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15 Questions to Nathan Barr

img  Tobias

Hi! How are you? Where are you?
I am writing from my home in Los Angeles where I have lived for just over ten years. My studio is here at home in a converted garage, so my commute to work each morning is about twenty steps – a very convenient arrangement – particularly in this city of traffic.

What’s on your schedule right now?

This weekend I am at work on a film entitled Rise, which stars Lucy Liu and is produced by Sam Raimi’s Ghost House Pictures. It hits theatres this fall. I completed Beerfest last month, a comedy at Warner Bros., which opened this weekend in the United States. My next two projects are an independent film entitled Watching The Detectives which stars Lucy Liu and Cillian Murphy, and then in December I begin on Hostel Part II.

When did you discover your special interest in film music?

I suppose I’ve known all my life that I would be working in the movie business one day because I have always loved the medium so much. Music and film – together and apart - are truly my life’s love and work. 

In your opinion, should Film Music remain connected to the picture it was conceived for or should have it an intrinsic value away from the movies?

Film music must first and foremost serve the film and the story it tells. Depending on the scope and style of the film, that music may by it’s very nature then go on to have a life of it’s own, or not. I have scored close to twenty films now, and I can tell you that only four or five of those scores are interesting enough on their own to have a life apart from the film. If a score is very atmospheric in nature, it can make for a very tedious listening experience. If the score is melody based and a featured component in the film, then it can make for a very exciting listening experience. I just heard an interview with Jerry Goldsmith recorded shortly before he died and in it he said that the job of a film composer is to figure out how to write music that is appropriate for the film and also has a life of it’s own apart from the movie. In a perfect world, this is the case…

How would you rate the importance of film music to a movie?

In my opinion film music is equal in importance to a film’s cast. Great directors know this and are very meticulous about who they cast in the role of composer. Film music at it’s worst can single-handedly destroy great performances, muddle storylines, and bring down an entire film. On the other hand, film music at it’s best can take bad performances and turn them into great one’s, help guide the audience through a complicated plot, it can inspire fear, joy, anxiety, and a whole list of other emotions that the director and composer intend to instill in their audience.

What’s your approach to composing a score – should the music echo and strengthen the feelings conveyed by the pictures or add an aditional layer of meaning?

It depends entirely on what the director aims to achieve with his or her film. There are no rules in film music that one can apply to every project a composer encounters. Each project is different and makes different musical demands of the composer. While one director wants the music to hit the audience over the head with emotion, another might ask for music that is very subtle.

Orchestral scores or electronic scores or both?
The very term “electronic score” can be misleading these days. It can mean a score produced using synthesizers and samplers to mimic the sound of an orchestra. Present day film composers encounter this situation all the time for budgetary reasons. But “electronic score” can also mean an electronic sounding score using sounds that are not intended to mimic acoustic instruments, but exist on their own – say a Moog synth for example. Regardless of how you define “electronic score,” there is a need for both definitions in today’s film business. 

What does the term „new“ mean to you in connection with music?
Anything that hasn’t been done before, or a completely original approach to something that has been done before. 

How do you see the relationship between sound and composition?

Do you mean the relationship between sound design and music within a film? If so, both are equally important elements. The interesting phenomenon that we are seeing in films today is how much cross-over there is between these two elements. Many scores these days often times resemble sound design, and vice versa. 

How strictly do you separate improvising and composing?
To me composing is improvising, and improvising is composing. Tunes don’t just appear on the page, although they may occasionally pop into one’s head. For me at least, tunes come out of sitting before an instrument – be it a piano, a guitar, a cello – and beginning to improvise. As a film composer I have to focus on improvising from an emotional place that will complement the particular film I am working on. Out of this improvisation I will ultimately find a tune or a motif that will work within the framework of the film.  

Are “serious” and “popular” really two different types of music or just empty words without a meaning?
Since there are many “serious” composers whose works are very “popular,” and vice versa, I think these two terms are much too broad to really describe with any sort of real intelligence a particular type of music. Nonetheless, I realize that we all use these terms daily to differentiate between types of music…

Do you feel an artist has a certain duty towards anyone but himself? Or to put it differently: Should art have a political/social or any other aspect apart from a personal sensation?

This is a huge discussion that has been written about since the beginning of time. Personally, where “art” is concerned, I don’t think words like “should” should exist. Great art for me is art that inspires emotions in me and causes me to think about the medium – whether music or film or dance – in a new way. 

You are given the position of artistic director of a festival. What would be on your program?
Bach would begin and end the program, because for me, Bach throughout his life said everything I need to know about the world – musical and otherwise.

A big German music magazine once presented a film music special, which ended in the 70s with the claim: In the 80s and 90s, there wasn’t any film music worth mentioning. What’s your point of view on this?

These kinds of statements are so broad and inflammatory that they most certainly were made with the simple goal of inciting some sort of discussion on the subject. My first question to the question’s author would be „based on what criteria?“ In my opinion, there were many great film scores composed in the 80’s and 90’s. I think the traditions guiding film music changed dramatically around this time as did the aesthetic sensibilities of many film makers. There are of course always exceptions.

When was the last time you cried during a movie?
The last time I cried during a movie was while watching Harold and Maude. The look on Harold’s face when he first sees Maude’s home and realizes that he’s finally found someone he can relate to is a magical movie moment for me.  

Discography / Movie Scores:
Hostel (2005)
The Dukes of Hazzard (2005)
2001 Maniacs (2005)
Mojave (2004)
Broken Lizard's Club Dread (2004)
Briar Patch (2003)
Cabin Fever (2002)
Going Greek (2001)
Venus and Mars (2001)
"Kate Brasher" (2001)
Big Time (2001)
Red Dirt (2000)
From Dusk Till Dawn 3: The Hangman's Daughter (2000)
The Virginian (2000)
"Fear" (2000)
Protect-O-Man (1999)
Beyond the Mat (1999)
Hairshirt (1998)
Traveling Companion (1998)

Nathan Barr

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