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Bryony Marks: Settling the Score

Posted on January 19, 2015

Bryony Marks on being a child prodigy who wasn’t…

Like many child prodigies, I started learning piano at the guileless age of five. That’s all those kids and I ever had in common. It didn’t take long to realise that, while being what people referred to as ‘musical’, I didn’t possess the technical aptitude — nor would I ever — of a truly gifted classical musician. Instead, from the outset, music offered a glorious escape. In primary school, it shielded me from the sports-focussed playground during recess and lunch, when my friend Georgie Veevers and I would steal away to the tiny, dark practise room on the first floor to make up music for four hands. It offered me bursts of intense inspiration at home, usually after dinner when it was time to do the dishes. For an oversensitive eldest child whose pale, bony ears poked disgracefully through thin, dark hair, music provided solace and identity. It allowed me a voice while saving me from my fey, introverted self.

While more at ease in my skin these days, music still retains for me this personal power and purpose. There are many composers for whom composition is a pure investigation of the extremities of sound. For some, this lies in stretching the boundaries of an instrument’s capabilities. For others, it is creating sound worlds for new instruments, or democratising the compositional process through technology. Of course everyone writes for a multitude of reasons, and I have adopted all these approaches at one time or other. However, my overarching concern — as defiantly old fashioned and humanistic as it is — is to express and communicate my sense of what it is to be a fallible human living in a complex, hilarious, heartbreaking and unbearably joyous world.

This desire for connection steered me to writing music for film and television. Or, to be more precise, writing music for certain sorts of film and television projects. Composing for the screen can be as asinine and soul-destroying as ‘colour by notes’, where no-one expects (or indeed desires) any input of interest or originality. It can also be an astoundingly potent, exhilarating collaboration between impassioned individuals who align to create a new work greater than the sum of its parts.

In this process, to transcend mediocrity, each departmental head (photography, sound, production design, costume, hair and makeup, editing and music) needs to be trusted to contribute their own distinctive voice, expressed without ego in response to a script and director’s vision. In my opinion, rigorous casting of the heads of departments is as important as casting the right actors. I’ve declined a few projects, sensing that I was not right for the job. Typically this has not been because of the genre or style of music required, but rather because my sensibility has differed too significantly from what I believe the project is trying to achieve. I don’t need to admire or relate to the characters, or to share their (or the film’s) world-view — indeed sometimes the opposite is a fascinating challenge. I do need some ‘essence’ of the storytelling to resonate in a meaningful way.

When embarking upon a new screen project, composers watch what is called a ‘fine cut’ — a close-to-finished version without sound design, music or effects. When doing so, I rely on experiencing a genuine emotional response to the film in order to intuit where I will take the music. (Later, of course, craft and technique also come into play). Faking this response is like faking an orgasm. It’s not always clear if anyone else can tell, but I know the difference and it feels…deceitful. I can never fully trust my instincts on how to proceed. An emotional connection gives the process an invaluable clarity, and if you have that connection as a screen composer, you are infinitely more likely to respond in a way that the director and producers value.

While the style and orchestration of screen music is important, and fun for the composer, it is not as important as how, why and where the music is used. The way the music sounds is the icing, the rationale behind why it exists is the cake.

The soundtracks that I loathe are those whose only function is to re-enforce the obvious. For example: an actor sobs, cue sad strings; an actor walks happily down the street, cue jaunty, happy walking music. Screen music has so much more to offer. If the director, actors, cinematographer and editor have skilfully conveyed the atmosphere, emotion, plot and pace of a scene, adding music that merely re-enforces what is already there can render a great performance mawkish, while at once assuming that the intended audience is moronic. Yet so much film and television does it.

Sometimes this happens when it is felt (by a director/producer/investor/test screening participants) that a scene is not working. The hope is that coating it in music will fix the problem. It may help, to a degree, but it will only ever bandaid the wound, not heal it. I know, because, like every screen composer I’ve ever met, I’ve been asked to do it. I’ve been asked to do it in the same breath as I’ve been asked to write the jaunty, happy walking music to accompany that image of the happy man as he walks jauntily down the street. Because the audience won’t get that he’s happy, or jaunty, unless we ram it down their throats.

But, hang on. Didn’t I write just paragraphs ago that I turned down scripts that didn’t move me? Problem is — and this is where it gets really tricky — when reading a script you can’t always tell how the finished work is going to turn out. By the time you watch the footage, you’ve often signed on months before and you feel like a mangy dog if you pull out. Or, you may sign on because you love the script only to find that the film is brilliant but the director wants to musically wallpaper the movie — to make it more palatable, less confronting: to re-enforce the bleeding obvious. Or, maybe the director doesn’t but the producer does, and he/she wins. Either way, there you are, writing the sort of soundtrack you abhor and quite likely faking that orgasm again.

