February 23, 2010
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.
John Parish's music has always impressed me, from his early work in Automatic Dlamini to his collaborations with PJ Harvey to his soundtrack compositions.
She, A Chinese is a moving film directed by the talented Xiaolo Guo (who also wrote the novel A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers). Parish's score is the perfect sonic landscape for this story of a young Chinese emigrant woman's journeys.
The film won the Golden Leopard last year at the Locarno International Film Festival, and opens this week in the UK.
When someone I don't know personally approaches me to collaborate on a project, my decision is always based on instinct. I hadn't heard of Xiaolu Guo when I got the email from Natasha Dack, the producer of She, A Chinese, asking if I'd be interested in meeting her & Xiaolu to discuss scoring the film. I had a look at her website, liked the title of her latest novel – A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers - & agreed to meet. Xiaolu liked my hat & hired me. I'm not alone in working on instinct.
Like all the films I've scored, the music to She, A Chinese was a combination of pieces written specifically for the movie, & pieces that already existed in some shape or form & were waiting for the right home. 'Li Mei', the first piece on the soundtrack album & one of the main recurring themes in the film was from the second category. I started work on this melody when I was scoring Patrice Toye's '(N)iemand' (Belgium, 2008) but it was never completed . I liked the melody though, & when I got the first rushes through from Xiaolu & editor Andrew Bird, I tried it in some of the early scenes set in rural China. It seemed to fit well, so I added to the orchestration, & fixed a couple of bits that hadn't flowed quite right for me, & ended up with 'Li Mei'. I don't know if this essay comes with any mp3s, but if it does, this would be a good time for one…
"Lei Mei and Rachid" [mp3]
One of the pieces written specifically for the movie is the solo guitar melody 'Li Mei & Brother Qiang'. This tune popped into my head pretty much fully formed & I'd been wandering around the house humming it for a couple of days before I tried playing it. It works well as a lone guitar in the scene where Mei & Qiang are kind of checking each other out against a background that at first appears to be an idyllic meadow. As the camera pans back you can see it's just a bit of grassland next to a semi-industrial building site & a track where a bored looking peasant farmer is strolling along with his cow. There's a laziness, or even nonchalance to the scene that is reflected in the guitar phrases...
Perhaps one of the most striking pieces is 'Li Mei Makes A Break' – also known as 'Fallbas' because the guitar riff on which it's based reminded me of something The Fall might do. The melody however is from a different place all together. For the first half of the song the melody, which is played on mellotron, ukelele & electric guitar, & the accompaniment, drums & rhythm guitar, could almost be two separate pieces that just happen to be playing at the same time. Then they kind of fall together in the middle, although it still seems as though the melody is chasing the rhythm – this creates quite an energy rush which works well in the scene where Mei deserts the Chinese tour group & runs off through Greenwich Park. I wrote this piece while I was writing the music for my last album with PJ Harvey, A Woman A Man Walked By, & I see it as a kind of sister piece to the instrumental from that record 'The Crow Knows Where All The Little Children Go'.
One of my favourite scenes in the movie is where Mei & Spikey go down to the docks & encounter a woman on a motorcycle with a huge python wrapped around her that she then proceeds to bathe in the water. Mei is captivated but obviously frightened & there's a surprising & unspoken tenderness in Spikey's attempts to get her to stroke the snake. The music for this scene, 'Snake At The Docks', is a hypnotic percussive piece based around a riff played behind the bridge on my old Gretsch Streamliner. On top of that I layered a bunch of shakers & bongos , banjo strings played with drum sticks, & my virtuoso two note trombone.
I also played the Gretsch for 'Unseen' which is used in a couple of different places in the film. In 2005 I had performed in Zein En Zein, a Belgian theatre production for two actors & one musician. I was onstage with the actors & was free to interrupt the dialogue with improvised music at any time. The guitar melody of 'Unseen' began life as one of these improvisations.
'November' , the music that Mei & Rachid are dancing to immediately after realising that their relationship is coming to an end, has a dignity mixed with sadness, also a kind of acceptance. This piece also comes from the Woman A Man… pool of music – although at that time it was just a solo guitar piece – the piano melody, which seems to me now the main focus of the piece was written for this scene.
When putting the soundtrack album together, I tried to respect the chronology of the film, but ended up moving two or three pieces around to make the sequence flow better.
She, A Chinese links:
John Parish 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)