Saturday 26 November 2016

Writing the Music Score for Saint Joan of Arc Film

The last few days has seen me writing the music score for our new production on Saint Joan of Arc.  At a length of nearly 45 minutes this was a challenge.  It was also a French saint, not something we have really done before.  I love writing English Medieval themed music but I set about facing the challenge head-on. 


As with each music film score that I start, I hate the initial stages.  My sister Emily gives me a small file containing the whole film, made very small so that I can insert it into Cubase, the program I use to write music in.  What I have before me is 45 minutes of silence with just the narrator telling the story, in this case the story of Saint Joan of Arc.
With the film inserted I usually think about what kind of instruments will suit the production but I steer myself away from being predictable so find something interesting.  Soundscapes are marvellous for adding depth so I found some nice atmospheres in a category which features the theme of dragons and merlin and decided that this was a unique opportunity to play with these sounds.  Using the 'Flying with the Dragons' sound and relying heavily on the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, I hit record and began playing.  The only instruments I really decided upon specifically were Barbarian Frame Drums and Celtiberic War Horn so as to immediately have an ancient War feel.  By hitting record I played in a simple drum rhythm as my first layer. 


At this point it is a matter of patiently building up the intro layer by layer.  Here is the intro so far with just the drums and horn played in and now as data that I can manipulate:
I added strings and 'Flying with the Dragon' to these initial layers and the effect was atmospheric.  The main task in starting out with a Mary's Dowry Productions film score is to set the theme and mood with the opening credits.  This gives me a chance to get a feel for the production.  After this is mostly underscore which is much easier.  I wrote about a minute of music using strings, harps, guitars, recorders, cello as well as 'Flying with the Dragons' and this took me to St. Joan's early life as the narrative began.

 Some of the visuals in St. Joan are very beautiful.  We spent the Summer acquiring an entire new database of scenery for the 2016 and beyond productions so I was able to really get into writing to this beautiful imagery. 

What is great about being a composer for spiritual films is that there is a strong element of the mystical and the spiritual so I never feel under too much pressure because I can step back and write what I feel. 

The best example of this is when I see a painting of the Mass and the saint is speaking about their devotion to the Eucharist for example, I can draw upon various voices such as Gregorian monks or choirs. 

With St. Joan of Arc she spoke about 'her voices' and I was able to make the mood very mystical with lots of pads; a convenient choice was a pad called 'before the battle' and it added a poignant depth of expectation.  Fresh out of writing the music for Mary Tudor, I had used a lot of Gregorian Monks for the narrative about the Church in England, the dismantling of Catholic culture and the Mass. 

As I did not want to repeat this I went for 'Mystica' which is a lovely sound base of female choirs.  This was useful both for beauty as well as mystery.  I used the voices in a slightly discordant way with the visions/voices but then at poignant moments of extreme heroic holiness the choirs added real beauty that was quite moving.

 At about 18 minutes into the film I was writing a segment with simple strings and I was very moved at how the army focussed on St. Joan's banner.  It is always a good idea when I am writing and I feel a lump in my throat; I did at this point as I felt that St. Joan was giving so much and everybody loved her and followed her but I knew that she would be betrayed.  I decided at this point to repeat the theme of 'love of St. Joan' at her death because I believe that on a subconscious level, the listener will be reminded that the person who is being unjustly executed was once so loved and it adds to the tragedy.  I did this at the end and it worked well, the same theme for when a person is admired and when they are being condemned.  I do that a lot for our English Martyrs.

All in all, the score is a blend of medieval drums, horns and strings with moments of reflective, moving atmosphere with an emotional cello sometimes taking the lead.  There are segments of simple harp and piano with voices and soundscapes like 'Flying with the Dragon' giving the film an unearthly feel. 

The film has exciting moments where I was able to use sound effects of battles.  Overall the mood is mystical, mysterious and spiritual.  I used the sound of real church bells when the narrative speaks of St. Joan praying the Angelus and the visuals depict peasants of that time stopping to pray.  The bells, the choirs, the mystery all make this film very Catholic and very spiritual. 

I did not know much about St. Joan.  My first encounter was editing the audio narration a couple of weeks ago but I really encounter the saints when writing the music score.  As I got to know St. Joan over the last couple of days I truly felt that her life was heroic, she was tried and tested but really trusted.  I really like her!  Watching a Mary's Dowry Productions film and listening to the music score should be an encounter with a saint, almost like a prayer.  I hope that you enjoy this film and meeting St. Joan as much as I have.  I will make the soundtrack available in the future too.