Woodshock Film Composer, Peter Raeburn, Takes Us on a Haunting Musical Journey
Woodshock Film Composer, Peter Raeburn, Takes Us on a Haunting Musical Journey
BY: ARIELA KOZIN
There is a reason why a trip to the movie theater is a favorite past time throughout the western world. It lets us escape from life–disappear into a dark room. What we see on the screen makes us jump, cry, and laugh. But it’s not only to the credit of what you see that forces a reaction. What you hear can also induce emotions. It can make a scary moment that much more jarring or a fight between lovers feels like a sting to the heart. Directors are well aware of the power of music, which is why they call on music composers, like Peter Raeburn, to work alongside them.
Peter is responsible for the music you hear in Kate and Laura Mulleavy big scene debut, Woodshock. To call the Rodarte sisters’ Woodshock a film feels a bit off because there is no conventional arc for Kirsten Dunst’s Theresa. There’s no love story or dream to chase. While marketed as a thriller, Woodshock can only be described as a hallucinatory dive into a dream world of Kate and Laura’s creation. It is a moving painting, with a woman in despair at its center and Peter’s notes are what make the poignant character study that much more stunning–so stunning, in fact, that we suggest you listen to the score on its own.
But before you press play on Peter’s work, read our discussion with the award-winning composer about his intensive creative process, the convergence of film and music, and how he got to where he is today.
A lot of people want to get into music composing, but they may not understand the complexities of it and just how laborious it is.
You know what? It’s so true. I know people that have studied it at great length, and studying it and doing it are so different. Although, I think that some people are naturally gifted in that area. Some people get it. The great thing is there’s films out there for everyone. Some people might not connect with the right form, but they might actually connect with a particular piece.
Now that you’ve worked on Under The Skin, Woodshock, and now Nancy, it seems like you’re very attracted to these roles with complex women.
That was not a self-conscious choice. I don’t go out seeking those projects. Maybe they seek me. I am definitely interested in people, and their stories. I think it’s a privilege to be able to swim inside the life of a complex and powerful, in this case, woman. The relationships between women, particularly in Woodshock, are so seamless.
I think it’s a privilege to be able to swim inside the life of a complex and powerful, in this case, woman.
How did you first get into music composing? Was it something organic?
Right out of college, one of my close friends was a director and he made this short film, gave it to me, and we scored it in a short amount of time. It was as if it wasn’t work–it didn’t feel like work. It was as if it didn’t feel possible that I was doing work at the time. It came so naturally. It was also because of mine and his connection, and when it feels right, it’s right. And that film went to Edinburgh and did really well, with both of us virtually students. I guess that was a tell tale sign. This is a job that people do. So I guess that was the first time. That was really early on. The film was called Monday. This was a long time ago. This was pre-internet.
Have you noticed the changes in composing now that there’s the internet?
I don’t think the internet’s changed composing. The internet’s changed the process of sharing material. By the time I started composing, I was already using technology–I was using samples and a drum machine. Everything wasn’t in the same box. Now everything’s in one box, with lots of modules. It became more convenient over the years–the kind of process of working with a compilation of live instruments–the world of electronics in production is something I’ve always done.
So how did you get from something like Monday, which was a student-fueled film, to the acclaimed films you’re doing today?
I always wrote music. I always loved it. I always needed it. I spent quite a while honing my music production work, ranging from supervising, mentoring, directing work–having kind of a combination of a real overview with the micro-detail that it takes. And I would work with a lot of other people, and I would have a lot of fun working with that, with some incredibly experienced composers, like Alexandre Desplat to Mica Levi on Under the Skin, which was her first film.
I’ve had great fun and gotten so much from working with different people. I love collaboration. To create a kind of atmosphere, like a band atmosphere, on a film project is so important. That’s when the creative juices really flow, and the whole can be much greater than the sum of its parts. It’s become inseparable from the film, because the process made it so. The director and the music department, we’re like a band.
I love collaboration. To create a kind of atmosphere, like a band atmosphere, on a film project is so important. That’s when the creative juices really flow, and the whole can be much greater than the sum of its parts.
