Interview with Nicholas Britell

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Nicholas Britell is an award-winning composer, pianist, and producer. His music is diverse to say the least. From his spiritual, work and dance music for 12 Years A Slave to Whiplash then The Big Short. Each piece is different and compelling. His recent scores for Free State of Jones [sparse, mean & moody and down right good] and Natalie Portman’s directorial debut A Tale of Love and Darkness push the boundaries again, no score is alike. Our interview covered this diversity and also working with Natalie on Love and Darkness.

LB
Re-visiting your previous scores, there is such diversity in the range of projects you have taken on. From the period music for 12 Years A Slave, to the contemporary feel of The Big Short, you then moved to atmospheric sparseness in Free State of Jones, and now we have your new score to A Tale of Love and Darkness. You certainly like a challenge.

NB: Thank you Ley, yes it has definitely been a fascinating few years. One of the things that I really love about film music is the opportunity to explore different musical worlds with each project. And the fun challenge is to discover a way to create a unique sound world for each film. I feel that each film is like a different creative assignment where you can try out new ideas, new techniques, new palettes of sounds.

LB: How did you become involved in A Tale of Love and Darkness?
NB: Natalie and I have been dear friends since college, and I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to collaborate with her on her other short-film projects which she has directed. In 2008, I performed a piece of mine, “Forgotten Waltz No. 2” in her short film Eve, and I scored the vignette she directed for the film New York, I Love You as well. In 2013, Natalie asked me if I would be interested in scoring A Tale of Love and Darkness; I was incredibly honored to get the chance to work with her on it.

LB:  WAS there any remit to what music was required?

NB: From early on in the project, Natalie and I spoke extensively about many different musical possibilities. In fact, Natalie asked me to write some musical suites for the film before shooting commenced; in this way, she and her DP Slawomir Idziak could have some musical rhythm and atmosphere for their on-set experience of the film. From the beginning, Natalie and I discussed the many potential musical influences of the characters within the film. We talked about the Eastern European origins of Amos’ family, the Middle Eastern world into which they entered, and also the Western European classical music which their family cherished. Ultimately, I tried to craft a musical landscape which was not directly related to any one of these traditions; my hope was to create a musical language which felt inspired by – but not beholden to – any of these influences.

LB: The beginning of The Opening Music gives not only the feeling of sorrow but of something lost, the strings almost sound rusty, it’s quite haunting and certainly grabs the attention. It then goes into a classical mode. It’s not a opening theme as such but rather creates an unsettled atmosphere and then it just stops.
How did you approach this first track?

NB: The opening music for the film presented a distinct challenge. Certainly, opening music often “sets the tone” for a film. Yet, there were many other elements which needed to be considered here. First, the opening of A Tale of Love and Darkness has a voiceover – an element which requires that the music balance itself with the need for verbal clarity. In addition, the opening of the film presents an exposition of the history of Amos’ family, of his mother’s dreams and worldview, as well as of the tragedy of the execution of their friends and relatives in Rovno. With all this material to cover, the music needed to weave a connection between everything while maintaining a musical cohesion.
I’m glad you pointed out the almost “rusty” sound of the strings. I really wanted the instruments to have a unique texture in the film – we recorded and mixed them in such a way that we emphasized the sound of the bowing itself. The sudden stop of the music was an idea that we discussed early on as well – we wanted there to be a musical counterpoint to the sudden revelation of the execution in the Sosenki forest. By literally cutting off the music at that moment, we hoped to create an additional drama: the disappearance of the music paralleling the disappearance of the people.

LB: Main Theme in F#/ Poeme in F# is achingly sad, it made me realise that my emotions were not being flooded by a full orchestral overdoing it with strings, but with a piano refrain and the beautiful voice of Re’ut Ben-Ze’ev. Is this how you perceived your score to be? Did you ever consider an orchestral score.
NB: Throughout the project, Natalie and I were in total agreement on the need for intimacy and restraint in the score. We never wanted the music to feel too overt, or to feel like we were pushing too much. The instrumentation I utilized was an ensemble of primarily lower strings (violas, cellos, basses), pianos, bells, and harp. In certain cues, I introduced some woodwinds (as in the “Soldier’s Tale” piece), in others there were instruments like altered sitars (“The Monk’s Tale”) or even prepared pianos (in the scene with Steletsky’s story). But overall, it was absolutely a conscious choice to not utilize a full orchestra. I often feel that when you reduce the instrumentation, you increase the potency of each note; sometimes the most powerful music is really the most sparse.

