Composer Alexis Maingaud’s score for The Sonata, is at the moment causing something of a stir amongst film music fans and critics alike, it is a work filled with driving but melodic themes and a score that not only enhances perfectly the films storyline, but is a rewarding and enriching listening experience on its own. My thanks to the composer for his time and for answering so many questions. jm.
What would you say is the purpose of music in film?
More than the purpose of film music, the question to ask ourselves is what is the purpose of a film? How is a film made? The most important answer among those possible, would be to say that to make cinema, it is above all to play in a team. Everyone has a role in giving the film the emotions the audience will feel. It is talent and general chemistry that will decide the intensity of these emotions. I would call it “a gathering of souls”. Film music is one of the souls of a film.
How did you become involved on The Sonata?
The director, Andrew Desmond, is an old friend. We studied cinema at the same school, and we even worked together on one of his first short films. After several years of working on our own, we met again in 2017 and discussed our respective projects, including The Sonata which caught my attention… He knew my background as a classical musician, and I knew his love for the great tradition of symphonic film music. In the summer of 2017, the production of the film validated the shooting. It was then that Andrew contacted me to write the piece for The Sonata which takes place in the film. I barely had a few weeks to compose and pre-record it with my violinist friend Olivier Leclerc. I had to compose this piece before shooting, to shoot the scene synchronously. I also met the actress Freya Tingley in Paris to give her some indications on the position and the musical intentions.
Within the score for The Sonata there are some what I think are Jerry Goldsmith trademarks and nods to Bernard Herrmann, did the director of the movie have any specific instructions regarding the music and what sound or style it should have?
Andrew wanted a very particular musical aesthetic, with old and tormented sounds. Herrmann and his Vertigo score were obviously references. Herrmann brought so much to film music. The orchestration but also the rhythmic and melodic motif which was particularly innovative for its time. For my part, I immediately thought of Shostakovich, who is for me one of the most tormented and dark composers of the twentieth century. In addition, he is an artist who has spent his time paving his work with hidden messages in order to escape censorship (and goulag/death).
This point is more interesting when one thinks of Richard Marlowe (Rutger Hauer) who wrote his famous Sonata in a coded way. As for Jerry Goldmisth, it’s more about reflecting my own influences. Jerry Goldsmith is one of my highest references, I deeply admire his work but also the man he was. Generous, simple, discreet, incredibly efficient and sensitive. Full mastery of his art. He also had a very special sense of action and the tension that it can cause. I particularly like his strong popular personality. He wrote music for “the people”, for what they had in their hearts, not for reviews or for posterity.
You conducted the score for The Sonata, is this something that you try to do as much as possible, I mean conduct your own scores?
For me, conducting is the continuation of my work as a composer. In life, the more you multiply the intermediaries, the more your thinking is diluted. The cinema is already a collective sport, if film music is also very much, for me the fact of multiplying the intermediaries contributes to one thing: standardization. That is why I try to conduct my scores most of the time I can do it.
Although The Sonata contains a driving score, it still has many themes, do you think it is important for a score to have strong themes, and what do you think of the current trend to employ drone like sounds and soundscapes rather than melodic music in films?
In a pragmatic way, I think that it is above all the film, its esthetics and its degree of requirement which will decide the musical landscape that composer will create. Sometimes sound textures give incredible results. You just must look at the late Jóhann Jóhannsson. But indeed, I think that today we give more importance to the sound than to the note. For my part and as much as possible, I prefer to favor a thematic work because I think that the melody is the first responsible of audience’s dreams and wonders.
How large was the orchestra that you utilized on The Sonata and where did you record the score?
We had the chance to record with the Orchestre National d’Île de France, with more than 80 musicians.
Do you do all your own orchestrations, and do you think that orchestration is just as important as the composing of a score?
