Composers convey ethnic accents

Conjuring exotic cultures without resorting to cliche

Where film cannot conjure scent or touch, instruments can often convey to viewers how a particular place smells and feels. Such an undertaking is especially important in films set in faraway or unfamiliar places, or that conjure ethnic cultures and alien landscapes.

For Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire,” composer A.R. Rahman worked under tight time constraints — the entire score was conceived, recorded and mastered in two months — to bring to life the grit and vibrancy of modern-day India.

The story follows the main character, Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), throughout his young life with a sort of urgent, unnerving energy. To capture this, Rahman combined classical Indian instruments like the sitar with contemporary pop music. “Paper Planes” by M.I.A. is featured prominently during a scene in which Jamal and his brother are train-hopping through India.

“The most dominating instrument on the whole soundtrack is the sitar,” Rahman says. “I’ve never used the sitar like this before, and it worked really well. But it’s not just classical. … The crew was very young, we had the same vision. The energy of the film takes you through a roller coaster, and that’s one of the main inspirations for the whole music.”

Marco Antonio Guimaraes relied heavily on drums in “Blindness,” Fernando Meirelles’ story of an epidemic of white blindness set in an unidentified city. Not only is the setting unrecognizable, but the characters, quarantined together in a dismal, dirty hospital ward, are nameless to the audience as well as themselves.

Guimaraes captures the ensuing anarchy, confusion and violence with frantic drumming and ambient noise. The musical result, despite the Brazilian heritage of Guimaraes and Meirelles, is culturally neutral, and the score succeeds by disorienting the audience, in line with the way the newly blinded characters are disoriented.

Jan A.P. Kaczmarek viewed instruments as characters in composing for Tom McCarthy’s “The Visitor.” Walter Vale (Richard Jenkins), a college professor paralyzed by grief over the death of his wife, is learning the piano as the film begins. Not only did Vale’s wife play the piano, but the poignancy of Kaczmarek’s melodies on string quartet and piano reflect Vale’s perhaps unconscious desire for more from life. To Kaczmarek, the use of string quartet reflected Vale’s quietude, where the piano was an “extension of his spirit.”

When Vale meets Tarek, a Syrian drummer who gives him percussion lesson, a sort of musical journey and transformation begins. Kaczmarek wanted the score to bridge the two cultures.

“It’s challenging because you need to find a connection … between the world of ethnic sounds and the world of Western sounds,” Kaczmarek explains. “On the other hand, it creates a marvelous possibility for musical discoveries, for finding co-existence between two different cultures of music.

“In the case of ‘The Visitor,’ we were successful and lucky to find this quality that unites the ethnic and Western sounds. It’s a complete treat for the composer.”