Working with Anton Corbijn
Custom built instrument hits the spot for latest film
We were truly privileged recently to be commissioned to create a score for Rock ‘n’ Roll royalty – director and photographer auteur, Anton Corbijn’s latest film project. The legendary director, who has worked with everybody from Nirvana, Bob Dylan, Bjork, Miles Davis, U2, Depeche Mode, Coldplay and The Rolling Stones, created this beautiful piece for Standard Chartered, highlighting the need for solar power to bring families onto the electricity grid in Africa.
Working closely with production company Black Label Productions, we were tasked with writing a fittingly understated yet emotional score. The original brief was for a high-end cinematic, acoustic guitar solo piece, drawing on stylistic influences by artists such as Dustin O’Halloran. This idea provided a useful starting point, but we felt we could deliver something less literal, that felt truer to the narrative of the film and more integral to the characters on screen. So we discussed the idea of hand building a stringed, guitar-type instrument – but something that manifested the beautiful simplicity and resourcefulness of the communities being presented in the story. We felt a high-end acoustic guitar might create an awkward disconnect between viewer and protagonists, and felt building something that had that honest, earthy integrity with all of it’s beautiful imperfections, may help tell the emotional story better. We wanted to echo the joy of playing football with balled up plastic bags, playing hopscotch and that joy comes from the imagination and interaction of the user, not the item itself.
So we sourced a number of old, potentially throwaway junk materials – a piece of old scaffolding board, a rusty plant trough, some plastic pipe fixings and some old guitar tuning pegs and set about seeing if we could create an instrument we could perform with.
We used two acoustic bass strings and two heavy gauge acoustic guitar strings for maximum resonance and bored holes in the bottom of the trough for a metallic resonance, and two sound holes using a hole cutter in the scaffolding board to allow the strings to reverberate around the trough and create additional volume. We tuned the instrument very simply in fifths and a major third and found, literally through trial and error, semi-musical intervals on the ‘fingerboard’ fretting in a similar fashion to that of a Chapman stick, which we provisionally marked.
Once in the studio, we mic’d the instrument up with five microphones to capture all of the imperfect intricacies and sound characteristics that different parts of the instrument produced. We used a hypercardiod Sennheiser MKH-418 underneath, directly pointed at the bored hole in the trough to pick up solely the metallic overtones. This was flipped out of phase with a matched pair of Neumann KM184s in stereo pointed at the two sound holes, which delivered the main overall quality of the instrument. We blended in a Neumann U87 over the fingerboard which added some of the string snap, buzz and rattle of the vibrating strings and finally a Barcus Berry contact mic taped to the fingerboard to fill out some of the mid range and bass frequencies and provide some additional body to the clarity delivered by the Neumanns. We dampened the sound slightly using a duvet under the trough which tamed the resonance just enough to make performing on the instrument more nuanced. The combined sound really captured that makeshift beauty we had looked to create.
We added to the piece our wonderful old Chappell upright, which again is beautifully imperfect (it’s exactly -43 cents out of tune)! So we varisped the session down to match the piano, recorded two simple, honest overlapping parts that intertwine and build subtly over the course of the piece. It was important for Anton that the piece felt like it was growing, but we also didn’t want to feel like it was ever going to get too big or try too hard. Adding in some subtle ‘airy’ elements, Ebowed Cimbalom (an old Chinese Zither we have from the 60s) as well as a couple of very subtle held drone notes just for texture added a nice dimension and modernity without compromising the simplistic nature of the track.
We delivered the main 60s hero version, two 30s and one 15s cutdown and Anton even asked us to create a custom 90s director’s cut version. The feedback in general, we received when both Anton, agency (Six Toes / TBWA Singapore) and client heard the track was astounding, with the creative director commenting that this piece had literally made him re-evaluate how important music is and how we had opened his eyes and ears to way of doing things that he hadn’t come across before.
Feedback like that, we like….