Alex Moreland talks to composer Ariel Marx about her score for upcoming movies The Tale and Hair Wolf, her creative influences, and more…
So, first of all – how did you initially get involved with The Tale?
So, when I was getting my Masters degree a few years back, I participated in the Columbia ASCAP film scoring workshop. There I was connected with the director and producer of a short film called Dear Mother, Daniel Nixon and Reka Posta, and I wrote the music for that film. A couple years later, Reka Posta, who was the producer, she was also involved with The Tale, and she’s been involved with The Tale since its development, for many years. She was ultimately my connection to Jennifer Fox, the director of The Tale.
Can you tell us a little bit about the music and the sound style of the film?
It was an interesting process coming up with the palette. The story is a lot about memory, the mechanisms of memory and how we kind of think back on memory and how we change it over time, and how perspective changes over time. That was a big point, that the music would kind of represent all these different layers and change of perspective within the music. A couple of other aspects about it, we were dealing with two different decades, interpretable moments of protagonist’s life, so we also had to grab where we’re how are we going to represent time with music, if we work in changes in that. We wanted to have these aspects of memory of peeling back layers of inconsistent perspective, and to not have the music make too much of a statement either way. Kind of supporting the story as it goes along but not giving away too much.
We ultimately just settled on a pretty intimate small palette. It’s just a combination of acoustic and electronic elements, strings, guitar, piano, bells. These variations of these instrumentation’s in colour kind of change as we deal the different decades of time and different subjects. Again, the palette is intimate, and the palette actually shifts over time as the memories begin to change. There’s certain emphasis and acoustic palettes and later emphasis on electronic palettes when things start to change and become clearer. It was a real very interesting process. Something that was interesting too is that the whole film is kind of about peeling back layers, so the music was very layered. At times, I would just give them to Jennifer and the editor Alex. They would kind of sift through the layers and see if they wanted to emphasis them or take some back. It was very collaborative experience working with them.
Picking up on what you were saying there, about the mixture of acoustic and electronic sounds. I understand that this is a technique you’ve used in some of your previous work as well. I was wondering – what do you think the effect of that kind of combination is?
I think it’s bound to be unique in terms of you’re not just within the confines of the sample libraries that you can use. By acoustic elements, I perform on a lot of my own scores, so adding live acoustic elements from my aesthetic kind of contribute its own uniqueness. The combination of colours, it’s interesting because colour … Deciding on the colours of the story that you’re trying to tell, the same scene orchestrated in different instrumentation has completely different connotation. It’s just having the flexibility of dialling in acoustic or dialling electronic emphasis is a powerful motive expression. I don’t think, you know sometimes you wouldn’t be… There are very organic sounding electronic elements, and then very kind of [not]. Especially if the acoustic sounds are affected and heavily processed, they can also sound like they’re coming from a synthesiser, but just having the ability to kind of draw from organic and synthetic worlds gives you a lot of control over the palette and has connotations in terms of what aspect of the story you’re trying to highlight as well.
What’s your process like, from when you first start work to the finished piece?
Specifically with this film, it was all about finding the right colours in the instrumentation. I generally like to start with that – finding what kind of instrumental palette we’re going to use. Is it going to be large sounding? You can learn a lot from the temp score that’s in the film in terms of what sounds they’re going for. In this specific film, it was important to keep it intimate and small and kind of a chamber ensemble. Determining the size of the ensemble, the sounds, the size of the scores is really important to start with. Because then you know how many pieces, how many elements you’re working with.
Then, riding a suite of scenes, I’ve done this both ways of just kind of jumping right in, maybe to a very pivotal scene in the film, or writing away from the picture and writing three or four or five or six themes in a five-minute suite or so to see what resonates. Keep kind of chipping away. In these initial stages, keep chipping away about what kind of instrumentation, what kind of harmonic language, what kind of presence music has? If it’s very clear that the music needs to be very understated, not too many hits with cuts, not so many emphases, or if it needs to be highly aligned with picture. People have different preferences, so kind of getting all of those large framework questions answered at the beginning is very helpful then, and you can just continue to harvest the material and develop the material as soon as you’ve created a language that works for the team.
Now, you’ve also done the score for the upcoming short film Hair Wolf. Did your approach differ between the two pieces at all?
Yes, with Hair Wolf, there was a much clearer aesthetic they wanted right off the bat. It’s interesting because they do have similar approaches in this transition from a palette transition as the sound goes on. I would say with Hair Wolf, the director Mariama Diallo knew that she wanted very much to have a classic horror score, orchestral score, employing lots of orchestral techniques, kind of the classic orchestral techniques to warn people of danger or to warn people of an unexpected villain, et cetera. To set the audience off kilter she was very clear she wanted the score to do a lot of very obvious work. It was very fun because I got to play a lot, with really hitting the picture in bold ways and making large statements with the score and not really holding back.
