On Friday 22 July 2011, the same day he bombed a government building in Oslo, Norway before carrying out a mass shooting at a political retreat on the country’s Utoya Island, leaving a death toll of 77, right-wing Christian extremist Anders Behring Breivik electronically distributed his 1500 page political manifesto. A collection of spirited diatribes against Islam, and Norway’s liberal immigration policies, the lengthy compendium also detailed how Breivik planned to prepare for his ‘preventive attacks to defend the indigenous Norwegian people.’ In addition to detailing his expected mental state, the extremist disclosed: ‘I will put my iPod on max volume to suppress fear, if needed. I might just put Lux Aeterna by Clint Mansell on repeat as it is an incredibly powerful song.’ He went on: ‘The track is very inspiring and invokes a passionate rage within you.’
The song’s title may not be immediately familiar, but for all who hear it, ‘Lux Aeterna’ should be instantly recognisable, thanks to years of repetition in movie trailers, advertisements and sports news bulletins. As stories of the attacks filtered out of Norway, the soundtrack to the sociopath’s rampage - a haunting, urgent composition with a beguiling swirl of ominous neoclassical strings - would also make for a depressingly apt backdrop to footage of the atrocity’s aftermath. With Breivik, acting compulsively on a universe of bizarre, delusional and grandiose thoughts, appropriating it as an anthem of his ‘low intensity civil war,’ the track takes on sinister new dimensions, foregrounding the way art, once unleashed into the public domain, can become something far beyond the vision of its’ creator.
‘Lux Aeterna’ started life as part of composer Clint Mansell’s brooding, evocative score for Darren Aronofsky’s 2000 feature Requiem for a Dream. Aronofsky would describe his drug parable as a ‘monster movie,’ with Mansell’s expressive composition, performed with strings from the Kronos Quartet, said to represent the embodiment of this ‘monster.’ ‘Lux Aeterna,‘ in this context, exists as the musical personification of a theme repeated throughout the director’s work, on films like Black Swan and Pi – the idea of protagonists at war with themselves, blaming outside forces for their woes when in reality it is their internal struggles that cause most damage. The parallels with Breivik, a paranoid schizophrenic who alluded to himself as a ‘knight’ battling multiculturalist ‘traitors’, are too strong to ignore, though the score’s profounder meanings were perhaps slightly lost on the killer. All songs are shaped by the experiences of those who hear, reappropriate or reimagine them, and ‘Lux Aeterna,’ once freed from its creator, would eventually mutate into something else entirely, becoming a celebrated paean to grandiosity, before finding it’s home on a killer’s mp3.
In 2002, on a visit to the cinema, four years after writing the song, Mansell would hear an altered, even more rousing, revamped version of his composition, utilising full orchestra and choir, blasting out over a trailer for The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Due to overwhelming response, this reworking, arranged by Simone Benyacar, Daniel Nielson and Veigar Margeirsson, was eventually released as an EP entitled ‘Requiem for a Tower.’
The track’s effectiveness in conveying a thrilling sense of drama swiftly saw this version become ubiquitous in trailers for grandiose, big-budget effects pictures, usually with desperate ‘life-or-death’ situations like Troy, Sunshine and Babylon A.D. More absurdly, the song would soundtrack TV shows like America’s Got Talent and BBC’s Top Gear, popping up to infer high stakes and gripping melodrama and its omnipresence was confirmed when it was employed as the attention-grabbing intro music for Rupert Murdoch’s Sky Sports News channel. In this incarnation, as a sort of musical shorthand for all things ‘epic,’ it is easier to imagine how Breivik could appropriate the composition as a resounding call-to-arms, a commanding theme song for a delusional ‘crusader’ with an overinflated sense of self-importance.
The composition’s influential, dramatic chord progression, its ability to make the listener feel like something cataclysmic is looming, has seen ‘Lux Aeterna’ embraced not only by canny film and television producers, but also by members of the video-gaming community, who commonly utilise the track as suitably dynamic background music for online video ‘highlight reels’ of achievements in popular role-playing games like World of Warcraft. Breivik’s manifesto details how he would spend days immersed in Warcraft’s Tolkienesque fantasy world to relax and for ‘training simulation.’ It is tempting to imagine the killer, who referred to himself as a ‘Knight Justiciar’ in reference to his Warcraft avatar, hearing the composition in this context and envisioning it as the perfect anthem for an urgent ‘mission’ that, in Breivik’s mind at least, was like the plot to a grand, fantasy epic where he was the hero.
Though enthusiastically embraced by many as a radical and thoroughly emotive piece, ‘Lux Aeterna’ has nonetheless been dismissed by some film score scholars as overrated, repetitively simplistic and structurally featherweight. Like Breivik’s unsettling, ill-conceived manifesto, the composition is, to the educated, nowhere near as awe-inspiring as the killer might have conceived.
Yet its prevalence and longevity in popular culture surely hints at something extraordinary: some mysterious, unquantifiable element at work. With ‘Lux Aeterna,’ Mansell captured lightning in a bottle, uncovering something intangible that endures. Music’s uncanny ability to stir the soul resists the evaluation of language: that indeterminable something that separates the flash-in-the-pan from the phenomenon. The beauty of song is in interpretation, in the creation of powerful emotions not so easily expressed, carrying more weight than their progenitors could ever imagine or hope to control. Unfortunately, for men like Breivik, stood on the precipice of something awful, this capacity to stir can be fatefully poisonous.
Following the tragic events in Norway, Requiem For a Dream’s stirring musical leitmotif will now and forever be so much more than simply a movie score, and will no doubt continue to acquire deeper layers of meaning each time it is heard. That it has ended up on the playlist of a madman could very well see Mansell’s composition condemned as Breivik’s Catcher in the Rye, but for better or worse, its place in history is now assured.