An interview with composer of Bel Canto soundtrack
We talk to David Majzlin, the composer of the soundtrack of Bel Canto, the new Paul Weitz film about a famous American soprano, featuring Julianne Moore and Renée Fleming
Bel Canto, released in the US on 14 September, is about a famous American soprano, played by Julianne Moore and sung by Renée Fleming. While performing for a wealthy industrialist at his home in South America, she and the private concert audience become trapped in a hostage situation by rebel forces.
Your soundtrack is a real melting pot of cultures and musical styles. How did you go about capturing the Latin American flavour?
The process began when I found an instrument called a timple, which I had never heard of before. It’s a two-foot long guitar strung with classical guitar strings, and is popular in many Latin American countries but it’s not a signature of one particular place. When I found that instrument it helped me establish the palette.
It was the perfect instrument to cut through the score with strength but it was also fragile. It linked well with Carmen, the character that most stood out for me. She is one of the terrorists and is holding a machine gun, but is so young she barely seems to know what she’s doing.
How did you blend the sound of the timple with traditional western instruments?
The orchestral playing is representative of the elite European tradition. When it is accented with the timple and the Latin American inflections it shows the dichotomy between the rich and the poor, one of the main themes of this film.
I used a classical guitar in the soundtrack as well – the playing is very refined – and I decided to play the timple myself. I had never played one before, but it has such personality and I had a really good energy with it. I recorded it very quickly, so it was very raw, which worked in perfect stark contrast with the classical guitar.
I also used electronic music to indicate the surveillance going on in the film: everyone in the house is under surveillance the whole time. You forget that as you watch it, because you get swept up in the romance, but really the film is about love and art set against a hostage situation.
Were you involved in the recording process with soprano Renée Fleming?
Yes, it was such an educational process for me. We brought in producers and specialists who have been involved in many of Renée’s albums. They made sure that the techniques were used in recording were seen through to the end in filming. Her instrument needed its own sort of crew! It’s a very specific sound that they all know and understand.
When you record an opera singer at full voice you have to have the microphone far away, but their technique was different – the microphones were close and there were several of them. Whenever Renée’s head and body moved, it still recorded the voice at the best quality possible. Opera singers are like athletes: they use their whole body.
How did you collaborate with the production team?
In every film, no matter who the director is, there’s always a sense of trepidation. You have to remember that you’re coming in at the very end of the process, and you have the potential to change the film completely. When you have a film that is about music, you have to be even more considerate about what you’re bringing to the project. If there’s too much music it can seem heavy-handed.
Working with Paul Weitz is great. He loves music, whether he’s a musician or not. He was also one of the creators of Mozart in the Jungle, which I worked on as well. I really liked was that Paul and I were able to keep focused on the narratives: we were constantly asking ourselves what we were wanting to say. I ask myself what’s missing and what music is able to add. If the film’s already saying it, you don’t need music.
What was your involvement with Mozart in the Jungle?
I was commissioned to write several original pieces for the show over several episodes, but I was also asked to create music that is part of the script, like when a character goes into a shop and picks an instrument off the wall and plays it.
Writing the original pieces was really fun because they were supposed to be modern – they weren’t supposed to emulate a certain period in history. It’s now, it’s in New York City – I really identified with it. Music-wise, it was right up my alley.
Bel Canto is released in the US on Friday 14 September
Freya Parr is BBC Music Magazine's Digital Editor and Staff Writer. She has also written for titles including the Guardian, Circus Journal, Frankie and Suitcase Magazine, and runs The Noiseletter, a fortnightly arts and culture publication. Freya's main areas of interest and research lie in 20th-century and contemporary music.