Words by Charles Steinberg
As the lines continue to blur around the cinematic territories most suited for electronic versus orchestral scoring, film music language has expanded in recent years to produce thrilling expressions of their amalgam. British producer and composer Chris Clark, who makes music under his surname, has a long track record for harnessing the powers of both realms to illustrative effect. With fluid positioning between modern electronic and core classical disciplines, his compositions walk a tightrope between the brutal and the plaintive. Before tipping into one end, he leans back into the other, a balancing act that has made his music alluring to new filmmakers.
Beginning with his score for the European jewel-heist drama The Last Panthers in 2014, Clark has exhibited the ability to execute an elegant chamber piece or a fraught coil of electronic sound design with equal facility. Just recently, the star-studded Stephen King adaptation of Lisey’s Story afforded Clark his biggest canvas yet – eight chapters of narrative landscape to color-in, written for the screen by King himself, and shot by the incomparable Darius Khondji. It was bountiful terrain for Clark to locate mutuality between the familiar register of natural instruments and synthesized phrases that conjure the unusual.
Without knowing it, Clark channeled this mixed-lineage to write a dynamic score for Lisey’s Story. The composition leans favorably into the orchestral approach. And still, during sequences that jump to the imagined worlds of escape and memory of its main characters, Clark’s steady command of synthesized diction surfaces. Like Saunder Jurriaans and Danny Bensi did on their own King adaptation of HBO’s excellent The Outsider – yet in an entirely different aesthetic – Clark found harmony in genre-blending with exciting results on his latest score. It’s sonic ambidexterity that should keep paying dividends for this chameleon of composing.
You have gradually introduced more classical instrumentation to your electronic recordings in recent years. How do you view the relationship between the two forms in the context of film music?
The dialogue between technology and the natural playing of an instrument is such a fruitful area – the tension between the two. I find more and more that I haven’t got time for dogmatic positions that insist on one or the other. If you can execute both – if you can show the director something that’s already quite developed before it’s translated by an orchestra – then you’re in a strong position. To be honest, I haven’t used a computer in about a month. I’ve just been playing piano and cello and writing patterns out – trying to compose in my head with an internal sense of time and take that right to an instrument. I’m sure I’ll go back to computers at some point, but I’m trying to peel down the layers of assistance from tools. For things like chord progressions and digesting four-part harmony, I’d much rather bypass my computer and just go to the actual music. Technology has to be in balance with the practice of an instrument for me.
Has the experience of having a full orchestra play your compositions for scores altered your ideas about creating studio albums?
The score for Daniel Isn’t Real was my first venture into using an orchestra. I went to Budapest with a friend to record it, and when you first have that experience, it’s quite mind-blowing. I came out of it naively thinking that all I ever wanted to do again is use orchestra. I was really puritanical about it for about five days. But then I realised that orchestra isn’t suitable for everything. I find quite often that complex orchestral music should really only be heard in the context of a hall. So film music does need to be boiled down and reduced somewhat. That kind of complexity can sound a bit wack on headphones. So you can be deceived by a really good recording session with an orchestra. That’s what’s going to be interesting about these live shows I’ve got coming up. It will be a chance to hear the music just in the context of a hall, which is really exciting.
Technology has to be in balance with the practice of an instrument for me.
What’s it like when a full orchestra starts playing what you started on a computer?
It’s easy to render a score on midi and think you’re a genius, but when you’re working with thirty people, and you’re the one whose notes have been chosen to play, and every single note on the page has to be right, that‘s really different. It’s terrifying...But it’s a complete rush as well.
A lot of it comes down to not making an idiot of yourself in front of these highly trained musicians. You almost have to intentionally second guess yourself, so you accommodate your doubt by coming up with alternative cues. As long as it doesn’t look like you’re thinking on your feet too much, then you’ve sort of won them over. But if you go in with something that doesn’t work and you have no idea why, and you haven’t got a backup plan, then you’re just wasting everyone’s time. It can be humiliating and necessarily so.
Taking in your early recordings, I figured that you were deliberately rebelling against the foundations and traditional music techniques you adopted when you were young.
Kind of. I did take violin lessons as a kid, and I participated in the school orchestra, so (traditional music) wasn’t alien to me, but it was never an extracurricular activity. Apart from Bach, I didn’t like classical music early on. To my ears, it was turgid. I just wanted to listen to Prince and rave music. I was not into Brit Pop or a lot of music that was being called live back then. It all sounded so automated to me – mostly four chords strummed on a guitar. Meanwhile, I was listening to improvised DJ sets by Jeff Mills at The Liquid Room, where he’s spinning in 909s and making patterns that sounded like mental machine-jazz. That sounded more alive to me than the “live” music I was hearing. That was the kernel of wanting to get into electronic music. It was so fresh and novel. I’m not so sure it has that covert prestige anymore.
