We Create Music Blog
November 08, 2013

Film Music Friday: Kubilay Uner on Big Sur

By Kubilay Uner

Kubilay Uner

Kubilay Uner

I find that scoring a film is a lot like acting: while you always bring your own experiences, your taste and your sensibilities to every project, in the end it's the film that determines the music, not the composer. I expected this to be even more the case when writer-director Michael Polish asked me to continue the beautiful score started by Bryce and Aaron Dessner of The National. As Mike was writing the screenplay of Big Sur, based on Jack Kerouac's novel of the same name, he had been listening incessantly to The National's music. To him the band's dark, strong sound perfectly captured Kerouac's journey as he slowly approached the end of his rope.

In the end, the process of scoring a film where parts of the score were already written wasn't all that different from scoring a film that has been given a temp score ("temp score," or temporary score, refers to the very common practice of filmmakers laying pre-existing music into a film during editing, before the original score is written to replace it). Especially since we didn't use any of the existing musical material in the new cues. Of course, as opposed to working with regular temp scores, this one stayed in the picture and worked beautifully - so it was a pleasure to work around it. 

The National's sound determined my main instrumental palette - tube-amped electric guitars in the mid-to-low register; an upright piano, also played in the lower register; kicks and toms as main drums, with few snares and nary a cymbal; a few amorphous, warm analog synth tones; some distorted Hammond organ here and there. Kerouac in Big Sur is a broken man - he starts at the bottom and goes down from there - yet the music shouldn't make him appear soft or weak. He needed a voice that allowed his strength, wit and grace to shine through the deteriorating state of mind and body. This instrumentation lent itself very well to this task.

One thing I immediately noticed when reading Kerouac was the rhythm of his words. There is an unfiltered musicality to his writing - the sound of each word is as important as its meaning (to those who think they don't care for Kerouac's books, try reading them aloud). I wanted to be sure to represent Kerouac's own rhythms in the score, so before beginning work I listened to a number of recordings of him reading his own poetry. This ended up being completely unnecessary, since Jean-Marc Barr does an incredible job of capturing Kerouac's voice and cadence in the film's omnipresent voice-over. All I had to do was listen to that.

As another part of my preparations I created a few "musical projections" by placing one or two small musical ideas and colors into the context of the actual, natural sounds of Big Sur. Big Sur is the most stunning landscape I have ever personally visited, and over the years I had made a number of recordings of the environmental sounds there. The book is very descriptive of these environmental sounds, and they play an important role in Kerouac's mental descent. So I took these recordings - waves, wind, trees - and very sparsely "painted" one or two musical colors onto each: a voice morphing out of the surf, a few piano chords projected onto the sound of strong wind gusts, etc. These sketches were not meant to be used directly, but they served to give me a sense of "what could live in this environment." For instance, the electronic tones in the cue "Death and Water" are a direct result of these experiments.

I began the actual scoring process by writing the last cue, "Wash of Goodness," which plays under the last scene before the end credit crawl. I don't do this as a matter of course - in fact, more often than not I'll start writing the first cue and work more or less chronologically from there, allowing the score to "discover" the story like the audience does. But in Big Sur I felt there was a danger of getting dragged down with Jack's descent into madness, in a story that to me is as much one of redemption as it is of self-destruction. Jack's "sudden wash of goodness" at the end of the story brings him an unexpected, overwhelming and deep sense of peace. This last cue became the source for a substantial portion of the score, making sure that earlier, darker scenes are tied to this moment of light.

I did not really work in themes in the sense of "Here's the 'Jack's redemption' theme," "Here's the 'Jack and Billie love' theme," etc. Instead, the different musical materials represent different general states of motion (e.g. active, or peaceful, or leaden) and general emotional dispositions (e.g. content, or frightened, or melancholy). I mostly used these themes to tie together common threads: for instance, all of Jack's deep affections (for Neal Cassady and for Billie), or the various incarnations of his overbearing and ultimately self-destructive lust for life.

Film music is always just one part of an artistic whole, but in this film, with its strong images, ever-present voiceover and expressive natural sounds, this was even more the case. The production track (all sounds of the film minus the music - dialogue, voiceover, environmental sounds etc.) had to remain audible during the whole writing process, because even more than usual the music was but one "instrument" in the overall soundtrack. In fact, after all the preparations and experiments, creating music for this film felt very much like a being part of a live, improvised group performance. All the planning and thinking, even though it certainly informed everything I ended up doing, ultimately had to fall away again completely, allowing me to become merely one improviser in that quintet of actors' performances, voiceover, visuals, natural sounds and music. To close with Kerouac: "There's no need to say another word."

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Big Sur came out in limited release on November 1st, 2013. Find out more about it here.

Read some of Kubilay Uner's fascinating "kubisms" at kubilayuner.com.