Welcome Home

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“Welcome Home,” the new erotic thriller starring Aaron Paul, Emily Ratajkowski, and Riccardo Scamarcio, gave me the opportunity to compose a sinister, lyrical, and melodic score. In the film, Bryan (Paul) and Cassie (Ratajkowski) vacation at a rental home in the Italian countryside, and gradually suspect their neighbor, Federico (Scamarcio), might be a threat. Their strained relationship buckles under pressure as their paranoia ratchets up. My score crescendos, powered by a war between a viola da gamba and an upright bass!

 

LIGHT SPOILERS AHEAD: While the film is anchored by intense performances from the three leads, it was actually the cinematography and location that first fueled my musical imagination. My initial creative conversation with director George Ratliff took place over Skype while he was still on location in Italy, finishing principal photography. Even at that early stage, it was clear the titular “Home” was one of the most important characters in the film. The way Ratliff and DP Shelly Johnson glided the camera through the old building’s candlelit stone halls gave the entire house a strange sense of being alive, as if it were watching the drama unfold. (Spoiler: it is!)

“I always visualized the music emanating from below the house,” director George Ratliff told me recently. “The dark recesses and secret tunnels under the house are full of ancient sounds.”

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The film is a thriller, yes, but I wanted to give the score a sense of beauty, inspired by its gorgeous Italian setting. For that, I leaned upon one of my favorite instruments to write for: the viola da gamba. The viola da gamba (or ‘viol’ in English) is a Renaissance stringed instrument that blossomed throughout Europe, with much of our earliest information about it coming from Italy. This ancestor to modern string instruments flourished even throughout the Baroque era before finally succumbing to the louder family of string instruments we find in Western orchestras today. I first discovered the viola da gamba when scoring a fantasy series that took place in Italy, “Da Vinci’s Demons.” On that series, I worked closely with a brilliant young musician who specializes in this archaic yet elegant instrument, Malachai Komanoff Bandy. Malachai was the first phone call I made when I was hired on “Welcome Home.”

My experience on “Da Vinci’s Demons” made me confident that Malachai would be able to provide the film a melodic, soaring theme. I was already familiar with the instrument’s upper register, and knew it would cut through all the orchestration and menacing synths this thriller would require. Malachai described, “as an equally soloistic and accompanimental instrument, the viol is quite facile to the top of the frets and slightly beyond. This score’s melody follows a historical model of long phrases, each made up of shorter melodic cells, and that naturally helps the gut strings’ almost whiny gaminess pierce through the mix.”

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With “Welcome Home,” I wanted to experiment further and use the instrument in a manner that I had not during my time on “Da Vinci.” I wanted the viol to provide the film’s frantic, quickening, pulse. I envisioned layering ripples of quickly moving arpeggios, only possible by Malachai sustaining solid chords with his left hand, and moving the bow across the strings at a break-neck speed.

“Consistent with Bear’s past projects to which I’ve been fortunate enough to contribute, working with him on this score was an inspiring, invigorating, and tremendously satisfying musical experience,” Malachai recalled. “I particularly enjoyed being a part of his process of developing the main theme’s arpeggio scaffolding, which showcases the viol’s multi-voice chordal capabilities.”

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I got together with Malachai for a crash course on early music string voicings. Malachai was extremely patient with me, as I began to ask about chord after chord, learning the voicings, and asking if other chords were possible.

Despite my comfort with modern string voicings, the viol provided a unique challenge. Perhaps Malachai himself can explain it best. “While other stringed instruments are of course physically able to play chords, the two-and-a-half-octave range of the viol’s seven strings, its fretted fingerboard, and the many idiomatic chord shapes inherent to its tuning (in fourths and thirds, with no fifths) render it uniquely suited to extended arpeggiation and inventive voicings like the ones Bear wrote.’

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“Bear’s taking advantage of this aspect of viol technique, to my knowledge, is a first for film composers. The back-and-forth of working with him to find the chords he liked was a ton of fun, because I got to so extensively introduce him to the instrument’s unique tuning and chord-shape vernacular. From a technical standpoint, my greatest challenge with his accompaniment figure came not from the basic physicality of the chord sequence, but from trying to perfectly align fast rhythms with the electronic elements in the music. Historically, viol chord-sequences rarely called for such constant metrical precision on the sixteenth-note level.”

