Words by Amon Warmann
Daniel Hart has teamed up with David Lowery once again for The Green Knight, which puts a new spin on the timeless Arthurian legend by following Sir Gawain (Dev Patel) as he embarks on a dangerous quest to confront the eponymous emerald-skinned Knight. Since 2009, the pair have collaborated on such varied titles as Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, A Ghost Story, Pete’s Dragon, The Old Man and the Gun, and more, in doing so becoming one of the most prolific director-composer tandems working today.
When Hart isn’t composing moody scores for film and TV, he’s making music with his band Dark Rooms. His musical background and songwriting ability came in handy on The Green Knight, which has no fewer than four vocalists on the score singing Middle English poetry.
That old Arthurian language is just one reason why this score required more research and ingenuity from Hart than ever before, and when we caught up with him at his LA home ahead of the film’s long-awaited UK release we discussed how he and his collaborators came up with some of the film’s more unique sounds, how his choir background came in handy, why he sought out the Apprehension Engine, and much more.
You have a long and storied creative partnership with David Lowery. What was something that was immediately apparent to you, and what was something that became clearer over time?
So the first thing that we collaborated on was his first micro-budget feature called St. Nick. And I didn't really know him at the time, he was a friend of a friend. What was apparent to me was that he had a very distinct voice for storytelling. One that was unfamiliar to me. Not that I watch every movie ever made, so it's possible that there were just references that I didn't know that he was drawing upon. But I saw something that felt unique, something that captured my attention, that made me want to keep watching. And this is not just something that happens with David, but when there's a film that I really respond to the music starts popping into my head. If it's a story that I connect to in some way, then ideas show up.
What's different now? All that is still true. It's just magnified now. The ways in which we have gotten to know each other over the past 10 years have made it easier to get to what we're looking for most of the time. We don't have to talk as much. We have a shorthand. And I think there are certain things that I can expect. Working on one of his films in terms of the aesthetic and in terms of the type of storytelling, he's covered a fairly wide array of styles, genres, and time periods. That's required a variety of scores, but they all feel to me like they're fairly grounded, vulnerable, fragile examinations of human existence. And that feels to me like it connects all of his films, and therefore, hopefully, connects all the music that I'm making for those films.
What do you remember about your first experience watching The Green Knight?
I got it in sections. I didn't get to watch the whole film first before I started working on this, because David was editing and he still wasn't done. So I got a section in the middle called ‘A Meeting With St. Winifred’, and that's where I first started working. I remember having a hard time finding the timing of it. I felt like the rhythm of the score that I was making wasn't quite right. I would try things and they would be what I had in mind, but when I listened back it didn't sound like the thing that I wanted it to be or it wasn't doing what I thought it was gonna do. I remember thinking that the scene was very funny, for a haunting ghost story. I remember thinking that the performances were really good.
Visiting the sets is helpful to get the ball rolling, just to get a sense of what it might eventually look like.
You’ve said that you already started putting down ideas for this one once you read the script. What sparks your creativity the most? Did you visit the set?
I visited the set in April of 2019 when they were filming near Dublin. I was also working on a television show at the time, so I didn't get to spend as much time on set as I wanted to. I don't get to do it with every film, but I do it with most of David's films. Visiting the sets is helpful to get the ball rolling, just to get a sense of what it might eventually look like. It can be so different once it actually gets on film. When you're actually on the set, behind the camera, it can change the perspective quite a bit from what one would see. I did get some ideas based on the scripts - that helps too - and some of the demos that I made before I had actually got any footage are in the film, almost verbatim.
But I think the thing that really gets it going is seeing the footage. The footage itself has almost all the data that a composer needs in order to solve the mystery of what kind of music the movie is asking you for. From the way it's shot, to how close we are to their faces, to how fast they're speaking and the timbre of their voices when they are speaking, to how quick the cuts go to how light it is. Everything visual about a film is data for the composer. Once I see the footage, sometimes it's like oh, that idea that I thought was going to be really successful won't work, because the film is much faster than what I had in mind.
