“Intuition and emotional effect are more important to me than inflexible concepts”

FONDATION SUISA awarded Balz Bachmann the Film Music Prize 2017 for his original compositions for Wilfried Meightry’s film documentary “Bis ans Ende der Träume” (Until the end of dreams). Guest author Markus Ganz in an interview with Balz Bachmann.

Balz Bachmann: “Intuition and emotional effect are more important to me than inflexible concepts”

“Each film is exceptionally unique, that is why I look for a bespoke musical language for each film”, Balz Bachmann explains. (Photo: Patrick Hari)

Balz Bachmann, how did you get to create the film score for Wilfried Meichtry’s film documentary “Bis ans Ende der Träume”?
Balz Bachmann: It was the first time that I worked with Wilfried Meichtry. Plus, it was his début as a director; until now, the graduate historian had only been active as a scriptwriter in the film sector. We started chatting during the Solothurn Film Days and soon discussed film projects in general but also potential collaboration avenues. After further talks with involved parties, I received the script, read it and discussed with Wilfried Meichtry, the producer Urs Schnell (DokLab GmbH, Berne) and the editor, Annette Brütsch.

How exactly did you start your work?
Well, it was the classical procedure at first: I received some film material, sometimes just rough edits, so that I would get a feeling for the underlying mood. After that I started to create musical sketches and sent them to the cutters. We then took a look at the interaction with the image. The result was some sort of a ping pong game between my music and the cut, each of them reacting to the other and vice versa.

What was special about it?
I had to find a certain kind of dramaturgy for a complex combination of documentary and fictional image material. The challenge was to create an overarching dramaturgy for the entire film despite of this. It was a close collaboration between the editor, the director and myself in order to find out what is needed to achieve this. At the beginning we thought that 25 minutes of music should be enough (the film is 82 minutes long). We realised, however, that the image material was relatively static as it contained many photos, and had intentionally been staged this way, also in the fictional parts. As a consequence, we became aware that some sort of movement, another level was needed which co-told and commented on the story: more music.

Did you create a suitable sound library for the film score at the beginning of your work?
That would have been an interesting approach, but I went about it a different way. I have to try out in each case how the image and the sound work together. I try to sense with my intuition what happens to me as a viewer when I use certain moods, tones and musical themes. In the case of this film, I chose a broad tone range in order to make the different times and places perceptible. I also used diverse stylistic elements: classical parts with a viola, for example, but also those which related to the places in question, more musically than from a sound perspective. After all, I did not want to fall prey to the cliché of ethnic music.

“You have to develop a proper musical language for a film and that is only possible if you compose music specifically for this purpose.”

No ethnic Caribbean romanticism for the place where the two protagonists got to know and love each other?
Exactly, the music should be a narrative form in its own right, in which the place is resonating, yet is translated individually and separately. As a consequence, the range of the film score I have used stretches all the way to pure electronic music which creates a rather interesting contrast to the old woman, for example. I have been undecided for quite a while whether this might work, whether this might be plausible to the viewer. This applies to film score, similarly as it does to acting: You perceive a person and are taken in by it, without realising that the character of that person is just being acted. Parallel to that, music has to suck you into a film – that’s my top rule.

Have you used different musical settings for documentary and fictional material in order to illustrate the difference?
No, quite the opposite: I have tried to combine the two types of material and allow them to overlap. I wanted to create a fluent transition between the two, so that viewers transcend from the documentary into the fictional scenes without realising it.

What do you think of the two basic approaches of film score creation whereby it is either created to reinforce or contrast a theme?
I don’t like inflexible or purely theoretical music concepts, I love intuitive elaboration. Each film is extremely unique and represents its own world which is why I look for a proper musical language for each of them. That’s why film scores exist in the first place, even though there is already a plethora of existing music. But that is exactly my point: You have to develop a proper language for a film and that is only possible if you compose music specifically for this purpose.

Do you therefore also not work with “temp tracks” (a provisional soundtrack with already existing music to be able to test the effect of the existing film material)?
For a film composer like me, this is, of course, an emotive term (laughs). Editors in particular support the notion of creating a rhythm for the images or because they are worried that a scene alone is not enough to carry the mood. I do not think such arguments count because, in my opinion, the rhythm of images can be better perceived without provisional music. As a consequence I think it makes more sense if you create it “dry”, without temp tracks. There is, in my opinion, the rather interesting approach to compose film score purely on the basis of a script, without having images at all. As a composer, I can, in such instances, draw from my own vision and imagination which I have created after reading the script for this story. That gives me a lot of room and freedom.

