THE FIDDLER FROM EMPORIA: A Talk With Composer Daniel Hart

Wandering through the house...whispering not to wake us, the ghostly couple seek their joy. —Virginia Woolf, A HAUNTED HOUSE

After seeing David Lowery’s A Ghost Story and while still under the spell of its score, I was eager to speak with composer Daniel Hart (who also scored Lowery’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints), about how he finds the right path for music in these deeply personal and transcendently beautiful films. I reached him while on tour in Europe with his band, Dark Rooms.

AH: First of all, Daniel, thanks for taking the time in the midst of the tour. How’s the band being received over there so far? My guess is that Europe doesn’t need any translation for the kind of music you make.

DH: That’s a very kind assumption to make, Andy. Since the trailer for A Ghost Story was released, we’ve seen a huge leap in exposure everywhere the film has come out. To that end, we had an amazing time in London a couple weeks ago. We’ve never played London before and there were over 200 folks in a packed room, singing along with our songs. We weren’t expecting that, but so many people came up to us after the show explaining that they had discovered us through A Ghost Story. Our show in Rotterdam last night felt similar, in that I actually did a Q&A at a movie theater in town after a screening of the film, before our show. And then a lot of folks who were at the theater came over to the concert afterwards. Conversely, in Italy, the film hasn’t been released yet, and most places we played, no one knew who we were. Some folks were still very appreciative, but other places, we were background music at best. That is, of course, the way of touring at this level we’re at - some shows are real victories in every way. Other shows, the victory is in still putting on the best show you can, while learning something from a lesson in humility.

AH: I should mention, for those who haven't seen the film, that Dark Rooms supplied A Ghost Story with its own “Unchained Melody,” the song “I Get Overwhelmed.” It’s embodied in the story because Casey Affleck’s character is a songwriter, and it has a central role. Tell me about how it came to be. Was the song scripted or was it a happy accident?

DH: At the beginning of 2016, David was directing Pete’s Dragon for Disney, and I was in Dallas working on the second Dark Rooms album. We had tried to get me on as the composer when David started Pete’s Dragon in 2014, but Disney felt like I wasn’t ready yet (based on some audition pieces I had turned in). So they hired Howard Shore to score it, and I went off and worked on other things. When it didn’t end up working out with Howard as the composer, David once again asked Disney to consider me. So I flew out to LA in January of last year on a couple day’s notice and began another round of auditions. Consequently I had to drop everything else I was working on, including the Dark Rooms album, because Pete’s Dragon was all-consuming. When I was hired as the composer for the film a few weeks later, I shared “I Get Overwhelmed” with David, for no other reason than that I thought he would like the song, and it was one of the few songs we had finished for the new album before I had left for LA. A few days later, he asked me if he could include the song in A Ghost Story, for which he was still writing the script at the time. I said “of course,” not really knowing the context, not knowing what kind of role it would play in the film, or even that one of the main characters would be a touring musician/songwriter. When I eventually started working on music for the film, I used the song as the springboard for the rest of the score, because it felt so married to the story. I was surprised by how well the song fit, given that it wasn’t written for the film. That’s the genius of David Lowery for you, I suppose.

AH: One more question about the song, because it’s so important. I called in my teenaged son, who’s a big fan of Pet Sounds, and had him put the headphones on just like Rooney Mara does. I said, “You think nobody makes music like Brian Wilson anymore?” I also hear glimmers of Sigur Ros and even 10cc on the album. Do any of those resonate?

DH: I would consider any comparison to Pet Sounds the highest form of praise I could receive as a musician, so I thank you for that. I think lyrically I’m always striving for the kind of vulnerability and honesty I hear on that album, I didn’t have it in mind specifically when I was writing this song, but I think it’s always in the back of my mind. Melodically I was thinking mostly of Sylvan Esso, because I really admire Amelia’s ability to walk that line between playfulness and seriousness in her phrasing and her delivery. Production-wise, I’ve been influenced most in the past five years by Arca, Jai Paul, and Caribou. I think “I Get Overwhelmed” is another of my attempts to take what I’ve learned from everything I love about the music they make and translate it through the synapses of my own brain. 

AH: There seems to be a hopeful trend of composers functioning as genuine collaborators—in ways that touch on story points, character, sound design—as opposed to hired guns who come into the picture almost as an afterthought. I’m thinking also of folks like David Wingo and Mica Levi. Is your relationship with David such that he “invites you in” and you feel a part of the whole experience of making the film?

