August 21, 2008
Motion picture soundtracks have always fascinated me. In the Soundtracked series, composers and/or directors offer commentary on their film's soundtrack, and offer insights into the creative evolution that melds music into the final film.
A dark comedy directed by Alex Karpovsky, Woodpecker is currently showing at film festivals internationally.
Evolution of a cue: “The Haircut”
This music is taken from the soundtrack to Alex Karpovsky’s film Woodpecker (currently playing the festival circuit). The album was performed by Lee & Tyler Sargent (Clap Your Hands Say Yeah), Colin Greenwood (Radiohead), and me, and was recorded sporadically from mid-2007 to mid-2008, in London and Oxfordshire, UK; in Brooklyn, NY; and in several locations on CYHSY’s 2007 tour.
“The Haircut” is a good example of how this project’s slightly unusual compositional process worked. The scene in question is in two parts. The first part is a montage of the film’s main character, Jonny, wandering around Brinkley, Arkansas, talking to various people. At this point in the film he’s been looking for the possibly extinct Ivory-billed Woodpecker for a while and has started to become slightly delusional. The second part of the scene begins with a series of overhead shots of the local highways and concludes with a short montage of Jonny and his companion Wes roaming the bayou in search of the bird. So overall there’s a sense of searching, of time passing, of increasing isolation. As Alex put it: “the piece should be energetic but should also carry a weariness, a fatigued rambliness.” There are a few specific moments in the scene that needed to be reflected in the music, too: the cue would have to start quietly over the previous scene and then change dramatically when we cut to the montage, and there would have to be a shift in the music halfway through the scene, when we cut from nighttime street level to the daylight overhead shots.
With all this in mind, I sat down and worked out a chord structure and tempo that felt right and that fit the timings of the scene. I then recorded a couple of rough parts. You can hear the result by listening to “The Haircut – demo 1.”
“The Haircut – demo 1” [mp3]
At this point the arrangement is fairly static: the introduction is there, and the mood feels ok, but there’s no change halfway through, and the instruments basically just start playing at the beginning of the cue and carry on through to the end.
I sent the demo to the Sargent brothers (Colin’s obligations to the Radiohead album/tour meant I wouldn’t be able to get his contribution until later) and gave them a rundown of the scene (along the lines of what I’ve written above). Among other things, I suggested “a mournful banjo line” and “something twinkly coming in for the second half,” but basically I left it to them. Tyler recorded a banjo part (of which I kept only the second half) and a Neil-Young-like one-note electric guitar line. Lee recorded a slightly chaotic chimey piano part and a glockenspiel part (of which I kept only the second half). They each recorded a synth-keyboard line, too. I dropped all these elements into the mix, made the drums much less prominent, cut the tambourine from the first half of the cue, replaced my original guitar part with a piano part, added a cosmonaut-radio sound to the drum track and put in a new guitar part for the second half. The result was “The Haircut – demo 2,” which I married to a QuickTime file of the scene and sent off to Alex for review.
“The Haircut – demo 2” [mp3]
Too heroic, Alex said. Too melodramatic, too bombastic. I was inclined to agree. The two-part structure of the cue was in place now, so the cut to the overhead shots felt good, but the overall tone needed help: it took itself too seriously.
I scrapped the piano part, which was the biggest contributor to the feeling of heaviness and drama, and made the one-note guitar line more of a background element. I also removed the cosmonaut sound, one of Lee’s synth parts, and the second-half acoustic guitar part. I then set about trying to make it lighter. To the first half of the cue, I added a cowbell part and a vibraphone part and reinstated the banjo that I’d previously cut. Then, in the second half, I replaced my guitar part with a new low, droney synth part from Tyler. This seemed much better. I went out to Colin’s house in Oxfordshire with the track and a chord sheet and my laptop. We talked over the music and he recorded a bass line. I returned to my place, took out the clunky, temporary bass part – which I had played – and replaced it with Colin’s elegant line, tweaked the levels, and sent it off to Alex.
Success! Everyone was happy. Result: “The Haircut.”
James Lavino links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
Previous Soundtracked submissions (directors and composers discuss their film's soundtrack)
Book Notes (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
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