Post #22 - Composer Steve London on Scoring "CHAU"

In 2015, Courtney Marsh and Jerry Franck met Steve London at the Florida Film Festival. During this time, they were cutting Chau, beyond the lines and having seen a film Steve had scored, Once Upon a Crime: The Borelli-Davis Conspiracy, they wanted him to come on board in the final stages of Chau. With a very limited amount of time to score the film, and the Oscar® Qualification date approaching, Steve was able to create a beautiful, original score that elevated the movie to another level.  Below he talks of his experience on the film.

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Composing the score for "Chau, Beyond the Lines" was a wonderful journey for me personally and professionally.  The film had a huge emotional impact on me and it also resonated deeply with me as an artist.  How can one not be inspired watching Chau's determination to succeed in realizing his dream of becoming a painter despite his physical disabilities and the odds stacked against him?

Courtney Marsh, the director, took a very careful, measured approach to telling Chau's story because she was very aware that she could easily stray into territory that could make the film feel either maudlin or saccharine.  Consequently, when it came time to score the film, we had long discussions about what the themes of the film were and how just the lightest musical brush strokes to underscore these emotional points was what was needed.

One of the key themes of the film that Courtney wanted to touch upon with the score was Chau's unconquerable spirit and she wanted to do it in a way that was "positive" but not overdoing it and pushing it into "happy" territory.  I also felt that because the story is set against the backdrop of Vietnam and the terrible legacy of Agent Orange contamination, the score should reflect in the subtlest way possible some of the music and instrumentation of Vietnam. As well, the style of the score was also influenced partially by Chau and his art.  Because of Chau's painting style, ie. he paints everything with his mouth, many of his painting have a diffuse look to them as he dabs little bits of paint at a time on to the canvas.  I had the idea to mirror this diffuse style with the music and much of this can be heard in the organic soundscapes I created out of the traditional Vietnamese instruments.

After sketching out and mocking up several ideas for Courtney, we then worked together to mold the minimalist but warm sound of the score.  I used recorded material from a 'đàn tranh',  a traditional Vietnamese plucked zither, and a 'đàn tam thập lục', a traditional Vietnamese hammered dulcimer, and created the warm organic textures by processing those sounds into pads.  The melody themes echo fragments of traditional Vietnamese folk songs.  I played those melodies on Tibetan prayer bowls and on a piano with felted strings, processing those as well.  Finally, I mixed the score stems for the dub with a stereo-image enhancing plug-in so that it stretched the soundscapes slightly more than normal left and right, giving a wider stereo image and making the score slightly more diffuse and organic sounding once again.

Click below listen to a compilation of Steve London's original score for Chau, beyond the lines.