JOHN FRIZZELL (2007, Part B)

October 20, 2010 | By

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Following the completion of the horror film Stay Alive, John Frizzell shifted from that score’s more experimental,aleatoric style to a fusion of more accessible action-suspense music for Primeval. Like his prior scores, however, nothing’s conventional in John Frizzell’s latest score, which incorporates traditional African music supervised & recorded on location by the composer.

Although our conversation revolves around his 85 minute score for Primeval, Frizzell also describes the rewarding benefits in working with African musicians, some philosophical and cultural differences, and the use of current innovative software.

Mark R. Hasan: From our prior conversation, you explained that you spent a great deal of time researching and recording authentic African instruments and performances, which is pretty unusual for a horror film, and I guess the temptation nowadays, particularly if a production’s budget is pretty modest, is to exploit existing sound and music libraries. Did the filmmakers want authenticity, or was it your own choice to immerse yourself into a fresh musical culture?

John Frizzell: Well, from the beginning, Michael Katleman, the director… wanted to be as creative and ambitious as possible, as I always do with my own work, and so it involved coming up with a plan to find new ways to approach what we were doing, and the logical answer to that was to break the mold and go to Africa, and see what I could find.

MRH: That’s pretty unusual, because I think in most cases people tend to draw from existing sound libraries.

JF: I can’t stand that [laughs]. I mean, there’ve been times when I’ve been forced to do it and I used some sound, and then I hear it on a commercial six months later, and my skin starts to peel off and I fee uncomfortable.

I want my work to be my work, so for me it’s really important that the sound be unique in the score. I push really hard for that, and you can’t always do it, but in this situation we found a way to do it [and it became] the most musically invigorating thing I’ve ever done.

MRH: I guess one of the benefits of going on location is that you’re actually there to experience the discovery processe: you’re exposing yourself to sounds and instruments that you’ve never seen and heard before, or are perhaps practiced in very small communities or organizations.

JF: I was fortunate to find a guy named Craig McGahey in South Africa, who was able to put me in the room with some great musicians, like [Dizu Plaatjies, from the band Amanpondo]. Dizu’s one of the real legends of traditional African music…He knows everything, all the history.

MRH: Were there any specific instruments that you found were the most special, and felt were ideal for your score?

JF: I don’t know if there was one instrument, but I think there were concepts that I didn’t realize were in traditional African music that really amazed me. One of them was the use of flanging and overtones and spacings; where things almost sound like a wah-wah sound, almost like the way you’d use a wah-wah pedal. Or they’ll use a mouth bow, and you shape your mouth in different ways to accentuate different overtones at different times; that can be in a sense the melody, if the tapping is the rhythm

MRH: I think I remember that motif does appear in some of the film’s early cues.

JF: Yeah, there’s a lot of that in it.

MRH: The design of the score didn’t strike me as being melodic at all. I think there’s two cues with brief vocal passages that bookend the score, but there are rare, soothing moments in an otherwise impressionistic score that emphasizes linear tonal impressions, layered with some other sounds, plus chunks of percussion.

This is a bit of a generalization, but with Western instruments, if you look at the strings, the percussion and the brass, they all kind of evolved from tried concepts sometimes extensively refined over time, and I wonder, with some of the African instruments that you found, whether there were specific instruments that had basically remained timeless after thousands of years simply because the design didn’t necessitate any kind of major change, or because the instruments were used in local, more isolated communities?

JF: There’s a different concept of art in the two cultures. What I learned about African music is that it tends to be a self-reflective, introspective idea [that’s present in] communal events and functional events and even political types of music. But maybe thousands of years ago, you were hunting on the Kalahari. You had your bow and an arrow, and there was no game, and you might start tapping on the string, then tapping a rhythm, and then humming a tune to the rhythm, against the rhythm, with the rhythm, and that’s what Dizu really showed me – that some of these instruments really came out of everyday life.

The other thing I learned is that traditional African music is in a dangerous place of being lost. There’s just not a lot of it being preserved, even in Africa… and I hope more is done about. I know that Dizu is someone who spends a great deal of energy promoting the history and teaching the ideas of it, so it’s something to keep our eyes on, so we don’t forget about this incredible history.

MRH: Is some of that just because of Western influence, or is it just Africa’s own musical evolution, where it’s all moving into a more contemporary phase?

JF: Well, perhaps in South Africa. You have a country in which enormous political things have occurred in twenty years, and has enormous issues to solve, from AIDS to the wars, and maybe they just get the focus. I mean, there’s a lot of traditional American music that gets lost, but I do think that it is important that traditional African music starts to find a way to be preserved a little better, because it could get dropped between the generation that we have now, and the incoming one.

MRH: A more conventional attempt to craft an ethnic-styled score is to add token bits of lyrics, vocal styles, an exotic pop-fusion song, or percussion to what’s often a straightforward Western score, and you hear that in works like Congo, Medicine Man, Cry Freedom, A World Apart, or even The Interpreter. In spite of good intentions, these efforts can sound a bit clichéd, and I wonder if that’s a trap you tried to avoid when composing Primeval?

JF: I think first of all we’re talking about some legendary scores by legendary composers that are beautiful and function beautifully in those films, but I did want to try something different; I didn’t want the African music drive the score and the whole process.

Technology has allowed us to do that: none of the sessions I did in Africa were done to [a click track]; none of the sessions were done to any specific tuning. I basically recorded many, many hours of phrases, ideas, and improvisations that we came up with, and then [with my assistant], we chopped them all up into small performances. There was over eight hundred in the end, divided into different categories and instrumentation, and they were all put into a software engine, Kontakt, made by a great company called Native Instruments, which then allowed me to change the tempo of each performance as I composed, and also have the tuning follow whatever I wanted… [Without this technology] you wouldn’t be able to hit picture in the appropriate way. There’s certain limitations that existed in the past that are gone now.

MRH: There’s one cue on the CD which has kind of primordial electronic sounds that are twisted and skewered and warped during the course of what’s a chase or suspense sequence.

JF: I took a lot of the African performances and put them into their granular synthesizer, part of a program called Reaktor, and put a lot of the flute performances and stuff in there, and they came out with these very ethereal synthesized sounds, but they’re still fundamentally, and at a core level, pure African performances.


. would like to thank John Frizzell for speaking with us, and Tom Kidd at Costa Communications for facilitating the interview.

All images remain the property of their copyright holders.

This article and interview © 2007 by Mark R. Hasan

Related interviews with John Frizzell: Legion (2010), The Reaping (2007), and Stay Alive (2006)


Related external links (MAIN SITE):

DVD/Film: Primeval (2007)


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