Little Orpheus Soundtrack, Jessica Curry / Jim Fowler, 2020
Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture had been another commercial and critical success for The Chinese Room, but the following years saw the company going through a rough patch. Thankfully, after having to lay off all staff in 2017, directors Dan Pinchbeck and Jessica Curry bounced back soon enough when Sumo Digital acquired The Chinese Room, leading to 2020’s Little Orpheus. An Apple Arcade exclusive, Little Orpheus received acclaim for its substantial gameplay, outstanding presentation and original concept. The game follows Ivan Ivanovich’s adventures, tasked in 1962 with travelling inside the earth’s supposedly hollow interior to confirm whether it is fit for colonisation. After Ivan returns from his mission three years later, a tough-as-nails general interrogates him about what happened during his absence – and tries to figure out whether the fantastical tales of Ivan’s adventures could possibly be true.
As with other titles by The Chinese Room, Little Orpheus was a high-concept piece, channelling several influences and ideas. As such, it required a soundtrack that thoughtfully supported the game’s aesthetics and narrative. Jessica Curry had delivered these kinds of scores for several previous Chinese Room games. In the process, she had emerged as one of video game music’s leading composers through her impressively subtle and emotionally rewarding Dear Esther and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture soundtracks – the latter deservedly netting her a BAFTA Award. After those games’ meditations on life and death, the Little Orpheus soundtrack was an opportunity for Curry to dabble in more colourful and brighter moods, with the game taking inspiration from Saturday morning B-Movie serials and classic adventure movies like Flash Gordon, Sinbad and The Land that Time Forgot.
For the first time, a co-composer joined Curry: Jim Fowler. While not exactly a household name, Fowler’s career in video game music reaches back to 2004 when his involvement with the long-running SingStar franchise began. Following this, Fowler worked for Sony’s Worldwide Studios, balancing work as composer and orchestrator on several projects – the best-known one being the LittleBigPlanet franchise. Notably, in 2015, he orchestrated Curry’s Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. After mainly focusing on music production and orchestration following that project, recent years saw him working more regularly again in a composing capacity. And based on the quality of his work on Little Orpheus, one can only hope Fowler continues along this trajectory.
Indeed, the Little Orpheus soundtrack emerges as a serious contender for best orchestral game score of 2020, even though its approach might come as a bit of a surprise – at least if one has read the pre-release material. In his liner notes, Pinchbeck describes the soundtrack as a mix between Disney and Shostakovich. But while you would expect Russian orchestral music to impact a game like Little Orpheus, not a lot of the melodies and orchestrations feel particularly Russian. It’s also hard to find much of Shostakovich’s fairly clearly delineated melodies and acerbic wit or despair on Little Orpheus.
Keeping in mind Little Orpheus’ pulpy inspirations, one might also expect a score full of swashbuckling bravado and rousing melodies. However, that’s not what Curry and Fowler deliver here either. Action-packed moments are only dished out during the album’s shorter cues, which don’t feel as substantial as the soundtrack’s more expansive pieces (“Stealing Eggs”’ charmingly puckish mood comes off best). Curry and Fowler’s work is altogether more elusive, but maybe also more intriguing for it. The composers build not so much on film music inspirations but rather on impressionistic early 20th-century classical music whose extensive chromaticism sees tonality beginning to dissolve. Take “The Jungles of Plutonia”, the album’s first extended composition. The piece doesn’t necessarily have a strong sense of development. Still, its exceedingly creative orchestrations and harmonies create a palpable sense of hushed uncertainty and wonder, mixed with hints of playfulness.
This is music that is far more sophisticated than your average orchestral game score, such is Curry and Fowler’s superlative command of the ensemble’s tone colours and expressive capacities. Like exquisite watercolour paintings coming alive to constantly change their outlines, orchestrations morph from one fascinating mix of emotions to the next. Meanwhile, melodies are present but slippery, rarely coalescing into something approaching a hummable tune. Then, there’s the composers’ extensive use of counterpoint and a demo-quality recording that presents the manifold layers of the compositions with vivid clarity, usually giving listeners more than one instrumental line to focus on. The result is a work whose cornucopia of steadily changing expressions can make for a heady, initially disorienting experience.
But ultimately, what better way to underscore the story of a seemingly unreliable narrator who apparently makes up fantastical stories as he goes along – just like the music keeps reinventing its instrumental material and constellations, at times hard to grasp but touching nonetheless. Yes, underneath all the virtuoso orchestrations and shifting moods lies the Little Orpheus soundtrack’s emotional centre, and it is anything but hollow. Soon enough, the score’s melodic riches become apparent. Sometimes they appear unexpectedly, for example when “Enslaving the Menkv” – after oscillating between nostalgia and tense anticipation – segues into a gloriously impassioned string climax. “An Impoverished Childhood in Omsk” straightaway opens with the same kind of material, while “A Strangely Beautiful Place” and “The Icy Lands of Sannikov” pit their more delicate melodies against unstable, swelling and ebbing orchestral backdrops that threaten to wash away the melody lead.
Such elegant melodic beauty is crucial to what Curry and Fowler are looking to achieve with the Little Orpheus soundtrack. As they stated in interviews, “the music had to be vast and expansive” to reflect the outrageous scale of Ivan’s stories, “but at the same time, it comes from one little person.” And indeed, while the score performs a marvellous feat of building a fantasy world all of its own, it constantly balances its scale with a cheerful spirit and melodic grace that endears us to the common, brave man living through all these tales – Ivan.
For example, take note of the passages for harp, glockenspiel and solo violin featuring prominently on pieces like “Comrade Privalov, Interiornaut!”, “And It Happened Like This”, and “Agartha And Other Wonders”. These instruments imbue the music with the feel of a child’s tale, both knowing and naive at the same time (Curry and Fowler never play the game’s story for laughs or approach it from a parody angle). Out of several compositions achieving this balancing act, “Agartha and Other Wonders” does a particularly great job at combining an otherworldly sense of awe with touches of spirited whimsy. Like so much else on the Little Orpheus soundtrack, it’s a testament to the composers’ light yet assured touch, yielding a masterful result.
- 01 - The Jungles of Plutonia Curry, Jessica / Fowler, Jim 3:34
- 02 - Toll's March Curry, Jessica / Fowler, Jim 2:26
- 03 - Comrade Privalov, Interiornaut! Curry, Jessica / Fowler, Jim 2:05
- 04 - Ivan and the Whale Curry, Jessica / Fowler, Jim 1:55
- 05 - Enslaving the Menkv Curry, Jessica / Fowler, Jim 5:16
- 06 - Agartha and Other Wonders Curry, Jessica / Fowler, Jim 4:09
- 07 - A Strangely Beautiful Place Curry, Jessica / Fowler, Jim 3:14
- 08 - And It Happened Like This Curry, Jessica / Fowler, Jim 3:52
- 09 - The Icy Lands of Sannikov Curry, Jessica / Fowler, Jim 3:18
- 10 - The Forgotten Waves Curry, Jessica / Fowler, Jim 2:37
- 11 - Stealing Eggs Curry, Jessica / Fowler, Jim 2:32
- 12 - The Prophecies of Lemuria Curry, Jessica / Fowler, Jim 5:09
- 13 - An Impoverished Childhood in Omsk Curry, Jessica / Fowler, Jim 1:44
- 14 - The World Clock Curry, Jessica / Fowler, Jim 2:34
- 15 - The Hunt for the Little Orpheus Curry, Jessica / Fowler, Jim 1:34
- 16 - Ivan Returns Curry, Jessica / Fowler, Jim 0:46