Ariel Marx, Composer on Sundance films “The Tale” & “Hair Wolf”

Rising film composer discusses latest projects

Jan 19, 2018 Web Exclusive
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Ariel Marx has been busy. The composer has work on a handful of short films over the last several years, and now she’s heading to Sundance for the first time with her scores for the feature film The Tale and the horror short Hair Wolf.

Marx, who received her master’s in music composition and film scoring at NYU, met The Tale’s director Jennifer Fox through Reka Posta, who co-directed the short film Dear Mother that Marx scored. The partnership born proved to be fruitful, and the collaboration was one of personal accomplishment for the composer.

“Jennifer had an idea for the palette she was going for but she was welcome to new ideas and suggestions,” she said. “There are nuances in genre and time and perspective that all have to be honored within the fabric of the score, so I knew it had to be a flexible palette. And we also established early on that it needed to be quite intimate. So, it couldn’t be a large ensemble. It’s a chamber ensemble, a small group of instruments just to keep the palette intimate and delicate.”

The score features a combination of guitar, piano, strings, bells, and some electronics. The film follows Jennifer (Laura Dern) as she re-examines her past and comes to grips with the stories she’s had to tell herself. The goal for the score was to support the emotion without guiding it.

“It is prominent, but I also had to add subtlety to it. So not too much commentary, and not leading the cart in that way,” Marx said. “Point of view is always the most important question to ask when scoring a film. Which character are you scoring? Which thought are you scoring? Are you an omniscient presence or are you coming from a certain person’s point of view? That’s the intention of the composer, and how that’s read or perceived could be different between viewers.

“If we think we need music here, why do we need music here and what are we saying with it? How can we offer something different than what’s just on screen with dialog, design, and narrative?”

Her approach, then, depends on the project. Marx acknowledges there are various schools of thought on the role of music in a film, and whether or not it should be front and center or more underneath the surface, hardly noticeable unless the viewer focuses on it.

“Some people would say if you notice the score it’s doing too much. If you aren’t drawn to it, it means you’re just absorbing the story without paying attention to the moving parts. But also, if you notice the score and find that you love it or hate it, that’s also a great thing because it’s bold, and having a bold presence. It all comes to a matter of taste,” she said. “That’s why I’m really excited about this industry. In this profession, and any profession in the arts, there comes no one right diagnostic answer that ‘this is the formula for this’ or ‘this is the one and only right answer or one of two right answers.’ It’s just really whether something works or not, and that’s one of my favourite parts, actually. Working and reworking and shifting and taking things in and out, and doing all these microsurgeries to your music.”

In an industry often dominated by men and masculine ideas, Marx isn’t discouraged by the history of there being more men working as film composers.

“I do know that there are, in terms of household names, there are just very few (women composers),” she said. “But I will say, though, with the circle I’m in with younger composers, and the master’s program I went to, and all of the film schools that I’ve met people from, and this next generation of filmmakers, that really looks different in so many ways. I do know a lot of up and coming female composers, directors, cinematographers, and editors. It’s a time when visibility is really clear and people are asking these hard questions of privilege and representation and how to make our films representative of our society and our diversity.”

That’s not to say it’s easy to break in. Marx says she is in a place in her career where she has developed a strong support system. Through hard work and a little bit of luck, she’s gaining more exposure. Obstacles are present, and the key for Marx is achieving visibility and for more people to be given chances that may not have been afforded to them in previous years.

“I think that’s what it is – opportunity and access,” she said. “There are so many talented people. By the fact that you’re outnumbered, you have less of a chance. Being given the opportunity to be visible and rising to the task. I was given a wonderful opportunity and I rose to the task of it. I’m so happy and proud to be part of a really important film with really strong females in prominent roles in front of and behind the camera with wonderful male allies and collaborators alongside.

“It’s optimism, I’m not even all that cautious, I do really feel people are really thinking, and changing, about how they hire and who they hire and give opportunity.”

And she writes, creates, and composes music. While she is a composer for feature and short scores, she is looking for more than that in the music she creates. She wants to make something deeper, more complex, and find the balance between supporting the film and making wonderful music that successfully stands up on its own.

“(The goal is to) write a piece of music that has integrity unto itself,” she said. “You just listen to it, you wouldn’t be tired of it, you wouldn’t notice repetition, you wouldn’t notice odd, asynchronous things, and that it felt like a piece of music you could just enjoy. But at the same time, serving picture and how it molds with the cut, and with context and story.”



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