Interview with Karl Frid

Porn is pretty much about going by the numbers, from the plumber who never gets the sink fixed to the Swedish ingenue out to conquer the carnal world to the cheesy strains of jazz-funk and grinding Casio synthesizers. But rarely has this sleazy world and its sonic expectations been opened up with the striking counterpoint of “Pleasure,” filmmaker Ninja Thyberg’s ironic look at the video sex business, one that offers precious little arousement and a whole lot more pain in the porn star quest of  the émigré Bella (in a beyond brave performance by Sofia Kappel) to conquer the industry by way of Hollywood. As filled with real XXX actors and businesspeople, Ninja shows Bella’s pilgrim’s progress with artistic explicitness and beyond brutal impact, her trip up the industry ladder reflecting the sadistic dive into “gonzo” porn and its mirroring in a violent splintering of society at large. 

Given scenes of business-transaction brutality that are impossible to watch in this potently dramatic film, perhaps the most jarring element of “Pleasure” is the one truly erotic thing about it – namely a gorgeously inventive score by Swedish composer Karl Frid. Musically educated in England and often working in tandem with his brother Pär under the moniker of Frid & Frid with the scores of “Alena,”“Human Affairs” and “Wild Nights with Emily,” Karl is also onstage as a member of the timba bandCalle Real. But it’s “Pleasure” that brings Karl Frid a whole new level of solo exposure to an international audience no doubt titillated by Neon’s canny marketing campaign for a c-blocking, butaghastly mind-opening film if there ever was one.

A merging of the vocally sacred and profane, Frid uses the sonorous talent of Caroline Gentele in a way that blends the lyricism of her operatic background with the sound of nun-like Latin prayer, along with a throaty sensuality likely unused before by the singer. Gliding along a bed of hip-hop and techno rhythm, the music becomes something akin to Bella’s prayer for success, if not transporting her to a holy happy place. As graced with techno rhythm, Frid’s score gets across the film’s sleek view of a company town rotting from the core. Bella’s unexpressed moral conflict is expressed the raw vocals of the rap artist Mapei, with the score’s darkest humor becoming the kind of cheerful, chirping vocalese one might expect on a Burt Bacharach soundtrack. The result is “sex” music unlike any other for a warped world and its ambitious Eve, doing so with deceptively hip beauty that at the least signals the LA composing arrival of a truly noteworthy Swedish talent.

Pär and Karl Frid

Tell us about your musical history, and what brought you to film composing? How do you think studying in England opened up your composing worldview?

I’ve played music since I was very young. I started playing the piano when I was seven, and took up the trombone at the age of ten. I’ve always had a very broad musical taste and interest in different genres, not willing to limit myself by only sticking to certain genres. I think my strongest musical ability is my ear for picking up details, structures, nuances and melodies very quickly, and in that sense I’ve been quite unabashed and open-minded when approaching different kinds of music, figuring out the components and special features of each genre. Still I always have the greatest respect for music genres where I have limited knowledge.

After studying at the Royal College of Music in London, I went to study in Havana, Cuba, for a year. Then, I finished my studies in the jazz program at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm. I don’t think my studies in London opened up my composing worldview that much at the time, although it certainly affected my view of the world of music, giving me lot of tools and experiences for creating and composing music, and building one of my corner pilars of my musical platform.

It was rather at my final year at the Royal College of Music in Stockholm, that I started getting more interested in composing film music. During that year I tried to fill my suitcase of knowledge to the brim and took a lot of extra curricular classes in arranging, composing, and orchestration. One of those classes was Composing for Film and Video Games. There weren’t that many from the jazz program signing up for these classes, but I remember that it was me and Ludwig Göranson, and he did quite ok in film music, I believe. I found the creative process of composing music for film, composing with a purpose, very fulfilling and fun. However, at that time I didn’t pursue that path and after my studies, I started to tour a lot with different bands and artists, writing numerous arrangements for strings and horns, for recording sessions and composing songs on my own for different groups I was in, like the salsa/timba group Calle Real.

