Keeping Score – Bryce Dessner Discusses Film Composing for The Revenant and The Two Popes | Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Keeping Score – Bryce Dessner Discusses Film Composing for The Revenant and The Two Popes

The Guitarist and Composer for The National Finds His Full Range in the Scoring for Great Filmmakers

Jan 05, 2020 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

Thinking of Bryce Dessner as an indie rocker, gracefully turned film composer is a fun but inaccurate framing. In fact, well before Dessner co-founded The National – inarguably one of the most important rock bands of this century – he was on an early train headed in the direction of movie scoring. Formative studies in classical guitar and composition led Dessner to Yale, and then into the world of progressive orchestral and chamber music where he has become one of its most prolific ambassadors. Even when much of his energy turned to The National after they broke big in the fifth year of their two decade ascension, Dessner never let the roots of his classical origins go unnourished. As offers to score major feature films started coming his way in recent years, Dessner’s activity across musical disciplines has primed him for the challenge.

There’s a natural association between the music of film story and Dessner’s composition and guitar playing for his band. The National have carved out a distinct corner of alt-rock by expanding the language for matters of the heart and soul. Through invigorating, melodic songs that lend urgency to moodiness and turn sorrow triumphant, Dessner and his family of bandmates have broadened the prism on common emotion and dilemma. The primacy of film music functions on that same crystallization of feeling. It can distill universal experience into a sequence of notes and textures that tell us about ourselves as they intimate our counterparts on screen.

But film music must go beyond giving color to what stirs internally. To serve a story and its tellers, it has a duty to add contour to a passage through time and space. Dessner’s ability to communicate spatial scope is what attracted the great director Alejandro González Iñárritu, who extended an invitation to help score his 2015 film The Revenant. For a film with vast natural territory as its only setting, Iñárritu was particularly compelled by one of Dessner’s string orchestra pieces: the fifteen-minute long “Lachrimae”. It carried the tone of the world Iñárritu was creating, and the director featured it in the film’s final sequence.

For the music of The Revenant, Dessner joined legendary composer Ryuichi Sakamoto and electronic virtuoso Alva Noto in creating the sonic fabric for a story about tragic personal loss and the defiance of all odds to avenge it. The contribution of Dessner’s string arrangements brought emotional immediacy to Sakamoto’s core movements of abyss-like depth and Alva Noto’s electronic accentuation. Drawing from the sensibilities developed in the breadth of his compositional endeavors, Dessner helped to construct the the sound of tragedy, grief, and determination, as well as convey the immensity of wild, primordial landscape. String sections mirrored the movement of embers floating from campfires. The painfully slow traverse across unforgiving terrain was captured in drawn out chords that disappeared into cold air. It was a work of composition that firmly established Dessner as an artist of the medium.

The acumen of Bryce Dessner in writing music to reflect both internal struggle and external scope has been called upon again by another great filmmaker. Director Fernando Meirelles sought out the composer to provide sonic language for his latest film The Two Popes, one consisting primarily of verbal language. Mereilles had his concerns about adapting the dense script based on a play about the discourse of two popes with divergent ideologies and turning it into an engaging film. For this challenge, Dessner’s multilingual musical range became essential.

The story follows the partly fictionalised formation of a friendship between real-life figures Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, before he became Pope Francis, and his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI (played with venerable substance by Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins respectively). In a film driven by interaction between the two – at first discordant and ultimately tolerant and admiring – Dessner’s task was to create the tonal edge bordering the exchange of views and sentiments, shared mostly in silence. This meant floating cues into the regions of time and space that gave context to those exchanges. Mereilles was constantly aware that the film couldn’t be confined to the lanes of dialogue; it had to move, and thus we do through the spaces and settings that frame discussion.

