June 22, 2017

Film Interview—Catching Up With Vivek Maddala­­­

 

Composer Vivek Maddala shares the complexities of composing and intricacies of the industry.

PHOTO BY MARY JAMES

Film Interview—Catching Up With Vivek Maddala­­­

Film composer Vivek Maddala at the Sundance Film Festival in 2009.

With so many film scores being solely comprised of bleeps and ominous tones, it’s refreshing to have a score with a worldview. Combining modern ethnic textures with traditional orchestral works makes Vivek Maddala one of the smarter (and more underrated) composers working today. Maddala completed the soon to premiere American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs that will open at the LA Film Fest.

What attracted you to American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs?

The subject matter of the film interests me immensely. I discovered the work of Grace Lee Boggs about 10 years ago after hearing her speak on the grassroots news program, “Democracy Now!” Her ideas and analysis of world affairs was unusually incisive, pithy, erudite and rooted in vast knowledge of the history of social movements. So I started reading her work on a variety of topics including the Marxist-Hegelian dialectic. A couple of years ago I met a director who was making a film about Bogg’s ideas, who (coincidentally) was named Grace Lee, along with the film’s producer, Caroline Libresco. They asked me to write some music as a demo for the film based on an idea they pitched, namely, the concept of “what time is it on the clock of the universe?” (a question Boggs poses to university students). That led to me scoring the film. I was also eager to work with the film’s editor, Kim Roberts, who is marvelous with story and music. So it was all rather serendipitous.

How would you describe the collaboration process between composer and director in general and working with Boggs in particular?

Film scoring is intrinsically collaborative in a way that writing music for the concert hall or writing pop songs for a record is not. Fundamentally, the purpose of the music is to serve the film and to advance the artistic vision of the director. In essence, it is “functional” music, and its design is partly influenced by input from the director. Working with Grace Lee and the rest of the team (including Kim and Caroline) was an absolute pleasure because they’re all seasoned filmmakers with impeccable dramatic instincts. The best situation a composer can hope for is to work with a director who knows what he/she wants, or has a clear understanding of why something is or isn’t working, while not injecting anxiety or drama into the process of creating the score. This was absolutely the case in working with Grace. Our conversations were rarely about music, but rather about how the audience should be feeling at any given moment, or how they should be experiencing each turn of the dialog or story. This afforded me an immense amount of freedom musically, while guiding me to focus always on serving the dramatic contours of the film.

One of your niches is combining melodic symphonic writing with modern ethnic textures. How did that come about in your creative approach?

It has been a characteristic of much of my film score music, but I wouldn’t say it was a deliberate choice. The specific needs of a given film dictate what you do with the music, and it just happens that I’ve scored a lot of films set around the globe. So if I’m scoring a film set in El Salvador, or one set in Southern China, or in North Africa, or wherever, the geographical specificity of the film will largely dictate the palette of musical colors. It’s been great for me, as these diverse geographical settings have offered me opportunities to put on an “ethnomusicology hat,” if you will, allowing me to grow enormously as a composer and artist in ways I likely would not have otherwise. I find that using the Western symphony orchestra palette as the foundation works really well for most films, as the orchestra is capable of enormous breadth of color, power and emotion. So combining the two (orchestra and ethnic textures from around the world) can be quite useful, and can also add up to a unique musical amalgam that imparts a distinctive sonic flavor to a film.

Would you say there is a certain amount of freedom in scoring for indie film compared to major releases?

I’m reluctant to generalize like this, but I’d say this is mostly correct. My sense is that the Hollywood system, in which transnational corporations are parent companies of the studios, is intrinsically risk-averse. So the emphasis is in minimizing risk in all aspects of production (including with music). Major studios make very conservative return-on-investment (ROI) calculations, because they’re a part of larger, business-focused conglomerates—and this essentially requires them to make “safe” decisions, or at least decisions that emphasize conventional choices in filmmaking. This is why the major studios keep churning out the same kinds of buddy comedies, action film franchises, and the like.

This is where independent film making generally, and music for these films specifically, can be quite liberating. The flip side is that money is scarce in the indie film world, so there are other constraints. But creatively, I think independent films have fewer moneyed interests dictating creative decisions. I’ve been able to take great musical risks with independent scores, breaking “rules” of what’s safe or “correct” to do, and really try to come up with innovative musical solutions to the dramatic problems posed in the films I’ve scored. I think it’s working.

More musicians from the rock and rap genres are making the move to composing as some sort of side project. Do you see this as a fad or some type of shift?

I don’t think it’s a fad. I think it’s the result of a combination of legitimate forces at play. First, on the creative side: film scoring provides a different kind of canvas on which to paint musical pictures than, say, writing and recording a pop record. It’s a totally different craft, and I think it’s a great idea for artists to explore new media if they want to grow.

On the business side, as the record industry transforms (or crashes and burns, depending on your point of view), more opportunities are presenting themselves for rock and hip-hop artists to express their art in film scoring. I think the inclusion of recording artists into the film score world also opens up more possibilities for filmmakers who are seeking a unique musical voice to add to their films.

You are a multi-instrumentalist to say the least. What was your first love musically and your latest infatuation?

Musically, I think my first love was drums, i.e., the drum kit, in elementary school. And then probably guitar in middle school, followed by Hammond organ (a la jazz, funk/R&B, and classic rock) I was a major jazz head in high school and college and eventually came to celebrate orchestral music via the Impressionist school (Debussy, Ravel), and then modern orchestral music (Mahler, Ives, et al.). My “latest infatuation” changes frequently—and if I told you what it is today, it may be out of date by tomorrow.

Who are you listening to now?

Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield.

What’s next?

This is what’s so compelling about film score… the twists and turns in the path to come are so unpredictable. I could be asked to score a film set in 17th-century Peru, which means I’ll be studying Inca culture and music and find ways to weave that into my own musical voice. Which is wonderful. Currently, I’m scoring a documentary feature set in Khazakstan—a film ostensibly about former Soviet nuclear weapons testing that was done in secret, resulting in colossal health problems for the people subjected to radiation. But the film also explores the question of what it means for an outsider to offer help, what that might look like and what the implications are. I think it’s an important film and an amazing opportunity for music.