A Q&A with Composer Leah Curtis

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  1. What started you on your path to becoming a composer and working on films? Was there a specific moment or other catalyst that led you to pursuing composition? 

    The pull to music has always been present. I began writing and performing music with friends throughout high school in Australia. I learned flute, sang in choirs, and played in bands and orchestras up in the mountains in my hometown, Canberra. In the afternoons I would hear Mum teaching piano lessons, and waited for my turn on the piano in the evenings to play and write. I tried my hand composing music for plays, mainly Shakespeare after seeing brilliant productions by Bell Shakespeare, and film adaptations that I loved. Before I left school, I won a two-week study tour of the United Kingdom with The Globe Shakespeare Center and fellow student actors and directors. I had never traveled internationally before, and this put us in the very center of the rich musical and artistic life of London and Stratford-Upon-Avon. It was incredibly exciting. The Sydney Symphony accepted me into their composer development program as I left school and entered college. This was a very pivotal stage that drove me to actively figure out how I could create a future in music from my corner of the world.

  2. Can you tell us about the film Anwar? You were brought on early by director Fawaz Al-Matrouk, worked with some amazing musicians on this project, and were supported by New Music USA; we’d love to learn more about what you did!

    Yes! Fawaz Al-Matrouk and I collaborated on a number of film productions, mainly historical drama set during wartime (Kuwait 1991 To Rest in Peace” and Rome AD410 “Exitus Roma”). 

    Creating the score for Anwar took us into yet another world. The music holds the emotional space between Mona and her son Anwar across three stages of his life. He appears in the film aged 8, 17 and 80, while Mona remains eternal throughout. 

    Director Fawaz Al-Matrouk first envisioned a lullaby as an emotional thread binding this relationship between mother and son. The idea resonated deeply with us both.

    After a pivotal meeting with the director, actor Kerry Bishé (Argo) joined the project as Mona and independently suggested incorporating a lullaby. Enlivened by this shared vision, I composed our film’s song during pre-production. Al-Matrouk then introduced William Blake’s “Ecchoing Green” from Songs of Innocence of 1789 as a possibility for our lyrics. There was stunning alignment between Blake’s text and the emotional subtext of the film, and the song became a true foundation for the score.

    I brought together a diverse ensemble, including string quintet (with double bass), piano, guitars, hammered dulcimer, oud, and flutes. The detailed textures of bowed strings, the breath of a multitude of flutes, and shimmering plucked textures of acoustic guitars and hammered dulcimer creating embodied, resonant, and woven magical threads for the sound world of the score.

    The lullaby emerged as a powerful anchor on-set while filming in a rainy Northern Californian forest. The entire cast, guided by vocal coaches Fiora Cutler and Kelci Hahn in pre-production, embraced the lullaby, infusing it with a shared emotional resonance.

    The score captures detailed and exposed textures, so working with the very best Los Angeles musicians was central to the recording. Support from New Music USA allowed me to bring  together key players from LA’s premiere ensembles, all having significant major film soundtrack recording experience. In the booth I was supported by director Fawaz Al-Matrouk, scoring engineer Ben Tolliday, score supervisor and creative advisor Savannah Jo Lack, assistant engineer Hannah, and cinematographer Chloe Weaver (Chef’s Table, The Bear). I conducted the ensemble.

    I worked with engineer and mixer Ben Tolliday to capture fine details of the individual string textures, via a combination of close mic and distant room microphone techniques. The fusion of these techniques (as used in both film score and contemporary popular music recordings) highlighted this nuance and detail and allowed a vulnerable emotionality in the score’s recording.  

    Noteworthy musicians included Armen Anassian (concertmaster), Luanne Homzy (violin), Erik Rynearson (viola), Charlie Tyler (cello), Nathan Farrington (double bass), Steve Kujala (flutes), George Doering (guitars, oud and hammered dulcimers), and Alan Steinberger (piano) who contributed their brilliant talents at Evergreen Studios in Los Angeles.

  3. You’ve had orchestral works commissioned like your work for conductor Jessica Cottis and the Canberra Symphony Orchestra, and the Australia Council for the Arts. How does your writing process differ when composing for commissions or art installations versus composing for film? 

    Working with the Canberra Symphony was a brilliant experience. The programming mastery of Jessica Cottis with threads across the orchestra’s whole season was both intelligent and deeply inspiring for my composing. I knew I was to open the concert with an orchestral work (Infinite Possibilities), and that the Sibelius Violin Concerto and Stravinsky’s Petrushka would follow. Beyond that, I had a guideline of timing and maximum orchestration, and I set off to create a whole musical world from there.

    Films are like stepping into an existing world with great empathy and curiosity, and uncovering a musical voice that can only be for that story. It is deeply collaborative in its creation as I work to bring a director’s vision to life through the score.

    I find orchestral commissions and film scores both brilliant experiences, and awesomely demanding. There’s an expectation and anticipation when it comes to a live world premiere in a concert hall that can’t quite be matched with the cinema. There’s the work of highly crafting and mixing a film score so it dances beautifully with the image in a way that a live playing does not reveal. I love them both. I look forward to also stepping into more installation work, and at the time of writing this, have a collaborative recording project underway. The process for all of these is so very different in some ways, but always ends up with live musicians bringing something new into the world. 

  4. You’ve collaborated several times with Lisbeth Scott as a vocalist on your work, with didgeridoo virtuoso Chris Williams and with violinists Kirsten Williams (concertmaster of the CSO) Savannah Jo Lack and Armen Anassian among others; what’s been your approach to working with featured musicians?

    I find great joy in working with musicians who are completely embodied with their instrument and dedicated and disciplined in their musicianship. There is a freedom in their work. It has been exhilarating working with each of these artists, and doing so has changed me as a musician and human, and driven me to become a better composer and conductor. There’s a unique empathy when you enter a virtuosic artist’s world, and there’s a willingness and joy to step into adventurous paths creating together. It can be exhilarating, demanding and ultimately ends up a sublime experience as the musical threads come together. 

  5. If you had the chance to write music for anything in the world, what would you write for and why?

    I love working across drama and historical drama, in diverse beautiful worlds, epic times and with human personal stories. Developing creative partnerships with directors, conductors and artists, recording engineers and musician collaborators is where I find great joy in this work.  I love getting deep into the music with a stellar team, and bringing a project to life. I love the rituals of the recording studio, and what can be achieved in this brilliant environment. I love the reach of the cinema, the magic of the concert hall, and broadcasting, radio and podcasts, and the beautiful connections and experiences we can bring with each of these.

    I love writing for a new orchestra or ensemble, or musician, or conductor, and finding ways to bring out the very best of our work together, and forging exciting new creative paths and projects.

    The road ahead for me is about intentional, mindful action. It’s about creating music and nurturing collaborations that are not bound by a particular genre or place, but that light up and challenge my work, sometimes in ways that I may not have imagined. I think by working on nurturing these sparks of connection to audience, to brilliant collaborators, even to spaces and shelves, I stay deeply engaged in the work.

    Interview by Kati Falk-Flores

    Check out the AWFC Directory for Leah Curtis

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Leah Curtis (May 6, 2024)
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