Guest post by Alyssa Brooks, IU Cinema’s Marketing and Programming Coordinator.
In 2019, Jacobs School of Music student Patrick Holcomb was awarded the fifth Jon Vickers Scoring Award, a commission to compose a new orchestral score for a silent film. Holcomb’s score for Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life will premiere Saturday, April 17. This year’s program contains several firsts: Grass is the first documentary to be chosen for the annual series; this is the first full-length film score Holcomb has written; while the premiere will happen live, it will be the first to happen in a virtual space; and due to the virtual nature of the performance, the score includes musical elements that would have been logistically impossible to execute in our physical space (more on that later).
Patrick Holcomb became interested in composition as a 12-year-old when he attended a band concert at his future high school. He tells me, “They played something that was totally different than anything I’d ever heard before, and it just blew my mind. My brain expanded 10 times, and I just thought, I have to make someone else feel that same way someday. I have to write something that will make someone else’s brain expand 10 times.” He has since earned a Bachelor of Music in Composition at Ithaca College and is working toward his master’s degree at the Jacobs School of Music. A Scoring for Visual Media class with film composer and Jacobs professor Larry Groupé led him to write and record his entry into the Jon Vickers Scoring Award competition, a five-minute segment of music to accompany the final climactic moments of Grass.
Grass is an ethnographic documentary directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest C. Schoedsack — notably, the makers of King Kong (1933) — following the nomadic Bakhtiari tribe in Persia (now Iran) on a harrowing but necessary journey. Twice a year, 50,000 people herded 500,000 animals through nearly insurmountable obstacles in search of grass for the survival of their herds, themselves, and their way of life. I spoke with Holcomb about his own journey through composing a new score for Grass, the obstacles and opportunities he encountered over the past year, and how he sought to do justice by this remarkable cultural document.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Alyssa Brooks: Let’s start by talking about the scoring-award competition process. You were given a five-minute clip of the film and had to compose a segment of music for it. How did you go about that?
Patrick Holcomb: I remember I downloaded the clip and watched it, and I was kind of like, What is going on? I had Googled the film, but surprisingly there’s not much written about it on the Internet. . . . I was operating on very little information about what the film was actually about, and this clip was five minutes toward the very end. . . . I trudged my way through it, I made my first draft, and I sent it to Professor Groupé for comments. He said, “This is really what the film is about . . . you’re very close, but you need to go about it a little more intentionally.” The second draft is what I submitted. . . .
Something that has always stuck with me from the classes that I’ve taken with Professor Groupé is that he tells us to watch a film and choose one word to describe what the film is really about. . . . For Grass, the word I chose was resilience. It’s really about the resilience of these people on this amazing and difficult journey they go on because they don’t have another choice; because if they stayed where they were, they wouldn’t survive. Many of them die along the way, but again, they have to go, because grass is life, and grass is in front of them. Behind them, the grass has withered, and if they stay, they’ll die.
Holcomb says Groupé advised him to hit these shots of the Bakhtiari tribe scaling the mountain Zardeh Kuh and the chief’s son looking on in his music. “I played that clip for some family and friends after, and it’s amazing how many people started to cry at that moment.”
AB: How long did it take you to write the score and when did you finish? Do you think the pandemic influenced your process or the final product, given the situation we’ve been in most of the time you’ve been writing it?
PH: It took me forever. After that clip, which was something like two years ago, I didn’t touch the film for a while because I had another big commission to take care of first. I didn’t really get into the film until last April. I’d been home here in Delaware for about a month from school. I started to work on it, but didn’t really get going until August. Then I was working on the film every day from August until the very end of February. So, it took me quite a long time. . . .
At first, I was disappointed because I didn’t know if there would be a performance at all. Not in person, not virtual, not anything. That’s part of the reason for that span from April to August where I was kind of working on it, but not working very hard. When I started to hear we were going to try to do this virtually . . . I decided to try to make the most of it, and I did some things that would not have been possible if it were in person. I used some electronics, which we’re just going to bring in when we’re feeding it to the livestream. That wouldn’t have been possible in person.
Also, my collaboration with our dulcimer soloist Malcolm Dalglish would not have worked in person. This film score being 62 minutes long, it probably visits every key that there is, but his instrument is in one key. We’re able to electronically manipulate to different keys, or re-tune and pre-record different sections. Basically, we’re able to get him throughout the film playing in all the keys that he needs to play in, in a way that wouldn’t be possible in person due to the limitations of his instrument.
AB: Did you ever watch the film with another score? Milestone Films has it with an authentic Iranian score composed and performed by Gholamhosain Janati-Ataie.
PH: I did, yeah. I kind of tried to ignore it, because I wanted to go into it very untainted by any ideas of what the music should be . . . I didn’t want to imitate or try to represent Iranian music or any particular culture. I don’t think that is necessarily an appropriate thing [for me] to do, and I wanted it to be just me, not trying to do anything.
AB: I’m glad you mentioned not wanting to represent or imitate music that’s not from your culture. Obviously, you don’t want to create something generic that doesn’t match up with the reality of what’s on screen, but you also don’t want to exoticize or try to imitate something, as you said.
PH: It’s honestly been an anxiety of mine because I really did not want to exoticize it or have anything appropriative in it, and at the same time, I still had to represent the time and place on the screen. I’m lucky that a lot of the elements of my own personal style seemed well-suited for the task, so . . . I just kind of wrote it how I wrote it, and it just happened that this film was perfectly suited to the kind of music that I enjoy writing.
AB: What influences and inspiration did you draw from while composing?
PH: There are a lot of references from film composers, some video game composers, and also concert composers. I think my favorite film composer is John Powell. He did How to Train Your Dragon. . . . [E]ven in children’s movies, he brings an astonishing level of complexity to the music. With regards to orchestration, Professor Groupé pointed me to Thomas Newman.
