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March/April 2021

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SOUNDTRACK 21 POST MAR/APR 2021 omposer Nathan Halpern created a retro thriller score for direc- tor Carlo Mirabella-Davis's new film Swallow (IFC Films). The psychologi- cal-thriller follows Hunter Conrad (Haley Bennett), a recently-married housewife who's just discovered that she is preg- nant. Her controlling husband, sinister in-laws and dark past fuel a compulsion to consume dangerous objects. Halpern created a score that embrac- es the elegant and carefully-composed structure of the film, with music that subtly evokes the style of mid-century Hollywood thrillers and melodramas of the '50s and '60s. The score also explores more dissonant sonic textures, often within the same track. The film's music needed to reflect the psycholog- ical state of the lead character, Hunter, whose complex emotional journey takes her to some unexpected places. "As the film progresses, the initially- silky surface of the music soon grows darker and more dissonant, with strange discordant sounds emerging that vari- ously evoke the glass and metal objects that she is drawn to, and the classical instrumentation begins to warp beyond recognition," Halpern explains. "In my first conversations about the score with writer/director Carlo Mirabella-Davis and producers Mollye Asher and Mynette Louie, we discussed the idea that the music should have a connection to the aesthetics of mid-cen- tury Hollywood, evocative of what Carlo called a 'Douglas Sirk-ian kind of callback to the Hitchcock style' of filmmaking." This would be in keeping with the over- all cinematic aesthetic of the film, with its elegant and stylish cinematography by DP Kate Arizmendi, Hunter's retro-chic outfits from costume designer Liene Dobraja, and stylized mid-century decor from prduction designer Erin Magill. "It was also essential that the music speak to Hunter's point-of-view and sub- jectivity. She goes to some unexpected places emotionally, and Carlo walked me through her developing psychological state, step-by-step. Her developing emo- tions and inner life guided and inspired the sound and emotional tone of each cue that I composed." Halpern's first cues made use of an instrument palette that was in keeping with a mid-century cinematic style — del- icate piano, harp, strings and woodwinds. "The surface of the music is elegant and romantic, yet there is an under- current of melancholy in the melody, pointing to something not quite right just beneath the surface," he explains. "As the film progresses, the sonic presentation of these initial themes grow increasingly strange and defamiliarized. The string sounds become edgier and warped, and strange unpleasant sounds bubble up against the melodies." Halpern says the idea of tonal con- trast within a given cue is something he explores throughout the score. "For the musical cue that introduc- es Hunter's pregnancy, we introduce a theme to signal a feeling of what Carlo called 'disquiet', in which the music needed to be dark and discordant, but still with some surface elegance, so an unsettling and twisting theme is played on silky, delicate violins that float atop an undercurrent of darkly-rumbling cellos." As the film progresses, Hunter is driv- en to swallow increasingly more danger- ous objects. "We discussed the idea that the music could evoke the musical language of the psychological thrillers of Hitchcock and DePalma. That is, the cinema of compul- sion and obsession. When Hunter finds herself drawn to swallow a thumbtack — a pivotal moment in the film — the score helps to draw us into her emotional point-of-view as she puts the thumbtack to her tongue, helping us feel the sense of allure that this object has for her." For this scene, Mirabella-Davis wanted a feeling of 'dark romance'. "He told me that he and Haley often discussed this sequence as being the film's first love scene." The cue — "Temptation" — contrasts dark minor chords with lushly romantic string melodies, delicate piano and flut- tering harps that convey an undercurrent of sensuality. As Hunter's journey grows darker, the sounds in the score begin to crack to pieces, reflecting her fractured emotions. The melodies begin to fall away and the score becomes increasingly disso- nant, with dark scraping strings and the warped tones of glass and metal, evoking the objects that she has swallowed. "The creative process with Carlo and the film team was lively and inspired," says Halpern. "Carlo would often encour- age me to step away from the picture and write musical themes impressionisti- cally. We would have general discussions about the film and the lead character, and he would share evocative and poetic writing that he had created, expressing his vision for the character and the film. I would ingest these ideas and I then let them motivate my compositions as I wrote freely, playing with melodic ideas and sounds that I shared with Carlo. These motifs went on to become part of the thematic backbone of the score, and I went on to put them against picture, re-composing them to fit the editing rhythms (created by Joe Murphy) of individual scenes." Swallow is available for viewing on digital/VOD, and the feature's soundtrack is available from Lakeshore Records. IFC FILMS' SWALLOW BY MARC LOFTUS NATHAN HALPERN SCORES THIS PSYCHOLOGICAL- THRILLER C Composer Nathan Halpern The score explores dissonant sonic textures.

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