I assume that normally when you get the footage it’s not in sections, which is more helpful.
It is more helpful to get an idea of the overall arc. But even just being able to see part of it and have the music show up in my head… that's something to start on. I also find that when I start on a picture, even if I have seen the whole thing, it's difficult for me to keep the big picture in mind once I dig into a scene. I feel like I have to get so detailed and in life, I'm not a very detail-oriented person. So it's a job for me. It is work to get it that detail-oriented. I feel like I have to get so microscopic when I'm scoring a scene that I have to let go of the bigger picture for a while. And it's not until I've scored at least 20-30 minutes of music that I can zoom back out again and ask myself - is this going to work for the whole thing? It may work for this little scene, but does it also work for the entire picture? Hopefully, the answer is yes. But I am working on music in my head, basically non-stop. I wake up, and I'm working on it. I had clearly been working on it while I was sleeping. There's always music there. It's a gift. It's probably a curse, too.
There’s a really great balance of the real and the supernatural in The Green Knight. How did you go about finding that balance musically?
I think that David’s goal in adding these supernatural elements is not to scare, but to haunt. That's the kind of ghost story that I respond to. I don't like horror films for the most part. I'm grateful that nobody wants me to work on their horror film because I don't want to watch that footage over and over again. I find that the supernatural elements in The Green Knight and in other films of his are very haunting, and that's closer to my own wheelhouse to create music. It’s not a huge leap from haunting supernatural elements to some of the more haunting aspects of Sir Gawain’s existence. Like, what does it mean to grow up? What does it mean to be robbed of everything and be left alone in a forest by yourself? What does it mean to be tempted by a stranger's sexuality? What does it mean to be given everything that you want? And does that mean that you actually get what you need? I find a lot of those questions of how to derive meaning from one's existence to be a little haunting in themselves, so it feels all of a piece to me. I don't feel like I had to stretch in so many directions. It did require me to go on my own epic musical journey to find what I was looking for. But when I listen back, I think that it all feels to me like it belongs in the same space. It all feels as cohesive as I would hope something would be when I start out working on it.
You’ve spoken about how David is a great motivator and always knows what to say. What is your preference when it comes to how you like a director to speak to you? Is there an example of this that comes to mind when you were creating the score for The Green Knight?
There are things in the score that came from demos that I had made, and so we had found some successful musical sections at the very beginning of the process. As we were working on it, David was unhappy with the film that he had made, and consequently not crazy about the score that I was writing because it was for scenes that he wasn't done with. So it took us a long time to get to what we were looking for. Somewhere in the middle of that process, we were working on the scene when Sir Gawain meets the giants in the middle of the desert, and this whole herd of giants is crossing the desert in front of him. I had written up a more orchestral cue for that scene because I wanted it to be big and grand. You know, it's giants. It doesn't get bigger than that. And it didn't work. I couldn't figure out why. And David knew that it didn't work. And there was just something about our expectations for what should work and what the music and the scene should be versus what the story actually was and what the footage actually was.
As we were trying to find something, David said that we could have a song here. I hadn't considered it. It seemed too small of an idea to me. So I tried writing a song there, and that song is what's in that scene. It's called ‘Aiganz O Kulzphazur’. That was, I think, one of the first times that the score started to really click for David, and made him feel like we had a path forward. Any other place where we were having a lot of trouble with the music in a scene, he suggested that I write a song. They're four songs in the film and that's mostly where it came from, trying to get us out of trouble.
I think that he [David Lowery] has strong ideas for how he wants things to look and feel and sound. But he's also willing to let go of those ideas when needed
But he's a great motivator in other ways too. He's not a musician himself, but he has taken the time to develop some musical vocabulary so that we can talk in terms that are more concrete. I don't actually need that per se. I've worked with directors who have no musical background, and they're just talking to me about emotions. How something that they hear makes them feel and why they like it or why they don't. That can be enough to go on. Having more musical vocabulary is certainly helpful. And then part of it is being willing to let your collaborators' voices shine through a bit. I think that he has strong ideas for how he wants things to look and feel and sound. But he's also willing to let go of those ideas when needed to let someone else's throughline show up and take up some space. I think that's one of the main reasons why he's such a great motivator. Because you know, that he's motivating you to be yourself, show up as yourself, and give some of yourself to the film.