There are moments [inspired by] some of my favorite video game composers, Austin Wintory and Koji Kondo, as well as some concert composers. There’s one cue in particular that sounds a bit like John Adams, or maybe Christopher Cerrone. I think I sent you that clip, it’s the river scene.
AB: Yes! It did remind me of Adams.
PH: That scene was very challenging. One of the first things I did is I divide it into chunks to make it less scary than just one 62-minute film. [The river scene] is one continuous 12-minute sequence. All the other cues are around a three- or four-minute range; this is 12 minutes of continuous crossing the river. I chose to use influences from John Adams and Christopher Cerrone because they have influences of minimalism, and that’s a way to stretch a small amount of music over very long musical space. That seemed to be not only fitting but also necessary in order for me to actually get it fixed.
AB: An intellectual solution to a practical problem.
PH: That’s all I can hope for.
AB: Something I appreciated about Grass is how little it focuses on individual narratives. We meet the filmmakers once and see the Bakhtiari chief Haidar and his son Lufta several times throughout, but it’s very much about the collective effort of 50,000 people. Film scores often rely on themes for individuals. How did the scope of Grass affect the way you structured the score and approached themes?
PH: In this situation I also tried to find an intellectual solution to a practical problem. I did really enjoy seeing the chief and his son, so I gave each of them their own theme. Something I worked very hard on was making their themes stackable, so there could be one at one time, and the other at another time, but they can also happen simultaneously and match perfectly. Those are the only themes for individuals. The filmmakers have their own theme, but there’s three of them [Cooper and Schoedsack were joined by “journalist and sometimes spy” Marguerite Harrison, the only one of the three to appear onscreen during the journey].
The entire tribe has one theme. It goes through different transformations based on different circumstances. For example, I made a variation of that theme that I refer to as the travel theme. . . . There are several different versions of the theme that work in different contexts that way, but . . . the entire last two-thirds of the film are mostly permutations of that one theme for the tribe in different contexts.
AB: Do you think you handled scoring this documentary differently than you would if you were scoring a narrative film? How did the reality of the footage change the way you shaped it?
PH: I think that one of the things that I had to get used to with this being a documentary was that it was a lot less playing to specific actions. They’re almost constantly moving. I needed the music to kind of churn along. . . . [I]f it were fictional, I would have been less concerned with trying to push us forward, and I would have maybe had more space to reflect on small-scale bits of dialogue or actions. In this one, a lot of the small-scale intertitles and actions are wallpapered over in favor of perpetual motion. A lot of the intertitles are not really critical . . . [I]n a lot of circumstances, I didn’t react to them in the way that maybe I would have. If there were necessary dialogue, perhaps that would have had musical implications, but in this, I just took each chunk of the film as: they’re traveling. Where are they traveling to and from? How can I represent that? What kind of musical colors are appropriate?
The intertitles in Grass are often exclamatory or observational in nature, serving as captions to the photography and including very little conversation. Holcomb prioritized “perpetual motion” over musically reacting to the intertitles.
AB: What you were seeking to add to the film with your score, and how do you want to affect others’ experience of the film when they hear it on April 17?
PH: This is challenging, because I think the film on its own doesn’t really need anything added to it. It’s such a powerful and amazing film that I don’t even feel it needs music. But music is great in the way it can bring us into the story and help us empathize with the characters . . . [W]hat I hope to augment is the sense of community of the tribe. When you hear the community’s theme at very key moments, I want you to have that feeling of empathy and community . . . feeling their hardships and feeling their triumphs as well . . . [T]he film on its own does a lot of that, but I’m trying to elevate that part of it.
AB: What else about your score or this process would you like to talk about that we haven’t discussed yet?
PH: It might be interesting to talk a little bit more about our dulcimer soloist Malcolm Dalglish and that process. It’s been very unique and challenging and very rewarding. When I wrote this score initially, I did not write a dulcimer part at all. When I scored my first draft and sent it to Professor Groupé, he said, “You know what this needs? This needs some dulcimer, because it sounds like Thomas Newman, and that’s what Thomas Newman would do.” . . .
Professor Groupé managed to get Malcolm Dalglish on the project, who’s just the most fantastic dulcimer player you can imagine. I was like, We’re going to find a way to make this work. And we have, in the ways that I mentioned, with both re-tuning his instrument and also pitch-altering the recordings to match his key with the ensemble. The other thing is, [Dalglish] is primarily an improviser. . . . Once he joined the project — which I was about halfway through writing — I had to give up some of my control over the score and put it in his hands and his creative vision, which was very scary at first. . . . Luckily, he immediately just gets the film. He understands what he needs to do to bring out both the narrative of the film and my vision for the score. Every time he sends me one of his improvisations, it’s just amazing, because it’s nothing like what I was expecting. . . . [His melodies] layer onto each other perfectly and they give this rush of energy that definitely wasn’t there in my initial writing of the piece. It’s been extremely rewarding to work with him.
AB: It’s interesting that you had to rely on that collective effort to push the final piece to another level, for a film that’s about this enormous collective effort in a community.
PH: It’s been very interesting the ways the music that I write always finds a way to mirror what’s going on in my actual life. This a film about a massive journey, and then it became a massive journey for me. When I earned this commission, I decided I was going to do another master’s degree in scoring for visual media. It launched an entire journey of my own.
On April 17, join us for a virtual film introduction and film screening as we present a world-premiere score for Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life as part of the Jon Vickers Scoring Award. Please note: this is a one-time only, live viewing event. You must be present at the beginning of the event to view it in its entirety.
Alyssa Brooks is IU Cinema’s Marketing and Programming Coordinator. She has a Bachelor of Music in Voice from the University of Evansville and an MA in Arts Administration from the Indiana University O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs.