Iconic Partnerships: Music & Film

UK-based band, Tindersticks, discuss their fruitful artistic relationship with fêted French director, Claire Denis, exploring the cross-over between music and film.

The score to a film is a pivotal part of the work and the creative relationship between musician and director is vital, with some partnerships acquiring legendary status: Burton and Elfman; Hitchcock and Herrmann; Spielberg and Williams. Collaboration between the two artistic genres is something that has long benefited both, and in 2001, Warp Records launched their film division, Warp Films, further demonstrating the relationship between sound and image.

But where does the boundary lie? And what is it that film and music have to offer one another? Since 1996, the band Tindersticks has worked in close proximity with acclaimed French director, Claire Denis, and lead singer Stuart Staples explains the partnership: “Approaching each film has always asked us to step into an unknown, stretch ourselves and do things we did not think we were able to.” Working in collaboration always demands something extra from the participants, and challenges both parties: perhaps this is why it is rare for truly compatible partnerships to form and why when they do, they are so successful.

The band has worked with Denis across her oeuvre and their scores are a celebration of a meeting of minds; from her award-winning Nénette et Boni (1996) to her recently acclaimed White Material (2009), the beautifully observed 35 Shots of Rum (2008), the infamous Trouble Every Day (2001) and two solo soundtracks: Stuart A. Staples’ solo score for Denis’s lyrical and impressionistic The Intruder (2004) and Dickon Hinchliffe’s score for the sensual Vendredi Soir (2002). These scores stand faithfully alongside Claire Denis’ own critically acclaimed trajectory and have been made available in a beautiful boxed set collection, Claire Denis Film Scores 1996 – 2009. We talk to David Boulter from Tindersticks about their work with the acclaimed filmmaker.

Could you tell us a little bit about your relationship with Claire Denis and how you became involved in scoring her films?
Claire contacted us after we made our second album. She asked if we’d be interested in making the music for her film, Nénette et Boni. We met at a show in Paris, liked her, and it grew from there. We felt her way of filmmaking was similar to our way of making music: a pure feeling, not about telling stories from A-Z, not about ticking all the boxes on the way.

As musicians, what is it about Denis’ films that appeal to you?
The music is given enough space to become a character; to take a journey with the images. It’s not about action and emotion. We’re able to have a conversation; some scenes get edited to the music. Quite often in the film world, music is the last thought in a film; it’s added quickly at the end. Producers or directors tell you what they want and where, but with Claire we begin with the script, sometimes we even go on location. The music develops and evolves with the film.

What is the secret to a powerful soundtrack and how, in your opinion, does the music of a film and its visuals work together?
To me, a great soundtrack is one that stands alone, without images, and still makes you feel something. Also, great films and great music become iconic. John Barry/James Bond. Bernard Herrmann/Alfred Hitchcock. Ennio Morricone/Sergio Leone. But all of their work also stands as music on its own. It’s great when the two come together: the space ballet of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the beauty of Vertigo, but there’s a lot of great film music in films that are not so great. And vice versa.

Your style of working is fluid and operates in response to Denis’ work; how do you think this influences the sort of score that you produce?
We always try to find a way to let the music say something, to help move the images along, without becoming too poetic. No thundering timpani for the galloping horses; no violins for the lost loved ones. We also try to find the right colour in the instruments and the right voice for the music. Without talking about it, we knew we didn’t want anything traditionally African sounding when we did White Material, which is set in Africa. We wanted it to sound like something dying, so we chose a broken harmonium.

Your music is not a direct translation of the images onscreen, but an interpretation of them. For instance, in Trouble Every Day, the soundtrack does not attempt to replicate the onscreen violence. What approach did you take instead?
I suppose we started from the point of cannibalism, and that a kiss is almost a bite. We’ve all had love bites, haven’t we? The violence was almost an uncontrollable lust or hunger. One scene felt like a love scene, which ended with the boy’s face eaten off. It’s a killing theme, but also almost a love theme.

Would you consider working with other directors and scoring other films?
Really, we’ve only ever worked with Claire. It has been a special relationship. We’ve had a few fights. We have a strong opinion, so does she; it’s her film, her ideas and imagination. We’re just a part of it. That’s why I’m not sure we could work with just anyone. Our music is honest and pure; it’s too fragile to become musical cosmetics. It’s nice to be asked if it’s for the right reason though. Some films need a musical voice. Most directors are too busy with the whole process to see that. I see films and think we would have been perfect for that, but I wouldn’t want to make a career out of it. It’s a nice distraction from making albums and touring.

What is the best thing about creating music for films and how does it differ from creating music generally?
We generally write songs. Not always verse-chorus-verse-middle 8-chorus-end, but still songs. And albums are a kind of statement or log of where you’re at at that moment. Soundtracks are more of a diversion – although not always. Film music is more about colours, moods, textures, rhythms. The great thing is when the two become one; like the Film Scores shows we’re playing at the minute. It becomes a concert and connects the sounds to the images. It’s not about watching a film with live music.

With the development of technology, it has become easier for composers and producers to use digital samples to make the soundtrack. Do you think there is a significant difference between a soundtrack that is produced live and one that is programmed, either in the process or in the end result?
It’s all about imagination for me. If it’s just a cheap version of something, that’s all it will ever be. If it has got style, imagination, it’s something else. Some “live” soundtracks are so tied into time code, punctuating action and emotion, they are basically programmed. We usually sit in front of the screen and play. Or play, then see what feels good and adapt it.

To accompany the release of Claire Denis Film Scores 1996-2009, the band has performed a series of ambitious live concerts in cinematic settings, bringing together the music with film projections of the evocative images that inspired it. Set in motion by a performance at the San Francisco Film Festival in May, the project has gathered interest and momentum and launched in the UK with a live performance at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall in April in conjunction with the British Film Institute. Tindersticks will be touring the UK throughout October, beginning at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh on 16 October and running until 28 October, with a final show at The Sage, Gateshead.


Bryony Byrne