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Between Music and Sound Design: An Interview with Composer Cliff Martinez

An interview with one of the great contemporary soundtrack composers, who in 2011 composed scores for _Contagion_ and _Drive_.
cliff martinez

Above: Composer Cliff Martinez. Photograph by Robert Charles Mann.

Bernard Herrmann, John Barry, Georges Delerue, Toru Takemitsu...sometimes it seems like cinema's greatest composers are all behind us. But just as films were not "better back then," soundtracks weren't either. Looking for great soundtrack artists nowadays is akin to looking for great movies: there seems a lot more of everything, and it takes a roving gaze (and ear) to find that excellence and expression splintered across film festivals, creaking home video releases, YouTube videos (see, recently, a gathering of music by Jorge Arriagada for Raúl Ruiz's films) and other disseminations of the ever-widening world of cinema.

While I may look forward to a film by a director I like, or one shot by a cinematographer I'm interested in, it's not every day I'm excited to hear a movie.  One major exception to this aural ignorance is a name that I do know well and am always excited to hear from: Cliff Martinez.  Although he's been scoring films for Steven Soderbergh since sex, lies, and videotape (1989), I first consciously heard his work on the score for Traffic (2000), still, I think, one of the high water marks both for contemporary film scores as well as the profound development of a new kind of sound for movie soundtracks, one both abstracted from the action in the frame and built predominantly from the ambient genre, a kind of merging between sound design and music. (See for example one of that score's best compositions: "Helicopter".)

Martinez hasn't scored a film for Soderbergh since 2002's Solaris—a score that's an extreme pushing of the ambient, osmotic qualities of the composer's music—but has kept busy since then, and in 2011 the musician has not only returned to working with the filmmaker but delivers a one-two punch by composing terrific scores for both Contagion and Nicholas Winding Refn's Drive (he also did the score for The Lincoln Lawyer, which I haven't seen or heard). Eager to take advantage of Martinez's presence in what is a great year for soundtracks (see Arriagada's score for Mysteries of Lisbon, Desplat's work on The Tree of Life, Mihály Vig's monolithic single dirge for The Turin Horse, Ernst Reijsiger's Cave of Forgotten Dreams), I jumped at the chance to interview the composer over email.


NOTEBOOK: What is your musical background and what led you to scoring?

CLIFF MARTINEZ: I was a rock and roll drummer for many years. I performed and recorded with The Weirdos, The Dickies, Lydia Lunch, The Red Hot Chili Peppers and my all-time favorite musical hero, Captain Beefheart. I became fascinated by music technology in the late 80s and, in part, that is what led me out of rock and roll and into film scoring.

NOTEBOOK: Can you talk about some of your musical influences, both within the world of movie scoring and outside it?

MARTINEZ: I grew up listening to artists like The Beatles, Led Zepplin, Miles Davis, David Brubeck, Black Sabbath and Captain Beefheart. FM radio in the Midwest (where I grew up) during the 70s was very eclectic and adventurous, at least where rock and jazz were concerned. I got a lot of exposure to new music by way of radio. When I moved to Los Angeles in the late 70s I fell in love with the punk rock music scene and that was the beginning of my professional career in music. My earliest favorite film scores were Bernard Herrmann’s The Day the Earth Stood Still and Ennio Morricone’s A Fistful of Dollars. Once I started working as a film composer I was more influenced by minimalist composers like Brian Eno and Philip Glass rather than other film composers.

NOTEBOOK: What do you think of the current state of soundtrack music?

MARTINEZ: Financially, it's a horrible time to be involved in any aspect of the music business. Artistically, it's a very exciting time. The technology that has made music making unprofitable is also helping us to create and think about music in new and exciting ways. As for soundtrack music, we film composers are the last of the Mohicans. In the wake of the demise of the record industry, we are the last of a dying breed that still receive a paycheck for making music. Consequently, there is a great migration of singer/songwriters into creating music for film, television and video.

Originally, film music was rooted in the European classical tradition, but now that tradition is sharing dominance with song driven film scores and with original scores created by composers who come from a rock or pop background. I think that influence is a good thing. The more musical artistic energy being funneled into film, the merrier.

NOTEBOOK: Can you talk about your collaboration with Steven Soderbergh?  How do you work together?  When do you begin composing?

MARTINEZ: It has gradually changed over the years but the process with Steven usually begins with the script. One unique thing that he does that I think makes a difference is that he hires me and sends over a script long before the shooting even begins. We don't talk much during that period and I don't write anything but I've got lots of time to think things over.