Calle Real

It wasn’t really until a couple of years later when me and my older brother Pär decided to team up and form a musical platform together. He had just moved back to Stockholm after studying composing in Gothenburg and Paris for many years. We realized that we had a very broad set of skills combined. Pär is a brilliant classical and contemporary composer, with great passion and skill in instrumentation, sound molding and musical textures – always curious and innovative. He’s also very good at troubleshooting and analyzing different creative ideas. I am more direct when it comes to creating music in a sense. Because of my background in jazz I think maybe I react much more instinctively in the creative process, reacting to sounds and instrumental textures more subconsciously. We found this to be a very fun, creative and instructive collaboration, where we learnt a lot from each other. We started Frid & Frid Studio in 2010, I think, and up until today, we’ve scored about 25 films together, as well as tv-series and other commissions. ”Pleasur is actually the first score I did all by myself, apart from the assistance of our in-house producer and assistant Ludvig Klint. Pär was by the sideline, as a ball and plank assisting with his knowledge in different questions. But we tend to work like that more and more lately, relying on each others qualities and abilities and letting each other take the lead on different films. The reason Pär wasn’t involved in the composing process is he was working on a commission for a big orchestral piece at the time.

How do you think your work in electronic, and ethnic music helped broaden your stylistic range to the point where you took on “Pleasure?”

Well as I said before, I’ve always had a very wide musical interest. But also, I think Pär and I have never really been shy to test new things and broaden our perspectives. We’ve always strived to let each film have its unique musical universe, no matter what that might consist of. We have always let the film and the story set the musical direction in a sense, whether that might be an orchestral, electronic, minimal or epic, classical, jazz or pop score. I think that for us it has also always been learning by doing in a sense. Every score has its own challenges and technical musical aspects, as did ”Pleasure.”

Before “Pleasure” ever came your way, what did you think of the music you’d hear in hardcore porn videos?

Haha, I don’t think I’ve reflected that much about it. The only clear references I have to porn music must have been from my first encounters with porn as a teenager. This kind of cheesy funk jazz with sleek saxophone that must be the trademark for 70’s-80’s porn. Early on in the process, I was playing with the idea of adding some element of that in the score for ”Pleasure,” but it never felt right for the story we wanted to tell, nor the perspective of Bella.

“Pleasure” filmmaker Ninja Thyberg (Photo by Grand Slam)

Tell us about your collaboration with director Ninja Thyberg. And what do you think her feminine approach brought to the film where a male filmmaker might not have?

It was a collective process of analyzing, discussing and testing different angles and ideas. We had many long discussions about the patriarchal structures being displayed in the film, about female empowerment, and about our own preconceptions about the porn industry. She is also very present in the creative process, in the sense that she’s open to try things out, and has these ideas of how to combine elements and to look beyond what is conventional in a very direct way. 

Ninja wanted an epic score and a unique and special sonic universe for the film. The music should be a statement in itself. Still it was also very important that the score wasn’t generic or tried to push emotions or judgement on the characters. We came to the conclusion that the music shouldn’t always go with the emotions, but rather be a juxtaposition on what we see on the screen. The film has so many layers, and I was constantly reminded and enlightened by Ninja about all the different meanings and details she was striving for. The film is also changing between many different storytelling techniques – social realism, dark comedy, elevated scenes in slow motion, and seductive scenes, at times almost like a music videos. This made it a challenging to score. But fun!

I don’t think a man could’ve directed this film with the same result. Ninja’s vision and what she’s been striving to achieve is the result of years of studying and researching the porn industry, as well as exploring the patriarchal structures that is has been the foundation of our society. As a man you can be aware, or try to make yourself aware of the injustices and inequality between the sexes, but you can never fully comprehend being the object of the male gaze. That’s what I find so liberating and direct with ”Pleasure.”

The idea of a randy Swedish woman on the loose is a porno trope as old as the hills that “Pleasure” uses to deliberate effect. Yet do you think there’s a difference in how Swedish and American cultures view sex, let alone pornography?

