Making a Book Trailer (10): Conclude with Music

Music on the sound track or not? That was the last major decision to be made on the Companion trailer, although the preparations required to make it took months.

I briefly considered commissioning a score, but there are no composers among my friends or colleagues who might donate time and talent, and I had no budget to hire someone at market rates. That meant using extant music. But music of what sort, and of what century?

My first thought was premodern classical music, which would allow us to avoid legal barriers. I do have a friend who’s a professional pianist. He was willing to record the chosen piece, and that way we’d avoid problems of copyright.

A search for the right music, however, did not turn up good prospects. The works that Richard and I listened to would, in the trailer, sound rarified, highbrow, and stuffy. I wanted quiet exposition, lament, and resolution, not a requiem for a fallen giant.

An example is Bach, who was at the top of our list, since Joel played his keyboard music on the harpsichord (see the entry “Manhattan” in the Companion). Despite his varied output, however, Bach wasn’t right. The controlled passion, onward drive, and profundity that make him the composer of choice for movies from The English Patient to The Beast with Five Fingers (now there’s a trailer with gusto) were not in the mood we hoped to create.

By chance, however, Bach did lead us to the right music. After we heard the St. Matthew Passion performed by the Los Angeles Master Chorale two years ago, Richard signed up to receive the Chorale’s promotional emails. On a recent program appeared a contemporary composer not familiar to us, Nico Muhly.

Having listened to some of his compositions, Richard sent me a link to “A Hudson Cycle,” a piece for solo piano about three and a half minutes long. He liked its quiet forward motion against restraints, and thought it would bring pace to the trailer. I was unsure at first, but as I listened more, the music grew on me. Reading about the composer, I was surprised by his youth (born 1981) and pleased to learn that his father is a documentary filmmaker, like Pillai. After a hiatus of a couple of weeks, I listened again to the piece and announced, “It’s perfect.”

In the meantime Richard had emailed an address on the composer’s website, asking about purchasing a license. Somewhat to our surprise, an answer came back from the St Rose Music Publishing saying yes to a two-year license, and at a reasonable cost.

We still weren’t sure we’d use the piece, but if we did, we wanted the trailer to have a longer life. Richard wrote back to St Rose:

We are hoping that the trailer will be a work of permanent value (to its creators, if no one else!). It would be unfortunate to lose the ability to present it after two years. Would it be possible to include in the agreement an option on our part to purchase a permanent license after the initial two years?

No response came for week, for two weeks, three weeks. Richard called St Rose and left a voice mail. No response. What had happened? Had our efforts at negotiation turned off the professionals on the other end?

We needed to find another option. Wandering around YouTube, Richard chanced upon another name new to us, the tragic Lhasa de Sela. How stunning “Love Came Here” would sound under the credits! This was the sort of thing movies did a lot of—a jumpy number as the credits roll.

But we wanted music for the body of the trailer, not just the credits, and Lhasa’s strong vocal personality would clash with, maybe overwhelm, the narration. We couldn’t afford to pay for two pieces of music, and so our Lhasa craze faded.

And then St Rose emailed, offering a license of five years. We had our preferred musical option back on the table.

When the editing was almost complete, the time came to make a decision on the music. The various members of Team Trailer had different opinions. Pillai seemed to believe that the whole was already complete, that the trailer should should stay “dry” (so goes the lingo). Richard was music’s main advocate. He had invested effort in finding the right work and obtaining a license, so I was inclined to defer to his wish to experiment with it on the soundtrack. Pillai was quite willing give it a try.

The trailer has two halves, four segments, divided by fades to black. To put things schematically, the first two segments are Joel’s history and his death, the second two my response and an affirmation. Pillai proposed starting the music with the second half.

Richard jumped on this idea and emailed Pillai:

It occurred to me to begin the music at the same spot you suggested, after the blackout following “And on that day he died.” It would thus represent movement forward in the aftermath.

The music could play continuously below whatever other sounds occur, and end with the word “companion,” the last word of the narration.

Pillai’s response:

I do feel the same way about the music as you do—using it after the bathroom sequence, starting it during the fadeout and the sequence beginning with the egg coddler, and layering it till the end.

When Richard and I visited the lab to watch the version with music, however, Pillai and Drew had placed it much later. The trailer concludes with a few seconds of the river rippling in the sun, a dissolve to the book cover, and then the credits. The music began with the rippling water.

What had changed Pillai’s mind? The piece had too much momentum, he said, and made the trailer “too strong.” The very quality in the music that had appealed to Richard—its ready pace—clashed with the rhythm of the trailer prior to its final scenes.

Yet the music was right for the resolution of the story. It smooths out and unites the concluding sequence, Pillai commented. Although some of us handle silences well, he said, much of the audience would be carried along by the music. In the end there’s “a kind of redemption,” and the music bears this feeling forward.

The music was in.

Still there were fine adjustments to make. Fade in with “the sparrows were up and swooping”? No, the birds sing in a different key. Accompany “the sun is up,” or join “ablaze with light”? Fade in how fast, and fade out how slow? We chose precisely how the musical river would flow, and on what slope.

Only after all my own decisions on the music were made did I read Daniel Johnson’s analysis of “A Hudson Cycle”:

The primary rhythmic figure—a restless polyrhythm of two beats in the right hand for every three in the left—should recall the onward rush of the titular river, which very much represents “home” for the composer. (There it is, out his window.) … its relentless rhythms propel the piece as a river of sound, dark and liquid.

Here ends this series of posts on the making of a book trailer. Here exit the river (there it is, out my window), the river house, the stamps and coddler and things, the bon creative crew, Pillai, Tim, and Drew, and the “unknown man whom we knew.”

The trailer is made.