Initially noted for his potent ambient scores for Robocop: Prime Directives and Cube 2: Hypercube , Orenstein has now made his mark in genre film music by scoring Diary of the Dead , George A. Elsewhere a melancholic piano motif resonates amidst a harmonic haze of synth textures, and sirenlike wails echo through city walls above a pattern of rumbling electronic clusters and melodic phrasings. During the 's he co-founded a rock and soul band called Alta Moda which led to a deal with Epic Records, but about the same time he began writing music for television commercials.
When Alta Moda appeared in an independent coming of age film called Unfinished Business, Orenstein was then asked to collaborate with Patricia Cullen on the film's score. He got the bug, and soon thereafter made film music his chosen career. Interviewed last week, Orenstein described his experiences on these films and his perceptions of what contemporary horror film music is all about. Norman Orenstein: My work on this film began with the promotional trailer, which I scored, while the producers were still in the post production phase.
The director was interested in using elements from that trailer music in the actual score of the film and from what I have seen and heard, they made excellent use of the various motifs, hits and ambient pads extracted from the trailer. Despite the fact that the dialog was in Chinese, the trailer really had a fantastic look and feel and I was hooked. I learned that the story, a ghost love horror story, had to conform to certain rules laid down by the government of China.
So because of a sensitivity to ghost stories, the script writers had to come up with some clever devices that I won't give away. Anyway, I was then asked to score some scenes as well. I have not yet seen the film in its entirety, but what I have seen is cinematically beautiful, and the original composer also provided some great music. Q: What challenges did scoring this Chinese film pose to you in terms of logistics, composition, and recording?
Norman Orenstein: There were some language difficulties that came up, but nothing serious. There were also some revisions, which is understandable and not unusual. I composed and recorded as I always do, in my studio which is equipped with a combination of vintage analog gear and a computer based digital setup. The music stems were delivered via ftp and some elements were exchanged by courier.
The post production team in China seemed to be quite savvy, a top notch group. I understood that it was their desire to have this music be in distinct contrast to the rest of the score, so I did not reference the other composer. Q: Stir Of Echoes 2: The Homecoming was an interesting horror film sequel with a contemporary anti-war message. Norman Orenstein: The central character "Teddy" returns from service in Iraq, and carries with him the horrible experience of war. The events Teddy endured are the source of the horror. Ernie Barbarash writer and director has Teddy trying to get back to "normal" but the war has been changing America too, and these changes only trigger the recent memories, and Teddy is haunted by the ghosts of war.
What I tried to do with the score was to support the patriotic good intentions while creeping around with unsettling and sometimes brutal jabs. Teddy is patriotic, trying to do the right things, but not all is resolved, and he ultimately "wants to make this right.
To me the film is not primarily an anti-war film or just a horror film, it is really quite moral with irony and, in the end, tragic. How does a composer invest his or her own voice into music designed to be, essentially, discomforting and uneasy? Norman Orenstein: This is a tough question. There are certain conventions that are used, and they work. As the high strings crawl or the dissonance builds, the audience is somewhat educated to respond. It is a good thing that not all filmmakers are the same, so the contributing music is not always used with the same sensibilities.
Sometimes the absence of music may be scarier to an audience, and then that silence gives the composer a great opportunity to strike when moment demands. I find it actually easier to compose cues calling for discomfort and fear than music that taps more complex emotions. Q: Do you have any specific techniques that tend to work well in accomplishing that? Norman Orenstein: There are those conventions that all composers draw from. In most cases I think it is pretty obvious: thin veils of strings with creaking or intermittent pulses can add to the suspense, abrupt and loud events make you jump, discordant elements and melodies can writhe with horrific beauty.
It has been pointed out to me that I can compose whole cues with minimal pitched content along with atonal and percussive sounds, very much in the vein of "sound design. Michael is a superb editor and was deeply involved with the production of Diary of the Dead. I made a musical presentation and it clicked. Q: What was it like working with George Romero, a director who has become legendary in the horror film as an innovative and influential auteur?
How closely did he work with you on the scoring process?
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Norman Orenstein: Working with George was a pleasure. George actually gave me a lot of room to work on my own. My initial discussions regarding the score were with Peter Grunwald, who as well as being a key business component in the project, was artistically entwined as well. They both understood that the music was essential to the film but not as a primary feature, that it was not to be the typical horror movie score. When George made his comments on the work in progress, the comments were incredibly succinct. I remember one instance where he said the cue was "too complex," and I knew exactly what he meant.
Sometimes too much talk can actually cloud the point. Norman Orenstein: This musical history had no effect on the music I composed. This was to be a very different kind of movie and definitely different than what the previous "Dead" series had provided. Q: When you first sat down to spot this film, what were your first impressions of what kind of music it needed, and how did that develop into the final score? Norman Orenstein: As I have said, this was not to be a normal film. It is really a documentary film created by film students and the music was to be the music of that documentary.
George and Peter are not normal men. Q What elements — thematic, motivic, or instrumental — are central to your DOTD score, and how have you developed them throughout the arc of the story and the breadth of the score? Georges Simenon.
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