søndag den 22. januar 2017

"Manchester by the Sea": Interview med filmkomponist Lesley Barber

Vi hører sjældent om dem, men de findes derude – de kvindelige filmkomponister. Bries Blog-O-Rama mødte nogle af dem på sidste års Toronto Film Festival. Her er det første interview i serien (på engelsk).

Canadiske Lesley Barber har senest komponeret underlægningsmusik til Kenneth Lonergans drama ”Manchester by the Sea”, som havde dansk biografpremiere torsdag 19. januar.

Selvom "Manchester by the Sea" ligger lunt i svinget til årets oscarnomineringer, er Lesley Barbers musik ikke med i opløbet. Det Amerikanske Filmakademi valgte at diskvalificere lydsporet, fordi det indeholder flere eksisterende stykker klassisk musik, der anvendes på linje med Barbers nykomponerede cues. (Diskvalificeringen skete, efter at det nedenstående interview fandt sted.)

Lesley Barber har tidligere skrevet musik til bl.a. Kenneth Lonergans ”You Can Count on Me” (2001), Mary Harrons ”The Moth Diaries” (2011) og Patricia Rozemas ”Mansfield Park” (1999). Uddrag fra mange af Lesley Barbers scores kan høres på hendes hjemmeside, lesleybarber.com.

Barber er medlem af Alliance for Women Film Composers.

FOR FOREIGN READERS: Canadian film composer Lesley Barber has written the music score for Kenneth Lonergan's recent Oscar contender "Manchester by the Sea" (2016) as well as Lonergan's "You Can Count on Me" (2001). Other works include Mary Harron's "The Moth Diaries" (2011) and Patricia Rozema's "Mansfield Park" (1999).

The following interview with Lesley Barber took place at Toronto Film Festival 2016, before Barber's score for "Manchester by the Sea" was deemed ineligible for Academy Award consideration by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS).

Lesley Barber - publicity photo

Lesley Barber interview, part 1:

What are you currently working on?
I'm working on a feature documentary, "A Better Man". Sarah Polley is the executive producer on it, it's made by two wonderful filmmakers, Lawrence Jackman and Attiya Khan. It's a really moving strong piece of work, I'm really excited about it.

How did you get into composing for films?
I started very young. My first instrument was piano. I did a masters degree in composition in my early 20s, and while I did that I discovered a real passion for independent theatre and film. While I was supporting myself as a student, I started scoring theatre productions and then progressed into films. I've been writing primarily for films and television ever since, because I love that style of collaboration in film-making and storytelling.

Do you have a philosophy for scoring films?
I just try to get as inside the story and the characters as I possibly can.

What have you stolen from the composers that you admire the most?
The first idea, or the originating idea, there has to be something germlike about it. There has to be sort of new, emotional science to it that we haven't heard before, so it's a compelling response to silence, somehow.

Can you define one of your own cliches? You know, when you find yourself doing the same thing ...
Repeating an approach? I think a lot of my scores have a real hybrid quality to them of electronic and orchestration. I didn't even know Philip Glass' music when I started to compose, and I do have a sort of pattern quality to my music sometimes that is a bit pervasive, and a certain style of string writing.

What do you do if a director wants you to copy a temp score?
Oh, ha ha! That's really challenging. The thing I try to figure out is, what it is about the piece that the director really has an overwhelming relationship to, and quite often it's just that they've edited to the same tempo. Or there's a certain peak in the music, so I try to figure out what the most essential connection is for the director. Sometimes you can figure out what the tempo of the music is, and what the harmonic progression is, and I have to be very sure not to listen to it more than a few times, because as a composer it's tricky once it's stuck in your head, you know? But quite often I'm asked to actually steal from myself, so that's also very difficult when a director puts your own music into a film, and they say that they absolutely love your piece, and can you do one just like it? It's tricky. There is always a strong flavour to those pieces.

Are big themes going out of style?
I do think that we need to have a more appreciation for how much original scoring added to the films of the past, and that they can continue to have that kind of originality to filmmakers' vision, and some of the films are missing that. You get the feeling that the filmmaker doesn't have a deep appreciation for the power of music. They want drones and atmospheres to be way back in the background, felt, not heard, and that level of originality you see in a lot of the other choices sometimes isn't in the music. Obviously, some filmmakers get it and feel confident in that arena, especially most of the good ones, like the ones that we tend to go back to. When you look at Spielberg you just think, there is a visionary, a real filmmaker who has confidence and understands that if he partners with a composer, he can bring this whole other level of otherness to the world he's creating through music as well. Tarantino, even if it's source pieces, they are beautifully curated, and you can see how deep the knowledge is and how brave their choices are, they are just really cool. In scoring too, we do hear it sometimes, but we could hear it more often.

