You’re forgiven if the name Darren Baker does not ring a bell. Last month saw the official release of his first feature film score The Conspiracy via Screamworks Records and it’s incredible. (You can find the soundtrack on iTunes.) Perfect for fans of John Carpenter, David Lynch, Wendy Carlos, and Tangerine Dream (as he mentions below), out of the gate Darren has created something ultimately unique and wondrous for the current age of cinema scoring. Rarely are treatments such as these made available, and the truth that it’s his first outing makes its existence even more exciting. He’s just getting started and with a beginning like this the future is very bright. I spoke with Darren recently about his life and work within the wonderland that can be film scoring.
[W]hen you watch something without music, there’s this feeling sometimes that the music is already there, languishing just under the surface, and you can almost
Garrett Tiedemann: Can you share a bit of your musical background? How did you become a composer?
Darren Baker: I’ve always had this fixation on film score. I don’t know where it came from, though I don’t suppose anyone knows where any fixation comes from. When I was young, James Horner’s scores were the first that I actually noticed as a separate entity from the film itself. I used to tune the television to First Choice/Superchannel (Canada’s answer to HBO) and sit there with a cassette recorder, taping whatever grabbed me at the time. I remember wearing out the tapes of Jaws IV, Star Trek V, Krull, The Secret of Nimh, “MacGyver,” “Airwolf”…everything and anything that really caught my fancy. I never, ever considered it a possibility that I’d one day be sitting down and actually composing music, let alone the music for a movie. That’s just one of those things that someone else with better education and a grasp of music theory does… isn’t it? But over the years, my fascination with making sounds and music evolved, and it became an achievable goal; then someone took a chance on me, and here we are.
GT: Being your first feature film score I am sure many are curious how the project came to be and how you got involved. Can you share a bit of the project’s history and process?
DB: Aaron Poole (actor and producer of The Conspiracy) and I have known each other for twenty years, since we met on the playground in public school. He knew I was looking for something to do with a film—if not an entire score, then maybe just a song contribution. We talked about me maybe doing something for his film Small Town Murder Songs, possibly in connection with the great band Bruce Peninsula (who ultimately wound up contributing the entire soundtrack), but that never panned out. Then a few months later, he approached me with a screenplay for what became The Conspiracy, and told me there was some interest in having me do the score. I guess he’d played some of my music for the writer/director Chris MacBride and he loved it. I was offered the composer role, and away we went into the unknown.
It’s hard for me to say what my ‘process’ is, since it was my first time out, but I’ll give you an example of how one track came about:
Filming took place in April of 2011, and along came this ritual scene they were shooting over a couple of nights. Chris asked me to provide a track to be played live during filming, to heighten the atmosphere of the shoot. This was months before I expected any hard work, so I was a bit unprepared. I’d sent a few tracks his way to get his feel for the style he wanted, but this was something that would be in the final product, and needed to be thrown together ASAP. I did a bunch of stuff based on “Spem in Alium” by Thomas Tallis, and it just wasn’t working, so I sat down and gave it some thought; this was music that would be played by an antediluvian cult. I researched things like ancient instruments and ancient melodies, and I’ll be forever grateful I did that because I discovered something called the “Song of Seikilos”; it’s the world’s oldest surviving notated song, written by a man named Seikilos over 2,000 years ago on the death of his wife—it’s one of the most hauntingly romantic things I’ve ever heard, and one day I’ll use it somewhere—but I digress. It’s around that time I found a video of someone playing a reproduction of a pair of silver Mesopotamian flutes, and when I heard that, I knew I had something. They had this sound that just hit me in the gut—it’s two flutes that operate on constructive and destructive interference, with a very enticing harmonic resonance thing happening. And that was the basis for my ritual track, which became “Threnody for Mithras”.
As for a general process, it usually went like this: I’d already watched the film a few times through, and when you watch something without music, there’s this feeling sometimes that the music is already there, languishing just under the surface, and you can almost hear it. Those are the scenes I have no problem with. I just put fingers to keyboard and the notes get recorded. Those are what I like to call “the good times.” Then there are “the other times,” where you have no earthly idea what in the hell you’re going to do, and you can’t hear note one in your head. Those are the times you have to just sit down and experiment until something—anything—catches you.
GT: From the opening track onward there is allusion to many of the most respected Hollywood scores of ’70s/’80s action and horror cinema. Especially to the likes of John Carpenter. Was this something you brought to the table or was it asked of you?
