Inside the Federmusik: Double Edged

Welcome back to the podium, faithful readers! This blog entry is in honour of the world premiere of Double Edged, a short psychological thriller by Cliona Concetta, at the 2021 HorrorHound Film Festival. Before I take you inside the Federmusik to look at the compositional process for this film, I’d like to sidebar for a moment with an update about why it’s been so quiet around here lately.

In February of 2019, six weeks into my directorship of the Rosewood Consort and en route to conduct a rehearsal, I was rear-ended in a hit-and-run collision and left with a nasty concussion. Additional complications arose at the beginning of May, and I dealt with post-concussive symptoms consistently for more than a year.

On the day of the collision, I was contacted by three film directors to discuss projects that were in various stages of completion — because, of course, that’s how the industry works! — one of whom was Cliona. We had taken an initial meeting some 10 days prior regarding Double Edged, and this was an opportunity that I did not want to pass up.

What I have learned from many veterans of the entertainment industry is that declining a project for any reason risks hindering your career advancement, if for no other reason than you can never know where any gig might lead; you’ve even read here on this blog about how my work on one project introduced me to another. Just about anyone in the film scoring world will tell you that to show weakness of any kind in the face of your client is a liability at the best of times. Admitting an incapacity for health reasons? Forget about ever being hired again. There are no sick days in film scoring.

What about asking your client to wait for you to recover? Well, if missing a delivery deadline is unacceptable to begin with, then being the one responsible for holding up a film’s post-production schedule or missing a festival submission date is just that much worse. Deadlines don’t care, and a production won’t wait for you. If you can’t do it, they’ll find someone else — someone without an injury.

Believe me, I’m no stranger to pushing myself past the breaking point and hiding it from my clients for the sake of maintaining a curated professional image (don’t get me started on the film I scored with an injured hand). Unfortunately, with the effects of a traumatic brain injury being admittedly more difficult to conceal, ignore, or struggle through, you can imagine, then, that I did not relish telling even one director — let alone three! — that the status of my health would be uncertain for an indefinite period of time.

I perfectly expected all of them to move on without me — even the feature film that was already fully scored, pending recording and delivery. To my surprise, and flying in the face of conventional industry wisdom, all three were exceptionally understanding and fantastically forgiving, and they all gratefully agreed to relax their respective deadlines to accommodate my injury.

Perhaps there is hope for this old industry after all.

Sidebar over. Let’s get to the film!

Double Edged is the story of Evelyn (portrayed by Katie Douglas), a young lady who has been abandoned by her mother (Cynthia Crofoot) following the death of her twin sister, Samantha. Evelyn finds herself haunted and tormented by a mysterious sheeted being (Jaymie Stempfel) who attempts to warn her about her mother. Will Evelyn heed the ghostly figure’s warnings before it’s too late?

I am, as you know, no stranger to scoring psychological thriller ghost stories (going all the way back to my first effort in 2001!), and with more recent outings in this realm under my belt (like 2016’s Cruzar el umbral by Sergio Hernández Elvira and Taking Possession by Peter Campbell), getting to score Double Edged felt very much like a musical homecoming — coming home to a haunted house, mind you, but a homecoming all the same. On a more practical level, scoring something that felt so familiar marked a significant point in my cognitive recovery and rehabilitation process.

Part and parcel of reprising my experience on such films was once again calling on my friends in the Odin Quartet to provide the backbone of the musical spirit for the score, and recording with engineer Gary Honess at Kühl Muzik in Toronto. Especially after I learned of Clio’s appreciation for Cruzar, how could I possibly pass up the opportunity to get the band back together?

I direct the Odin Quartet during the Double Edged recording session at Kühl Muzik in Toronto (December 2019).

In our early conversations about the overall aesthetic and tone for the movie, Clio explained that she drew her inspiration from the works of Henry Selick, Tim Burton, and Guillermo del Toro. The mere mention of those fimmakers and their movies in general tends to conjure certain images and emotions; for me in particular, that overall sense is enhanced by the memory of rich, vibrant scores that are emotionally, narratively, and musically present. I couldn’t wait to dive in!

