Interview with Raphael Reed

From “Nashville” to “Pulp Fiction” and “Southland Tales,” ensemble films that lay out multiple, fatefully intersecting storylines has proven to be an intriguing narrative device – if not exactly rooted in everyday reality. It was with 2000’s “Traffic” that filmmaker Steven Soderbergh used seemingly disparate characters to show the insidious web of drug addiction from source to supply and then tragic demand. An all-star cast   drew together lowly foot soldiers to cocky drug lords and ambivalent government officials, with the choice of abuse being the outrightly illegal substances of cocaine and heroin. Uniting this cruel, sad tapestry was a hallucinogenic score by Cliff Martinez, a composer who’d redefined the indie sound with Soderbergh’s groundbreaking “Sex, Lies and Videotape” and now took his ethereally rhythmic synth voice to make a powerful, uniquely surreal statement about the drug war.

“Crisis” composer Raphael Reed

Two decades later, that tense interplay between feds and kingpins and the catastrophic effect on addicts, their parents and a testing establishment that signs off on legal amphetamines is the subject of Nicholas Jarecki’s “Crisis.” With a message about the price of revenge and moral failure that’s far blunter with its name performer formula, “Crisis” creates a pulsing, hallucinogenic musical web that at once taps into Martinez’s seminal soundscape while announcing a new, next-gen alt. composer in the transfixing atmospheres of Raphael Reed. 

A native of “Crisis’” setting of Montreal, Reed was a vital presence in the city’s underground music scene who’d evolve to scoring quite visible live events for international sports and circus events. Composing for shorts before making his feature debut with “1:54’s” teen bullying for Oscar-nominated filmmaker Yan England (“Henry”), Reed then scored the documentary “The Walrus and the Whistleblower’s” “Blackfish”-like mission to free imprisoned sea animals. Now “Crisis” marks Reed’s biggest narrative level up in the company of Jarecki, a director whose documentary background with “The Outsider” and “Tyson” led to the Martinez-scored drama “Arbitrage” that had a hedge fund manager gaming his way out of legal jeapordy. 

It’s a sense of moral failing that “Crisis” deals with on a far wider scope, from a driven FBI agent with an addict sister to a college professor asked to fudge the results of a drug about to hit the market and cost lives. But rather than shaking a traditional scoring fist as “Crisis’” stories come together with despairing and vengeful results, Reed’s alternately driving and ethereal score taps into the movie’s emotions in a far more subtly melodic way. His eerily mesmerizing, propulsive score knits together Jarecki’s plot lines to communicates both a druggy high as well as a mournfulness that makes the inevitable collisions of its numerous characters into a fatefully transfixing whole. It’s an ironically lulling “Crisis” that’s let Reed put his rhythmic alt. skills onto a far bigger playing field that has no chance of letting up in his musically progressive art, or hard reality where underworld and medically enabled abuse is just a prescription away.   

Tell us about your musical background

I started playing music while I was about 12 years old with electric guitar lessons. I played in teenage punk bands with friends in Quebec City where we played Guttermouth and Blink 182 covers. I started composing music at 14 years old for my then punk-hardcore-metal band. After high school, I completed a 2-yeard degree in classical guitar and then a 4-year bachelor’s degree in mixed composition at the University of Montreal. There I learned how to compose for instrumental ensembles and for the electro-acoustic genre. The program focused on contemporary classical music and encouraged students to research and experiment to find their own voices as young composers. While studying, I was always in bands here and there to keep up with the local music scene. With one of these bands, where I co-composed the original music and played guitar, we won a province-wide contest where the main prize was to play at a major festival in Belgium in front of 10,000 people.

What was the “underground” Montreal music scene like, and how did you develop your sound within it?

What I love about the underground Montreal music scene is it’s mix of French and English with a New York-like vibe. There’s something really raw about it and I feel like you’re allowed to try anything you like. As long as you are confident about what you are doing, there will be people who accompany you in your experimentations. Being in an environment where experimentation was welcomed, as much in the pop scene as in university, definitely removed any barriers I could have had.

Could you talk about your earlier live projects that ranged from the 2014 UEFA Champions League final game in Portugal to writing music for the Chimelong International Circus in China and composing for an exhibit on John and Yoko’s “bed in” in a Montreal hotel?

