Lesley Barber: Composer Extraordinaire

17 mins read

The composer Lesley Barber’s home studio in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood is a spacious and light-filled open-concept live/work area. The kitchen with floor-to-ceiling glass doors easily converts into a reasonably soundproof recording studio. The place feels like a second skin for Barber, one of Canada’s brightest stars on the film-score circuit both in Hollywood and at home. Barber has been scoring for theatre and film and making a living as a composer for more than 25 years. Her scores include Patricia Rozema’s When Night Is Falling, Boaz Yakin’s A Price Above Rubies (starring Renée Zellweger), the Emmy Award–winning Yo-Yo Ma: Six Gestures, Miramax’s Mansfield Park, the Oscar-winning You Can Count On Me (starring Mark Ruffalo and Laura Linney), Wiebke von Carolsfeld’s Marion Bridge (starring Molly Parker) and Mira Nair’s Golden Globe–winning Hysterical Blindness (starring Uma Thurman and Gena Rowlands).

Barber grew up in a music-filled household. Her father was an accomplished amateur musician with a creative approach to music. “I felt like I learned the architecture of music and its creative potential right from the beginning. A lot of kids get that taught out of them. But [my father] knew how to put the right piece of music in front of me at the right time to enjoy the pleasure of it.” Barber did take a few piano lessons when she was 11 and by high school, she chose music as her path over architecture, medicine, or writing. Barber holds a master’s degree in music composition from the University of Toronto, where she studied with Gustav Ciamaga and the late Lothar Klein. She still meets Ciamaga [now retired professor emeritus] every other week to discuss the latest in new music electronica.

Barber cut her teeth writing for live theatre, composing and arranging music for drama. By the mid-’90s, film had piqued her interest. “I’d done a lot of theatre and I wanted to do film. I was asked to do some films, and I waited for the right one.” The right one turned out to be Patricia Rozema’s When Night is Falling, starring Pascale Bussières, in 1995.

The success of her first film score garnered the attention of an L.A. agent for acclaimed children’s book author and illustrator Maurice Sendak, who contacted her to write for a television series based on his character Little Bear. Her first reaction was: “There’s no way I was going to do this—this is nuts, I’m a serious contemporary theatre composer.” Barber was about to give birth to her first child, so she took the gig for the fun of it. Little Bear was an Emmy Award–winning success and the gig turned into a gruelling 65-episode marathon. “Every Monday morning I would be given a VHS of the new show. I would write, orchestrate, conduct and hire the musicians, and the following Sunday night, record the whole thing. And the next Monday there would be another episode waiting.”

Barber takes on about two film projects a year. She approaches scoring for film in much the same manner as a casting director might approach a script. “I think of the blend of music as a character. It’s casting a voice in the film.” She asks herself, what character is missing in the film and how can I create a musical world that’s as unique as an actor coming into this in an original way? A pianist and guitar player, one of Barber’s fortés is orchestration. Her scores are custom-made composites of texture and colour. “I think I get some really interesting mixes of electronically generated material, percussion and orchestra, especially strings.”

Barber admits to possessing rudimentary violin skills but nonetheless is thrilled when the opportunity arises to write for strings. Barber conceptualizes the string instrument family as one voice from bass to violin and ascribes its qualities with timeless, human-like textures. She notes that from a practical perspective, “writing for a number of strings allows the composer to split and vary the melody around picture and dialogue.” Barber’s orchestrations are very flexible. Depending on the mood or tone that is called for, the music ranges from solo piano or piccolo to full orchestra or the amplified world of electric guitar (as in the score for the 2002 feature Marion Bridge). Barber struggles to articulate her own musical style, but perhaps what defines Barber’s musical voice is the richness of her palette and the fluidity with which she moves between and/or blends acoustic with electronica.

When it comes to technology, Barber is one of those artists who is constantly ahead of the curve. She is computer- and tech-savvy in a way that easily gives you the impression that technology is a passion, not merely a tool. She exploits its capacity on a daily basis, creating somewhat of a virtual studio online. “I can have two or three people working with me from completely different places in the world and yet we can be Skyping together and sliding the cue we’re working on from one person’s folder to the other. I can have an FTP site that really serves as a virtual studio.” Barber works with a guitar player in Austin, Texas, and a drummer in Toronto. “I’ll send them a track in the middle of the night, and they’ll send it back to me with all the variations. I have this community of collaborators and we don’t have to be in the same space. It’s a huge thrill. I love that.”

The only potential downside of the virtual studio for Barber is the fact that it is so easy to share music globally online. That tends to encumber the demo process. Whereas once the process of approving film cues used to be an intimate dialogue between composer and director, now everyone wants in on the process. For Barber, that translates into more time spent communicating and presenting and less time actually creating.

