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Interview with Michael Yezerski: ‘The Little Death’ Composer

Interview with Michael Yezerski: ‘The Little Death’ Composer

Poster for the The Little Death, screening at TIFF 2014Michael Yezerski is an award-winning Australian composer who wrote the score for The Little Death, which is having its North American debut at TIFF 2014. The film is part of the Discovery programming and will be screening on Sept. 7th and Sept. 14th. Kate Kulzick had the opportunity to speak at length with Yezerski about his score for The Little Death (below) and his approach to composition (available here).

Kate Kulzick: It’s got to be very exciting to have one of your films opening at TIFF this weekend.

Michael Yezerski: We’re so excited about it. I’m really, really proud of this film… I’m just thrilled we get to share it with North American audiences finally.

KK: For those unaware, The Little Death is a look at the lives of five couples in suburban Sydney… and the potential sexual dysfunctions or just various explorations of their relationships… I think it’s some really fantastic scoring, at least the bit I was able to hear. I’m curious how that informed your approach. Did you want to go for a different sound for each of the different couples, or really embrace the universal theme of these different perspectives?

MY: That’s what was so interesting about the story, because it’s set in suburban Sydney and so, you know, it’s the suburbs… These are ordinary people with ordinary lives and they’re just trying to deal with basic desire. But what that actually sort of comes down to is communication and love, and timeless themes that every relationship has to deal with. And so what the director Josh Lawson and I sat down and discussed was how can we create a score that sort of enhances the story but at the same time creates a sense of timelessness, because these are universal themes. Love is universal, companionship is universal, and the need for communication. So the fact that the story deals with, I wouldn’t say sexual dysfunction, but the fact that the story deals with sort of sexual quirks or sexual desire or hidden desires… it’s actually beside the point, because the true heart of the story is relationships and love. … What we wanted to create is the music of love, and particularly as we as a film audience know it. So the film touches on romantic, sweeping score of Old Hollywood, and then it jumps to kind of ‘80s love ballads, and then a bit of jazz and sort of seduction music. It sort of tips its hat in quite a few different directions, but all kind of with a sort of tongue in cheek nod to the music of love.

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KK: I think that’s really apparent even just in the clips- for those interested, they can go to your website and hear excerpts from the score that are very lovely. When you talk about the universal elements to scoring in regards to love, I mean you really can’t go wrong with the cello. It’s just—go back to Saint-Saëns, and much earlier than that. There’s a richness to the cello that just works so well when you’re trying to convey that kind of emotion, and I noticed that is a consistent thread throughout much of the scoring, and also I was hearing a lot of harp… Did you want to connect those to particular characters or just really have that as a through-line to all of the pieces?

MY: It’s actually really interesting that you picked up on the cello, because that was one of the things that Josh Lawson said to me when we first sat down. He was like, “I love the cello.” It is, to him, an instrument of love. It’s rich, it’s sonorous, but it also has this kind of aching, kind of yearning quality, and it can also be quite whimsical and fun. So for example, the opening of the film starts with these kind of staccato notes that create [a] sense of oddness… It’s a cello, but it’s playing something sparse and open and maybe makes you feel a little bit uncomfortable before the rest of the orchestra kind of chimes in and sweeps you up into that love theme. So that was the reason why we were attracted to the cello. It’s such a versatile instrument, but also, obviously, echoes what we were trying to achieve in the score. And similarly with the harp. I mean, the harp is that timeless instrument of love… What comes to mind is sort of couples being serenaded by people on harps and all those images… The choices were very deliberate.

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KK: That was one of the fun things for me … ‘Cause that first track does have those pizzicato strings [functioning as percussion] while you have that cello line, and so to see that be reflected in the harp and then continue through different tracks; I really liked the use of percussion… I’m a big fan of the song “Sing, Sing, Sing,” so the [jazzy] percussion element that comes in in a few places reminded me of that, but then to have that also reflected in different, I don’t know the right term for it… like mouth sounds or pops. I’m curious- how do you compose for that? What do you write when you want to have those kind of clicking sounds?

