Every film is like a different planet with its own solar system. The only constant for me is after the film is completed -- I watch the emotions behind the actors' eyes. From there, I begin to find a score.
For The Tempest, Julie Taymor created quite a sparse and stark world on that black lava rock. Only when Ariel shows up do you see any signs of enchantment. Otherwise it is the human condition illuminated in the full glow of sun. There was nothing to hide behind.
In terms of scoring Shakespeare, the language may be slightly different, but the content remains contemporary for all times. In terms of the basic tenets of love and seduction, they haven't changed since The Tempest was written around 1610. Shakespeare has the human condition down pat. Nothing is as it seems for his characters who are always shrouded in deeper meanings. No one is just evil or good or funny -- there are many things at play for these personalities.
I first set out to find a mysterious set of sounds for the Islands. It's a very isolated place. Presumably there are only the survivors, demigods, nymphs, non-human entities, and weird sounds. You hear this on the tracks "Rough Magic," and "Alchemical Lightshow" -- a piece which stares into space and marvels at the celestial painting.
The score was wrought with challenges. The opening of the film, (the storm) which I call "Hell is Empty," was my biggest challenge. With the unrelenting wind, pelting rain, and torrents of Shakespearian dialogue, I decided to limit myself to mostly three-to-five notes and an abundance of musicians. For the guitars, I used a bunch of conventional guitars -- tuned unconventionally. This builds to a climax with Prospera's (Helen Mirren) voiceless primal scream, which I scored with multi-layered alto and tenor saxophones blaring multi-phonics over string orchestra.
For Ariel, we crafted a sound as light and airy as the name, and found an instrument invented by Ben Franklin -- the glass armonica, which sounds like champagne glasses played with fingertips. It was combined with acoustic flutes resonating through a 50,000-gallon steel storage tank, and a steel cello paired with a conventional one.
Initially, Julie wanted to omit Prospera's final speech as she felt it was more suited to the stage than the screen. She later changed her mind and came up with the idea of using the soliloquy as a song over the end titles. Given it was Shakespeare's last, and arguably one of his most important speeches, I locked myself in my apartment for four days and plowed through equal parts beer and doubt until "Prospera's Coda" emerged. I needed to find an appropriate artist, who, as in a relay race, could be handed the baton from the great Helen Mirren. Beth Gibbons of Portishead has a unique way of connecting dramatically with words, and ran with it beautifully.
One of the most joyous discoveries Julie made was when she noticed in Reeve Carney, "I believe we have a potential singer here." And she asked me to write a song for him, which would give more screen time (and credence) to the love story of Ferdinand and Miranda (Felicity Jones). I pulled a song called "O Mistress Mine" out of Twelfth Night and added it to the score.
In the other play, it's lascivious -- an older guy coming on to a younger girl. In this case, they are both young lovers, so the lyrics sound (and feel) completely different when sung by a young person.
I had a very specific concept for this and Reeve is an amazingly talented, lyrical singer -- very pure, very beautiful. The Tempest marks Reeve's Shakespearean and (really his general) acting debut. Ferdinand is a very difficult role -- the language is very challenging. And when you put songs in a movie, they have to be composed before they are shot. Then it is the actor's, in this case Reeve's job, to make it work dramatically. He's doing that in a major way with Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. He takes your breath away with those gorgeous songs Bono and Edge wrote.
Shakespeare tends to mix meter when there are lyrics. His songs are much simpler, with fewer analogies and thoughts than in his verse. When he writes lyrics, he understands the music behind it. It's less complicated.
For an actor, the thing about Shakespeare lyrics (and his verse too, really) is they feel good in the mouth. As a composer, I take a few liberties. The technique, melisma, where you take one vowel and stretch it into a few notes, helps immensely. You hear it a lot in rock and roll. John Lennon used this technique all the time. (And did it really well for that matter.)
Sometimes purists are turned off by accompanying anything Shakespeare wrote with any kind of arrangement, forgetting, of course, that in his time, his songs often featured a lute -- so our guitars are really not that far off.
I am fortunate to have wonderful musicians like Page Hamilton, Benjamin Curtis, Mark Stewart, and the late, great T-Bone Wolk -- these guys go back with me fifteen years so we're almost like a band. It's a wonderful collection of musicians who understand how each of us works really well.
We had an idea to take the song "O Mistress Mine" out of context from The Tempest, and make a video out of it. The one aspect that remained was the idea of water. In this case, the water is somewhere between tears and rain, as a misty sadness purveys the whole piece. Reeve is blessed with a face you can watch for hours and hours. He doesn't have to do too much. See for yourself:
Along with my terrific DP, Pablo Berron, I shot this with Reeve and two pools of water against a black void. It is a composite of a high definition camera on a dolly, an 8-millimeter hand-held and an 8-millimeter B&W. I cut back and forth with the 8-millimeter images to create the graininess. Bright lights shined right into the lens to create the flashes of light you see here and there. I also used a nano lens for the super-close ups of his face, the guitar strings and his forearm. I was going for an uneven sparkle, "a flame in slow motion" kind of effect.
In the 19th Century, the score was a complete document. We've since progressed in technology. There is no more fine-tuned document than an actual audio reproduction. However, years of working with labels and studios have seen my scores altered with mixes I didn't create or didn't approve. Sometimes the whole piece didn't play through, and I had to endure my share of bad pop music along with my score on the same album. Sometimes I went through the process of mixing an album, which they didn't bother to put out. Many scores went out of print. Fans ask me about them to this day.
So I created a new label, Zarathustra Music, to ensure my fans get exactly what I intend. All the decisions and mixes are what I intended, for better or worse -- so forty years from now, you'll know what I meant. It also allows me to build an experience beyond the score with videos and create projects like this. The Tempest score is our first release.
When I was writing "Prospera's Coda," I was reminded with his words "Let your indulgences set me free" that Shakespeare exited the stage never to write another play. For me, it's nice to think of every work as potentially your last, and it's a good idea to make the most of it.