By Mikko Ojala
The Knick is a new Cinemax TV-series which takes a look at the professional and personal lives of Dr. John W. Thackery and the staff at a fictionalized version of the Knickerbocker Hospital (“the Knick”) in New York during the early part of the twentieth century. The show was created and written by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler and directed by Steven Soderbergh. The director seems to be as busy as ever despite having stated several times he is taking sabbatical from films and has in this instance directed not one or two but all ten episodes of The Knick. At the time of writing this review the show has already netted considerable critical and ratings success and has been renewed for the second season coming out in 2015.
The story is set in New York City in 1900 at the Knickerbocker Hospital that operates with innovative surgeons, nurses and staff who have to overcome the limitations of the then-current medical understanding and practices to prevent staggeringly high mortality rates. The main character is Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen), the newly appointed leader of the surgery staff, who battles his cocaine and opium addictions while trying realize his ambitions for medical discovery and to preserve his reputation among his peers. Dr. Algernon Edwards (Andre Holland), a Harvard-educated, European-trained black surgeon, must fight for respect within the all-white populated hospital, as well as the racially-charged city. While literally struggling to keep the lights on, the hospital attempts to attract a wealthy clientele, without sacrificing quality care. The show has been receiving positive critical reception, especially for dealing with very down-to-earth vital issues in a very effective, sincere and emotional manner and Clive Owen’s performance as the drug addicted ambitious chief surgeon Thackery has been widely praised.
The score for this Soderbergh helmed television project was created by one of his usual musical collaborators, composer Cliff Martinez, who has scored many of the director’s films in the past including Sex, Lies and Videotape, Solaris, Kafka, Traffic with the most recent being 2011 movie Haywire. Martinez mentioned in the recent interview for this site that the tone and style of the score were largely the result of the temporary music track used for the already edited episodes the composer saw where the music from the composer’s previous scores had been used to accentuate the mood and pace and the composer admits he largely went with this possibly risky but fascinating stylistic choice of modern electronic music in a period setting. The result is a very interesting contrast to the period of early 20th century when the show is taking place and even more intriguing considering the highly atmosphere driven and minimalistic electronic textures and subtle rhythms he employs. Martinez himself compared the style of the score to the works of the highly popular German electro-experimental band Kraftwerk and undeniably this seems to be at the root of the sound and inspiration to majority of what we hear on the soundtrack album.
‘Son of Placenta Previa’ sets the tone of the album with a series of electronic rhythmic pulses and presents also the major idea that binds the piece together, an echoing very obsessively repeating chord progression which works as the main thematic centre for the whole score. Martinez draws numerous iterations from this simple motto, which are then featured later on tracks like ‘Finish Your Breakfast’, ‘Not Leaving This Circus’, ‘New Standard Hernia Procedure’ and ‘Abscess’. But the album consists mainly of independent musical moments without much what you could call thematic repetition or theme and variation to hold it together apart from the general style and mood. Martinez does sometimes hint at these individual pulsing electronic ideas in slower guises but these form quite fleeting semblance of thematic structure on the album. The mood however is the key element here and that is where the score to The Knick really excels. The music is entirely performed by the composer and he draws hypnotic moods from his samples which sound strangely timeless and his electronic manipulations would be equally at home in the 1980’s or 1990’s as they are today. Despite the score being highly atmosphere driven, the electronic nature of it is surprisingly a far cry from the sound design of many modern film scores although he does dip his brush into that realm from time to time as well. Electric guitar sounds appear in moodier moments wafting languidly through the haze of synthesizer soundscapes creating a similar feel of some of the material in Howard Shore’s The Departed albeit in more subdued tones like in ‘Falling Off a Bicycle Plus’ and ‘New Standard Hernia Procedure’.
As I mention above almost every other track on the soundtrack introduces its own musical idea, often a rhythmic one or a layered electronic pulse which is then put through a brief development. In a way this album does remind me of a regular electro-experimental band album than a film/television score as the music does not sound to my ears specifically dramatic but more an independent expression of an atmosphere. That is not to say that there is not dramatic impetus here and more filmic music is heard e.g. in the dark and unsettling ‘Thus Speak Thack the Wise’ full of metallic moans which rumbles with eerie intent or the nervous suspenseful and constantly shifting rhythms and sounds of ‘Aortic Aneurysm Junior’. ‘Douse This’ conjures a brief dramatic mood with the appearance of the sound of an ethereal crystalline synthesized organ which is joined by glimmering swathes of synthesizer effects and ‘Call Me Dad’ explores uneasiness in minimal sustained notes. But for the most part various pulsing, tapping, echoing and tinker toy-like rhythms and repeating ideas either alone or in different combinations drive most of the score, creating moods ranging from the quirky I’m In Pink to odd humour of ‘Drizzled Him Good’ to the sombre and weary ‘Will It Hurt’. The score gets across the tension and sometimes drug addled and hazy atmospheres of Thackery’s experience effectively through the employment of these at times disorienting repeating devices and veils of serene and emotionally detached synthesized sounds, a subtly off-kilter mix of familiar and coldly alien.
Martinez’s work for Soderbergh has travelled to a very similar realm before and his expertise in creating these modern almost hypnotic soundscapes is undeniably effective in The Knick. I have not seen the series and thus can’t comment on how well this very anachronistic style and mood works in the narrative context but on the album it is a mixed bag and in a way feels more like a Kraftwerk or a synthpop album than a film score. The dramatic underpinnings originating from the series are handled subtly, one could almost say with emotional detachment, and Martinez clearly prefers not to broadcast emotions in his music. He does employ short rhythmic mottoes that trace a very light leitmotivic path throughout the album but most often the individual tracks are just that, individual moments of mood, development of a rhythm or a set of electronic pulses. The album for The Knick does not create a very strong musical narrative as such with clear emotional flow that would chart the listening experience but rather focuses single mindedly on sheer atmosphere. It is quite removed from conventions of old fashioned theme-and-variation scoring which depending on your tastes can be seen either as a good or a bad thing and while the score to The Knick does weave an effective minimalistic atmosphere, it probably works much better in the episodes it underscores than on the album.
The soundtrack album, a 50-minute collection of music from all ten episodes, sadly leaves only a fleeting impression as much of this material quickly blurs into a collection of ticking synthesizer pulses without much change in feel or content and it is hard to single out memorable high points even after several listens as the tone varies very little throughout. You can’t blame Martinez for providing what the series creators were obviously after when they hired him and the enjoyment of this particular type of score is probably determined by how much you like Cliff Martinez’s musical style in general and how minimalistic experimental electronic music focused heavily on atmosphere appeals to your tastes but based solely on the album experience this particular reviewer was sorely left wanting for some human warmth and something more musically engaging from this score.
The Knick is out now from Milan Records