Red Stewart chats with composer Lesley Barber…
Lesley Barber is a Canadian composer who has been writing music for the film and television industry since the mid-90s. She is best known for her work on feature moves like Mansfield Park and Manchester by the Sea. Her latest pieces are for the documentary A Better Man, the Netflix release Irreplaceable You, and the upcoming horror film Boarding School.
Flickering Myth had the privilege to have an interview with her, and I in turn had the honor to conduct it:
It’s a complete honor to be speaking with you ma’am. I’ve been a big fan of yours for a while now, and it’s an almost surreal experience to actually talk to you. So thank you for taking the time out of your day for this interview.
No, it’s a pleasure. Nice to meet you.
So, I want to talk about your recent works, but also your filmography in general. First off, what inspired you to become a composer?
I have no idea actually. I just naturally fell into writing music. There were a couple of times, maybe in my late teens or early 20s, where I considered other interests or occupations, but I just continued to write music and then found myself really enjoying collaborative work with directors and writers. And once I had done my first film, I thought, well, this is a world that I thoroughly enjoy. And I really haven’t looked back.
And your first film would be When Night Has Fallen, is that correct?
Yes, that’s it.
It’s amazing that it was your calling. I’m reading on IMDB that, for a lot of your work, you’re credited as both the composer and the orchestrator. And I know, based on my research, that you compose with a lot with orchestras. Is that what orchestrator means: that you work with an orchestra?
Yes. When I first start out with a project, I’m trying to come up with a really specific sound- a really unique special world for the story, for the characters, and for the director’s vision. The orchestration process is really specific, and involves taking scenes, sketches, and finished cues composed for the score, and then taking any of the instrumental parts if there’s anything like a string section, wind instruments, brass, percussion, vocals, and so forth. All those parts have to be arranged for the number of performers and the type of orchestra or ensemble you’re working with.
With Irreplaceable You, I started writing with piano, vocals, guitar, and programming. But thought that the score needed a big warm orchestral backdrop of strings in places. With the scope of the film and orchestration in mind I created a mock-up and score of each cue – and making decisions about the orchestration. In places we have the sound of 20 strings, and other places – a larger orchestra of 40, 60 plus strings.
Also, I often work with a wonderful orchestrator named James Shearman, who’s UK based, and he’s worked with me on the final orchestration on my scores, usually at the end of the process. And I’ll write the cue and then we’ll talk and we’ll work out the final touches on orchestration. I hope that makes sense.
Yes, it makes complete sense. It involves I guess, for lack of a better word, a more intimate relationship with the different sections of an orchestra.
And finding which specific instrument works better for this scene or this specific piece.
There’s a lot of nuance and creative decisions with performers involved as well. Because you’re also, like with a score like Manchester by the Sea, where there’s a lot of exterior shots, working with the string players on the character, the emotions of the sound. And making decisions about the recording space – and the right performers for the sound you’re looking for. The performers add an impactful world of emotions to each score. It’s a really pleasurable part of the process and it’s exciting to hear what performers bring to the music.
That’s true. I actually played with orchestras in my high school years.
No, it was more like community bands *laughs*, it wasn’t anything professional.
What did you play?
I played trombone.
Oh, that’s great.
Yeah, I mean I guess brass isn’t very specialized in orchestras, but it was a great experience. I really enjoyed it.
It’s such a fun instrument to play as well. It has such a big beautiful warm sound. I love the trombone.
Part of what really attracted it to me was that I wouldn’t have to memorize specific valve positions. I really liked the idea of being able to find the notes through your hand. Do you play any instruments Ms. Barber?
Yes, I do! I play the piano and guitar. I also studied different instruments at school – woodwinds and some brass, and an attempt at strings *laughs*, but you do get to know the instruments a little bit as you have to incorporate them into different scores. And sometimes when I’m working on a score and I want to feature an instrument, I’ll get a hold of one and reacquaint myself with the technique.
Sorry, I apologize for the way I phrased that question. Obviously you must play instruments because you do such a great job with these compositions that you have to know the different sounds produced by them. But it’s amazing that you have such a variety of knowledge when it comes to your experiences with the different sections. Sort off going off that, though, have you ever had to create compositions using synths instead of live instruments?
Yeah, it’s really fun. I just did a score that’s mainly programming, electronic textures. It’s a beautiful feature documentary called A Better Man by Attiya Khan and director Lawrence Jackman, about a woman reflecting on an experience with an abusive boyfriend 20 years prior through interviews with the boyfriend after she runs into him on the street and they decide to meet and confront the experience they had together. It’s a challenging and moving film.