DB: The great thing about working with Chris is that he’s very keen on having as little direct influence as possible. He gives a very brief description of what needs to happen emotionally, or what he wants sonically, then urges you to experiment. It was probably a far more liberal first-time experience for me than I’m sure most film composers are used to. So as a result of that, I feel that the score is ‘mine’, and not something that just sounds different enough from the temp track that I can’t be sued. This allowed me to just filter everything through my weird brain, and let it all coalesce into a combination of things I love—John Carpenter and ’80s synth scores being chief among those. Wendy Carlos and Tangerine Dream are also big influences on my music.
Speaking of those types of scores, if you love old Carpenter stuff, you should really, really check out “Drokk: Music inspired by Mega-City One,” by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury. It was made with all kinds of period instruments, and as I understand it, it functions as a rejected score for the great Dredd that came out last year. The theatrical release had a fine score, but “Drokk” is just plain ballsy.
GT: The score has a heavy presence to it. How much collaboration did you have with the film’s sound team and did your score often work primarily in place of sound fx or with?
DB: The presence came from my desire to have something that actually has a life of its own, not just something that underscores what’s already obvious on the screen. If nothing else, you’ll never mistake my score for a different one… I hope. That was a tough mix to figure out, and I give all the credit for that to Nelson Ferreira and his team. He was just a great, funny guy to work with, and it would be a true pleasure to be able work with him again on something else. His team were a group of absolute witches when it came to mixing, and standing on that mixing stage at Deluxe Toronto watching them work it out, hearing my music over those massive speakers has to this point been one of the great joys of my life.
GT: Percussion is a prominent attribute to the work. Would you say this to be your primary starting point for composition?
DB: Absolutely. My first thought is almost always to get the track out of 4/4, and to find something that has a bit more life to it. That’s not to say that 4/4 doesn’t have a place—it does—I just like starting off from an odd foot, and the beat usually comes from there. When I’m doing a scene, however, I usually let the scene tell me what kind of piece it’s going to be: rhythmic, melodic, textural, etc., but for the most part, I always start with the percussion. Sometimes it even winds up being the scaffold you use to build the cue, but you remove at the last stroke because it’s no longer necessary.
GT: The track “To A Million Places (Terrance)” is built around a beautiful piano piece. Can you talk about this piece a bit and how it formed amidst the synthesized sound and dramatic ambient textures?
DB: That was the track that I think landed me the job, actually. It was done back in ’07, and I really couldn’t tell you where it came from. Probably just sitting there pecking at the piano keys when I found a nice chord progression, as usual. It’s one of the songs I’m most proud of ever having done, and I really have no memory of doing it. But it found its way into the film because Chris loved it so much. I re-recorded it and altered it to fit the timing of the scene, and it came out very well indeed.
GT: Were there any particular composers or sound artists you looked to for inspiration while composing? Roque Baños uses a similar warning siren sound for the recent Evil Dead remake like you use for the track “Vanity and Complacency,” which I assume was not on your mind, but maybe you two were drawing from some similar wells.
DB: You assume correctly. I’d actually finished scoring The Conspiracy months before they even started shooting on Evil Dead. Though I must say I wish I’d had Baños’ score to crib from—it’s amazing. He is an absolute genius, using what I think was an old police siren in some amazing cues. That score is epic, and I love it, and I hope he gets lots and lots of work out of it. The composers who were in my head at the time, which would have been late 2011, were Trent Reznor, David Lynch, and Daft Punk. Reznor, because of The Social Network, Lynch because of his album “The Air is on Fire,” and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (both big favourites of the director), and Daft Punk because of Tron: Legacy, which I think is one of the best scores of the past decade. All of those definitely helped me birth The Conspiracy‘s score.
GT: Static sounds (record static, airy backgrounds) are prevalent throughout the score. How did you find yourself using them?
DB: When I needed something unnerving, but not simply a drone. Drones lose their effectiveness over time, so I needed something actively frustrating to add tension to the mix, and I think the static works very well in this regard.
GT: Have you found this work leading to new projects? Are those similar stylistically or are you shifting and evolving your sound heavily?
DB: I have a couple of exciting things on the horizon, things that are still in the nascent stages, and a beginning is a very delicate time so I can’t really talk about them for fear of jinxing or fouling them up. An adaptation of The Conspiracy written by Scott Z. Burns did just get picked up as a “put” pilot for NBC, which is quite exciting. Maybe they need a composer…