We Create Music Blog
January 01, 2014

Film Music Friday: Composers of Sundance-Winning Films

The Sundance Film Festival continues to attract some of the greatest films from around the world. And of course, many of them are scored by ASCAP members. We asked the composers behind three of this year's award-winning Sundance films to explain what made scoring them unique.

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Nathan Halpern - Rich Hill (US Grand Jury Prize, Documentary)

Creating the score for Rich Hill was a joyous labor of love, a uniquely intimate collaboration with my directors (Andrew Droz Palermo and Tracy Droz Tragos), editor (Jim Hession) and sound designer/mixer (Pete Horner). Rich Hill tells the story of three teenage boys in the tiny rust belt town of Rich Hill, MO - Andrew, Appachey and Harley - who, along with their families, struggle to survive in the face of cyclical poverty and dysfunction.

We agreed that musical score must eschew any reductive "Americana" clichés (guitar, banjo, etc). Rather, it should be ambient and meditative, inviting the audience to engage with the humanity of our characters. Tracy often describes the film as an "invitation to empathy," and the music would help to bring out the universal aspects of our characters' lives: childhood innocence, loneliness, love, and the quest for transcendence. To create this abstract, expressionist sound palette, I employed a melange of bowed strings (performed by Robert Pycior), electronics, odd sampled sounds evocative of onscreen elements (i.e. pitched ice and glass), and a touch of piano.

I wanted the score to highlight the characters' resilience, their hope in the face of seeming hopelessness, and the fragile bonds of familial love that persist beneath the bleakness. To do this I invested the underlying chords and melodies with a hymnal quality, evocative of the sacred and the eternal. We had the privilege of an early collaboration with our brilliant sound designer/mixer Pete Horner at Skywalker Sound. Before I'd even begun composing, we screened the film with Pete, devising an overarching vision for the way the film would sound, and planning a dynamic relationship between sound design and score. Some of my favorite sonic moments in the film come when the score and sound design blur together to create a new sound entirely.

I believe in this film with all of my heart, and count myself lucky to have collaborated with such open-hearted, talented people to help tell the story of our brave and beautiful subjects.

Nathan Halpern on the web: www.copticonmusic.com

Rich Hill on the web: www.richhillfilm.com

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David Schommer – Difret (World Cinema Audience Award, Dramatic)

Working on Difret was special to me because of my personal connection to Ethiopia. My father lived there from 1950-58 and I have traveled there six times myself. I met Zeresenay, the director, in Addis Ababa in 2005, when I was scoring the International Documentary Association-winning documentary, A Walk to Beautiful. When he told me the story of the script, I was immediately invested in a personal way, wanting to help him tell this amazing story.

It was a unique experience work-wise, because I asked the amazingly talented cellist and composer, Dave Eggar, to compose the score with me as a team. His cello performances on the score have an emotional life of their own, and pairing up was the perfect fit. We had done so many album and commercial projects together; we had already established our creative flow. Pairing up allowed me to bring my knowledge of Ethiopian music and focus on the music's authenticity, and Dave to stay focused on thematic development. Together, we contributed 90% of the musical performances that make up the score. It was a perfect match up, and one I hope we'll get the opportunity to explore more in the future.

David Schommer at IMDB: www.imdb.com/name/nm2164275

Difret on the web: difret.com

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Pablo Vergara – To Kill a Man (World Cinema Grand Jury Prize, Dramatic)

Working with Alejandro Fernández Almendras, a real visionary director, was a thrilling and challenging experience. Fernández Almendras is a young filmmaker working in the minimalist tradition of Kiarostami, Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Bilge Ceylan. His movies are works of quiet and subtle storytelling. Therefore he tends to avoid music: An overbearing film score can be redundant like an unnecessary voiceover, destroying the “illusion of reality” that the director is after.

Fernández Almendras is also a musician of ample culture. Therefore he had very precise stylistic instructions regarding the kind of music he needed. Thus the challenge was twofold. On one hand, to create a score that would enhance the film without becoming a character in it. We wanted music to be felt more than heard. On the other hand, to be up to the stylistic challenge and to write something of enough substance to justify its inclusion in such a great film.

I am extremely proud of having played a part – however small – in creating the complex and layered film that To Kill a Man is. I am also happy to have worked alongside director/writer Fernández Almendras and a team of extremely talented young Chilean artists that includes cinematographer Inti Briones and Eduardo Villalobos’s production team.

Pablo Vergara at ASCAP's Sundance Composer Spotlight: 
http://bit.ly/1loMVgJ

To Kill a Man on the web: http://bit.ly/1loNmI3

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Click here to get to know the ASCAP composers at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival 

Nathan Halpern

Nathan Halpern

David Schommer

David Schommer

Pablo Vergara

Pablo Vergara