Yes and no. I think pornography has the same cultural status and stigma around it in Sweden as in the US. I think maybe Swedes are considered to be more liberal by Americans when it comes to sex, probably because our history of more open and natural portrayals of sex in cinema. I think films such as ”I am curious (yellow)” by Vilgot Sjöberg from 1967, that got a lot of attention and caused massive debate in the States, cemented that perception of Swedes even more. Still, I think Americans tend to talk about sex more openly.

With its religious / hip-hop aspect, “Pleasure’s” score strikingly conveys the sacred and the profane. How did you hit upon this approach? And would you say the movie’s artful stylism, as opposed to one that could have been even more raw and blunt, influenced the score?

The idea of mixing sacred choral opera with hip-hop beats came quite early in the process. We talked a lot about finding the inner voice of Bella, and about how she pictures herself, as opposed to how the patriarchal society perceives her. This became the musical manifestation of the Harlot vs the Madonna. Heaven or hell. The hip-hop also represents the self-image of the female porn actresses as “bad ass,” with full control over themselves and their surroundings, and we found the clash with the sacred opera to be very liberating.

The score struck me as being more religious than operatic in its use of Latin female vocals. Do you think there’s a connection between liturgical music and opera in that respect?

Well the use of both the opera and the more religious sounding choral parts has the same kind of effect. For me, both genres are imprinted with the same patriarchal structures and conception of how the women should sound and act. There are religious connotations in the score, but there are no real religious messages, we’re rather playing with our perception of the sacred and innocent.

I used some classical Latin quotes that I found worked well within the film and that matched the choral sound I was after, such as ’Fata Viam Invenient’ (Fate Will Find a Way). But for some of the works I wanted a deeper more sublime meaning, and together with Caroline we started to read through the old church mass lyrics that Mozart used for his Requiem. I got attached to ’Confutatis,’ that became symbolic for the journey of Bella – the further up the career ladder she climbed, the deeper morally she descended.

Soprano Caroline Gentele (Photo by Peter Knutson)

Tell us about working with soprano Caroline Gentele. What was her reaction to the film before she began work on it, and how do you think it influenced her performance?

Caroline is fantastic! I worked with her on different projects before and she’s a good friend of mine and my brother’s. What’s also really special about her as a classical musician, is her ability to improvise and play it by ear. I really used her as an instrument rather than a vocal artist to some extent. We have a very special and rewarding work process. Rather than providing her with sheet music, I could just sing or play my ideas for her and we would try it out and record it and start layering from there. I could come up with the different parts as we went. She would also be able to improvise and play around with different techniques and emotions, and was open with me directing her into different emotional states, which really gave each musical cue its own emotion and direction.

Caroline is a very open-minded and nonjudgmental person. I think she found the story and the female gaze very interesting, and she was very excited about the film. However, she didn’t see the film until the premiere. I deliberately wanted her to see as little as possible, because I didn’t want her to be tainted by the images. I let her watch a couple of scenes, when I wanted her to react to certain aspects of the film, but she didn’t see the film until the premiere. She was very moved and struck by the power of the film and disturbed by the hardships of Bella, especially the abuse scene. But she was also very proud and thankful for being part of the score.

Would you say that hip-hop is the “sound” of today’s porn?

No I wouldn’t. And I couldn’t. I am not that invested in the porn filmography. Sure, I watch porn occasionally, but I haven’t researched the porn music in preparation for this film. The hip-hop in ”Pleasure” is rather a way of manifesting the talents’ self-image in the porn industry as bad ass and in control of their profession and situation.

Mapei

Talk about working on the “storytelling” songs with the rap artist Mapei, especially in the raunchy “Una Gioia.”

Mapei is great. She is a sheer musical and creative force. When Ninja and I talked about the idea of adding rap vocals to some of the tracks, there really was no other option for me. I simply couldn’t come to think about any other female rapper. I was so excited when Ninja asked Mapei if she was interested, and she said yes. Mapei saw a raw cut of the film, and she and Ninja talked about the different ideas for the lyrics. Then she turned up in the studio, eight months pregnant, and she just killed it. Blew me away. It turned out even better than I could’ve imagine it to be, and it was so much fun recording her. First, we only had this idea of her adding rap to ‘Una Gioia’ that was meant for the Über scene, when the girls are on the way to the pajama party, but then I asked her if she would be open to do more track since I already had prepared beats for ‘Hard to the Core’ and ’Good Girl/Bad Girl’, and they turned out great as well. She’s also one of these really cool vocal artists that can go into character and change her entire output depending on the song and what we wanted to tell.

