TALKING TO COMPOSER ELIK ALVAREZ.

Elik Álvarez is a Venezuelan-born composer based in Los Angeles who has managed to capture audiences worldwide with his distinctive sounding compositions for over 80 films, television series, and documentaries. He is known for scoring many of Sir David Attenborough’s groundbreaking mini-series, such as the Lumiere Award winner and BAFTA nominated ‘Conquest Of The Skies 3D’, ’IMAX Galapagos: Nature’s Wonderland’ and ‘Kingdom Of Plants 3D’ for which he won Best Documentary Score at the International Film Music Festival Provincia de Cordova. His most recent credits include the feature documentary ‘To The Street’ (HBO Max/Warner-Media 150), the feature film ‘The Exorcism of God’ (Saban Films/Lionsgate) which is set to be released in early 2022 in more than 150 territories, and the upcoming docu-series ‘Preaching Evil: A Wife on The Run with Warren Jeffs (Peacock). His many episodic television credits include, the 2019 International EMMY Awards Nominee ‘The Other Side of The Wall’ (Telemundo/Peacock), Robert Redford’s ‘America. The Beautiful’ (Travel Channel) and ‘Jenny Rivera: Mariposa de Barrio’ (Telemundo/Netflix) for which he received an ASCAP Screen Award. Elik is also well known as composer for many successful animated series such as ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’, ‘Yugioh!’ and ‘G.I Joe Sigma 6’. His upcoming projects are a set of new collaborations with documentary director/producer Ron Davis: ‘I am We’, ‘ParaGold’ and ‘Dawn: A Charleston Legend’, all set to be released in 2022/23. Other notable credits include music for the KONAMI Video Game ‘Contra: Rogue Corps’, the feature documentary ‘Harry & Snowman’ and both installments of the Venezuelan box office sensation ‘Papita, Mani, Tostón’ for which he earned a HMMA nomination for Best Original Score – Independent Film (Foreign Language).

Elik Alvarez.

j.m. One of your recent scoring assignments is The Exorcism of God, the score is so atmospheric, what size orchestra did you have for the project and where did you record the score?

E.A. In addition to vocals, solo violin, and massive production of organic textures and processed sounds, we used a 40-piece string ensemble which was performed by the Budapest Scoring Orchestra. 

There are many inventive and innovative sounds within the score, it is overflowing with dark and unsettling pieces as well as having to it a lighter and more melodic side, were you given any specific instructions by the director regarding what style or sound of music that the film required and was there a temp track on the movie when you first saw it, if so do you find this a helpful tool or maybe distracting?

When we first sat down with Alejandro to discuss the music for the Exorcism of God, he was very precise about how he wanted the audience to perceive the internal conflict that the main characters had to cope with as the story develops. He also described how the presence of evil, sin, and forgiveness were the dramatic core elements of the film. Although the rough cut of the film had some “tempt track” cues, they were nothing close to how the score ended up sounding. Some of those cues served as a guide for where music might be needed, but maybe one or two had the right feel for a particular scene. They were not a distracting element during the composition process. However, Alejandro did show us some of the music he really liked from other films and we took such references as a way to help us understand his musical taste for film scores.

That being said, we all agreed that the main purpose for us was to create a score that gives the Exorcism of God its own musical identity. We first came out with the idea of using vocals chants and vocal effects to then be digitally manipulated in order to create very disturbingly “dark” sounds. We wanted those sounds to feel as if they were coming from hell. To help us develop this idea, we invited multidisciplinary artist and prolific vocalist, Leonor Lanza, and sound designer, Cosme Liccardo. Throughout three recording sessions with Leonor, we recorded many takes of vocals chants as well as had her improvise on what she felt from the music we were writing. We then took those takes and sent them to Cosme. From there, he processed the recordings and created a toolbox of incredible organic textures and piercing sounds.

In addition to the vocals, Cosme also recorded different percussive and stringed instruments, which were sonically manipulated by him. He even built an instrument from scratch, some sort of homemade cristal baschet that produced perturbing glassy sounds. We then took all this material and started using it as we continued writing the score. 

