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BSS 2012: the sound of music

Presenting on the final afternoon of the Big Screen Symposium and for his first time in New Zealand, APRA Ambassador and composer Christopher Gordon drew on his score for the 2008 film Mao’s Last Dancer to illustrate the function of music in film and some of the challenges that go hand in hand with getting it right.

Gordon reckoned no matter the style of the music, one could always tell when a piece has been written for a film. “Tone and aesthetic I find is a really important thing with every different film.”

Working on Mao’s Last Dancer, Gordon explained he had to customise his approach in accordance with the film’s requirements. When composing music for any film, Gordon said a composer must first think through its narrative structure. He uses tools like spread sheets, charts and mind maps to get a feeling for what the film and its characters require in terms of musical representation.

With Mao’s Last Dancer’s central focus on Lee, a ballet dancer in Communist China, the film already had clear musical cues for scenes involving things like dance classes and recitals.

Gordon felt that made it impractical for Lee to have his own musical theme, as is the case in classic films such as Lawrence Of Arabia. “I broke it down into the different things that make up Lee as a character. Sometimes just one note played by one instrument can be right for the part”.

When the film depicts Lee with his mentor, Gordon says in order to get a “sense of the deep Chinese culture” he employed just one sound from the erhu, a traditional Chinese string instrument.

“As well as relating it to the story, the sound can relate back to the character.” Later in the film, as Lee comes of age, Gordon used all of the instruments at his disposal to illustrate the growth of the main character. “I brought all of the threads together so we have a compact musical representation of all things that make up the character.”

Set against the historical backdrop of late 20th century Communist China, Gordon used music to enhance the viewers perception of how history had unfolded.

“The later part of the film was set when relations between China and the West were thawing. In the script I had to write a piece before they shot it so the actors could dance to it. It was like a jazzy West Side Story, trying to convey culture shock, bringing this Western music into China. The dancers had to change their style and had difficulty with the beat and I used this to inspire the piece I wrote. It was was very difficult to conduct as the beat was so awkward – the aim was to get a sense of culture shock with the change from the classical revolutionary ballet style to the more modern form coming out of Broadway at the time (1980s)”.

Gordon explained that dealing with the film’s love interest had presented another challenge. “You must acknowledge the love story part and you usually come up with a theme for it, but in this film there were three woman (involved with Lee), so it seemed weird to write one theme for the three woman, and yet to write a different theme for each one was a dog’s breakfast … The way i did it was to treat the same theme differently for each woman”.

Broadening the session beyond Mao’s Last Dancer, Gordon spoke about other composers whose work he enjoyed. He namechecked John Williams whose 134 scores encompass most things Star Wars and a good selection of Steven Speilberg’s films going back to Jaws and including The Adventures of Tintin. He also noted the less familiar Carter Burwell, more for his work with the Coen Brothers than on the Twilight franchise.

Asked about breaking into the business, Gordon gave the musician’s variation on putting yourself out there: “Send out tapes.”

Gordon also has on his resume the scores for Master and Commander, on which Weta did a good chunk of work, and Aussie vampire flick Daybreakers featuring fellow BSS speaker Sam Neill.

In closing, Gordon invited those interested to look at his YouTube channel, which includes clips of musicians recording some of the pieces for Mao’s Last Dancer.

– Angus Jowitt

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