Interview with Garth Stevenson

The ghosts of the past, and a future tragically cut off are very much alive with eerie, sad beauty and infuriating political relevance in “Chappaquiddick.” Digging up a past the Kennedy family wish would stay buried in the waters off their oceanside sanctums, director John Curran revisits a series of bad decisions made by their remaining golden boy Ted (Jason Clarke), the president-to-be who ends up driving campaign worker Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara) off a small, island bridge, leaving her to die horribly while he wanders off to get his head together on the best way to make his political aspirations survive. The ensuing cover up is a powerful lesson on how the well-appointed and beyond-rich can get away with just about everything while preserving their all-important image.

Painting a musical picture that’s intimate while reaching from the nation to the moon itself is Garth Stevenson. Having made his film scoring debut for Curran with the psychologically expansive Aussie outback journey of a woman and her camel in “Tracks,” Stevenson has continued his own, alternative-oriented soundtrack voyage with characters trying to find their place in the world in “Red Knot,” 10,000 Saints” and “Tater Tot & Patton.” Given the real-life players of “Chappaquiddick” that do their best to keep a crime quiet as their own morality sinks into a quagmire, Stevenson takes a haunting, introspective and thematic approach to a conspiracy that plays itself out against the backdrop of a man submerged by family expectations and a nation waiting for one giant leap for mankind.

Capturing the kind of poignant piano and orchestral presence of such modern classical composers as Arvo Part, Stevenson weaves together slow, echoing themes that convey the movement of water, a drifting lack of conscience and star-filled wonder. Organ and voice become the presence of a woman’s life cut short, tense strings the rage of a stroke-silenced patriarch and determined rhythm a conspiracy of silence trying desperately to save a president-to-be even as he fumbles their plans. It’s an emotionally affecting, spectral presence of a score that likely will build many viewers’ sense of betrayal while bringing to the surface the darkest chapter in a Camelot’s legacy cut short. Yet, the one secret that this “Chappaquiddick” will not hold is the melancholy, mesmerizing ability of a truly interesting composer on the independent scene, a musician gifted here with a strikingly lyrical sense of observation to an American tragedy.

Tell us about your interest in music, and what led you to scoring?

II started playing piano at a young age then switched to double bass in high school because our jazz band needed a bass player. I think it’s safe to say many bassists got their start this way, simply because there was no one to play bass. I fell in love with the instrument and a few years later I was leaving Western Canada for Berklee College of Music in Boston. Partway through my first year at Berklee I developed severe tendonitis from over playing, usually in the eight hours a day range. I was devastated and switched my degree from performance to composition. In hindsight the tendonitis was a gift. I dove deeply into studying composition and when I finally recovered, I had the path of both a bassist and composer to follow.

While in Boston I began working with an older generation of master improvisers including drummers Nat Mugavero, Bob Moses, and Bob Gullotti, saxophonist George Garzone, guitarist David Tronzo, trombonist Hal Crook, and my bass mentor John Lockwood. Most of the concerts and sessions I played with these musicians were completely improvised. There was an expectation that any music you had been working on or practicing at home would be left at the door and all that you could rely on was deep listening, sensitivity and trust with your fellow musicians, and allowing the music to unfold naturally. As a composer, many interesting concepts came from these group improvisations like having multiple tempos happening simultaneously, having themes or fragments of themes being passed around the ensemble, how to swing when there’s no tempo, the balance of density and sparseness. These are all concepts I work into my scores now.

In 2005 I moved to New York and continued working in the improvised music scene and formed a trio based in Poland with pianist Marcin Masecki and drummer Ziv Ravitz called TAQ. Our concerts were a mix of completely improvised pieces and improvisations based off of themes we had composed. It was in this ensemble I started using effects and looping pedals on my double bass. Back in New York I started performing solo bass concerts with live looping which ultimately led me to start recording my own solo albums. When I released my second album, “Flying” in 2010 the recurring feedback I received was “This music would be perfect for film.”

Your first major soundtrack was for John Curran’s “Tracks.” How did you meet? And what was the challenge of playing an introverted woman’s crossing of Australia by camel, from writing the score to the songs?

One day I received a phone call from someone with an Australian accent who asked to speak with Garth Stevenson’s agent. I answered, “You’re talking to him!” (That was just before I signed on with my amazing agent Sarah Kovacs at Kraft-Engel). The next day I spoke with John on the phone. He told me how the week prior he was driving with his editor, Alexandre De Franceschi, who had my CD of “Flying” playing in his car. They had been struggling to find the right sound for the temp score and when John heard the track “Dawn,” they threw it against picture that day and it worked well. He asked if I was interested in scoring the entire film and I of course agreed. At that time I only had one documentary and one feature under my belt so I was very appreciative of John taking a chance on me for such a major film.

In “Tracks,” I really wanted to find a unique and appropriate sound for the desert. It needed to be harsh, full of beauty, mystery and have a sense of timelessness. I found it easy to relate to the character of Robyn because, although on a much smaller scale, I have spent a lot of time alone in nature doing short, solo camping trips. I understand the need to be alone in nature and how self reliant you have to be if there is no one around to help.

