Through screens, across borders

One prominent composer in the Los Angeles film scene, Peter Lam, has developed a proficiency in the ability to connect musically with the rapidly changing face of film-making. It is a medium that, in today’s world, with the rise of the internet as a distribution platform for film and digital media technology, knows no borders.

The film composer’s task is not simple: he or she has to make a contribution to the film that draws out additional emotive information from the film’s story and its characters, and engage in dialogue with the totality of the screen’s image. The music created must be in total coherence with the director’s medium (the story), and transform the perceived realness beyond the surface of the video.

The responsibility involved is more than just creating music that evokes what is on screen, but being decisive about where the music should be, and, perhaps more importantly, where music should not be.

But the point I want to make is that the level of musical sophistication is also necessitated by breadth of styles. In other words, all of the above must adhere to underlying expectations of different cultures’ musical languages. Fluency in the skill of being able to evoke a meaningful musical sound that suits the site of the film’s supposed location demands another dimension of artistic musical sensibility from a film composer: the composer must transcend borders with the film.

All signs point to the composer’s role, after a decade of revolutionary developments in film-making technologies, not getting easy, but getting harder. I want to explore some of the implications of Lam’s work in light of this. He was happy to answer my questions as well.

The Armenian short film, Hopeless (2016), marks the centenary of the Armenian genocide. We meet two sisters as they struggle through the Armenian hills, one of whom is heavily wounded and unable to walk. Lam’s ethereal, mystical score sweeps through the scenery as though kindred with the endless battle of wind, capturing the beautiful, open expanse of the hills, which through twisted forces of evil become a maze of death. The vignette of the sisters is made numb and distant by Lam’s score: a static, drone prepares the wounded sister’s death.

Lam’s music takes as its focus the absolute horror of the timeless purgatory to which the under-recognised history of the Armenian genocide has been consigned (by the Turkish state’s century-long denial of its occurrence), repositioning the viewer’s consciousness beyond the personal tragedy of the film’s two main characters to the inexplicably evil events that we do not see–that history does not see. The result is deeply disturbing.

OG: Your projects do not seem to be limited by national borders and demonstrate an authoritative competence in dealing with radically different types of music–how important is it for a film composer to maintain engagement in types of composition outside film scoring purposes?

PL: Yes! I am very lucky to have worked on a wide range of projects with interesting stories across time and space. The endless musical possibilities offered I guess, is one of the most satisfying aspects of our craft. I think it’s important to expose oneself to music outside the scoring world. It’s inspiring to discover new perspectives ‘outside the box’. I felt it is often a more organic process to create my own take on, and to transform ‘objective’ music inspirations to suit the unique needs of a project, rather than, say, to solely reference dramatic narrative music—which often already embeds and reflects the original composer’s way of story-telling.

OG: Have you worked on any projects where you have not met the director in person?

PL: Absolutely, communication is always the key though—it’s always about understanding the story they want to tell.

The Macedonian short film, Feral (2015), tells the story of the son of a farmer hoping to escape the peasant way of life by competing against his classmates to win a scholarship to a new school. But when in the final scene the boy (spoiler alert) gains the scholarship, his crush is not happy for him. Lam tricks the ear to thinking that the cold, longing Turkish oud riffs and ney melody is there to serve the snowy landscape of Macedonian mountains, when it is actually a musical pun on the coldness of said crush’s response to the boy trading love for social mobility.

The Ballerina, Her Shoemaker and His Apprentice (2016) takes us to 1930s London, where a young man trains to become a ballet shoemaker. After developing an irrational infatuation with one dancer, the boy crafts her a pair of shoes only to find that she has been injured and may never dance again. In one scene Lam’s knowledge of European romanticism is put to the test, where his task in one scene is to come up with a convincing diegetic ballet opening. But this European style that necessary to create the delicate beauty of ballet is also used to describe the young man’s delicate, youthful imagination, infatuation and passion that is so cruelly crushed by fate at the film’s end.

(Though it cannot be embedded here,  you can find The Ballerina, Her Shoemaker and His Apprentice on this website.)

OG: How much has your time in the European musical scene impacted on your film scoring work since moving to the US?

PL: Having spent the most important years of my musical training in the UK, I would say the impact is pretty profound. It’s not only about the musical language, but on a conceptual / aesthetic level it influences my thinking and approach to film scoring a lot. I always start a project by searching for the soul (in musical terms) of the story, just like how the romanticists strive for an expressive voice in their art. While the modernist side in me often reminds me to push for a cutting edge and to look for unique perspectives during the creative process.

In one of his latest projects, (le) Rebound, which is currently making the rounds at film festivals around the globe (you can find it at Palm Springs in June), Lam perfectly characterises the mismatched social interplay between a down-to-earth young American woman’s meeting with the aura of a young French man’s passion, articulating with music the essence of that which would be totally lost on language.

If you can’t make it to Palm Springs, you’ll have to wait for its online release. It may seem disappointing that the film is not instantly available for the purposes of this blog, but that disappointment is itself an indication of the ways in which we have come to rely on new platforms of film distribution.

OG: Where does the film composer fit in to a world of free online film platforms?

PL: The rise of the internet and new media is definitely a game changer. It provides much more opportunities for composers to showcase their music, and to appeal to a wider audience. Different forms of media (shorts / web-series etc.) provide different challenges and opportunities to experiment as well.

Keeping up with global film-making, communicating with geographically distant film-makers to understand the stories their films tell, certainly seems to be one of these challenges.

I said earlier that all signs point to these opportunities making the composer’s task harder; if so, Lam’s redefining industry standard.

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