Bruno Coulais: a composer also needs to be a midwife
Besides composing scores, a film music composer has to be the director’s midwife and psychiatrist as well. This job description was given to budding composers by Bruno Coulais, the French guest of honour at the popular annual film music seminar organised by Film Fest Gent.
Coulais lavished scintillating maxims on his audience while talking about several fragments of his oeuvre – a summary of which takes up some four pages on IMDB – selected by curator Martine Huvenne. The four films placed in the spotlight during the seminar were 'Microcosmos', 'Genesis', 'Coraline' and 'Villa Amalia': prime examples to illustrate the diversity of his oeuvre.
Is there a difference in approach to composing the score for a documentary, an animation film or a feature-length film? ‘Every genre requires its own strategy’, explains Coulais. ‘I incorporate an element of fiction into documentaries and give fiction films documentary undertones. When composing for an animation film I know I need to finish my score well ahead of time, because it is recorded in advance. Composing film music is something that grabs hold of you and never lets you go.’
Coulais: ‘When I was driving along the Seine a few months after recording the music for 'Le peuple migrateur', a film on migrating birds, I saw two ravens flying overhead and my first thought was what music I would compose to accompany that image.’ This anecdote is particularly illustrative of his approach. Where he used to wait tersely at his desk for inspiration, he now leaves the house and actively goes in search things to give him new ideas.
The first aspect Coulais takes into consideration when embarking on a new score is the structure of the film: not the story itself, but how it is captured in images in a particular rhythm. He recognized this structure immediately when he saw the rushes for 'Genesis'. His next step was to unearth the secret world behind the images. He discovered the key to this by paying attention to the light. Just spending hours on end observing the slimy trails of snails, copulating or not, was enough to drive Coulais up the wall. It was the human voice, one of his favourite tools, that provided the solution.
People we sometimes astonished to find that a Neapolitan song sung by a Japanese soprano could elevate the footage of two snails in the throes of passion to sublime heights. Not only that, it proved Coulais’ mastery, which was confirmed once more in the film 'Les Choristes' for which he composed music in the style of Jean-Philippe Rameau. However the piece he had deliberately intended as an example of mediocrity in the film became his greatest hit.
Not everything Coulais has composed has turned to gold, and he could fill more than one CD with rejected scores. At the seminar he showed a fragment about which the director said that the music ‘vampirized’ the images, drained the life from them. Naturally, the composer did not agree. For once, the motto and approach he aimed to instil into young composers had not worked as intended. ‘The director is the boss, but the film ultimately sets the rules’, says Bruno Coulais, although ‘it may sometimes be necessary to pull a little wool over a director’s eyes. He is right, but try sending him in another direction – without him noticing, of course.’
Of course, with someone like Federico Fellini this probably would not work or even be necessary, as his penchant for pitting hysterics against serenity made him the most rhythmic of composers. And after all, rhythm is where music begins.