Were previous groups like Massive Attack and Enigma influences in crossing opera with hip-hop, yet with even more of a cutting-edge effect?

Not really. I did some early experiments with that kind of more explosive and dramatic opera mixed with hip-hop beats, with Éric Serra’s ”The Diva Dance” from ”The Fifth Element” score in the back of my head, but it became too dramatic, and in that sense ironic, in the wrong sense.

Sexual moaning has been a mainstay of pop / rock songs, and some scores. How did you want to musically use female orgasmic sounds here, especially as the “orgasms” we see in the film are all part of the act?

Ninja had this idea of using the female body as a sound palette. And we talked a lot about the female orgasm – about how it sounds and how it’s expected to sound. Caroline did a lot of moaning improvisation and I used these takes as samples that I played around with. For one scene, Ninja wanted the sensation of a woman giving birth, and I used these samples with Caroline for this purpose. I also made different voice synths based on different recordings of Caroline, that I used both as bourdon notes as well as chords. For instance, “Una Gioia Sempre Viva,” the theme for Bella & Joy’s friendship, is almost entirely made with voice synths of Caroline’s recordings.

I also made a vocal drum of Sofia Kappel’s sync takes from set and her ADR, using her fake moans to make different beats. Then Ninja had this idea that was an homage to Pippilotti Rist, that some of the lyrics should be screamed. I recorded Ninja one early morning when she was screaming her lungs out to ‘Confutatis’ and ‘Voca Me Cum Benedictus’ and it was amazing. When Ninja left just before lunch, I met a neighbor looking at me as I was some kind of a monster. I can only imagine what she thought had been going on in the studio, haha! I blended in Ninja’s screams in the track, and we ended up using that stem just barely audible in the aftermath of the strap-on scene with Bella and Ava. 

There’s a neat use of pleasantly chirping vocalese in “Pleasure” that reminded me of such classically-oriented groups as The Swingle Singers. Tell us about that element of the score.

Well, I wanted to find something playful and at the same time, elevated. I think the cue you are referring to is the ”Fata Viam Invenient,” which is more or less Ava’s theme. We wanted to portray her as the antagonist, in the mind of Bella.

I noticed early in the process that it was harder to have Caroline singing in the classical theatrical style of opera. It tended to become too much and felt almost ridiculing and ironic. However, it fit nicely to the elevated sense of Ava’s theme, where I also had Caroline singing an arpeggio in three parts. Mixed together, it felt like a good balance to get that elevated feeling to Bella’s perception of Ava.

There’s also haunting female vocal sustains and angelic melodies on tracks like “DAI” that take me to a place like “Lux Aeterna” from “2001.” Was that also the idea of Bella leaving her body?

Yes in a sense. The title ”DAI” is an acronym for the ”double anal interracial” scene. There are so many layers to that scene. Bella has made the decision to take on one of the most challenging acts you can do in porn, and this is a huge moment in her career. Make it or break it. It’s a self-sacrificing act and very painful, yet the scene is also very intimate and gentle, as she relies on her friend and co-star Bear to help her get through it. I tried to build the suspense and sense of anxious anticipation and slowly building it up to a climax. However, since there is no real pleasure in that climax, Ninja talked a lot about the similarities in child birth. I recorded Caroline doing operatic moans in a crescendo leading up to an abrupt end, as the pain overwhelms Bella and she goes into this almost meditative state.  

“Pleasure” is a pleasantly and catchily tuneful score in its alt. way. How do you think that plays into the sleek artificiality of the porn world, and the success that Bella dreams of?

