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James Edward Barker: the synergy between sound and score was important for ‘Lean On Pete’

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The British composer talks about weaving equestrian textures and environmental cacophonies into the layered score for Venice Film Festival winner ‘Lean On Pete’

According to James Edward Barker, Lean On Pete isn’t your typical horse-oriented novel-turned-film. So when the composer joined the film, which is based on the novel by Willy Vlautin, he knew the music that would further enliven it would have to be something intriguing.

Starring Steve Buscemi, Charlie Plummer and Chloë Sevigny, the film is led by director Andrew Haigh as well as production house A24, which has churned out Oscar winners Room, Ex-Machina and Moonlight.

James Edward Barker: the synergy between sound and score was important for ‘Lean On Pete’

“Andrew (Haigh) had used quite a few pre-existing pieces of mine for the temp score,” Barker says in a phone interview after having landed in Oregon for the premiere, adding, he and the director had a mutual sight to see where the music could grow from, using that set tone in the beginning. The resulting process evolved into an initial score that was more melodic than the final one so there was a journey there. “Andrew balks at the typical Hollywood score; he typically doesn’t like to lead the audience emotionally,” explains Barker, “The initial melodic score did that and we kept smoothing it out and chipping away at layers until it became a more subtle accompaniment to the visual art he created.”

In regards to research, Barker explains he tries to approach his work with a variety of novel instruments in different ways. “On some previous films, to create nice tones, I’ve used Tibetan singing bowls; for this film the main instrumental identity became the violin bow – the horse’s hair on the bow. I wanted to hear that grating, and whether it was harsh or soft. I wanted to use it against almost every instrument we used.” One of my big frustrations is that a lot of films, especially those with smaller budgets, don’t (put aside good time for final mixing) despite years of filming. But ‘Lean On Pete’ dedicated four weeks to mixing which saw a lot of experimentation with score and sound, so what you’ll hear is a very rich and complex mix. So Barker actually ended up bowing cymbals, vibraphones and other instruments to create lush tones. He recalls Haigh saying from the start that he’d like the film to have a slide guitar in the mix which eventually evolved into the score having guitar-slide-EBow in the acoustics. “We had a lot of soft twangs and happy accidents we created by using a glass slide against an acoustic guitar. It’s inevitably going to be slightly noisy.”

Steve Buscemi, who plays a leading role in the film, has a very distinct voice in film. “Strong central performances from all the actors really helped,” comments Barker, “it’s just such an incredible film and story arc filled with emotional characters – whether they’re harsh or closed off, or very open. Steve plays a hard as nails guy and pretty hard to break and read, and Charley, played by Charlie Plummer, is an open book, susceptible to everything around him. So tapping into this was helpful.”

James Edward Barker: the synergy between sound and score was important for ‘Lean On Pete’

Certain scenes in the film had to be planned carefully and to avoid the stereotypical moulds of this subculture around horses. Barker recalls Haigh’s intention to avoid dramatic entrance music to signal titular character Pete’s presence too.

When score meets sound

The synergy between the score and sound design was hugely important to Haigh and Barker, given much of the film’s audio experience was being planned so meticulously. Sound designer Joakim Sundström, who’s worked on films including Oscar-nominated Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, brought a wealth of experience to Lean On Pete.

“Joakim and I are both in love with that grey area of where sound ends and where music begins – especially with Lean On Pete which isn’t a typical Hollywood score,” explains Barker, “The music grows throughout the film; it’s really subtle at first with lots of little drops of tone and small hints of notes. When we hit the desert scenes, that’s when the score really starts to come to life, especially with the sound design. When it came to mix the film, there was a lot of working with the layers of the music and the sound. One of my big frustrations is that a lot of films, especially those with smaller budgets, don’t have enough time to do that despite years of filming. But Lean On Pete dedicated four weeks to mixing which saw a lot of experimentation with score and sound, so what you’ll hear is a very rich and complex mix.”

Oregon identity

Given Barker has just landed in Portland, Oregon, the state where Lean On Pete was filmed. He agrees it feels like coming full circle. In regards to the geography, Barker adds that environmental sounds very much played a strong role in the film’s musical identity.

James Edward Barker: the synergy between sound and score was important for ‘Lean On Pete’

“Given the subtle tones in the beginning with Charlie running through the Portland meadows, I was sucked into a very grey and cold environment, so you’ll hear the tremors and shimmers coming off the violin.” says Barker, “As you see Charlie and Pete walk down a hill after their first race, you hear a warmer sound from the winds. I used a very old pedal – a Morley Pik Percussion and you have a metal pletscher that has a lead coming out of it which plugs into the pedal itself. So when you layer it against the strings you have these lush hugs of sound.”

Warmer and stickier surroundings in the Portland area invited comforting scores and when the film moves into the desert, the sound soft and can be embedded fittingly into the environment – a whole conglomerate of sounds. “At night, the place is beautiful, but hauntingly so especially for a young boy like Charlie. I had the guys blowing into the ends of the horns we used, we rubbed cloth against the strings of the double bass which we mixed into the wind, we bowed the back of the double bass to create these tiny weird screeches that were barely animalistic, and we tapped the horns of the drumsticks to create these clangs for the environment.”

Met with a standing ovation at 2017’s Venice Film Festival, Lean On Pete was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize, Best Screenplay Award and a Golden Lion among others, while winning the prestigious Marcello Mastroianni Award.

‘Lean On Pete’ releases this summer across theatres.

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Printable version | Jan 29, 2020 11:17:26 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/movies/composer-james-edward-barker-on-lean-on-pete-directed-by-andrew-haigh/article22918430.ece

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