense and captivating score that makes for a very rewarding standalone listening experience as well. Fascinating is the word that comes to mind when describing it and I just love it when composers go all in like this and create the sound for the entire world depicted in the show, not just particular characters or events. Dominik Scherrer gives us everything form cathedral chants to protest marches to romance to darkness. There’s that saying, nature vs nurture, or born like this, not manufactured and it works for scores as well; for me, “The city and the city” is a living, breathing musical creation, with heart and soul and a brain, not just some sounds and notes put together artificially. Do not miss this one, fans and composers alike as it could serve as an inspiration.

Cue rating: 93 / 100

Highlights:
1. Temple of Light
2. Beszel Waltz
3. Beszel Extreme Crime Squad
4. A Third City, Hidden
5. Yolanda
6. No Sign of Katrynia
7. Like a Melancholy Owl
9. Orientation School – Ul Qoma Simulator
12. Star-Crossed Lovers
13. Hard Times in Ul Qoma
17. Walking into the Dark
18. The Skin That Keeps Law in Place

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Mihnea Manduteanu

I have been listening to film music for 25 years and writing about it since 2014. I've written over 1000 reviews and I can't imagine myself doing anything else. I am also a member of IFMCA (International Film Music Critics Association).

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