We gotta give composers the credit they deserve. Without them, we may not evoke the same emotions during certain scenes in our favorite TV show or movie. We applaud them all. And right now, we’re giving it up for award-winning composer and multi-instrumentalist Ariel Marx. Ariel recently scored the film The Tale which will be premiering at Sundance. The Tale follows an investigation into one woman’s memory as she is forced to re-examine her first sexual relationship and the stories we tell ourselves to survive featuring an all-star cast: Emmy Winner Laura Dern, Jason Ritter, and Common.
Consider us definitely interested. TYF lives for music and film so we were very happy to chat with Ariel Marx to learn about her musical background, her process of creating new music, and how she went about composing The Tale.
The Young Folks: First off, for our readers who are hearing about you for the first time, can you tell us how you decided your path to become a composer?
Ariel Marx: Thanks for having me! I grew up in a musical family, and I started playing lots of different instruments from a young age, and composing naturally grew out of that. I was always interested in modes of storytelling — film, books, folklore, oral histories. I often needed some sort of narrative as a point of entry for my compositions. After listening to my music, a friend mentioned that I should consider writing music for film, and it really clicked. It was the perfect medium to engage all of my interests. I studied composition formally for several years, and then got my Master’s in music theory and composition at NYU’s Film Scoring program. I met a lot of filmmakers from various film schools in New York City, and my first collaborations grew from those relationships.
TYF: With so many instruments under your belt, do you favor one over the other at times?
Marx: It’s hard to say, but perhaps I do play favorites — bowed string instruments. I have a violin, viola, and a stroh violin which is essentially a violin with a horn attached to its body for additional amplification; I love it — it has a very unique and gritty sound. There are endless textures and emotions that can emerge from these instruments. I love layering myself and creating dense and undulating string textures, both by themselves or layered with other samples. I often take audio recordings of myself and process them with plugins to make them unfamiliar and unsettling. I also like to create my own sample libraries — recording single notes or techniques on my instruments and mapping then to a midi controller so I have maximum flexibility. Basically, I love exploring all of the different sonic opportunities of a single instrument. I think the more you manipulate and go under the hood of your instrument or sample library, the more singular you will sound. As composers, we all essentially have the same tools, so it’s about creating our individuality through how we use and modify them.
TYF: Composing music from pure nothing is an amazing feat. What movie or even TV show has inspired or moved you so much the moment you saw/heard it? Or, do you have a specific composer you look up to?
Marx: Yes, it’s a small miracle when a texture, motif, theme, or whatever musical fragment comes your way. There are so many incredible composers out there with such different backgrounds and aesthetic styles — I’m constantly evolving and growing and learning from what I hear. My first fascination was with the work of Mark Orton and Tin Hat — how they create such playfulness and drama with such a small group of musicians — you can hear and appreciate the detail of every note — I’m thinking particularly of the score for Nebraska. I love Jonny Greenwood — his bold, textural, and unapologetically present string-based scores on There Will Be Blood and The Master. Likewise with Mica Levi on Under The Skin and Jackie. I love the work of Alexandre Desplat, Thomas Newman, Sean Callery, Jon Brion, Dario Marianelli, Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, Nate Barr, Mac Quayle, Jóhann Jóhannsson… The list goes on and on, as do the reasons why…
TYF: Where do you draw your inspiration from? Or, what do you do to get other noise out of your head to focus on what YOU want to create?
Marx: Almost always my inspiration comes from the story. Even just a production still, a passage in the script, or a prompt the director gives. There certainly is a process of getting to the right tone of the score. I go through a lot of sketches and versions — I have to scratch through the surface layers — before I start understanding it. Once you have enough thematic material or motifs, or even instrumental textures, a specific tone starts to emerge, and you can begin to fine tune that.
TYF: What do you do in those moments where you know there’s something missing – a certain instrument, note, or pause? I feel like that must be hard if you’re constantly listening to a certain song on loop that it may be hard to hear it from a different perspective.
Marx: It’s really important to step back and gain perspective — give your ears a break — if you’re hitting a wall. Sometimes on short deadlines it feels impossible to do this, but it’s as necessary as getting a reasonable amount of sleep. For me, that might mean going out and seeing the sunlight, having a coffee — stepping outside the studio in some capacity. When you return, be that 5 minutes later or the next day, the music is bound to sound different. Sometimes a solution will present itself, or it’s a matter of trial and error, trial and error. There’s always a solution, and some of them are more stubborn than others.
TYF: How do you know when to step away from a finished product?
Marx: There’s a saying that in this discipline, you’re never finished — you just run out of time or money. To me, the most successful music serves both the picture and story, and also holds up as a piece of music unto itself. I suspect that no composer, nor any artist for that matter, ever feels their work is completely finished.
TYF: How did the job of composing “The Tale” come about for you? What did you need to do in order to get an idea of knowing exactly what music you’ll be placing within the movie?
Marx: When I was getting my Master’s at NYU, I was selected to participate in the Columbia/ASCAP Film Scoring Workshop where I wrote the music for Daniel Nickson’s and Reka Posta’s beautiful short film, Dear Mother. Reka was involved with The Tale since its early development, and ultimately connected with the writer and director, Jennifer Fox.
Jennifer and I had many talks about the palette of the film, and ultimately we decided it would be small and intimate, and essentially grow from the instrumentation of some of the source cues in the film — strings, guitars, piano, electronics. The story focuses on the mechanics of memories, and how they can change over time, and re-contextualize our identity — how they can simultaneously protect and harm us, help and deceive us. The score for The Tale had to honor these juxtapositions, and have a subtle, yet not quite neutral presence. It had to be able to grow right alongside Jennifer — it had to mold to her point of view and changing perspectives. To adapt all of this, I used a layered and modular approach to the score — lots of independent motors and motifs — so it could easily shift and breathe.
TYF: When you speak with the cast or look at the script of a movie, what are your first thoughts in order to achieve what you want to accomplish?
Marx: I think determining the palette from which I will draw all of the musical DNA is the most important framework to identify before anything else. When digging into individual scenes, it also becomes about determining a point of view — who, and what, is the music commenting on? These larger decisions help streamline my creativity.
TYF: Do you feel pressure in general as being one of the very few female composers in a male dominated field? If so, how do you overcome this pressure?
Marx: I’m certainly aware of how few of us there are, but it’s certainly changing. I don’t feel pressure actually, but rather very supported by both male and female collaborators and mentors. It’s a really important and conscious time in this industry, and so many great initiatives are happening to bring less-heard voices to the forefront. I work very hard to push myself and evolve and to have a well-rounded and refined voice as a composer, who also happens to be female.
TYF: If given a chance to re-compose any movie in the world, what movie would that be?
Marx: This is a really hard one to answer, because the films I would love to score also have scores that I adore. I would say The Master or Beasts of the Southern Wild.
What’s in the works for the future that we should be looking forward to?
Marx: Just after The Tale, I wrote the score for Armen Perian’s The Angry River — an augmented reality film about a family of human traffickers in Portland, Oregon. There are a few feature projects on the horizon, that I unfortunately can’t say too much about just yet, but you’ll see and hear more of me soon!