The scoring of a trilogy

Don Davis Downloading into the 21st century

Article by Rudy Koppl

The following interview with Don Davis appeared in issue 39 of Music from the Movies magazine.


Did your scoring of the ‘Main Title’ to Reloaded parallel your style of composing for the ‘Main Title’ in the first film? What compositional differences were present?

I can’t say there were any compositional differences, certainly not in terms of style, as I was looking to expand the approach rather than to run broadside against it. In the ‘Main Title’ the music over the logos is exactly the same as The Matrix as I wanted it to have that familiarity. Even though everyone insisted that the logo sequence was exactly the same length as The Matrix, as it turned out they were a slightly different length. After the logo sequence you’ll hear a lot more energy in the opening of Reloaded right from the get go. In The Matrix we eased into it a little bit, but there was more of an opportunity for an orchestral tour de force as the titles came down in Reloaded, and then the graphics go into an expanding universe thing that eventually evolves into a time clock, and that seemed like a nice opportunity to expand a bit stylistically. The scoring style here involves the antiphonal devices that I’ve established. Even though there wasn’t any reflective imagery in the opening title sequence of Reloaded, I did use that flurrying contrapuntal figure that has a reflective symbolism to it, which was the same contrapuntal figure that opened up The Matrix although it expands faster here. The antiphonal device, which is the see-sawing brass figure, doesn’t come up during the title sequence, but shows up immediately afterwards, when Trinity comes flying in on a motorcycle and fights a number of security guards who quite unfortunately show up in the wrong place at the wrong time. That antiphonal figure shows up right away in that cue. My style had been set in the first film, so it wasn’t a matter of setting the style, but reiterating the style and expanding it. This title sequence has a number of similarities to The Matrix, even to the extent of having the camera push right into an through the “0” (in The Matrix the “0” was part of a phone number, in this case it’s the “O” in the Reloaded title), and the camera falls through into these other universes. From that point the visual effects go off into a different direction, and the music likewise takes off in a different way. The music functions in a similar way to the title sequence in that it reiterates the style of the first movie and then shows that it’s going to go off into developmental territory.

Are you continuing or expanding on the idea of scoring reflective imagery in Reloaded?

Much of the narrative of The Matrix was the discovery of an alternate reality and by the time we get to Reloaded we already knew about the alternate reality, and it came time to discover the nature of that reality and the alternate realities within that alternate reality. That is much less of a subtext in Reloaded, and so the reflective nature of the music wasn’t as important to the narrative. But there was still reflective imagery in Reloaded, albeit to a lesser degree, and as such there is still a strong contrapuntal feeling in its score. A good example is at the beginning of the picture when Trinity and the Agent are falling out of the building. As they fall you see their reflections in the building. That was a moment in which I drew on the reflective imagery idea in the music. There are many instances like that, but again, it just didn’t have the same level of subtext that the first film had.

You’re using a much larger choir in Reloaded, what was your approach?

The choir in Reloaded had eighty voices, while in The Matrix there were only forty. There was a significantly larger role for the choir in Reloaded than in the first film. I’m not sure exactly what to attribute that to because I don’t think the choir functions particularly differently in Reloaded, there is just a lot more of it. In The Matrix we had choir in ‘The Power Plant’ sequence, when Neo was rescued from his little pod. The choir was a musical representation of the plight of humanity; you have the image of this multitude of people who are enslaved inside the enormous power plant and the choir comes in with their big, “Ah,” thing. In Reloaded the choir comes in when the camera pulls back on a wide shot of Zion and the inner workings of Zion, which in a way is kind of the inverse of the power plant. The choir was there to provide a feeling of wonder and awe, which is the inverse of the plaintive plight of humanity the choir was screaming out in The Matrix. The choir definitely has a particular function of representing that which is human in both films. Another essential moment that the choir accompanies in Reloaded is in the third act when Morpheus is making a plea to the other ship commanders, “This war could end today. Isn’t that worth fighting for, isn’t that worth dying for?” This is an inspirational moment and the choir accompanies it, a little more subtly here.

What problems were posed by writing for eighty voices?

Having a bigger choir doesn’t pose any problems except, I suppose, for the contractor. It’s really a big advantage. It’s simply a larger sound, a fuller, richer sound. In other movies when I had a smaller group and I needed to divide the choir into smaller sections, I had a lot of trouble making it work because the smaller sections started to sound soloistic. The kind of sound I was looking for was something like Ligeti’s ‘Atmospheres’, which had been written for a one-hundred-and-eighty piece choir. When he broke it down into twelve or even sixteen parts, there were still enough singers on each part to give it a great deal of fullness and integrity. When I tried to do that with a forty voice choir it fell apart pretty quickly. The difference is that with a bigger choir you can break it into smaller groups and still have the integrity of enough voices on a line so that it blends and doesn’t sound soloistic.