LB: The simplicity of the seven note Post-War Jerusalem [one of my favourite cues] is short and effective as is the ‘quietness’ of Arieh Goes Out. It’s a very measured score.

NB: Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed those! We really tried to tailor each moment in the film to its most appropriate musical idea. Natalie and I worked very closely together on the score – we experimented with many different ideas for each scene until we found the ideas which felt most “woven into” the fabric of the film.

LB:The incongruity of a gavotte being given the title of Dance of Death is unsettling and yet this is the most lyrical of the cues. Given that I have not yet seen the film, can you describe what this piece of music is the background to?

NB: Yes, that cue is in fact the “climactic” piece of the film. Without giving too much away in the film, this “Dance of Death” is the musical counterpoint to what we see onscreen: the culmination of Fania’s hopes and dreams which, sadly, are disappointed by the harsh realities of her new life in Israel. Throughout the film, there is a recurring appearance of a mysterious figure: the “Pioneer,” a personification of Fania’s “ideal” man. While the Gavotte plays, we see a surreal “dance” in which Fania finally embraces the Pioneer, just before her death.

LB: Toccata is the longest piece on what is quite a short soundtrack. It’s movement tells of hope. This is a very accomplished soundtrack and given it’s source I was expecting a heavier score, but less is most definitely more here, is that what you had in mind?

NB: The Toccata is, in many ways, the focal piece on the soundtrack. It is the last cue in the film and, interestingly, it was the first piece which we knew was really “right” for the film. It was from this final piece of music – which plays during the last montage in the movie – that we discovered the sound of the film. The theme in the Toccata became the main theme for the film; for us, this theme seemed to signify musically “the world through Amos’ eyes.” As I described earlier, it was really crucial for Natalie and for me that the music always be extremely sensitive and restrained. Any time we experimented with larger-scale musical ensemble textures, it always felt unbalanced with the nature and nuance of the film. We worked very hard to really find a musical landscape that felt like it was part of the fabric of the film. It was an extraordinary experience working on the film, and I really feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to work with Natalie on it.

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  • 1. Opening Music (feat. Caitlin Sullivan, Kyle Armbrust)
  • 2. Women’s Dance from Aleko (Excerpt) (feat. Tim Fain)
  • 3. La mer – Charles Trenet
  • 4. Swing Sequence (feat. Caitlin Sullivan, Kyle Armbrust)
  • 5. The Monk’s Tale
  • 6. Main Theme in F# / Poeme in F# (feat. Re’ut Ben-Ze’ev)
  • 7. The Soldier’s Tale
  • 8. War Footage
  • 9. Post-War Jerusalem (feat. Caitlin Sullivan)
  • 10. Arieh Goes Out
  • 11. Amos Sees Arieh (feat. Caitlin Sullivan, Kyle Armbrust)
  • 12. Pioneer on the Mountain (feat. Caitlin Sullivan, Kyle Armbrust)
  • 13. Cossack Lullaby (Traditional) -Natalie Portman
  • 14. Emunah V’omanut (feaat. Re’ut Ben-Ze’ev)
  • 15. Dance of Death (Gavotte) – Emunah V’omanut -Ben-Ze’ev
  • 16. Toccata

MILAN MUSIC

INTERVIEW WITH JOE HENSON & ALEXIS SMITH – Alien: Isolation video game

First published: 20th November 2014 in previous Filmic Blog.

INTERVIEW WITH JOE HENSON and ALEXIS SMITH
Composers of the Alien: Isolation video game.
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This first person, survival, horror game was developed by The Creative Assembly and released in October 2014. In keeping with the Alien movies, this new chapter is set in 2137, 15 years after the events of Alien and 42 years prior to Aliens.
The game follows Amanda who is investigating the disappearance of her mother Ellen Ripley. She is transferred to the space station Sevastopol to find the flight recorder of the Nostromo. As we all already know, an alien had terrorized the station and killed most of it’s crew.
The score is ingenious and a true musical nod to Jerry Goldsmiths score from Alien. Having obtained the license to Goldsmith’s score, Joe & Alexis plus Joe’s brother Christian, lifted the scores motifs and expanded them. The result not only re-creates the Alien world and all the tension which goes with it, you get to hear the original score motifs in a completely different way.
This is on top of the Henson and Smith tension filled score and SFX. It’s a heady mix. And an extra bonus is that musicians who played the original score at it’s recording were also part of the orchestra for Alien:Isolation. Sadly the score has not been released, here’s hoping that it will become available soon.

 

Firstly I would like to say that having heard the sound clips – it is just fantastic how you have taken the Jerry Goldsmith original Alien score motifs and expanded them. It is great to hear them in a new way. How did you feel working from a Goldsmith score?

Joe Henson: There is always a little bit of ‘blank page’ fear when you first start a project – especially something as well-known as Alien. Once we got started it was amazing, being able to use the motifs and sounds that we had always loved.

Alexis Smith: Yes, it was a bit intimidating at first, but as the music we were doing was to be mostly interactive, and the gameplay was a lot longer than a film, we knew that we would be going in a lot of other directions as well, not just using his score.

Hearing the expanded motifs they do capture the doom laden horror of Alien, was it difficult to broaden them out and then to add to them?

J. We worked with my brother Christian on this score. The first thing he did was a piece where he took all the licensed Jerry Goldsmith cues and expanded them out to an 8-minute suite. We then used elements from that suite throughout the game.

A. As we all knew the score well beforehand, and studied it in even more detail at the beginning of this project, it wasn’t difficult as such, we just wanted to make sure we did it right. There are a lot of sounds and textures as well as motifs that instantly put you in the Alien world – the col legno snaps through tape delays, the atonal aleatoric string chatter. We used these kinds of sounds to unify the score.

Altogether how much music did you record for the game?

J. We recorded a huge amount of music. As well as the actual score we also recorded a lot of assets to be used during the process of writing the soundtrack. It is almost impossible to mock up the aleatoric orchestral elements, so we recorded a lot of this first that we then made into bespoke sample libraries.

A. We ended up with about 3 hours of music that was used in the game though.

I was fascinated to see that the developers did not want a ‘static score’ and that they had a Context Driven Sound Engine. Did that make any difference to how you put the score together?

J. You always have to keep it in mind, but we try and not let the implementation of the technology impede the compositional process too much. In the end it is just music, but it’s being delivered in a different way.

A. It’s a puzzle, sometimes quite a complicated one. A lot of composers get put off by this, but we quite enjoy it.

How much music did you compose for the actual game? [repeat]

J. Actual in-game music was about 3 hours. The gameplay is 10-20 hours so it is played back by the system in ways you will sometimes never hear twice. It is so interesting in games that we sometimes won’t hear the music in its final form until we sit down and play the game on release.

Seeing the gameplay videos it works brilliantly, are you happy with it?

A. We are all very proud of both the music and being involved with such an amazing project. There will always be things that we’d love to go back and tweak, but it is amazing playing the game now seeing the Alien and music working together. It still scares us too!
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Official website at www.alienisolation.com
Alexis & Joe’s creative, musical partnership is called The Flight.
More info at http://www.theflightmusicofficial.com/

Interview with Penka Kouvena

Film, TV and game composer and orchestrator Penka Kouneva hails from Sofia, Bulgaria. She has lived and worked in Los Angeles for 15 years. Penka has orchestrated with Hans Zimmer [Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End] and Steve Jablonsky for the Transformers franchise and video games Gears of War 2 and 3

Penka has also composed 2 concept albums, A Warrior’s Odyssey in 2012 on the Howlin’ Wolf label and the recent The Woman Astronaut released by Varese Sarabande. This last album shows Penka’s musical storytelling with it’s sweeping emotional themes and orchestral textures.

Penka is also a member of the Alliance For Women Film Composers, an organization which highlights the fantastic women composers that are out there and to mentor those women in their career aspirations. I talked with Penka recently about her career, The Woman Astronaut and the AWFC.

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The Woman Astronaut
Varese Sarabande

1. ORIGINS
1. Earth — featuring Lili Haydn, violin (5:00)
2. Starry Way (3:43)
3. The Forest — featuring Sara Andon, flutes (2:40)
4. Land Of Burning Fields — featuring Andrew Duckles, viola (2:10)
5. Looking Up — featuring Katia Popov, violin (2:45)

II. FLIGHT SCHOOL
6. Training — co-composed with Jeff Broadbent (3:50)
7. Broken — featuring Mike Lang, piano (2:21)
8. Taking Flight — featuring Sara Andon, flutes (4:55)
9. Alarm and Rescue (2:15)

III. SPACE
10. In Space — featuring Ayana Haviv, voice, and Nathan Barr, bowed guitar-viol (4:07)
11. Insomnia — featuring Lili Haydn, violin, and Mike Lang, piano (3:45)
12. Siren — co-composed with Christopher Lord (3:30)
13. Goodbyes In Zero Gravity — featuring Lili Haydn, violin (3:19)
14. Solar Flare (4:00)