Fernando Meirelles has always exhibited an affinity towards the agency of music in the establishment of setting. When you think of his films, imagery emerges from sequences where indiginous music acquaints you with community – like those in The Constant Gardener, with Rachel Weisz walking through an African village, greeting every being with a caring smile, or in The City of God, where impoverished sections of Rio de Janeiro are introduced in similar fashion. The Two Popes begins with such a sequence as well, where the camera acts as a pedestrian through a bustling part of Buenos Aires, Argentina, the home of Cardinal Bergoglio, who we come to know as the central character of the story. The pulse and rhythm of the music of the streets moves you through the scenery to Bergoglio’s introduction, as he addresses the town crowd.

Incidentally, for the primary settings of the film, such as a beautiful recreation of the Sistine Chapel that provides a stunning visual set piece at its heart, Dessner’s presense is mostly recessed, though a rousing cue in the vein of Wagner announces Pope Benedict’s election before Vatican City. Peaceful silence surrounds the voices of the two main characters as unexpectedly gripping dialogue pulls you close. In fact, Dessner’s music is used judiciously throughout the film, so that when it enters, you feel it richly. During a critical early scene in the garden of Pope Benedict’s summer home, the minimal flutter of neutral scoring symbolizes the counterparts feeling one another out, amidst the song of garden birds. This quietness is appropriate as it accentuates the awkward barrier between the two at the outset of their relationship.

It wasn’t only silence that Dessner had to play off of. For the purposes of inviting the viewer in, Mereilles carefully chose source music, some of it unusually poppy, as a means to humanize these grand figures, bringing them down from the chair of St. Peter, as it were, and grounding them. Pope Benedict’s piano playing – actually performed by Anthony Hopkins – softens the austerity of his character when he hosts Cardinal Bergoglio. To acquaint us with The Cardinal, folk music of his native Argentina was selected to paint him as a common man of the people. Mixed in is the soothing bandoneon playing of Dino Saluzzi and powerful vocal beauty of Mercedes Sosa.

Dessner located the vibe of his score writing, in part, by using these source music cues as reference points. This gave him the chance to return to the nylon string guitar compositions of his South American classical studies. The folk romanticism of these pleasant minimal segments infuses a linen-like gentility. They speak penance and tolerance, the very attributes upheld in the story.

The most powerful of these swirling pieces surround the pivotal part of the film when the two popes confess their sins to one another. As the storyline turns to the controversy of Bergolio’s past and his role during a troubled period of Argentine history, the dramatic shift called for Dessner’s music to be featured more prominently. That’s when you hear the reverberating depth of acoustic and classical strings, along with low rumbling orchestral drums, on “Dirty War”, which strikes of his music for The National. Cues like “Taken Away and Tortured” allude to the bandoneon of Dino Saluzzi, making the notes cry as Dessner punctuates the guilt Bergoglio has to carry with him – his cross to bear. For “They Took Esther” the weight of shame is felt through Dessner’s employment of a riveting arpeggio violin structure – one not unlike Nicholas Britell’s earthshaking “The Middle of the World” cue for the ocean baptism scene in Moonlight.

Contrary to what the title indicates, The Two Popes is hardly about religion and more about its core tenets, such as compassion and compromise. It’s about finding common ground and purpose, and allowing the voices of others to be heard. It is interesting then, and fitting, that Bryce Dessner was chosen to create its sound.

Dessner seems to feed off of collaboration – an inspiring bent – throwing himself into fascinating and stimulating projects with an octopus’s reach. So far he has found balance in the dynamic of cooperative perspectives, projecting his voice at a level respective to the ultimate mission of the group. This has been true of his role in The National, and in film productions where he naturally defers to the vision of its lead creators. Among the ideas I lobbed to him, in a phone conversation from his home in Paris, was the notion of creating music for a film where the score is the primary force; where character and dialogue drop into supporting roles, giving way to the storytelling potential of music. The idea intrigued him, and this is indeed the construct of the twenty-seven minute short film accompaniment to The National’s last album, I Am Easy To Find.