In that score, the story of this, it takes place in a black hair salon in gentrified Brooklyn, and there the local residents are fending off a new monster. The monster is actually white women who are appropriating black culture. In the way that the write up on it is they’re intent on sucking the lifeblood from black culture. There was then a process of creating musical elements that represented these new monsters. That then became discrepancies with the orchestral palette. We then brought in a little more electronic element, a little more very coded specific sounds to represent these monsters and these themes that, as they are more and more involved in the story they become more and more present in the score. Similar approaches to both films in that the score is kind of living and breathing and evolving with the film.
Tonally, do different genres present different challenges in terms of evoking feelings?
In terms of evoking feelings, yes. Exactly with The Tale, everything is… It’s not understated but it’s – well, I guess it is, it’s subtle, it’s not… I was very careful, and we made the intention early on that the music wasn’t going to make too much of a statement. It had to be dualistic, it had to be intimate and playful and it had to be poignant and serious at the same time. How to keep the music … How can a piece of music be both loving and mournful? How can a piece of music be both playful and poignant? People feel different, specific people feel different things. Specifically, what I might find sad, Jennifer might not find sad, or vice versa. It was all very interesting kind of getting into a very nuanced language of how she wanted the music to function.
You mentioned earlier that you have a Masters degree in music composition. How do you think that more formal training shapes your outlook?
People get into this industry in so many different ways, and the more and more tools you’re armed with, in my belief, the better you are prepared to handle any situation, any aesthetic that’s thrown at you. To me, my Masters, I got my Masters with NYU and there are some schooling programmes. I actually teach there now as well. That, in particular, I can kind of trace every connection I have back to that, and that training, I was allowed to interface, given the opportunity to interface with a lot of industry professionals and just be very technically and theoretically, both in music technology and in music theory and compositional techniques and kind of industry standard.
Being prepared both in using software and common practises and workflow practises, and just the exposure to different industry guests in all aspects of the industry, not just film, just really armed me with the right amount of tools to be able to kind of take advantage of an opportunity as soon as it came to me. People get that exposure and that training in many different ways, and some people never go to school for it or have never been formerly or classically trained and they have striving careers. I think that’s what’s amazing about… The scoring industry now is you have so many different voices and so many different backgrounds that we’re all kind of challenging each other based on our backgrounds. We learn from each other based on aesthetics or choices I would never think of. I think it’s great that we have these varied ways that people get into the industry, and formal education isn’t the only way. For me it was very valuable.
Who would you say are your chief musical influences?
My chief musical influences, I have to think about that.
Yes, it can be quite a difficult question!
It is a difficult question because it really depends on the film as well, and the aesthetic that you’re moving forward. A lot of my background is in, actually folk music. I started off mainly focusing on folk fiddling. A lot of my base default inspiration comes from kind of old American and Irish and Scottish fiddle tunes and folk tunes. That’s kind of where a lot of my training began. It’s such a hard question. I’m a huge fan of the playful and wonderful aesthetic of The Tin Hat Trio and they have… Mark Orton has done some scores with them, but what’s incredible about them, and I think I always look to them. Actually, I think they’re called Tin Hat now not Tin Hat Trio, because they’re more than a trio, but they have such an amazingly playful sound and amazingly big sound with such a small amount of players, and they’re all incredibly virtuosic.
It’s both incredibly creative and incredibly economic in terms of how they create this lush, lush, incredibly varied textures and colours and instrumentations just with a few instruments. I think right now, with my approach to scoring, in terms of compositional process views there, they’re a huge influence. I’m really influenced by my contemporaries. I love and really resonate with Dario Marianelli and Alexandre Desplat and some of those larger orchestral scores. I really love the work also of Danny Bensi & Saunder Jurriaans and Daniel Hart. A lot of people are doing amazing work with small instrumentation. I mean instrumentation that they play, and that they work with and they could be most themselves with that orchestration. I guess my influences vary from some films, but as for right now I’m always very interested and inspired by how people create really affective scores with… You know you don’t need an orchestra anymore, with just a few players and sample libraries, et cetera. It’s an evolving field and my influences evolved with what I’m being asked to do.
Finally, then – what’s the most important thing you’d hope someone takes away from your work, both on The Tale and in general?
I think on The Tale, I would hope that people resonate with that it’s representing the duality of memory or the multi-dimension of memory. The way that it’s representing memory with layers and with dualistic emotion and with evolving instrumentation and reiteration of thematic material but with different instrumentation that hopefully that all plays into the complication and the beauty of, and the horror of reconciling one’s past and believing the story that helped you survive, but that the music isn’t telling you what to think one way or another, but providing you, but changing along with the perspective that you’re being given during the film.
Ultimately stimulating on the final revelation. That’s just to serve the story in that kind of multilayered way. Then, in general I would say just that when people listen to it, they perhaps immediately get visuals that it’s something that tells a story if there isn’t even a story. Cinematic in its bones and something that might inspire to write, or might inspire someone to put it underneath the footage they have and see if it works, but just… I love what I do and there’s nothing more exciting than being part of the team of story tellers. My biggest goal is to just inspire story tellers to work with music and to work together.
Ariel Marx, thank you very much!
Both The Tale and Hair Wolf will have an exclusive first premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.