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The Keys to Music and Sound Design from the Sundance Lab

The Keys to Music and Sound Design from the Sundance Lab

It was personally life altering not in its initiation into film scoring, but in the attention and consideration paid to micro-details. The breakdown of the art and craft of writing music for picture, down to its elemental particles, opened new creative doors.

Artfully designed in two acts by Sundance Institute Film Music Program Director, composer Peter Golub, Manager, Jarom Rowland, and Michelle Satter, Director of the Feature Film Program, the lab is an opportunity for composers, sound designers and directors to collaborate and explore innovative approaches to the sonic life/DNA/drama of a film.

We were in residence at Skywalker Sound, with rooms teeming with sound designers, composers, tech wizards, mixers, engineers, audiophiles, directors, picture editors, producers. Machines whirring, faders rising, microphones converting sound waves, musicians tuning, the building was buzzing with activity.

In the first week, six Composer Fellows score scenes from completed movies, guided by the films’ original composers. 

Alan Silvestri on Gore Verbinski’s “Mousehunt” (sibling inheritors outsmarted by a clever mouse), Harry Gregson-Williams on Ben Affleck’s “Gone Baby Gone” (Police searching for an abducted girl), Alex Wurman on Steve Conrad’s “The Promotion” (feuding grocery store workers vying for the coveted position). Each movie presented a unique opportunity for music and its relationship with dramatic unfolding. 

The six composers – myself, Josh Moshier, Katy Jarzebowski, Ryan Cohan, KT Tunstall, and Timo Chen – tackled each scene. The summation was a wonderfully strange theme and variations – short films with multiple scores and approaches, all with astounding validity and a musical smorgasbord for discussion. For instance, consecutively watching (hearing) Morgan Freeman be arrested for kidnapping back to back with six distinct musical approaches brought me closer to the dynamic rhythm of the scene. How one composer underlined a glance, and another, the signaling of a police car entering the frame, this collection of approaches oddly led my ears away from a narrow clasp on a singular musical solution, towards a more thorough survey of drama.

In the second week, the composers were assigned collaborations with directors and sound designers. Filmmaker Fellows Gabriela Amaral Almeida, Nikole Beckwith, Oorlagh George, Daniel Kwan, Jordana Spiro, and Chloe Zhao all brought their uniquely imaginative projects. The radical sound designers Christopher Barnett, Kent Sparling, Jen Ralston, Pete Horner, Douglas Murray, and Mac Smith joined us. In tripartite teams, director-composer-sound designer, we set off. By our side were the distinguished composers James Newton Howard and Blake Neely.

I had the great opportunity to collaborate with Nikole Beckwith on her film Stockholm, Pennsylvania, joined by sound designer Pete Horner. Our collaboration was exhilarating. I have never merged forces so thoroughly and conceptually with a sound designer and director. A scene in a bus inspired a discussion about the tonality of the engine’s hum. Should this thrum play with or against the score? We searched for the answer as the protagonist silently grappled with her own identity. Pete (brilliant sound artist of Youth Without Youth, Hemingway & Gellhorn, and beyond) brought to the table everything from the anxiety of a psychological beehive, to the freedom of a starry night, pairing my strings with his echolocation. Nikole guided us through the nuanced turns of each moment, each backstory, each glimpse, each beat. 

I love the internet. I really do. It is an endless portal into things unknown, people to discover, sounds unheard. But when it comes to collaboration, there is something wonderful and sparky that happens in person. At the Lab we had the distinct pleasure of all working in the same physical space. I could run down the hall to Pete’s mix room and mess with the relationship of a musical delay with street noise. We were able to get into the place where music and sound live side by side, interweaving, intermingling, at times purposely grating against each other, at times, one sound nested in the other. Nikole was always present, with ears, mind and words on hand to articulate every turn’s reveal. This kind of meticulous, linked work was stunning.

As the future of filmmaking, we have the opportunity to blow the roof off of sound. I think that in film production, music and sound, dived by the numerous logistical realities, need to creep closer together. The language of film music is inextricably tied to the language of a film’s sound world. As I am ending a phrase, hearing the sonic weight of the footsteps that lead us to the next emotional beat defines how the music works. I call attention to the footsteps by taking out the rhythmic bass and music and sound mesh. 

The indelible Walter Murch, in masterclass, explored the origins of our relationship with sound and picture: A baby associating moving lips with sound, and subsequently “discovering” sync. The deep sea shrimp who can see colors beyond the spectrum visible to the human eye. Listening to Beethoven’s 9th from the point of view of only one octave. Murch exploded our minds through his existential musings on our own human relationships with sound and image. He ruminated on his work on “The Godfather,” and his superimposition of the rise and fall of a passing subway train as score for Michael’s anxiety in deciding to take out Sollozzo and McCluskey. It felt like Murch was handing us a secret decoder ring. Every idea held a universe of possibility. After his presentation, the eminent Doreen Ringer-Ross, BMI VP of Film/TV Relations, echoed Murch’s observation that the human heart does not beat in steady time…it is arrhythmic and full of constant surprise and variation…it is this that makes us human. 
I am a greater explorer of this art form from my experience at the lab. I am a deeper listener and drama scout. I am more open than ever to the psychological dialogue between sounds that we call design and sounds that we call music. More finely tuned to the details, I make stronger and bolder sonic landscapes. The Lab was a deep artistic gift and one for which I am intensely grateful.  
Composer Nora Kroll-Rosenbaum leads a diverse musical life. Her scores have appeared at Sundance, Tribeca, IDFA, and Telluride. A Juilliard grad with commissions from the London Symphony Chorus, San Francisco Symphony, Seattle Symphony, & Cabrillo Festival, Nora’s music for “Regarding Susan Sontag” will play on HBO this fall.

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