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My time spent with Malachai learning these chords was extremely informative, and resulted in a series of chords I knew he could play at a rapid pace with dexterity. As we worked, I took careful notes, and began crafting a harmonic sequence. After several hours together, I eventually composed the main theme with Malachai in the room, chaining together the chords I wanted to form a beautiful, yet sinister, theme.

For much of its history, depending on regional taste and string-making practice, the viola da gamba was tuned to a different standard “A” than most modern instruments. Whereas a modern orchestra is typically tuned to “A” at 440 HZ, Malachai’s viol was tuned to 415. During our time collaborating on “Da Vinci’s Demons,” I basically ignored this fact, and asked Malachai to tune his instrument to the track. With the orchestral strings, woodwinds, and percussion in the ensemble, it was simply easier to ask Malachai to adjust his tuning than to ask potentially fifty to a hundred musicians to adjust theirs.  However, there was a sonic cost to this. The viol doesn’t sound as authentic or rich when it is tuned to pitch centers less optimal for the gut strings’ gauges, and body design’s size and shape.

For “Welcome Home,” I let the viola da gamba reign supreme, and asked Malachai to leave it at the 415 tuning it was built for. I tuned the rest of the instruments in the score to accommodate, moving them down basically a half-step from where I wrote them, to fit the viol. The result is a rich, resonant viol tone that permeates the entire film.

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Once I had figured out the exact voicings of the chords I wanted to use, I set out to compose the film’s Main Theme. The rippling arpeggios are audible right away, starting the film off with a Herrmann-esque intensity:

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After the introduction of this main ostinato, the film’s main theme soars in the instrument’s upper register:

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Rather than immediately dive into scoring a scene, I instead sketched a “theme” track. I was so excited about it, that I brought Malachai back in to the studio and shot video of him while he recorded it. Instead of presenting an audio track of the theme, I sent the director and producers a fully-produced ‘music video’ of their film’s theme, complete with Malachai’s performance, and footage from their film interspersed. (With a few recent editorial tweaks, this early concept video ended up being released as the music video my record label, Sparks & Shadows, just put online!)

“I was not familiar with the viola da gamba, but had instead mentioned that I heard a cello as the lead instrument,” director George Ratliff recalled. “The viola da gamba is in fact such a better choice, because there is something more sinister and less familiar about its sound. Also, it’s a medieval instrument, and we had spoken about the music of the film having an ancient quality, so I was ecstatic. The first time I heard one was when I was sent the newly-penned movie theme played on the viola da gamba – it was wildly exciting!”

The film’s primary theme, with its rippling ostinato and lyrical melody, would come to represent the gorgeous Italian countryside, and ultimately the strengthening bond between Bryan and Cassie.

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With the main theme enthusiastically approved, I set out to compose the film’s other primary themes, and develop a palette of sounds that would represent the story’s dark undercurrent, personified in the character of Federico. Federico, masterfully portrayed by Riccardo Scamarcio, is a fascinating and menacing character. From his first entrance, we simultaneously like him, fear him, and suspect him. The film reveals to the audience (relatively early in the film) that Federico has rigged Bryan and Cassie’s house with hidden cameras, and watches them intently. And yet, he can not help but interact with them, perhaps out of an unexpected attraction to Cassie. He is like the big bad wolf who can’t help but play with his prey.

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In discussing the film, George and I referred to Federico as a wolf so often that I inevitably began to think of growling and barking tones to represent him musically. I imagined an instrument that could sonically and visually overpower the mid-sized viola da gamba. I set my sights on the upright bass as the instrument to best represent this devious character. My team and I recorded hours of upright bass phrases, including scrapes, grinds, growls, and various other modern techniques and percussive effects. Culling through it all, I landed on a handful of audio samples that sounded almost like a wolf growling. I chopped these sounds into smaller bites and manipulated them digitally, resulting in a gritty, growling low frequency sound that became Federico’s Theme.

Federico’s Theme is a digital sample by design. I wanted to take an acoustic performance and manipulate it, mangle it, and distort it, until it barely resembled its acoustic origins. This way, Federico’s Theme feels at home with the viola da gamba (originating from a similar string instrument) but distinct due to the digital manipulation. Federico’s weapon of choice in the story is hidden digital cameras, so I liked that his theme includes an electronic element, commenting on his character’s facility with technology.

