What does the future sound like?
Just as some writers and filmmakers have dedicated their careers to depicting future utopias (or dystopias), composers and musicians seek the frontier through their sonic medium. The results are emerging musical forms, rhythms, structures and timbres that evoke both the current moment and the possibilities that lead from it.
Here, we dive into some of music’s emerging trends and their manifestation in popular media to give creative directors a snapshot of what 2018 sounds like.
‘People Are Hungry for New Sounds’: Blending Classical Orchestration with Experimental Elements
Jóhann Jóhannssen’s scores for Arrival and The Theory of Everything brought the composer’s subtle shaping of aural loss to a wider audience. But throughout Jóhannssen’s career he has made sound experimentation a priority.
“People are hungry for new sounds,” Jóhannssen told The Guardian in 2016, “and for the experience of listening to unfamiliar music that you don’t hear on commercials and in every TV show.”
And Jóhannsson’s work delivered. Though the world was heartbroken to learn of Jóhannsson’s passing in February, his recognition that people crave new sounds and his incredible work as a composer mean his music will inspire artists for generations to come.
“I knew that I wanted to use voices as one of the prime instruments in the score of a film that is primarily about language and communication,” he says about the soundtrack for Arrival. “But I wanted to use the voice in a different way.” To do so, Jóhannssen collaborated with Theatre of Voices, whom he praised for their “good command of exotic vocal techniques.”
The Arrival soundtrack also made use of sound’s essential yet overlooked counterpart: silence. “In mainstream cinema, there’s usually too much music,” said Jóhannssen. “In Arrival, the use of space and silence is extremely important. When music is needed, it’s really there and it serves a purpose.”
Arrival is but one piece of Jóhannssen’s overall work, and its emphasis on new ways to use voice and silence as pieces of orchestration reflects the composer’s willingness to expand our understanding of which sounds “count” as parts of an orchestral work. In the soundtrack for Sicario, for instance, Jóhannssen included a number of sounds not produced by any instrument, including “a kind of racing distortion” that creates a subliminal sense of danger, Peter Debruge writes in Variety.
Other composers are taking advantage of sound illusions created with standard instruments, digital tones, or both. Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack for Dunkirk, for instance, relies heavily on Shepard tones, which blend chord structure and dynamics to create the illusion of a rising scale that neither ends nor resolves, explains Christophe Haubursin at Vox. The music becomes a source of tension that even savvy listeners won’t easily identify as the cause of their unease.
To push advertising, film and similar genres forward, creative directors can learn much from the work of composers like Jóhannssen and Zimmer. Other composers and works to note include:
- Ann Cleare, who cites The Pixies and Arcade Fire among her influences and whose work incorporates electronic sound into classical scores
- Angélica Negrón, who fearlessly incorporates newly invented instruments and common household objects into her orchestration
- Experimental pieces from earlier decades, like Stockhausen’s Helicopter String Quartet, which deserve revisiting in an era that offers ease in digital sound manipulation and creativity unheard of in the 20th century
Music for Today: The People, Places and Beats of 2018
Several trends with their roots in earlier years continue to develop into 2018, promising permanent changes to the way we think about musicians, their messages and the aural spaces their work creates.
A World for Women’s Voices
While movements like #MeToo have swept news headlines, female singers and songwriters have changed the placement of women’s voices in music, too. Plaintive, yielding lyrics of loss or loyalty have given way to women owning their own power and encouraging listeners to do the same — while pushing the boundaries of the music, as well.
Twenty years ago, both male and female pop artists caught flak for the use of autotune to tweak their pitch. Today, Jorja Smith embraces it in tracks like “On My Mind,” where autotuned voice clips are incorporated as an instrument rather than as a vocal or lyric line. Jorja’s combination of UK soul with a colorful pop feel made her the first-ever indie artist to receive a Brit Critics’ Choice award in 2018.
Jorja can play with autotune as an instrument because it’s her voice that drives her tracks, as Noisey’s Tshepo Mokoena notes: “As someone who’s a complete sucker for vocals I mark her down mentally as one of the few musicians out right now whose fluttering falsetto can push a ripple down my spine, before she twists and rolls into the throaty depths of what’s technically known as her chest voice.”
American-Colombian singer-songwriter Kali Uchis’s music pushes genre boundaries, blending bubblegum pop, soul and funk with seamless ease. But these once-siloed sounds do more than just blend: On Kali Uchis’s albums, each takes on elements that push it toward its next phase of development.
