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Gospel according to ‘Passion’ composer

Visionaries: John Debney

Imagine being asked to score Jesus’ theme music, a task that unexpectedly fell to composer John Debney.

Debney had scored mostly comedies and family films, specifically Christmas movies (of the Santa Claus variety). When an old friend telephoned, at first he thought it might be a death in the family. In fact, the issue was music: would he offer some scoring advice for Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.”

“I almost fell off my chair,” Debney says. Moved by what he saw on screen, he volunteered to write some cues to help things along. Impressed, Gibson soon hired the composer to replace Jack Lenz. In trusting Debney to help convey his vision of Christ’s last hours, the director took a chance.

But then so did Debney. Gibson acknowledges “The Passion” was not easy to score. “In fact, it was almost impossible, given the subject matter and the images and everything,” the director says.

What most surprised Debney was Gibson’s desire to avoid the tropes associated with deities on film. “Mel said he didn’t want God music,” says Debney. “He wanted the score to encapsulate different cultures, to have a world spirituality.”

Debney hoped to ground his work in history, but little is known about music from Jesus’ time. So, much as Elmer Bernstein was forced to improvise when Cecil B. De Mille asked him to create ancient Egyptian and Hebrew music for “The Ten Commandments,” Debney had to find inspiration within himself. “I got some idea of the harmonies and modes from ancient sources,” he says. “And once you get the nuts and bolts, you can extrapolate.”

Extrapolation is probably the best way to describe the composer’s decision to use a so-called double violin — a 10-stringed instrument played only by Shankar and Gingger, performers who also sing. “I did a lot of experimentation,” says Debney. He utilized an 80-piece London orchestra that incorporated other ancient instruments, including skin drums, bamboo flute, duduk, oud, erhu and world winds.

Being a committed Catholic was an asset and a burden for Debney. “You’ve got a job to do,” he says. “But I’m still human, and there were times when I had to take a break. It was all the emotions you can imagine.”

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