UEFA was the first big project I worked on. It was quite exciting knowing that around 150 million people were going to watch the show! I was a rookie at the time and co-composed the music with my friend Mathieu Lafontaine. It was my first experience composing an orchestral Hollywood style type of score. The Chimelong International Circus of Ghuangzhou approached us because, being in Montreal, the city is associated with the Cirque du Soleil. I led this project where we needed to compose 100 minutes of music, including lyrics, within two months! My colleagues and I drew inspiration from the Cirque du Soleil music genre. We created our own “world music” style and invented our own language. It was very stressful, but with the help of my colleagues, the end result was great. 

Some of the shows that hold a special place in my heart are the ones that were made in Montreal for an international crowd. The John and Yoko “bed in” commemorative called “suite 1742” is one of them. The exhibition, which is ongoing, is in the exact room where John and Yoko stayed at the Fairmount Queen Elizabeth Hotel on Sherbrooke St. in 1969. There are many installations, including a VR installation where you can see and hear some of his answers to reporters’ questions during the event. The director asked for background music for the VR installation. I composed an electro dream-like piece called “Designing Dreams.” I wanted visitors to see and hear John for who he was through our modern ears.

“Crisis” director Nicholas Jarecki

I imagine that the Canadian financing on “Crisis” necessitated a composer from that country. But given that could be many people, how did you come to Nicholas Jarecki’s attention?

While Nicholas was shooting the movie in Montreal, his music supervisor, Michael Perlmutter, was scouting talent across the country. He approached me and suggested I send him a portfolio of my work. Two days later, Michael informed me that Nicholas was interested in meeting with me. He asked that I read the script beforehand and that I send him a few of my previously composed songs that could potentially fit with the overall mood he was aiming to develop for “Crisis.” I decided to also compose two new songs that I felt reflected the mood of the script. I worked non-stop trying different things and exploring different sounds.

When I met with Nicholas, we shared similar musical interests and bounced different ideas and potential directions for the movie. Five months later, when he was ready to choose a composer, he asked me to score two of his scenes. At this point, he had narrowed his search to approximately 5 composers. While I watched the first edit of the movie to identify the scenes I wanted to score for the pitch, I noticed that the two original songs I composed for the script were included in the temporary music of the first edit. One of them would later become the main “Crisis” theme.

“Crisis’ will definitely strike people as an update of “Traffic,” though one that’s now about “legal” pills as opposed to illegal drugs. What do you think that difference in substance abuse brings to the movie, and your score?

While they are “legal” pills, an opioid addiction is still stigmatized and it’s not clear who the “real villains” are in this crisis. In my view, the drug war is forever lost, and while there is a lot of darkness in the opioid epidemic, I do see some potential positive outcomes and I feel that the music needed to reflect this ambivalence.

In your own life, have you known anyone who was pulled into the world of opiates? If you have, did that give you an extra layer of understanding as a composer?

Fortunately, I don’t know anyone whose suffered from this drug. I do have some friends who have had their whole world turned upside down by drug abuse (heroin and cocaine), so I can relate on a human level. However, I do think that opioid addiction is altogether another story because, again, it’s still stigmatized and shoved under the rug. Everybody knows that it’s a problem, but it does feel like nobody really cares. 

“Traffic” composer Cliff Martinez and his Cristal Baschet

Given that Cliff Martinez scored the original “Traffic” for Steven Soderbergh, as well as “Arbitrage” for Nicholas, could you talk about how you interplayed with him as a music supervisor for a “Crisis” score that would bear his style’s distinct imprint.

As advisor, Cliff provided direction for the score mostly at a macro level. He especially guided me in how to tell the story through the music, for example, where to reuse themes, which important story plots to score, which emotions should be highlighted in a scene, and when to make the track “cooler.” While our objective wasn’t to reproduce his style, he is a master in the electro-acoustic framework I was working within, and therefore his influence is definitely in the music score. Both Cliff and Nick wanted me to find my voice in this movie. It was great working with Cliff because he never imposed his views, he was clear in his suggestions, and respected my artistic integrity throughout the process.

What do you think your music has in common with Cliff’s and what are the differences?

Working with Cliff was a wonderful experience. He is genuinely a passionate artist and very generous. I don’t want to speak for him, but I think we approach a score in similar ways. We let our experimentations lead the way and we don’t come in with a predefined idea. We also relish in making mistakes and we embrace them if they sound good. Rather than trying to make the music perfect, we accept that music is an imperfect being. I think this adds rawness to a score and authenticity.

I would say that the main difference in our music is defined by our musical backgrounds and influences. In my case, my biggest influence for creating texture comes from the French music concrete (Pierre Schaeffer, Robert Normandeau, etc.) and I do feel you can hear some of my background in contemporary classical music in my harmonic approach. As an example, I would argue you can hear influences from the minimal music genre of the 1960s in the movie’s main theme (“I’m A Federal Agent”).

