ASCAP composer Marc Streitenfeld was named Discovery of the Year at the World Soundtrack Awards in 2008, in recognition of his genre-bending work on Ridley Scott’s American Gangster. Four years on, Streitenfeld and Scott’s creative partnership continues with the science fiction film Prometheus. Streitenfeld’s spacious, pensive score perfectly captures the profundity of the film, about a crew of earthlings who discover the origins of humanity. We spoke with Streitenfeld about his own origins, and the techniques he used to get the tone just right.
Tell me a little bit about the young Marc Streitenfeld. What was your music education like in Germany before you came to Los Angeles?
I started as a kid playing classical guitar, and then I got more into bands and got into different types of rock music. (From) listening to classical through my whole upbringing, I had different influences, but I never went to a music conservatory or a music school per se, so a lot of it was really self-taught. I listened to a lot of music and I picked up a lot of stuff just by listening to different influences.
Who were some of your favorite rock bands back then?
My favorite bands as a kid were from Jimi Hendrix to The Clash, Led Zeppelin...you know, a lot of rock bands from the 60's and 70's. But it varied. I was listening to Bach or Satie at the same time. I was interested in all kinds of music, you know.
What happened once you came to L.A.?
Well I got my first job in the music industry when I was 19, working as an assistant to Hans [Zimmer]. I didn't have much experience with film scoring at all. I had the music knowledge that I brought with me and an interest in music, and I was just really eager to learn about everything in the industry. I was very interested in recording technology and the film scoring process, and applying music to film, so a lot of it was new to me. It was, I think, an act of faith at the time. A lot of projects were going on so I had a great opportunity to just soak everything up. Pretty much all my knowledge seems very natural to me, because I didn't really make an effort to learn it. It just kind of happened.
Did you ever hope that you might start collaborating with Hans on some of his scores or work with him on a more even level?
I didn't really think it through that much at that time. When I quit my job working for Hans after three years, I was just ready for a little break, because it was such an intense time with long working hours. It was a really great, intense experience, but I felt I needed a little breather after that. And I didn't really have a plan of what would come next, so things just slowly fell into place. The same thing happened with scoring my first project, it just kind of happened. I had worked with Ridley Scott on some previous films as a music supervisor and a music editor, and he just asked me if I ever considered scoring a film myself, and he offered me A Good Year. So that just came as a surprise and I didn't really think about those things that much. They just kind of happened in my life.
Do you still work as a music supervisor or editor every now and then?
I haven’t really done that in a while, no. The last five films I worked on with Ridley, I was composing for him.
Do you get the same satisfaction out of choosing a perfect song for a scene as you do composing the score for it?
In one way those are very different processes, and in another they’re similar in the sense that you want to achieve what’s best for the film. That’s always the main goal. The same goes for not having any music in the scene, you know. I’m always for whatever works best for a movie. Whatever’s best needs to happen and that process, that is similar with choosing a song or writing a score or not putting any music. But you’re obviously closer, more involved if you’re composing the music. It’s a different process; it’s probably a more time-consuming stretch or process if you’re developing a vocabulary, if you’re developing themes, so you probably have a closer relationship to the film. But it depends. There are certain films where somebody is involved in a capacity choosing songs where you probably have a similar involvement.
I wanted to follow up on something that you mentioned about the importance of space or not having music. One of the more amazing things about your Prometheus score is just how much space and openness there is in so many of the cues. How did you decide to use that kind of musical language for this particular film?
It’s something you develop through the scoring process. I first read the script and had my initial ideas and wrote out my first melodies and motifs and then started to develop a soundscape of sonic textures, just a tone for the whole film. Then you start applying this to picture and you slowly discover what works best and what works for Ridley…so that was the process that occurred throughout scoring the film.
How closely is Ridley involved with the musical decisions in the movies that you make together?
Ridley is quite involved in this process, but he also gives me a lot of freedom. We usually have an initial conversation about what he wants to do with the film, what he wants to express. He includes me in the pre-production phase, showing me storyboards, visuals, so I can really understand where he’s coming from, what his vision is. But then he lets me [have] a lot of freedom. I go in my studio and I start developing ideas. Once I present them to him, obviously he gets very involved. He sometimes has great ideas for trying out a piece of music I wrote for a scene that I didn’t even think of. He’s very helpful in this process.
Were there any cues or scenes in Prometheus where, in conversation with Ridley, you decided to just totally scrap your initial idea and go in a completely different direction?
Maybe it wasn’t based on a conversation, but during the process of editing the film and restructuring the film, certain sequences change, a certain order of scenes changes, so when once you had one scene follow another, those scenes might suddenly be swapped in the film, and that obviously affects the overall flow of the film and also the music. So there are certain sections of the film where the structure of the film is changed and the music was definitely affected by that.
Was there a particular cue that was most difficult to record perfectly or to get the perfect performance out of the orchestra?
There were several cues where I tried some unusual recording techniques. I wrote out the whole score on paper and flipped it so the orchestra actually played it in reverse. And then, digitally, I flipped it back, so the end result was the melody as originally written but with a different sonic quality, because it had a somewhat backwards sound to it. And surprisingly, those recordings went down quite smoothly, but a lot of planning went into them, in terms of just how you write it out. I tried a few of those takes with individual players before I went in with the whole orchestra, to make this a smooth process. But that was, in a way, challenging and really exciting to do.
Do you remember the name of that cue?
There are a few cues that have those sounds in them. There’s a cue called “A Planet.” It’s the first track on the soundtrack album. And there’s a woodwind pattern that you hear - that’s all backwards, and the string lines are backwards. The oboes are forwards. So we played around with the combination. Certain instruments worked better than others, and sometimes if they were all recorded that way, it was too much. So we played around with balancing those sounds. The effect can be heard throughout the score, but “A Planet” is definitely the track where you can hear that in effect.