“Musically, Kali is the real thing,” Jaquira Díaz writes at The Fader. “She’s immensely talented, there’s no question. She writes all her own lyrics, controls most of the creative direction for every one of her projects, and seems to have a very specific vision for this upcoming album, which celebrates ideas like feminine power, homecoming, and finding yourself.”
It’s a message that, in 2018, more female artists are embracing — and more audiences of every gender are craving.
Dubstep and Indie Evolve
Female singer/songwriters aren’t the only ones pushing music forward.
London-based musician Jamie xx’s recently-released solo album, “In Colour,” features a sound that is unmistakably indie, yet with a depth and maturity that its predecessors had yet to achieve.
An album nearly 10 years in the making, “In Colour” spans what Jamie xx acknowledges as one of his most formative periods, the ages between 17 and 26. It incorporates vast vistas from those years, both musically and thematically. In doing so, it demonstrates both the untapped potential of indie grooves and their ability to transcend social groups to grab listeners.
And like Jóhannssen’s film scores, Jamie xx’s tracks demonstrate an understanding that less is more: Space built into a sparse percussive layer in “In Colour” maximizes the value of silence as an integral part of music’s emotional impact.
On the other end of the spectrum, dubstep continues to change, as well.
As a genre, dubstep has always allowed for significant leeway in sampling, looping and the use of effects. Unsurprisingly, it’s difficult to categorize today, but the job would be significantly more difficult if dubstep’s close cousins, glitch and future bass, were not developing their own recognizable styles.
Today’s dubstep is largely recognizable by its 140 bpm tempo and halftime drums, notes Eamon Bohan. Future bass incorporates many eclectic elements that most dubstep does not, everything from R&B rhythms to chiptunes.
These closely linked genres are likely to reach even further afield in the coming years, incorporating not only new forms of music, but a wider range of sounds that don’t currently fall under any musical genre. The result is likely to be a plethora of new sounds that can captivate audiences.
Music for Today’s Tomorrow: Emerging Themes and Competing Visions
Jóhannssen’s score for Arrival is but one example of an expanding genre that transmits visions of the future aurally. Shows like Mr. Robot, Stranger Things and The Knick have done the same. Call it sci fi in music form.
Cliff Martinez’s Historically Influenced Electronic Songs
For the Cinemax series The Knick, composer Cliff Martinez and director Steven Soderbergh focused on conveying the series’ steampunk-tinged medical drama through a hyperrealistic soundtrack. While the show’s settings and costumes were fun to replicate, the music of its time period was “horrible,” Soderbergh tells Rolling Stone.
Enter Cliff Martinez, whose EDM-based work transformed The Knick from a run-of-the-mill historical drama into something more unnerving — and utterly relevant.
It wasn’t an easy feat. “You’re trying so hard to place the viewer in this time and this place, and the music is really fighting something that everyone else in the show is trying to achieve,” Martinez tells Rolling Stone. “But as the episodes started coming in, and seeing that it had all this electronic stuff that was mine, I realized that it was working. So it gave me the confidence to do it.”
Black Panther and Afrofuturism
On the big screen, a vision of a future that is unapologetically Black is also taking form.
“Afrofuturism” is best summed up in 2018 by the success of the Marvel film Black Panther, which provided a vision of an Africa allowed to develop at the pace of the rest of the world, without the burden of colonialism.
Its soundtrack, composed/curated by Kendrick Lamar, looks like a combination film soundtrack/compilation album, but it’s something “much bigger,” David Bakula of Nielsen tells CNN. Meanwhile, the film’s score, by Ludwig Góransson, reflects the composer’s research in South Africa, with a futuristic twist.
Future Sounds That Reflect Contemporary Complexities
Meanwhile, artists like Flying Lotus and Janelle Monae continue to release albums that draw from a wide range of influences. Flying Lotus’s You’re Dead! presents an aural journey through death and dying, which includes references from church hymns to Queen to Herbie Hancock.
Janelle Monae’s Metropolis saga embeds the ongoing tale of Cindi Mayweather, an android who must flee for her digital life after falling in love with a human, in a series of concept albums that continue to push both Monae’s vocal range and the richness of her musical knowledge. Incorporating themes of race, class and self-determination, the Metropolis albums speak of a past full of hardship and a future full of hope in the face of continued challenges: the sound of 2018’s deeply complex political and social landscape.