Eye on the Oscars: Song & Score

Calling “Albert Nobbs” Brian Byrne’s big break might be overstating the case, but not by much. “It was a dream project,” Byrne says of the Glenn Close starrer that is his biggest scoring assignment to date. “I still can’t believe I got asked to do it.”

A pet project of Close’s (she co-wrote the script and acted as producer), the Rodrigo Garcia-helmed pic tells the story of a 19th-century woman who spends decades as a starchy butler in a Dublin hotel.

Byrne — who has alternated between orchestrator, arranger and composer on various projects before tackling this, his first major feature — says he wanted his music to serve the period and support Garcia’s subtle directorial approach.

“There’s so many upstairs-downstairs moments in the film, but there’s also serious stuff,” Byrne maintains. “I didn’t want it to be sentimental, and Rodrigo agreed. I wanted to get the gig right and not get fired — I’m new on the block and every job is your last, pretty much.”

The composer opted for a traditional melodic orchestral score with a distinctive imprint. “I didn’t want it to be too flamboyant,” he says. “I knew it had to be Irish, but I didn’t want it to be cheesy. I didn’t want it to sound just old. And I thought I’d use the harp, because it has connotations of Ireland.”

Though Byrne’s score also features piano and harpsichord (both of which he plays on the soundtrack), harp was the indispensable instrument here.

“To me the harp is essentially Albert — both male and female,” he says. “The harp is in every film score you’ll ever hear, but it’s usually supporting the strings. It’s not usually presented as a solo instrument. I thought it would be a sort of mystical sound, if I could make it work.”

He dispensed with horns and flutes, for fear of making his music too ornate.

“There’s so much detail in this film that if you cloud it up with too much in the orchestration, it will just get in the way,” Byrne says. “Less is more. I’m also a jazz musician, and when you think about doing that big lick in jazz, don’t do it — leave the space. I apply that principle to the writing of film scores, too.”

Eye on the Oscars: Song & Score
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