Eye on the Oscars: Music

With nary a line of dialogue between them, two films in 2012 — “Samsara,” a doc that marvels at the wonders of Earth and the idiosyncrasies of its human inhabitants, and “Blancanieves,” a reimagining of Snow White in 1920s Seville, Spain — relied on the cadence of their images and depth of their score to move sentiment.

Though different in form and concept, both projects had to wed image and picture while allowing space for reflection, drama and enough surprises to keep viewers from dozing off.

“I came up with the term, I call it cafe con leche or cafe latte,” says “Blancanieves” director Pablo Berger. “For me and (composer Alfonso Vilallonga) it was very important the images and music were combined in perfect harmony; they almost have to be sewn together.”

Berger’s silent film employs sparing title cards to elaborate plot points and relies primarily on the score as a means to express emotion and advance narrative, with specific instruments and styles attached to different characters: a whining saw for the evil stepmother, clacking cabaret for the seven dwarves and effervescent flamenco for the youthful Snow White.

“I don’t know music but I would talk to (Vilallonga) as if he were an actor. I would talk to him about emotions and character and what the scene should convey,” Berger says.

Though “Samsara” eschewed the theatrics of narrative, the film’s trio of composers relied on a similar gestalt to create mood and pathos. A sequence with images of hurricane-ravaged Louisiana found eerie resonance with the pitched wobble of composer Michael Stearns’ Tibetan singing bowls while images of Jerusalem and the West Bank were freighted with composers Lisa Gerrard and Marcello De Francisci’s multilayered vocals.

The documentary also welcomed licensed music — alternately discarded, reworked or left untouched — into its spacious score. A scene plunging the depths of a gothic cathedral mines a recording of Keith Jarrett improvising on organ, for instance.

“I didn’t temp it with the thought it was all going to get replaced like you do in a theatrical film but rather we knew we were going to use some source music,” says Stearns. “We were looking for pieces that were highly unusual that we felt had a real emotional connection with the images.”

Both films were edited entirely without sound and locked prior to musical composition, but the compartmentalized and episodic structure of each emerged as a natural guide, with the composers finding the tone and color of one sequence before chipping away at others.

For “Blancanieves” this meant hundreds of 45-second to one-minute pieces tackled haphazardly, while the far fewer interludes of “Samsara” were divided evenly among the composers.

“We didn’t start chronologically,” says Berger. “Anytime (Vilallonga) would be inspired by some scene he would start writing that piece of music and he would send me piece by piece.”

For both projects, the decision to hang their films on the interplay of image and music was ultimately a desire for transcendence in film, be it the sumptuous joy of narrative parlance or the subjective reflection of documentary.

“These nonverbal films are a bit like a guided meditation,” says Stearns. “When you meditate the whole point is you sit and see what comes up and you are present.”

Eye on the Oscars: Music
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