For now, Dessner is comfortable in the egalitarian role, coexisting with component parts of a film and their artists in order to tell the best story. This is always the priority for any composer who cares. All you need to do is listen to the ever-growing, ever-more interesting catalog of Bryce Dessner to know that he does.

Charles Steinberg [Keeping Score]: You’re the subject of maybe my favorite “niche” category, which is rockers turned film composers. But that’s not exactly accurate, is it? Your music study and performance prior to The National lent itself to film composition.

Bryce Dessner: The truth is, my background is pretty classical. There was this group called Clogs that coexisted with the National for many years. Padma Newsom [from Clogs] played strings in The National and we had scored a couple films in the early 2000s [Big Sur, Turn the River]. But the band was so busy in those years between Boxer and Trouble Will Find Me, with touring and everything – and I was doing pure classical concert music at the time [so I went away from film scoring]. Sometimes when you start too early in film music it can distract you [when you’re finding your voice]. You’re really part of a big collaboration in a good way – just like the band. With the music I was doing outside of the band, I was looking for something much more personal. But around 2014 when Alejandro Iñárritu asked me to compose for The Revenant, I started to shift. It was such an incredible experience working with not just Alejandro – who is really a master filmmaker and he has such a musical approach – but the entire team was A-list: The best possible music editors and sound mixers…Also working with Ryuichi Sakamoto was a real education; it was almost like going back to school. I had composed for film before but that was such a strong experience for me that it opened up a new side of my work and I have been enjoying working on films a lot more since then.

It’s nice to see that in this way, you’re returning to your roots a little.

Yeah and I think the lucky thing for me is that I only do projects I’m creatively excited about. A great film project like The Two Popes or The Revenant can be such an inspiration. Something that’s less fun can really drive you crazy, so you have to be a little careful what you decide to do. But it’s a collaboration that I really do enjoy and is suited to my skill set.

When I saw that you were involved in The Revenant it was exciting to see your name among so many incredible talents. I didn’t know about your interest in film music at that time. Would you say your work with Philip Glass planted some of those seeds as well?

I wasn’t setting my sights on becoming a film composer back then. I was working with Philip in more of a concert hall situation…I met Philip in the early 2000’s when I first moved to New York and he became very supportive. There are literally legions of composers in Hollywood who are paid to sound like Phillip Glass and that was not something I was interested in doing. Mainly he was a good example for me in the way that he’s kind of like a Buddha. He has a very open and vast idea of creativity and what’s possible in music. He’s not cornered with just being a film composer or just writing his operas or playing piano on stage. He lets his heart lead the way and so I took that away more than anything else…Steve Reich is another major composer who I’m close to and recorded with in my 20s. Both of them have been very supportive of The National at different times. They are emblematic of a real generational shift in music. Coming out of the minimalist music of the 60s, they really shaped contemporary music – more on the classical side but it has definitely bled into and influenced popular music. Especially someone like Glass, who was very involved with Bowie and Brian Eno. Philip represents music that exists outside of genre.

And was the big draw for you to The Revenant a composer like Ryuichi Sakamoto? There are a couple of pieces credited to you on The Revenant. How much did you actually contribute to the score and tell me a little about what it was like to work in that three way collaboration with Sakamoto and Alva Noto?

I contributed quite a lot actually. There’s maybe less on the soundtrack itself but I did about a third of the score, I would say, including a big string orchestra piece of mine called “Lachrimae” that’s heavily featured in the last stage of the film and starts at the avalanche. That was a piece I had already recorded used for sync. The movie is so vast with all original music. Ryuichi Sakamoto had written a lot of the main themes and I was brought in as the second composer. That was partly because “Lachrimae” featured in the end of the film and Alejandro really wanted that sound to come in throughout the film. So, I wrote into scenes throughout the movie. It was fun because I had to internalize what Ryuichi had done. Then Alva Noto came on to add electronic textures to the score. There were a couple cues we collaborated on together where he provided an electronic base and I would score strings over it. By the end we were all out in LA and were able to spend a bit of time together, so that was really nice. They’re both such incredible artists.