Some of your choir work in Reloaded sounded religious, can you elaborate on that?

I hope you’re not categorising all the music that had choir in it as being religious. It’s unfortunate when certain sounds and timbres become relegated to specific situations because there is a pre-existing identification that people have with those sounds. I had to deal with that kind of thing a little bit when we were spotting. There was one point in Reloaded in which Neo and Seraph went into the industrial highway, which was kind of a digital never-never land in The Matrix. When we spotted that scene I thought it might be interesting to have the choir come in and do something really spacey that would be an appropriate sound for that chamber of nothingness. Larry and Andy kind of balked at that idea at first saying, “What is this? It’s not church, you know.” I was a little bit concerned about that because a choir can evoke a lot of different images, not just a religious image. What I suggested when we spotted it was, “Why don’t I just try this. It’s a pretty short sequence and we’ll see if you like it,” and I planned to add some synthesizers in the texture as well for a more ambient sound. They ended up liking it quite a bit and using it in the final dub. I was able to demonstrate to Larry and Andy that vocal music could have versatility beyond their expectations. The moment you might be referring to could be the choral section that introduces Councillor Hamann, prior to the Temple Dance scene. The temple in Zion does have a religious overtone to it, and having the choir singing in that sequence did add a bit of religiousness to it and that wasn’t inappropriate, although I was looking for the kind of spirituality that might be a little closer to Arvo Pärt’s ‘Cantus In Memory of Benjamin Britten’. It is true that a requiem is going to be a bit religious, but I wasn’t really looking for a religious overtone, but rather I was looking for a texture, a colour, a feeling.

You used choir in both ‘Mona Lisa Overdrive’ and ‘The Burly Brawl’. Explain how you compose for choir in the context of using it for an action sequence?

I have to credit Ben with using the choir in both of those sequences. I wouldn’t have thought to do that to be honest and when he suggested it I was afraid it was going to get histrionic. It may well have gotten histrionic had it not been mixed as well as it was by Ben and his engineer. Much of what we recorded was then reedited, processed, and placed in different places using ProTools. We didn’t sit down and plan to have the choir sing in these action sequences, rather it came out from our discussions during our interaction. In the final analysis the actual choir writing wasn’t all that unusual; it was where it was placed that made it different, as well as the way it was laid out in the mix. The way it was compressed, equalised, and then just the placement of it dynamically amongst the electronica tracks and the orchestra tracks, is what made it work.

You recorded a source cue for Reloaded. What was your approach to the instrumentation and vocal part on this?

The Merovingian was essentially of French extraction, which was relevant because the Merovingian’s were located in ancient France, then known as Gaul. Larry and Andy wanted some source music to be playing during the restaurant scene that would emphasise the sleazy playboyness of the Merovingian, but they also wanted the source music to comment on the scene with a little more detail than a piece of music actually playing there would. They wanted the source piece to be lounge music and I thought it maybe should be Brazilian, kind of a jazzy Bossa Nova. At a certain point during the conversation the Merovingian starts to talk about France; he’s drinking a glass of Chateau Haut-Brion (1959) and talks about how wonderful it is to curse in French. So I brought in an accordion at that point and the music changes stylistically to a French pop song. They thought a vocalist would be good and I agreed, but of course we had to determine what lyric the vocalist was going to sing. At one point during the meeting the Merovingian points to a woman in the restaurant and he says, “Look there, look at her, my God just look at her, so obvious, so bourgeois, so boring.” So I took those three lines, “so obvious, so bourgeois, and so boring,” and had them translated into French and Portuguese. The song starts out with those lyrics in Portuguese for the Brazilian part and then when he starts to talk about Chateau Haut-Brion she sings the same phrases in French. That pretty much carries the piece. Since it’s essentially lounge music I had six accompanists; a piano, a stand up bass, a vibraphone player, of course the accordion, and an acoustic guitar player, who also doubled on the sitar. I also brought in a percussionist to layer in quite a bit of Brazilian instruments, congas, cabasas, and things like that, as well as the tablas and tambour for the Indian character.

The brothers wanted you to write an original piece rather than use pre-existing music?

They wanted me to do it because they wanted the source music to comment directly on the drama, which a “needle drop” couldn’t possibly do. They could have easily licensed some Brazilian music for the Merovingian scene, but then it wouldn’t have commented on the Indian character, it wouldn’t have transformed into a French piece when the Merovingian said, “Ah, Chateau Haut-Brion,” it wouldn’t have transitioned back to the Portuguese part, it wouldn’t have gotten darker when the Merovingian got sinister, and so forth.