What were your perceptions of the Chappaquiddick incident, and Ted Kennedy before you started the film? And once you got it, did you do your own research into it?

The first time I really started researching the Chappaquiddick incident was when I performed at the Chappaquiddick Summer Music Festival in 2005 with a jazz quartet featuring George Garzone, Ayn Inserto and Richie Barshay. We stayed on Chappaquiddick for four days, digging for clams, rehearsing, and jogging over the famous bridge. We were invited back in 2007 and I continued to explore the island. I loved staying on Chappaquiddick because it was incredibly beautiful and was much quieter than Martha’s Vineyard. When John contacted me to work on the film I dug deeper into Ted’s career and the incident.

How did you lay the thematic groundwork for “Chappaquiddick?”

Structurally, John already had a strong sense of what scenes should be connected thematically. The opening scene of the film has a piano melody that introduces two of the main themes we developed throughout the score.

Given a sense of betrayal that’s sweeping America, would you say that your own reactions to the current political climate played into the score?

No. My job was to help tell the story that Taylor Allen and Andrew Logan wrote and John directed. Bringing my own political views or drawing comparisons to the current political climate would have been a disservice to the film.

What did John want this score to achieve? And was your collaboration different on this film? Or given the kind of atypical films he’s made, do you think he’s naturally more open to composer experimentation?

John was looking for the balance or coexistence of darkness and lightness in the score. To hear the devils and angels overlapping within cues. Ted is haunted and tormented by Mary Jo, the bridge, his complex relationship with his father and the weight of being the only surviving Kennedy son who everybody expects to run for president. The score had to support this feeling. The score also had to support the farce that unfolds in the middle of the film.

I truly love collaborating with John. He has incredible ears and hears detail in the same way a seasoned musician does. This allows us to go deeper and communicate on a high level. Our creative process is all in. We are on the phone at all hours of the day and night bouncing ideas off each other.

Garth Stevenson and John Curran at the LA premiere of Chappaquiddick. March 28, 2018

Yes, John encourages experimentation and taking chances. The last thing he wanted from this score was for it to sound formulaic or generic. Sonically he wanted the score to have hints of the 60s. I have a good collection of old Hammond organs that we used throughout the score. The organ was also featured in some of the needle drops so it tied the source and score together nicely. I also did a lot of re-amping of the percussion, piano and voice through old guitar amps with spring reverb and tremolo. A few years ago I found wooden organ pipes on craigslist that somebody was selling as lumber. They were over one hundred years old from a church in Framingham, MA and it felt sacrilegious that they were being cut up for home repair projects. After watching the scene of Mary Jo’s funeral in the church with pipe organ I knew I had to finally use my pipes. I didn’t have a blower for the pipes and my lungs only had enough capacity to hold a note for half a second so I ended up using a fully inflated exercise ball for the air reservoir. My studio is in Western Massachusetts and I tap my own maple trees every winter. It just so happens that a standard tap fits perfectly into an exercise ball and the hoses that run from tree to tree fit perfectly into the pipe. The resulting sound was a haunting, pitched wind tone that was mixed subtly into the score.

How do you think the oppressiveness of the Kennedy expectations that are smothering Ted come across in the score – especially in relation to his father?

In the film, Ted felt like he was never good enough for his father. Like he was a failure in comparison to his brothers. Even though Joe was hard on him Ted still loved him and looked to him for advice and guidance. I think the scene when Joe slaps Ted and tells him “You will never be great.” is one of the most emotional moments in the film. The score plays the darkness and heaviness of Joe’s character while also allowing room for emotional melodies to play Ted.

Mary Jo Kopechne has been almost an “incidental” person who was submerged once again in the cover-up. How did you want to give dimension to her character, and aspirations that are cut short? Or do you think the loss of the film is as much about her as it is of what Kennedy could have achieved if this didn’t forever taint his chance of becoming president?

When Mary Jo is drowning, the score again aims to allow the dark and light to unfold simultaneously. Her emotional theme is played on high violins that are in counterpoint to a repetitive low bass line of double bass, brass and Hammond organ that feels like a powerful low foghorn. Her theme as she drowns should feel like the final breath of a beautiful, innocent, intelligent and angelic character. With the exception of a flashback later on in the film, Mary Jo’s character does not return to the picture. In the score however, Mary Jo drowning is just the beginning of her character. She returns musically in the form of female voice, sung by Annie Lynch, as one of the main characters of the score. This ghostly voice haunts Ted throughout the film. We hear it on the aerial shot after the diver recovers her body through Ted being in a removed mental state at the restaurant. It appears when Joey and Paul are trying to rescue Mary Jo from the car and Ted is lying on the bridge repeating, “She is already dead.” It also returns faintly on the shot of her picture in the Kopechne’s living room and the scene with the hearse. Another important use of her ghostly voice theme is on the night shots of the bridge and even in the opening credits as Ted drives over the bridge. We wanted to drive home the haunted quality of the bridge and how that bridge hung over Ted for the rest of his life.

