Keeping score: Composers on composing

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Christopher Lennertz
"Meet the Spartans" (Fox; Jan. 25)

"'Meet the Spartans' is an all-out parody, not only of the movie '300,' but also of gladiator pics and sword-and-sandal epics in general. It's over-the-top in every way and really puts those styles of films under a comic microscope.

"In most cases in this film, the music plays the straight man. The score drives the action that both leads up to the jokes as well as comments after they hit their mark. It needed to be bigger, more ostentatious, and even more serious than even the films that are being parodied. By doing so, the spoofs become all the more ridiculous. The characters are so off-the-wall and hyperstylized that the serious score showcases the difference.

"(Directors Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer) wanted the score to treat the film as if it was the actual story of Sparta in all its glory. They wanted it to be big and bold and heighten the realism while evoking the feelings of the films that are being parodied. Obviously we wanted to use all of the stereotypical elements of music that defined these types of films to create our own score and personality while always keeping the audience in on the joke.

"And while it may not be in the traditional sense, there is definitely a hero, and most definitely a romance, so the hero's theme and the love theme play a huge part in the through-line of the story. That said, the thundering percussion, wailing guitars and powerful brass are key elements in making the battles feel as huge as possible.

"We recorded the score in Serbia, with the Belgrade Film Orchestra. We used a full 94-piece symphony and an 80-voice mixed choir as well as woodwinds, electric guitars and tons of ethnic percussion.

"In terms of unique instrumentation, I decided to take the sound one step further and mix in sounds from all around the world, even beyond the Middle Eastern elements that people would be expecting. I featured batteries of percussion, including Indian tablas, African djembes and riq drums from Egypt. Melodically I used bass whistles and recorders, the Armenian duduk, the electric cello, Tuvan throat singers and even the didgeridoo. There was also a fantastic female vocal soloist named Kristin Gould who really brought the score to life. And the best part is that the lyrics sung by Kris and the choir were based on a poem that I wrote after seeing the final cut of the film, and I had them translated into Greek. So when you hear her haunting wail floating above the lush orchestra chords, keep in mind that the words actually mean 'Death by Penguin Testicles.' Watch the movie, and you'll understand why!"   


Pedro Bromfman
"Tropa de Elite" (The Weinstein Co.; Jan. 25)

"The music in 'Tropa de Elite' primarily helps set the mood and tone of the film. It differentiates the worlds of the characters present in the picture, while gluing their stories together. 'Tropa de Elite' is an in-your- face type of film, and the music fluctuates from being extremely dark and oppressive at times, while comical at others.

"I had a conversations with (director) Jose Padilha about the music being centered on a very percussive score, almost tribal at times. He mentioned some ambient scores that he liked. The more I thought about those two opposing ideas, the more it made sense that a mix of these two concepts would perfectly suit our film. After all, 'Tropa de Elite' is a film about a big urban center divided into 'tribes' that are at war with one another.

"'Tropa' is told from the perspective of Captain Nascimento, one of the officers from BOPE, the elite squad of the Rio de Janeiro military police. He is an extremely brave cop who is about to have a baby and needs to find a replacement so he can be with his family.

"The music for 'Tropa' is primarily based on sounds and not melodies; my idea was to create sound worlds where the characters would exist, and as their stories intertwined, these worlds would mix and morph. Some examples of these sound worlds are the ambient sounds and percussion effects we hear when we are with Captain Nascimento. The processed guitar sounds, heavy use of percussion and charango lines punctuate the scenes where BOPE is in action, and the cuica and the samba pieces underscore the surreal situations corrupt cops find themselves in.

"Finding these sounds was an intricate part of the process. On the ambient spectrum of the score, I played around layering different synths and pads. I used sine waves and feedback and created several heavily processed guitar sounds. On the acoustic side of things, I worked with a couple of the best percussionists in Brazil -- Robertinho Silva and Cassio Duarte. Robertinho Silva brought to our studio in Rio percussion instruments I had never even seen before. We recorded him for hours so I would have enough material to use later on in the score. I also used a small 10-string guitar called a charango, nylon-string guitar, as well as more traditional instruments like contra basses and French horns.

