Kerry Muzzey has composed a wide range of modern and classical scores for movies and television. His music has been used in Glee (2009-2015) and the Oscar-nominated Nebraska (2014), and he has collected his modern classical works in the album The Architect and explored post-rock with his project The Candlepark Stars. His latest movie, The Seer: A Portrait of Wendell Berry (2016), is a documentary premiering at SXSW 2016. Directed by Laura Dunn and executive produced by Robert Redford and Terrence Malick, the film tells the story of Wendell Berry, the beloved Kentucky farmer, poet, and writer.
Muzzey took a break from his studio to talk to ScreenPrism about The Seer, nostalgia, and what's different about scoring for a documentary.
SP: How familiar were you with Wendell Berry before you got involved in the project?
Kerry Muzzey: I wasn’t familiar at all. This is something that they mention in the film to Wendell Berry himself, is that there are two kinds of people: people who have never heard of you and the people who live and breathe by every word that you write. I guess if you do an American Literature degree he’s part of your study and your curriculum because he’s a living, prolific American writer and poet. But, no, I hadn’t heard of him. It’s funny. If you go into Google, not only do you get millions of hits for his poetry, you start to see celebrities that are a fan of his. It's one of those things where if you say his name at a party, two people are going to turn and look at you like, "Oh my god, you know who Wendell Berry is?" and no one else knows. So, I bought an anthology, a book of all of his poetry, just started flipping through to see what I could find and once I started reading it, I got it. It made a lot of sense.
The Seer: A Portrait of Wendell Berry (2016)
SP: How did that, if it did, inform your work? Do you think the poems influenced you?
KM: I was struck by its simplicity. He’s a very prolific writer but his whole life he’s been a farmer. There was a brief period where he went away and was actually a teacher at a couple of different universities, kind of like a writer in residence, and the guy really had some bona fides, but he gave it up because he wanted to go back and just be a farmer and write his poetry. When you read it, it’s not overly flowery like old English prose. It’s really simple, but the through line in a lot of it is there is so much beauty that is right in front of you, and you’re missing it. It’s about noticing the details, the small things. As we become more distracted in general, our attention spans shrink and shrink, and we look for more and more distractions. There’s a great contrast between how we live life now and the world that he writes about in his poetry. I was very struck by that because when you’re writing music for movies, that is kind of what you’re trying to do is boil it down to an essence, a small thing, a detail that helps the picture. With a documentary, you’re not helping the picture by being grand. You’re helping the picture by staying quiet and gently supporting. So, yeah, I became a convert, and I understand why people like him. It was actually a nice reality check to put down the phone, step away from the computer and take the dog for a really long walk.
SP: The feeling of his writing is familiar enough that you can have a touchstone with it, but it’s a unique perspective on simple things.
KM: I’m from small town Illinois—corn fields, completely flat. It made me feel nostalgic for where I’m from. I love that I’ve lived in big cities, but I’m suddenly missing where I’m from. Reading his work made me feel nostalgic for that thing I didn’t appreciate when I was there. I always wanted to get out. Move to New York and move to LA and do all these things, and now I go back, and part of my trip is always just driving around the farms and taking pictures. Because, suddenly, it's very beautiful to me. And so, wherever I am in my life right now, this really resonates for me.
SP: Did the nostalgia come through in the score? When writing about this project, you have mentioned Americana before but a subtle, more modern kind of Americana.
KM: It does. Initially, it did way too much. This was a real challenge because if you’re scoring a movie that’s a regular drama or something, you can be big and you can use broad strokes because when the audience goes to see that movie, that’s what they want. They’ve paid for the ticket to that ride. They want soaring strings and the romantic vistas, and you say Americana, and that’s like Copeland’s “Appalachian Spring.” It’s strings and trumpets and broad spaces. When you go into a documentary, the audience is expecting something very different. It’s a true story. It’s information that will hopefully entertain, but it’s honest. It’s at a weird crossroads that you realize how manipulative music can be. Especially when you attach it to a picture.
Laura [Dunn, the film’s director] sent me the final cut of the film with the music notes, and I was excited to sit down and watch it through. I watched it through and was completely enraptured. I actually didn’t even remember to take notes during it because I had just watched it. At the end of 90 minutes, I realized my notepad was still sitting there blank. I was very moved by the whole thing.
I was so excited to jump in that I really jumped in, banging out that first cue. It was way too big. Then the next morning I thought, "Oh, god, this is awful. This is really heavy handed. I can’t let Laura even hear this. I have to strip it down." Her first note that she gave me, which was the best note in the world, was "we have to be really careful with this not to be too nostalgic, too sentimental, too emotional or too poignant.” And that was the best note because my tendency was that I was writing music that reflected how I felt about watching this movie versus writing for a viewer who is seeing for the first time.
SP: That’s an interesting distinction.
KM: It’s the first time that I had ever run into that problem. But it was challenging. You really have to reframe how you do it because I had thought it was gorgeous so I was handing you a big giant bowl of gorgeous with a big spoon like “Here’s your gorgeous! Isn’t it beautiful? Look at this beautiful film!” I really had to rein it in. It was challenging, but it was good. The end result was something that works so well that I can’t wait for people to see it on a big screen. I’m really excited for that.
SP: So when you watch it though the second time, and you have your notebook, what sort of things are you writing in your notebook? What sort of notes are you making to yourself as part of your creative process?
