Sundance Diaries: Elevating Film through Music

  • January 27, 2020
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Growing up, I owned a lot of soundtracks from movies I loved. When listening to songs off of these soundtracks, I would be transported back to specific scenes in a film, and I would experience the emotion I felt while watching the film all over again. As I have gotten older, I am more aware of the fact that my reactions to moments in film and television are almost always because of the music I am hearing in those moments. For example, there's that Snow Patrol song, "Chasing Cars," that will forever and always take me back to the season-two finale of "Grey's Anatomy." There's that moment in "Garden State" when Natalie Portman's character hands over her headphones to Zach Braff's character and tells him the song he's about to hear ("New Slang" by The Shins) will change his life. Music does that: changes lives. 

But it's not just songs with lyrics that make a mark. Think "Jaws" and "Halloween." There are no words necessary for eliciting feelings of intense fear while watching those films and hearing those legendary sounds. "Music can be very manipulative," said composer Jay Wadley in an interview at Sundance's ASCAP Music Café. "You can make scenes feel very different based on what you choose to put there. That's the thing that a lot of people don't know about the process: as a composer you're very intentional about the way you're approaching a scene. When you're thinking about scoring things, you're thinking about each of those moments, each of those facial moments, each of those turns in narrative or turns in dialogue and how you're going to help accentuate that narrative or tell that story. You can do a lot of crazy things by the music choices that you make."

Hanging out in the artist's lounge for ASCAP Music Café, I am interviewing three different film composers, all of whom have films at the the festival: Amanda Jones ("Baldwin Beauty"), Alex Somers ("Charm City Kings" and "Miss Americana") and Jay Wadley ("I Carry You With Me"). Each composer has some serious background in music, from being live-music performers and playing several instruments to studying various areas of music and production at prestigious music schools. They know their stuff. As I prepared for the interviews, I became increasingly aware of the fact that these artists are often behind the scenes. It's likely they are not being stopped on Main Street for selfies and autographs. But they should be, if for no other reason than for being the masterminds behind creating a connection between us and all of those celebrities we see on the silver screen. 

"Music elevates what's happening with the characters," Jones said. "If you've heard a film without music, you'll know immediately that something's missing."

I am interested by how much work these composers put into creating sound for a moment in a film. I learn that composers use all kinds of experimental techniques to accomplish their goals. They study scripts and work closely with directors and/or producers to capture their vision. They think about the characters and identify what the sounds are for that character. They are literally creating the soundtrack for characters' lives.

"It's a lot of work, but it's really fun. It's an open field because there is no one way. It can be one solo instrument repeating a theme or it can be the most sonic, dense, weird experimental noise," Somers said. "Each film is a bit different, but really it's about getting into the story and writing music that supports it."

Find more information on these composers:

Amanda Jones

Alex Somers

Jay Wadley

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