Friday, January 15, 2010

Inside the Score- Composing the Music for Craig Boreham’s “Ostia- La Notte Finale”- by Annette Golden

Writing music for film is a bit like falling in love. OK, perhaps I need to qualify that. Composing music for a director’s vision is like reaching into and exploring a new reality and finding you have a unique connection to it. At certain points, this connection can feel so fantastic it seems to open up new possibilities for melody, harmony and timbre….and, for a composer, there is no better experience!

More often than not, you reach this place by watching the film at an early post-production stage, and talking with the director, editor, sound designer and other key crew. When it’s “happening”, a certain collective “other world” starts to build, and your musical ideas meld with a torrent of other points of view, skills and insights to create something special for the story.

My experience working with Australian director Craig Boreham on “Ostia- La Notte Finale” was all of this, and quite a lot more, but for a number of very different and quite unexpected reasons. Already pushing the boundaries for an Australian short film (the film employed Australian actors, speaking in Italian, with English sub-titles, and was shot in black and white!), for a composer, this film presented a number of challenges. Firstly, most of the music needed to be composed and recorded before the first frame of film was even shot. How can this be? Well, welcome to the world of film composing, and enjoy ducking those curve-balls. Access to musicians and recording studios in this case held the upper hand in my schedule. So Craig and I took this somewhat daunting fact on board, and looked at ways of working with it, both practically and creatively. And secretly, and rather deliciously, I was more than pleased that someone else’s temp music wasn’t going to get there first!

Now, just a few words about film composing and the art of research. The script is about the last day in the life of the brutally murdered Italian film director, Pier Paolo Pasolini. So who was this man? A study of Craig Boreham’s work will reveal a strong focus on stories about sexuality and desire, so I knew that delving into Pasolini’s life via the extensive resources within the AFTRS library would yield some fascinating stuff. Pasolini made a significant contribution to Italian intellectual life in the 1960s and 70s, and remained robustly outspoken and critical of many of society’s key institutions throughout this time. But I wasn’t expecting that Pasolini regarded the music of J S Bach with an almost mystical reverence...and that, coming from a self-styled Marxist, atheist intellectual, held my attention. Pasolini himself declared his regard for Bach to be “irrational”, meaning either that he understood its basis, but rejected any rational explanation for it, or he did not understand it basis, but responded nonetheless to the music with the emotion and language normally reserved for religious ecstasy. In either case, this was compositional nectar to any serious Bachophile. Adding fuel to the fire was the discovery that, in his first film “Accattone”, Pasolini used Bach’s music almost exclusively to delineate key psychological moments for the main characters, particularly the moments when they are at their lowest point. His use of Chorus 68 of the St Matthew’s Passion was so insistent and controversial in “Accattone”, I believed I had found my first compositional “hook”, ie, an idea I could build upon to delineate the story and something of Pasolini’s psychology.

At the same time, I needed to understand a bit more about Italian film and film music of the time, and found myself becoming particularly absorbed with Nino Rota after attending an AFTRS workshop run by the composer Peter Dasent, Australia’s own Rota specialist. Best known for his collaborations with Federico Fellini, Rota moved effortlessly between genres and compositional devices to uncover the essence of the characters and their inner and outer social and psychological worlds. He invented and combined musical themes with great economy of means and artistic sensibility. One of his most compelling musical forms is the simple, almost carnivalesque waltz, coupled with darker undercurrents working like the voice of tragic destiny beneath a simple melodic line. This idea deeply resonated with what I had learned of Pasolini’s life from books and articles, and I knew that I had found my second “hook”.

But now, to work! Craig had provided me with the script, some background on Pasolini, and some great stills from Cinematographer, Adam Howden. I felt we’d yield a useful musical harvest by starting with the idea of music as “source”, meaning music heard by the actors within the film and arising from the scenes, eg, from radios and suchlike. Given there was no film as yet, mirroring existing action, facial or psychological nuance, or other points of connection, just wasn’t an option. So Craig and I got together over what would be the first of a number of interesting nights (did I mention red wine??) and talked through the script to identify the most logical places for source music. We decided we needed some street music for the opening office scene, and quite a long piece for the café scene, as well as a radio cue for the scene where Pasolini and Pino (who was tried, convicted and imprisoned for the murder) are making the fateful last drive to Ostia. I thought that jazz would work well in the café, but needed to think a bit more about the other cues.

