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“My Ideal is for the Music to Seem Accidental, Like It Just Happened to Be There and Be Perfect”: T. Griffin on Scoring Jill Magid’s The Proposal

The Proposal

With over 50 credits to his name, including Life Animated, A Walk into the Sea and the Emmy-nominated Boy’s State, composer T. Griffin brings sure melodies, inventive arrangements and a clever blending (and treatment of) of acoustic instruments with electronics to his film scoring work. Both an omnivorous listener and a performing musician — he’s a former member of Vic Chestnutt’s band and has performed for live film/media events by artists such as Sam Green — Griffin is invigoratingly thoughtful about the role of music in film, and his scores benefit from that inquisitive process. They buzz with musical ideas while being of a piece with their films’s themes and subject matters.

A number of Griffin’s scores, including The Overnighters and Children of Invention, are available for streaming or purchase, but they’re only a percentage of his work. The number of scores available as physical releases is an even smaller number, as Griffin relates below. But his latest is both an aural and visual stunner, a vinyl (among other formats) edition of his score for Jill Magid’s documentary on the work of architect Luis Barragán, The Proposal. Magid’s film explores not only Barragán’s legacy but also, self-reflexively, the issues raised by her expedition to bring his work further into the public sphere.

A visual artist, Magid works across disciplines, and The Proposal has an exhibition component, making the release of Griffin’s score in an elegantly designed LP particularly apt. Below, I talk to Griffin about scoring Magid’s film, this physical album release, his approach to film scoring in general, and the conversation he likes to have before beginning composing for a film.

One final note: Constellation Record’s Joni Sadler originally reached out to me about this piece, and shortly thereafter she unexpectedly passed away in her sleep. Her work at Constellation and in independent music more broadly were truly impressive. Please take a moment and read about her at the Constellation site.

Filmmaker: So this is your first soundtrack album released by a label?

Griffin: Yes. I have released many of them myself. But this is actually only the second physical release because I did a CD of A Walk Into the Sea.  

Filmmaker: So out of so many scores you’ve done, what made this one for a label to release? 

Griffin: It was a confluence of things. Jill and I had talked about wanting to release this soundtrack just because we felt really proud of it. And it’s also something that I own. A lot of the stuff I work on, I don’t own the publishing so I can’t control whether it gets released or not. But this one I owned the copyright. And then Jill was interested in creating an object that would travel with The Proposal exhibition, which has just been bought by the Centre Pompidou. And Barragán himself had a lot of albums. There’s a scene in the film where Jill is listening to his albums, and she felt like it would be particularly meaningful to have an album of [the score]. But she wanted to do a vinyl album, so, I said, “Let me talk to my friends at Constellation because I haven’t done that before.” They’re legendary for making extremely beautiful album releases that are like art objects. I contacted them just to get advice about who to talk to about releasing this, and when they heard it, they said, ‘We’re interested in releasing this.” Which was perfect, because it was really important to me that the production quality and the attention to the physical object was worthy of Jill’s work. 

Filmmaker: And in terms of the score itself, how do you characterize your collaboration with Jill? What makes it different than some of your other collaborations? Or is it different than your other collaborations?

Griffin: Well, I guess I don’t really see it at different than my other collaborations, except in that now it’s gone beyond me simply scoring, because we considereed this soundtrack release its own separate project — one more spoke in this massive Barragán project that she has been engaged in. And that has led naturally to the current project we’re working on, which is an aspect of this massive Tender public art project she’s been engaged in for the last six months. Tender is a short film that plays in galleries that Field of Vision is going to release on their platform, but then there’s also going to be a live, scored performance that Creative Time is producing. So now when we’re talking about the process of me scoring one of her ideas, we’re looking at different possible ways that could manifest that are not necessarily bound by being a film score. 

Filmmaker: Let’s talk a little bit about the music. What’s your process as you begin a score? And you wrote something about this one being recorded in a living room in Long Island.

Griffin: Once I feel like I see eye to eye with a director about the potential way for the score to go, one thing I like to do is just start making some music as opposed to waiting for scenes to score. That gives us something real to talk about, and if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. I recorded the two tracks that are the second and final tracks, the jazz band tracks, at the house of a director [of another film] who lived in Long Island and for whom it was very important that the score be partially recorded in this location. I then got fired from that film, and those tracks, which I really love, sat on a drive on my computer for a while before I went back and revised and finished them. Those ended up being some of the music that, Hannah [Buck], the editor, [used] when she was temping this film. So actually those two jazz records were originally not recorded for this movie; they were recorded for another movie and then adapted for this.

Filmmaker: Tell me more about that beginning process when you’re trying to make sure you’re on the same page. What does that entail? Are you just talking more conceptually about how the music should function in the film? Are you bringing in references? What are those conversations like?

Griffin: It’s about finding something that resonates for both me and the director, and that can come from a sort of emotional language, what the music should mean to the story, or references from other music that they feel resonates. But as much as I can, once we have had something that feels like a substantive conversation, I try to translate that into actual music that I can then present to the director and talk about. It’s very easy with music to get sort of abstract and to think you’re communicating the same thing but not actually be communicating the same thing. That’s why I’m every eager to oftentimes work on music as the movie is coming into focus for the director as opposed to after they already have defined the musical role. And that means there’s often lots of false starts, but those false starts are actually often useful and full of deeper information.

