MUSIC FROM MARS - Andrew Lockington on Making Sounds for "The Space Between Us"
What would music from mars sound like? With no stores, or places to buy insturments. The only choice is what you have already. Composer, Andrew Lockington (San Andreas, Journey to the Center of the Earth, Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, City of Emberm) decided to work with this problem on the soundtrack for THE SPACE BETWEEN US, the story about the first child born on Mars and his trip to visit Earth for the first time, opens in theaters nationwide on February 3rd from STX. The film is scored by Andrew Lockington who used salvaged instruments to create the score. Everything from metal from demolished buildings that was over 100 years old to pieces of repurposed trumpets found at junkyards. This process of up-cycling was in-line with the film's message about the beauty of our planet.
Can you share with us a little bit about how you got started with music, and into soundtrack work?
Some of my earliest memories are playing the piano and starting piano lessons. I loved playing the piano but often had other ideas of how songs should begin and end - which is a problem when the music you're changing is Mozart. I was always surprised when the piano teacher could tell that I wasn't following the music and had veered off in my own direction. In high school I joined a band and got more and more into song-writing but still found the music I was most moved by was film scores. After studying composition in university for a few years I set out to meet as many film composers as I could and find whatever way possible to be a fly in the room on their projects. A film composer, name Mychael Danna, took me under his wing and mentored me into the business - 5 years I'll be forever grateful for.
What inspired you to choose salvaged instruments for this project?
I always look to the story to find ideas and themes that might inform a unique take on the music. In "The Space Between Us", the main character is a boy who has lived his entire life on Mars. When he finally comes to earth, everything is new and fascinating to him, even things we all take for granted. I tried to look at the world through his eyes and not take anything for granted. Through those lenses, everything on earth can be an instrument if the noises it makes can be turned into music. That's what started me on this journey.
I also had a moment as a teenager when I picked up an acoustic guitar for the first time and felt like I could suddenly speak a new language. I'd never had any lessons, never been taught the detrimental "3 chords". What happened is I picked up an instrument I didn't understand and started to write music with it in my own way. What came out was an entirely new language, void of any "go to cadences" or patterns I would so easily fall into when writing on the piano. I guess I'm always looking to recreate that experience of having a new instrument that I've yet to know my way around. Salvaged instruments did exactly that.
What instruments do you normally work with for scoring films?
I usually write on piano or guitar. My orchestral writing is probably what I'm best known for, but I've scored many films with smaller eclectic instrument groups. This film was a great opportunity to merge those two worlds of writing and combine the orchestral and eclectic into one hybrid approach.
How did you go about locating these items and was there any criteria for what you wanted use?
Michael White (synth programmer) and I looked to everything and anything as potential sound sources. Scrap rusted wrought iron from demolished buildings was probably the first one, as they became a sort of vibraphone / gamelan instrument that we could bow and strike. Discarded steel ice cream bowls (the kind you'd find in Europe with the stem) also became an important instrument. We'd played with metals in the past but so often the goal had been to find a way to tune it into equal tempered tuning at 440Hz. This time I wanted to accept and embrace the natural pitches of the "found instruments" and hear the music inherent to them in their natural state.
What kinds of places did you look for sources?
There's a place called the Leslie Street Spit in Toronto where there are remnants of old buildings that have been demolished. That along with flea markets, garage sales, and old broken instruments from music shops in Toronto. Sometimes it was the repurposing of an instrument part that no longer functioned in the way it was supposed to. One of my favorite instruments was a collection of discarded trumpet mutes used as a percussion set. I also looked to old toys (there was an old broken toy piano we took apart and played with bowing the tines).
Which came first, the sound or junk. Were there certain kinds of sounds were you looking for or did you use what you found?
Imagining something, then looking for junk to create it, never works. The successful missions start with an open mind and being inspired by what you find. I had a few months where I'd walk around with a mallet and a cello bow and hit and bow everything. It's amazing how many things in the world can be bowed by a cello bow and make a sound you'd never expect.
It must have been a challenge collecting all those sounds. Did you go into the field and record them remotely?
After I started collecting sounds in the field on my visit to Papua New Guinea in 2011, I realized I needed to be traveling with a small recording rig all the time. My equipment kit has grown and evolved into another limb.
What kind of recording equipment was used in the recording of the source material?
My field kit consists of two Shoeps mics in an orb windshield XY configuration. I record into a Sound Devices 633 six channel digital recorder which allows me to add spot or surround mics if needed.
What was the process for capturing the sounds and turning them back into instruments again?
The first attempt was at performing the instruments in their natural state. A lot of time was spent improvising and creating patterns and melodies using mallets and bows, recording absolutely everything. Sometimes the instruments were sampled so that I could compose with them on a keyboard while figuring out how to make them fit within an orchestral setting. But in most cases they were then re-performed live again once the parts were written.
