From “Brooklyn” To “About Ray”: Composer Michael Brook Pinpoints Emotional Arcs

Michael Brook provided the score for “About Ray” – a story revolving around Elle Fanning (left) who plays a teen transitioning from female to male. Also pictured: Naomi Watts and Susan Sarandon. Photo credit: The Weinstein Company

By Marjorie Galas

Upcoming independent releases “Brooklyn” and “About Ray” present completely different emotional journeys for their characters. “Brooklyn” deals with love and ambition, while “About Ray” focuses on the changing one’s sexual identity. When composer Michael Brook was first introduced to the very different stories, he found they both resonated with him equally.

“Some projects you feel (what your music contributes) couldn’t make the story better,” said Brook. “These were both projects I feel emotionally connected to. I felt confident I could contribute to them.”

Brook was attracted to the universal themes and modern-day take on the global immigrant presented in “Brooklyn”. People all over the world have traveled away from home and love ones for better opportunities in their career and life. While he didn’t directly identify with a transgender individual, he could identify with the lead character’s struggle in articulating their personal identity. Interestingly, New York factors into both films, giving Brook an opportunity to infuse the essence of the city into both scores.

Coming onto both projects at a point when a rough edit was in place, Brook was tasked with finding ways to bring the viewers into the characters’ emotional journeys. Recording the soundtrack for “Brooklyn” at London’s historic Abbey Road Studios, Brook was comforted in referring to John Lennon who, along with the Beatles, recorded music that would redirect rock history within the same walls. When asked what it was like writing his infamous lyrics, Lennon replied “It’s always difficult.” While the early stubs at creating a score require a great deal of experimentation, Brook often finds a strong direction in the director’s vision. This was the case with “Brooklyn” director John Crowley. Crowley had been working on the film for many years and had a very clear understanding of the character’s emotional journey he wanted to portray. While Crowley shared his very specific direction, Brook found the director was receptive to new ideas and thoughts.

“He was extremely cooperative. Working together he gave me a lot of feedback and suggestions, but he was very open to ideas and developments I would present,” said Brook.

Because “Brooklyn’s” setting switches between Ireland a New York, Brook wanted a clear differential musically between the two locations. He was cautious, however, of selecting music for Ireland that would appear “fake” or stereotypical. Structuring the film’s score around strings, he had his wife, a violin session player, record parts that accompanied the lead character. During the scenes that take place in Ireland, the strings are accompanied by mandolin and piano. While the New York scenes maintain a string backbone, Brook introduced a jazz element through the addition of an upright bass and clarinet.

“There are no horns or percussion,” said Brook. “The clarinet adds a bit of a Gershwin element that always feels like New York to me.”

The timber of an assortment of instruments – the mandolin in Ireland and the jazziness of the upright bass and clarinet in New York – not only helped delineate the locations but also enhanced emotional connectivity in “Brooklyn.” For “About Ray,” Brook decided the emotional performances required stark instrumentation.  To find the right sound for “About Ray,” Brook began by experimenting with the synthesizer. While this is typically not an instrument one connects with intense emotional scenes, Brook found the quality of the sound fully supported the character’s journey.

“It was emotionally stark and intimate, I was inspired by experimenting,” said Brook. “I was trying not to have a critical hat on. It’s part of the process that I really love.”

Initially the New York setting sent Brook down a jazz path. Ultimately, the jazz references didn’t serve the story. Brook relied upon base guitar, drums and piano in addition to the synthesizer to flesh out the proper tone an emotional support lent by the score.

“You always start with ideas. Some survive, some don’t,” said Brook.

To learn more about Michael Brook, please visit: http://michaelbrookmusic.com/