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Tuesday, August 21, 2012
Clef Note, Magic: That's The Sound Of Heather McIntosh Composing, Not Complying
Musician and composer Heather McIntosh.
Omar P.L. Moore/PopcornReel.com
Tuesday, August 21,
HEATHER MCINTOSH has a stream of
consciousness that's infectious during our conversation. Music, her food
of love, is surely flooding her mind right now as she talks of her indie rock
roots. She is on the telephone from Los Angeles in late June, where she's
been living for just over a year. "I did move out to L.A. with the
intention of doing film scores," she confesses.
For several years the Athens, Georgia native, musician and composer has been
part of the Elephant 6 collective, a group of bands she's contributed a
wealth of music to, including her own signature band The Instruments. Ms.
McIntosh is a cellist for the band, and has played bass and other instruments on
many road tours for such artists as Lil' Wayne and groups as Gnarls Barkley,
Azure Ray, Animal Collective and *Elf Power, among others including
Gammy-winning artist Norah Jones and the actor John C. Reilly and his band.
On this and numerous other occasions Ms. McIntosh is cheery and upbeat. Her quick,
effortless sense of humor and enthusiasm would put the most edgy individual at
ease. Offering self-deprecation at times, the hard-working Ms. McIntosh
relishes music and any challenges it brings. "I'll be on tour, and I'll be
staying at a La Quinta hotel or something, and it's 5 a.m. and you're sending
the tracks (you're working on) to someone. There were windows where we
were definitely trying to get those last cues in (for the film.)" She
"Work in your hotel room. So far I've gotten no complaints," she says,
The musician and composer describes beats, notes and harmonies in an almost
rhythmic way, as if devising an on-the-spot concerto. Ms. McIntosh comes
from a school of indie rock, a musical genre she absolutely loves. She
mentions indie rock several times. She's been hard at work for two
decades creating new sounds, working with new and familiar faces. She
sings the praises of numerous musicians she's worked with including Eric Harris and others.
"New musician buddies like Jeremy Thal* (a French horn player), John Lindeman. It's great to have
people that I know what they can bring to the mix. I love to work with all
these guys forever. Indie rock."
Ms. McIntosh first embarked on film composing a few years ago on the documentary
"Examined Life", directed by Astra Taylor. Ms. Taylor's documentary "was
100% cut when I got to it," Ms. McIntosh said, explaining her point of entry in
the collaborative process. Things were different when Ms. McIntosh worked
"Compliance", the psychodrama directed by fellow Athens native and friend Craig Zobel.
"Compliance" is her first feature film score. (The film's music score
soundtrack was released on iTunes last Tuesday. "Compliance" expands to additional U.S. cities
beyond New York on Friday.)
Prior to the start of 2011 Ms.
McIntosh and Mr. Zobel worked together, about a year before "Compliance" was
completed. "I played Craig some demos and saw some films with a
similar energy and spirit (to his film). We listened to the demos, a basic
audio track recorded rhythm section, over and over, before the film was shot.
We passed the audio around on set. When the film existed we all knew the
music pretty well." They discussed many ideas and ways to fit pieces
of music Ms. McIntosh had into the film. Ms. McIntosh showed the director
numerous sketches of her music ideas.
The "Compliance" music score is undeniably effective. As musical
accompaniment to an intense drama it supplements,
augments and undergirds such a harrowing theatrical movie experience without
bringing attention to itself. At times buoyant, at other times solemn and
at still other times haunting, Ms. McIntosh's score plays like an elegy and
journey through a tragic point of no return. The strings of her bass get
underneath the story, the characters and the audience. The opening and
closing credit themes are clear, elegant and eloquent.
debut feature film score.
Ms. McIntosh had lived for four years in New York City, where Mr. Zobel continues to live.
Ms. McIntosh described their collaboration on "Compliance" as "great" and, well,
harmonious. "Craig and I definitely knew the process, and it
just felt like a good fit. I loved working with him and I would try
the music in a hundred different ways, really to be able to sit with it."
Ms. McIntosh sounded optimistic about a developing script she had received from
Mr. Zobel. "Hopefully (it) will blossom," she said, referring to the
screenplay and another opportunity to work with the film director.
"Compliance" is based on true events taken mainly from a real-life incident at a
McDonald's in Kentucky in April 2004 where a man claiming to be a police officer
telephoned McDonald's manager Donna Summers and told her that her 18-year-old
female employee had stolen money from a customer. Ms. Summers was further
instructed to detain her until police could reach the McDonald's. In the
meantime, the voice on the telephone ordered Ms. Summers to search her employee,
then do progressively worse things to her.
The film's subject matter -- specifically people doing things by auto-command
from a remote authority figure -- both disturbed and fascinated Ms. McIntosh.
A big fan of Mr. Zobel's film, she recalled the experience she had at the
Sundance Film Festival in January where "Compliance" had its world premiere.
"The energy of the theater (in Park City) was something I hadn't expected.
Just sitting in the theater was palpable."
She gives out a long sigh. "It's something that stays with you."
The composer's music for "Compliance" is also indelible. The track
"Detective Neals' Drive" operates as an unwinding and reviewing of the gravity
of the film's events, a chance for the audience to reorder its psyche after
absorbing "Compliance" and taking it in in total. The track lasts some
six-plus minutes but in the film it plays for about half as much time. Ms.