As far as the melodies, we wrote the themes knowing already that they would be performed by a string orchestra. Leonor also participated with a more traditional approach rather than textures or vocal effects. These themes mostly underline the human aspect of the film such as feelings of guilt, repentance, and perhaps even love.

You co-wrote the score with Yoncarlos Medina, did you work closely together on the score, or did you contribute separate pieces to the film?

Yoncarlos lives in Caracas, Venezuela and I live in Los Angeles, so we were communicating via zoom throughout the whole scoring process. Once we agreed on the artistic direction we wanted, we chose the scenes and themes each of us would be responsible for. We kept in constant communication, almost daily, and shared all of our creative ideas such as orchestration approaches, instrumentation, and themes as we were building the arch of the score. It was an organic collaboration and besides our great working relationship, we also became great long distance friends.

 The score is at times complex and atonal, but there are rich and affecting thematic moments that shine through, are you conscious of writing thematically even for a horror/drama such as The Exorcism of God?

For me, melodies must be present in every piece of music I write, or at least I like to think about melodies even if the composition is intended to be based on textures or simple “tones”. In The Exorcism of God, there are cues that might seem to just be about intricate textures or aggressive sounds, but I always tried to incorporate some melodic material within them. There are some “hell bells”, as I like to call them, that were designed by Cosme. I frequently used these bells to create a melodic sequence that can be heard on many of the “atonal” cues. Also, I used some processed violin lines that repeat on some of these cues. They might not be melodies that you will be whistling after you watch the film, but they are there to help to make a more cohesive score.

For a more traditional approach of the score, of course, there is a clear melody that develops throughout the film, and if you listen carefully, you’ll also hear many variations of this melody used on other themes. I think the more obvious one of these variations can be heard in the second part of the cue called “Magali sings the Ave Maria”.

How many times did you see the movie before you began to formulate your ideas about what music you would write and where it would be placed?

We had probably about four or five spotting sessions for discussing placement and which direction to take with the music. Prior to that, I watched the film from start to finish once. Right after watching it, I already started thinking about what could work for a film like this, which I shared with Yoncarlos and later with Alejandro during the spotting sessions. Once we finished with the spotting, the writing process started almost immediately. 

When you spot a picture are you also aware of certain sections that maybe would benefit from not being scored? 

Of course, music can be silence, and this is very important to understand. Particularly for this genre where music can easily ruin a scary moment instead of lifting it. We carefully watched over and over scenes that we knew could work with either music or not, and then made the decision on whether to score it. On the other hand, sometimes we decided to score a scene knowing that we might not need music, but we preferred to have the option and make the decision of including music or not later in the process. 

Do you recall your earliest memories of any kind of music and was writing music for film a career that you always wanted to engage in or was this something that happened as your career unfolded?

I started writing music when I was about 13 or 14, or at least I thought I was writing music. After playing, arranging, and writing for my different bands (rock, pop, jazz, fusion) I heard through a friend about a film scoring program that was offered at Berklee College of Music. I started investigating and reading more about it and I simply fell in love with the idea of writing music for film. I saved money, my parents helped me, got a couple of scholarships, and moved to Boston when I was 22 to start my journey at Berklee College of Music.

What musical education did you have?

I studied piano from a very young age. When I was a teenager, I decided to continue my piano studies in Venezuela with Ligia Landa Chalbout who not only trained me to be a better pianist but was also an incredible supporter and important guide as I decided to make music my way of living. I also studied arranging and composition privately with Gerry Weil, a living legend in Venezuela. Gerry opened up a big canvas for me, and he was an incredible facilitator to prepare me for what was coming next. After Gerry, I went to study film scoring at Berklee College of Music where I also studied privately with conductor David Callahan and composer Vuk Kulenovic.

Are you from a family background that is musical in any way?

