The ‘Pi’ Soundtrack Is Still a Classic Darren Aronofsky Sonic Headfuck
Twenty years on, the number-obsessed movie has just as powerful a musical mix of the intelligent and the insane.
According to Darren Aronofsky's debut 1998 film Pi, “everything around us can be represented and understood through numbers,” from the stock market to the “wax and wane of caribou populations.” But, ironically, the film's own numerical facts feel particularly inexplicable. It was made on a budget of just $60,000, which is less a shoestring and more just the aglet at the end of a frayed lace. To put that in to perspective, 1999's The Matrix—similarly based around the dystopian danger of AI—may have been slightly slicker and sexier, but also was made for $60m, a thousand times more buck for a thousand times less bang. Plus, it means that its profit margin was huge. As Variety's headline following its release put it, '"π=$1,000,000!"
Despite its popularity, Pi is a heavy watch. Many of the film’s most visually scarring scenes—the brain being poked and prodded with a pencil, the protagonist drilling a hole through his head—last as afterimages, burned in the back of your eyes for days to come. For those yet to be traumatized, it's a monochrome psychological thriller that manages to be artful but not wanky, deconstructed but not structureless. It follows mathematical genius Max Cohen in his attempt to predict the stock market through his homemade computer (called Euclid, of course), while battling increasing attacks of cluster-headaches and paranoia. It’s backed by waves of noise that pan from ear to ear like a sliding abacus, and a sum of tunes perfectly calculated to shave you like a cheese-grater.
Clint Mansell—who also scored Aronofsky’s equally jittery Requiem for a Dream and Black Swan – was placed in charge of scoring the film, motivated by a feeling that film music was often “just wallpaper – it's bullshit.” His score, along with a selection of electronic tunes from Orbital, Autechre, and Gus Gus, aren't scraps of wallpaper but whole walls of sound, encasing the whole film in a claustrophobic radius of circulating madness. This is neatly summed up by a bit of dialogue between Max and his mentor and friend Sol. Incredulous at Max's obsession with finding a perfect 216 digit number to predict the stock market, Sol barks “this is insanity, Max!” To which Max replies: “Or maybe it's genius!” Similarly, the tunes and score are what musos at the time (for better or worse) were calling Intelligent Dance Music, a label that tried to affix a sense of the genius to the warped sounds of techno, acid and breaks. Take the Aphex Twin tune “Bucephalus Bouncing Ball”—its beats sound like a shipment of SuperBalls capsizing. But, like the film that it accompanies, it’s as intelligent as it is insane.
Several of the tunes—including the Aphex Twin one—don’t actually feature in the film. Instead, they were only included in the official soundtrack release, which is subtitled “Music For The Motion Picture” rather than a more traditional “From”. This renders it as more of a companion than a compilation, boosting the film as a work rather than just taking from it. It’s kind of equivalent to how an academic—perhaps more into writing papers than drilling holes in their head—would include a whole bibliography of work that influenced them, rather than just stuff they actually mentioned. Massive Attack’s "Angel" is included but wasn’t actually released until a few days after the film, presenting it as a kind of parallel product of paranoia from the same cultural time.
Even the tunes that do appear in the film are as fragmentary as the narrative and as Max's perception. Snippets of Psilonaut's trip-hop wobbler “Third from the Sun” are woven into the score like a bug in Euclid's coding, constantly returning like a monomaniac’s sole thought. Mansell’s own songs, are pure drum and bass. Encircling the film with a title track (“πr²”) and a credits track (“2πr”) they open and close the movie with blistering pace. Sparse and tech-y, they are centered around an Amen break that's as fractured as Max's thinking. It's the sound of his pounding cluster headaches or paranoid hallucinations of surveillance, becoming a kind of musical trigger for an oncoming mental episode.
In the same way that score and soundtrack are soldered into one, different forms of sound are mixed in crazy ways. Without going full-on film studies, there's a pretty special blend of sounds throughout the film—diegetic (heard by the characters, too) and non-diegetic (just meant to be heard by us). For example, throughout the film a properly creepy dripping sound—supposedly blood from a man that Max keeps seeing at the subway—morphs into the non-diegetic soundtrack of Banco De Gaia's “Drippy” and suddenly sounds like the symphony of a broken, rusting tap. Or, when Max outlines the part of his skull ready to later drill through, it's hard to distinguish between the bleeps of Autechre's “Kalpol Intro,” the ringing of the telephone and the gurgling of Max's computer machinery.
As maths nerds will get, this blurring of reality and unreality is like the symbol “π’’ itself—it’s constant. The sound of drills, orgiastic sex from his neighbors, dripping, phones and computers create a cacophony of backing noise that's an absolute sonic headfuck. Mansell's love of hip-hop can be seen through this. Although there are few actual tunes that sound anything like hip-hop, the sample culture and idea of a 'collage' is definitely there. The Official Soundtrack Album also samples the film itself, peppering the LP with bits of dialogue from the film to create something that's as chaotic as it is anxious. It leaves you in need of an Aspirin for your brain.
The paranoia seen throughout this confusion of sound mirrors the feelings of fear at the time surrounding the cyberworld. As AV Film pointed out in 2015, 1995 alone saw Virtuoisity, The Net, Hackers, GoldenEye, Johnny Mnemonic and Strange Days all explore the dangerous potential of computers. As noted by Gabriel Weimann, the National Academy of Sciences began their 1990 report on Computers with the ominous phrase: "We are at risk." Add to that the paranoia over the Y2K bug, and it was a time when computers and technology were seen as fearful as they were powerful. Sure, they could be used to break the stock market—and to create intelligent techno—but they also could overwhelm their own creators.
It's this cyberphobia that Aronofsky taps into when Max incredulously asks Sol: “The computer becomes conscious?” Max's creation Euclid may have been formed by his own hands, but it is somehow more than the sum of its metal parts, a kind of Frankenstein's monster for the cyberspace age. But, the real genius thing is that this is reflected in the music, too. From Orbital's fierce breakbeat roller "P.E.T.R.O.L." to GusGus' ambient "Anthem," the tunes are just as electronic as Max's creation. Yet, with their bleeps and synths and pulsating percussion, they feel alive. Breathing, almost.
The two most iconic scenes of the film—a human brain being stabbed repeatedly with a pencil and Max trepanning his skull with a drill—pretty perfectly sum up what the film's soundtrack does. It permeates your consciousness with full industrial force, an almighty headfuck of techno, acid, and breaks that leaves you dizzy. But, insane as it may be, it is genius—and there are moments of sheer beauty that puncture through the darkness. The film's ending is actually its only moment of peace, with Max's lobotomy leading to a kind of childlike consciousness. Sitting dazed in a park, he can no longer work out sums thrown at him by a calculator clutching a child that lives in his tower block, but he finds bliss in this ignorance, giving him and us a much welcome breath from the chaos. Well, until the credits reintroduce the breakbeat madness of Mansell's score—leaving your mind truly going around in circles.
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This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.
This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.