The bulk of Steven’s direction comes in the form of a temp score. I receive a rough cut of the film with some temporary music placed into it. That gives me a lot of information about the placement, style, harmonic language, etc. Once I start creating music, I ship it over to him and generally I don't get a lot of feedback unless I'm off track. He brings out the best in me and I always wonder how he does it as we seldom communicate with one another except through telepathy and short text messages.  It's weird, he's one of the most hands-off directors I've ever worked with yet I always create a score for him that is uniquely Soderbergh-ian.

NOTEBOOK: Although conventionally the soundtrack is used to guide audience emotions and sympathy towards melodrama, your approach to using ambient and/or electronic music as predominant elements on Contagion, as well as on Traffic and Solaris, do not guide the audience's identification so much as form a connective tissue between elements in the films, for example linking different spaces and characters in the globetrotting narratives of Traffic and Contagion, or helping the images span dreams and reality in Solaris.  How do you see the role your music plays in these films—and Contagion in particular?

MARTINEZ: The function of film music can be almost anything: from repairing a performance, creating a pace and rhythm to the story, adding style and atmosphere, intensifying a certain emotion or reaction. I think if the music isn't functioning in some kind of support or repair capacity, then it probably doesn't need to be there in the first place. What distinguishes the score in a Soderbergh film is that Steven doesn't want it to repeat the obvious. Only when his intentions are not so obvious will he use the music to nail things down a little more specifically.

For Contagion, my job was to help keep things moving along and moving quickly. One of Steven's biggest concerns that he wanted to address with music was pacing. Another mission was to magnify the fear factor. I tried to create the sound of anxiety. And at key, strategic moments I tried to use the music to conjure up the sense of tragedy and loss. And lastly, the music helped to create a more hopeful tone as dark clouds begin to lift in the final act.

NOTEBOOK: You integrate a great deal of classically orchestral elements into the electronica of Contagion—I'm thinking, for example, of the strings on "Merry Christmas" and on "Get Us To the Front of the  Line", the piano on "Contagion," as well as the drums and horns on "Get Off the Bus".  How do you decide when to use what kind of sound/instrument on a score, when to use predominantly electronic elements and when to hold a piece together with or build a piece to conventional instruments?

MARTINEZ: The sound palette for Contagion came by way of combining three very different approaches Steven went through as he was cutting the film. Back in October of 2010 he sent me a rough cut with music from The French Connection and Marathon Man in it. I loved this music and wrote a few pieces using that style as a reference. That is where the orchestra and some of the older composition techniques, like 12 tone writing, came from. A few months later, I received a new cut where most of the temp music was Tangerine Dream. I thought this was pretty cool as well. There was something cold and scientific sounding about vintage synthesizers that I thought complimented the story nicely.  Lastly, in the final versions of the film, Steven used contemporary film music that emphasized rhythm and energy. Not only did I have music written from the two previous concepts, but I liked all three approaches and thought that each had its merits. I reasoned that combining them would not only be effective but would give the score a style all its own.

NOTEBOOK: Can you walk us through one of your favorite tracks on the Contagion score?  What you had in mind composing it, what interested you, your process?  I'm particularly interested in the brilliant "Get Off the Bus".

MARTINEZ: That's a particular favorite of mine. The genesis of "Get Off the Bus" came from my very first email communique from Steven wherein he told me "This is a horror movie" and urged me to check out the dissonant, screeching opening for The Battle of Algiers scored by Ennio Morricone. It was a musical assault…like someone thrusting some extremely pungent and stinky but delicious cheese in your face. If I had gotten a big thumbs up about it, I would have been perfectly happy to score the entire film in this style. Oddly, I never got any feedback on this piece pro or con so I backed off from sticking my neck out quite that far anywhere else in the film.

NOTEBOOK: Your work often seems crucial in setting a film's tone, especially so for the Drive score. How do you decide you want an "ambient" sound versus a sound more directly tied to what's happening on camera?

MARTINEZ: The decision to go ambient wasn't a conscious decision on my part and I wish I could take credit for the basic musical blueprint on Drive. But that was already in place when I arrived. I'm kind of known as "the ambient guy" and Nicolas had gone with that style for the temp score, it seemed to be working well, so I was a natural choice to write the music.

NOTEBOOK: Can you talk about the inspiration for the Drive score and working with Nicholas Winding Refn?  Despite that film's relative "thriller" genre, your score has a gentleness and ambiance that reminds me of your work on Solaris.

MARTINEZ: Initially, I was interested in knowing more about Nicolas. He knew my work and I knew nothing of his. So I watched Bronson and Valhalla Rising, which gave me a crash course in Nicolas 101. Then there were the songs that had been chosen for Drive.  Sometimes songs provide a style reference for me, sometimes not. The song selection for Drive however, struck me as essential role models that would have to be acknowledged in the score. Usually the songs and the score go their own separate stylistic ways, but the 80s electronic pop style made a lot of sense to me. I knew that Nicolas was in love with that sound and I saw a way to acknowledge it with vintage synth sounds and cover most of the dramatic food groups while referencing that style.

