From the ethereal electronica of Air to the cerebral noise of Sonic Youth, alternative musicians are increasingly punctuating and revitalizing their careers by composing scores for an array of independent films.
While musicians on the alternative scene — from Tom Waits to John Cale to Brian Eno — have been plucked to score sountracks in the past, the crop of visitors from the world of independent music who tuned this year’s hot indie films bring a different approach to scoring that in many cases gives the films an extra layer of mood and atmosphere.
While established composers such as Mark Mothersbaugh (Devo) and Danny Elfman (Oingo Boingo) came out of the ’80s new wave scene, the latest wave of artists brings an edgier sensibility that is well suited to the angst-ridden fare with which it is often paired.
Postclassical composer Jim O’Rourke, who plays with Sonic Youth as well as recording solo material,
composed the score for upcoming Sony Pictures Classics release “Love Liza,” directed by Todd Louiso. The hauntingly ominous music underlines the despair felt by title character Philip Seymour Hoffman, a man who turns to sniffing gasoline to dull his senses after his wife commits suicide. The impressionistic blurred-neon colors Hoffman experiences when he inhales the gas are heightened by the score, which blends pleasantly ambient sounds with a dissonant, uncomfortable undertone.
Louiso’s directions for the music weren’t overly specific, the composer says. “We spoke about a few specific scores and how they functioned in the film, and a lot about aesthetics, since I don’t really believe in the usual function of film music, and I wanted Todd to know this. Luckily we were on the same page.
“Film composers in general don’t interest me,” says O’Rourke, a longtime cinephile. “The music is usually the last thing I’m interested in … in general, it’s the approach to dealing with tone and time perception that interests and has influenced me most.”
For these musicians, working closely with a director is a far cry from the unfettered individuality of sitting alone in a studio or playing onstage with a band.
“I think the music needs to service the picture, not alter the picture. It’s different because you need to have the final say … you really can’t be as stubborn as when you are making your own music,” says O’Rourke, who also did the music for Shinji Aoyama’s “Eureka” and for Olivier Assayas’ upcoming “Demonlover.”
Former Pop Will Eat Itself frontman Clint Mansell has devoted himself nearly exclusively to film scoring since the British ambient dance/industrial group broke up in 1996. A pioneer in marrying sampling techniques with pop, hip-hop and trance, Mansell lets all of these styles influence his movie scores for Darren Aronofsky’s films and Bart Freundlich’s spring release “World Traveler.” As in “Love Liza,” the adrift protagonist of “World Traveler” roams the highways in search of meaning in his life, and Mansell’s moody score reflects the monotonous yet beautiful interstates that flash by Billy Crudup’s windshield.
With recent work including the soundtracks for Nicolas Cage’s directorial debut, “Sonny,” as well as “Knockaround Guys,” “Murder by Numbers” and the American “Rain,” he’s one of the busier composers in town.
Mansell says moving into composing was not a conscious choice for him — after being offered “Pi,” he just kept on going. “It’s a very collaborative effort. There is an agenda that needs to be fulfilled with the music within a film which may not be in line with how you feel on any given day. … When writing for yourself it really is a case of following whatever path is attracting you.”
While O’Rourke’s and Mansell’s industrial soundscapes seem perfectly matched to the moody, stylized films they’ve worked on, it’s harder to picture the indie folk rock sounds of Grant Lee Phillips as film scores. Phillips is in residence at the Sundance Composers Lab, following in the footsteps of aspiring composers from the rock world such as Stan Ridgway, who also attended the lab.
The singer-songwriter, formerly leader of the acclaimed 90s’ band Grant Lee Buffalo, has already completed the Wesley Snipes starrer “Zigzag” as well as providing songs for “Velvet Goldmine” and “The Gilmore Girls.”
Like O’Rourke, Phillips has a longstanding interest in film and was once a film student before launching his music career. “I thought the lab would be a nice way to indoctrinate myself into a system that has its traditions and it methods,” he says.
Phillips finds the connection to be a natural one: “All of the things that make for great film music, all of this has little place in pop music, whereas music that’s more left of center, that’s not held to those restrictions, is freed up to conjure that atmosphere. It makes sense that those drawn to independent music would be drawn to independent film.
“I’d like to contribute my own viewpoint, like Ry Cooder did for ‘Paris, Texas,'” he says, “I’m most captivated by films which have a singular type of impact, like ‘Eraserhead.'”
Sundance Institute film music program director Peter Golub agrees that the tradition makes sense if the musician is ready for collaboration. “If somebody hasn’t done much in film, you get a feeling for a narrative sensibility in their music. It doesn’t translate that everybody would have the right temperament — you are very much trying to serve the vision of the filmmaker.”
The lab fellows will spend two weeks scoring sample scenes and working with filmmakers from the Directors Lab, taking away with them a better understanding of the scoring process as well as tips on the business side, and contacts with top composers such as Thomas Newman and Michael Kamen.
And for those coming from a different area of music, “it’s a safe environment to fail in,” says Phillips, “It allows you to dig your feet into that world, take chance and ask questions.”