Soundtrax Episode 2019-1 March 01, 2019
Sharon Farber, originally from Israel, has received critical acclaim as a composer in the film and television world as well as that of the concert world. A member of the Motion Picture Academy with four Emmy nominations from her television scores, Sharon brings the influence of her Middle Eastern heritage as well as her extensive knowledge of classical and Western music to her composing talents. Among her recent films is the 2016 thriller CHILDREN OF THE FALL, which juggles the fine line between drama and horror, with a strong social and political commentary. A nod to 1970’s horror movies, CHILDREN OF THE FALL spills new blood into the Israeli Horror genre. In the following interview we discuss her music for CHILDREN OF THE FALL and several other recent and notable works in a variety of genres and venues.
Q: CHILDREN OF THE FALL (2016) is not only a horror thriller but has an interesting historical component to it. What can you tell me about the film and how you got involved in it?
Sharon Farber: The lead actor, Aki Avni, is a very good friend of mine, and he introduced me to the director, Eitan Gafny, who asked me to score the film. This is an Israeli film, although it has American actor Michael Ironside, and it speaks both English and Hebrew. The director’s wife, Yafit Shalev, is the producer, and she’s also starring in the film. It was really a great collaboration with everyone. The film takes place in 1973 and is about a holocaust survivor who lives in a Kibbutz in Israel. He has a grudge against people who disrespect the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur, and begins to slaughter those people he feels are not respecting it. One English girl, the daughter of an Israeli man, played by Noa Maiman, comes to volunteer in that Kibbutz. She meets the director who’s in charge of the volunteers (Aki Avni) and they begin to have a relationship. But when he feels she isn’t fulfilling his expectations, he becomes torn between his anger and love towards her. The dynamic between the two of them focuses on if he will or won’t include her in his murder spree.
Q: It sounds like that’s a really interesting context in which to set a horror film. How did you approach composing a score for this film?
Sharon Farber: Rather than composing leitmotifs for each character, I went for a main melody which was orchestrated in different ways. I felt that the connection between the two characters is so important in the way they share their heritage and their love for Israel. The main melody, which is solemn and melancholy, expresses that. Later their relationship falls apart and the romance becomes dark and poignant. At the end, after several attempts to kill her, she eventually wins the battle against him which I scored with a victorious theme with distorted guitar on top of the orchestra. The main melody then comes back in a very dark but poignant way.
The director wanted a big orchestral sound, which was created at my studio – we can get remarkably good orchestral sounds these days with digital samples. In terms of the music, it was scored like a thriller/horror film. It wasn’t “Israeli” music, because for those locations they used source music; I got the freedom to bring Hollywood to this film and create a big, scary sound as well as dark and beautiful music.
Q: How did you treat the darker elements, such as creating anxiety and supporting the violence of the murders?
Sharon Farber: That was a combination of creating some really cold, disturbing sounds through orchestral writing and generating some modern synth sounds. There’s a point where a young boy is in love with the main female character, and then the killer comes after him; we have these flutes in the top end piping very, very fast, becoming almost a screeching sound, which are counterpointed against the cellos and the basses on the bottom, going from a very suspenseful dark melodic line into a very fast-paced staccato, with a lot of weird sounds in between. There was a temp track on the film but with the director’s blessing, I stayed completely away from that. Eitan was very open to everything that I suggested, and the temp track was pretty much ignored, because it was a kind of an ‘80s sound, and we wanted something that was timelier. Apart from the source music, I did create an atmosphere for the Kibbutz with some harmonica and guitar, but most of the music was orchestral, combined with various textures.
Q: What was most challenging for you about scoring this film?
Sharon Farber: I think it was just creating this frantic anxiety all the time, and on the other hand bringing in a melody that would capture the essence of the relationships between the two main leads. That essence is very dark but it’s also very poignant, because you feel some sympathy for the killer due to his background, his horrific time during the Holocaust and what he’s been through in general. I mostly treated this as a real horror film, because there are so many horrific moments, but I felt there was the need for some poignancy for both characters, especially the woman, because it’s really about her trying to come to grips with everything that’s going on with this country that she loves so much. Eitan said to me that “It takes place in Israel, but this is also a universal story.” Thus, I was looking to create more of a universal sound to it. I look forward to working with Eitan again; this was truly a pleasure.
Q: Another film you scored that has a story rooted in Middle Eastern history is THE DOVE FLYER (2013). Would you tell me a bit about this film and its score?
Sharon Farber: THE DOVE FLYER takes place in Iraq, although the film was shot in Israel. It’s based on the true story of author Eli Amir, and it portrays the expulsion of the Iraqi Jews from Iraq in the 1950s. They were falsely blamed to have betrayed the government and they would be hung in the center square; it was a horrible time and it led eventually, to their expulsion. The most ancient Jewish community in the world ceased to exist as a result.