DH: This has been my experience with David since we worked on his short film Pioneer in 2010. I get to be a part of the process early on, and I feel an intimate connection to the films he’s making. I’ve been the hired gun who comes in right at the end of the process on other films over the past few years. And sometimes that works out well, sometimes it doesn’t. If I can find something in the film that really resonates with me, then I think I can do good work, even if it’s last-minute work. David and I share an aesthetic for storytelling which means that basically everything about his films resonate with me, and so when I’m watching them for the first time, musical ideas immediately start showing up in my head (instrumentation, tempos, melodies...). And I feel like I understand what David is communicating with his films, which makes it that much easier to help communicate that same message musically. Incidentally, David Wingo and I went to high school together, and “Under The Skin” is one of my favorite film scores of the last 20 years. I think about it a lot.

AH: Before we get into some nuts and bolts things, is there a way you can summarize David’s general direction to you about the role music should play in A Ghost Story? For example, did he want the music to be coming from a particular point of view or perspective? And how did he want it to make the audience feel?

DH: We don’t talk much about how he wants the audience to feel. I don’t remember talking about it on this film. Maybe he can correct me if I’m forgetting? I think if we hadn’t been working together for as long as we have now, some of these things you’re asking about would have needed discussion, and I would have had questions related to perspective, or I would have made incorrect assumptions, and then we would have chatted about it. He gave me a few pieces of music to listen to at the beginning of the process (some Arvo Pärt choral music, a Broken Social Scene song, “Alejandro’s Song” from Sicario), but the main thing we discussed as a reference was John Carpenter scores from the 70s/80s, like ‘Escape from New York’. I did write some music in that style at the beginning of the process, but we decided early on that it was too scary for what was actually happening onscreen, so most of it was left behind.

AH: John That would've been another direction! Were you left pretty much alone to compose, or did you all, say, rent a cabin for a few weeks, load in the gear, and work through it together?

DH: I wrote and recorded 70% of the score for A Ghost Story at my home studio in Dallas in December of 2016 (I moved to LA in February of 2017). We were completely left to our own devices when making this film, and the whole process consisted of me sending music to David and him giving me feedback on it. Once all the music was approved, I spent a day at Redwood studio in Denton tracking a small string section and a couple of singers on a few pieces. I had the Danish soprano Katinka Vindelev sing the solo on “Viventes Enim,” for which she recorded herself in Copenhagen. I should also note that the brilliant John Congleton contributed music on several tracks in the score, all of which he made in his own home studio, using modular synthesizers. It shows up most notably in the piece “Sciunt Se Esse Mortui,” where his voice is the most prominent thing happening. But then he created several other sounds which were used in the film, living somewhere between score and sound design.

AH: The credits list one violin (I’m assuming that’s you), two violas, three cellos, a guitar, synth, and vocalists. You got a lot from that ensemble. Were these mostly players you’d worked with on other projects, and mostly local? You’ve toured with a lot of great bands, including St. Vincent, so I’m figuring you can call in some seasoned players.

DH: The string section were all folks I’ve used on various projects over the years, folks I love working with, based in/around Dallas. Several of the string players who recorded parts for A Ghost Story also recorded the strings for “I Get Overwhelmed” and the rest of the Dark Rooms album. I did record a lot of violin, viola and cello for the score at home, but there are some things that can only be achieved through having multiple players playing together in a nice room. The vocalists - Katinka in Copenhagen, and then Kenton and Catherine in Dallas - were all part of the choral music I wrote for Season One of Fox’s The Exorcist last year. The piece “Viventes Enim,” on which they all sing, is very much inspired by a piece I had to write for The Exorcist.

AH: A Ghost Story opens in a wondrous way. Intimate and cosmic at once. We won’t know until much later why the goose pimples are there, but they are, and much of that's due to the score. The strings sound as if they were recorded in an abbey, and have the quality of Renaissance instruments - like the viol da gamba or the viola d’amore. The voicings are a little exotic. Then there’s what I’ll just call a chordal statement, four bars, that serves essentially as the score’s main theme. It’s deeply haunting. Tell me how you came up with this, and how it satisfied the director’s brief.

