• Ben Erickson

Good Omens

Magical realism has found steady footing in recent years, both in fictitious writing and on screen, presaged in the twenty-first century by cult fiction author Neil Gaiman, who developed widespread fame as a comic and novel writer. Gaiman has taken up the habit of traversing mythological narratives in contemporary societies that leaves one both appreciative of the innovative integration of modernity in otherwise archaic tales while at the same time with the feeling of having ingested diverting trash. Following the success of the 2017 American Gods series, based on Gaimain's book of the same name, the author's first novel Good Omens (co-authored by Terry Pratchett) was taken up as the latest television adaptation, released on Amazon Video at the end of May. Hired to score the series was English composer David Arnold, who garnered success in his early career working frequently with director Roland Emmerich on science-fiction projects. Much of Emmerich's blockbuster success in the '90s is owed to Arnold's music, who earmarked the 1994 Stargate, 1996 Independence Day, and 1998 Godzilla with a highly individual and stylized mixture of melodic and space-age American, patriotic awesomeness. Arnold has scored five Bond films and a number of other gems besides, and more recently received recognition for his work on the BBC Sherlock series, which had a hand to play in the textural influences of his score for Good Omens. The formulation of the score can be attributed to a couple of ideas, foremost being a waltz for the leads; the angel Aziraphale (Michael Sheen) and the demon Crowley (David Tennant). Throughout the miniseries it is shown how these two have danced around one another over the course of eternity, willingly and often unwittingly assisting each other in carrying out the 'ineffable plan' of God. The waltz is showcased in the "Good Omens Opening Title" sequence, performed over a procession of animated murals from Aziraphale's and Crowley's exploits through history, and pairing elements light and dark in its stride. The dance is introduced by a calliope, or fairground organ, adding that extra touch of carnival whimsy to the musical palette of the Good Omens world and appearing numerous times within the show. The remainder of the waltz leans heavily on violin and harpsichord, lending an impression of antiquity to the piece, joined by angelic (and sporadically demonic) choruses, a lulling soprano, tromping piano, and double bass, with harp portamenti abounding. The shifting textures, volumes, and key changes are especially effective at exposing the moral nature of the characters, constantly trading the influence of one over the other. While the waltz is in essence the structural backbone of the score there was another important contribution that set the tone during Arnold's initial viewing, this being nanny Crowley's satanic lullaby to the Antichrist. The lullaby encourages evil deeds of the child, almost as if bizarro Mary Poppins had entered the room, and gave Arnold cause to ask that age old question, "What if Walt Disney was possessed by Satan?" The melody for the lullaby is actually the entire B section of the waltz, when the soprano voice enters, appearing in various cues associated with Adam's upbringing ("Lullaby", "Sleeping Adam", et al.) Other thematic elements in the score include the pastoral, suburban theme for Adam and his gang of friends ("The Them"), using strings and accordion, and the theme denoting the will of Hell when we see its servants in action ("Hell Hound", "Adam Ascending", and "On Your Bikes"). Bagpipes and drums are performed for the English witch Agnes Nutter ("Witch"), and a guitar is used for her descendant Anathema ("Anathema"). Though not thematic in a melodic sense, the score is also consistent in its use of light, Latin choruses where heaven is concerned, and glam rock electric guitar for the minions of hell.

There are many unique instruments that make brief appearances in the show as well, including glockenspiel as Aziraphale has a revelation ("I Should Cocoa"), fife and lute strumming in a Shakespearean flashback ("The Globe"), manipulated synth waves for the arrival of the Archangel Michael ("Bad Angel Michael"), tolling bells for the fourth horseman ("Message for Mr Death"), a theremin at the accidental summoning by Adam of an alien spaceship ("Aliens!"), the return of the calliope in an ancient message machine ("Ansaphone"), and a chromatic harmonica played by Mark Kermode during a Western-style standoff in the show's climax ("Ineffable Plan"). There is a lot of rich orchestral writing elsewhere throughout the score, to be sure, such as the melodramatic crucifixion scene when we hear an upraised cry from the chorus, joined by rising strings that peak on an unresolved A minor leading tone ("Crucified"), or Witchfinder Sergeant's call to arms in the brilliant, flute led, fanfaring "Thundergun" cue. But for my money "Another Place" is the most outstanding cue outside the opening title, distilling the apocalypse into a single moment when our favourite characters unite against seemingly impossible odds. The build toward the final showdown with the devil (leading to a tempo of 66.6 BPM) adds real stakes to the story, powerful enough even that you can forget for a moment that this is a goofy television series. The story is brought to a close as Aziraphale and Crowley share a toast at the Ritz, accompanied by "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square", a romantic British popular song written in 1939 by Manning Sherwin, here performed by Tori Amos. As miniseries go, Good Omens is a mediocre fable with two leads who you could happily watch shovel manure for hours. The score, on the other hand, is superb. I would not call this a return to the '90s era blockbuster music that had us falling in love with Arnold, but it is certainly a return to the spotlight after what seems like too long a time away. That said, I would group Good Omens in the same chapter as Sherlock where style of composition is concerned for their shared timbral colours and their distinguished, upbeat, Commonwealth associations. Even so, it is a real joy to hear new music from Arnold, and better still to see he is able to sit back and enjoy his career thus far. The composer has written themes with real staying power, and his music is of an age that it can be properly venerated, as is planned with the upcoming Settling the Score concert, intended to celebrate his and Michael Giacchino's music at the Royal Albert Hall in October.