There have always been instances in your solo work where you explore the emotional wavelengths commonly found in score music. Has there been an exchange between your solo and score music since you began composing for the screen?
There’s a discussion taking place between all of my works, regardless of whether they are solo albums or soundtracks for film. Some of the ideas I was exploring in the Kiri soundtrack, and the scores for The Last Panthers and Daniel Isn’t Real, came to a whole on my studio album Playground in a Lake. That album is the distillation of those three score albums. And Lisey’s Story feels connected to this new orchestral palette for me. I write a lot of music that doesn’t fit on solo work that I think is possibly better suited for film, and you just wait for the right project to come along. Right now, I’m interrogating that and wanting to break my compositions into smaller chunks to see what I can make of that language.
Is that mindset encouraged by writing music for film?
Yes, that’s a good point. I have always wanted to see how my music could be broken down into component parts and spread across mediums. Film is perfect for that. It offers a way for you to interrogate your language around music. It forces [an inner dialogue] like, “Ok, this isn’t working on synth, so maybe I should transcribe it for cello. Should it be in a minor key? Or maybe this major key can be degraded in such a way that it feels gnarly and horrible.” Story gives you opportunities to test these questions in a way that you don’t get to do on pure, hermetic studio albums...I think it was Hans Zimmer who said something like if you’re Metallica, you have to be Metallica, but in film, you’re not rewarded for [consistency]. You are rewarded if you can write music for a thriller scene, and then write a baroque variation that incorporates electronic elements of that thriller piece. At its best, film music tests your ability to pull elements across fields.
I have always wanted to see how my music could be broken down into component parts and spread across mediums. Film is perfect for that.
There’s a distinguished lineage of composers for Stephen King adaptations. Were you mindful of the history of scores for King films at the outset of composing for Lisey’s Story?
To be honest, I didn’t really follow past scores for Stephen King adaptations. Maybe I should have. The one I think of the most is The Shining, which has some amazing Krzysztof Penderecki in it. His music had a big influence on Pablo, so we bonded over that. But it can be a bit distracting to compete against something you’re constantly thinking is a benchmark. Those ideas live in your head rent-free, and I try to bat them away. I tend to just follow my nose. I listened to Pablo and to what Stephen King wanted. There was one cue that Pablo said Stephen would like because it was a bit like Thomas Newman [The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, Castle Rock]. It’s called “King’s Dream”.
I love Thomas Newman’s scores for King adaptations. They’re similar to some of what Benjamin Wallfisch composed for IT. IT’s main theme is perfect in my mind. There’s something alluring but foreboding about it, and it captures the melancholy of small-town existence. Some themes in Lisey’s Story bring that forth.
It’s that feeling of dread disguised with a surface coziness. It’s familiarity with undercurrents of dissonance. That’s an emotion I really like. I don’t like personally feeling it [laughs], but I like exercising it through music. The thing I admire about scores like Shawshank, or like Carter Burwell’s score for Miller’s Crossing, is that there’s a reduced simplicity that’s very stirring. It’s choosing a simple melody even though you know you can do something more complex...Simple chord patterns can be very evocative and I think people respond to that stripping down. I’m never going to shy away from purely visceral harmony. That’s the kind of thing that still hypnotizes me the most.
I thought “Box of Photographs” was a great example of that. I think it comes in when the sisters Lisey [Julianne Moore] and Darla [Jennifer Jason Leigh] come to take Amanda [Joan Allen] home from the institution. It was haunting and pretty at the same time.
That theme came out of a lo-fi home recording of a piano. That piece is the kernel of the bigger plush string section that comes in and it was some work getting those to merge. The visual analogy of the process would be taking a hi-res photograph and making photocopies of it until you’ve gradually got a degraded version. But you’re still showing all the iterations of the graduation so that it doesn’t feel too jarring.
I don’t know what it is, but there’s something so powerful about degraded lo-fi instrumentation in the film medium. Especially with piano.
I’ve been into resampling to get that effect since I was a teenager. Back then, if you had those E-Mu samplers with a three-minute memory, and you had a six-minute track, you had to go in at double speed to get it all. Then the sound would be (degraded), but you end up quite liking that lower-fi version. At first, it was just a limitation of the technology I was using, but I grew quite fond of that sound.