DH: The first score the audience hears in the film comes from “I Get Overwhelmed.” I took various elements from the song - the strings, the guitar, the synths - and ran them through PaulStretch, a freeware program designed to slow audio way, way down. I made these long, languid soundscapes with it (one of its primary uses) and brought them into the score at various places. They begin and end the film, a choice I made both for continuity, and to reflect the circular nature of time present in A Ghost Story. After that, the harmonic string harmonies you’ve referenced come in. I wrote the piece in this way, starting with the soundscape from “I Get Overwhelmed,” and then asking myself, “Where do I go next?” I made use of Pärt’s tintinnabuli technique to develop this next theme. Beyond that, I don’t know where the theme came from, except from the film itself. Usually the picture tells me most everything I need to know about what kind of music I need to write. This piece, “Little Notes,” is essentially unchanged from my first draft of it, which almost never happens. So whatever it was that David and I were looking for the music to do in this scene, we found it without much trouble.

AH: You mention the circular nature of time in the story. There seems to be something else, too. Are you and the director saying something about time and what it really means to die? Does it go that deep?

DH: I can’t speak for David, but if I'm saying any of those things through my music, it's mostly by chance, and I’m always learning as I go. When I started with the soundscape from “I Get Overwhelmed,” I didn’t know I was also going to end with it. But I got to the last piece of music in the film and, while I was composing it, the idea popped into my head. If I try to think in terms this big - making a comment on time, life, or death - I will fail. I have tried in the past, and I have failed every time. Instead, I just try to be as honest as I can in representing musically what I see happening onscreen. If I focus on the story, then hopefully whatever themes are being touched upon in that story will come out, and the score will help them do so.

AH: I intend to steal that last sentence for my next book! Anyhow, as you develop this idea, moving toward its climax, a very cool thing happens. There’s an ascending run up from the third of the C-major chord (E) going almost chromatically through nine tones to the octave, with each pitch harmonized by a different, and unexpected, chord. Some of them are “chromatic mediants” or other mix chords, but I have to say, I haven’t heard anything quite like it in a film score.

DH: I started playing violin when I was three. My parents are both professional (now retired) musicians. My first violin teacher was the most encouraging teacher I can possibly imagine having. Growing up, I played in youth orchestras with some of the best young classical musicians in Dallas. At university, I played in a band with a music professor who had us covering Bob Wills, The Beach Boys, Oingo Boingo, jazz standards, Irish reels, and playing originals. I’ve lead a very privileged life, with enough free time and money to watch films I love over and over again, giving me a chance to pick apart their scores. I’ve basically been given more tools and opportunities to learn about, perform, analyze, and compose music than just about anyone else I know. I’m forever grateful for this. Like the other music in this film, “Little Notes” is just me taking all of those influences and experiences, and then picking which tool from this lifetime toolbox to use for this specific scene. I didn’t think too much about the chord structure as I was writing this piece. I just followed the melody where it was going, and then went back and filled in other parts that felt right with that melody.

AH: The cue that I’ve labeled “I don’t think they’re coming,” which occurs at about 01:08:04 and continues through C’s dive, uses a mode with a major third and a flat sixth and seventh that feels almost like Middle Eastern maqam. It’s very powerful. Was this a conscious choice? And if so, what motivated it?

DH: This piece is called “Thesaurus Tuus,” with text taken from the Virginia Woolf short story “A Haunted House,” which is referenced throughout the film. If I remember correctly, I was following the melody here, as well, when I wrote the piece. The melody came into my head while I was watching the scene. When I finished the first iteration of it, I remember listening back and thinking, “Oh, that feels much more ‘Within You Without You/Tomorrow Never Knows’ than I had intended.” But I followed through on the idea anyway, and filled in the instrumentation with half a dozen synthesizers and lyrics in Latin to balance out those aspects of the composition. I’ve never studied maqams, but I did spend time in India, studying the sarangi. If there’s anything non-Western happening in my music, it’s often a bastardization of something I learned or heard in Indian classical music and/or Bollywood films.

AH: Before we turn for a minute to the score for Saints, I want to ask you about a snippet I read in your bio, because I’m fascinated by how really early influences—even in infancy—can shape a composer’s voice and his musical predilections. You were born in Emporia, Kansas—as heartland as a boy can be. Your parents were church musicians, and I assume you were often there with them at services. I can’t help but hear the influence of the hymnal in both Ghost and Saints, and even of old Shaker songs. Is this an influence you consciously try to work with, or is it just in your blood?

