Interview: "Gravity" composer Steven Price

by Garrett Tiedemann, Special to Minnesota Public Radio
November 29, 2013

For years Steven Price has worn a variety of hats working with music in the film industry. He's worked as a music editor on many of the greatest hits of the last decade or so, including Batman Begins and the second and third parts of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Price is also becoming known for his composing abilities, starting with his collaboration with Basement Jaxx on the 2011 cult hit Attack the Block. This year has seen a spike in recognition: he scored hits Gravity and The World's End.

For those who haven't experienced it, Gravity is unlike anything else you've seen in the theater, and Price's work is integral to its success. Since director Alfonso Cuaron wanted to capture the reality of sound (or, rather, lack of sound) in space, all the natural sounds that are heard come from inside the suits or spacecraft. The rest is manufactured between Steven Price and the sound effects team.

Recently, Price answered a few of my questions about his work.

Did your work as music editor benefit your process as your role evolved to that of composer?

I think every role you have as you work your way through whatever job you're doing has a huge influence on the way you work. Whilst I'm relatively new in terms of composing, I've actually been working in film music for 13 years, and in that time I've done everything from arranging, orchestrating and programming, to, more recently, music editing on various projects. Every single role has influenced the way I approach a film score now. With Gravity, my earliest conversations with Alfonso made it clear he was looking to do something distinctive and unconventional with the music for the movie. The year I spent working on the film drew on all of my experiences so far, while forcing me to find whole new ways to approach what I was doing. It was a lot of fun.

Did image cues generally guide the music cues, or was it the other way around?

When I came onto the project, Alfonso and his team had already been at work for over three years, so the film was well on the way to the form it eventually took. Even though some of the visuals were in earlier stages of development than others, you could still really get a sense of what the film was going to be, and we talked a lot about how the music could serve it. For me, a crucial role of the music was helping the sense of immersion that the visuals were looking to achieve... as the camera swept around almost as if it were a third weightless astronaut, we wanted the music to feel like it was all around you, surrounding you and moving about you, just as un-tethered as the astronauts themselves, but also — and most importantly — closely supporting their emotions as the journey progressed. Those ideas influenced much of the composition.

In your recent Rolling Stone interview you said you didn't research previous sci-fi scores. Did you research any scores, composers, or — more importantly — any particular sound experiments? Were there elements beyond sound and music that benefitted your process?

When I'm on a project, it sometimes seems that everything you hear in passing triggers a thought: a little concept that might lead to an experiment, or the sound of an instrument that suddenly strikes you as perfect for a character. I didn't specifically go through a rigorous research period, but I listen to a lot of different things just in everyday life that filter through and stick in my mind and perhaps suggest a way forward for a cue without my really knowing it.

I remember listening to a lot of baroque music at one stage in the project... there was something about the harmonic structures that seemed so pure, it made me play in a different way for a few days with some of the more emotional moments in the film. Also, I became fascinated with Steve-Reich-style tape experiments at one stage...there were some moments when I was working on scenes in the film where Ryan and Matt are tethered together where I experimented with the push and pull of tape phase experiments, as that seemed to somehow gel with the visuals I was working with. Of course, by the time those experiments have evolved through various revisions and revisits, the original thought becomes something else, but they were all helpful moments along the road.

Did you actually see the picture as a sci-fi film while composing? By this I mean, when it came to sound did you actually hear the sound in science fiction terms, or were there other particulars of sound that guided the music's formation?

I'm not particularly one for labeling any project as being of any particular genre. I'm not sure it matters. To me, they're all stories to tell, and stories [for me] to give a musical accompaniment and support. The visuals and the sense of constant fluidity and motion were so unique with Gravity that it was clear that it needed a unique sound to accompany it. Some sounds instinctively felt appropriate for the characters and the setting, while others took longer to reveal themselves.

Do you recall the first "a-ha" moment you had with the film's sound? Was it a cue, or a particular note?

