I have recently scored a soundtrack for a short movie that inspired me very much for its genuine content and powerful simplicity. I found the story so compelling and beautiful that at first I thought of writing something that could be defined minimal and very polite, with the intention of leaving enough space to the characters without overshadowing them and let the story evolve without too much distraction.
After a few days of work I realized what I was doing was ok, but was not exploiting the full potential of the beautiful message that the director was trying to convey. In other words, everything was fine to my eyes and ears, but my work wasn’t adding much to the movie. It felt detached. Why was that? How could that happen, since I felt so attached in the first place to the story and the characters?
The answer came to me the day after, when I asked myself (I often talk to myself): what is this movie really about? What is the sparkle that triggers all the events in this movie? What’s the primal dynamic? My answer was: intention. That was the only thread to follow in the story, the one element that I needed to translate into music. I kept ‘intention’ as my only reference and as soon as I started writing new music everything fell into place, magically.
This wasn’t anymore an issue of priority, space or importance of the music vs the story; this time everything was simply about intention. This newly-acquired notion made my music grow with and within the story. It was all unfolding under my eyes and I was happy to realize that I had very little to do with it. It feels good when that happens. It feels like natural magic because while we make music this way we become what we often forget we are: sophisticated human emotions translators.
I laid down a piano part and focused on the intention of my playing rather than worrying about quantizing or fixing dynamics, I gave priority to spontaneity rather than perfectionism. Then I wrote an orchestration for double bass, 2 cellos, 2 violas and 4 violins supporting the piano part and used the same method, when arranging. Then I decided to trade themes from the piano to the oboe and hired an oboist to come in and record.
The player showed up the day of the session and we started recording. It was not what I expected. Sometimes it happens, guys. The musician was very young and things weren’t exactly going smoothly. Although he was a very good reader, he wasn’t emotionally aligned with the intention of the music and the result was a big sense of detachment in the delivery. Perfect performance, but no intention! Not enough real love. After about 30 long minutes, I suggested we took a break.
I explained what I meant and asked if this time he could please play while following the movie on the screen and forget about the music chart. He started playing again and this time it glued flawlessly with the other instruments: not a perfectly read performance, but a perfectly emotionally one!
This time he played his part with everything that was really needed: a lot of honest intention. When the kid was playing I felt his hesitation, his hope, his fear, his decisiveness, his bravery. I thought at some point he felt he was the main character of the movie. After two takes we were done, no punch, no edits. I kept everything in. The director loved the soundtrack and I did too because this time I felt extremely connected to the story.
The purpose of the music synced to moving images should be of serving the story, not to create another one. There’s always a different balance to be found between music and the images and it changes according to each story. Every story is different: different characters, different synergies, different settings. But at the core, there will be only one thread and it’s up to the composer to find it and translate it into music.
In my mind, the image of a good soundtrack is that one of two solid rails and I picture the storytelling as a train. The train must get to its destination, the rails must support it and guide it so that the message will be delivered.
Balance is everything.