Anything we could get into the studio, into a sterile sound environment, we did. But the rest I recorded using my field kit.
Did you have to do any kind of normalization, tuning or multi-sampling for this project?
I tried to keep the tuning to a minimum in the spirit of letting the inherent pitch lead me, but in some cases slowing the pitch down by half or playing it twice as fast exposed something far more interesting in terms of texture and overtones.
What kind of tools, software or hardware, were used to bring the raw sounds into your work flow?
Protools and Logic were used to edit the elements then Kontact patches were created for some of them.
After the sounds are captured, they need to be shaped into the final instruments. What kind of sampler / software do you use to handle the final sound design for each element?
Kontact is the software of choice as it's so easy to script and get inside.
Did you record and build all the sound elements before composing the works, or were there ideas that came from the sounds themselves?
The ideas began right away. I've learned that some of the best things happen the first time you start playing with a new instrument, so I make a point of recording almost everything. Several of the motifs in the film were based on my first experiences playing a new instrument and the first inspiration I had on it.
What were some of the challenges in working with these kinds of sounds on a film score?
It's easy to make "found objects" sound like found objects being hit, but much more difficult to make them sound like they belong alongside a traditional orchestra. I wanted to make sure that the emotional goals of the score were my main mission, and any salvaged instrument that couldn't overcome sounding salvaged wasn't useful. The end result had to be a score that the listener was moved by without thinking about where the sounds were coming from or what made them. I didn't want the audience to be "distracted by the words", I wanted them to "be moved by the language".
One might expect a more industrial noise sound from salvaged items. Listening to the soundtrack. It is quite symphonic sounding. How did you decide to transform the original sounds to the final ones we hear?
The piano and strings and horns are traditional instruments recorded at Air Studios in London. All of the salvaged instruments were recorded in advance, and in many cases are much more prevalent than you might realize at first listen. The strings in the orchestra are often double by bowed "found metals" which gives a glistening shimmer to the sound. The piano parts are all doubled by a "metallophon'esque" instrument we created which is why the piano timbre is so unique.
How much of the score was based on salvaged sounds and real ones?
The salvaged instruments are a significant part of half of the score cues in this film.
Were your compositions and or arrangements influenced by these salvaged sounds?
Absolutely, and my compositions since have been as well. Each found instrument has a set of rules or sounds that work and sounds that don't. As such, notes you'd often be compelled to go to in a melody aren't possible, which forces you to find an alternative path. I've come to look at all of my compositions that way, so in some ways the experience has lifted some of the self imposed restrictions I'd fallen into when writing themes and composing cues with traditional instruments.
What are some of the benefits and limitations of working with these kinds of sound sources?
The biggest benefit is a unique sound that inspires unique ideas in your writing. The biggest limitations were the inherent pitches of the instruments and the fact that doing this approach means there will be a lot of dead ends. Sometimes I'd work for a few days on something and realize it was leading no where interesting. Time is a precious commodity for film composers so losing a few days on an idea that doesn't work can be a significant loss on a film. Fortunately, I began early on so I didn't have the same pressures one often has with schedule.
What did you learn along the way, are there any A-HA moments or surprises you can share with us about this approach?
This experience probably just highlighted the fact that mistakes are sometimes your friend. There were many times I was attempting to play something on these new instruments and I hadn't quite learned my way around the patterns yet. As such, I played it wrong, put notes in the wrong order, and what came out was amazing. I think so much of composing is embracing mistakes, finding seeds in improvisation that can be grown into new ideas you've never explored before. Sometimes I'll sit down at an piano and close my eyes. I never know where my hands will land and I touch the keyboard lightly enough that I can't visualize where I am on it. I'm trying to stay lost, and just feel my way around with the sound and the pitches. I guess that's the experience using these salvaged instruments gives me every time.
In a world of digital libraries and huge ROM sets. Has recording your own sources changed your approach to sound design going forwards?
It absolutely has. As composers we're very fortunate to have such a plethora of possibilities when it comes to sample libraries, but I find sometimes the most interesting music comes in the simplest form. There are a few moments in this score that I was simply bowing two notes on a piece of metal. I'd never do that with a sound library. First of all, the note would sound the same or similar every time, and secondly, anyone could recreate it if they owned that sound library and knew which key to press. Thus my instincts when using sound libraries is often to overwrite and make things much more complex than they need to be. But doing it live, with an authentic instrument, each time I bowed that same note, it had a different character, a different set of overtones. Working with instruments like this is like capturing a moment that can never be duplicated again. It's nice to have a palette that no one else has, and the freedom to be as simple or complex as the music requires.
We want to thank Andrew for talking with us about his work on this project. You can read more about his work and the many films he has worked on at his site AndrewLockington.com. Be sure to check out the soundtrack to the film "The Space Between Us" that will be in Theaters Feburary 3rd 2017.