Daniel Hart On Scoring Ain’t Them Bodies Saints

This year saw the release of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and along with a stellar cast the film brought a new voice to the business of film music in Daniel Hart. Though he has worked on music for film previously, Saints is his first soirée with a full feature and it’s a stunning achievement. Recently I took some time to talk with him about the work and how he achieved an incredibly unique expression utilizing instruments we all think we know.

Garrett Tiedemann: According to your Bandcamp page you play violin and sing. Was this the origin point for the score or was there more coming from the director regarding the arrangements, feel, etc?

Daniel Hart: “I play violin and I sing” is an old tagline. I should update it.

I still do both of those things, but that tagline has more to do with giving folks some insight into my work as a live performer than it does with my work as a composer for film.

I think the origin point for the Saints score was really Pioneer, David Lowery’s short film from 2011. When we worked on Pioneer together, we started to develop a musical language that fit with David’s visual and narrative aesthetics.

When David gave me the script for Saints in the summer of 2012, we sat down and talked about what kind of instrumentation he was hearing and what kind I was hearing and how we might approach the logistical side of scoring the film—when to start writing the music, what I would record at home and what I would need other folks to perform, where we would record those other folks, etc.

GT: How did you come to be attached to the project in the first place? It seems you are not new to film, but is this the first feature score you have done?

DH: Yep, first feature. I’ve done mostly short films for friends up to this point. I wrote about six minutes of music for David Lowery’s first feature, St. Nick, a few years ago, but I wasn’t really scoring the film. That was our first collaboration, however, and because of our work together there and our work on Pioneer, we both felt like Saints would be the right fit for another collaboration.

GT: Much of the work is based around core ideas of percussion and breathy instruments. How early did you know those to be the guiding principles and how did you know? Did you know? How hard was it to balance out the more ambient/atmospheric attributes with the percussive?

DH: When David and I talked about instrumentation for the film, he told he was interested in using banjo and mandolin. I told him I was hearing a small string ensemble, low brass, and some kind of metallic, buzzy, atmospheric drone. I don’t remember talking with him about percussion at that point. But one of the first scenes I scored was the montage in which Bob goes to prison and Ruth gives birth to their baby. And that scene ended up including all the instrumentation heard throughout the film—strings, brass, mandolin, cimbalom, droning banjo, and percussion. When I finished scoring that scene, I felt like I had discovered some important musical themes for the film, and the response from David and the rest of the production team was so positive that I used that piece, “Freddy’s Dead,” as a touchstone for the rest of the score.

GT: The predominant feeling I get from each track is violence. There is a certain cutting quality to much of the resonance which has to do with not only the instruments, but how they are performed and then mixed together. Is that how you saw the overall feel of the construction? Was the abstract idea of violence a guiding principle for you? (I realize the term is broad and that is where I am coming from with it rather than just the concrete idea of an act of violence.)

DH: I think of the film itself as a delicate balance between the softness of love and the hardness of desperation, and that desperation definitely takes a violent tone, both overtly and subtly, at points throughout the film. So I tried the treat the score in the same way, to echo those qualities represented in David’s overall aesthetic vision. While I never thought of violence as a guiding principle when I was writing or recording the score, I’m sure it was there, however subconsciously.

GT: Let us talk about the handclaps. It’s one of the really distinct ideas throughout the work. How did you come to use them for this and how did you work them with the music?

DH: The idea for the handclaps came from working on Pioneer. At the time, I was living in an old house in Dallas that had been divided up into four apartments. The walls were thin, so I had to be careful about how much noise I made if I was going to record anything at home.

One night, when I was working on Pioneer, I came to a scene which, to my ear, definitely needed a percussive element. I looked around and realized that the only percussion instrument I had in the apartment at the time was a drum kit. I thought that would be too loud for my neighbors, so I decided to try handclaps and kneeslaps, and any other corporal percussion I could imagine. It worked so well in Pioneer that, when I was recording the music for that prison/birth montage, I thought, “Why not try the handclaps again?” Everyone agreed that they fit the scene really well. So from that early point in the scoring process, I was looking for other scenes in which the handclaps would also work well, to help bridge the more disparate elements of the score.