Music has been with me since my earliest memories. My grandfather, who immigrated from Ukraine to Venezuela after World War II, used to play classical masters every Sunday. I remember him playing those records loudly and very early in the morning during the weekends. When I became older, I found out what records he used to listen to and I realized that for a long time I was waking up to composers such as Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Stravinsky, and many others. Also, my uncle, godmother, and stepfather played the piano, so I was exposed to the instrument from a very early age. I recall there being many parties at home where they played for hours and hours. None of them were professional musicians, but they definitely had a big impact on me and my musical career.

 What would say is the purpose of music in film?

Music in a film could be a film’s best friend or could become a film’s worst enemy. Music has the power to manipulate feelings, convince you that what you are seeing is actually true while in reality it is not, and make you cry when what you are seeing is supposed to actually make you laugh. As film composers, we need music to find the right balance to make it the perfect companion for a film and never overshadow it. 

You worked on a TV series last year entitled Loli’s Luck does working on a series which is broadcast in episodes like this one differ greatly from scoring a motion picture, also does the process again differ when working on shorts or video games?

As far as the integrity of my music, whereas I work on a film, documentary, video game, or tv series, my artistic approach will be the same. However, working on a TV series may require having a different perspective on how to plan your deliverables in order to meet the multiple deadlines you encounter during the process.

Is orchestration an important part of the composing process and do you like to orchestrate all your music or is this sometimes not always possible?

I love anything that has to do with being close to an orchestra. Usually, I don’t have time to fully orchestrate my music, but I’m very involved in the process. Nowadays, midi mockups can come out sounding very realistic. Having said that, when you prepare to record live, you must factor in other things like dynamics, the size of the orchestra, and the capabilities of the different instruments. Midi can be very forgiving, a live recording with 60 musicians in front of you is not. I have orchestrated for different people in the past and would love to do it for my own projects, but I do not always have the time. Now, I usually get a couple of orchestrators to help me on this task. 

The Exorcism of God is released on Movie Score Media digitally, were you involved in the selection of cues that were to be included on the release?

Yes, Yoncarlos and I selected the music that we wanted to include in the soundtrack. However, Mikael Carlsson, from Movie Score Media, edited the soundtrack in a way that made our selections flow in a much better way. It offers a better listening experience. We loved what Mikael proposed and that’s how the soundtrack was released.

Would you say that you have been influenced by any composers or artists, and have these also influenced the way in which you approach scoring a film or TV project?

Yes, many, and perhaps there are too many to list here. My influences constantly change as I’m always searching for new concepts, new ideas, and new sounds. Sometimes I just like to come back to a composer I haven’t listened to for a long time and discover something that perhaps I couldn’t understand before. For some reason, every time I am asked this question, I can never be specific. I enjoy and am inspired by a large variety of composers.

Do you have a preferred way in which you score a movie, as in do you create a theme or core sound before tackling individual cues?

Every film is different, and every film might need a different approach. I have written suites before I started the actual scoring process and I have written scores in sequential order from the first cue to the last. I have written scores beginning at the end of the film and starting my way back from there. I have also written a score where I chose the most important or difficult scenes first and then continued with the easiest ones. I’m not sure if I have a favorite method, once again, it all depends on the kind of project.

Do you conduct your film scores or is this because of schedules etc not always possible?

If time permits and the opportunity is there, I will conduct my own scores. I will at least conduct a few cues if I do not have enough time to prepare to conduct the whole score. I absolutely love conducting and it is a big passion I have.

La Virgen Negra I love, it is such an uplifting work and has so many affecting compositions, in which you utilise piano, voice, guitar etc, do you perform on any of your scores?

Thank you, that’s a very special score for me, unfortunately, the film didn’t do as well as we hoped so the score was barely noticed. I’m a piano player so when I have the chance, I record piano on my scores.

What is next for you if you can tell us?

I’ve recently finished scoring two feature documentaries with director Ron Davis, I AM WE and ParaGold, which will start their festival run pretty soon before landing on digital platforms. I’m currently working on a third one with the same director called “Dawn: A Charleston Legend”. There is also an upcoming Peacock docuseries called “Preaching Evil: A Wife on The Run with Warren Jeff” in which I wrote the main title theme. There are a few others on their way as well but I cannot discuss those at the moment.

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