As happened on CHILDREN OF THE FALL, I didn’t meet the director of THE DOVE FLYER, Nisim Dayan, until the film was totally completed and I went to Israel for the premiere after I’d scored it. I worked with music supervisor Alex Claude, and he talked to me about what they needed in terms of score. Alex introduced me to an instrument that is now pretty well known, the kamanche, which is a Middle Eastern “violin” that, played right, brings about an amazing, soulful, and very unique sound. It was a real pleasure scoring this movie, because it enabled me to record different instruments that I love and collaborate with some extraordinary musicians. This score was a combination of digital orchestra and live instruments and it truly captures the Middle Eastern sound of the region.
I was looking for a kamanche player and eventually I found a wonderful musician at UCLA who’s from Iran, Payam Yousef. As you know, Iran and Israel do not have any diplomatic relationships and there is constant tension between the two countries. However, it’s remarkable how music bridges these gaps. It wasn’t an issue at all for me and Payam, and we had the best collaboration. It was wonderful. As well as the kamanche, I used oud, duduk, and frame drums. Interestingly enough this was very easy for me, because I’m from Israel and Israel is such a fusion of cultures, that even if you don’t realize it and you don’t listen to records of certain kind of music, it’s all around you on the radio or from the neighbors. Composing a score that needed these kinds of sounds and instrumentation was very natural for me – it was simply in my system. I also had the privilege of singing on the score. I remember when I went to my engineer, Oren Hadar, to record it. He asked me, “How do you do that? How do you make all these little wavering ornaments in your voice?” I simply replied, “I don’t know, it just comes natural, because I’m accustomed to hearing it.” In fact, and to my surprise, the director loved that so much that the first scenes of the film are my solo voice only, and later it’s combined with everything else.
A few years ago the Alliance for Women Film Composers put together a wonderful concert of female composers, presenting some exceptional friends who are extremely talented and unique. I felt that this was an opportunity to showcase different sides of my music. I started with action music from CHILDREN OF THE FALL, continued into a lush melody from WHEN NIETZSCHE WEPT (2007), and ended with the final scene from THE DOVE FLYER. I called Payam and asked if he wanted to perform this piece. He wasn’t available, but he recommended a friend who performed at the concert and who also recommended a phenomenal oud player. They both gave the audience a stellar performance with the orchestra, including some unbelievable improvisation on the melody! We’ve stayed friends, and I worked with him later again. We, musicians, simply want to make good music; we don’t care that we’re from countries that don’t really agree within each other, to say the least; I look forward to working with all these great musicians again in the near future.
“I believe that as artists, we have the immense privilege to create a meaningful mark that might, even in a small way, make a difference. May we one day come to realize that we are all one and learn to live together in harmony.”
Q: AZIMUTH (2017) also has a historical background, taking place during the Six-Day war. It sounds almost like a take on HELL IN THE PACIFIC with the two characters from opposing sides stuck in a remote area and they have to deal with one other.
Sharon Farber: Almost, but different! AZIMUTH takes place at the end of the 1967 war, and it’s about an Israeli soldier and an Egyptian soldier. Amazingly enough, the Israeli soldier was played by an Israeli actor, Yiftach Klein, and the Egyptian soldier is played by an Egyptian actor, Sammy Sheik, who lives here in Los Angeles. The writer and director, Mike Burstyn, is a very well-known actor, singer, and Broadway star and a dear friend. His parents established the Yiddish Theater in the ‘20s, so he’s been on stage since he was three years old. This was his first film as director, and a script he wanted to bring to life for years. The movie portrays the struggle of two soldiers who are stuck in a deserted UN structure in the middle of the Sinai desert. The Israeli knows that the war is over, but the Egyptian soldier doesn’t want to believe it. There is one jeep, and they both try to get to it in order to escape. To do so, they try to kill each other throughout the whole film but eventually they realize they have no choice – if they want to get out alive they have to cooperate. This was the director’s intention of bringing hope at the end of this film to say, we need to work together for a better future for our children. Remarkably, the fathers of both actors fought in the Six-Day war! The film was done very fast, and I only had about ten days to score it. It was quite a challenge!
Q: How did you approach the difference between those two characters, musically?
