Tremolos and Dissonance: Composer Trevor Gureckis on Crafting a Compelling Score for ‘The Goldfinch’

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Sitting in a pub during the 44th Toronto International Film Festival, composer Trevor Gureckis (Bloodline) talked about getting the opportunity to score his first Hollywood production The Goldfinch with the help of veteran music supervisor Susan Jacobs (Big Little Lies). “Sue and I had worked on another film called Wetlands. She approached me about this movie and gave me an early cut. Sue said, ‘Don’t write it to picture. Just write a piece of music based on what you’re inspired by, and make sure that it has a theme. Those were the parameters I was given. I wrote a three-and-a-half-minute piece just to start and it ended up being the first cue of movie. That was like my audition for John Crowley [Brooklyn],” Gureckis recalls. “I had crossed the threshold. I wrote 20 minutes. All of that stuff was thrown out except for the first piece. At that point we had established a concept, what the world was going to be, and all of the aesthetics. We hit the gas once it was clear that we were on the same page and that I was going to be the composer.”

There is a clear Goldfinch theme that is tied to Theo [played by Oakes Fegley and Ansel Elgort]  and ‘The Goldfinch’ painting. “It’s a five-note theme that is played in different ways,” states Gureckis. “There’s a section where the bassline is in 10/8. The theme is like a dominant chord and not until the end of the film does it resolve into the whole thing. The piano opens up in a way that it has never had before. Previously, it was always holding up in the way Theo is holding onto this painting and trauma in his life.” The theme is in the piano. “John and I discussed what the scenes were about. We had an early connection with the first piece. We knew that we were in some world with the expectation being that the orchestra was impressionistic sounding. It had artistic qualities and was very colorful. The piano held this theme that was a somewhat romantic element and mysterious in a way. It’s a little bit dark. It is in a lot of places because this is a dark story.”

Composer Trevor Gureckis (photo by Ben Norman)

Music is a strong character in The Goldfinch. “The score has a literal quality that signals certain elements, being thematic, but also strongly sets tone because it’s dramatic,” observes Gureckis. “The score reinforces elements, so whenever there is a moment of drama it helps to heighten that. We were trying to get a sense of largeness in the story and were trying to push and lift that up with the huge 50-person orchestra and big synth parts. There are unique moments of people doing strange things with their instruments. We wanted it to be a big story because it is. There were so many great people working on it. [Cinematographer] Roger Deakins’ [Prisoners] work is in there and John has created such an amazing new film that is not the book. These are two different things.”

The major difference between the cinematic adaptation and the source material was the decision to have a nonlinear narrative structure. “It creates these moments of transition,” remarks Gureckis. “There are cues that I have where I have to go from stark contrast where we are being pulled through over time. Right before Theo overdoses there is a huge electronic thing and the orchestra is shimmering with all of these tremolos. You jump into this violin and piano quiet piece as Theo remembers writing letters to Pippa [Aimée Lawrence] when he was kid and that’s the scene we’ve jumped into. He has these dramatic waves and shifts of emotion and that’s highlighting the editing that Kelley Dixon [Breaking Bad] did, which was an amazing job of handling these nonlinear events.”

Ansel Elgort as Theo Decker

Plenty of dissonance and strange electronic sounds were incorporated into the score to produce an unsettling effect. “Harmonically I was selecting chords that would sometimes rub against each other and create a contrast between them,” explains Gureckis. “Then there is also contrast against picture. When Theo returns to the Barbours’ [Nicole Kidman and Boyd Gaines] home, the music is a shade darker than you would expect because he’s returning to this place that he thought as his second home. It was an interesting experiment because when I wrote that cue, I wasn’t sure about it. John and I talked about a lot of different ways of doing this. It starts in the mid-register. It’s more of a questioning sound. There is a turning and twisting. The camera work is doing all of this too.” The piano was straightforward and simple. “Sometimes I’d put my hand inside of the piano to stop the notes. I put clothespins in the notes to pick out each harmonic. There are a couple of scenes in Las Vegas where I play overtones on the piano.”

“I worked closely with John Crowley, Sue Jacobs, and Nancy Allen [music editor],” remarks Gureckis. “We were a team trying to figure this out.” The various environments impacted the instrumentation. “In Las Vegas there are a lot more synth qualities. The players are doing flutter-tonguing and breath sounds. When we get to Amsterdam, the synths have a harder edge and are thrilling because there are a lot of thrilling moments there. New York is the neutral starting position.” The recordings took place in New York at Power Station with a number of players from the MET Orchestra. “I recorded on a Steinway grand piano which is, in my opinion, what you really need to create a big score to tell an epic story. I worked with [conductor/orchestrator] David Campbell and did all of the arranging. I had about a month and a half to finish 50 minutes of music.”

Composer Trevor Gureckis (photo by Ben Norman)

“I use Logic as my DAW, and my workhouse analogue synth keyboard is the Prophet ’08,” reveals Gureckis. “Then I record on a piano so I can remember what I just did. I like to move quickly so I don’t get caught up in doubt. I’m all for throwing stuff out and starting over. I have a music company called Found Objects Music Productions owned by myself and composer Jay Wadley [Adam]. We’ve had the space for six years. It’s four rooms with pianos in each of them that have their own setup. I have a Petrof upright and a $300 violin that I got from Amazon that I beat up for the score of M. Night Shyamalan’s Servant. The Prophet ‘08 I use all of the time.  It’s like the voice.” Moments of silence are welcomed. “Not having music and just having good scenes — that’s the best part, too. I’d rather have it work than some kind of ego trip. Sometimes wall-to-wall music is crazy, besides the fact that it drives the composer insane!”

The finale of The Goldfinch is a proud moment. “We ended up going just with music. It’s so rare to get that opportunity,” Gureckis recalls. “Theo realizes that he has to deal with his mother dying and taking the painting. That wasn’t the solution. It’s the first time you see the whole scene [of the bombing]. It’s an emotional release for the audience and musically it’s tied in because we’ve been setting up the thematic element that is finally realized on the piano. Then there is this weird break where it goes to black and this chord change is like a left turn that goes into this super trippy world, which to me is about moving on. I didn’t want to go back to the same chord at the end. Life goes on in different ways. This was the first time that I thought of music in that way.”

-S&P-

Images courtesy of Warner Bros.

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