MY: Again, Josh said to me very early on…, “What would it be like if the score was made up of just sounds of the human body?” This is a film about the human body and the desires of the human body, and so we decided to just try a few things. Not all of them worked. But certainly, body sort of percussion, clicks and pops and things like that. They were pretty simple rhythmic ideas to incorporate into the score and I think that the sounds of them are quite recognizable so when you hear them, whether or not you’re listening to the score, whether it’s just subconscious, you do get a sense, hopefully, that the score is connected to the human body. In terms of writing for it… a lot of it was just sampled in studios and we got different people to come in and make different sounds, so we had the sounds and… the tracks were kind of constructed from there. I sort of put down a bed of these rhythm tracks created out of clicks and pops and taps and all sounds made with the human body and then, on top of that, I wrote strings… brought the emotion on top of the quirkier elements.

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KK: Yeah, it works well to combine that Old Hollywood orchestral feel with something a little less expected. When you get that different kind of percussive sound, and then to combine it with—I want to say I was hearing glass harmonium? Or just some other, more [traditional] percussion instruments, seems like that would be pretty fun.

MY: That’s right. I mean, I’m a huge fan—and I try to do it in my own work—of production in itself and trying to create a soundtrack that does combine the old and the new… Certainly there’s lots of film scores that do that and it’s something that I am always very interested in and always try to emulate in my own work, is just that old world meets new world [approach], sound worlds that maybe people haven’t thought of connecting before that I try to connect. Obviously the film has to permit it, and I was lucky enough on this film that it did.

KK: I’m curious with some of these tracks how specific you were trying to quote or to draw the audience’s subconscious connections ‘cause obviously, “A Bit of Cancer,” (laughs)— It’s called “A Bit of Cancer” and yet “Beautiful Dreamer” is quoted in there… “Funeral” has what I was calling the “Sing Sing Sing” percussion, maybe you wouldn’t expect that… But then, in “Dacryphilia” I was getting a bit of an “I’ve Got You Babe” vibe from that rhythm, but I don’t know if that’s just my associations, or if that—with “Sing Sing Sing” or “I’ve Got You Babe”—if that’s an intentional reference that you’re making.

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MY: “Dacryphilia” was the track where I was talking about this kind of ‘80s kind of love ballad you know, with a little bit of ‘60s kind of thrown in. It’s that classic 6/8 feel… which is sorta from the ‘60s, but then I add this kind of ripping saxophone solo, which is straight out of the ‘80s… That scene, I can’t give it away, but it’s a very, very funny moment that happens during that scene, during that particular cue, and it felt entirely appropriate to reference music that was, let’s say, a little bit cheesy…  “Beautiful Dreamer” is a song that is … actually connected to one of the characters’ story, and so again, it felt appropriate to reference that in the track, “A Little Bit of Cancer”… “A Bit of Cancer” is interesting in itself as a cue, because it’s a tango… another dance of love. The opening track, “Paul & Maeve” is a waltz. We’ve had, again, the sort of love ‘80s love ballad over the top saxophone solo, we have tangos, just sort of little musical in-jokes for those that would like to notice.

KK: We have that waltz, we have the tango, we have a track specifically called “Rumba!”, are different types of dances… related to specific couples or is it more, again, tying into this universal theme of love and for a lot of people, dance goes with that?

MY: Exactly right… There’s not dancing per se in the film, but as I said, I sort of think of every relationship as a dance, and here you’ve got five relationships, so initially, we sort of started out that maybe the concept is we have five different dances. And of course that was a little too neat… It’s funny, cause it’s never ever gonna work out quite the way you would like. I always find when you start composing a film that you have all these high concept, beautiful ideas that never quite work out the way you plan, just because, you know, the film changes, the edit changes, the story changes and a film score ultimately serves the story, and so the most important thing at every point is to serve the drama where it can, to say a little bit, but not say too much. I always try and have the score say what’s actually not on the screen in the performances and I think in this case, there was so much on the screen. The performances are incredible, the comic timing’s incredible, the writing’s incredible. Josh’s script is one of the best I’ve ever read, I mean—it was laugh out loud funny. So I sort of thought that the music overall had to be pretty delicate… so that it didn’t intrude, it didn’t step on the jokes, but also it didn’t manipulate you as an audience member, so you didn’t feel like you were being taken for a ride. These things are actually very important to Josh as well. So, yeah, it’s interesting… In terms of the dances, they’re there, they’re buried in the score… we can talk about them, but as I said, hopefully when you watch the film, you’re just kind of taken for a ride.