"Being originally from Rio de Janeiro -- I have lived in Los Angeles for the past six years -- my biggest reward was just being a part of such an important project for Brazil: a project that has become a national phenomenon, bringing about so much debate and discussion, raising awareness, and making people question what is right, what is wrong and what can be done to change the current state of things in Brazil. I am very proud of this picture and can't wait to see the response it will get outside of Brazil."   


Jan A.P. Kaczmarek
"The Visitor" (Overture; April 11)

"'The Visitor' focuses on the struggles of immigration, particularly fueled by the immigration bureaucracy's failure to meaningfully address individual cases. These struggles play up the core of the film, which is a friendship that grows out of an unexpected situation. We meet Walter Vale, the main character, when he lives an empty life as a college economics professor in suburban Connecticut. In order to define his personality I wrote some small piano pieces, which are in a way quite formal and certainly nonromantic. When his friendship with an unexpected guest -- Tarek -- develops, the shift in music comes. The score transforms to develop the new characters and shows the change in Walter. I include percussion, ethnic and rhythmic sounds. Things change even more when Tarek's mother arrives. I bring in the first almost romantic, melancholy theme, which brings Walter and Mouna together and also supports the film's mood of incoming crisis.

"As an immigrant myself, I have gone through the struggles and have also experienced the support of friends through the process. This was fresh in my mind while composing the score.

"Because most ordinary people are far removed from the seemingly endless process of immigration, I needed to find a musical voice that could complement the film's unique mood and help to emotionally connect with an audience. It is not enough to show the character's struggles, one must explain them in a more abstract way so that the viewer experiences the same frustrations, sorrows and joys.

"Through (director Thomas McCarthy's) use of temporary music and through his comments, I understood the need for a small, intelligent score. Tom is an extremely verbal person, which I enjoyed very much. We touched on many subjects in our discussions, and that kind of communication is always inspiring because it becomes easier to understand the director's personality and intent.

"Music has the luxury of being intangible, and thus producing intangible results. It doesn't so much move the plot forward as it does add layers of emotion and complexity. In 'The Visitor,' it becomes essential in helping the audience understand realities they may otherwise never experience.

"As far as the instrumentation, I utilized the sounds of the piano, a string quartet, a Middle Eastern instrument called a duduk, a dulcimer and a solo cello."   


Atli Orvarsson
"Vantage Point" (Sony; Feb. 22)

"At its core, 'Vantage Point' is a classic good-vs.-evil story with an element of the butterfly effect thrown into the mix. What makes it interesting to me is how seeing the same events from the vantage points of several different characters -- hence the name -- reveals that the line between good and evil isn't always as clear-cut as it seems at first, and how the smallest coincidence can totally change the outcome.

"Because 'Vantage Point' is a thriller, the fundamental function of the music is to raise the stakes and help keep the audience engaged. But beyond that, the music needed to underline the differences between each character's point of view and their stories. The story revolves around an attempt to assassinate the president of the U.S. while he's at an anti-terrorism summit in Spain, and we see that unfold through the eyes of several different characters. (For example,) Forest Whitaker plays an American tourist on vacation in Spain who witnesses the shooting, while Dennis Quaid plays one of the president's bodyguards, so their experiences are obviously quite different.

"(Director Pete Travis) was also quite concerned that the score provide emotion as well as action. What that meant to me was that I needed to come up with melodic and sonic material that could serve the multitude of emotions and situations that arise in the movie.

"Fundamentally it's an electronic score, sweetened with a string ensemble and various ethnic instruments and percussion. There is quite a bit of duduk and tablas in the score, although that can hardly be considered very unique anymore. What's perhaps more interesting is the lineup of the string section, namely 26 celli and 8 basses, which obviously created a gloriously dark sound in the lower register but was also surprisingly versatile and effective up high.

"I find that the challenges and rewards tend to go hand in hand. To me, scoring a film is sort of like solving a puzzle, and the harder it is to figure out how the pieces fit together, the more rewarding it is when you do. One of the biggest challenges on this score was to create a unique electronic palette of sounds. It's a bit like writing for the orchestra but having to start by inventing all the instruments! Another challenge was to define and separate the different vantage points of the different characters through the music while keeping a unifying feel to the score. Ultimately, the main challenge for film composers remains to write music that is one with the movie but can also stand on its own as just music."   
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