Do you try to write music that will work outside of the film as well?
The one thing I will say about my music is that when I finish the cue or the theme, I want the piece to also work as a stand-alone piece of music and have integrity as [that] and be beautifully produced and compelling on that level. I don't ever want to say, "Keep in mind, this was underscore for a film". I want to say, "Here's a beautiful piece of music". But you listen to even Bach's suites and toccatas, and there are sections that feel like travelling parts of the piece, they kind of move in a way that builds a certain duration into the center of his piece to balance it out without really adding new material. In the episodic sections of all kinds of composers, sometimes you do hear that in scoring, where in a travelling cue, you need to get a character from A to B, and you need patterns in there that will travel along and yet not bring a lot of new information to the score at key moments.

Can you enjoy a film the first time, or do you have to watch it again, because you're listening to the music?
It's funny. I think films are like music, you listen to a Tchaikovsky piece and hear it a few times, and you've got it. You listen to a Brahms symphony, and sometimes you wanna spend a month on it, just listening to it over and over again and hear layer upon layer. Filmmaking is like that. Some films I've seen, like [David Lynch's] ”Mulholland Drive”, some of [FrancoisOzon's films, [StanleyKubrick - I don't know how many times I've watched "Barry Lyndon". Some films unveil themselves more quickly than others, or for some personal reason you grow attached and you want to figure out how they did it, you know.

Do you feel moved by your own music?
When I feel moved by a piece of my music, I make sure that I save that version. Whenever I feel that feeling, I have a folder which is like the "Feels" folder, like I felt something. Whatever that version is, press record, make sure I have that version. What happens is, sometimes you just know it's working, everyone in the room knows it's working, and then they edit that section and ask you to take out a few bars or move this or that around, and suddenly you don't know if it's having the same impact. So being able to feel something in the music is, there is a sacred balance there, and you have to keep track of it when you're composing so you don't lose that once you've got it.

Is that the litmus test: If you feel the emotion then it's working?
Yes, but it's not important in every single cue, because some cues' functions are completely different. If it's a cue where the emotional impact of it is essential, you really want to keep track of where those trigger points are.

Can you name one favourite score or cue that you made?
Uh, that's really tricky. It's overused, but it's a little bit like picking your favourite child. I would say there are pieces in different films, and for just the way I came up with the idea makes me feel really happy, regardless of how the music works. Like in ”Manchester by the Sea”, the idea of the a cappella voices, it was just one of those, I think it works really well in a lot of different ways. It's a lovely piece of music, I'm excited by it conceptually as well. There are sections of "Mansfield Park" that I think are really beautifully crafted, and they're inventive in orchestration. "The Moth Diaries" is extremely creepy, and I took the orchestra and had them play all the long notes as harmonics, so there's always this feeling of a shredded hell in it, underneath it all, which I kind of like. There are just cool things, like "Moth Diaries" has all this blood coming out of the ceiling, and [the music is] all this crazy prepared piano with pearl necklaces inside ... I find the whole process of doing them and having these ideas in the middle of the night and actually doing them and then they work, I find that really fun. That you can come up with an idea, and then it is the right idea.

Which is the hardest: Writing music or not writing music?
It's always tricky, you have to be really patient to give yourself time to hunt and hunt and hunt for the right piece of music, because I can't waste my time on music that isn't engaging to me, but sometimes maybe I should because then I would get the score done more quickly. It can be excruciating to find the right theme sometimes. You have to take breaks. But I love writing music, so I don't really think about that.

Have you ever had a bad experience doing a score for something that maybe didn't work out?
(chuckles) Yeah, there's been a few that were not favourite experiences, but ... That's always part of anything. With making art, making things with collaborative process, there is deadlines, budget issues. Sometimes the scope of the vision changes, and suddenly you need to do a lot more at the last minute, but you're not hearing from the director. There's all kinds of things that you really have to have a big sense of humour about, and you have to enjoy the luge. That it's sort of the extreme sport of music, writing film music. It's like doing the Skeleton or something. You're going down the hill, and you only have [a small sled]. Right now, I just started a score and the music have to be written in five or six weeks, there's really no time for wondering about it. You just have to find a really beautiful theme. That part of it, you have to acquire a real love of a deadline. And you have to be excited by it.

Is there a period in the history of film that you wish you'd been working in?
Maybe the 70s, the kind of ”Blade Runner” era when all that synthy stuff was being done, it would have been really fun to do one of those scores. They are kind of cheesy, but I get a kick out of them. Something with The Bee Gees in it, and the Moog. Those sorts of sounds. There's a sense of humour, more of a sense of play, and a little bit more imagination. When you hear what Jack Nitzsche was doing, there were some really cool scores being done. Giorgio Moroder. There is a lot of flair in those scores. There are a lot of messy parts too, but you think: "Oh wow, this is really crazy". You think of "Midnight Express" ... They have really strong profiles, memorable scores with memorable sound.