The first thing I remember Nicolas telling me was "I've always wanted to create a fairy tale about Los Angeles." Later that evening, I saw the film for the first time and because the violence was the most conspicuous take away for me; the fairy tale analogy momentarily got pushed to the side. But as I got to know Nicolas and the film better, that idea came back to me and made sense. There was an innocent and magical quality to the story that was an important counter-balance to the more brutal and sensationalistic moments.

Then, Nicolas made several religious references throughout our conversations, which led to the idea of treating the love theme as a hymnal. It worked and at the same time was a striking and effective curve ball.

Another important element was trying to bridge that gray area between music and sound design. I wasn't entirely aware of how much the sound department was going to contribute to the dramatic character of the film but I got a strong whiff of it in early cuts. At the same time Nicolas was asking me to create some things that functioned in the same way as music but was not what most people would actually consider music. So I was the meat in the middle of a soundtrack sandwich. My goal was to create a seamless flow between the songs, the score and the sound effects.

The final ingredient was the Texas Chainsaw Massacre influence. Nicolas told me that this was his all-time favorite film. There were many times when I would play him something and he'd say, "That's nice but can you give me a little more of that Leatherface thing?" So that was another contrasting stroke, adding a horror element to a film that really wasn't a horror film.

So that was my blue print: a sound designerly, magical and horrific fairy-tale with religious overtones scored in an 80s synth pop style.

NOTEBOOK: Drive has a retro element to its iconography, its genre references and its pop music.  Did you take this into account when composing?

MARTINEZ: Yeah, Drive reminds me of the films of Charles Bronson, Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood and other famous strong silent types. Sometimes I approach scoring like a method actor and will meticulously research any similar, relevant films I can get my hands on. I simply didn't have time for that with Drive so I wasn't influenced so much by any other films. However, it seemed clear that the 80s synth-pop style was an important part of the overall sound and so I tried to integrate elements of that into the score in strategic places. We just wanted the songs and score to cooperate with one another and for the entire soundtrack to feel like it was cut from the same cloth. I didn't set out to create a full-blown 80s style score however, nor do I think it was Nicolas' intention to revisit the 80s with the film as a whole. It's a modern film and soundtrack; the retro references are in there just for flavor. 

NOTEBOOK: Can you talk about this instrument you use on the Drive score, the crystal baschet?

MARTINEZ: I've tried to wedge the Baschet crystal into every score since Solaris. Check out my website for a picture of it. It is an art object that also doubles as an all-acoustic, experimental instrument played with moistened fingers on glass rods. I first saw it when I was 10 years old at an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and I've never been the same since. I used the crystal to perform the love theme for Drive.

NOTEBOOK:  Similar to the Contagion exercise, can you walk us through your creation of that track?

MARTINEZ: Initially, I had Nicolas come over to the house and I played it a little for him. He commented that it had a "religious quality" for him and I made a note of that for future reference. I had already been thinking about using the crystal for the aforementioned love theme, but the religious connotation was a new angle and I decided to emphasize that quality. So I began to study some hymnals for inspiration. My first draft seemed like an awkward fit at first and I think there was a little skepticism about it all around initially. It wasn't until I tried plugging it into the grand finale in the parking lot that I was convinced. In the back of mind, I knew that I wanted to close the film with familiar material and the love theme would be the most conspicuous contender. But I was still stunned when I saw how well that piece conceived for a romantic moment was also so effective under a scene of two guys stabbing each other. Sometimes I think that it is sheer repetition that causes someone to accept and fall in love with a piece of music, particularly when the ear is presented with something a little out of the ordinary. I remember that I felt an uncomfortable jolt when I first heard "Night Call" over the opening credits, but by the time "Real Hero" rolled around, I'd accepted the whole idea of this sound for the sound of Drive.

Thanks for the interview guys! Even though soundtracks have received more attention in recent years it’s great to hear more about the actual process of putting one together. Hopefully this kind of discussion will get people to think about the connection of the soundtrack to the film in ways more than simply it sounding “cool”. (Not that sounding good isn’t nifty as well, but the total package is of greater import I think.) The sections talking about the relationship between what the director’s seem to have had in mind and what the final product terms out to be are particularly revealing in ways that go beyond the score itself, which goes to show how attention paid to any one aspect of a film can reveal more dimensions of the greater whole.
What a great interview, incredibly insightful. Cliff Martinez has been my favorite composer, ever since I heard ‘Traffic’. He deserves more recognition.
Jay
Great interview. I’m a really big fan of Cliff Martinez! Keep up te good work..

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