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Federico’s modern technology is at war against the main theme’s archaic, acoustic lead instrument. While the majority of the score is built between tense interplay between Federico’s Theme and the Main Theme, the first half of the score also utilizes a third theme, one I call the Jealousy Theme.

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Continuing the trend of using solo string instruments with different sizes to represent their narrative strength, the jealousy theme is most often played on a solo violin. In stark contrast to the heavy upright bass, and the warm mid-range tones of the viola da gamba, the solo violin sounds high, thin and piercing, especially when played in a brittle sul ponticello tone by violinist and composer Sam Ewing.

This theme is featured most prominently in the first half of the film, almost as a red herring, or a misdirect. Early in the film, Bryan is haunted by his jealousy and resentment of Cassie for having cheated on him. His anger simmers so near the surface, that the audience understandably wonders whether he will end up being the film’s antagonist. However, as the situation with Federico becomes more tense, Bryan’s relationship with Cassie eventually strengthens. The score underlines this idea by gradually replacing the weak, scratchy tones of the Jealousy Theme with the lyrical melody of the Main Theme. In the end, the jealousy theme dissolves into the larger texture of the score, the viola da gamba ultimately defeating both the shrill violin and the aggressive upright bass.

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These themes merge to form what I hope is a moody, effective score, with heavy electronics supporting the distinctive tones of the ancient viola da gamba. I asked Malachai to offer some thoughts on the experience of integrating this Renaissance instrument into a modern setting. “As a historical performer and musicologist, I spend most of my life studying performance practice, technique, and musical taste from hundreds of years ago,” Malachai said. “And yet, ironically enough, I’ve found that working with Bear on new material is in many ways my most historical activity. Like the seventeenth-century musicians and philosophers I research, who developed the viol’s sound ideal interactively with composers of their day, I get to act as Bear’s liaison to the instrument and historical style; in doing so, I in turn am pushed to discover, invent, and adapt the instrument’s existing strengths and proclivities for new and changing contexts, affects, and aesthetic ideals.’

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“I’ve enjoyed being a part of his process of finding so many new platforms for the 500-year-old instrument to which I’ve dedicated so much of my life, work, and energy. I’m no purist — on the contrary, I campaign for any possible use of early instruments in contemporary, electronic, and pop music. In some ways, Bear’s use of the viol in his scores serves as a macrocosm to my relationship with these ancient instruments: just as old physical instruments aren’t ‘owned,’ but rather simply pass through the hands of collaborators over the course of their life, Bear’s scores have picked up the viol’s popular legacy where it dwindled centuries ago, and passed it on to the next generation of listeners. I could dream of few musical things more momentous and humbling to facilitate.”

After a theatrical run in November, “Welcome Home” is available now on streaming and download platforms. My score is available now on iTunes, Amazon, Spotify, and most other download and streaming platforms, from my label, Sparks & Shadows.

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1. Theme from Welcome Home
2. Painful Memories
3. Two Truths One Lie
4. Watching
5. Coniglio Alla Cacciatora
6. Blood Lust
7. Destroying the Evidence
8. Bryan and Cassie
9. Benvenuti

Reflecting back on the final film, director George Ratliff said “I often had fears that the music could overwhelm the film, but it works completely in conjunction with it. In the moments when the music hits the hardest – like when Bryan is running home after discovering Federico is not their neighbor – these are in fact the most thrilling moments of the movie for me.”

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I want to thank George Ratliff for trusting me to bring a musical voice to his moody thriller. I would also like to thank Trevor White, Tim White, Allan Mandelbaum, Dominic Rustam, Nicolas Chartier, everyone at Voltage, sound designer Ugo Derouard, editor Brian Scofield, and all the other producers for creating such an inspiring creative atmosphere. Huge thanks are due to my support team at Sparks & Shadows, especially Kaiyun Wong, Marisa Gunzenhauser, Alec Siegel (who produced that amazing music video), and my brilliant additional music composers Jason Akers, Omer Ben-Zvi, and Sam Ewing. I also want to thank my agents Laura Engel, Richard Kraft, and everyone at Kraft-Engel Management for their support.

I am thrilled that this film is out there, and that my score is available as well. “Welcome Home” was my last feature film to be released in 2018, and yet 2019 is already shaping up to be a very exciting year. Check back here soon for exciting announcements about opportunities to hear new music from me this year.

-Bear