And for the score I wanted to reflect some of the 80s backdrop to Attiya’s experience, especially for moments of reflection and memory. And it was really fun to kind of listen back to that music and somehow get the essence of the lush programming that was so much a part of the music of the 80s.
The score uses live piano. strings, but it’s an intimate score that also features synths and programming. Many of my scores are a hybrid – full of (solo) performances and orchestral writing, and programming as well.
Oh okay, that’s very interesting to hear that it’s more of a blend. But I’m wondering, is there a big difference for you personally as the composer when you’re working with synths versus a live orchestra? Is it easier, or are they two very different that you can’t really compare?
It’s a really different experience. When you’re working on a programmed score you have complete control and you know that it’s always in tune *laughs*, and you can skip communicating your intentions to some extent because you’re just free to kind of create your own space, your own music, your own sound. And as soon as you have that interaction with other people, you’re involving a whole new creative dialogue in the process.
I would also say that, when it’s a more programmed kind of approach, a lot of my collaborative work might be with my music mixer. We’ll look at any sounds and see if we can take the production to new levels. And quite often with the orchestra, if there’s anything that we’re doing like exploring new sounds and atmospheric colors, I’ll usually pre-record those in a smaller session and kind of put a toolbox together of more out-of- the-box orchestral sounds, colours, soloists
And also, when you’re working with an orchestra, you’re very scheduled and very conscious of time, and you’re collaborating with sometimes 40-80 people in that room and they all have their own sound and their own creativity and generosity that they’re bringing to your score. And it’s really interesting to realize that the creative process isn’t stopping, but actually in a new phase again during the studio records. So . . I don’t know if that answers the question.
You did. Synths are a much more isolated experience, whereas with an orchestra it’s more like a community.
That’s right. And also even just the process. As soon as you have the orchestra and the score, you’re working with many more people to put that recording, mixing day together. So yeah, it’s far more collaborative.
You mentioned earlier that you have to take into consideration the budget. I’m wondering, for a composer, how does the budget affect you the most? Is it in terms of the time you have, the amount of people you can hire? How does the budget correlate with the composer?
When you’re first working on a new film, maybe you start with the script, maybe you start with a rough edit or fine cut of the film. But usually in those initial phases you’re talking to the director about what their vision is, and you’re listening to music with the director, and often they have included temp score in their edit, and sometimes include some of your music and score demos – – and decisions start to emerge about tonality and scope of production and scoring. And when you’re presented with a budget number, sometimes it reflects the director’s vision, and other times it’s a real challenge, because often, during the film edit, the director will put in temp music under key scenes of pre-existing score music, and quite often they’re pieces that are beautifully produced: as in a lot of time and money has been spent getting an amazing piece of music together,
So, with smaller budgets, sometimes you really have to go back into the film and into the key relationships and characters and the story and figure out how you can work with the budget you have and begin to put together a sound that still reflects what the director is looking for. And sometimes you have to be very careful about looking at key moments in the film, and figuring out well “maybe we can have orchestra here, but maybe we can have solo instruments in other parts of the film,” or use more hybrid programming in some of the score. It’s really important to know, before you start writing, what the scope of the film is, and if the production budget reflects that, how much music you’re going to be writing, and how to make good choices around that while you are writing.
That is interesting to know. But I have to wonder, because I remember reading in an interview you did for Manchester By the Sea, that you started developing the themes after reading the script by Mr. Kenneth Lonergan. I’m wondering, is that something that tends to happen to you, or do you usually have to wait? Because I know composers are usually brought on later in the project when there’s more of a rough edit of the footage. Do you develop the themes after you read the script or do you wait until after you have seen the footage that has been shot?
With Manchester by the Sea and the first film I did with Kenny Lonergan [You Can Count on Me], he sent me the script and I could start from that point. And I guess the great thing about that is that there usually aren’t any deadlines at that point, and there’s a freedom: you’re just talking about ideas with the director. You can kind of start writing from an emotional, intuitive place, before all the other conversations start around scope and editing and deadlines and other production scheduling.
And most of the time I get the script first, and can just take some time to read it and be in that place before I start writing. I just received a new script last weekend and sat down at the piano and did some writing and recording without really thinking too much about it. After that, I just put it aside so I have the first ideas there. And it’s kind of interesting because quite often those are the ideas that I end up using.
