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‘The Angel of History’ composer Matija Strnisa on the power of collaboration

We often take a film’s soundtrack for granted – but if you’ve ever tried to watch a horror film on mute, you’ll be aware that without its score, the whole meaning and feeling of a movie can vanish. Indy Film Library spoke to Matija Strnisa, the composer for The Angel of History (Director: Eric Esser), House of Hummingbird (Director: Bora Kim), Paths (Director: Chris Miera), Meteor Street (Director: Aline Fischer), about his path into film music, and the joys of collaborative art.

When I reviewed The Angel of History, Director Eric Esser rightly pointed out that I hadn’t mentioned your work on the soundtrack. Revisiting the film, I think you were a victim of your own success – your music blends so well with the footage and the narration that it almost becomes an ominous naturalistic hum. Without it, though, the whole film would change! What was the process for making this score?

The process of working on The Angel of History was very collaborative. I started developing the music, when the film was in its rough edit. After in-depth conversation with Eric about the film, I composed a few very different musical ideas, in order to try out the possibilities spectrum, which I later on discussed with him. As we decided on the direction we wanted to go for, I composed a few tracks based on the main musical idea and sent them to Eric and the editor – Evelyn Rack – to use it while working on the edit. I sent them the music partly also in layers, so that they were able to experiment in the editing room as much as possible. As we came to the final edit of the film, I unified the score into the coherent whole.

I believe this collaborative approach enabled us to integrate music as an integral part of the film and interweave it naturally with the picture and the voice-over.

As you mention, film is a collaborative process – but directors tend to take the lion’s share of the credit. More generally, do you think composers get enough credit for the end-product they contribute to?

It is hard to judge these things; maybe there is sometimes a bit less spotlight on music for film in Europe than in the US, but there is still appreciation for film scores in Europe.

Generally speaking, there are always so many people involved with every project. The director is the one who brings all the people together, has to make a lot of tough decisions throughout the process and carries the responsibility for the whole project. So, it makes sense that the director gets a lot of attention at the end.

In terms of your working process, and that collaborative process, does it make it easier or more difficult to compose around someone else’s narrative?

From my own experiences these past few years; I think it is best for the development of music and the project in general to start talking to the director about the music as early as possible in the process – as well as developing musical ideas. This can mean starting at the early rough cut version of the film or even before the actual shooting.

I also think good communication with the editor of the film is very valuable; that can be very beneficial for the working process.

Time, money and technology can often limit the scope of independent filmmaking in general; do your musical ideas ever out-strip your resources? How do you cope with that?

I think it is important to learn to work around the budget limitations.

One can communicate similar emotions with different sonic approaches, independently of the budget. I believe the most important thing is to develop a solid concept for the score, and try to find ways to convey film’s emotions to the audience.

As a musician, was it always an ambition to produce soundtracks for films, or was there a precise moment which made you realise this was an area you could excel in?

Initially I was studying classical music and I didn’t have a specific ambition to compose and produce soundtracks for films.  Actually it was the collaborative process of the work which drew my attention to film. The exchanging of ideas with people coming from different professions and a very different background is something I find very exciting and interesting.

Do you take inspiration from any particular composers, related to film or otherwise? 

I am listening to quite a broad range of music – from classical, electronic, experimental, jazz, pop…

I do listen to film scores, but mostly in connection with the films themselves.

If a musician was thinking of moving into soundtrack work, what would the key first steps be?

Everyone’s path in different. I think one of the important steps is to try to find filmmakers one connects with and their ideas resonate with oneself. In this way, one can develop good work relationships and work on projects, and one can connect with the ideas behind it.

In general, it seems important to stay interested in people and world around you, being prepared to listen what people you are working with have to say and try to contribute with the music in best way possible to the ideas the project pursues.

Can you tell us about your next project – and is there somewhere where we can find more of your music?

At the moment I am working on a few different projects, but due to the situation with the coronavirus some processes had to be put on hold for a bit.

The information about my previous projects and also music can be found on my website. At the end of last year, I also released an EP, called Deep Sea, which can be found on all the major streaming platforms.

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