The cinematography for Lisey’s was immediately engaging and was one of the things that made me want to score this series.
One of my favorite recurring themes was“Crossing Over”. It was particularly striking during the overhead shot of Scott’s father [Michael Pitt] being dragged lifelessly over the mud with his long hair trailing behind him like a mop. It was one of those visuals that make you take note of the cinematography. I’ve always been a huge fan of the way Darius Khondji shoots.
The cinematography for Lisey’s was immediately engaging and was one of the things that made me want to score this series. It raised the bar of the whole project, what the music could add, and how it needed to be sympathetic to the look. When they go to the mystical world of Boo’ya Moon, the cinematography is incredibly evocative and quite romantic, but that visual palette is in contrast to the sheer ugliness of the horror there. It’s diabolical, but it looks beautiful. That engaged my cognitive dissonance in a fun way. I thought that was reflected in this big thirty-piece orchestra playing the ugliest sounds you can imagine, all recorded with these unbelievable, beautiful microphones. That’s similar to the cinematography in the way of depicting a horrific scene in a beautiful way.
Now, after having scored different television shows, how much does the way something is shot have an effect on what and how you compose. How important are the visuals?
Not as important as script and story. Having lived with something in your head, you build up your own pictures of it anyway. For me, the basic kernels of ideas are always emotion-led from stories and characters. The screen is a further embellishment of that, but it’s from scripts or source material that I get my inspiration. Having said that, I also simply play an instrument along to what I’m watching to determine where to come in and out in an old-school, hands-on way. I like live-scoring; I’ll watch episodes on loop all day with the sound down to get familiar with them and write around that. That’s when you have a clear idea of one piece of music in composite parts that can be extracted and used. That’s what I love about it. It makes music so elastic.
Were there any variations you arrived at in an unusual way?
Yeah! My friend Rakhi [Singh] played an improvised string version around a theme called “It Sees Me”. There’s this dry kick sound on strings inspired by an old Company Flow track called “Collude/Intrude”. They took all of the bass out of the kick so that it sounds thin and spindly and brittle. It almost sounds bigger because of that. So, for “It Sees Me”, I was thinking about how that hip hop sound might come across on a violin. It’s deliberately taking from genres that much of your audience for this might not expect. I’m often influenced by the music you wouldn’t expect.
Any particular influences lately?
I tend to get into whatever my friends dislike. For instance, I have no friends that are into jazz, really, so I’m doubling down on jazz at the moment because I’m convinced there is this really fertile ground between jazz and classical music that is underexplored. There are loads of similarities. I think well-known classical composers like Bartok were using this way more advanced language of loose improvisation tools that you get from jazz. I’m really enjoying long-form systems-based music that can be used in an improvised manner. It isn’t succinct three-minute tracks of music with a bit that happens at that precise point you expect the narrative to shift. Aiming to be succinct all the time sort of shuts off the world of improvisation, which is a bit of a shame really. I want to be in a room of musicians right now, just playing to see what happens.
My musical ideas are constantly churning around and asking more of themselves.
Are you inspired by other composers’ electronic treatments in soundtracks?
Marcus Fjellström, who sadly passed away. He did a score for The Terror, the (AMC) show about this ship voyage in the nineteenth century gone horribly wrong. It’s really his solo work I loved, which hits my fetish for tape-edits that have great use in the show. Also, this is probably obvious, but I thought the Breaking Bad score was amazing – the palette and the way it filters into the show's sound design. It doesn’t tick that box of “you shouldn’t notice film music.” You definitely notice it and it’s quite an awkward flavor at first. There will be something brittle and dissonant to start a cue, but it will evolve into this ensemble piece with sounds I can only imagine he records himself. Really inventive.
How has composing soundtracks impacted your outlook on what you want to explore musically now and going forward?
My musical ideas are constantly churning around and asking more of themselves. So it can seem like, “What’s he doing? He was writing techno, and now he’s writing classical music?” I’m aware of that, but [that fluctuation] has just become part of what I do. I’ve always been someone who wants to cross-pollinate... I’ve recently been into making polyrhythmic piano pattern pieces and I’m really enjoying long-form systems-based music that can be used in an improvised manner. It’s the exact opposite of making music for film. But there is also liberating freedom that comes from being captivated by the story of a film and having to completely change your aesthetic. The challenge lies in still making it sound like you. It’s a tightrope.