How would you describe film scoring today?
I think there are two different kinds, well, several kinds being done now. The kind of filmmakers who look at music as mp3 files or something, I don't know how to describe it, and they're not looking at the score thematically as much, they're looking at it more scene by scene. And then there are other filmmakers who are really confident and highly curating their scores in really beautiful ways. Maybe there has always been that distinction, but now because of the use of files and file transfers and the idea of the ready-made cue and that there isn't a process of working collaboratively on the beginning themes for a lot of filmmakers, there is this ... There are a couple of different approaches happening right now. The thematic approach is still really exciting. We're in the era of the playlist. I guess that's what I'm getting at.

Lesley Barber interview, part 2: 

How many minutes of score did you write for ”Manchester by the Sea”?
All the variations are coming out on the soundtrack. For the score itself, there is maybe 20-25 minutes. I haven't added it up, the subliminal textures and the more featured cues. [The released score contains 19 minutes of Lesley Barber's music including variations; ed.]

There is quite a few pieces of classical music on the soundtrack. Did you have a say in choosing the existing pieces of music?
Kenny [writer/director Kenneth Lonergan, ed.] really curates his scores in a very personal way. It was a work in progress, and a lot of sharing went on back and forth, so that the score would sneak around throughout as well and also play off the harmonies and melodies of the classical part of the score. Everything influences everything, it was quite an organic process, but Kenny has a deep knowledge of music. On all three films, you will see his use of my scoring and his choices of classical music. Of course, Ray Charles is in there, with The Ink Spots, Ella Fitzgerald, Bob Dylan. We have some beautiful, iconic pieces in there.

What is the music playing during the film's big centrepiece where the house is on fire, and Lee goes to the police station?
That is a piece by Albinoni [”Adagio Per Archi e Organo in Sol Minore”, ed.]. It's got a very dark quality to it and a feeling of fate and progression into all kinds of dark corners.

And your score is the choral harmonies?
And some of the string writing and the piano, yeah. When I received the script, I read it and just felt this intuitive pull towards writing the pieces for a cappella female voices. The voices are not overtly female, they could almost sound like boy sopranos as well. There is this kind of in-between colour that I was going for. So I work with young singers, worked on the melodies and harmonies, and then I also wanted something in the beginning that was calm and dark, sort of overbearing on the scene with Lee [Casey Affleck's character, ed.] and the young boy on the boat, that had a sort of inevitable feeling to it, like fate's hand coming over him. I worked on that a lot too. Once Kenny was into the editing process, we could see where the themes were working, and where they weren't working, and we could adjust. I also wrote a piano solo and developed harmonies and variations on that. We hear little bits of that in the film score as well, and also the warm string texture that's underneath the vocals sneaks in towards the end, and we have a lovely bookend of that at the end of the film.

How much of your work is sonic exploration, like putting pearl necklaces in a piano?
For every score I try to do something a little bit like that. I try to take the world of the film and the environment and ambiences and orchestra and try to find new ways of blending the human performance with the performance of sound, like tonal sound. Harmonic sound. Even in the theme from ”Manchester by the Sea”, I use the singer's, Jacoba [Barber-Rezoma]'s, voice, but I also make sure that the breaths between [are heard]. If I'd worked with an engineer and not done it myself, I think they would have tried to get rid of all the breaths, but I felt like that was one of the most important, essential parts of the music. The breaths and the use of them, contrapunctually, the gasp of them underneath the music is very subtle, but yeah. It's an exploration of sound and harmony most of the time for me.

What is the exact effect of keeping in the gasps and breaths?
To me, it's something about Lee, the main character, and fate. This piece sort of has a harmonic structure where it has an inevability about it, it has this gravity, like this feeling of fate; it has levity, and it has this feeling that there is an unsparing part about fate, that life just keeps marching on. And the breaths somehow, to me, they are just really human. In the midst of that, they are just really human and inevitable. When you sing, you have to breathe. And the piece doesn't really quite end, it can just keep going. It doesn't ever really completely have a final cadence, and the breaths, even at the end, there is this little breath where I can just continue to loop this theme, and yet it sounds like a piece. It was kind of exciting to get the right balance on that.

Soundtrackalbummet til ”Manchester by the Sea” er udgivet af Milan Records og kan bl.a. høres på Spotify.
The "Manchester by the Sea" soundtrack album was released by Milan Records on November 18, 2016. It is available for streaming on Spotify.

Lesley Barber's Soundcloud

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