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KK: There are those simpler moments, those quieter moments, and especially in film scoring—you’re also an orchestral composer, or larger work compose—silence, I feel like, is so key, such an important element of scoring, especially depending on your different kind of films. You contributed music to [the] Transformers [series]: I imagine there’s less silence in Transformers 4… But in tracks like “Evie Don’t Go” or “Thinner Than Me”, the space between the notes seemed very evocative… How do you balance those?

MY: Again, you’re absolutely right. I think silence is as important as music in a film, if you’re a composer, and especially in a film like this. Because again, the performances are strong and it does take you on a journey. And it’s not all laughs, you know, there is human drama in this story, that’s what makes this film so special. There is… you feel very strongly for these people, and so I think it would have been a terrible mistake to just, in this film, score it wall to wall. And again, it comes back to the script, because Josh’s dialogue is so on point, that you need space. We found that we needed space in the music to allow the dialogue to come through, so that in a sense the dialogue is the solo instrument and the score is the accompaniment, in the way that you would see a violinist and piano perform together. But I’m really glad you picked up on the silences and sort of the space between the notes because that was something that we really were trying to achieve with this score.

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KK: I had a quick specific question, because I was trying to figure out [some instrumentation]… In “Penitentiary”, that’s—[it] feels like it’s electric guitar, but what’s accompanying? Is that harp? Is that acoustic guitar? What is accompanying the electric guitar?

MY: Yeah, it’s—well God, It’s a whole bunch of things in that particular cue. Again, I like kind of found instruments, you know… when you have an acoustic guitar, but you don’t play it in a traditional way—let’s say you bow it with a cello bow, for example ,or you hit the wood to create a percussion instrument and things like that. So that track is actually made up of guitars, completely, but played in very, very unusual ways.

KK: That would explain it, I couldn’t quite place it… It sounds really cool, but I [couldn’t] quite figure it out, and that’s always fun for me. The last track-specific question: I just wanted to mention “TBR” because I haven’t been able to see the film yet, but that just feels like that’s got to be an action scene.

MY: (laughs)

KK: It just really, it seems fun. You get hand claps coming in and then there’s the snare drum and the cymbal. It really stood out to me amongst such a generally calm, or then more sort of upbeat, fun, jazzy kind of feel. So was that particularly different—I assume it’s a different kind of moment, it’s there to support the action in the film—but was that a different specific approach you wanted to take for that moment?

MY: Look, I think it’s… That scene… it is an action scene. Again I can’t give it away by talking about it—but one of the couples’ stories required quite a different feeling from the rest of the film and we tried to raise the stakes a little bit, but at the same time, trying to keep the original intention of the score, which was, particularly in the percussion sense, of sounds made with the human body or played by humans rather than, let’s say, programmed on a computer. So obviously all the drums are live, there’s human body sounds, there’s hand clapping, there’s a thumb piano in there, it’s a whole bunch of sort of human percussion and junk percussion and a couple of drums to just try and—it’s an action cue, but not hopefully in the traditional sense.

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KK: Well, it’s certainly very evocative, all of the scoring that I’ve been able to hear from the film. I look forward to getting to catch up with the film, The Little Death.

Kate Kulzick: Do you have a particular philosophy [you] bring to your scoring, in general, because I know for some people it’s very much about support… If the audience remembers the score, to some people that means the score was too obtrusive and for other people, if they don’t remember the score then the composer… maybe wasn’t doing the right thing. I know that there’s different schools of thought on that. I’m curious what you think.

Michael Yezerski: My general philosophy with scoring is that I try to bring something to the music that isn’t on the screen already in the film. So, for example, if the performances are telling you something and the cinematography is telling you something, the script is telling you something, why would the score then reiterate that? I always try to sort of look at the footage and go, well… what isn’t on the screen? For example in The Little Death, let’s say it was a sense of nostalgia and some sort of sly references to the music of love that we talked about. But generally speaking, my philosophy only extends so far as try not to be redundant in your storytelling. In terms of whether or not you remember the score, I sort of think that that’s film specific. In some films you’re going to remember the score, in other films you’re not, and I think that’s more a function of the filmmaking than the composing. I think of a score like Fargo, you know, and it was a very delicate, beautiful score, not obtrusive in any way, and yet that melody has always stuck in my head—I’m talking about the movie, not the series, which I haven’t seen—

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KK: It’s very good—excellent scoring there too.