It sounds like such an exciting project to work on. It’s such a powerful film and the score had so much to do with the power and beauty. I was playing it a lot at the time and it was bumming my then girlfriend out because of its weight and mood, but I think it’s beautiful. I love that texture, that world. When you’re composing for an environment like that – a landscape that is so cold and immense and intimidating – how do you connect to it?

I grew up in the wilderness and I have a house in upstate New York near Woodstock where I spend a lot of time during the winter. I love the sound [associated with that world] There’s a school of composition that’s associated with landscapes, particularly from the twentieth century French composer Olivier Messiaen [who wrote things like] Des Canyons aux étoiles… and that sound to me is very emblematic. It has this vast stillness about it in the strings – that sound of droning strings with a kinetic energy beneath it. I should point out that I wrote a piece of music for Alejandro as a gift after we finished working on the score that was inspired by a trip to his house in Mexico. It’s in a landscape like that. Not a snowy one but in this landscape with big open passages in a beautiful canyon. That piece is called El Chan and it was written for two pianos. It takes what I did in The Revenant and develops it further.

Yes! I was going to ask you about that piece. It’s such a bold, all-encompassing sound and when I listen to things like El Chan, I think of your music in a film being a central propulsive element, like Hildur Guðnadóttir’s in Joker, but obviously with a different energy. Do you have thoughts about music in film being the primary, rather than supportive role and what shape that might take? Perhaps things like wordless film? The short film connected to the last National Album I Am Easy To Find also comes to mind in that way.

Yeah, I think that…for instance working on The Revenant, music is a big part of that film but there was something extremely specific about it, so it doesn’t just run through it the whole time. On The Two Popes, the music plays a big role too but because it’s a dialogue film based on a play, it’s not like an hour and a half of straight music. When it does enter, it’s very featured. I think that the best directors don’t overuse music for the most part. That being said, I’d love the opportunity to make a music heavy score for a film that is relying on the music more for that momentum. That would be very exciting. Unfortunately that can be very poorly done. Sometimes movies that overuse music, especially for emotion, are compensating for something that’s not there in the script or performances. That’s a fairly common issue. My experience has been that for movies that I’ve worked on the music has been used very specifically…I Am Easy to Find is a different example because that was conceived as a music film, which was really fun.

Comparing The Two Popes and The Revenant in terms of how the visual, tangible environment of the film influences the music you write, how did the physical spaces translate into your work on The Two Popes? I understand that they recreated the Sistine Chapel?

You can’t film in The Vatican and probably the most important scene in the film takes place in the Sistine Chapel, so they had to build a version of it in Cinecittà, which is the studio where Fellini filmed in Rome. They built this incredible replica of the chapel, though they didn’t film the ceiling, that was CGI, but they built the rest and it was this special, spiritual place to be in. I was able to visit on set with [Director] Fernando [Meirelles] and César Charlone who was the cinematographer. Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce were there at the time and I was actually able to start writing in the room when they were working, so that was really inspiring…Like you were mentioning about the landscape in The Revenant, in this case I was able to really absorb the atmosphere of the set and be right there with the director, so it really helped with finding the right tone. Also these projects are about relationships and finding chemistry with the people you’re working with so [being there] was really important for getting a feel for the heart of the film.

I bet. The film has stayed with me and listening to the soundtrack independently since has made me think of this analogy: I’m beginning to look at score pieces as photographs; they are records of an experience, in this case a film,. When you listen to them after the film, they can whisk you back to scenes and imagery in a very moving way.

Yeah…yeah. That’s a nice way to think of it. I hadn’t thought about that before.

