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From Music Editor to Oscar Winning Composer: The Surprising Story Behind the Music of ‘Gravity’

From Music Editor to Oscar Winning Composer: The Surprising Story Behind the Music of 'Gravity'

When Steven Price came on to “Gravity,” it was for a short two-week music editing gig; when he left, he’d spent a year on the project as the film’s composer.  At first, Price was brought on to help with an internal studio screening for Alfonso Cuarón’s technologically-stunning space epic and the two got to talking about how music could work in the film.  Two weeks became six weeks, and then Cuarón asked Price to write the score.

“When I spoke to Alfonso, it was clear that he was looking to do something different,” Price told me in a phone interview from London.  “He was looking to investigate how the music could work.” Price had already been experimenting with sound and score for the studio screening, and he “started making odd noises and stuff,” as he puts it, dreaming up a soundscape he could use for a film in which silence plays such a huge role.

As Cuarón instructs the audience at the beginning of “Gravity,” in space, “there is nothing to carry sound.”  The director was committed to that aesthetic choice from the beginning, Price says, having determined with sound designer and supervising sound editor Glenn Freemantle that the only sounds the audience would hear would be things like the vibration of a screwdriver traveling through the spacesuit of the film’s lead, Ryan Stone, played by Sandra Bullock.  Any other sound in the film would come from Price’s score.

A full year is a very long time to spend on a project for a composer, who under more traditional circumstances might spend only a few months working on a project.  The majority of the recording that made it in the final cut took place in the last five or six weeks, Price says, but the explorations that went into creating those sounds began much earlier.

“Everything started from a musical point,” Price told me.  “Then it would be how it was painted, almost.”  He worked the “old-fashioned way,” in his words, sitting at the piano or with his guitar and brainstorming melodic fragments.  Then he’d start to play around, electronically modifying the natural sounds and messing with speed and pitch.  Because Cuarón’s vision of the film demanded an immersive experience, Price said, “the music had to have a lot of elements that could come and go and evolve as you went depending on where Ryan was and where the camera was.”

Much praise has been and will be justly heaped on Cuarón and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera work in “Gravity”–the long, fluid takes in which the camera seems to acquire a personality and a sense of character as it moves around the actors.  Price says the cinematography was central to his composing process–and that he knew he could easily break the feeling of continuity and immersion that Cuarón was creating if he wasn’t careful.  

“I remember early on having a chat with the sound supervisor where he said it was like a ballet, the way the characters move,” Price recalls.  In some of the action sequences, he scored the film so that the music followed the characters around, literally.  In one scene, two astronauts go tumbling away from one another and the music follows around them in space–and, by extension, around the audience’s heads in the theater.  It was a recording challenge, but one that amplifies the score’s effect, taking it out of the realm of omniscient movie music and making it something present, tangible and defined.

Remarkably, “Gravity” is only Price’s third feature as a composer–he worked with Joe Cornish on his 2011 “Attack the Block” and Edgar Wright on “The World’s End,” which was released earlier this year.  Price always wanted to compose, but he fell into music editing and programming as a way to pay the bills.  Along the way, he realized he spent more time with directors as a music editor than he would have as a composer, soaking up the way they approached storytelling and the process of constructing a film.  “The great composers I worked with along the way, I always felt they were filmmakers more than composers,” Price told me.  “They would talk about the story rather than the music.”  

But as a relative newcomer, Price says he’s “still in the nervously paranoid state.”  When I ask him what’s next, he says he has a few other scoring jobs but goes on with a giggle to say he doesn’t like to mention them so that he doesn’t “curse them.”

“If it’s alright,” he says, “I’ll do my embarrassed shuffling bit.”

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