Taking a leaf from Rota’s book, I set about writing a “theme” tune about destiny. As it happens, inspiration struck, and I sketched a simple melody on manuscript paper, and then developed it further for violin and guitar. Craig’s response was a very quick “love it, but can we try an accordion version…. imagine a street busker in mid-1970s Rome playing outside Pasolini’s office”. OK, so with a few more tweaks the “Ostia Waltz”, accordion version, was born.

At our next meeting, we discussed the idea of using the opening phrase from J S Bach’s St Matthew Passion, for the ultimate moments sealing Pasolini’s fate. This “Passion/Murder” cue had to be both beautiful and so emotionally authentic that it would convince and move an audience, whether or not they were familiar with the musical reference. But I needed a reasonably accurate time-frame within which to build this piece, as well as other key cues throughout the film. At Craig’s place, we paced through a number of scenes, (did I mention more red wine??) with me counting appropriate crotchets to the minute, while Craig walked and talked the action. A couple of nights later, I sent Craig a midi mock-up of the Passion/Murder scene, which, after consultation with the film’s Editor, Adrian Chiarella, we decided to extend to a full 2 mins 40 secs (this was later even further extended). Working with the script, I visualized the key points, and arced the melody and harmonies around these. Craig’s feedback was extremely encouraging, and Adrian added that he was looking forward to editing the scene with my pre-existing music.

Next, with an imminent recording date for jazz musicians set, but with little time to spare, I confirmed time-frame for the café scene with Adrian, and pulled together the chord changes and a melody for “Il Treno Rosso” (the scene was to be shot at the Red Rattler at Marrickville). Craig was keen on trumpet representing Pasolini, so Paul Panichi provided his unique timbre and ideas over a drum, bass and guitar framework recorded at the AFTRS studios. Craig played this during the shoot, and was happy with the sense of atmosphere it brought. This left then the “radio cue” and the final end credits.

Now Craig was particularly taken with the “feel” of the mid-70s Eurovision Song Contest hit recorded by Mina Mazzini “Se Telefonado”, a somewhat iconic song from an even more iconic Italian chanteuse. I set about the challenge of writing something in a similar style, but musically distinguishable enough to stand on its own merits. Again, the talents of Mr Panichi came to the fore with the defining trumpet licks and overdubs, but what about the lyrics, and who on earth would sing it?? Craig was pretty set on the idea of dark lyrics about desire momentarily embraced but ultimately lost, as a subtext to the scene, which itself portended a far more devastating finale. I felt up to the task of writing the song in English, but “where to” for a convincing Italian translation? Fortunately, my German flatmate, Gerhard, had an Italian friend here studying linguistics at Sydney Uni, so after dinner one night (and did I mention red wine??) Chiara and I set about the writing and translation efforts with vigour. Task accomplished, but now, where to for the singer? Well, time was now getting a bit tight, so one Saturday morning (and with absolutely no red wine at all, promise!!) I sang and recorded multiple takes of the song in my home studio. I sent the best bits to the film’s conductor, Edward Primrose, for an honest view, and was delighted with his offer to work with and “tidy up” the results!

This left only the end credits, so late one late night, it seemed right that the “Ostia Waltz” have the final say, so back into some serious transcription for double string quartet and contrabass. Given another imminent recording date, this time with the classical talents of the Michelle O’Young Orchestra, I arranged the theme, again to be realised by Edward Primrose as conductor. The results for both the Ostia Waltz (strings version) and La Notte Finale are, in my view, both beautiful in themselves and apt for the purpose.

“Ostia- La Notte Finale” is an extraordinary film that offers unique insights into the last night of one of the most controversial Italian intellectuals and film-makers of the 20th century. For me, the collaboration with Craig Boreham provided an opportunity to shine under pressure, and offer creative and practical solutions that contributed to this film’s success. I hope that my career will continue to offer similar opportunities- and further excuses for red wine!

Annette Golden
31 December 2009

1 comment:

Claire said...

you're beautiful. I loved reading this and feeling the pressure and raging fire of creativity that comes with good collaboration.
xx Claire