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Film Music Examined #5: Poor Things

For this Film Music Examined, we’ll look at the fresh new score to Poor Things from newcomer Jerskin Fendrix. It’s his first score, and an impressive creative effort.


The film, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, has an absurd premise—a mad disabled scientist takes the body of a pregnant woman who committed suicide, and implants the mind of the baby in the mother. It’s based on a book by Alasdair Gray, which in turn is based on the structure of the Victorian novel flipped on its head. Bella, the mother/child, discovers the world on her own, entering a bizarre kaleidoscopic plot zooming through different locations around the world. There’s an undercurrent of tragedy and horror to the whimsical and playful story.


The score has a chamber music flavor, focused on small, detailed, strange sounds, with subtle electronic manipulation. The palette is unconventional instruments — organs, harps, flutes, oboes, bassoons, contrabassoons, exposed percussion, and sampled and edited acoustic instruments. The editing sounds analog, with hard cuts like tape music, and refreshingly uneven edges. The music “grows up” with Bella’s character, beginning with simplistic harp that has been detuned and pitch-bent. The simple, pretty chorale chords have their own strange charm. (“Bella”)

In the next cue, Fendrix pushes detuned strings and woodwinds to their limits. The oboe, strings, and voice are pitched high, and the strings are just off, with an unquantized feeling, kind of like a deflated balloon. I hear the influence of composer Mikachu (Mika Levi) in some of this music—think the score for 2013’s Under the Skin. (“Wee”)

Fendrix prefers his double reeds and slightly “unpleasant” timbres. Several times, he uses a bassoon and contrabassoon in octaves, mixed with a detuned analog synthesizer—at once dry and expansive, conveying a sense of dread. Not bothering to tune or quantize the sounds, let alone add many post-processing effects (there is little in the way of reverb, giving the impression that the sounds are right next to our ears) it gives it a charmingly realistic feeling in an age of stock sample libraries and quantizing.


As Bella travels, we get an expanded harmonic and textural palette, with familiar-sounding, yet just slightly off, analog synth oscillators (i.e. in “Lisbon”).


We get wisps of Portuguese folk music that has been distorted for a fun and strange “scourse” moment with Emma Stone and Mark Ruffalo in an off-kilter dance.

Some of the synthesizer moments sound like early Cologne/Stockhausen Studies, sine wave/cut up tape blended with whimsical orchestration. (“Paris”).


Fendrix is free with his pitches, slipping into microtonal territory from time to time, and it’s utterly creepy and charming. The detuned analog synths blending with humanly out-of-tune acoustic instruments gives it a real-feeling texture. The sound world is at once childlike and threatening, like a paper-mâché rose studded with razors. I will be watching Jerskin Fendrix to see what crazy work he makes next.


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