All everywhere, all at once The composers Son Lux on their epic 49-track score [Interview]
How did some of the themes from the film influence the short melodic themes you created?
Batch : I think it was at the beginning of the work on this film that we found the themes, the melodic themes. Maybe there was a theme that came later, which was Jobu’s theme, which was the one that Rafiq wrote. For the most part, the melodic themes we found for the film were in response to the story, writ large. And for this reason, it seemed very natural to write melodies that were a bit naive and lent themselves well to something more tender and sweet. I think naive is actually a good word on the surface of these melodies. There is no complexity for them.
There’s a simplicity, a kind of plainsong aspect to it, and it also made our work a lot easier later on, because because we were playing these melodies in different lights, they didn’t have too much information leaning into one particular direction or the other, or too much shape or outline. They were simple enough to be transported to different universes and to be effective depending on context, orchestration and instrumentation.
Rafiq, how did Jobu’s theme evolve while you were working on it?
Bhatia: It was a really interesting process because when talking to the Daniels about it, as we were working on those scenes, they said, “We don’t want it to sound threatening or like regular villain music, and actually, we’re trying to see if we can convey that Jobu is almost like a cult leader, where there’s a “having all the answers” optimism, but there’s something really scary about it at the same time.” There was an instrument that’s used a lot in the score, it’s a guitar that I actually play with some processing on it that shifts it two octaves in pitch, and it has this portamento thing. turn on that big reverb. And so, I was in that area and one thing that’s good about this world is that that high dissonance reads differently, you know? And so, you can have things that are actually weirder and seem more coherent than they are.
While we were working on this, we brought in one of our collaborators who is also my fiancée now, Nina Moffitt. It’s an incredible singer and able to shape melodic ideas in such a way that even a sustained note can serve as a platform for him to create a complete timbre envelope. It’s almost like an instrumental approach to using the voice. She did these wordless voices on it that were scary, but they were childish at the same time. It straddled that line between Jobu’s character having an innocence and simplicity, but also an underlying weirdness.
When I spoke to the sound team, they said they react a lot to the rhythm of your score, the rise and fall of it. Is this how you imagined it from the beginning or how they interpreted it?
Chang: I think it was inherent in the film. Through the scoring task, it was sometimes difficult for us to get an overview of everything when we all go scene by scene and work that way. Well, I know Andrew is also scene by scene meticulously putting the sounds together, but in terms of the mix, Brent and Alex, I think they got to see a bigger arc and I think the story itself- even and the way we were kind of directed by the Daniels to mark it, gave it a natural ebb and flow because most of the time we’re working on it, we’re just like, ‘I hope this all reads when it will be washed together.”
I have to say, when we got to watch it a few times recently at some screenings, I was thrilled with how Unbridled Sound and the sound team really shaped it, in a very macro sense. There are so many moments in this movie where there are these crazy, like swells, you know what I mean? Where you see all the different universes flashing. There are, I don’t know, probably five or seven, eight moments like that in the movie. When we were working on it, we were just like, okay, this is another crazy swell, let’s do it. But then they really mixed it up in a way that I would say there are two that are real highs in the movie and the others aren’t as crazy.
It kind of gives the whole thing a shape which is something that, at least personally, I wasn’t necessarily very engaged in that thought process. Especially because we were preparing all the music just when we were in the mixing stage, because there was so much music to do.
Batch : There’s more music in the movie than there is on the soundtrack, which is insane because the soundtrack has 49 tracks.
Chang: There were a hundred signals or something like that.
Batch : There are hundreds of musical cues. There are just over a hundred musical markers and all but I think five of them are original musical markers. It’s the craziest thing. It’s like scoring at least three movies. I think it would have killed us if the movie wasn’t so beautifully nourishing as something that you basically have to continuously feed on. This process was grueling in a way, but it was also very nourishing, I think as a creative team, the three of us and remotely because we were all in different cities and it was COVID and everything. So, and then to be able to engage with the Daniels, at least once a week for hours to work on it and figure out what would become the score out of nothing. And learning so much in the process was a moment of inexplicable growth, I think for us, collectively and individually.
Chang: I can’t overstate how involved the Daniels were in the process, in terms of going through the clues week by week and giving us extremely insightful notes and talking about what you’re talking about to shape the art. They certainly contributed to that, that’s for sure. And not to mention that they also contributed directly to the music of the film in some respects, including Daniel Kwan.
You know the scene where they talk about the origins of the hot dog hand universe? You hear the music from “2001”, but played on the trumpet, really bad at that time. It is Daniel Kwan who plays the trumpet. Originally we were talking about maybe finding a kids orchestra to butcher the song and that would be perfect for this scene. But there was so much to figure out and troubleshoot that we never got there. We were like, “Wait, but Daniel, you played the trumpet, but you haven’t played in a long time. Would you still have access to a trumpet?” He totally went for it and created the perfect thing for this scene. It is therefore he who plays the trumpet on the score.