Take a deep breath.

Tell yourself — because it’s true — that when in this situation, your job is to write the best music you can within the suggested parameters. It’s not your place to tell the director what they should want, or have. It’s not your party. Their opinion is as valid as yours, in fact significantly more so: it’s their show. While a crystal ball would undoubtedly help, all judiciousness must occur before a project has been accepted.

Here are a few methods I employ, when the opportunity arises, to create what I feel has the potential to be a satisfying soundtrack: Firstly, and arguably most importantly: rigorous spotting. It’s not as it sounds. Spotting is when the producer, director, editor and composer watch the footage together to decide where the music should go. This process should be as much about where music shouldn’t go. As music is the most overtly manipulative element of an inherently manipulative medium, its absence can result in a raw, seemingly unfiltered transaction with an audience. In a scene where an actor cries, for example, the audience is not let off the hook if there is no music in which to cathartically wallow. Unless, that is, we consciously decide to engage in cathartic wallowing.

When spotting, music’s role should be considered holistically. What is the desired overall import? Where does each cue sit in relation to the one before and after? Have we allowed enough breath in between? The more music is wallpapered, the less power it has to affect an audience. It’s like a sculptor considering concrete and abstract space. Spotting the film Noise (2007) and miniseries Cloudstreet (2010), the director and I decided that the function of the music would be to present an omnipotent voice and a world ‘overview’. In Noise the overview was intense and foreboding.

The score was dissonant and hard on the ears, as it musically referenced the main character’s tinnitus. It gave a sense that, however the characters may rally and rail, they couldn’t escape the fatalistic march towards the film’s conclusion. In Cloudstreet, the music references the sweetly melancholic harmonies of hymns. It suggests a world overview in which suffering and joy are flip-sides of the same coin.

For me, the score starts at the first frame of footage, and ends at the last, regardless of where the actual music starts. In my head, the sections with no music form part of the score — its negative space. The score of the film Felony (2014) starts around twenty minutes into the action. While the film begins with a kinetic action sequence, we decided to hold off until the central premise of the film is revealed. In this case, the music is plot-centric. It says: ‘game on’.

Secondly comes juxtaposition. A cheerful piece of music in a tragic scene can make the scene sadder without resorting to cliché. Melancholic music under happy scenes can give them a more meaningful happiness. When music works against the first layer of meaning, the audience is encouraged to examine a character’s paradoxes — making the characterisation more credible. We did this in Josh Thomas’ series Please Like Me. The first music cue that I wrote accompanied Josh walking through a park, having just dropped his suicidal mother off at her first psychiatrist’s appointment. Rather than have the music articulate the anxiety he was surely feeling, we chose to play his denial. The music chirps along, complete with the sensational Julie O’Hara singing maniacally cheerful doo-wops. The music plays not the plot, but the subtext. This is when scoring is just too much fun.

Thirdly: collaborations. There are many practical advantages to embarking upon an in-depth collaboration with the sound designer: not least that sound and music should seamlessly cohere in the final mix. You will have discussed who will occupy which frequencies, and possibly even whose work should be more prominent in certain scenes. But this collaboration also has a far more creative application. For Noise, I recorded a group of musicians using traditional instruments to make noise. I gave these recordings to sound designer Emma Bortignon. She manipulated them beyond recognition, used her new files as part of her overall sound design, and even passed her files back to me. I then added her new files to my original recordings and mixed them with an orchestral score. When we brought our work together in the final mix, it had a unity of purpose and execution that, at times, made it impossible to tell sound design and music apart.

I’ve worked with many directors whom I admire greatly and with whom I have a dynamic, collaborative relationship. The one I’ve worked with most, and know best, is Matthew Saville, my husband. It’s not a coincidence that the examples I’ve cited above have all been Saville-helmed. Many of the methodologies I’ve outlined are ones that we have developed together, in a partnership spanning from our first student film to our current collaboration, the second series of Please Like Me. We have spent countless hours dissecting all aspects of filmmaking and its relationship to our sense of the world. We have emerged, creatively, side by side. It’s a fortunate position to be in.

Collaboration within my own music department is just as important. I’ve worked with outstanding audio engineer and mixer Rodney Lowe for twelve years. Our collaboration is so finely honed that I often go to ask him to try something and find he’s already doing it. It’s the same with the masterful statesman conductor, Brett Kelly, and my talented friend, composer Amelia Barden, who helps me as copyist on orchestral projects. Then there’s all the gobsmackingly-gifted musicians for whom I have the privilege to write. The child prodigies. The truly talented ones.

Together with the hundreds of others who comprise a cast and crew, we strive to be greater than the sum of our parts, in order to release something of substance into the world.

Bryony Marks studied at the University of Melbourne.

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