When composer Marco Beltrami needed to capture the aura of insane 19th century women on the plains in Tommy Lee Jones’ new western The Homesman, he simply stepped outside his Malibu studio, hidden in a high plateau of the Santa Monica Mountains. At his disposal were the Santa Ana winds — aka "The Devil's Winds," as they’re infamously known for starting fall fires — to be used as a potential instrument. Call it serendipity, as the wind also happened to play a role in The Homeman, which tells the story of a claim jumper (Jones) and a prairie spinster (Hilary Swank) who transport of a group of insane women from Nebraska to a hospice back east.
“The women went crazy because of the wind, as well as isolation, disease, and the failure of livestock,” explains the composer, whose score for The Hurt Locker and 3:10 To Yuma were nominated for Oscars. “The ever-present wind suggested a sonic representation.”
While most composers will go to the end of the earth to secure that rare instrument that will embody the onscreen action, Beltrami simply decided to build his own earlier this year when he was recording the score for The Homesman: 175 feet of piano string stretched between two small hills, anchored between a pair of water tanks and “an old saloon piano that I saved from a miserable death in an old lady’s basement,” says Beltrami.
The composer’s inspiration for the installation was an outdoor aeolian harp. As shown in the video below, his musicians used it any number of ways: They would play the piano, take a large bow to the large piano strings, record the sounds of the strings vibrating within the water tanks atop the hill.
The harp remains intact at Beltrami's ranch, enduring the seasonal winds.
Similar to how the “wah-wah” harmonica sounds in Ennio Morricone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly score denote intensity, Beltrami’s self-constructed harp forges an eeriness that takes the western theme to another level. The saloon sound, when combined with the strings, conveys the vast isolation and pending doom on the American plains. The composer wove a single theme from his outdoor harp that he used throughout the score, particularly during cues in flashback sequences. “You can’t tell it’s the wind blowing; it’s the music and it’s an intentional manipulation of the environment,” explains Beltrami.
Building his own instruments to interject unique tones into his work has become something of a knack for Beltrami. In his score for the 2011 remake of horror thriller The Thing, the wind was again an element at play, given the film’s setting in Antarctica. Beltrami and his team gathered receptacles that had different pitches, placed some microphones in them and recorded them in the wind. For Jones’ previous western directorial, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, the reverberating prongs of a cactus which were used in Native American instruments, were a unique fixture in Beltrami’s score.
But when it came to the task of musically portraying zombies in the music for Marc Forster’s World War Z, it was Jones, during a visit to Beltrami’s studio, who suggested the most bizarre instrument to personify the walking dead: A javelina pig.
While harps are bound to get their own sound proof rooms during a film scoring session, this wasn’t the case for the swine: His oinking and squealing wouldn’t be separately recorded so that it could be folded in with the orchestra.
“The javelina communicates with its jaws, much like the zombies in World War Z,” says Beltrami. “You take the javelina skull, strip it down, and when the upper and lower scissored jaws meet, it’s a scraping sound.” The result, a unique percussion sound, that became the heart of World War Z, aurally conveying zombies in every sense of the word.
“I never heard of a javelina before, and Tommy was absolutely right, it was a great sound,” says Beltrami.
Regarding his experimentation with homemade instruments, Beltrami asserts, “it’s not done for a gimmick. Rather, it’s about what is the best way to achieve what’s needed for the film, and respecting what’s onscreen.”
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Anthony D'Alessandro Lewis on Twitter:
Public Spectacle, L.A. Weekly's arts & culture blog, on Facebook and Twitter: