By Mikko Ojala
The Dark Side of Light (El Lado Oscuro de la Luz) is a 2013 Mexican psychological thriller based on the true story of a serial killer who was sentenced to an electric chair execution and survived it, with an interesting score by composer Gus Reyes.
In the film, the criminal justifies his murders in the belief that he’s God’s chosen one who has been fulfilling a liberation mission of his victims. Using a symbolic language, this story exposes, “actions that prove killing in God’s name is an excuse to cover atrocious crimes.” The main character of the film Memo is orphaned at the age of 7 and is left under the custody of his cruel grandfather who imposes great emotional violence on the boy that wounds him deeply. This generates in Memo a personality disorder that causes a severe alcoholism. Memo finds love in Karla, a beautiful young woman with whom he plans to start a new life, however Memo’s alcoholism throws them apart the day of their wedding, unleashing intrigues and betrayals that detonate Memo’s criminal instinct. Haunted by his memories in the moments before he is going to be executed Memo describes the origin of his own sorrow and the meaning of the liberating mission he has carried out for each one of his victims, who were like him tormented by a cruel past. The film was released in 2013 in Mexico and has not thus far appeared outside its country of origin so it remains a largely unknown piece of cinema elsewhere in the world.
The music for this intriguing and dark concept is provided by a young up and coming Mexican film composer Gus Reyes who has quite a few movie credits to his name including Magnicidio (2002), El Ultimo Evangelio (2008), El Ultimo Pais Magico (2005), El Secreto (2010) and the soon to be released film El Entrenador (2014). It has to be admitted that this is the first time this particular reviewer has stumbled upon this composer’s name but I am happy to say Mr. Reyes leaves quite an impression with his score for The Dark Side of Light.
As could be guessed from the description of the film’s central premise the music of The Dark Side of Light balances between the light and dark of the human nature in its concept. It is at the same time a tragedy and a thriller where the music hones in on the fractured psyche of the main character Memo. Reyes has constructed a score that is at times delicate and eerie, atmospheric and operatic. Scored mostly for modest ensemble of strings, piano and boys choir voices (both real and synthesized) and few choice brass instruments the music remains intimate for most of the score’s running time apart from few gothically dark moments full of gloomy wonderment before Reyes unleashes an operatic finale complete with soprano soloist and a choir for the tragic denouement of the story.
The composer opens the proceedings on the album with an overture styled eponymous track – ‘The Dark Side of Light’ – where he introduces some of the central elements of the score, the motoric ostinato figure for piano and harp that is the moving force of the music throughout the album while solo violin in low register intones ever briefly the sad main theme here bedecked with glinting harp, which is joined by a choral element, a boys choir, that comes to signify both the personal inner life of the main character and the religious and spiritual aspect of the story and Memo’s delusional obsession for his twisted holy mission. The themes of the score are surprisingly tender and ethereal and seem to focus on the main character’s loneliness, his wavering psyche and askew perspective of the world but the darkness, dissonances and tension are never far from the surface of the writing and the composer generates simultaneously a feeling of elegant tragedy and unease in his music throughout the album parallelling the dichotomy of the narrative. There are four clear elements, the main theme, the secondary religious memory theme, the piano ostinato and the cold suspense and horror writing that alternate throughout the work and weave a thematically and conceptually strong whole. Reyes focuses on the children’s voices to give the music its character much of the time, amplifying their effect with their synthesized counterpart, at times combining the high voices with low male ones to create a resounding frightening dissonance. Slowly but surely the music becomes harsher and colder as the full horror and tragedy unfolds.