MY: Yes, I’ve heard that (laughs). Whereas there are other films and television shows that I’ve worked on where the music is upfront, but it’s a necessary function of the storytelling that you’re trying, that the music sort of becomes a character in the film. So, I tend to be pretty open-minded about the role that music will perform on each film that I work on. I think coming in with preconceived notions [that] the music can’t be obtrusive, or it needs to be obtrusive, or we need to stay in people’s heads, I think that can be unhelpful to the entire process, and especially to the collaborative process, because I think as a composer you’re there to serve the needs of the film, the desires of the director and the producer, and I think you always need to be amenable to those wishes.

KK: Film and television are such absolutely collaborative processes, I imagine it’s got to be a very different experience, putting together a score as compared to your concert works, where you don’t have a director to give you their perspective, and you’re not beholden to editing and you’re not beholden to sound effects. Do you prefer one or the other, or do they just use different muscles?

MY: I would say different muscles, exactly. The thing about concert writing is that obviously it’s a much lonelier process. It’s you and you’re inside your head and you are the director, and the editor as well. You’re battling your own, I don’t want to say demons, but your own inner editor—let’s say that—to create a work that is compelling and, let’s say, thorough in its scope. And so it’s a completely different challenge. I think with a film you are telling a story, whereas on stage the idea of a story is much more abstract… You’re telling a musical story, but it’s not narrative in a sense. You could describe it in a number of ways, but narrative wouldn’t be one of them. I find that I get, not bored, but I love to try—I love to keep myself on my toes by doing different things all the time. So I love going from a film to a concert work, to a television show, back to a concert work, to another film, to a concert work ‘cause I just, I find it makes me a better composer in every single field.

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KK: I read a little about your experience composing, and read that you went into scoring after going to film school, that that’s when you decided to go fully into scoring. Is that accurate?

MY: Well it’s funny, because I hadn’t considered it… When I was younger, my dad actually had said to me, “Hey you should really think about film scoring ‘cause I think you’d be really good at that,” but then I sort of put that in the back of my mind. I had just started playing instruments in the school band and school orchestras and I was having fun with that, and I did eventually obviously start writing and started writing classical works, and obviously I studied a formal classical composition degree, but when I was looking around after that classical composition degree for something to do next, I decided to try a course in film scoring at the Australian Film, Television, and Radio School and I got there and I met a whole bunch of people who were exactly like me, and that was pretty much it. (laughs) You know, it was like, I get these people, they get me, hang on—this is kind of working. It was as much a social decision as it was a professional one.

KK: Are there particular challenges you look forward to exploring? You’ve mentioned obviously concert works and film and television. Is there something else that you’re interested in exploring, or are those keeping you busy enough right now?

MY: Yeah, at the moment I’m pretty slammed with all of that, which is great—that’s just how I like it. I’m not someone who’s a fan of being idle creatively… For example, I’ve just finished a true crime drama in Australia which will be on later in the year, and that’s, again, a totally different direction musically, and as I said, it’s about a series of true crime, so it’s not in the sort of comedy drama area like The Little Death is—

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KK: You’re not gonna bring in the soaring cellos? (laughs)

MY: Yeah, not so much. But yeah, for me, I don’t like to be tied down too much to one particular genre in film, which is also why I love then jumping over to concert writing, because you get to explore a language that’s all its own… I touched upon it before, that you’re not telling a particular story, you’re telling many stories, in a way. But so, in terms of what I’m doing next, I have a concert work that I’m writing and you know, a couple more film and TV projects coming up this summer.

KK: My last question, and I know often those who work in film and in television, the hours… they’re so crazy long a lot of people involved in film and television don’t get a chance to actually watch much of it. But I wanted to ask if there was any film or TV [series] you had particularly enjoyed recently and if there are any scores we should check out that maybe we haven’t paid enough attention to.

MY: Ah, right—that’s… that’s a great question, I… (laughs) I actually am one of those people who doesn’t get to see a lot of film and television, at least not recently, and so I haven’t been able to recommend much. The score that I have to say has impressed me the most of recent times is The Grand Budapest Hotel, which I just adored. I’m a huge fan of Alexandre Desplat and I just think that particular score is a standout work for him, and I love the use of the balalaika orchestra they seem to have imported from Russia.

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KK: That kind of specificity can go a long way. I’m a big fan of Alexandre Desplat as well, so great choice! Thank you for your time, and for speaking with me about The Little Death, and good luck at Toronto!

MY: Thank you so much!