How did you go about choosing the musical palette for this one? What was the starting point?
I heard Jonny Greenwood give an interview on NPR in 2018 where he talked about being part of a Baroque recorder group at home, and he is a fairly reclusive man so I did not know that about him before that interview. I was so fascinated by that idea. I really wanted to get Johnny Greenwood’s recorder group to play on one of my scores. And then this film came along and I was like oh, that's perfect. This film needs recorders in it. Recorders were a main instrument of European music in the 1400s. So I did actually reach out to him to see if he would be interested in doing that, but I never heard back. So he did not play any recorded music on this score. But I still stuck with the idea of having recorder music regardless. Most of the first demos that I wrote involved a recorder quartet. That was the beginning. I think there was other stuff that David and I also talked about because usually our first conversation when working on a film involves instrumentation. I tell him what kind of instrumentation I'm thinking about for the film, and he tells me if he's also thinking about some other things that I didn't mention.
With The Green Knight, there was a question in our first conversation that I had about whether we were going to try and keep it to all period instruments. I also asked which period, because the poem was written in the 1400s but anybody resembling King Arthur would have been alive in the 800s. And David said no, don't worry about that. In fact, I think he said that he was hearing some scenes with big synthesizers. That gave me some freedom to explore some more. And then because of the film The Witch and the score that Mark Corven wrote for that film, I desperately wanted the two main instruments that he had used on that score. Those were the nyckelharpa, which is this medieval Swedish stringed instrument that was ideal for this world, and then an instrument called the Apprehension Engine, which was this one-of-a-kind instrument that had been built for him by a Canadian luthier [Tony Duggan-Smith] in Toronto.
The Apprehension Engine is a jack of all trades. It's got some strings on it. It's got a Hurdy Gurdy wheel. It's got something called a Whack-a-rod…
That's an amazing name!
Yeah. I was delighted when they told me that's what it was called! It's got these metal rulers off the side of it that can be bowed or plucked, and then all of it gets amplified. You can look it up on YouTube. There are demonstrations of it being played by the Apprehension Engine. It's made for horror films. It's made for scary, creepy, eerie sounds. After seeing The Witch, I reached out to the guys who made that instrument and I asked him if they would be willing to make me one. And they had at the time got a few similar questions from various people who had seen The Witch like me, and so they did another limited run of 10. I have one of them.
You have a really potent blend of the classical and electronic for this score. How challenging was it to get the balance between them right?
I felt like there was a fairly limited palette of synthesizer sounds that worked well with the nyckelharpa and recorders and the strings and the harp. I also got a new synthesizer for myself, and I used this film as an excuse. It’s a Prophet REV2, which is basically an update of the Prophet 6. I started messing around with that and I went through so many presets looking for a jumping-off point to then find my own sound. There just weren't that many things that really seemed like they belonged in the world. I think there were 2-3 sounds from the Prophet that got used over and over again. 2-3 tambours and 2-3 patches that I created, modifying some presets, and that was it. I use them quite a bit because those sounds seemed to work with that world. I would try out other things and be like no, that sound doesn't belong here. Immediately I knew if something was going to work or not.
Do you get new instrumentation for every project, or was this just a special case?
It was a special case. Usually, I don't have to do that much research either, even when it's different stylistically. I did a film with David called Ain't Them Bodies Saints, and it's a fairly American folk instrument heavy score. And then we did Pete's Dragon for Disney, a big orchestral and choral score. And we did The Old Man and the Gun, which is a fairly jazz-heavy score. Those are all areas where I've had some experience in playing music over the years. I'm trained as a violinist and I’ve played in orchestras. I've also played a lot of folk music and played in bands, and I've been obsessed with jazz since high school and played a fair amount of jazz in my 20s. It didn't take a lot for me to get comfortable in those worlds. Medieval music and medieval fantasy films... that's a different language in a different time. So I felt like in order to show up correctly, I should do some research.