There's a scene about half an hour into the film, where Ryan and Matt are in considerable trouble, and, with things looking desperate, they start to talk. The cue there was one I kind of stumbled on one afternoon. I didn't really know what I was trying to achieve, but kept following the way the music seemed to guide me. I did it really quickly, then did another couple of versions of the cue to see if there was another way of finding the heart of the scene. I sent all three versions off to Alfonso, who was shooting some material elsewhere. He phoned up and told me he thought we had something with that first version. Then he phoned back ten minutes later to confirm we definitely had something. It was one of those pieces that kind of happened just through letting it happen, so I'm particularly fond of that bit of the film. The sound and harmonic motion of it influenced a lot of the score.

The track "Tiangong" brings in what sounds like a bugle around its midpoint. It makes me think of the army — either calling to charge or a funeral. Do you recall this moment and what brought you to its use? Is there a particular significance to its sound at this point, or was it something that just worked?

That's an interesting observation! The shot when that occurs is one of the moments where Alfonso and I always wanted to really mark the glorious beauty of the Earth. The visuals there are so beautiful, and yet the situation of Ryan so perilous, that it felt like a moment that should shine, particularly given the decision she had just made in the context of the film. I experimented with a lot of different sounds, but kept returning to the trumpet as a pure, but somehow emotionally resonant sound. Still, it didn't really work within the sound of the score.

It was only during the mixing process when we found the sound we needed: the trumpet was passed through an old synth — a synth that was close to death, as it turned out. Through "playing" the controls on the synth as the original trumpet performance passed through it and performing the processing to the picture, I ended up with the sound you hear on the soundtrack. Something about the glorious nature of the trumpet combined with the broken nature of its processing seemed to feel appropriate for the moment. The next time I used the synth, it finally died. You can hear it go at the end of the track "ISS" on the soundtrack.

As you took on the role of composer, was the end always such a large moment of rebirth? The last piece of music has a certain rock-anthem quality — especially in comparison to the more fragmented nature of the rest of the score. How did you come to find that mix and arrangement as an endpoint to the score?

That piece was one that was being worked on right until the closing moments of the final mix of the film. I knew I wanted a more organic sound than had been the case up in space, but finding the combination of instruments that felt like they honored the moment, and celebrated those themes you mention was a lengthy process. I deliberately held back on a lot of the processes that had gone into the rest of the score. The instruments you hear are honest, and sound as they sounded in the room I recorded them in, which is often not the case in the rest of the film. Hopefully that honesty of intention comes across.

The way surround sound is used in this film is incredible. How did its use alter the work and your approach? As it was being mixed to image did you have to go back and redevelop ideas to suit its placement around the room?

The idea that the music would be used in a much more immersive way than the norm was something we discussed from the very beginning, so it influenced every moment of my writing. I might write lines that I knew could start on opposite sides of the theater, and perhaps move as they progress, and cross over to form interesting harmonies on occasion. Or, I'd use a textural sound to draw the ear in a way that would reflect the way the camera was portraying the action at any point. I was involved in the film for a long time — around a year, which in film scoring terms is a significantly longer time than usual. One of the many advantages of this is that I got to hear my music in the film earlier than just at the very end. We did a number of mixes during the process where I would bring my material and the sound department would bring theirs, and we'd try some experiments, seeing how far we could push the use of the surrounds, and what the best combination of our elements could be. It was an important collaborative process that Alfonso was central to throughout.

This is your third feature film as composer, and I imagine its quality will lead to more projects. How has the process of the film changed your perspective on film scoring and what are you looking for as you move forward?

From the earliest times, my hope and ambition was to compose music for films...it just took me rather a long time to work my way to this point. I don't begrudge a moment of the journey in that I've learned so much from so many hugely talented people along the way, and been lucky to have been part of some great projects, but I'm hoping that Gravity will help me get into a position where I can now go forward as a composer. I'm having so much fun doing this, I certainly don't want to stop now!

Garrett Tiedemann is a writer, filmmaker and composer who owns the multimedia lab CyNar Pictures and its record label American Residue Records.


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