by Dan Goldwasser
Composer Howard Shore recently scored the thriller film The Cell. In that film, Jennifer Lopez plays an empathic social worker that is part of a scientific experiment to allow one to enter the sub-conscious mind of another person. Initially she is trying to bring a little boy out of a coma, but soon she is asked to help the FBI by entering the mind of a comatose serial killer to find out where his latest (soon-to-be) victim is. Acclaimed music video director Tarsem Singh helms this, his first feature film, and the result is a blend of stunning imagery, suspense, horror, and drama. Shore's score is a rather unusual one, employing non-Western techniques as well as the Master Musicians of Jajouka, and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. I recently had a chance to talk with Howard about his work on The Cell, and how he came to his scoring choices.
The visuals in the film are so emotionally compelling - did you find it a challenge to find the type of score for it?When I saw the film the first time, something musically came to mind right away. I wanted to create a collaboration between The London Philharmonic and the Master Musicians of Jajouka. The Master Musicians are a 1200-year-old orchestra - they're a special caste - living in the foothills of the Rif Mountains of Morocco. They're spiritualists, and music was used in Morocco for healing powers, and for spirituality. I first heard them on a album that Ornette Coleman made in 1973, called "Dancing In Your Head". On that record, there's a track called "Midnight Sunrise". Ornette had gone to Tangiers and recorded with the Master Musicians. I had heard that music and loved it. When I was writing the score for Naked Lunch, I remembered that particular track from the Ornette album - I had thought it was a great collaboration between Charlie Parker and African music, and that's what I was interested in when I was composing the score to Naked Lunch. That combination of jazz and Moroccan music was fascinating to me.
Having recorded that score with Ornette and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, we had always talked about doing a concert of Naked Lunch music with a symphony orchestra, and would have Jajouka be part of it. It's funny, speaking of concerts, we're actually doing a concert in Belfast, Ireland on November 10 that will be a screening of Naked Lunch with a live performance of Ornette and the Ulster Symphony that I'm conducting.
When I saw The Cell for the first time, I was interested in the opportunity to do something with this great Moroccan orchestra and a Western orchestra. It also gave me the opportunity to write a non-Western score.
Who exactly are the Master Musicians?
The Master Musicians are led by a man named Bachir Attar - his family is famous in Morocco because they have been leading this orchestra for 1200 years. They were the court orchestra for 7 Moroccan kings. They were never farmers or herdsmen - they were always exempt from farm work. What they did was play music. The music they play is ancient - and is handed down from father to son. They play rhaita ,gimbri, lira and tebel and they play together in a very specific way, the same way that 19th century orchestras (the kind we basically use for film music) sit in a specific fashion and relate to each other. The Jajouka orchestra does the same thing, but in a completely different way. I brought them to London for the first day of the recording, and put them right in the orchestra - I recorded with them live at Air Studios. I wanted the Western orchestra to hear how the African orchestra played. I wrote the score around the way that the Jajouka played - I wanted it to sound African, and sound like Jajouka, except that I was using a 90-piece orchestra. I also had a very large percussion section - 12 people, as well as some unusual instruments like the monochord, and the sarangi, which is an Indian bowed lute. I also used Japanese instruments - I was really using instruments I was interested in from all over the world. Whatever I heard in my head, my assistant Michael Tremante would try to track it down through the Internet and then we would find players who could play them. A monochord is used for healing - it's about 8 feet long and you recline on it. The vibrations of the strings underneath it will "tone" you up, spiritually.
How did you write this non-Western music, and get the orchestra to understand it?
I notated the score in a way that was very non-Western. I used a kind of notation that's been around for at least 50 years - the Polish avant-garde developed the techniques, but I developed my own manifesto with a way of interpreting the music that I wrote. The music wasn't written in a particularly Western fashion, in terms of bars and staves.
Did the orchestra have a hard time figuring it all out?
I orchestrated and conducted it, and I wrote all of the indications very clearly to them in the manifesto. It was a manual of how to play the symbols that I was using in the score. I've used some of that notation before - it's not particularly new - it's a very visual notation. It doesn't look like a conventional score - it's very graphic looking. A traditional Western score is very vertical - all of the notes are running up and down - this music is very horizontal. Itís graphic and it looks like it's propelling forward. When you see the film, and you hear some of the music, I think you'll get a better indication of what I mean.
If you listen to Jajouka, you might not be able to tell but the music is quite controlled. It's very specific and incredibly detailed, and very organized, even though the sound of it to a Western ear sounds almost random. We don't know how to listen to it - to the average listener it might sound like they might be playing the same piece over and over. But once you begin to appreciate it more and understand it more, you realize it's very complex - like string quartet writing. The players relate to each other so specifically and so detailed - Chinese music is like that as well. I recorded Chinese Opera music in Beijing for the movie M Butterfly, and that sounds very chaotic and random to the Western ear. But once you work with an orchestra, you see the way they play to each other - it's like watching an orchestra play Beethoven or Mozart. The way the instruments relate to each other is similar. But the pitch and tonalities are different. That is what I was trying to do with the score to The Cell - I wanted to write a score where Western instruments related to each other in the same way that the African music relates to each other - or Indian music, or Chinese music. And that was the concept in doing it - and the interest in doing it. So it wasn't that it was challenging, it was actually freedom!
Do you think the audience might have problems understanding the score with their Western ears?
When you're watching the film and get caught up in Tarsemís imagery I don't think the spectator is going to be focusing on the score. We as film music enthusiasts might listen to it and think it had particular characteristics, but the audience might not really notice those specifics. They hopefully might feel that they are inside the film.
Would you use the "manifesto approach" to scoring films again?
I thought it was interesting because it was a very linear approach to writing film music. Film by its very nature is linear, and the fact that the music was written in this very linear and percussive way, I found it very interesting watching it.
Do you prefer the avant-garde method or the traditional Western method of scoring?
I just think it's another technique. Film composers have used these techniques in film scores for the past fifty years - but they tend to do it briefly. This score expressed a rather high percentage of music composed in this fashion.
Do you think that some people might read a little too much into the score, and try to make something out of it that it's not?
You know, film composition to me is a very emotional thing - it's not that intellectual a process. When I take an emotional approach I would look at the film and dream. What I'm feeling emotionally affects my score. You can intellectualize it later and say, "Oh, I see that the music is doing that because the character is feeling a certain way." But I don't think that way when I'm writing - The Silence of the Lambs is a good example. There's been so much written about the movie and how the music is used in the film - but when I was writing it, it wasn't an intellectual process - it was an emotional compositional process. On Crash, I had six electric guitars, and on the first day of recording David Cronenberg said, "Of course! Electric guitars and cars." He thought it was very intellectual how I made this connection between the instruments and the sound of metal and cars, but I was more thinking about conterpoint for three harps, and how to realize that in an electric sense. I came at it from a different way than you might have realized - but of course once he said it, I said, "Oh, right!".
Do you think that will happen for The Cell?
I think so. I tend to do that in all of my films. There are certain sounds and types of music that I come away with after seeing the film and dreaming about it. It's not very intellectual; it's a feeling that grows inside of you.
Howard's score to The Cell will be out on New Line Records at the beginning of September. The film opens today nationwide, and has already been getting rave reviews.
Special thanks to Cathy Moore, Michael Tremante and Wendy Rutherford at New Line Cinema for arranging this interview.
All images © 2000 New Line Cinema