How 'Nebraska's' Composer Wrote Americana Music Without 'Banjo Plucking'

"Nebraska"
"Nebraska"
 Paramount Pictures

Composer Mark Orton recalls some good advice he received from Alexander Payne while scoring the director's Nebraska. "He just said, 'Listen -- just be brilliant,'" Orton tells The Hollywood Reporter.

The Portland-based composer was brought on to score Payne's best picture nominee after what Orton calls "a serious case of temp love." As in, music editor Richard Ford asked to use Orton's existing material as a temporary score for the film's Cannes premiere. Ford and Payne were so pleased that they tapped Orton to compose the final score (though they had planned to hire Payne's frequent collaborator Rolfe Kent).

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The score was not Oscar-eligible, though, because it includes music Orton wrote earlier. Cues from his score to the 2006 film Sweet Land and pieces by his band Tin Hat remain in the final cut, of which about one-third is original composition.

The winsome Americana score was composed for Payne's concept of "Italian cinema on the plains," Orton says. "He didn't want something that was overtly Americana -- something that was banjo plucking, O Brother, Where Art Thou?"

That meant sparse instrumentation and less traditional instruments like the accordion. "The accordion and violin together is not often used in American film music -- as soon as [audiences] hear accordion, they think it's French," says Ford, who produced the score. He saw similarity in Orton's composing to that of Italian greats, he added. "There's a melancholy aspect to it that somehow seems to echo a lot of the Nino Rota scores, early [Federico] Fellini."

Ford is a longtime fan of Tin Hat, which led him to Orton's music for Nebraska. "[I've] always felt that their music was really filmic and thematic -- never overstated," Ford says. The composers' collective began as Tin Hat Trio, with Orton a founding member, in San Francisco in 1997. Its members -- Carla Kihlstedt and Ben Goldberg and former members Ara Anderson and Rob Burger -- play on much of Nebraska's score with Orton, and their participation was another draw for Payne.

"He didn't want a session musician -- though there are great session players out there, he didn't want that feel to it," Orton says. They are joined on the score by members of the Oregon Symphony and Mickey Raphael, Willie Nelson's harmonica player, as well as Orton's wife Megan, a violinist.

The all-acoustic instrumentation of Tin Hat struck the tone Payne wanted for Nebraska's music. "He was looking for that side of what I do -- even though I do some orchestral stuff, he really was looking for that kind of handmade, organic, natural quality to it," Orton says.

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The film's most difficult cue for Orton was the somber solo piano that plays as Woody (Bruce Dern) steps through his old house. Avoiding a "schmaltzy" tone was a challenge -- "I tried some stuff with strings in that cue that got a little oversentimental for Alexander," he says -- but finding the perfect piano was another. "I had recorded originally on this old Steinway that I have from the early 1900s, and it has a very particular character," Orton says. To re-record, "something we struggled with in the end was actually going around Hollywood trying to find the right vintage, the right era of piano."

Payne, who is up for the best director Oscar, is "very smart musically," Orton says. "He's one of the few directors that has actually been humming back and forth some stuff with me at the piano." Orton adds that he's decisive. "There's not a moment of wishy-washy. It was really a pleasure, because even if something wasn't working, it was clear why and what direction to take it next."

Orton adds that a highlight was composing for the film's long stretches of image without dialogue -- opportunities for thematic composition like Tin Hat's. "I really got to play up some themes," he explains. "The film plays as a dozen music videos for me with gorgeous cinematography, gorgeous black-and-white cinematography.

 "I get to really step out," he says.

Twitter: @asiegemundbroka

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