Film Music Friday: Hauschka on the Collaborative Score for "Lion"

By Rachel Perkins, Associate Director, Film/TV & Visual Media  •  November 18, 2016

To score emotion or to score action? That’s every composer’s question. Hauschka answers it pretty intuitively with the score for Lion. And his score, created in collaboration with Dustin O’Halloran, is the only thing that could top the breathtaking cinematography and poignant story, about the Indian-Australian businessman Saroo Brierley who traveled the world searching for his biological parents. Seeing as there are a lot of train scenes, it makes sense that the composers’ piano chops and experimental approach to shaping sound carry you away.

After I talked with Hauschka, he hopped on a plane to NYC for the premiere so goes the life of a touring composer who is working on three new films and finishing a record, due out early next year. We will be front row when he circles back to Los Angeles next year during his world tour.


How did you get involved with Lion?

I was performing in Melbourne, and on my way to the venue my publisher was calling me and saying “There might be a director coming to the show, could you put him on the guest list?” A lot of times students love what I’m doing, and they ask me “Can I use your music for our student project?” So I was expecting a student film. After the show, these two guys were standing in the student line, and he said “I’m Garth Davis, I’m a director from Melbourne and we would love to talk to you about my film, maybe you are interested”…When we met afterwards, he was showing me a couple of iPhone was just the train in front of this epic jungle, and I thought “this looks too good for a student film.” 

I was talking in the concert that I consider my music like a high speed train ride with open windows with a lot of impressions while you are riding. He said he was very inspired by that, and felt that my music was mainly for the first part of the film when the kid is in India and there are a lot of things going on, train rides and catastrophes and all that stuff.

Did you know from the beginning that you would be co-scoring Lion with Dustin?

[Garth Davis] said he already had someone else in mind for the second half. I said “Who is it?” and he said “Dustin O’Halloran,” and I said “Oh, he’s a good friend of mine, for 14 year. He was at my wedding, we know each other well and if there’s somebody I could imagine writing with it’s Dustin.” A big film like that, you have to deal with a lot of opinions from all sorts of sides, and for a collaboration process you need to have people without ego, which is not easy to find. We had already been on tour many times together and there was never a single instance where we put each other in the background, we were always sharing equally.

So it was a collaborative process?

Yeah it was a collaborative process, it didn’t matter in the end who gave input, it just means you’re doing a project together. And if Dustin were sick and I wrote the whole thing, it still would have been our project.

Did you write separately, or together in LA or Germany?

I was in Dusseldorf, he was in LA, and we said “Let’s take the first weeks exploring things for ourselves and forwarding it and if we find something great, let’s grab it. We never had the first and second half separate, they were together. Some felt like flashbacks of music in the way it had to be made. We composed the themes for certain parts of the film - the opening theme, for example, is one that came out of a cue that I had written in the beginning called the “River” cue. Then we adapted this melody that Dustin was playing some chords for, so in a way the themes happened organically, and we had a lot of fun and could discuss a lot. I think that’s the perfect way to work a score, to work on the same parts together. You’re not so alone, and you have much more options.

There are a lot of strings in this score.

Both of us had quartet pieces we had written in our music. On a record, strings would come in, on a small scale. I actually had a one-year residency with the Symphonic Orchestra the year before so I was writing these big 40-minute orchestral pieces for a classical season. There was an evening with three composers [Arvo Pärt, Sibelius and me]. We each had 30 minutes of music and in a way I was getting very much into orchestration. 

I’ve never studied music. I was actually studying medicine. So in a way I was never in a classical music school. I was raised in the church, and in my family everything was about music – singing, arranging on the spot, quiet pieces. It was much more intuitive. So arranging for an orchestra is not so difficult for me.

How did you switch from medicine to music?

Medicine was always something I just liked. I was disappointed with the social aspect. It was too business focused, and I felt like I would be a slave to the pharma industry. Doing things I’m not supposed to do, but that I’m forced to do. That’s the way I saw myself. I don’t mean to generalize – there are many doctors doing a great job. You have the same conflict in music as well. You have to be honest and find a clear attitude. It’s not so easy. But in medicine, I had the feeling that status was so important. I wasn’t surrounded by so many cool people at that time. Over the years I’ve met a lot of interesting musicians who are doctors by trade and create music as a hobby. I think there’s a connection between medicine and music in a way, a lot of academic people play classical instruments.

What influences you the greatest?

Life. I’m constantly searching. I’m constantly interested. We’re here such a short time on Earth, we should use anything to deepen our knowledge and grow in the ability to look at things. What else is worth that in life to explore? I don’t see myself working for status. Searching for knowledge gives you a lot to explore. In music, what I like is to find music that is real. Music that exists in me today. That’s a disaster because if I’m recording it today, tomorrow it’s already over and I’m a different person.

Do you ever have creative blocks?

No, not yet. I have released 15 albums since 2001. This next year I’m releasing another one and working on a couple of EPs. The range of music I’m putting out there is quite big, from classical compositions to techno music. For the next record, I’m collaborating with a hip-hop artist and three rappers. I’ve always been interested in hip-hop music – like N.E.R.D. and Pharrell Williams. I listened to A Tribe Called Quest and Cypress Hill growing up. The energy in the music is so powerful. Music that is really soulful, that’s what touches me. I wanted to go back and incorporate that, and maybe because I’m searching, I’m not getting stuck.

What are you working on right now? What’s slated for next year?

I’ve written a cello concerto that will be performed at the beginning of next year for a Swiss cellist, Nicolas Altstedt, in three places. The first premiere was a month ago in Switzerland, in Basel, and the next one will be in Duisburg, Germany with the Duisburg Philharmonic Orchestra and another one in London at The King’s Place. I’ve written a chamber concerto for a chamber group that will also be performed in the first half of next year. And then I have the record release in March, and I’m doing some touring, and I guess in between I’m working on movies.

Has there been a pivotal point in your career?

Yes, I would say when I discovered the music theory of John Cage. I discovered him after releasing my album The Prepared Piano. Like right now, we’re sitting here – we hear jazz, we hear the girl group back there, and we hear traffic. And then this passes by [::points to car::], then we hear a lady coming by with a kid, and sometimes you have rhythms and sounds and noise. And I think music in a way is for me something like that – I’m standing in a place and closing my eyes and I hear certain things from everywhere. Of course when you compose, you can organize. I am trying to keep the music I record rough, and because of that it sounds like many different sound sources clashing into each other.

See to me, the noise just seems over-stimulating.

The advantage is you can have everything in focus. And that’s what I’m doing on my records. Working that way on a piano, doing it with your hands – put some reverb on, and you do this. [::gestures with hands::] You make a loop and record it – play some of the stuff on top, turn everything down, pure piano there – that’s how I play live. Sometimes I approach films like that and sometimes I just feel like I don’t need all of that. I’ll sit down with just pure piano. So in a way every project, every film is new, even with my own style. I try to get rid of my own attachment.


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Lion is out in theaters on November 25, 2016. Find out more at