Osvaldo Golijov
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Interview: Youth Without Youth

Youth Without Youth
Excerpts from an interview with American Zoetrope's Brendan Kenney, on working with Francis Ford Coppola on the score of his new film Youth Without Youth

What did you see as the key themes of the story and how did you shape the score to support those themes?

The interesting thing is how the score evolved from script to film, to editing. In the beginning of the process Francis and I spent a long time talking about the "Borges" aspects of the story, which has this invisible frontier between dream and reality. I sketched themes and wrote an entire piano piece that walked that invisible frontier by moving along ambiguous harmonies, a piece that walks on shift sand. I wanted to find the musical representation of the story that Dominic tells towards the end of the film: "There was a king that dreamt that he was a butterfly, who dreamt that it was a king, who dreamt it was a king...etc" I felt that the language between postromanticism and expressionism (from late Liszt through Scriabin, Debusy, some early Schoenberg) was the one that could express that major theme in the film, compounded of course with regret for love lost, the memory of Laura. In short, a combination between romantic and philosophical melancholy, a look back to a life that could have gone in a different direction. The other important theme was the "Mystical Eastern Powers", with the Sub-themes of the Double, Rupini's reincarnation, the origins of language and Dominic's invention of an artificial language. And then the Nazi threat and what Francis called the "movie aspect" of the movie, meaning the "thriller" area in the middle of the film. All of that was discussed at length with Francis and with Walter Murch, who has the most incredible analytical mind I've ever encountered. As the editing of the film was progressing Francis became more involved in the love aspect of it, and his own love for "Yo Sin Ti" (Without You), the beautiful song that he listened to while writing the script. So I wrote a theme inspired by the ascending, yearning chromatic harmonic progression of the song. And even in the middle of the recording session, new things emerged. For the "thriller" area I had composed a theme in the idiom of the classic Bernard Herrman scores (Vertigo, etc). Francis liked it but wanted also something that would capture the Romanian spirit, as well as the "Third Man" resonances of that section in the film (Dominic as refugee in Switzerland). He hummed some rythmic figure and made a little shoulder dance. Oh well, I thought, it's Tuesday night and we finish the recording on Friday and we still have all this other music to record. Yet Francis has a talent for asking the most impossible things in the most inspiring and charming way. It reminds me of what many friends tell me about playing for Leonard Bernstein, how he would get things from them that they didn't know they had in them. In any case, the next morning, still in the hotel bed at 7 am, I wrote a theme for cimbalom and accordion that we recorded at 10 am, and combined later with the Herrmanesque theme that I had written earlier: it became one of my favorites, and definitely even for my "being late" standards, was the shortest time span between composition and recording of a theme.

How was it collaborating with Francis? Was experimentation encouraged?

Collaborating with Francis was, like the film itself, a whole world of emotions. First of all, I never lost the sense of wonder at working with a great hero of mine, of my late father and of my friends in Argentina. On every occasion I spent time with him, in Napa, Romania, New York, I felt that it is possible to fulfill every dream in life. He told me once that he likes to live in a "state of play", and I feel he does. He generates an atmosphere of playfulness and creativity around him that brings the very best in the people that work with him. I can imagine that the road to this "state" was not smooth, but he definitely is there now, able to make art out of everything in his movies and of every moment in life. Reminds me of Picasso when he said that more than the particular idea that he had at a given moment, what interested him was the rhythm of his hand in painting that idea: The immense pleasure of making something. As for the specific musical aspects of the collaboration, it was an amazing dream. Francis's knowledge of the repertory, through his father and uncle, is breathtaking. He has a refined ear and an immense curiosity to understand in true musical terms the essence of historical milestones, such as Wagner's Tristan, Stravinsky's Russian works, miracles in Mozart, etc. We discussed carefully the type of orchestra: From the beginning Francis wanted to feature the cimbalom, which I have always loved. Also the Kamancheh, the Persian Violin that takes over when the mystical elements come to the fore in the film (we were blessed to have the amazing Kayhan Kalhor playing it). And, as important as what was in the orchestra, was what we had to avoid (piano, woodwinds, brass), to give an identity to the score, and not end up with a generic sound. Many of my composer colleagues in the classical world are weary of writing for film, some are simply being snobs and some have valid concerns, as many times music is treated only as steroids. Because of my huge admiration for Francis I never hesitated to do this: I would have been happy even if all he wanted was for me to write a nice romantic tune. You can imagine my surprise, then my delight and finally my total ecstasy when he and I immersed ourselves in long listening sessions and discussions on Schoenberg, Bartok, Messiaen, Kurtag and other composers that make even major orchestral institutions worried about losing listeners because of the strange qualities of their music. Several times I found myself in the ultimate paradox: Francis would hear a cue and say "very nice, but it could be stranger, you know?"... I couldn't believe my luck. Francis, and Walter too, really carry things to their final consequences: there is no fear in them. I felt at all times trusted by them and by Anahid Nazarian, and gently guided (after all, I am only a movie fan, never imagined that I would be called to do a score for these giants.)

What was your experience like working in Romania?

I loved working in Romania. From my mother's side everyone comes from there, and I have worked together and I'm friends with the Taraf de Haidouks amazing band, so I felt very much at home there. Bucharest has an air of Buenos Aires that I enjoyed a lot. I went to visit Francis in March last year with my brother Alejandro, and then in October we went with Talia, my oldest daughter and we had a great time while I worked on the score and recorded there. The Radu orchestra is incredibly young (many players looked like they are still in the conservatory) and was wonderful as was Radu, their young conductor. And the crew was mostly very young people that worked like crazy. Back here I constructed several cues with the recorded material together with yet another great young musician, Jay Flower. I learned a lot from Francis and Walter: they not only talk like young, curious people when they are together. They also trust young people.