DH: I spent a lot of time at church as a kid. I sang in my mom’s choir, I played the violin at an occasional service...there’s no getting away from the influence of that music on me. We were Episcopal, so whatever hymns are in the 1982 Episcopal Hymnal, they’re in my brain for life, I think. There is a lot of stuff I loved as a kid that seems silly (Color Me Badd), poorly made (The Black Cauldron), or even offensive (The Dukes of Hazzard, The Smurfs) to me now. But I find that the hymns I was really into as a kid are the same ones whose melodic and chordal structure still resonate with me today. David Hurd’s setting of “A Stable Lamp Is Lighted,” for instance. I can hear that showing up in my own compositions. The version of “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence” set to ‘Picardy’...I still hum that melody to myself from time to time. I consciously tapped into that part of my musical education when I was writing music for The Exorcist last year, because that’s the kind of music The Exorcist needed. When those influences show up in my music, it’s not intentional, but it's not surprising either! 

AH: Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is, for me, the Badlands of the early 21st century, and that’s high praise from my end, because Terrence Malick has been my cinematic guiding light since 1974. I’ve read that David Lowery is a fan, too. Are you? And if so, has it had any influence on your approach to scoring?

DH: I never actually finished watching Badlands, and it’s been years since I’ve seen any of it at all. I would be stretching to call it an influence, or to call myself a fan. I should finish watching it, though. I love the way it looks. Maybe that’s what 2018 is for.

AH: In general, the Saints score feels looser, more improvisational, and more impressionistic. Its depiction of the land and the people is almost real enough to touch. You feel the wind on your face. At times, I was reminded of the work of the great contemporary composer, John Luther Adams. Do you know his work? Was it any kind of inspiration?

DH: I like everything I’ve heard by Adams, but I haven’t listened to enough of his music to call it an inspiration. Saints was my first feature film, so I was really figuring it out as I went, and learning something new every single day I worked on that score. I never studied film composition in any formal sense, and so I really had no idea what I was doing. There’s a certain freedom in that ignorance, I think, because the only thing I could go on was my intuition, and I had to trust that the film would tell what kind of music it needed (which it did).

AH: There’s a cue early on, about 7:26, that follows Skerritt (Keith Carradine) saying, “I lost my boy...” and connects to Bob’s (Casey’s) letter to Ruth (Rooney) from prison. The foundation of the cue is a syncopated rhythm clapped out on the knees. It scrambled my brain trying to figure out the meter. I finally put it in 6/4 but it could be many things. This doesn’t sound like Texas so much as the Delta, or maybe even Appalachia. You come back to this clapping motif a number of times, and I also hear it on the new Dark Rooms album. Tell us the story of it.

DH: The idea of incorporating clapping/knee slapping/body percussion into the Saints score came from Pioneer, the short film we did before Saints. At the time, I was living and recording in an old house that had been divided up into four apartments. So we had neighbors on 3 out of 4 sides, and the walls were very thin. On Pioneer, I knew I need something percussive, but I couldn’t make very much noise, and I was broke at the time and didn’t have access to many drums anyway. So I used the cheapest, quietest percussion available to me: myself. It worked so well on Pioneer that I thought I would try it out on Saints. I hadn’t planned on it being such a big part of the score, but when I turned in the first piece with handclaps in it, I got very enthusiastic responses from David and the producers. So I started looking for other places i could incorporate it into the score. I think most of the clapping rhythms I used in Saints, and have used in subsequent films, are breakbeats. They’re breakbeats a la James Brown or The Meters, sent through my brain and then out the other side. I don’t know why, but that’s what happens when I start clapping.

AH: Man. Necessity...and poverty...are the mothers of invention, aren't they? When you can't afford that new Spitfire library, just get a couple of spoons out of the silverware drawer! Last up, some obligatory business. You have an agent now--a good one, Brad Rainey at WME, who works with Amos Newman. You’re in some good company there. Now you’ve already scored one studio picture, Pete’s Dragon, so you’re not coming into Hollywood as a total ingénue, but are you ready for what’s next? Bigger films, bigger budgets, a lot more pressure? How are you going to keep your head?

DH: Bradley and Amos are the best. I’m incredibly grateful for them, so happy to be working with them. I have no idea if I’m ready for what’s next, mostly because I have no idea what’s next until it shows up. But I’m always ready to try, always ready to learn.

AH: Finally, without violating any confidentiality agreements, what are the projects coming up that you’re most excited about?

DH: Right now I’m scoring David Lowery’s next film, Old Man and The Gun. And I’m working on a film that Casey Affleck wrote, directed, and stars in, called Light Of My Life. I’m scoring the new Showtime show SMILF, which starts airing this month. I’m very excited about all three of those projects. I feel incredibly lucky to be working on all of them.

AH: Thank you, Daniel. Your music has moved me and I know I’m not alone. Godspeed.