In order to write songs that felt like they belonged, a lot of the lyrics had to be in Middle English. So I gave myself a crash course in Middle English poetry in order to be able to write lyrics in Middle English and have them be at least somewhat accurate to what might have been written at the time. So there was a lot of stuff that went into this film that wouldn't go into other films that I work on, including a lot of picking new instruments. I'm now working on Peter Pan, David's next film, and it’s also for Disney. I think there might be one or two special instruments, but otherwise, it's another big orchestral and big choral score. Going into it, there was not a question about that. I knew that's what it would be. That was not so much the case with The Green Knight. I did not know what it would be going in. I just had ideas. Luckily for me, those ideas ended up working, or we made them work.
Going into The Green Knight I wanted to explore some of the same choral ideas that I had explored on The Exorcist.
There’s also a lot of versatile vocal work on this score - Emma Tring, Katinka Vindelev, and Atheena Frizzell are all on the tracklist. How did you go about deploying them here?
I come to it with an unfair advantage. Both of my parents are choir directors and I grew up singing in their choirs, so I tend to think in choral terms fairly easily. On The Green Knight it was so much fun, and so thrilling. I'd never written choral music for film or TV until 2016 with Pete’s Dragon, and I did the music for Season One of The Exorcist. There was a fair amount of choral work in both but especially in The Exorcist. My father directed that choir, and my mother played the piano accompaniments for all the rehearsals that we did. It felt very much like a throwback to my childhood, except that when I was a child we were not working on music that I had written. It was a little surreal! But anyway, it went so well that it made me want to do more of it and kept it in my mind. So going into The Green Knight I wanted to explore some of the same choral ideas that I had explored on The Exorcist. We did that with a small choir: there were three sopranos and four altos. I heard those higher frequency voices in my head.
I didn't know the singers. They were contracted by Bridget Samuels from Orchestrate, who also does all of Mica Levi’s films. She's so brilliant. She knows all the best young players and singers in London, and she found these singers and this amazing choir director. When we had them come in, I'd never met any of them. I didn't know how their voices would sound, and I was a little apprehensive about if it would actually work because there's a lot of choral music in The Green Knight. And then they started singing, and it was just beyond my wildest dreams of what it could be. They sounded so magical together. It was one of those little moments when you sort of jump for joy and want to scream a little inside! So I knew that it was going to really pay off once we got it into the mix with everything else.
Then on top of that, when the pandemic happened and everything was shut down, David kept editing The Green Knight and kept changing things because he wasn't quite happy with it. That meant I had to keep working on the score because he would change scenes fairly significantly, and we’d need more choral music. But there was neither the budget nor the time to get a whole choir together again, so I asked my friend Katinka Vindelev - who is a Danish soprano - to come in and sing a few things. She has sung on The Exorcist and A Ghost Story.
With the songs, do you start with the lyrics and then figure out how you want the music to sound, or do you start with the sound and then figure out what the lyrics should be later?
I am a songwriter. I played in bands for a long time, and I still have my own band for which I write the music and I write the lyrics. I've gone back and forth a lot over the years. When I started, it was almost always music and melodies first and then finding lyrics that would fit. But nowadays it seems to go more in reverse, where I have lyrical ideas - or at least ideas for lyrics that I want in a chorus - and then I'll find the music that fits it. I prefer that because I think it leads to stronger lyrical work, instead of trying to find words that are conveniently fitting melodies that already exist.
What did I do for The Green Knight? Almost all lyrics first, because it was in Middle English or in some cases in other languages. There’s a little bit in lingua ignota, a language created by Hildegard von Bingen in the 1100s. There's a little bit in Latin. There's a little bit in French. So yeah, almost all lyrics first, because I had to go so far away from what I usually would write in order to get to those lyrics.