What the composer refers to as the main theme of the score is actually quite a subtle idea and works very well in giving Memo a bittersweet and fragile musical identity. As mentioned above this theme is initially heard on the first track as a brief introductionary cameo and appears only in fragments throughout the score, like on haunting solo harp in ‘Blood and Alcohol Dreams’ where Reyes once again balances the advanced modernistic horror writing that combines dissonant strings with sound design with the constantly lyrical themes of the score. It is wedded again with the secondary theme via fragile violin solo, poignant strings and choral voices in the brief ‘She and I’ that is a lovely evocation of budding romance. ‘Thus Began My Madness’ offers a beautiful full length development of the theme and the composer weaves together the secondary memory theme and Memo’s theme in the most satisfying way, the piece containing wonderful dramatic flow.
The second track of the album ‘My Name Is…’ showcases the two other major elements of the score, the obsessive ostinato figure on harp which is often accompanying the mysterious secondary theme that seems to do with Memo’s past with the piping children’s voices evoking both spiritual awe, innocence and dark wonder, the tone poignant yet foreboding. There is gentleness but also something dark underneath and Reyes’s music communicates this dichotomy in the story very well. This theme is reprised at steady intervals throughout the score and it becomes a sort of musical trigger that with this piano and harp polyrhythm ostinato depicts the fragility of the mind of the main character. It can be heard full of innocence in ‘The Hidden Passage’ where it gradually sinks into murky and cold mire of eerie orchestral and choral textures and the secondary theme and ostinato are restated in ‘He Was My Son…’ where the musical darkness of the string section and synthesizers gives away to a tragic passionate elegy for piano and the string section and tracks like ‘Blood and Alcohol Dreams’, ‘Divine Mission’ and ‘Beginning of the End’ all continue further effective development and usage of both ideas. These two motifs repeat continously, emphasizing obsession and infering madness.
The composer steadily strips away the ostinato and the choral theme and the score becomes more and more dissonant and eerie as it approaches the finale sandwiching fragmented renditions of the main theme between ever desperate and ominous swathes of darkness, as if the memories are finally giving way to the reality and the full horror of Memo’s life is revealed until we reach ‘The Dark Side Requiem’. Here the main theme is transformed into a Requiem Aeternam movement of a requiem mass intoned in operatic tones by solo soprano Ale Esqueda and full chorus and orchestra that conjures both profound tragedy and delusional grandeur of Memo’s fate as he walks to his execution. But all is not over as ‘Didn’t You See God…’ offers an unsettling return of the dissonant string chords that denote murderous madness before one final reprise of the main theme and the ostinato figure draws the score itself to a close leaving us wondering at Memo’s survival of his execution. But to give the listener a proper denoument Reyes presents a closing song for the score, ‘Don’t Cry (No Llores)’, performed by Ivonne Guevara, almost like a sad memory waltz that gives a bittersweet send-off to the tragic tale.
As a special bonus track after the main programme of the score is the ‘The Dark Side of Light Suite’, a live recording of a fully realized 12 minute concert suite reimagined from the main ideas of the score which was presented in the Ibero-american Film Music Concert in Mexico City on late 2013, under the direction of Arturo Rodriguez with the MexFilm Orchestra. This suite more than enough shows how well Reyes’s music can stand on its two own feet without its visual counterpart and the full forces of solo soprano, full adult chorus and symphony orchestra further bring out the emotional and dramatic impact of the music.
The Dark Side of Light is a delightful find and a self assured show of talent from the young Mexican composer. Gus Reyes’s work with the score shows his ability to convey beautifully and dramatically the central storytelling elements and distill them into a thoughtfully crafted score that translates into an engaging listening experience on the soundtrack album where light and dark is well balanced. The music is well crafted and shows good dramatic instinct and compositional skills and most of all great promise from this Mexican composer. I am sure Reyes’s bigger triumphs are still before him but this is undeniably an auspicious stepping stone on the path of his career. Moviescore Media and Kronos Records continue to release interesting new film music from around the world and I definitely feel that this is another feather into their cap, not only producing a strong soundtrack album but most of all introducing the fans of film music to fresh new talent. Gus Reyes is surely among them.
The Dark Side Of Light is out now from Moviescore Media/Kronos Records