How did you want to musically evoke the feeling of water?

Production wise, I used heavy reverbs, delays and parts played in reverse or slowed down to accent the feeling of being underwater, especially when Joey and Paul are trying to get Mary Jo out of the car. The other water related moment is in the opening title sequence when Ted is on the ferry. I matched the tempo of the paddlewheel of the ferry and incorporated it into the percussion track for the rest of the cue.

The Kennedy team is also hoping that the moon landing will draw attention away from Mary Jo’s death. Did that extra-terrestrial element play into the score?

Absolutely. The Apollo mission played into the sound of the score, especially the mix. I recorded a bunch of static and glitchy sounds on the organ.

There’s a haunted sense of the past that your samples evoke. How did you achieve this quality?

Ben Gerstein and Garth Stevenson playing at Harriman State Park (Photo by Ben Gerstein)

I don’t use samples in my scores. Every sound is recorded from scratch. The haunting quality comes from production. Some of the female voice parts for example were played in reverse. Any imperfections in the vocal performance like dips in intonation were magnified and looped instead of being edited out. Experimenting with reverbs, delays and re-amping all played into the ghostly sound.

Could you talk about the score’s other instrumentation, which also makes effective, unexpected use of the organ and voice?

“Chappaquiddick’s” organ pipes. (Photo by Garth Stevenson).

I’ve talked a decent amount about the voice and organ so I would like to draw attention to the brass. The brass parts were played by my long time collaborators Ben Gerstein, trombone and Dan Brantigan on trumpet. Both Dan and Ben are master musicians who in my opinion have completely transcended their instruments and have created unique voices. Ben doesn’t sound like trombone. He sounds like Ben. To create a foghorn sound I had Ben play extremely quietly right against the ribbon microphone. My only instructions were to try to make the sound 10% tone and 90% air or wind. Any brass player could tell you that playing as quietly as possible in tune is challenging. For the written statement and night bridge scenes I recorded pump organ. I played and recorded it in a way that captured equal amounts of breath sound from the bellows as tone. My instructions for Dan were: I want you to play in unison with the pump organ part but you have to get it in the first take and you’re not allowed to see the sheet music…and make sure your trumpet doesn’t sound like a trumpet. The result was not a true unison but more of a shadow unison chasing the organ part, which I was after. This is the advantage of working with someone I’ve been playing and recording music with for fifteen years.

Once Ted and his enablers hatch upon the idea of getting rid of the story as quickly as possible, how did you want to convey their machinations?

Part of what John was looking for in the cover up theme was a sense of humor. The dream teams of lawyers were constantly having to absorb mistakes Ted made into their story. Like when Ted decided to wear a neck brace to the funeral but was caught twisting his neck to see who was sitting behind him or when they told the Times reporter that the doctor treated his concussion with sedatives, which they later discovered could kill someone with a concussion. I think the hints of jazz in the organ part bring out the humor while the ticking percussion portrays the well-oiled legal machine.

Where other composers might have taken the score in more of an orchestrally direct approach, why did you take “Chappaquiddick” in a more of an alternative, existential one?

This is what John was looking for. He tried some orchestral music in the temp score and it was glossing over Ted’s character instead of getting deep inside him.

It’s a shame that this movie couldn’t have been made while Ted Kennedy was alive. If he were, what do you think he’d make of it? And If you had been able to meet him, what would you ask him?

If I had had the chance to meet Ted I would not have asked him about Chappaquiddick because surely he would have been done talking about it by then. I would have asked him about his encounters with my wife’s grandfather who was a lawyer on the Cape that helped JFK with his campaign. He was invited and attended JFK’s inauguration and apparently knew Ted personally. There were a bunch of strange coincidences about this film like Annie’s grandfather, or the fact that I got in a small car accident on my way to play music on “Chappaquiddick” with the same drummer that recorded on the score, or that Lexie Roth who played one of the boiler room girls, was at our wedding on Edgartown pond, or that we signed our marriage certificate in the same room that Ted signed his written statement in the film, or that Olivia Thirlby whom I spent a month in Antarctica with, was also in the cast.

What’s coming up for you? And do you see yourself continuing on a path of offbeat scoring for character-oriented movies?

After “Chappaquiddick,” I scored a feature called “The Grizzlies” that takes place in Kugluktuk in Northern Canada. It was directed by Miranda de Pencier and I got to work with an amazing Inuit artist named Tanya Tagaq who I was familiar with from her work with Bjork. Now I’m working on a film called “Them That Follow,” which is a love story set in the south in a snake-handling religious community. It’s directed by Brittany Poulton and Daniel Savage. Once that score is complete I’m headed to Europe for a short solo bass tour. I’m also open to scoring any genre of film. I worked on the pilot of a sci fi thriller directed by Alan Taylor a few years ago and would be interested in further exploring that direction.

“Chappaquiddick” opens in theaters on April 6th, with Garth Stevenson’s score released on Varese Sarabande Records HERE. Then take a musical voyage via camel through Australia’s outback in Garth’s score for “Tracks” HERE

Visit Garth Stevenson’s website HERE