The Silence of Distortion: An Interview with Nicolas Winding Refn and Peter Peter
PopMatters speaks with director Nicolas Winding Refn and composer Peter Peter about the long overdue release of Peter's score to Refn's 2010 Middle Ages brooder, Valhalla Rising, and its undulating dark ambient music.
In a lesser director’s hands, Valhalla Rising would be all too predictable. Put mildly, the film’s trailer gives off more than a few indications that Amazon might file it under the “If you liked 300…” section: grim, gray skies, bloody combat, and a healthy pinch of historical revisionism all add up to what on the surface sure seems like yet another "historical" action flick aided by an unhealthy amount of CGI.
Then one catches those three little words that follow the director's credit: Nicolas Winding Refn. Immediately, any concerns about Valhalla Rising being a brainless hack-and-slash whose only care is that the blood spills out in Tarantino-esque ribbons are cast aside. Admittedly, anyone familiar with Refn's oeuvre knows that graphic violence is a visual flair the man knows quite well; many are probably still reeling at Christina Hendricks' explosive fate in his 2011 breakthrough Drive.
However, amidst these spats of jarring violence, Refn strings together images that are fundamentally meditative, far from the voyeuristic glitz of directors like Zack Snyder. Valhalla Rising, a dark film set in Scotland during the Middle Ages, is no exception.
The movie was released in 2009, with a stateside release several months later in 2010. Yet it has taken a surprising three years to release the film's score, composed by Peter Peter and Peter Kyed with soundscape contributions by Giles Lamb and Douglas MacDougall. In the first instance, this might not be so strange an occurrence to some; whereas Drive's soundtrack is distinctive from the minute the notes begin to play over the images on the screen, Peter and Kyed's score takes time to work its way on the listener.
Valhalla Rising OST is a stark, minimalist work, with wind noises being a frequent element used throughout. At times, one might hardly think there music at all playing out of the speakers. Of course, these tense moments of subtle distortion and noise makes the relatively louder passages, such as the organ refrain of "Free" or the chugging guitars of "Return" all the more powerful, and, most importantly, they reinforce the contemplative nature of the cinema itself.
Fans of unflinching action will find much to like in Valhalla Rising, though they would be misinformed if that directive was their sole motivation for watching the film. Watching Mads Mikkelsen stare broodingly into the distance, backed by a soundscape of a low, almost religious hum, is just as intense as watching him take forged steel to enemy necks.
As I formulate the questions to ask Nicolas and Peter, the room around me takes on an unsettling mood. I look on my computer, where the Valhalla Rising score had been issuing from previously, and notice it has stopped. I have, for the first time in a great while, really noticed the seamless transition of static into silence.
PopMatters: Nicolas, as you were shooting Valhalla Rising, were there any ideas in your head for the kind of music you wanted?
NWR: With Valhalla Rising, I had no musical reference to begin with—mostly having to do with the time the movie takes place, 1000 AD. So for a long time, silence, or should we say distortion, was the primary sound of the film.
PM: A follow-up to this question: In my interview with Cliff Martinez, he mentioned that with Only God Forgives the temporary music you used when shooting was the score to the '50s version of The Day the Earth Stood Still. Do you find yourself trying to pick music as you go along shooting, or do music-related decisions happen after the fact?
NWR: It depends on the title. Most often, I pick music as I go along or even before I start the script writing process, but on Valhalla Rising it was the other way around. I didn’t really have a musical inspiration until I was in the editing room and the idea of distortion became the focus.
PP: There was one track that Nicolas played from 2001: A Space –Odyssey—I think—during the process of making the music that might have triggered some of the music that would later become the score. I think he liked it for its complex attributes.
PM: Peter, what was your first impression of the raw footage of the film?
PP: We were first treated to a few scenes just to get a flavor of the film and I was struck by the beauty and the cruelty of the Scottish scenery. We then immediately started to find some appropriate sounds for the film. We felt we had to avoid the cliché of using horns and kettle drums.
Mind you, the first assembly of the film was six hours long, so at that time, you can say we had done our experimenting and could visually see and hear which of our cues were working in context of the movie. We went for a sound that could move from the inner soundscapes of One-Eye to the barren landscapes of Scotland.
