January 23, 2019

Catching Up With…Composer Matthias Weber


LOLA award-winning composer gives the most in-depth “Catching Up With…” to date.


Catching Up With…Composer Matthias Weber

Composer Matthias Weber

The Topanga Messenger recently spoke with Matthias Weber about his recent LOLA music award for the German film The Dark Valley, his potential Oscar nomination and the art and science of composing music. The German Film Awards, colloquially known as the Lola Awards, is the highest German movie award.

Topanga Messenger: The Dark Valley is a western film genre by design but the score, refreshingly, does not indicate that. How did the process come about to make such a dark and brooding score?

Matthias Weber
: Here are the things that I have to take into consideration before I start writing music for a film: what is the director’s vision? Luckily, I have been working with Andreas Prochaska for almost 10 years now and, in my opinion, he is one of the most talented directors on the planet. Our collaboration has helped me define and hone my style. His philosophy is that film music should stay out of the way as much as possible and not attract much attention. It should be an observer rather than an element that keeps commenting on the story and tells the audience what to think every step of the way. That approach is right up my alley and so, from project to project, we turn more and more minimalist.

It is my job to help realize the director’s vision, to get into the zone when I start writing and get through to the soul of the movie and capture the right emotional tone. That can be done in several different ways.

My goal is to create something that fulfills all those requirements, but something that also fulfills the requirements I have for myself. I want to be myself as much as possible, create something that is original, unique and authentic. That is why I try to play as many instruments as I can myself, it doesn’t get much more personal than that.

I try to do as little as possible, just what is needed to enhance the emotional experience for the audience. In my daily desperate attempts to come up with something that myself or others haven’t done a gazillion times, I collect interesting, unusual instruments and I will, more or less, play them, mostly abuse them to get interesting sounding sonorities.

I will also frequently hear sounds or noises in our daily surroundings that peak my interest, so I will record them and import them into my session on my computer. This can be a certain rattling sound of a ceiling fan creating an interesting rhythm or my washing machine running out of whack. Then, of course, there is the vast arsenal of traditional instruments, organic sound sources, and an even larger pool of electronic sounds. Once I have a combination of the right elements, that is only the beginning.

Then the processing begins meaning detuning, pitch shifting, distorting, reversing. You get the idea. That creates a whole new level of sonic possibilities and the good thing is, you never know what the result will be. I like the element of randomness. I am looking for surprises; I am not into formulaic predictability. (Easier said than done. Sometimes you will have to work in an environment that forces you to go into directions you would rather not go. That is why I love working with Andreas.)

This was a long pre-text, let me finally answer your question.

The most important thing Andreas said before we started was that he wants a modern score, not some old-fashioned, dusty period music.

The next thing to consider was the time the story takes place—in 1875. Authentic instrumentation true to the time period would be the traditional symphony orchestra. The two main musical themes take that into account. The simple main theme for two celli goes with the simplicity of the people and the simple life they lived. It also goes well with our female main character and the secret the valley holds. I just realized that if you would speed that theme up at least by 100 percent it could be used in a blue grass tune. So there is a Western element. It didn’t happen on a conscious level, merely intuitive. The second musical theme is a type of Passacaglia, a sequence of eight intervals in a descending fashion that keeps repeating undergoing some variations.

This is all my analysis after the fact; it came from improvisation while Andreas was sitting next to me at my studio. This theme played by a bigger string section gives you this feeling of a situation you cannot escape, this relentless revenge, the unstoppable destiny.

Next the geographical consideration: the Austrian Alps. I picked Accordion and Alpine Horn from the local colors. Of course, they got the processing treatment that I described earlier. Following my concept of using a few unusual instruments in every score, I used a ronroco, which is a Latin American string instrument, the big brother of the charango, which is better known. I used it for some simple arpeggios, parts that usually would be played by a harp. The ronroco gave it an extra special sound. In addition, I bought a custom instrument from an instrument builder in Sylmar, Jonathan Wilson. The guitar viol is a mix between a guitar and a cello. It added some very nice colors to the score. As far as this being a Western, we decided to stay away from any cliché-sounding musical elements, definitely no Morricone sounds or Elmer Bernstein/Copland.

We played it more like a revenge thriller. For the modern aspect, I created a lot of electronic pulses and textures, my favorite thing to do. I recorded passages with live orchestra and then I slowed them way down electronically and pitched them way down as well. This process, if done right, retains the emotional depth of the orchestra, but it sounds different and unusual.

I also created some completely electronic sounds, mostly drones and pulses, which I mixed with the orchestral elements. Also some very simple ostinato elements, sometimes just a bass note repeating or in the climax section a repetitive percussion pattern. In general I try to work with as little percussion as possible. I love drums and percussion, but they have been a bit overused in scoring and I try to only use them when I really need to. (The other day I did a three-minute chase scene without using a single percussion element.)

The dark and brooding vibe came about by the creation of these low drones that I created through the process described earlier. A lot of time and effort went into making these, because there is nothing worse than uninteresting, annoying drones, when someone just holds down a key on a keyboard playing a factory patch of a mediocre sound library. What these drones do is create a feeling of discomfort without commenting on every turn in the story. On top of these I picked the spots for the thematic material and the sparse use of the percussion.

You’ve done film and television for German and American audiences. Is there a preference for you or is there a format you haven’t done yet that you’d like to do?

No preference really. The process is the same on both sides of the pond. I have worked on pretty much any format and genre, but I found out over the years, that I feel most comfortable in drama and thriller, the darker, the better. I occasionally work on comedies and other genres, but for the most part I am playing it pretty dark. I am also very happy that the content in TV has become so incredibly good, both in the US and in Europe.

Musical improvisation is important for you. Does that urge to improvise new music something you’ve been composing ever happen? Is there room for that?

Let me say that improvisation is one of the most important aspects of my music making, both in composing and in performing. Almost 10 years ago I started a solo piano project, partly to celebrate that my doctors’ prediction that I would not play anymore fortunately turned out to be wrong. I decided to do ad hoc improvisations without any preconceived material. I went to studios all over the country to play on pianos I had never played on before. If you play on an instrument for the first time it is magical and makes you play certain things you might not have played on a familiar one. I just hit the red light and played for a few hours. The only guiding element was a little task I gave myself just before starting.

On one piece told myself to play completely outside my comfort zone. No licks, patterns, scales and devices I had practiced years ago. I wanted to play notes, chords, rhythms I had never played before. That piece clocked in at about 21 minutes. I became an observer, curious to see what comes out. I did not have to please anyone. Complete freedom. On another piece I wanted to sound bluesy, but without being in a particular key. On yet another piece the task was to “start on the lowest note of the piano and end on the highest one.” It was a very interesting process for me. I will release a collection of these improvisations before Christmas.

I have a lot of material, lots of which is not that good in terms of being interestingly different; that stuff stays on the hard drive. But I have an album’s worth of tracks that I like and that represent what I set out to do. I tried to be free, but still musical and not too abstract.

For a lot of people it will be too out there, but that is okay.

Congratulations on your LOLA win for best score. How would you describe the difference in audience between American and German cinephiles?

The other day I heard this film critic describe the difference between Hollywood and European cinema being that the first one is more commercial and the latter one is more art oriented. In this globalized world we live in I think there are big audiences for the Hollywood popcorn blockbuster everywhere, but there are lovers of independent/art house cinema everywhere, too, just in smaller numbers. So some directors I work with in Europe might say “can you give me this big Hollywood sound” and I know exactly what they mean or they might say, “don’t give me that over-the-top orchestral Hollywood schmaltz,” and I know what they mean by that as well. I like doing big orchestral scores, but the last few years I really got into the more minimal, interesting, off-the-wall type of scoring, kind of like thinking “outside the box-office.”

The Dark Valley is Austria’s entry for Best Foreign language film at the 87th Academy Awards. What would recognition from the Academy mean to you?

That would be so amazing, I can’t even describe it. And there are only 82 competing movies, should be a piece of cake.

Who would you describe as your influences musically as well as composing?

I am not a “natural born” film composer. I started playing music at age five and until I was 28 that is all I did. I performed, not watching movies, no interest in film music. The situations I played in varied from experimental/atonal, electronic, industrial, ambient, rock, jazz on piano/synth/guitar and classical, mostly European church music as a concert organist. I was influenced by Bach, John Cage, Harry Partch, Messiaen, Frank Zappa, Keith Richards, Bon Scott and Brian Eno. As a piano player I am mostly influenced by George Duke, Richard Tee, Billy Preston, McCoy Tyner, Ahmad Jamal and Russell Ferrante, to name a few.

When I was 28 I got a Fulbright scholarship to go to Berklee College of Music in Boston to really practice and become the best, but I had a very bad car accident four weeks before and the doctor said playing piano would not be happening anymore because of a problem with a bone in my hand. I went there with a cast on my arm and decided to study classical composition and film scoring.

Sounds brutal and it wasn’t fun at the time, but it turned out to be the right thing for me.

So once I got into film scoring, I started to get into the great composers from the Golden Age to today. The two most influential and popular names in film music are, of course, John Williams and Hans Zimmer.

They are both brilliant in their own unique ways. They have been dominating the sound of Hollywood for quite some time and I am a huge fan of both. To work on big, epic blockbusters is a great playground for any composer. The music can be big and bold, you work with big orchestras, and everything is on a grand scale. I have had great fun working on these formats. Like I mentioned, though, the last few years I worked on more story-driven drama and thriller formats, mostly with Andreas Prochaska.

One of my favorite formats is a TV movie series, “Traces Of Evil” (“Spuren des Bösen”), a highly rated, award-winning, 90-minute thriller format. The writing is so interestingly weird and unpredictable, the photography is impeccable and under Andreas’s direction the actors, who are the best in Europe, give the performances of their lifetime. It is not a formulaic good versus evil type story, the good guys have flaws, the bad guys show good sides etc. So I cannot wait to get to the studio every day and see what I can come up with that matches this high level of artistry. Since everything is so good, I don’t have to do that much. A lot of times I create very minimalist textures and atmospheres, almost like a sound painter. We pick the spots carefully where we play actual music. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung once said “Weber’s moody music worked perfectly” and then in parantheses “if you can call it music”, and that was the biggest compliment for me.

What are your biggest influences in composing?

After all I described above, it seems like people that influenced me most are people that are not primarily film composers, but whose music has been used in a lot of films. I am thinking of Brian Eno, Arvo Pärt, Ligeti, and Penderecki. In the actual film music world probably Gustavo Saltaolalla, I love his performances on all these string instruments (check out his ronroco album). Of course Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross are right up my alley. And Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. Orchestrally Elliot Goldenthal plus a whole lot more. In general I try to think less and less as a film composer, which is one way of at least trying not to sound like everybody else. I am thinking of one of my favorite action scenes of all time, the bank heist in Michael Mann’s HEAT. There is a repetitive percussion track that has hardly any variations, mostly changes in reverb etc. Everybody know that piece by now. I was always blown away by it, because it is so not normal as far as what a “normal” film composer would do. It turns out it is a track by Brian Eno, not written for the film. No film composer would ever score the scene like that. We would normally have some sort of development and orchestration and a dramatic build up etc.

That is what I mean when I say I want to think less like a “normal” film composer.

What’s next?

I will continue what I have been doing and I will keep trying to push the envelope as far as what can be done in mainstream scoring that keeps it interesting. I am experimenting with using different keys and different rhythms at the same time. Tricky stuff, which is, of course, nothing new in 20th century classical music, but not common in mainstream scoring.

I have just started to scratch the surface, but I am having a lot of fun experimenting. I am classically trained and I learned all the rules in the world of academia and outside. And I am glad I did that. But at one point, I threw all the rules overboard. They do exist on the hard drive that is in the back of my head and they do inform my music making but on an intuitive, not an intellectual level. You can only break the rules properly if you know them. The fact that I know how to write a four-part fugue and 12-tone pieces probably makes me a better ambient sound painter as well.

There are lots of projects on the horizon, both in Europe and also some bigger, international ones. I am very happy about that. I am also starting a band with my younger daughter, Vera. She is 17.

It is going to be her high, clear voice and mandolin playing and my world of lo-fi ambient distortion, kind of like blue grass meets feedback. It is called Katze & Kat. I will continue improvisational albums, solo and with other artists, maybe visual artists as well.

At the end of the day I have to say, though, the most important thing is emotional depth. There should never be any weirdness or uniqueness for its own sake. Goosebumps and tears are still the best indicator of emotional depth. Emotion must not be mixed up with sentimentality. And I am constantly reminding myself that silence is music, too.