GT: Much attention is paid to the body of the instruments, letting the natural resonances ring, sing apart from the notes, talk to one another through other methods of speech, which plays into the violent sound they carry. Can you talk a bit about this expression and how you came to it for the film? Did it develop from the production’s process or did you have a good idea of it going in?

DH: I’m not sure I understand this question. Can you elaborate?

GT: What I am trying to express is that the natural organics of the instrument (the body of the wood and metal, the strings vibrating after being plucked, etc.) are heavily present in the recordings. It seems equally important to capture not just the note(s) but the natural ambience of the instrument that comes with the playing. Would you say that is accurate? I’m wondering how you got there as a final aesthetic. It adds dramatic weight and feel to each piece.

DH: I wasn’t ever thinking in these terms—of specifically trying to let the acoustic instruments ring to add weight to the effect those instruments would have within the score. But it’s entirely possible that I’m doing it subconsciously.

My first instrument was the violin and I started it just shy of my third birthday. I think having played an acoustic instrument for such a large part of my life, I may always be looking for ways—however subconsciously—to let instruments ring, because that’s one of the main things I learned early on about how to achieve a good tone on my violin.

In terms of the droning banjo, however, its sole purpose is to ring and buzz and drone on and on, and in that case it was completely intentional, as I was mostly using the banjo drone in an attempt to create a slightly unsettling feeling, as if something constantly bubbling just beneath the surface could explode at any moment.

GT: Your sound walks a very fine line between homemade and big budget studio. What kind of space did you record in? Was it achieved mainly in recording or did you have to process a lot of the recordings to get them right?

DH: I recorded about 60% of the score at my home studio, which is very basic. That’s where all the banjo, mandolin, handclaps, guitar, and solo violins were recorded. We recorded the string section, brass, and drum kit at Curtis Heath’s home studio, which is a much more elaborate setup, with beautiful, vintage microphones. (Curtis wrote several of the songs which appear throughout Saints, including the Bluejay Lullaby, which Ruth sings to Sylvie to put her to sleep.) We mixed at Public Hi-Fi in Austin. So the recording process was a mixture of very simple home-recording and augmentation/refinement in bigger studios.

GT: “The Last Shootout” starts to bring in these varying abstract performances of horns and percussion that sound like they could be torn from the street just as easily as studio produced. Are they original to the record and how did they come to find this track?

DH: Yep, we recorded everything live for “The Last Shootout.” I recorded the handclaps and banjo drones first at home. Then we recorded Bobak Lotfipour playing the various layered drums at Curtis’ place. There were some specific parts and I gave him some direction, but most of what you hear was improvised. We brought in the brass section next and again, with some specific parts and some direction, I instructed them to improvise while watching the shootout scene from the film. We then did the same guided improvisation with the string section. I wanted the piece to feel as if it was caving in on itself in a frenzied manner and I felt like improvisation was the best way to capture that idea.

GT: You’ve captured an overall feeling here that is really distinct and unlike anything I’ve heard—having to do with the way you are manipulating language and performance. Is this the direction you’re heading in music or was this largely brought to you via the material of the film?

DH: I would never have considered using banjo and mandolin had David not requested it. And the handclaps are, so far, a musical theme which I’ve only used in David’s films. So I think this music is specific to the world of the film. I would want it to be that way—I believe a film score should reflect, respond to, uncover, augment, or underscore what’s happening on screen. My hope is that my work as a composer for film comes directly from the films on which I’m working. I hear music just about everywhere, but especially in language, and in what I see. So a film without any music in it has a lot of information for me about what kind of music it needs. My job is to find the puzzle pieces which fit with the pieces that are already in place.

GT: Where do you go from here with this music pushing you along?

DH: I’ve got some more film scoring to do this fall, as well as touring with my band, Dark Rooms. The plan is to keep doing both of those things.

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