Sharon Farber: For Sammy I had a melody that was played on oud, harp, and also kamanche – I fell in love with that instrument so I had to use it again! Yiftach, the Israeli soldier, had a more Western, somewhat Israeli-styled melody, because he goes back in memories to where he was a kid in Israel. He had a lovely flute theme, while Sammy’s melody was intertwined with Middle Eastern sounds and instrumentation. The kamanche took the main melody. My husband, who’s a percussionist, played some dumbek and frame drums on the score. For the beginning, where Sammy’s character is trying to figure out what’s happened and looking for his fellow soldiers in the hot sun in the desert, I used a lot of strings playing a very harsh sound; and then I added a bit of piano – three sparse, lonely notes – to reflect his circumstances and isolation on the battlefield. At the end, after they fight and they’re both totally exhausted and wounded, there’s a point where Sammy can shoot Yiftach, but he doesn’t. Yiftach pays him back by getting into the jeep – he can just drive off and escape the desert, but he waits for Sammy. You see a tear on Sammy’s face because he’s been sure he’s going to be shot dead, but then he realizes that Yiftach is waiting for him to get into the jeep and they’re both going to survive – there’s this really dark mix of bass and cello when he’s trying to get up from where he is, wounded. What Mike wanted before this scene was a rumble feeling, full of tension, fear, exhaustion, and desperation; he wanted it to feel like the earth is boiling, so there was a lot of rumble underneath and at one point we pulled the other instruments out and left only the rumble and it just worked beautifully. It was such a pleasure to write music for this film that spoke of cooperation and working together.
Q: Your music both played the action of the film as well as that underlying spirit of shared humanity.
Sharon Farber: Yes. I think we should live and let live, whatever you believe. As you know I also write concert music, and I have a piece called “Ashkina” which means “love” in Turkish. It was commissioned years ago and it’s been performed frequently. It’s written for choir, small orchestra, and three ethnic instruments. The main player on those performances is Omar Faruk Tekbilek – he’s an outstanding musician, and plays every Middle Eastern instrument that you can think of, masterfully. Omar is from Turkey, he’s Muslim, his manager is Israeli and we’ve all became such great friends, he’s one of the best people I’ve ever met, so spiritual and focused on love and peace. A true example of a beautiful and soulful musician and human being. Music unites us in the most inspiring way.
Listen to an excerpt of Sharon Farber’s “Ashkina” concert piece on youtube here
Q: You’re now preparing to score a pair of supernatural fantasy films involving a character called Jemiyah Jones, with JEMIYAH JONES & THE KINGDOM OF NIR and JEMIYAH JONES & THE VAMPYRE GHOST SHIP for Aegis Films…
Sharon Farber: Yes, I’m looking forward to the JEMIYAH JONES film series because these movies tell the remarkable, heroic, and magical adventures of a young girl – it’s kind of a combination of THE MUMMY with INDIANA JONES with WONDER WOMAN! They’re based on a book by Arianna Eisenberg, who is also producing the films, and she’s brilliant. I couldn’t stop reading the script from the first moment she sent it to me and we’ve become dear friends. She’s an incredible writer!
Q: You’ve also begun scoring another fantasy, A GOLDEN HEART. I understand this began as a short film, and will later be updated into a feature.
Sharon Farber: Exactly. A GOLDEN HEART is based on a book that I loved as a child, actually – it’s about a boy who’s searching for a special golden flower that will cure his mother of sickness. That’s the concept of the short film, and the writer-director, Alon Juwal, has done a great job. They’ve just completed the short, and they are starting with the festival circuit, while working on developing the long version of the movie. I’m signed both for the short and the feature. I don’t get a lot of chances to do shorts, but I loved what the director did there, and I’m excited about scoring the feature, not only because I know it’ll be a beautiful film, but also because he’s planning on having an orchestra perform it.
Q: This is kind of a fairytale-ish fantasy, isn’t it?
Sharon Farber: Yes, it’s this boy searching for a cure for his ill mother. In the film he finds a special entity called a Silla, which is from Inuit mythology, meaning a “spirit of the earth the wind and sky.” The Silla is in the form of another boy who is pretty much the same age as the first boy and is helping the kid on his journey. They have some challenges, some sweet moments, and some hard moments along the way.
Q: How did you score the short and what did you use musically to enhance the fantasy elements of the story?
Sharon Farber: Luckily I worked with a director that pretty much knew what he wanted to hear, and that was a big help because that doesn’t always happen. Although he gave me freedom to create something special, he was, at the same time, very clear regarding the vision of what he wanted. He used some temp tracks that were in the style to guide me. I had the main theme done and I developed the rest out of that main melody. I used variations and also some musical ornaments when we had a lighter tone, but it was also very magical. The beginning is spiritual and space-oriented, and the film itself has magical and soulful overtone.
Q: Is this also a digital orchestra in the score? Sharon Farber: Yes, it’s all MIDI.
Q: It’s really got a nice texture and sounds very ethereal and real.