Barber describes the process of working with a film director as akin to a shotgun or arranged marriage. “You’re suddenly with this director and you want to make them happy. They’ve been working on the film for God knows how many years and suddenly you’re there, and you want to bring new artifacts to the film that will help them make the scenes work emotionally.” Barber prefers to get a script to work from before the locked picture arrives. Often this isn’t the case, and occasionally the project calls for music to be recorded before she sees the visuals. Rozema’s 1999 feature, Mansfield Park, was one such occasion: the ballroom scene had to be written and recorded with a sophisticated level of advanced planning. “I had to write a piece for glass harmonica. I had to really think about the orchestration well before I started so that the voice was right before the ballroom scene in order to thematically weave it into the rest of the score.” On a regular basis, Barber’s process is more intuitive. “I usually just start writing to picture, and something comes to mind and I present it and then orchestrate it, hire the musicians, do the recording sessions, produce it and deliver the music.”

Barber was hard-pressed to articulate any challenges or hurdles that she’s encountered working in the film industry. She does, however, reference being pushed into somewhat uncomfortable spaces at times. Boaz Yakin is an American screenwriter and director with whom Barber has collaborated on a number of projects. “Yakin is a really fascinating man, great writer, interesting filmmaker, and he always challenges me to do something I haven’t done before.” The main protagonist in Yakin’s Death in Love was an agoraphobic genius composer. Barber performed her own solo piano pieces and the actor had to be coached to look as if he was actually playing them. Barber says, “It was fun to write the music in the voice of an unusual anti-social genius.“

Part of the pleasure for Barber is being able to encounter new places and communities. One such sojourn was Yakin’s A Price Above Rubies that took director and filmmaker into the heart of the traditional Hasidic community of Borough Park in Brooklyn, N.Y. “We wanted it to sound contemporary, to have the colour or haunting of that world, rather than that world specifically right on the nose.” For Kenneth Lonergan’s Academy Award-winning film You Can Count On Me, Barber delved into discovering the Appalachians. “We listened to a lot of that [Appalachian] music to figure out how to create a compositional voice that was really specific to the place and the emotional language of the film.”

Stylistic musical elements beg the question of the musical theme in the film score. Some of Barber’s all-time favourite “big theme” scores include Fargo, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Requiem for a Dream, The Constant Gardener and most recently, Xavier Dolan’s Les amours imaginaires. According to Barber the “big theme” is becoming somewhat of a lost art form, largely due to the increased reliance on temp music. On this score, Barber is insightful: she feels that there is a growing expectation that every time the temp music is changed, completely new musical material is required. “At TIFF this year, there weren’t that many films that I saw that had a big theme that was unique, that wasn’t just genre. I found it quite patchwork. Directors don’t use the power of the theme as much as they could—it’s always a challenge to create thematic cohesion.”

One of the qualities that Barber admires the most about her long-time collaborator Rozema is her openness to exploring theme. “I think with Patricia that’s one of her great strengths. She lets the composer create themes and write thematically to the film and develop a voice, letting the music tell the story in a way that a lot of directors pull back from.”

In the grand scheme of things, Barber counts herself lucky. “All the directors I work with have been drawn to my music and I’ve been drawn to their films, because they are a little more aware of the possibility.”

The flip side of theme music, and no less important, are the visual sequences in film that remain unscored. “I’m fascinated by the concept of restraint with music and the silence and knowing how much music and why.” Barber found the process of working with Lonergan on You Can Count On Me to be eye-opening. At the outset they thought that multiple themes were required. “We realized that if we just used a couple of themes and brought back almost literally the same piece of music at different times, this would have more narrative force because it would be a point of departure that showed how the drama had pivoted into a new direction for the characters, in terms of the intimacy of the sound and in terms of the distance the characters were feeling from each other. In the end, we realized that the use of silence and a returning theme was quite powerful.”

At the moment Barber talks about “going sideways” with respect to the variety of genres with which she is working at any given time. In terms of what’s “on the go” she is working on films, theatre, solo pieces and interdisciplinary work. Currently, Barber is workshopping a collaborative piece commissioned by the National Arts Centre in Ottawa for 2012. She describes the piece as “musical meets opera meets stagework.”

As for new frontiers, Barber doesn’t often get the chance to write music that’s tied to extremely violent images. “I’m dying to do a horror film or a psychological thriller. I just think that there’s a lot of fun to be had with the orchestration; with the musical language the aural landscape can be quite eclectic. There’s a great deal of humour and edginess that you could have in your music.” Barber has all these qualities and more in the music that she makes.

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