You know? When I was listening to cues like “Pope Francis” and “Walls 2” that association became very crystal to me; I started to see the film again in my head. I started thinking about the evolving relationship between the popes and it became very moving. I suppose it’s that very feeling that makes me love film composition so much.

That’s great.

I was interested in how you first fielded the proposal to work on a film like this. When I first considered doing this piece, I was a little reluctant because I don’t have a religious background or much of a framework for contextualizing. But it’s not really a story about religion as much as it’s about the tenets of religion that find their way into people’s lives, like forgiveness and compromise. Did you feel like you had to have a grasp on theological sensibility?

I grew up in a secular household where my dad is the son of Jewish immigrants and my mom comes from an old Christian family in Ohio. So we weren’t raised as anything. I don’t have an experience with the church, but I would say that I’m a spiritual person. I like a lot of music written for the church. Some of the greatest works of art in the history of mankind, really, are pieces of music written for that purpose. And that extends across religions; You think of all the monumental buildings – temples and synagogues and churches….And things like Mozart’s Requiem or Bach’s St. Matthew and St. John Passion. Or even thinking of things like da Vinci’s Last Supper. There are these profound works of art that speak to humanity and all kinds of non-religious things that are so important. So a film like this for me has a spirituality [I can connect to regardless]. Like you said, the film has more to do with human relationships and flaws. It was also interesting to look at it closely in terms of the leadership in The Catholic Church, the intimate side of that – getting into a little bit of their decision making at a time when the earth is in such a state of crisis. The movie invites you to reflect on that and that’s where it becomes powerful. For me, specifically with the music, it was important to find a personal connection to this movie and I did that by finding an intimate musical voice for [Jorge] Bergoglio [Pope Francis – Johnathan Pryce], which became the sound of me playing guitar…While on the other side there’s this vast orchestral sound as well; You hear that big cue early on in the film when [Joseph] Ratzinger is elected to be Pope Benedict [Anthony Hopkins], there’s a much more Wagnerian sound of orchestral strings. So the sound of the film really hits between those two places. But the spirituality in music is something that speaks to me regardless of religion. Some people have said that they listen to The National’s music in that way, not like religious music but it has a kind of mantra quality; this low, repetitive thing about it so that it almost gives you this spiritual connection. I know that my brother [Aaron] and I share that in common; where we like to make instrumental music that has a heartbeat, is what we say. It has an intimacy and intensity about it that I hope comes out beautifully.

Yes, it definitely does. Some of the strings and guitar arrangements certainly brought me back to certain National songs and the feeling I would get listening to them. I was curious about that too: There must be various contextual and technical differences between writing for a rock album and for a film. Where do they overlap for you?

You know, I get asked that pretty often and more from the classical side because it’s not necessarily common to exist in both worlds. Weirdly, it’s a lot more similar than you would think. The big difference in The National is that I’m playing guitar a lot of the time, and when I’m composing for film and orchestra, I’m not. The Two Popes is an exception to that. I’m playing a particular kind of [South American style] guitar. The closest thing you can hear to that in The National is when you listen to a song like “Racing Like a Pro” on Boxer. That sound is the same guitar that I’m playing in this film. Both film scoring and playing in a band are collaborative and you have to find the thing you do well – find your voice –and be supportive. Obviously writing for a large orchestra is very different from playing in a room with five guys, but I’ve been doing both for so long that really I’m the same musician in both rooms. I don’t put on a different hat or put on my spectacles or something (Laughter).

Right! And take up your conductor baton…I know some composers conduct their own pieces written for film. Did you do that for The Two Popes?

This was a big enough film that the music was recorded at Abbey Road and there was a lot going on that day, so no. It was the London Contemporary Orchestra who have also recorded all of Jonny Greenwood’s scores. They have their own conductor in the room. But I have conducted a couple of my scores. I conducted all the strings on I Am Easy to Find.

What drew you to that South American guitar playing that you drew upon in The Two Popes? Is it because it’s so evocative and carries this nostalgic quality? That’s what I get from it.