Sharon Farber: When I score something with digital instruments I think a lot about how the real instrument works and how it’s played. If it’s a string instrument I would think about the bowing, I would think about the phrasing. If it’s a gentle melodic line, for example, the violins won’t just go in forcefully, it’s something that is developed; you start with an up-bow and then you go to a down-bow, and you have to think about that when you’re writing for virtual instruments. It’s the same with woodwinds – you have to think of the players: if it was a real orchestra, they need to breathe. Sometimes with young composers who use MIDI I hear a four-minute clarinet line without any space for breathing! This is the power of orchestration, because you have to think of the actual playing – It makes a real difference when you hear the final result in the MIDI track. If it’s well thought-out and it’s well mixed it can be very convincing, as you know! That’s one of the things that I’m very meticulous about, to make sure that I think about the actual instrument and how would the players play if they were here. Orchestration wise, I learned so much from my mentor, Shirley Walker – she was so detailed and smart in her orchestration!
Q: What are your thoughts as how you might expand your score into the larger canvas for the feature film?
Sharon Farber: I think I’ll definitely use elements from my score for the short, because I’m very proud of what I did there and the director loves it. But I won’t know exactly until I see the feature film. When you see it, sometimes you take a different approach, because now you have the bigger scope and a longer time to develop and work with the themes. Assuming that the director continues with the spiritual and very inspiring journey, I will probably come up with a few more elements to describe and convey that.
Q: How did you treat the supernatural elements of the Silla?
Sharon Farber: I used some ethereal sounds, as well as women’s choir, singing a ghostly sound, and then it goes to this beautiful resonance [plays cue for me].
Q: It’s very enchanting music. You have this supernatural being, but it’s not a scary thing at all, it’s definitely almost angelic.
Sharon Farber: Yes, it’s a being that is here to help. It’s not here to threaten.
Q: You’ve also recently done a score for a film called PLANTED, for Amity Zamora…
Sharon Farber: PLANTED is an Israeli feature about a family that is being shattered by the son, who has become quadriplegic. He’s probably in his ‘20s, and he can’t speak or move any part of his body. He has a Filipino caretaker, who loves and takes care of him, but the mom has had it and she wants to put him in an institution. The film is the story of the relationship between the mother, father, siblings and the son, and how they arrive at the beginning of recovery for the family.
Amity didn’t want anything that was really sad, he was looking for a score that described the anger and frustration of the mom – her life has become a wreck. She had her time to grieve and now all is left is this huge burden. My predicament was finding out how to capture that musically. What I wound up doing was to use a lot of distorted guitars, along with some other kinds of guitars and piano in places. It’s not too orchestral; there are some scenes that do have a small ensemble. For example, there’s a touching sequence where the mom takes her son in his wheelchair to the house of the woman her husband has been cheating with; she rings the bell and walks away, leaving the son in his wheelchair at the door. But the caretaker sees the whole thing and she takes him back to the house. That sequence is just a few minutes but it’s more orchestral than anywhere else in the film; I used an almost staccato motif for the piano to represent the emotional chaos inside of her. I have completed the score and the film is in the final stages of post-production now.
Q: And what about your cello concerto? Can you tell me something about that?
Sharon Farber: Bestemming (“Destination” in Dutch) is a concerto for cello, orchestra, and narrator that was commissioned by cellist Ruslan Birykov and the Glendale Philharmonic. In 2013, I met a man who forever changed my life. Curt Lowens, a Holocaust survivor and a hero of the Dutch resistance, showed me and many others what the courage of an individual really means. This remarkable man inspired me in ways that will forever affect my life and I feel blessed to have known him. Curt fled Berlin with his parents on the eve of Kristallnacht. He ended up in Holland, where at the young age of 14, he joined the Dutch Resistance and saved 150 Jewish children. Then, in a courageous act of heroism, he rescued two downed American airmen – later receiving a commendation from Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower.
I knew that I had to set Curt’s story to music, so that his voice, along with the many other fading voices of Holocaust survivors would never be forgotten. The narration was written Richard Stellar, Beth Wernick and myself. The concerto portrays Curt’s story in a musically cinematic way, with a constant dialogue between the narrator, cellist, and the orchestra. Bestemmingwas premiered in 2014, with Curt Lowens giving the final performance of his life (he had been an actor) as the narrator at Temple of the Arts at the SABAN theater in Beverly Hills. Curt passed away in 2017. To see the concerto please visit: https://www.sharonfarber.com/bestemming
I believe that as artists, we have the immense privilege to create a meaningful mark that might, even in a small way, make a difference. May we one day come to realize that we are all one and learn to live together in harmony.
For more information and samples of Sharon’s music, see her website here.