A New Generation of Composers Steps Forward in Film

Music for Screens Work it Wild
Wild Mountain Thyme: Courtesy of Kerry Brown/Bleecker Street; Sound of Metal: Courtesy of Amazon

A new generation of film composers is shaking up the status quo. They’re free-thinking, experimental, come from diverse backgrounds … and they’re not all men (although some of them are).

They like to start early, often compose before they’ve seen a frame of film, and aren’t afraid to try offbeat ideas, frequently in response to filmmakers’ demands to do “something different.”

For Amazon Prime’s “Radioactive,” Russian-born, Paris-based composers Evgueni and Sacha Galperine underscored the story of 19th century scientist Marie Curie (Rosamund Pike) with a startling sound of analog synthesizers and early 20th century electronic instruments like the theremin and Ondes Martenot.

Director Marjane Satrapi didn’t want the old-fashioned “biopic classical music with full orchestra,” says Evgueni. “She wanted something new and modern.” The discoverer of radium was “ahead of her time, not only as a scientist but also as a woman. She was like a person of the next century,” and the electronic score helps to suggest that.

But, he adds, a standard orchestra was also necessary for a handful of scenes that “give us some connection to the past. And also, in a very pragmatic way, to give the audience something familiar.”

Bleecker Street’s romantic comedy “Wild Mountain Thyme” did need traditional instruments, as its Irish setting called for fiddle, harp, accordion, piano, strings and woodwinds, says English composer Amelia Warner.

She read the script and immediately composed a theme — but the fact that she is married to the film’s star, Jamie Dornan, didn’t make her an automatic choice for composer. “I didn’t get the job,” Warner admits. “They were exploring other options.” Eventually writer-director John Patrick Shanley came back to her and not only embraced her ideas, he co-wrote a song with her for the end titles.

“I love Irish music, and I have Irish family,” Warner says, “but it was a hard balance, trying to make it authentic and have an energy to it rather than sounding twee or trite or Irish pub-y.” Sinead O’Connor came aboard to sing the Warner-Shanley song, based on the film’s theme, although the pandemic required the pop star to send her vocal from Dublin to fit the score already recorded at London’s AIR studios.

The COVID-19 crisis has affected everyone, including Amanda Jones, who is just finishing a lavish score for HBO Max’s “Adventure Time: Distant Lands.” “We did everything here in the studio. We’re all multi-instrumentalists,” she says. She remote-recorded a few soloists to augment the guitars, bass, drums and keyboards from her own studio.

Jones, a co-founder of the Composers Diversity Collective, says she has “no idea” how the producers found her but believes that forward-thinking music supervisors and studio music heads are making a difference in terms of hiring women and people of color. She’s fine with the seemingly endless questions about “women composers,” but that shouldn’t be the sole topic of discussion, she notes.

“It’s important to bring attention to it, to remind people that we’ve got to keep pushing the needle,” says Jones. “But sometimes it doesn’t need to be part of someone’s narrative. It can just be a great story about the music. That would normalize it a bit more. That way it doesn’t become an endless sob story.”

Newcomers to the scoring world are more welcome than ever. Songwriter Abraham Marder has just co-written and co-scored his first feature, “Sound of Metal,” a drama about a heavy-metal drummer (Riz Ahmed) who struggles with the onset of deafness. “Sound design is score,” Marder says, “and can morph into music that is a bit mysterious at times. You don’t know if it’s breathing, or a car moving, or an instrument; sometimes it’s all three at once.”

Marder’s co-composer and sound designer Nicolas Becker played the unusual Cristal Baschet instrument (chromatically tuned glass rods), while Marder used an electronic bow to play his resophonic guitar, and they manipulated the sounds electronically.

They struggled with what the right sound should be, at one point using guitar feedback, but ultimately deciding that less was more and removing much of what they had recorded over a matter of months.
“As a musician, I was always thinking about the sound of this film,” says Marder. “What we really wanted to communicate was Ruben’s deafness, to suggest the inner ear, deep and vibrational and intimate. It’s really his journey, and it was important that the sound stay as intimate as his story.”

Similarly, Japanese-born, L.A.-based composer Aska Matsumiya, a relative newcomer to film scoring, has just completed Amazon’s “I’m Your Woman,” a crime thriller set in the 1970s with Rachel Brosnahan as a dangerous criminal’s clueless wife, thrown into violent and scary circumstances.

“We wanted to do something that was jazz influenced,” she says, “but we also wanted an element of the score that felt really edgy, and not just piano. I used strings and synthesizers.” And, as the Galperine brothers had done on “Radioactive,” she composed a theme based solely on reading the script, and director Julia Hart loved it. It became the movie’s main theme.

Not only was Matsumiya hired by a woman director (“we definitely were in sync”), she assembled “a really strong female team” that included her music editor and string arranger.

One of the recent success stories among women composers has been Germaine Franco, who gave Disney-Pixar’s “Coco” its authentic Mexican musical colors and who hasn’t stopped working in the three years since: an action score for “Tag,” a lavish Peruvian-music score for “Dora and the Lost City of Gold” and this year, scores for two Netflix entries (“The Sleepover,” “Work It”) and one for Peacock (“Curious George: Go West, Go Wild”).

Both “Sleepover” and “Work It” were for women directors — “talented, creative, very decisive,” Franco says. And while, statistically, female composers still lag far behind men in the film and TV world, “people are becoming aware that it has been a field where women have been excluded, especially women of color.”

When it comes to hiring female composers, Franco thinks both women filmmakers and studio music heads are making a difference. “I have been up for some bigger films that I may not have gotten, but at least I had an interview,” she says. “My name was on the list. Let’s widen the net of people who are invited to join the creative process.”

Adds Franco: “We need more trained composers — both men and women, of all cultures. It’s a very technical field. You have to be musical, you have to know how to orchestrate. For me, it starts with education.”