I think it adds a unique sonic universe, that makes you reflect on what you see, sometimes holding your hand, and sometimes being provoking and direct, but always following the POV and self-image of Bella and her ambitions. But it also plays as a juxtaposition.

Bella remains a fairly enigmatic character in terms of what motivates her to go through such extreme situations – while not seemingly being interested in sex outside of her use of it for fame – something in common with the business-like characters. How do you think the score mentally reveals about Bella that she might not voice, even as she physically bares it all?

I think it’s the pureness and innocence in the choral works, combined with a sort of naive tonality and simple motifs that creates that layer. It’s a battle between the serene and the dirty, when the crystalline angelic voices clashes with the distorted and raw 808 bass. By letting this sort of elevated choral and operatic music that feels a part of the environment accompany Bella, we sense that she has a naive mindset at times, and might not always have the mental strength that she thinks.

When Bella talks to her mom, you bring in Swedish vocals . What are the lyrics saying?

It’s actually in Latin. ”Ignis tartari consumant vos qui me provocetis,” which translates to something like ”Fires from hell will consume you if you provoke me.” I wanted to portray the growing rage that Bella feels after the abuse scene that turns into her resolve. It starts as a whisper and grows into a roaring female choir. It was a very emotional recording session with Caroline. I really wanted it to hurt in the gut, and I directed her by feeding her with mental images of all different injustices and abuse that women have been forced to deal with throughout history. We actually ended up crying together and hugging it out. Caroline also helped me with the translation into Latin. She found this Latin professor, who helped us out on the fly as we were recording in the studio, sending suggestions back and forth.

This film for the most part doesn’t paint any kind of flattering portrayal of men in the increasingly gonzo porn industry. As a man watching this kind of behavior, how did that make you feel while scoring the film – especially during its most troubling parts?

Well I found it deeply disturbing to start with. I remember watching it the first time and feeling very ashamed and disgusted afterwards. But also really moved and enlightened in a sense. I think the biggest problem with porn is that it is generally made for men by men, following the patriarchal ideas and fantasies of the woman. This creates a distorted and misrepresented idea of what sex is, both for men and women. I think today maybe this is more troublesome than ever, since porn is so easily accessible, through laptops, tablets and smartphones. When I first encountered porn as a teenager it was through a ”borrowed” VHS tape from my friends older brother, that I watched in secret when no one else was home. Today, a twelve year old (or younger!) could easily get the first impression of what sex is, and what they’re expected to perform, by a classmate shoving a smartphone in their face in the schoolyard. It gives the totally wrong picture of what sex and pleasure could be for the younger people. I would say most men are damaged by porn, and women have to deal with the consequences of this conception of what sex is.

Once I started working on the score, I had to switch those emotions off. Kind of like working with a genre movie. At times, it was absurdly surreal – being submerged in the DAW, working on the music, then looking up to meet the zoomed in gaze of a huge erected penis on the big screen, haha.

In the end, “Pleasure” paints as much of a familiar tale of “wanting it all” and losing one’s soul in the process as a far more demure Hollywood movie like “All About Eve” would. Did you think about that trajectory while scoring the film?

Yes, this was very much the idea of the musical arcs as well. But at the same time, it was important not to judge or to point any fingers, and let the story be more of a ”Rocky,” set in the porn world.

How do you think “Pleasure” and its score will affect the way that more adventurous film goers might think about pornography, especially when it comes to how stylistically unexpected music can play both eroticism and anti-eroticism?

Well, I think the main goal with ”Pleasure” is to expose the patriarchal structures within the porn industry, and by doing that also showing the same structures in society at large. The female gaze creates a mirror for the audience, where we need to face these questions, even though they will definitely make most viewers uncomfortable. And to be able to do so, we need to be shown this world with a neutral and nonjudgemental eye. I hope the film does have this affect on many, and that my music helps in doing so.

Buy Karl Frid’s score for ”Pleasure” on Milan Records HERE

https://music.apple.com/fr/album/pleasure-original-motion-picture-score/1586670243?l=en

Visit Karl Frid’s web site HERE

https://fridandfrid.com/whoweare-1