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How Composer Alex Ebert Tuned Into ‘A Most Violent Year,’ J.C. Chandor, “Celestial Archaeology”

How Composer Alex Ebert Tuned Into 'A Most Violent Year,' J.C. Chandor, "Celestial Archaeology"

Alex Ebert, who’s the frontman of an indie folkband called Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, won a surprise Golden Globe in January for scoring “All Is Lost,” taking to the stage with his messily coiffed head of hair, and smoothly diffident demeanor. “All Is Lost” was his first collaboration with director J.C. Chandor, who tasked him once again to score his followup “A Most Violent Year,” an elegant crime drama starring Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain as a pair of modern-day oil tycoons who, in 1981, must defend their empire against rapidly shifting social currents.

Ebert’s moody, subtle, seething and ominous arrangements (which you can stream here) include original song “America For Me,” which uses avant instrumentation, along with more classical and period-driven textures, to deliver a dark, pulsing ode to the American dream.

This is your second collaboration with J.C. Chandor, since “All Is Lost,” which is also a great score. What is this relationship like?

It’s nice to hear you say that. Just hearing those words “This is your second movie with JC” is a cool thing. It’s a special thing to be able to collaborate with other artists ongoing, and a language starts to develop between you, and trust. He was very into giving me plenty of rope to begin with for “All Is Lost” as well. I can throw a bunch of spaghetti on the wall and see what direction he wants to go in, and we can argue a little bit and make our cases and eventually he wins most of them. It’s often a process of distillation. We start with a lot and get down to the essentials.

READ MORE: Why AFI Opener “A Most Violent Year” Isn’t an Oscar Contender

How did you two actually become acquainted?

He listened to some of my music with my band and my solo work before doing “All Is Lost.” He was looking for a composer, and a guy who later became my agent, Amos Newman, suggested he listen to a few non-composer musicians, and I was among the ones he gave JC. We met and hit it off.

Did you see “A Most Violent Year” without a score, or did you see a script? What was your first encounter with the film?

I read the script. As with “All Is Lost” as well, in a sense, the script doesn’t speak the movie. He has the movie in his mind. I didn’t realize in the script, where it’s not terribly apparent, that it’s really a character study. I’m glad that it turned out to be that way. When I saw the first cut was when it all hit me, and I got it.

Is that the point at which you started scoring, or were you cooking up ideas while he was shooting?

I probably started before I saw it. I had a fantasy that it could be almost like a jazz score; after seeing it, it started to come together. I realized that this character Abel’s ambition was such a one-way street, so focused that I really wanted us to feel like we were within the bubble of his own focus, within that tunnel vision, and to create a general mood of a trance. He really is in a trance the whole movie and singularly focused.

What instruments are you working with here? I recognize the classical instruments, but there are a lot of electronic textures.

I didn’t shy away from synth. It was 1981, a transitional period for everybody in the world including musicians, with synths being introduced far earlier but still really stepping into complete prominence in the ’80s. And angst during that era, and violence as the title suggests, and Cold War, and hyperbolic capitalism, all of those factors came into play.

What were you listening to while you were writing?

In a sense, this band called Suicide came to mind. I didn’t get to incorporate much of that stuff until I did the song “America For Me.” For that I used a damaged beat machine and some blips and whatnot. That sort of spiky tone that keeps coming up is actually a 2-pop, which you hear at the beginning and end of a movie before it is finished. I sampled that and let it fly. I wasn’t actively listening to anything, I was just conjuring mental music notes as far as thinking of “Miami Vice,” and that era of “Scarface,” of moviemaking and culture and life.

That’s exactly what I thought of too. Where do you compose?

I did most of it at home. The writing, almost entirely at home in New Orleans, and then some of the recording here, and in LA, and in Bulgaria.

Are you mostly working solo or do you have a crew of musicians working with you?

It’s mostly solo and then I worked with an orchestrator named Brian Byrne, but everything else was solo.

Do you prefer working alone?

It depends on the temperament of who’s in the room. Writing is a process of either liquescent, flowing inspiration, or it’s a process of hacking through chords, and that second part of the process can be really tiresome on the ears, especially if you’re not the one doing the hacking. Just finding your way, which I call “celestial archaeology.” It’s like digging. You’re constantly digging. Is this a thing? No, that’s not a thing. Is that gold? No, that’s just limestone, and you just keep going. In that sense it’s nice, solitary work.

And how long were you working on the film from beginning to end?

Loosely speaking, about six months. The real stuff probably two months.

You’ve said that scoring the film has changed your outlook on writing on music. Can you unpack that?

It opens up something that I think is important with music, which is, where does this piece of music want to go? Where does it want to be? In the case of a pop song, you know pretty much where it needs to go every time. The formula is tried and true. And there are reasons for it. People need to memorize choruses and be able to sing them, and verses and choruses and verses and choruses. And you can break that form. It goes without saying that a score has to do whatever it needs to do and then get the hell out. It’s got a real economy of purpose that lends itself to sometimes a greater purity of the piece itself.

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