Even though Darren Aronofsky's films have covered many genres, they all seem to involve a dose of obsession bordering on madness. The gruelling training required by ballet dancers requires such obsessive dedication that you can see why Aronofsky was attracted to the project "Black Swan". It is set in the world of ballet where ballerinas compete for coveted roles in their New York ballet company's new production of "Swan Lake". In Tchaikovsky's ballet an evil sorcerer puts a spell on a princess which turns her into a white swan during the day, though she revert into a woman dressed in white when it is dark. The sorcerer dresses his own daughter to look identical to the princess but in black. The film dramatically explores the duality between these two roles, when Natalie Portman as the White Swan desparately wants to learn from the ballerina playing the Black Swan.
There are many celebrated film partnerships between director and composer, and the names of Darren Aronofsky and Clint Mansell are now inseparably linked. They started together on "Pi" and have collaborated since then on "Requiem for a Dream", "The Fountain" and "The Wrestler", so it was no surprise that Aronofsky chose Clint Mansell to score his ballet movie "Black Swan". Since the backdrop for the drama is the production of "Swan Lake", the filmmakers decided that the film score should integrate closely with Tchaikovsky's ballet music. This was absolutely the right decision and has helped to create one of Mansell's best scores. The "Swan Lake" music gives the score a feeling of familiarity, yet Mansell's deconstructions distort any feeling of comfort arising from that familiarity, and illuminate the mental state of Portman's character.
The first tracks are relatively benign and exemplify the musical concept based on Tchaikovsky, though there are hints of the darker things to come. In "Nina's Dream" some light figures on woodwind are interrupted briefly by the thrust of a dark sound-design gesture before building into a typical if foreshortened Tchaikovsky climax before sinking back down. "Mother Me" reverts back to woodwind with a hesitant halting melody which goes through a Tchaikovskian chord progression before the strings state the main theme of "Swan Lake". "The New Season" introduces harp and piano with the orchestra providing support. In "A Room Of Her Own" it becomes clear why Mansell has chosen the piano. The instrument is commonly used to provide the accompaniment during rehearsals, so this role makes the piano an appropriate choice for many tracks. "A New Swan Queen" is a stately dance and comparatively peaceful until some darker elements appear.
The following tracks paint a picture of a tense normality gradually disintegrating, until "Opposites Attract" introduces a new theme with a Mansell-like minimalist progression which builds momentum, counterpointed by a solo violin and timpani, portraying the developing relationship between the White Swan and the Black Swan. Then the 8-minute "Night of Terror" is the heart of the score mixing bold orchestral statements from a demonic Tchaikovsky with Mansell obsessions, and the Dance of the Signets in "Stumbled Beginnings" seems infected by some strange disease. The plaintive oboe and harp of Swan Lake return in "It's My Time" though it seems that the white swan has been fully twisted to the dark side. And "Perfection" underlines the fact with more orchestral manoeuvres, in a heightened Tchaikovsky finale. Finally in "A Swan Song (For Nina)" we hear a coda on piano, where the broken swan is reduced only to chords with no melody of her own, while a deep undercurrent at first threatens to overwhelm the ballerina and then shatter her into delicate fragments.
In summary this is an excellent score. Mansell has so well absorbed and integrated the music of Tchaikovsky that it is sometimes very difficult to know where one composer stops and the other begins. The result is like a gothic cathedral with dark passages leading to catacombs hidden in the depths. The soundtrack album is available from Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com. The sheet music for Black Swan (see the cover above) with 11 tracks from the film is available from these links at Music Room and Sheet Music Plus.