McIntosh played a glockenspiel, piano, bass, cello, percussion and more
instruments for the "Compliance" soundtrack, and her team of musicians also
Also on the soundtrack is the eerie and discomfiting "Becky's Lament", a tune
whose taut strings feel distended, portraying the precise maelstrom swirling
within the film's central character. "Sandra's Walk", which begins with a
the beat of a glockenspiel or xylophone before a cello is played, balances
ChickWich restaurant manager Sandra's certainty with doubt -- the music
illustrates the entry of corruption in Sandra as the character ventures down a
road that becomes a horrifying slippery slope. The drums beat, the strings
are stroked. The fires crackle and percolate.
Musician and composer Heather McIntosh.
Over the years Heather McIntosh has recorded lots of ambient sounds for her
music, enhancing the aural experience. "For me it's like an audio
sketchbook. I scoop out sounds that I like. Electronic music.
I record everything. On my first tour, in Scandinavia, I recorded sounds
and created my own non-traditional sounds. I've used random car sounds
just being on tour in France. It just sounds different. And when I
lived in New York City I did the same, recording train sounds in the subway.
"That's what made working on 'Compliance' fun -- a lot of sound design.
And the lines become blurry on where sound design ends and music begins."
There's no blur on this point: Heather McIntosh is an avid movie fan.
"In my freshman year in college I saw the film "Naked". I really liked the
score for that film. I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio and I would sneak in to
see art-house films. One of the first movies I saw was "Poison" (Todd
Haynes' 1991 drama). I saw it by myself. It was such a visceral film. I was
like, 16 or something like that. It made my heart go so fast. I
never saw a film that threw you into different worlds so hard so fast."
While on tour with Lil' Wayne Ms. McIntosh would stay up watching movies.
The effect of music on movies isn't lost on Ms. McIntosh. "The goal is to
really serve the story and the film and sometimes it does mean breaking the
rules. Or that there aren't any rules at all."
Freedom and space to try new things in music has always been something Ms.
McIntosh has relished. She pauses for a moment, summing up the creative
musical journey she has been on. "All the aspects of all the projects I've
worked on have added to the richness of my voice as a composer, and I hope to do
more film music."
Early on Ms. McIntosh had a keen awareness of her station in life. "I
always knew I wanted to play music. My mom taught me piano at 4. I
did start playing when I was a little squirt. I started playing cello at
9. I always had music in my life. My mom used to play organ at the
church. I used to do cartwheels in the aisles. I have always wanted
to [play music]. I played clarinet for a while. Either I wanted to
be a marine biologist or a synthesizer player. I took lessons in the fifth
grade. I love the computer aspect of it, the creation of different
in the theater (at Sundance in January) for "Compliance" (captured above during
a San Francisco screening last week) was palpable," said musician and composer Heather McIntosh.
Omar P.L. Moore
The synthesizer formed Ms. McIntosh's early sound design and electronic music
composition background -- the two aspects of her musical background she termed
"so important." Constantly experimenting with sound and beats within music
to refine and enhance the aural experience augments Ms. McIntosh's work and have
made her a popular musician and collaborator with many other talents. The
versatile, eclectic artist seems restless and relentless in her continuing
pursuits of new sounds and musical sensations in her work. "The public
libraries are a lot better as a kind of fake film music school. I find
myself sponging in every book and referring, whether to classical composers or
technique, or revisiting stuff studied in college and to figure out how to apply it
to what I'm working on now."
Opening credits theme for "Compliance", composed by Heather McIntosh)
The composer is asked about writing music. "In 1998 I stepped away from a
conservatory style or technique (that she learned in music school) and gave
myself permission to be a writer. It was kind of a great little light
Ms. McIntosh got "a great source of support from friends" who encouraged her to
make records. "I found I had a lot of room within writing music to add my
own sounds when I worked with other musicians and that was very freeing."
She noted that writing music first is easier than writing lyrics first then
music. "I'll occasionally come up with a melodic line where I know the
line would live. It's more about the intention of the song. I don't
consider myself a songwriter so much as someone who writes music, I guess.
When you have the music written, the words just come naturally within the
Though living in Los Angeles for a relatively short time Heather McIntosh loves
"At first you hold on to "Beverly Hills Cop" images of what L.A. is and then all
of a sudden you see how dynamic . . . the guts of the town is. When I
first moved out here I lived closer to downtown -- more like East L.A. -- it
definitely has a different kind of guts. I'm constantly amazed at how
dynamic the culture is. It's nice to meet people in gallery spaces
creating perfect environments. You've got Cal Arts right there -- all
these people pushing different boundaries. Everything I've ever loved
comes from here. I always get a kick out of saying, 'where did they shoot
that?' I often go to the Hollywood Forever Cemetery."
It's not too long before Heather McIntosh returns to introspection about her
music career, which continues to thrive. "It's hard to let go of your work
but I've come to terms with facing it. It's like a timepiece in your life.
I feel like it pushes me to make more and better music. How you create
things for that little window of time. At the end of the day I'm still
proud of everything I've done. It's a progression in my life of everything
I've done in music and adds to the energy of music. In Elephant 6 a lot of
people are picking up instruments and having fun with them. Spirit is so
infectious. I do think that spirit will add to a better performance.
At the end of the day there's something to be said about energy. It's good
that I have both brains."
On the subject of Los Angeles the famed restaurant Musso & Frank is recommended
to the "Compliance" composer. "I'll have to check it out," she says with
enthusiasm. "I'm new out here, and I'm an avid reader of (Pulitzer
Prize-winning L.A. food critic) Jonathan Gold and spend time finding every
single-dollar-sign review I can," Ms. McIntosh says with a laugh.
Heather McIntosh can be found
here. Her original music score for the motion picture
"Compliance" is now available on iTunes and Amazon. Craig Zobel's drama
"Compliance" expands its U.S. theatrical release this Friday to San Francisco,
Los Angeles, Philadelphia and many more cities.
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