KM: Part of it is just technical, like where does she want music to start and end? What things does she want to leave completely dry? Which is another thing specific to documentaries; you don’t want to over score. That’s where the collaboration from a director comes in really handy. Because if you hand me a movie, I’m going to put as much music into it as I can because I like doing it. So the notes are technical stuff, but then also how I feel when I’m watching it. So there will be a certain scene and the note might just be “poignant” or “simple” or “electronic” or “industrial” because part of the film is about how industrial agriculture is taking over many of these small family farms, so there gets to be a little bit of an electronic element to the music. The notes are really more about feelings or about twinges, colors.
The Seer: A Portrait of Wendell Berry (2016)
SP: Then it becomes about translating the technical and the emotional into your process.
KM: Exactly. I also tend to make note of where the highest point in the film so that any music you write before that leads you to that point. You don’t want too many climaxes. Especially when the climax of the film can’t be very big.
SP: It’s a quiet movie. It’s a true story. You don’t want massive timpani and cymbal crashes.
KM: Documentary goers are very savvy film watchers. They are keeping an eye out for ‘am I being manipulated? Am I being sold something that is not true?’ Or are they just being told a very human story. And this is a very human story. I think that’s what’s so beautiful about it. There is nothing manipulative. There is nothing fake. It’s just a beautifully told story.
SP: When you say manipulative what is popping into my head are the music stings in horror movies or big, loud periods on the end of a scene. What exactly do you think of when you say "manipulative"?
So, if you go see Atonement (2007)—Atonement is a really great example of a drama with a really stunning score. The minute the lights go out, you’re on board. You know that the couple is going to go through all these hardships, and there will be dour music to accompany it, and then there’s going to be a grand vista, and they’re going to run across the wheat field in slow motion. They’re going to finally kiss, and the strings will swell, and it's going to make you cry. That’s what I mean by it. And it is the same way with an action movie. Or a horror movie. It’s part of establishing the pace and part of pointing you towards a reaction, really. The music is engineered to make you cry or make you feel good. Because that’s what you want and you expect that. But with a documentary, people need to pay attention to the story and be moved by the story, not by something that is manipulating them towards feeling a certain way about the story.
If music in a documentary is too heavy handed, suddenly the documentary becomes propaganda. It can take on a political tone. You are aware as an intelligent viewer that something’s not quite right here. You suddenly might feel like you’re being sold a bill of goods. A really honest and moving documentary? It lets the music support, but it doesn’t let the music tell you.
SP: Composing is a very solitary activity, but filmmaking is necessarily collaborative. How do you make that transition from the solitary into collaborative mode?
KM: You’re right in that it's super solitary. Which is kind of a bummer, but it’s part of the gig. The part that I really like is the collaborative part, though. The downside of the solitary part of scoring is that, for a certain period of time, you’re completely left to your own devices to come up with something. When you’re constantly in your head, and you’re just living with this picture for 10-12 hours a day, and that’s all you’re doing every single day you get tunnel vision, and you stop seeing the bigger picture. Collaboration, in this case with the director, Laura, means an outside perspective to keep me in check or to nudge me back into the lines. That’s something I really like. I know there are some composers who will just say, "This is the score. There you go." They don’t want notes. I’m fine with notes from a director because it keeps me on track. It’s also that person that’s going to tell you, "It's starting to feel maybe too repetitive to me" or "I like the music, but it’s a little emotional. Can you rein it in a little bit?" I like that sort of thing in the same way that I like a little bit of constraint because if you don’t have something like that, then you’ve got this huge thing in front of you, and you’re like, "Where do I even start?"
SP: When we watch a movie, what are some things that we should "listen out for" instead of looking out for? Or are we doing it wrong if we’re trying to isolate the music from the visual? In a perfect world, how would you want the viewers to hear your music?
KM: I want the viewer to simply absorb the film. Hopefully, it’s a cumulative experience where they’re noticing that it's beautifully shot and what’s being told is very moving. I wouldn’t want them to single out the music, although I’d want them, when they left, to say, "You know what? I kinda liked the score." But I don’t want them to be listening for the score because it really is its job to stay in the background. It makes me crazy when people say, "You’re not supposed to notice the music." Of course, you’re supposed to notice the music, but it should be part of the whole. It shouldn’t be an isolated element. If it does its job, people will just find themselves more focused on the picture and the experience of watching this movie. It definitely rounds out the experience.
SP: So when you’re in the car, stuck in LA traffic, what are you listening to?
KM: I catch up on my iPod. I use the car time as catch up time. I listen to a lot of classical stuff and film scores. I’m a film scores junkie. I have been since I was a little kid. I listen to a lot of it. And, I guess, it depends on my mood. If I’m trying to think of something different or break out of my usual habits, I’ll listen to serious classical stuff like Prokofiev or Stravinsky. And, you know, there is a whole Katy Perry playlist on my phone. And a whole playlist of songs from Glee, because I loved the covers they did.
SP: Are there any lesser-known film scores the rest of us should be listening to? Everyone knows John Williams, but what should we listen to that we wouldn’t have necessarily heard otherwise?
KM: There's one composer who is my absolute favorite. His name is Paolo Buonvino. He’s Italian, and he only scores Italian movies, and the guy is amazing. Pop his name into iTunes and download all of his scores and enjoy. He’s really good with strings. There’s another guy who is a film guy and a modern classical guy; his name is Ezio Bosso. He’s also Italian, pretty much works in Italy, and he’s fantastic. And there are a couple of little scores known gems by the composer Patrick Doyle. His scores for Mrs. Winterbourne (1996) and Great Expectations (1998) are absolutely beautiful.