Filmmaker: Do you find that directors are consistent from the beginning to the end about how music should function in their movies, or abou the kinds of issues or problems that music is going to be asked to solve in terms of the narrative of their films?

Griffin: The most powerful thing I can get from a director is a clear articulation of what the point of view of the music is and how it should frame what we’re seeing. And often that is a powerful thing to have articulated between the two of us, not because it [stays] consistent, but because when you realize that the music is not working, you can articulate that it’s a problem in the way that music is framing a film’s story or emotions.

Filmmaker: What’s an example of that? 

Griffin: Tristan Patterson’s film Dragonslayer, which I scored years ago. We had a very, very clear feeling that the score in that movie ishould express the potential future event that the characters could not access. Like, it should be basically an omniscient perspective on the possibilities of their lives, which they see as pretty finite. And the music should have a textural commonality with all the sort of punk rock that is in the source music in that film, but it should also have within that texture a sense of possibility, lightness and almost a sense of glory.

And we made a movie like that, and there’s a whole score for that film where, when the score enters the film, it opens up the sonic world. And it wasn’t until a week and a half before the mix that Tristan stopped and realized that that was the wrong direction for the score. He didn’t want the audience ever to feel like they were exiting the perspective of the characters. And [this decision referred to] really specific things that we did in the construction of the music, down to how much reverb there was, how much a chord progression had a beginning, middle and end — all of those things. We were able to say, “Oh, no, the music can’t feel like it has this kind of story, because we can’t let the audience out of the characters and the box that they’re in.” So that’s a very sort of specific example of how the articulation, even if it was [originally] wrong, gave us a lot of power to change [the music] in a way that we both could talk about it and that made sense. 

Filmmaker: When it comes to choice of orchestration, what goes into that? There’s obviously a budgetary component having to do with what you can do with live players and what you have to do with electroncis and sampling. But what else goes into the way you approach orchestration, and what role does the director play in that?

Griffin: Often it’s a question of, what feels like it resonates or just means something to the director. I often have an instinct based on the genre and the time and place of his film and sort of embrace that. Or, we decide we’re going to work counter to whatever the genre or period expectations are. I generally Iove to not exactly know what instrument I’m hearing, and I love to maintain the sense that there is a player  playing the instrument, but not necessarily focus on the expressiveness of the player. A lot of times I will record an instrument and then sort of replay it on a cassette player a little bit slow or something to retain the spirit of the performance but maybe not the specificity of the expression of the performance. 

Filmmaker: Interesting. Why is that? 

Griffin: Because for most things I work on I want to smudge the sense for the audience that there is too much thought going into the music. There are definitely exceptions, but, for a lot of things, and particularly for something like Jill’s film, where there’s such a sense of ghostliness, I don’t want people to think, oh, that note is there because it’s emphasizing that emotion or that image.  My ideal is for the music to seem accidental, like it just happened to be there and that it just happened to be perfect. And I find that if I sort of obscure the origin of the sounds somewhat, it gives me that feeling. But I also am wary of abstract sounds that are just beautiful texturally but don’t have that sense of humanity. So that’s why I’m often drawn to processed acoustic sounds or processed performances more than synthetic sounds or sampled sounds.

Filmmaker: Your musician rosters draw from a lot of experimental rock and new music. Could you discuss what led you to select the specific players you selected for The Proposal?

Griffin: Well, a lot of time I’m just looking for excuses to play with people I love and who I think will bring a certain personality to their performance but one that lends itself to that stage of abstraction. So, Matana Roberts, the saxophone player, and Jim Wait, the drummer, both have very personal styles as well as a spareness to their approach — something that has a lot of personality but not necessarily a lot of activity. I’ve been a huge fan of Matana’s for  years. Anytime I have a saxophone part I want her to be involved. And Jim is the drummer from the Dirty Three. Every great drummer has a specific groove, and Jim has the most specific sort of spacious groove that I can imagine. It’s kind of amazing, but because he’s always exactly very much in time, but his grooves always feel extremely loose. I’ve worked with him on five or six films — basically anytime I have an excuse to get him to a studio I’ll do it. And then Jason Ajemian, the bass player, plays in this amazing band, Fly or Die, an  he has this truly loose, in-the-pocket way of playing. So they were sort of a dream trio. And then I was looking for a trombone player, and Matana suggested Reut Regev. And then theres Tim [Herzog] and Sophie [Trudeau] from Godspeed You! Black Emperor — she’s playing violin and whistling and he’s playing drums on some of the more kind of rock tracks on the album. Godspeed and their aesthetic has infomred a lot of what I’ve been doing since I first saw them at the Knitting Factory in 1998 at a benefit for the Anthology of the Film Archives. That show has always stuck with me, and I’ve worked with different members of that band over and over. 

Filmmaker: And finally, tell us about the album itself, because the packaging is quite beautiful.

Griffin: Constellation really took on the challenge of making the LP version a sort of art object. There’s a kind of window cut frame in the album, with eight different prints on four different cards so there are different ways to display the album. And the central image is the ring image from Jill’s installation. They worked very closely with Jill on imagery and their  work went beyond just getting the album out.

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