Welcome back to horror month! For the month of October, New 32 is featuring creators whose work we love. For today’s article, we sat down with Ryan Shreves, an incredibly talented musician who scored the horror short film Portrait of God, directed by Dylan Clark.
What inspires you as a musician?
I would say that what most inspires me is listening to music. I’m the type of musician who probably spends more time listening to other people’s music than working on my own. I’ve always had an almost obsessive need to keep discovering and digesting new music, and nothing excites me more when I hear a style or approach that I haven’t heard before. I’ll often find myself linking qualities of even seemingly disparate styles of music together, which provides me with an endless well of inspiration for creating new compositions.
We really loved the score for Portrait of God; it ups the tension and captures the spirit of the piece so well. When you’re scoring a film, how do you get started? What’s the beginning of your process like, when you’re first conceiving of the idea?
Thanks so much! I typically begin by first just trying to establish what the character of the score should sound like, whether it be electronic and atmospheric, or more musical and string-laden, and this is often decided collaboratively with the director. This can sometimes be immediately apparent from the film’s narrative or visual aesthetic, but it can also take time to discover what sounds will be most effective in providing the necessary musical tone. So at the beginning I will always create a playlist of musical references that I can touch on throughout the composition process to help me fully realize the sound of a score.
Walk us through the rest of your process. After you’ve conceived of your idea, what happens next?
Once the sonic direction of the score is established, I’ll begin the composing process by creating recurring musical ideas that can further accentuate narrative concepts throughout the film. These motifs can be more traditionally melodic or completely abstract, but however they’re articulated, they help provide the film with a sense of distinct character and identifiable texture. Then once I have the foundational instrumentation in place, and the principal motifs outlined, I can use these elements to begin scoring individual scenes. After the first draft of each cue is completed, I’ll send them to the director for notes, and a back and forth revision process will continue until each cue is working in the scene as it should.
When you’re composing a score, how do you collaborate with the filmmaker? What’s that process like?
Every filmmaker has their own style of collaboration. Sometimes they come into the scoring process knowing exactly what kind of score they want, and sometimes they totally rely on the composer to bring all the musical ideas to the table. But in any case, I consider it my job to compose a score that completely satisfies the filmmaker’s vision for the film. This is typically a trial and error process of discovering what works and feels right, but I’ve found that when you persistently strive to get the music working as it should, you always end up with the best product.
Practically speaking, what instruments did you use on the Portrait of God score?
Because of the religious content of the film, Dylan and I knew early on that we wanted to incorporate a choral element into the score. So I composed arrangements for a small four person chorus that serves as the main foundation of the music throughout the film. Since these voices have a very organic and human texture, I decided to complement them with a small string section. And then these elements are further supported by various abstract components such as bowed metals, synthesizers, and percussive instruments.
I noticed that you work on horror shorts pretty frequently. Is there something especially fun or rewarding about composing for horror? How do the conventions of the genre inform your work?
I love all kinds of films, but I have a specific adoration for the horror genre. As a horror film enthusiast myself, I love being a part of a community that is independently minded, dedicated to the craft, and obsessive about the genre. As many of the musical conventions of the genre stem from some of my favorite music, including modernist classical, electro-acoustic, and industrial music, I’m able to draw on influences that deeply inspire my creativity with every project.
Is there a song on the Portrait of God soundtrack that you’re especially proud of or fond of? Why?
It seems that the second cue of the film, “What Do You See?”, has been the favorite for most people, and I’d have to agree. I think the music effectively sets a tone of curiosity and wonder, but then slowly develops into something much more sinister. I also like how the choral arrangement kind of blurs the line between the sound of the human voice and something more synthetic and abstract.
Do you have a favorite horror movie score?
That would be too tough to name just one! There’s so much of a range, because I love scores like Jed Kurzel’s experimental noise collages in The Babadook, but also love more traditional orchestral scores like Howard Shore’s music in The Silence of the Lambs. But I’d have to say that Mark Korven’s scores have been especially influential on my own work, and I’d consider his score to The Lighthouse to be one of his finest.
How do you use music to build suspense? What tips do you have for building tension?
Building suspense and tension with music is all about dynamics and reading the psychology of the scene. The first instinct is often to hit each tense moment with a heap of noise, but I think it’s best to really analyze the feeling that’s occurring in each instant. I will actually often reduce the music to just a pinpoint during a tense moment to emphasize the anxiety. And it’s best to remember that the loudest and most intense moments in a score are always relative to quietest. So when building up the suspense in a scene, the progression will be a series of peaks and valleys, rather than a straight line going up.
What advice do you have for composers who want to work on horror films?
When composing for horror films, it can feel like you have to relegate yourself to certain musical conventions, or even clichés, for your music to be considered “horror” film music. But in recent years, many contemporary genre composers have demonstrated that you can bring your own taste and sensibilities into any kind of film and the score can still be effective, and arguably more interesting. Creating scores, even horror scores, that demonstrate your distinct perspective will attract and be appreciated by other filmmakers, who are always looking for collaborators who will help make their films a unique experience.