“The Attic Door” Part 2 – The Power of Silence

Early in the “The Attic Door” scoring process director Danny Daneau expressed the importance of making the score silent. As a composer this can be quite challenging as it’s easy to be carried away to where the music naturally takes you. But that is one of the things that makes the definition of good film music and good concert music different. How good the film music is depends on how well it goes with picture. It is only a part of the total expression and therefore needs to take a more humble role. There are of course times when the music can take a bigger part and in some cases even play the lead role, but more often than not I feel that music that takes a more supportive role is more effective.

That was very much the case in the score for “The Attic Door”. It was an exercise in restraining myself and stripping back unnecessary elements. There are cues in the score that have 15 seconds of rest. It is funny though how you feel that when you get hired as a composer you should deliver the best possible music with beautiful themes and colorful layers because that makes it more interesting to listen to. Having 15 seconds of rest felt like I was cheating. But Danny kept reminding me that less was more, and he was right. In the end the minimalist music was the right choice for this particular movie. It’s an intimate, quiet film with multiple emotional layers. Piling on with musical layers would have overwhelmed the picture. It was a bold choice, but I think the right one. And as for the long rests – not having the music come back where you expect it can create an unnerving atmosphere. It can make the audience squirm uncomfortably at the tip of their seat. That was the effect we were going for to reflect the situation of the children left alone in this vast, beautiful, but terrifyingly lonely landscape of the Utah desert.

In addition to the long rests I had the string players play eerie harmonics and use mutes to create quiet dynamics. I also wrote open intervals to create space and emptiness in the score which went well with the haunting cinematography. I also explored the contrasts in extreme dynamic changes. By holding back dynamically in most parts of the film, the loud and scary moments became even more powerful because of the contrast to the silence.

Having spent so much time on beforehand reflecting over what we wished to achieve with the music allowed me to do the actual scoring relatively fast. I received the final cut of the film 4 weeks before the scoring session, which meant I had 4 weeks to compose, prepare for the scoring session, record and mix about 30 minutes of music. If I hadn’t spent time on beforehand that would have been very challenging. What also helped was having a very productive communication with Danny as well as a talented team to help out. As I finished first drafts of the different cues I sent them to Danny who gave feedback so that I knew whether I was going in the right direction or not. In the past I had made the mistake of writing the entire first draft of the score to a movie before sending it to the director. I learned then that that was not a good idea as you risk wasting a lot of time. So with Danny we kept a constant dialogue about the music which was really helpful. I still like to get through a first pass of the entire score before starting on changes as I find that to be less messy. But I do that with the feedback from the director in mind.

I also hired a copyist, contractor, conductor and mixing engineer to be able to spend most of my time worrying about the actual writing. I like to have people conduct my music as I find it easier to hear when I’m in the booth. It’s funny how you go partially deaf when you’re conducting. You get so caught up in the technicalities of conducting that you forget to listen. So I prefer just listening in order to better utilize the time. We had 4 hours to record 30 minutes of music which meant there was no time to waste. Again – having amazing players made that possible.

Amazing cellist Armen Ksadjikian at the recording session

Amazing cellist Armen Ksadjikian at the recording session