There are some really unique sounds in ‘One Year Hence’. What were you trying to convey with it, story-wise, and what’s the difference between a weird sound that you immediately discard and a weird sound which you end up using?
I think it's just about feeling for the most part. It could be discarded later on if it doesn't match the visuals. But I think there's something in my brain which thinks of what would work and what wouldn’t work ahead of time, and that's what I go off of. Something that works for this film would not work for another one, and so I don't want to discard them completely. I did make myself a little cheat sheet when I was going through the Prophet of sounds that I liked but didn't work for this film so that I could come back to them later for other projects.
There are a couple of things happening in ‘One Year Hence’ that I would classify as weird sounds. There are some honks and squawks on a bass recorder in the first half of the piece. Some of them were performed by me and some of them were performed by a recorder quartet, but those are based on me doing the extended techniques on a bass recorder, and just figuring out what kind of crazy sounds you could make. It sounded incredible. But then in the second half of the piece, there are weird sounds when the synthesizer comes in. The first one is this ‘woob-woob-woob’ thing that happens a couple of times. That was created by Bobak Lotfipour, one of my frequent collaborators. Once he watched a rough cut of the film, I asked him to make me a little library of percussion sounds that don't sound like percussion. Essentially, to find percussive things that sound like a human voice and then to create some sounds that I could use, especially for scenes where the Green Knight showed up. That's how the Green Knight felt to me - human percussion. So that sound came from him, and if I remember right that was him running his wet thumb across the top of a conga, and then pitching it way down and affecting it further.
And then after that, there's the synthesizer going ‘wroooo’ over and over again. That was started with a preset on the Prophet. I messed around, got it to something that felt like what I wanted, and then I started twiddling knobs. I had the ring modulator on full force, and that's me turning the ring modulator all the way on and then slowly rolling it off again to create another timbre within that synth patch. Consequently, I saved what I had made, but it's not the same. I can't find it. That's the only time I've ever been able to create it exactly like that, and that’s what ended up in The Green Knight. I don't have it anymore. So it's just in this film. It’s a little ghost in the machine.
Early on in your composing career, you said that “because I didn’t know any rules, I couldn’t know if I was breaking those rules.” What’s your philosophy on that now? Have you since set yourself some rules or do you still try to break them all now, whether you know them or not?
I feel like because I still have not gone to school for composition - or more specifically for film scoring - there are still rules that I don't know. Sometimes not knowing those rules makes me look like a fool, or like someone who's a little inexperienced. Most of the time the stuff that I don't know technically... I do feel like it gives me more freedom to explore, and it makes me feel like I am starting over every time in a way that means that I'm approaching every project fresh. Everything that I've learned over the last 10 years of scoring has only been helpful. I'm so grateful to the people who were patient enough to teach me stuff that I should have known all along.
The orchestrator on Pete’s Dragon was a guy named Kevin Kaska. He’s also a composer, but he spends most of his time orchestrating. I think he orchestrates everything that John Debney composes, and he's done a lot of work for Hans Zimmer in the past as well. Kevin was kind enough to give me a few lessons in orchestration back in 2017 when I was going into a TV show called Strange Angel. It was based on a real rocket scientist named Jack Parsons, who was apparently obsessed with Stravinsky's ‘The Rite of Spring’. It was his favourite piece of music, and it's also one of my favorite pieces of music, but I'd never studied it from a technical perspective. So Kevin and I spent some time working on Stravinsky and understanding things more technically than I had ever understood them before. Everything that he taught me, I've carried forward and used quite a bit.
I've also done a lot of my own study of both classical scores and film scores over the last six years in particular. Not just loving them and enjoying listening to them, but digging in and getting more surgical, and figuring out why there are things that I like and what's going on that I want to borrow from, hopefully without plagiarizing. So yes, I know some rules. But I still feel like there's stuff that I don't know, and that keeps it fresh for me because I have to figure out what I'm doing every time.