In terms of the creative process, I would never think that you and the director would be working so in tune with each other, can you go through the process for Woodshock?
The process was one in which I heard about the film through the music supervisor, Linda Cohen, and my agent, Bradley Railey from WME. It had a kind of special place in their hearts, just as in it sounded like a special project that I might be interested in.
I got on a call with Kate and Laura, and they told me about their film. We talked about it. I had read the synopsis. I understood who the cast was, but it was very arm’s length, until that phone call. As soon as I heard them speak about the film, I was interested. Instruments started coming into my head, little feelings. The subject matter seemed fascinating to me, this very slow demise of a person and her relationship with her mother, with nature with the world. All of these things seemed interesting to me, right away.
I really enjoy trying to fulfill a director’s vision, even if it’s not clear immediately. I like going on the journey, wherever it takes us. That’s what happened here. I saw the movie in LA, when it was not even a rough cut. As soon as I saw it, I felt that it was a moving painting, not really a film in the traditional sense.
It feels very haunting and moody, like you’re helping to create the painting.
The fact that it felt like a painting to me made it feel breathless, this raw beauty. The audacity of trying to capture those trees and the starkness. It didn’t feel like a conventional film, that was also interesting to me. The directors have their own total world within them. It’s a very interesting and beautiful place, it’s a brave place too.
The process was on in which, flying to LA, I read the script. I actually wrote something on the plane, immediately inspired by the script. It was a very particular scene that I played to them. When I saw the film, this little instinct by the script reading, a combination of reading the script and the conversations I’d had with them led to something tangible, musically. It was very simple, harp driven. I shared it with them, and we watched it to the images right away. There was a conversation going on between the music and this cinematic aesthetic. That was, in a way, the way the process started.
What was the scene?
The piece it most resembles, in the score, is Washing the Scars.
What are the instruments I’m hearing here?
I started with the harp harmonic. That’s the sound that I first heard in my head. The instruments you’re hearing are a combination of orchestral elements and things that I make, combined with some sounds from the forest that I made into instruments for the film as well. In some places, I made an instrument between the call of a bird and the call of a woman.
What was the most challenging part of this project?
The challenge was to not create a score that felt male. There was no room for testosterone. It had to be just the right level of strength and beauty. That was an interesting process. Ultimately, so much of this music is about the internal journal of Theresa, Kirsten Dunst’s character. Her internal emotional narrative was very delicate, so it needed to sound delicate too. That is a challenge, to trace surgically and create the musical life force of a character.
With artists, a project never feels quite finished. To have your work so concretely in a film could be quite torturous, if you don’t feel that it’s 100% complete.
Laura and Kate are real artists as well. There was no sense of us rushing this process. We got it done in the right amount of time and were able to record everything the way I wanted to record it. We got to mix it here in London. It was just enough space to make it feel like it was ready for the world. There’s an element to which anyone could go on and on, but that doesn’t make a project better. It just changes it.
What would your advice be to someone that would like to get into film composing?
My advice would be to try to work out what one’s own voice and calling might be, as opposed to being an impersonator. It’s important to have a sense of what every individual likes or doesn’t like. That is what people respond to–an opinion, a musical opinion or an artistic opinion. My advice would be to humbly develop a voice that feels authentic and personal. With that, anything is possible and one can then occupy any space. Then it doesn’t have to be for the sake of being different. It is just important that we use art as a form of personal expression and sharing. It has to come from somewhere inside. Trying too hard often goes against the grain. It is very hard work, but enough of it has to feel effortless. For it to be art, it has to feel free.
My advice would be to humbly develop a voice that feels authentic and personal. With that, anything is possible. One can then occupy any space. And it doesn’t have to be for the sake of being different.
If five people have all the same sounds, they’re all going to do different things if they let themselves. They will all show their own personalities. I think that technology is there for us all in a good way.
Whether that instrument is an iPhone or a cello, it’s the same principle of expression. In film music composing, getting the balance between art and craft is also very, very important, because you can have all the ideas in the world, but knowing how to land them and how to share them is another thing. It’s about the joy of collaboration and learning.