'Under the Skin' Score Live: Oscar Contender Mica Levi on Music from the Sci-Fi Saga

The experimental musician leads a 24-piece orchestra through a performance of the film's unnerving soundtrack
Courtesy of Miss Management
Micachu and the Shapes

Beyond Scarlett Johansson's eerie portrayal of an otherworldly visitor disguising herself as a seductive human female in Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin, the film's standout star was the unnerving score that closely followed Johansson's humanoid self through the chilling sci-fi saga.

That was the atonal work of Mica Levi, the 28-year-old British musician better known for her experimental songwriting under the moniker Micachu with her band The Shapes. After recently winning Best Composer at the European Film Awards, with Oscar nominations approaching, hers is on a short list of original scores Hollywood is buzzing about. Not bad for her film debut.

On  Jan. 6, Levi will lead a 24-piece orchestra through two live scorings of the film at Los Angeles' newly opened Regent Theater downtown. This follows a similar production last summer at the Royal Festival Hall in London. The Hollywood Reporter talked with Levi in advance of the show to discuss her score and preparing it for the live setting.

When it was decided to perform this score live, did you already have it transcribed to sheet music from recording? What kind of preparations did you do?

In part it was in sheet form because we had sessions recording instrumentalists. And then we recorded sections that we moved around the score. So in terms of performing it live, I had to sort or re-look at it and transcribe some of what I'd just played. It took a bit of time, actually, getting that together. And then to have to arrange it for the group of musicians that we had.

How much of your composition on Under the Skin was formed digitally rather than live or at least with live musicians in mind?

It was conceived in real time. It wasn't like the old times, and I can't imagine this happens a lot in these times, but you know you used to write a short score and then orchestrate it and get an indication of what it would be like that. ... But this was done with a computer so we had a look. I recorded a lot of live viola and basically from the offset, Jonathan Glazer was keen that it could be performed live, so it was important. And that was really helpful instruction anyway because it's endless what you can do electronically, and that meant that we had to bear in mind an ensemble and sort of have that in the back of my mind whilst writing. So that was a helpful restriction.
 
So live scoring was something you had discussed explicitly at the outset?

It was. I think he was right to say that in any case, because it means you're more distinguished in what you're doing. Those limitations in terms of what's possible live — which is most things, most stuff is possible live. So even if it's a sound that sounds kind of electronic, you can imitate it on an instrument very easily. It was more about having the right palate.

We so often paint synthesized sound as being the lesser, but you're seeing it for its virtue.

Absolutely. And in this film the synthesizers are used to express human feeling. So the synthesized strings, its role is like a warm consistent rush of color ... like a drug experience might be where you're suddenly overcome by a feeling — or like love it, just straight up. And that's how we used it in the film. It's kind of funny how that ended up happening — where the more human feelings she's supposed to feel are all synthesized.

Tickets to the Under The Skin screening and live film score with Mica Levi and the Wild Up + Wordless Music Orchestra are available here (7 p.m.) and here (10 p.m.).

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