In that vein, with Clio boldly aligning her vision with the spirit of those filmmakers, we decided that what we needed for Double Edged, in addition to the kinds of strange textures and extended techniques that horror/thriller scores are heir to, was a recurring, adaptable theme to tie the narrative together. So, as my mind played around in Evelyn’s haunted manor and tried to come up with the correct sound, I may have also been imagining getting to pitch my melodies for my director’s filmmaking heroes as well. A composer can dream, no? 😉

Evelyn’s Theme

Evelyn (Katie Douglas) stares me down as I contemplate her theme.

As the title of the film suggests, the narrative deals with the concept of duality. Accordingly, the theme of our protagonist, Evelyn, also serving as the main theme of the film, needed to be flexible enough to reflect and encompass the dual nature of the situations and characters that we encounter throughout the film.

In that spirit of duality, I wanted this theme to represent a certain latent simplicity in Evelyn, yet carry itself with an air of sophistication. The melody could be heard as haunting one moment, but as reassuring the next. It would be empowering in one scene, yet plaintive in another, alternately lulling and lilting, poised and powerless, intimate and grandiose, angelic and demonic. Most importantly, I wanted the theme to stand on its own and remain recognizable without relying on melodic transformation to narrate these mood changes, opting instead to highlight these differences largely through instrumentation, tempo, feel, and texture.

As I watched Clio’s rough cuts of the film, one theme kept coming back to me that seemed to fit the bill and refused to leave my haunted house mind.

Evelyn’s Theme. Click to listen.

The theme is constructed from two similar phrases, and would feel at home in the splendour of the late Georgian manor that Evelyn calls home. In most cases, we hear the two phrases together as a call and response, again aligning with our concept of duality. However, in certain key sequences, including the opening of the film, I state only the unresolved first first half of the theme, or, in moments when I need to drop only a hint, even less.

A Song for Samantha

Samantha (Katie Douglas) is doted on by her mother (Cynthia Crofoot).

With Evelyn’s theme firmly in place, I needed another one to encapsulate her memory of and relationship with her twin sister, Samantha. Through a sequence of flashbacks, we are shown how their mother lavishes Samantha with gifts and praise while abusing Evelyn both physically and psychologically. Getting into the spirit myself, I decided that whereas Evelyn only gets a theme, Samantha would be bestowed with something more akin to a song.

Accordingly, I wanted to mirror this contrast in the score, not only to underline the contradiction in their mother’s behaviour, but also to suggest, given that the narrative is told primarily through Evelyn’s perspective, that Evelyn remembers Samantha with fondness and holds no grudge against her for how they both were treated.

Samantha’s Theme A Song for Samantha. Click to listen.

I decided to make Samantha’s theme sound indulgent and decadent, but with a wistful twinge, as if evoking a familiar old melody. Whereas Evelyn’s theme is straightforward and functional, Samantha’s is heartfelt. While Evelyn is represented by motion that can be described as more tentative and hesitant, the movement of Samantha’s theme is soft and lyrical, almost like a lullaby, with its tender, arcing lines flowing gently and freely. While I wrote the accompaniment for the statements of Evelyn’s theme to be harmonically simpler, often with starker textures, Samantha’s sounds more lush, with warm, undulating quintal harmonies providing a pillow for every note.

Narration through Orchestration

It’s not enough to blithely state that music assumes an active narrative role in this film, or even that the score illustrates the differences between the “magic” and the “real” in “magic realism.” While both of the above are true, I chose to do so through choices in my orchestration and texture as we ride the narrative contour of the film and straddle the line between the natural and the fantastic.

About half of the film is rooted firmly in reality, represented in the score largely by the natural, organic sounds of a string quartet, an upright piano, and a celesta (with a special appearance made by a bowed detuned Celtic harp in one flashback sequence). Whether that is the opening come-hither phrase of Evelyn’s theme as we beckon the audience into the story, or the intimate, nostalgic tones of Samantha’s song, we maintain the instrumentation of a chamber ensemble, never going larger than the room in which we find Evelyn.