I grew up playing that way. I actually have a Master’s in classical guitar composition. In my teenage years I was playing Bach and Spanish music on a nylon string guitar, so I have a long history, even in playing Brazilian and Argentinian music in my youth and in my 20s around the time the band was starting. I have that language in me. Then I started working on this film and listening to some of the source music – specifically the Argentinian songs in the movie from Mercedes Sosa and Dino Saluzzi – and also the fact that Fernando was really interested in a more folkloric feeling and not as much of an orchestral score. So I started trying some ideas on the guitar and he responded pretty quickly to that. You know, it is inspired by South American music but it’s in its own voice. Those themes aren’t based on anything, what I’m playing is original, so I took a little while to find how the rhythm and melodic ideas would work.

I’ve been wondering about the relationship composers have to source music. Is there a dialogue between the music supervisor and the composer through the process? Do you have any input on what songs are chosen or is it something that you’re simply basing your work around?

Yeah, the music supervisors are in the room and it’s very much a conversation. Obviously the director has the last say on that. If you don’t like something, you can certainly register a vote [laughter]. In the past, I’ve attempted to replace a couple of key source things in the movie but in the end the producer was attached to the source music, which I understand. In this case, Fernando and the film editor Fernando Stutz both being Brazilian, the two of them had really creative bold choices to have Abba and The Beatles and these things were at first a bit shocking, but I really grew to love them as bold choices for the film. So it’s a conversation and when you’re working on a film, the music supervisor is a big part of that as well.

I thought it was interesting that you don’t really get into the personal history of Anthony Hopkins’ Pope. He’s more guarded and protected by the facade of the papacy and the church. Were his cues written more from the perspective of those externalities? The cues related to Jonathan Pryce’s Pope seemed to come more from a personal, intimate perspective. You learn more about Pope Francis as far as his background and what made him who he is.

That’s true, but there is that part in the film where Anthony Hopkins plays piano, and Pope Benedict was also a piano player. He recorded an album of his piano music and coming from the German tradition there’s this sense of all that romantic pop music as part of his background. So that was his starting point. I think they have this section of the Wagner opera Tristan & Isolde that was originally in the film and I kind of took inspiration from that. But I wouldn’t actually say that there’s only the intimate sound with Francis’s music. I think with Benedict we end up relating to him in that way also. The intimate sound, in a way, kind of exists more between them and in their dialogue. That’s what I felt on set when I visited there in Rome: being able to get into that space between them. Being that it was written as a play and to have two of the great living actors, these great stage actors, it was kind of a master class in acting so I felt that the music had to have a conversational quality to it. So superficially, yes, the Wagnerian orchestral sound relates to Benedict and the more folkloric South American guitar inspired music for Francis. But actually the sound of the film becomes more unified as their understanding for one another grows. That’s really the message of the film for me.

I’ve seen the movie twice now and you develop a familiarity of the characters and their evolving relationship and companionship. When that happens, the story reaches into you more and a fondness develops. Does that happen when you’re writing to picture and watching scenes over? Does a familiarity start to take shape that guides your writing?

Yes. Having come on early to this project, my initial observation of the film was in the cutting room with the editor. I was able to see the dailies and not even the final performances of it, so I think that I was able to internalize the rhythm and pacing. All of the flashback sequences, which I would say are more driven by the music – cues like “Taken Away and Tortured” and “They Took Esther” and the cues related to what happens to Borgolio’s character after the dictatorship – the pacing of those sequences really does depend more on the music. So being able to spend time with those characters as it shifted influenced me. That’s also the section of the film with the heaviest editing and it took them longer to find the balance, so I was able to take time developing compositions and then eventually really architect the orchestration of them to the scenes. By the time we began recording at Abbey Road, I had been through multiple drafts of those based on what had happened to the edit. Again, that’s really fun. I like the way image effects composition. That’s exciting.


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