That’s so cool. It reminds me of a manual version of what Schoenberg was doing with all his tone rows, and the reversals, flipping upside down, changing register and all that.
Right. I think if you work on a sci-fi movie like Prometheus, there’s an opportunity to be experimental and try things out. Ridley is very open-minded, and extremely supportive. He’s always looking for something unique for each project, so I always try to deliver that.
There are a lot of melodic, traditional-sounding themes for the brass and strings. But there are so many really strange bits - there are parts in “Hammerpede” that almost sound like insects, all these dissonant parts in “Hello Mommy.” Do you feel as comfortable creating all those outré bits as the more traditional themes?
As you said, I try to combine more traditional orchestral thematic melodies with the odd-sounding elements. I created all of those sounds from scratch. They’re not synthesizers. Those are all of organic origin. Some of them are manipulated instruments; some of them are common, everyday objects that I kind of abused. That’s a long process. You need to take time to get this right. There’s a lot of trial and error with this. Something might sound like a good idea on paper, and you record it, test it out, and it just doesn’t seem to have the effect you intended.
And then there’s other things that you gave a quick shot, or something was recorded by accident, and it’s such a great effect. You just need to stay open-minded and find those sounds and utilize them. And that’s what I tried to do in those cues. To give it something maybe unusual sounding or unsettling.
Can you give me an example of some of the common, everyday objects you “abused” to make some of the music?
All kinds of things, from a coffee machine to stringed instruments without strings - I tried to drag them across the floor. All kinds of sounds. Whatever I could come up with, whatever I heard that sounded like an interesting sound, I would record it and experiment, try to get melodies on those devices. Which sometimes gave it a bit of an interesting tuning effect. We tried the same thing with the orchestra. I harmonized things right there on the stage with some of the woodwind players, tried out some different harmonizations. It was great fun doing that. Ridley was really supportive of this process.
You need to write a concerto for coffee machine one of these days.
Prometheus isn’t just a sci-fi flick. It’s dealing with some pretty heavy, weighty themes. Was it your intention to put some of that gravity into the sound of the score?
For sure. When I spoke to Ridley about that part of the score, he definitely wanted it to have the gravity of a religious aspect to the score. That was an important component of my score.
Do you feel that in the decade-plus you’ve been working with Ridley Scott that your musical tastes and vision have been at all shaped by the way he makes films?
I don’t think so. That process happens earlier on in life. Your tastes are developed throughout your life, but I always thought we shared similar tastes, aesthetics in music. I’m always surprised when I play him a piece of music. Often we’ll speak of the emotional content of a piece of music. There are certain thresholds you can cross, in terms of how far you go, how far to push an emotion or how subtle you want to be. And we always seem to be in agreement mostly, with how far we want to go with something, how much we want to support a scene, what is the right approach. So I feel like a lot of times we share similar thoughts.
Do you think you could work so closely and fruitfully with another director?
I’ve had some really great working experiences with other directors. On The Grey, I worked with Joe Carnahan, which was a completely different process ‘cuz there was not much time to complete the project. We had a great time working on the score together. I just finished some other pieces for a film called Killing Them Softly. I worked with director Andrew Dominik. Again, it was a completely different process. Andrew used me in a very unconventional way, I would say. Some of the sound layers I created were more in a David Lynch type of approach. But then I also supplied him some piano pieces that almost had the function of becoming a score. And that was a very interesting approach, and he was very detail-oriented in terms of where every note lands. It was quite a different way of working. I enjoy different types of processes. I always want to support the director’s vision. When you share similar aesthetics, similar tastes, that obviously helps.
Do you ever just listen to your scores as music, independent of the visuals?
I do, but I think it takes a little time to disconnect if from the images. Right now, the images from Prometheus are so present in my mind that it can be hard to disconnect it, but give it a few years, and I might just be able to listen to it on its own.
A lot of times at the festival at the Ghent International Film Festival they'll present entire concerts of film music and they're not always accompanied by the movies. These days, you have professional composers scoring for film and a lot of their music does work as themes for symphony.
Yeah. I actually did a concert in Ghent, to perform the suite from American Gangster. In fact that was great fun to do. But you're right. I spoke to my other colleagues there and you don't get an opportunity that often to perform your music live as standalone music. So that's definitely a fun opportunity to do that.
Did you ever have the ambition to be a concert music composer?
I don't think I had fixed ideas, exactly, of where a composition would lead or what I would do with it. Music was just always coming out of me with no particular goal in mind. Since I was a kid, whenever I picked up instruments I would always come up with ideas or write little songs and, even at a young age, get into compositions. But I didn't really have a final idea of where this would lead.
Are you pretty much committed to film right now? Or would you consider doing video games, or TV underscore, or some other kind of media?
I’m always open to new ideas, but I love working in film, and it all depends on what the project is. I don’t have a general exclusion of certain types of media, or I’m just focused on one thing. It really depends – it needs to be something interesting, or an interesting person to work with. Something that I like doing. I want to work on things that are meaningful to somebody and to me, and it’s worth putting all of your energy in that.
At this point, are you proactively going after projects? Or are things coming to you more often?
So far, in my life, I’ve been very blessed that things always just happen to fall into place. Ridley has had a very quick turnaround with his projects. By the time he’s finished one film, the next one is coming up. So I’ve usually approached things in a more relaxed manner. I just take things as they come.
Prometheus is in theaters now. Find out more at www.prometheus-movie.com.
Find out more about Marc Streitenfeld at the Internet Movie Database: www.imdb.com/name/nm0834199.