Movie Maestros Mix Organic and Synthetic Sounds

Movie Maestros Mix Organic and Synthetic

There was a time not so long ago when film composers fell into two distinct camps: Those who used traditional orchestration and those who relied on synthesized instruments to enhance storytelling. But in this age of Pro Tools, remote communication and multimedia maestros, the mixing of the two worlds is not uncommon, as exemplified by three fall releases that combine these approaches in dramatically intriguing ways.

For the Apple founder biopic “Steve Jobs,” director Danny Boyle and English composer Daniel Pemberton agreed from the beginning that “it would be great to do three different scores,” for what is essentially a three-launch play crammed with Aaron Sorkin smart talk: the introduction of the Apple computer in 1984; Jobs unveiling Next in 1988; and introducing the iMac in 1998.

One of the biggest challenges, Pemberton says, was “finding that balance between giving the story momentum, pushing the emotion, having a musical identity, yet being able to clearly take in all the dialogue, which is so important.”

Pemberton says in 1984, “synthesizers reflected an optimism, that futuristic feel.” So for that segment he sought out analog synths that only existed in 1984 or before, including the Roland SH-1000 and Yamaha CS-80. “You can only play one note at a time; you can’t program them, you have to play everything in by hand,” he says, explaining all the drawbacks of using these ancient machines. “It goes out of tune if it gets cold or the heating goes on.”

Act two was the most difficult: Jobs’ revenge, on a Shakespearean scale in scenes set at the San Francisco Opera House, seemed to merit a classical, even operatic, accompaniment. Pemberton was writing while Boyle was still shooting, sending him proposed pieces. “Having to write 10-minute symphonies over and over again is hard work,” Pemberton quips.

Ultimately Pemberton recorded lengthy, Rossini- and Verdi-inspired operatic pieces with arias in Italian (“we translated words about computers and machines; it’s pretty goofy”). “It reflects a different aspect of his personality: Steve the conductor, Steve the circus ringmaster.”

For act three, Pemberton created the entire score on his modern Apple computer, using Apple software: “more experimental sound textures, sound design inside the computer. That act is very introspective and emotional. Steve has to face up to some difficult truths, and the music in a way has a cold ambiance to it.”

For Ridley Scott’s outer-space survival story “The Martian,” English composer Harry Gregson-Williams (who scored Scott’s “Kingdom of Heaven”) concluded that “it might be a big epic in some respects, but in others, it’s a very personal story, about one guy’s survival.”

Interestingly, Gregson-Williams says, he and Scott “changed course slightly. The first attitude was, let’s see what happens if we make Mars the monster,” with more threatening music. But, he says, “we didn’t have the balance quite right,” so they musically redefined the planet in terms of “majesty and awe, as opposed to terrifying.”

He conducted an 80-piece orchestra in London’s Abbey Road, adding an unusual sound: a giant Tibetan gong, “played incredibly quietly with very woody sticks. It causes this visceral vibration” that added a mystery to scenes of the Red Planet.

For the stranded astronaut Watney (Matt Damon), the thinking was, “his theme needn’t be epic. Why not have a techy sound that reflected his personality? The use of synths didn’t seem wrong, as long as they were used in the context of him being a scientist. They kind of burble along. They never take the lead too much.”

Gregson-Williams also used vintage synths, including the ’70s-and-’80s-era Moog and Prophet. “I needed warmth and melody,” he says, adding that the sound also dovetailed nicely with the disco tracks that Watney’s commander (Jessica Chastain) left behind.

The composer added a 120-voice choir and mixed it subtly with orchestra. “I didn’t want it to be angelic,” he says. “It could be celestial, for sure, but it had no connection to religion.” And, not being a fan of simple “oohs” and “aahs,” he set texts by the Roman poet Lucretius, “who had serious ideas about space and time and infinity. So we have the choir commenting on what’s going on, as if they’re us.”

For Denis Villeneuve’s drug-cartel thriller “Sicario,” Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson (“The Theory of Everything”) felt the score needed to have “this very intense, insistent, relentless quality … also a brutality. It’s like the throbbing heart of a beast charging at you.”

Theater subwoofers are getting a workout with “Sicario,” whose grim, pounding score is, “in a sense, almost the sound of the drug tunnels that are featured in the story,” adds Johannsson. It’s very much about using those low-end instruments and creating textures.”

Much of the “Sicario” score is conveyed in shades of gray and black, relying on low strings, low brass and percussion (including five drummers), but, Johannsson also notes, “is heavily processed … creating the percussion track in the computer based on the performances.”

Occasionally a lighter tone creeps in, as with the solo cello for the Chihuahuan desert, the strumming of a six-string bass (one of few instances that hints at Mexico’s musical culture) and the use of children’s voices in the melancholy finale.

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