I orchestrate the entire score. It’s probably due to my orchestration studies. I cannot give this job to someone else. On the other hand, when you have a lot of music to write in a short period of time, you need a trustworthy person who re-reads you and advises you when you no longer have clear ideas, after several sleepless nights. My assistant, François, took care of re-reading my scores, writing the last elements such as nuances or phrasing for example. Once this step is finished, I reread the score one last time, sometimes adding the final touch, before it goes to print.
For me, there are only good ideas. Anyone can have a good idea, a beautiful melody that comes to them. The genius of the greatest composers lies in what they manage to do with their ideas. This is why orchestration is so important to me, it is largely a reflection of what we do with our ideas.
What musical education did you have, and what did you focus upon whilst studying?
After studying the violin and the piano at the age of 6, I followed a course in composition, orchestration and conducting. I also studied at a film school in Paris where I obtained a sound engineering degree. Finally, I studied Musicology at Sorbonne University. However, the best school of film music remains the practice and the permanent questioning of its work.
Was film music something that you always wanted to do as a career?
Film music has always made me dream. But my first realization of its emotional power was when I saw Dragon Heart at the movies. I was deeply marked by Randy Edelman’s score. I was eight years old and it was at that moment that I understood how much music had on our emotions. It was at the age of 17 that I finally decided to make it my job.
Are there any composers or artists that you would say have influenced you, in either your style of composing or your approach to scoring a motion picture?
There are few film music composers that I really admire. I have a lot more admiration for a large panel of “classical” composers, from Russia, Eastern Europe, and France. Knowing that a good number of film music composers have drawn their roots there, we might as well go and take inspiration from its origin and try to understand how the musical language of a John Williams, for example, was developed.
But among the composers of film music, Jerry Goldsmith is one of my greatest inspirations. I deeply admire his capacity to aggregate simplicity, generosity, and high mastery of his job. For me, he was clearly a composer of the “People”. I also have a very particular sensitivity for Japanese composers. Let us quote Joe Hisaishi, Ryūichi Sakamoto, but also Tōru Takemitsu.
How many times do you like to see a potential project before you begin to formulate ideas as to what style or where music should be placed?
After watching a film with the director and spotting the places where it seems relevant to us to have music, I like to approach my first relationship with the film by improvisation on the Piano or with the voice. I look at the scene for the first or second time, then I let the images inspire me with musical elements, themes, chords … The light, the colours, the sets, the actors, their movements, their diction … Everything is source of inspiration. The final and most difficult step is to make all of these elements work together.
Do you come from a family background that is musical?
My parents have always played music for fun. My mother played the Accordion (although she always dreamed of playing the Piano) and my father played the Guitar. It was with him that I went on stage at the Piano for the first time. My brother, Samuel Maingaud, is also a professional musician, he plays the Saxophone and develops several personal projects.
Do you score a movie in any order, maybe from main titles to end credits, or do you like to tackle central themes first and then develop the score from these?
I usually start by researching the “alphabet” of the movie I am composing the music for. Usually. I start with thematic research. I write or record a lot of themes and ideas. Very few will stand the test of final selection. I am also looking for a sound, a style, an aesthetic Once this work is done, the composition will be much more natural and will go much faster.
I like to take the sequences in the order of the film, to keep the audience’s original path as much as possible. However, this is sometimes not possible depending on the progress/process of the film.
Was there a temp track on The Sonata and do you find this practice of a director tracking the film with music helpful or distracting?
Andrew Desmond, the director of The Sonata, values music very much. He usually thinks about it from the screenplay and edits the film with specific ideas already. For The Sonata, we had a lot of temp tracks. This way of working does not bother me, it is also very common because it often saves a lot of time for producers (especially during editing). I approach the relationship to the temp track as a challenge: will you manage to do better, with your style and your sensitivity, while remaining in the right edit? Will the director prefer your version or that of Beethoven? Of course, I especially like working without a temp track, this is clearly the purest way to compose without any distractions.
What will you be working on next?
I have several projects in pre-production. I hope to be able to say more in the coming months.