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Scoring “Knight Of Cups”: An Interview With Composer Hanan Townshend

By: Marjorie Galas

Perhaps you’ve seen help wanted ads that read “Famous Director seeks (job title) to work on an exciting project.”  Hanan Townshend had no lofty expectations when he answered such an ad.   A native New Zealander spending his junior year in college abroad, the young composition major came to the US seeking opportunities.  He figured, if nothing else, the ad might lead to an interesting portfolio piece.

The director happened to be Terrence Malick.  The project?  “The Tree of Life.”

Working from France, celebrated composer Alexandre Desplait created the score to the film.  Townshend was tasked with working closely with Malick, experimenting with specific sections of the film, sometimes modifying pre-existing arrangements, sometimes creating entirely new sounds.

“Terry is so willing to allow people to come in and be part of his process,” said Townshend.  “He didn’t tell me ‘Do what I want you to do.’  He allowed me to become part of the conversation, which is such a unique part of his process.”

After two years of experimentation and collaboration, Townshend was determined to score Malick’s next film, “To the Wonder.” Luck smiled once more on the composer; utilizing New Zealand’s lottery system, he obtained his green card on his first try, headed to the set’s Oklahoma location and landed the job.  This month, audiences will once again be treated to a Townshend- scored Malick film with the theatrical release of “Knight of Cups.” As with “To the Wonder,” Townshend’s collaboration with Malick and approach to writing the score remains consistent with his work in “Tree of Life.”

“The discussions begin with Terry talking about what he envisions the music doing,” said Townshend.  “It is a fluid process; there’s no hard black and white (method).  He has a vision, but he also lets the project take its own direction and not force it to be something.  He’s open to experiences and seeing where the project leads.”

Working without a script on “Knight of Cups,” Townshend and Malick discussed the metaphoric symbolism of Rick’s (Christian Bale) struggle to find meaning and purpose in life the music would convey.  Noting the director generally works without a script, as a composer he must be prepared to spend a vast amount of time experimenting; finding the quality of music and sounds that help convey the essence of metaphors and symbolism.  In “Knight of Cups” the experimentation continued through the editing process – as score and edits met, the director reviewed the compilation and determined if it was in line with his conception.  The entire process of a Malick film generally rests on a great deal of experimentation and back and forth discussions and reviews.

“”I am never working with picture, and I never feel like we are dealing with concrete ideas; they are more metaphorical,” said Townshend.  “The creation of the score is just an extension of the way you experience (the images) when you go to the cinema.  It is this wash of ideas and emotions.”

During his course of experimentation, Townshend developed a theme that mirrored the flow of water that he dubbed the “water theme.”  Working with soft, gentle sounds of a pipe organ, woodwinds and some low brass, the theme incorporates a number of arpeggios that consistently climb and descend.  Working with full orchestration, Townshend also incorporated pieces Malick pulled from a variety of famous composers.  Working with a process Malick calls “shadowing”, Townshend would rework themes of the found music, creating a rich tapestry within the score of entirely new music, established properties and re imagined variations on themes.  While an Eastern sound was never intentionally discussed between Malick and Townshend, the composer notes the score does have a number of droning strings and other sounds that inspire an Eastern mood.

Townshend has worked with a number of composers who work in a more traditional style, with completed scripts and clear character arcs and themes they’re hoping the music will explore.  While developing a process with Malick requires a lot of patience and willingness to be adventurous, the composer not only looks forward to the unique opportunities he has to collaborate with the director, but has also adopted many of his styles in his own personal writing style.

“There are times when you don’t think something can be done, but through experimentation you discover you are led to a place you didn’t think was imaginable,” said Townshend.  “I have grown to love experimenting.  It helps to make stronger decisions.  When you experiment, it is like aging an old cheese. The process leads to something wonderful.  It may not happen at the moment but it leads to a wonderful place.”