Screen scoring

French film composer Marc Marder hears the music behind the scenes.

July 25, 2019 22:33
Screen scoring

Marc Marder . (photo credit: MATT DINE)

There will be a meeting of artistic disciplines next week when Marc Marder comes here to powwow with a bunch of Israeli filmmakers. The confluence is part of this year’s Jerusalem Film Festival, which opened on Thursday and will run through August 4.
Marder is one of half a dozen professionals who are coming, with the support of the Cultural Department of the French Embassy here, to take part in the Pitch Point Music workshop. The idea is to get the French music-makers together with local movie directors and writers to see how they can combine their talents and experiences to produce enhanced audio-visual works. Marder’s compatriots include Anne de Boysson, Julie Roué, Julien Bellanger, Laetitia Pansanel-Garric and Mathieu Lamboley. All six have bulging professional bios that take in expansive tracts of the movie business, including dramas, epics, animation and shorts.
Marder, who was born in the States but has been domiciled in France for over 40 years, is the doyen of the incoming contingent and is due to hold a master class on Friday at 5:30 p.m. at the film festival’s base of the Jerusalem Cinematheque. While not exactly a homecoming for Marder, this is far from an inaugural foray to this part of the world. “I haven’t been to Israel for 33 years,” he states. “My parents lived in Jerusalem for 10 years. My brother studied there, my sister lives there. I used to come a lot, but it’s been a while. I have a lot of memories of Israel.”

No doubt Marder will pick up on the seismic cultural, financial and demographic changes that we have undergone since 1986, including the giant steps taken in our cinematic endeavors in the last decade or two. Then again, he may have to get up to speed in double quick time. “I have seen quite a few Israeli films, but I don’t have any knowledge of the Israeli film industry,” the Jewish composer and double bass player confesses.

But what Marder may lack in terms of intimate knowledge of the behind-the-scenes professional machinations here, he compensates for with impressive street level derring-do. “I was invited to the Aubagne Film Festival in the South of France near Marseilles where they had a Pitch Point event,” he notes. “There is this idea of a composer meeting up with a film director and producer. It is fascinating and it works. I think one of the winners at the Cannes Film Festival came out of this kind of collaboration.” In his adopted country, the triad is considered a natural creative conference. “In France they say there are three authors of a film – the director, the writer and the musician-composer.”

Over the years, Marder has applied his skills, gifts and knowhow to numerous projects across generous domains, including performing and composing symphonic music and scoring for dozens of movies, notably with internationally acclaimed Cambodian film director Rithy Panh. He relocated to Europe when seminal contemporary French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez brought him to Paris in 1978 as bass soloist with Pierre Boulez’s newly founded Ensemble Intercontemporain. Marder was also a member of the French National Orchestra under iconic conductors Leonard Bernstein and Lorin Maazel, and has helped to nurture younger generations of musicians through teaching positions at such illustrious academic institutions as the National Superior Conservatory in Lyon. The man clearly knows his F sharp from his C major.

MARDER SAYS it is a whole different ball game when you are given a script and visual work to feed off rather than creating musical magic from scratch. “When you are writing concert music it is in your imagination. Film music is also in your imagination, but it is also has to be very inspired by what you’re seeing.” Presumably, that also applies to what you are hearing in the movie dialogue. Then again, if you don’t understand the source language, that can complicate matters. However, Marder seems to take all that in his capable stride. “Before we could send everything by Internet, I used to go to watch Rithy Panh’s movies together with him. I’ve scored 23 of his films, and he would explain things to me while we watched.” Panh’s films are all in Khmer, although they generally come with English subtitles, too. Marder has also written music for movies in Danish, Lao and Punjabi. 

As all languages, and dialects have their own tempo, intonations and textures, not understanding the dialogue can draw one’s ear – especially a musician’s trained ear – to the inherent musical qualities of the language in question. Marder finds that aspect of his work fascinating. “I did the music for one of Rithy’s movies, S-21 [The Khmer Rouge Killing Machine],” Marder says. We are not exactly talking Walt Disney family-friendly stuff here. “There was a prison, a torture center in the film. I watched the film without any subtitles, and I thought he’d made a much lighter film for a change. Three days later I got the script, and I stayed in bed for two weeks. It was the most horrible film,” Marder chuckles.

But not all the Franco-American’s writing has been for bone-chillers. On occasion, he didn’t have to listen to the dialogue either. “When I started out did the music for two silent films, with [actor] Charles Lane. That was great. It was just music. That was at the beginning of my film music career. It is very different with silent movies. The music can really take off and express itself completely, and express what’s happening on screen.”

There’s nothing like having a bit of freedom. “Rithy recently did a couple of films without music. So he got into that too,” Marder says. “It’s like a ballet score, in fact.” Not having audible speech to take into the musical equation also allows the composer to let his amplification hair down. “You don’t have to worry about the volume of the instrument you use. You are still limited by the scenes in the movie, even more closely than in a talkie, but in regular films you have to watch what instruments you use so they don’t conflict with the dialogue. If you have someone talking, and you put a clarinet in the score, that can really drown out the voice. You really have to watch out for things like that.”

With the great leaps and bounds our filmmakers have made over the years, having the likes of Marder come here to lend his accrued professional wisdom to the projects in hand could help us push our cinematic boat out even further.

For more information about the Jerusalem Film Festival:

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