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Scoring 'Her': Composers Owen Pallett and William Butler on the Film's Stark Soundtrack

Plus: how do you put music to a sex scene involving an operating system?

Her Joaquin Phoenix Against Window - H 2014
Warner Bros. Pictures

Spike Jonze’s Her is visually stunning, to be sure, but the film's music is just as integral in telling the story of a love affair between a man (Joaquin Phoenix's Theodore Twombly) and his operating system (Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson). 

The score was a collaborative effort by the band Arcade Fire, with William Butler and Owen Pallett nominated for best original score at the Academy Awards on March 2. 

“The process was very much Arcade Fire -- all the members contributed to the creation of the score," Pallett explains. But  nominations for best original score are limited to two people and the band felt Butler and Pallett “contributed most to the creation process.”

Of course, Jonze was incredibly involved in the scoring process as well, pointing to specific instruments and asking for more or less of them: “The score was much more collaborative with the director than other scores that I’ve worked on,” Pallett says. “The music is, as a result, much more reflective of Spike’s personal vision than it would have been had he had no involvement.”

Built on a foundation of synths and eerie guitars, the score sounds futuristic and somewhat cold to reflect the near future Los Angeles in which the film is set. But to counter, the score also evokes warmth and swelling emotion in its string arrangements, mirroring the budding romance and its ultimate collapse.

“It’s interesting because we wanted it to have the feeling of being both rooted in contemporary notions of romance and intimacy, but have certain elements that were somewhat dissociated that placed the music into a future context,” Pallett says. “As a result, personally, I feel as though the score is really quite stark and brutal.”

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Tone obviously plays a huge role in the music of the film, but Butler ultimately attributes the success of the score to sound quality. “I think this generation kind of post Beatles people respond to sound in the same way they used to respond to melody,” Butler says. “They respond to the sound quality, just the sound quality is the source of so much of the emotion in music. That’s always how we’ve created music as a band.”

Butler continues: “The actual sound is as important as the melody and the chords, and when you’re missing that sound -- a certain gravely synth tone that has a tension -- it’s as if you’re missing the lyrics of the song or something. It’s as important as anything, and sometimes that’s there from the beginning, but sometimes that’s the very last element you add in production.”

Tone and sound quality come together perfectly in “Some Other Place,” the cue for the unconventional sex scene in which the screen goes black, leaving the moment to be depicted through the dialog and score alone. Pallett says this cue was one of the hardest he’s ever worked on. “We would joke that it was good that they faded to black because you didn’t really want to see what was going on,” Pallett quips. “You don’t actually want to see the physical consummation of this relationship. It might turn the scene into comedy."

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Pallett laughs, but when it came to the serious task at hand, he explains how "the music had to keep the audiences mind off of that and focus more on the emotional investment that Samantha and Theodore were having in that scene.”

As a lead-up to the Oscars, Pallett will be conducting an 80-piece orchestra as it performs the Her suite at UCLA’s Royce Hall on Feb. 27. Music from nominees The Book Thief (composed by John Williams), Gravity (Steven Price), Philomena (Alexandre Desplat) and Saving Mr. Banks (Thomas Newman) will be heard as well.

Pallett expects that the concert will go to show just how different the Her score in relation to its peers. “I thought it was going to be really interesting to come from the Thomas Newman and John Williams scores which are definitely going to be quite lush and extraordinarily beautiful,” Pallett says. “It’s going to excite me to hear the Her score played next to it because it’s comparatively very stark and almost foreboding.”

The score is currently unavailable for purchase (sorry Fire fans). As Pallett puts it, the band submitted itself for Academy consideration but never expected to be nominated. He predicts, however, that the music will be made available soon. “We’ll get it, we’ll sell a million copies,” Pallett jokes of a future Oscar win. Perhaps a little push from that tiny gold man might speed up the process. Fingers crossed.

Watch Arcade Fire and Owen Pallett at work on the film's score in the video below: 

Twitter: @THR_Earshot