As the supernatural elements in the film creep in, however, the tone of the score accordingly becomes, well, creepier. I lean into the magical, fantastical elements and allow the circumstances on screen to dictate the degree of that creepiness. A ghostly apparition in a mirror, for example, carries a more chilling tone than a whimsical episode of dancing with the sheeted being (accompanied, no less, by the larger-than-life sound of a full orchestra). As Evelyn faces the reality of her situation in the latter half of the film — albeit through a paranormal lens — I enhance the sense of unreality with more overt synths and unnatural textures, layers of overdubbed and prerecorded strings, a pipe organ, and… a ghost?

A Ghostly Visitor

I mentioned this was a ghost story, didn’t I?

The thing about making ghost stories is that sometimes they come true.

During post-production, Clio shared ghost stories from set with me, along with snippets of footage in which she caught strange reflections in windows and other unexplained phenomena. The colour correction process reportedly revealed even more vestiges of the paranormal.

I wasn’t entirely convinced, but I humoured her and played along nonetheless, dutifully nodding and smiling. (What? I had work to do!)

Part of my work entailed deciding on textures and musical effects to represent the spectral figure, particularly in the sections of the film that reside more clearly in the realm of magic realism. In certain cases, I decided on a sample of an exhalation, which, at key moments for dramatic effect, I processed, warped, and mangled beyond recognition.

Fast-forward to the recording session, which Clio attended. We were recording the score for a scene in which the sheeted being appears and Evelyn waltzes with it; their dance concludes with the ghost throwing her out of the house and leaving her out in the cold. I chose to end the sequence with my upper strings holding a harmonic — a high pitch with a whistle-like timbre — to lead us into the next scene.

I requested to record that final note alone so that it could be cleanly spliced in later during my editing process. I counted in, I cued my musicians, they played their harmonics…

What the…?!

…and suddenly, I heard this bizarre grinding, crunching noise burst through my headphones. I looked out at the quartet, and I saw them frozen in their seats with this bewildered, horrified look on their faces; they had heard it, too! After I cut them off, we all exclaimed in unison, “What the hell was that?!”

As you can see, the crunching noise (the series of concentrated vertical bumps starting halfway through) appears in all six microphones.

In other words, something was there in the room with us.

We tried to replicate the noise by squeaking chairs and shuffling around, but to no avail. The noise didn’t come from us… and it wasn’t natural.

Stranger still, when you synchronize that take to picture, it looks like Evelyn herself is startled by the noise:

I would be startled, too!

None of the film audio was present while we were recording the score, and the only other musical element that would have been present at that specific moment in the recording session was the fading tone of a celesta.

It gets even stranger. The more I thought about it, that creepy crunching reminded me of two elements that I put in the score that would be heard in subsequent cues: the opening moment of a startling, mangled, distorted sound when the sheeted being next appears, and the sampled scrape of a fireplace poker against the wall.

Neither of those cues had been recorded yet.

So, either the ghost was confirming that I was correct about what I thought it sounded like, or it was mocking me for my choices thereof.

Team Double Edged (L-R): Andrés Galindo Arteaga (assistant), Janal Bechthold (recording producer), Gary Honess (engineer), David Federman (conductor), Samuel Bisson (cello), Veronica Lee (viola), Tanya Charles (violin), Alex Toškov (violin). Photo: Cliona Concetta.

My gratitude goes to Cliona for bringing me on board and trusting me with her vision, to Alisa Erlikh, our sound mixer, for facilitating our meeting in the first place, and to my intrepid music team: my friends in the Odin Quartet (Alex Toškov and Tanya Charles (violins), Veronica Lee (viola), and Samuel Bisson (cello)), with whom it is always such a pleasure to collaborate, Gary Honess of Kühl Muzik (engineer), Janal Bechthold (recording producer), and Andrés Galindo Arteaga (composer’s assistant).

…and to the ghost for only making one appearance during my recording session.

The trailer for the film is below:

DOUBLE EDGED premiered at the 2021 HorrorHound Film Festival. Normally held in Cincinnati, OH, the festival was streamed online due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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