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Unusual Musical Approaches Pay Dividends for ‘Moonlight,’ ‘Nocturnal Animals,’ ‘Lion’

Sometimes an unexpected musical approach to a subject reaps dramatic dividends.

Abel Korzeniowski’s music for “Nocturnal Animals” switches genres, scoring the psychological drama as a thriller and the crime tale as an intimate personal story. Nicholas Britell’s “Moonlight” uses hip-hop techniques but not hip-hop per se in its story of a gay African-American man. And Dustin O’Halloran and Hauschka’s original score for “Lion” avoids all reference to Indian music despite the setting of much of the film.

Tom Ford’s “Nocturnal Animals” intertwines two stories, about an unhappy art-gallery owner (Amy Adams) and her ex-husband’s novel about a violent crime in west Texas that ruins the life of a peaceful man (Jake Gyllenhaal).

Says Korzeniowski: “One is a psychological drama, purely internal and emotional. The other is a crime story, as bloody and violent as you can get. The movie makes the case that an emotional harm is as devastating, as life-shattering, as any other kind of violence.

“To address this,” he adds, “the score is written in reverse. The crime story is scored as a very emotional, intimate journey. The story outside, the drama of Susan, is scored like a thriller, as if you were watching a Hitchcock movie.” (One critic suggested the music was like a marriage of Philip Glass and Bernard Herrmann.)

Korzeniowski’s richly orchestrated and haunting opening music, scored for a 70-piece ensemble, sets the stage, although the composer says he worked and reworked the piece “to the very end, to find the right balance, not to cross a boundary or make it too circus-like.”

But, he also points out, “some of the cues inside the movie are extremely small – like discovering the bodies in the field. (The idea was) to not damage the very fragile feeling, not to overwhelm it and yet give it an extra emotional underlining. So we needed reduced forces and there is this very simple, descending melody, very poignant.”

The Polish-born, L.A.-based composer did Ford’s previous movie, “A Single Man,” and as before, found the creative process to be “very intuitive. We tried many things” while searching for the right approach, he says. They worked closely for two months, including three weeks in London prior to recording.

Intriguingly, despite the many scenes set in rural west Texas, there are no guitars and no hint of country music. “The story in Texas is basically a fairy tale,” Korzeniowski explains. “In a way, it’s not real. If the ‘book story’ was a standalone film, there would probably be more action music. There is drive and energy but it’s mostly emotional, to tell us that it’s really inside someone’s head. It’s not about scoring objective reality.”

On “Moonlight,” New York composer Nicholas Britell’s “a-ha” moment was learning that director Barry Jenkins was a fan of chopped and screwed music, a style of Southern hip-hop in which, Britell explains, “you take tracks and slow them down, where you get this very rich and deepened audio texture to the music.”

So, Britell offered, “What if I actually wrote and fully recorded music, and then there was this second part of the process where I chopped and screwed the score? That’s what we ended up doing.”

He began by writing a piece for violin and piano for Little, the boy in the first third of the film. “In the early cuts that I saw, there was this feeling of intimacy, sensitivity and beauty,” Britell says. “I was trying to channel the musical sound of poetry.

“Then I started slowing it down and bending it,” he explains. “It was two or three octaves lower. Then I layered it on top of itself but staggered, then I ran it through a vinyl filter. You just felt this kind of rumbling, and occasionally poking through would be this bell-like sound – the violin and piano from the original theme – and that became the music of the schoolyard scene with the fight.”

Some of the music, such as in the swimming scene, was more classically styled (“I basically wrote a kind of violin concerto”). “Certain cues felt like they needed an intimacy because of the nature of the film,” Britell says. “Barry was very open to a wide range of possibilities.”

Strings and piano, whether pure or processed, are still at the heart of the score. “We both felt that we wanted the soundscape to be real instruments,” says the composer. “We wanted there to be a human-ness.” And while Jenkins was based in L.A., he often flew to Britell’s Manhattan studio and “spent days together working together and trying things out.”

Most of the score consists of just a handful of players. At its largest, there was a group of about 20 that included strings, French horn, clarinet, oboe and bass flute. There was never any thought of attempting to try “music of the streets” for each chapter of Little / Chiron / Black’s life, Britell says. “You don’t always know when something’s going to work, but when it works, you immediately know. This just felt right to us.”

For “Lion,” director Garth Davis wanted two composers for the two halves of his film about an Indian boy who is lost, eventually adopted by an Australian family and later, as an adult (Dev Patel), goes in search of his birth mother and hometown.

Both were pianists – German-born Hauschka (Volker Bertelmann), and American-born Dustin O’Halloran    – and unbeknownst to Davis, they were also good friends. According to Hauschka, Davis wanted him for the first half (“because my music has a lot of childish elements as well as exploring elements, and some wildness”) and O’Halloran for the second (“the more emotional part of the story”).

They did, in fact, spend a month working separately in their own studios (Hauschka in Dusseldorf, O’Halloran in L.A.). “We explored the scenes that we liked,” says Hauschka. They then joined forces in California, “taking all of our ideas and finishing it up together,” says O’Halloran.

An orchestral approach, O’Halloran says, “would have been too much. For us, it was trying to find the right restraint, the right level.” So they used grand piano, upright piano, prepared piano (placing objects between the piano strings, in this case wooden mutes, felt, papers and foils) and a small string section that ranged from a quartet to 20 players.

“The focus is on his emotional state,” says O’Halloran. “Most of the score is single takes. It was about getting the right performance. With the pianos, we would really play to the picture.”

And interestingly, there is no Indian music in the score. “From the beginning it was clear that we were going to tell an emotional story, not a story of country and race,” O’Halloran says. “The heart of the film is about human connection, and that’s a universal feeling, no matter where you’re from or your economic situation.”

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