PM: Did you have any ideas for how the music would end up before actually starting to compose the music?
PP: I have found that it is a good idea not to have any preconceived notions of the score when working with Nicolas. He is going to have it his way, which I like, because he mixes musical genres in a way that makes for exciting composing.
PM: Nicolas, did you give any notes to all those involved in the film’s music before any of their composition began? Or was it more a “let the footage speak for itself” type situation?
NWR: The music was divided into two groups. Peter Peter and Peter Kyed would provide the score and Douglas MacDougall would provide the sound design and those two elements would blend into the same background. But I think both camps got the general direction I verbalized to them, which was the use of internal distortion.
PM: Peter, what was it like composing this score with Peter Kyed?
PP: Peter Kyed and I have grown together at the hip, having worked together for 22 years. We find that we work well together, as we share the same musical tastes and we have developed a musical shorthand.
PM: Did you have any influence over the material Lamb and MacDougall contributed?
PP: Giles and Douglas came aboard for the "short" version of the film to do sound design, and they did a fantastic job of it, so we decided to include some of their design on the soundtrack.
PM: Nicolas and Peter, you both had collaborated several times prior to Valhalla Rising. Was the rapport between you both natural by this point?
NWR: Valhalla Rising marked my and Peter’s fifth collaboration and in a way, all the movies we have worked on musically led to this project. As a result, and because of the silence, he became a significant part of the storytelling.
PP: He always has been a very confident young man ever since our first collaborations on his very first VHS films, so no change there. There's an idea! “VHS 3: From the makers of Drive!” Who's bidding?
PM: Valhalla Rising is a film quite removed from the time periods and social settings you typically have your movies in, yet the score is very reminiscent of contemporary dark ambient music. Was that contrast something you had planned from the start?
NWR: Once you introduce modern sound design into a film that deals with the past, it creates a very interesting dynamic. It’s a bit like making a silence fiction movie without the science. Once you get past the initial obstacles, it becomes very satisfying. To compare it visually, it’s like staring up at the stars in the night sky for 12 consecutive hours without looking away.
PM: Peter, your background in rock music gives you an opportunity to bring in elements to a score that a more classically-minded composer might leave out. This is a quality of many of the composers you’ve worked with on your films, Nicolas.
Nicolas Winding Refn and Mads Mikkelsen on the set of Valhalla Rising
With some directors who might have only a faint musical language, you often build on some misunderstandings that arise that makes for some fantastic original music (and sometimes pure avant-garde; those pieces I often treasure more than the score itself). If a director is as involved Nicolas, is then it becomes a kind of adventure to please him, despite however faint or unmapped the musical trail.
NWR: I don’t know what the future will lead to with my films but I’ve always really liked popular music references. Then again, I also very much like orchestral arrangements. It all depends on the kind of movie I’m making and the budgets involved.
PM: There are parts of the Valhalla Rising score where guitars come in to the mix, which enhances the intensity of the music quite a bit, considering that a lot of the score is low and tense. Was it difficult making a score that’s not as dominated by high volume?
PP: Well, that is where I fall back on my trusty guitar. The funny thing is that the piece it accompanies in no way called for that kind of intensity, so we have a little counterpoint going there. The film dictates the volume. You always know if you have the right intensity by looking at the pictures. In fact, the preparation by Nicolas and me has been watching movies together for well over 20 years.
PM: Nicolas, how do you feel Valhalla Rising's soundtrack compares thematically with the music from your other films?
NWR: I try not to think about these elements because I’m afraid I will become too aware of what I do.
PM: Do you think there’s any particular reason why the score to Valhalla Rising is getting its release now?
NWR: I can only say that Milan Records approached me with the request to release the Valhalla Rising score after their successful release of the Only God Forgives soundtrack, which everyone was very happy with.
PP: The soundtrack has actually been on the way in one form or another since the premiere of the film. Different record companies has made inquiries, but I think the urgency in getting it out now is also due to the performances of the brilliant Cliff Martinez on the soundtracks to Drive and Only God Forgives. I'm still waiting for the soundtrack to Fear the X!