In March of this year, in an announcement about its gender parity initiatives, Canada’s National Film Board revealed that of the music composers on its funded productions for 2016-2017, only 13 percent were women. The NFB is working to bring that up to 50 per cent by 2020. If emerging women composers in this country are looking for motivation to get scoring, they’ll find inspiration in the career of Lesley Barber.
One of SOCAN’s most successful #ComposersWhoScore, the Toronto-based Barber made waves internationally last year with her music for the Oscar-winning American drama Manchester by the Sea. Her bold compositions of a cappella chorales, quietly disruptive strings and minimalist piano were widely praised. In fact, her score was considered a front-runner for an Oscar itself, before being ruled ineligible on a technicality: Director Kenneth Lonergan chose to also include previously written classical pieces, a no-go for the Best Original Score category. Still, the attention on Manchester shines a deserved light on a Canadian composer who’s been successfully scoring films, both at home and in Hollywood, for more than 20 years.
When we reach her at home, Barber has just finished an all-night writing session for the upcoming horror film Boarding School, by director Boaz Yakin. At the same time, she’s completing music for the romantic comedy Paper Year, the directorial debut for Canadian comedian and New Girl writer Rebecca Addelman. “It’s been interesting working on them simultaneously,” she says. “You have to live in two worlds at the same time.”
Barber has been bridging the divergent from the beginning. A student of classical piano in her youth, she began composing at age 10. While obtaining her Masters in music composition from the University of Toronto, she also studied electro-acoustic music with the late, legendary Canadian electronic composer Gustav Ciamaga, and started to focus on minimalism. Her interest in unconventional film scoring was further piqued during university, after witnessing a live performance by Philip Glass of his innovative score for Koyaanisqatsi.
Barber brought her expertise in both classical and computer music to her first feature film assignment, 1995’s R-rated lesbian drama When Night is Falling, by Canadian director Patricia Rozema.
“I’ve always been interested in hybrid scores, and that opportunity was right in the film,” says Barber. “There were two characters from separate worlds, and they meet and fall in love. Right from the beginning I wanted aggressive, live and programmed percussion, and a really tight quartet – like ‘Eleanor Rigby’ meets The Kronos Quartet – to kind of reflect these two characters’ lives, interacting and crossing paths. It was a really fun film. The process taught me a lot – about the level of detail, the studio process of scoring, producing, and conducting an orchestral score with programming in it.”
Since then, Barber has scored for thrillers, historical dramas, children’s animated movies, documentaries and more, but she’s especially drawn to features by auteur filmmakers, like Rozema, David Bezmozgis (Victoria Day) and Yakin, who she first worked with in 1998 on A Price Above Rubies. “Music is an essential part of their filmmaking,” she says. “They take the time to create a sound approach, and they care very deeply. The music is part of their voice. It’s a really immersive collaboration.”
It was the year 2000 when she made her first film with the American playwright Kenneth Lonergan. The debut feature You Can Count on Me, starring Laura Linney and Mark Ruffalo, was nominated for many awards, including both an Oscar and Golden Globe for original screenplay. For an emotional funeral sequence, Barber scored with a stark children’s choir, the type of atmospheric approach that she would later bring to their next collaboration, Manchester by the Sea.
“I do feel a responsibility to the characters. It’s like a communion, and tapping into their essential story.”
“I think with Kenny and I, when we worked on You Can Count on Me, it was his first film and one of my first,” she says. “Some years have gone by, and I think we’ve both really evolved. I think our voices are bolder. [This time] Kenny also brought me in really early in the process, so I had space to come up with my own ideas – like the a cappella voices. I could just simply get the singers in, and record them, and send [the recordings] in, and then we could talk about what worked and didn’t, and we’d get to music we both agreed on. It’s really exciting to work with a filmmaker like Kenny repeatedly, and get to the point where you can send really intuitive music and he’s open to it.”
One wouldn’t guess from listening to the high quality of the finished work, but Barber had little more than a week for the job. While she says there really is no typical workflow in film scoring – each production’s scheduling is unique – there’s one thing that regularly quickens the pace: A premiere at Sundance, one of the most prestigious film festivals, which just happens to fall right after the Christmas holidays.
“We had a multi-phased process,” she recalls. “I read the script and wrote a suite of music and sent it to Kenny. While he was editing I visited the editing room to see how it was working. I had done some improvisations on the piano that were working well, for example. And then, as is quite often with Sundance, you get accepted and your première date is set, while you’re still in the middle of finishing up! And it’s always holiday season. So it’s a real rush to get music ready. There were actually just a few weeks before the première, and I had to get that music delivered. So it was a very busy week. Thankfully, the writing flowed quickly, and I had an amazing team, which helps. Sometimes there’s something great about time pressure.”
A different challenge Barber has encountered is scoring for documentaries. She has worked on several, including Girls on Top (2010), How to Change the World (2015) and last year’s award-winning The Apology, an all-female production about Japanese “comfort women.” Unlike scripted films, where the composer can get work from a script and/or a rough cut, a documentary’s story often emerges in the editing process. Sometimes a direction presents itself in the premise, however. For the upcoming documentary A Better Man, in which co-director Attiya Khan re-visits a boyfriend who had abused her, 20 years later, Barber returned to her tools of synths and electronic programming to complement the chamber strings and dreamy woodwinds.
“Their relationship was in the ‘80s and I wanted to infuse the score with this sense of the past, and somehow create a music that reflected the two worlds of then and now,” she says.
Regardless of genre, or timeframe, or tools, Barber always comes back to the characters, and how she can illuminate their inner lives through music.
“I don’t think about the audience when I’m writing,” she says. “But I want my music to really stand on its own. If I hear it without the film, I want it to have a shape, to be something you want to hear again. I do feel a responsibility to the characters. It’s like a communion, and tapping into their essential story. I’m thinking about what’s at stake, what’s unspoken, what new layer can I bring to the storytelling, where’s the potential vulnerabilities, to help the audience. That’s where my allegiances lie.”