You are then able to create an autonomous level which has not already been pre-influenced by images?
Exactly. The second advantage of doing this, is that you can work with music that has been specifically made for the script during the cutting process, and try out how the music works. The third advantage is that you maintain a high level of autonomy from the very start. After all, a major disadvantage of temp music is that it inevitably becomes a reference – especially for the director and the editor – from which it is hard to break away again. People connect the two levels, image and sound, automatically in an emotional manner, which is why it is so difficult to separate the two from each other later on.

“In a film documentary, the dramaturgy has to be developed in a different manner to a feature film, where the scenes and the dramaturgy are much more pre-established by the script.”

The soundtrack is always a means to support the viewer when the story is told. Do you connect characters and places with sounds and musical themes?
Yes, I use themes in nearly every film, they stand for something and are repeated, which helps the viewers with their orientation. If you have seen a scene with a certain type of music and the music is repeated at a later stage, you automatically and quickly get access to the next scene as it is connected through. As a consequence, it often serves as a starting point for a project that I hook into a place or a character. The more I engage with the character and allocate a certain musical theme to it, the more the film structure gets reinforced by this action, especially on an emotional level.

Does the majority of your work take place parallel to the cutting process?
Yes, that’s usually the case, but not to such a major extent as for the film “Bis ans Ende der Träume”. Here, the music and cutting process took place in synchronicity for nearly half a year, and the work was nearly finished at the same time. The reason for this was that the cut was leaning on the music much more than usual. In a film documentary, the dramaturgy has to simply be developed in a different manner to a feature film, where the scenes and the dramaturgy are much more pre-established by the script.

The collaboration between you and the editor Annette Brütsch was very intensive, I gather?
Yes, as it is a process where cutting and music react to one another. Have to react to one another, because there were extremely different thematic sections: for example the travelling, and the century-old Benedictine priory in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, where the woman later retires to completely – to a certain degree exactly the opposite, as she had enjoyed travelling to countries alone where women did not do so when she was young. We realised that the dilapidated house needed an atmosphere. But it was also clear that a melodic music would take up too much room, tell too much. I found it rather interesting at first how to deal with the ambient sound in the house. But I came to the conclusion that it’s not the room itself that makes the difference. The result was that I created a specific static sound for this house.

How did you meet the challenge of having to keep the suspense going for more than 82 minutes?
It is very important to watch the film as a whole during the screenings, since I only work on individual scenes. This is when you realise if there is something wrong with the rhythm of the film, as that is what matters. And we realised at some point that the viewer somehow fell into a hole when there was no music at all. That is how more and more music was added – now it is 60 minutes, which is a lot, especially as I prefer films with less music. But in this film, it simply made sense as it is an important element to convey emotion.

One and a half hours is not only the usual duration of a cinema film, but also of concerts. You are also active as a live musician, just like in the band of Sophie Hunger: Are there parallels?
Well, one factor that is certainly comparable whether it’s a performance during a concert or a film in the cinema: I am always nervous. I listen to music differently when an audience is present, my feelers are just opened much wider. That is different for a film such as “Bis ans Ende der Träume”: I had half a year’s time to create a dramaturgy.

Does your experience as a live musician also influence your work on sound tracks?
Absolutely. As a live musician, it’s all about moments of happiness where something special is being created. And that’s what I am looking for when I create film score, too.

Balz Bachmann (born 1971 in Zurich) is a trained printer and studied double base at the Swiss Jazz School in Berne. Since 1997, his main job has been to compose music for feature films and documentary films, among them “Yalom’s Cure” (2015), “Die Schwarzen Brüder” (2013), “Eine wen iig, dr Dällebach Kari” (2012), “Day is Done” (2011), “Giulias Verschwinden” (2009), “Sternenberg” (2004) and “Ernstfall in Havanna” (2002). Balz Bachmann is also an active musician and performs during many concerts together with artists such as Sophie Hunger and band. He is also President of Smeca, the Association of Swiss Media Composers.
Balz Bachmann had already received the Film Music Prize by FONDATION SUISA in 2003 (for “Little Girl Blue”) and in 2006 (for “Jeune homme”, together with Peter Bräker who, together with Michael Künstle was also involved in the development of the musical themes for the film in question “Bis ans Ende der Träume”). The award is valued at CHF 25,000 and is presented each year, alternating between the category feature film and documentary film.
The film “Bis ans Ende der Träume” tells the story of the Swiss travel journalist Katharina von Arx (1928 – 2013) and the French photographer Freddy Drilhon (1926 – 1976) in documentary and fictional sequences. They were adventurers, globetrotters and lovers. The couple settles down in a monastery ruin in the French-speaking part of Switzerland and soon faces the question how strong love is. The film is expected to be shown in cinemas in 2018.

Information on the Film Music Prize of the FONDATION SUISA
Video clip on the Film Music Prize 2017 of the FONDATION SUISA on Art-tv.ch

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