Oh, that’s amazing that you’ve developed a sort of, I guess would you call it an instinct? That you can read a script and create a wonderful theme that, if not being the exact same, at least reflects the final composition.
Yeah, I think I understand your question. It’s fairly intuitive. And if you listen the next day and it doesn’t make sense, that’s fine too. (laughs) But often the first ideas turn out being the ones that resonate and stay with you somehow. Sometimes they don’t; sometimes, during that process you can write something that’s emotionally already there in the film, and then, when you see the actual film, there’s no real place for the theme or emotions and the film needs something new
Yeah, I’ve read about other directors who’ve had great relationships with their composers like Mr. Spielberg and John Williams. It’s fascinating that you’ve had the same experience with Mr. Lonergan.
And also on Irreplaceable You, which I just worked on with Stephanie Lang. We had the premiere and it was really cool to just sit in the audience and see how the score came together and think back on the process and how some of those original ideas certainly stayed and became themes for the film.
Yeah, absolutely. That’s a great way of putting it ma’am. I know how busy you are, and I just had a couple more quick questions. One is that I’ve noticed that a lot of films in your filmography are dramas, and not just dramas but pretty heavy dramas. Is there something about the genre that attracts you more than say a comedy or other genres?
I’m not sure which came first, directors who are attracted to my work or those specific kinds of projects. I think that I am really drawn to dramas and dramedies, but also thrillers and futuristic sci fi. I love writing for drama and dramedies, and comedies as well.
I think it’s just the story. It’s just falling into the world of the characters and somehow animating them with the music. When you’re composing for film, it’s like you’re writing as a dramatist or a storyteller. And it’s this constant challenge, which is really exciting, of trying to find a simple theme, score, that adds a new layer to the filmmaker’s vision and elevates a scene in some new way. And it’s always challenging in the best possible way to go into a new project with a filmmaker and figure out the music of the film’s world and characters.
That’s very insightful. I hadn’t thought of things that way. I guess it makes complete sense that, as the composer, you become very involved in your work and have to occupy that world to understand the music that will fit emotionally. And dramas provide that opportunity more often.
Last question, and I apologize it’s sort of a curveball, not really related to what we’ve been talking about, but I just have to ask you about Little Bear.
It was one of my favorite shows growing up. I absolutely loved it. And the amazing thing is that I actually remember a lot of the music from that show because it was so memorable. I’m not even lying, I actually went back and re-listened to some of the tracks from it-
And it was like deja vu, I remembered exactly how it went, like “Hide and Seek” and “Flying to the Moon.” I’m wondering, what was the experience like working on Little Bear, creating something for children? You use a lot of instruments that you’ve used in your feature film compositions like the violin and piano and the cello.
Yeah, the whole project, the whole experience of working on Little Bear was lots of fun and really rewarding. And the funny thing was, was when they first sent it to me, I just wasn’t going to do it. Because I had just been doing dramas, like urban dramas and feature films. And then I talked to Maurice Sendak, who illustrated and created the Little Bear books with Else Holmelund Minarik, and I talked to the producers and realized that we could do something really interesting with this show.
And I oddly got very attached to Little Bear and the music of the show and the kinds of stories that….I don’t know, they were very memorable. The shows are full of all kinds of emotional moments that were quiet and, although aimed at a super young audience, seemed to resonate with parents as well.
And there aren’t that many animated series that have live chamber music, but it was a wonderful opportunity to work with Maurice and the entire creative team.
That might have been because of the transition to more 3D animation, but I’d have to do my own research into that. Did you do The Little Bear Movie as well?
Yes I did. That score is more orchestral than the series. Maurice Sendak talked to me a lot about the music. He loved the music of Mozart, and he loved the music of Schubert. And we wanted to give it some kind of a contemporary reimagining that would connect with the picture and the story, and it was really fun to come up with that and find the voice of the show.
That’s really cool to hear. As I said that show was a big part of my childhood. It’s ironic that you say you worked to make it fun, because the thing I remember most are the quiet moments like Little Bear waiting on his bed for his father to come back from sea. But you excelled at the score. I can literally run through every track in my head and it’ll sound familiar because I remember it so much.
So thank you Ms. Barber for everything you’ve done and congratulations on having such a wonderful career. All your works continue to be unique, but also memorable, and I look forward to seeing A Better Man and Irreplaceable You. So thank you for your time.
Thanks a lot! It was really great meeting you and talking with you today. Thanks Ashwin.
Flickering Myth would like to thank Ms. Barber for taking the time to speak with us. You can catch Irreplaceable You on Netflix.