Your accordion player on that is quite a character.

Frank Marocco, the quintessential accordion player. It’s too bad that they didn’t have him on the set, so when the accordion comes in, as the Merovingian says, “Ah, Chateau Haut-Brion,” they could have cut over to Frank Marocco playing his accordion. That would have been a really existential moment.

One of the electronic artists involved in scoring Reloaded was Rob Dougan. How involved were you in creating the Chateau fight sequence with him?

I met with Rob and went over the music that he wrote for the Chateau fight and I discussed a few things with him, mostly in terms of addressing Larry and Andy’s notes for that sequence, but I wasn’t really involved that much with what he was doing. He had an orchestrator named Mark Killian who scored the orchestra parts for his scene. He came over here to my studio and we went over it a bit again as well just to be certain that everything was in place, but that certainly doesn’t justify calling it a co-composition in any event. Mark Killian also conducted the orchestra for the recording of that sequence. This was the only cue that we discussed, although his music also appeared in the ‘Upgrade Fight’, but that was a previously recorded cut of his called ‘Furious Angels’.

Did your scoring team deal with Rob’s music on the scoring stage?

Yes, it was the scoring team that I had set up to handle the technical tasks for the rest of the score. I could have conducted Rob’s cue as well, I suppose, and had I insisted Mark would have been fine with it, but I knew that he had arranged the cue, so I really thought that he ought to conduct it. They only took around an hour or so to record it on the scoring stage.

How did you make sure that the hybrid cues you wrote with Ben integrated with the rest of your score? They had kind of a groove to them.

I was able to bring in some of those pyramid techniques and antiphonal gestures that were distinctive to The Matrix sound, so that we could lend that Matrix sound to what Ben was doing and further integrate the electronica with the orchestral underscore. Had I exclusively scored this orchestrally, I would have had to find some sort of motor or groove to pull it along, but it would have been an orchestral groove, not an electronica groove. It certainly made sense to score the Freeway chase with an electronica groove, and it was really up to Ben to determine the nature of that groove.

Can you explain the pyramid techniques that you just mentioned?

The pyramid is a musical gesture in which instruments pile up on each other. It’s like building a chord semi-vertically, having one instrument come in on a low note and the next instrument come in a note higher, and so on so that the chord continues ascending, or descending for that matter. Leonard Rosenman did that ad infinitum on just about every score he ever did. The pyramids in Reloaded are a little bit expanded on because they not only pyramid up, but they go down as well. There’s this cascading effect that builds on top of itself that I thought worked pretty well. It was also a verticalisation of the antiphonal brass, that seesawing dynamic situation. It was something that worked very well in a lot of different action situations in Reloaded. I used it pretty liberally in just about every action cue.

You also scored ‘The Burly Brawl’ with Ben. How did this process work?

First I scored this entire sequence and mocked it up, the brothers gave me some notes, and then they had me take it to the scoring stage. They still wanted to explore a techno concept for it. Because they were happy with what Ben and I were doing on the Freeway chase, they wanted to have Ben try something out. Ben took the tracks that I’d written for the orchestra and he weaved in and out of them with some very elaborate techno tracks. He came up with something that was becoming solid, but Larry and Andy felt that his contribution needed further orchestral support. We then worked out some orchestral moments that supported his tracks that were laid on top my original orchestral approach to the entire scene. Essentially there are two separate tracks of orchestra going full speed ahead, the original track that I did and the tracks that I did later accentuating Ben’s tracks. After the pile up at the end of ‘The Burly Brawl’ it pretty much reverts back to what I’d done originally, and from there on to the end you hear the original orchestral cue that I wrote. This method of scoring gets a little crazy, going back and forth like that.

Why is it that in the past trying to combine an orchestra with electronic music or electronic rock never sounded very organic?

The reason for that is there’s a difference between the way orchestral instruments and electronics function. The real essence of orchestra music is that each instrument reverberates together in acoustical space. When the brass and strings are playing, the string instruments will actually vibrate and resonate from the sounds that the brass instruments are making, which changes the sound; that’s what’s known as orchestral blend, that deep sonority that makes orchestral music so brilliant. The essence of electronic music is something quite different; if it’s an acoustic instrument being recorded it’s usually very close miked, which means that what the microphone is picking up is not how the instrument is resonating in an enclosed space, but it’s the actual vibrations coming right off the instrument. Similarly, if you look at simple electronic instruments, the early electronic instruments which are guitars that have a pickup contact on each string, you’ll see that the vibrations are extracted directly off the string and are then amplified and modified. That’s a clear illustration of what I’m talking about, it’s taking vibrations, miking them close, and then manipulating them. At no point is the acoustics of an open space considered. So what does that mean really? A rock band doesn’t consist of very many players, four, five, or six at the most, usually. They stay pretty close together and they’re playing so loud that it’s pretty hard not to hear rhythmically what everyone’s doing, so that there’s a real immediacy to the rhythmic structures that are happening in rock music or any other sort of electronic medium. In contrast to that situation, in an orchestra you may have a situation where the percussion players are fifty or sixty feet away from the conductor, but the string players are ten feet away. That’s enough space for a rhythmic discrepancy to occur. Percussionists have told me about a thing called “orchestral time,” where a percussionist has to anticipate the beat a little bit, so that when the sound reaches the audience the percussion and the strings will sound like they are playing at the same time. So there’s an acoustical disparity and there’s a rhythmic disparity between orchestral and electronic music that makes the coalescence difficult if not impossible. What Ben did in this situation was to take the orchestral tracks and compress them and manipulate them, like the guitar with a pick up that manipulates the vibrations from a string, and then various effects are added to that. Ben added some effects to the orchestra tracks and in that sense was also able to manipulate some of the arrhythmic elements in the orchestra, so that it coalesced better with the electronic elements that he was working with.

Ben explained that the rhythmic structures in ‘The Burly Brawl’ were quite a challenge to work with.

The fundamental problem that had to be dealt with was a matter of adjusting our working environment, the programs that we use to write these cues and the templates with, so that everything became compatible. We both worked with Digital Performer, but our working tempos became different at times. There were some moments where I had to take what Ben was working with and fragment them so I could give the orchestra a new start every time he changed tempo, so that the clicks could be fed to the orchestra and it would make sense to them.

You have a classical background, you’re even writing an opera. Can The Matrix trilogy be viewed as scoring a science fiction type opera without words?

On the surface, of course not, because nobody’s singing, but if you take a broad view of film scoring it becomes clear that film music comes from the operatic tradition. Opera was the original fusion of drama and music, and I don’t think anyone who’s working with drama and music can really disregard that. In a loose way you can look at The Matrix as a three-act opera, and The Matrix, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions can be seen as something of a three-part ‘Ring Cycle’ in comparison to Wagner’s four-part ‘Ring Cycle’. The allegory to the ‘Ring Cycle’ could be further justified by the fact that the ‘Ring Cycle’ is an epic telling of Nordic mythological themes, and the mythology involved in the plot and the characters in The Matrix is very strong, right down to the liberal use of mythological names like Morpheus and Osiris, all of which were very carefully thought out in their genesis. The analogy to an epic mythological opera is not at all inappropriate.

What’s your schedule on Revolutions?

Obviously the studio needs a certain amount of time to strike the prints, and like Reloaded, Revolutions is going to have a day-to-day release, which means it’s going to be released simultaneously on the same day around the world. They have to make a lot of prints and they need more time to do that than they normally would, so Revolutions has to be ready to print by the first week of October. They need at least four or five or even six weeks of final dub in order to do that, so I should be finished scoring by the middle of August. I just spotted the film last week, and I’ll have June and July and part of August to write, then in the middle of August I’ll go to the scoring stage to record.

Is there any chance that you might score another film in here somewhere?

Right now, no. I do have a commission with the Los Angels Master Chorale to present excerpts from my opera in progress, ‘Rio de Sangré’ (‘River of Blood’). Unfortunately I haven’t had a chance to do very much work on that yet, but I’m hoping that I’ll be able to get a significant amount of that piece done before the end of the year.

Do you view the final instalment of The Matrix as being a high point creatively in your film scoring career?

Absolutely. This whole process has been an incredible opportunity, and an incredible challenge. The Matrix project has taken on a life of its own and has consumed just about everything that has crossed its path. I think that everyone who’s been involved with this series of projects has seen their life change significantly because of it.

After this is over, are there plans to release an extended version of The Matrix Trilogy on CD?

There’s been some talk about that, but I don’t know how serious the talk is. If it were to happen I think it would have to be tied in to a three part DVD release as a cross-promotional item. I’m pretty excited about the concept, and if that were to come to pass it would be absolutely sensational, but I don’t want to get too excited because it would seem that the likelihood of a project like that being financially feasible for a record company isn’t really too high. Something like this will appeal mostly to archivists, but it’s certainly something that would interest me if I were the consumer.