Photo: Philippe Bosse 514.932.4355

While “Traffic” has a cold, calculating approach, “Crisis” is much more in-your-face with its emotions and gun battles. What do you think that adds to this score?

In “Crisis,” the audience gets an up-close feel of what the main characters are experiencing. Because each character is emotionally involved in a high-stake situation, the movie ramps up consistently as the characters each chase after their own objectives. The music needed to make the audience feel like it’s running alongside the characters without surpassing them. Because of this, there are moments where the score is more in-your-face, but the emotion in the music never overshadows the actors. It was a beautiful dance between pushing for more emotions while still holding some restraint.

How did you want your themes and motifs to bring the threads of the stories together? And how would you say that the score ties them up?

While there are multiple threads, I thought the score needed to create a world that embodies the whole movie instead of simply telling different stories. Inspired by Wagner’s leitmotiv technique, each character has their own thematic elements, based either on a melody or a pattern of notes. There are also underlying thematic elements, either rhythmical or textural. They are all tied up by the main “Crisis” theme used for important storylines or reveals. When a particular character would experience a specific situation, I would bring in the different leitmotiv and make them interact together, for example, the main theme interacting with the character’s leitmotiv.

Tell us what instruments and sampling went into “Crisis?”

One of the most important things I felt the score needed to do was underline the authenticity of the movie. One thing that helped me achieve this was to create most of my texture by recording my own instruments and avoiding virtual instruments as much as possible. It’s a mix between two families of instruments. There are the synth aspects, all of which are analog. I used the Blofeld, Prophet 6, Mopho x4, and Moog Little Phatty. There is a mix of more traditional instruments, including violin, cello, guitar, voice, and bells. Some of them are sampled and then I used various techniques, such as echo, granulation, reverse, filtering, etc. Sometimes, they are passed into a mass electro-acoustic program called Cecilia. The goal was to avoid as much as possible the recognition of the sound in its original nature.

Could you talk about the interplay you wanted between rhythm and more dream-like ambience. In a way, do you think it creates a “drug-like” listen?

“Crisis” was a challenge in terms of tone. Because the actors are giving nuanced performances in a realistic environment, if I pushed the emotion too far with the music, it felt as if I was overplaying their delivery. The line was thin, but a good way to be nuanced with my music was to avoid as much as possible using traditional minor or major chords. Using either extensions or suspended chords and mixing them with my electro-acoustic texture, it leads to this dream-like ambience with more nuanced emotional listening.

However, if I was too ambient or sparse, it would give an unnecessary heaviness as a good part of the movie is “speech-driven.” It was therefore important to find the appropriate timing to integrate some more rhythmical elements to push the story forward in order to give the movie more drive and to keep the audience on their feet. In retrospect, even though it wasn’t planned at the time, the score does have a “drug-like” listen. 

Did you have any storyline that you particularly liked scoring, and if so, why?

The last scene where you hear the main theme (“I’m A Federal Agent”) is my favorite. I feel that the music here is a bit unconventional for what is happening in the scene. There is a clash between thrilling darkness and the light that the music brings. When you see the whole movie, it makes sense to have this theme here. It’s the first scene where I tried it and all three of us—Nicholas, Cliff, and I—got excited. We saw how this theme was the “mother” of all of the other songs. It’s from there that I started to break it down and apply it to the other important storylines. 

A lot of films try to mask that they’re shot in Canada, but in “Crisis’” case it very specifically takes place in your native Montreal. What do you think makes that setting gives to the genre?

For me, Montreal is a very “raw” city in that what see is what you get. You have some sense of grandeur with skyscrapers and a fancy downtown right next to crumbling bridges and of course, our infamous potholes everywhere. I think that, in a way, Montreal was an ideal city for this movie: a gritty story filled with authenticity. I would even say that it inspired the music to go in that direction as well. 

Photo: Philippe Bosse 514.932.4355

Does scoring “Crisis” in an “alt.” fashion as opposed to a conventional one brings another level to the film’s emotion, especially as it’s an approach that doesn’t really “tell” you what the characters are feeling? Yet would you still say there’s an overall mournful feeling to the music?

Lately, I’ve been very attracted to the alt. approach to scoring because I feel that it gives you more room to experiment and to figure out your own music identity in comparison to an orchestral score where the codes are more predetermined. For “Crisis,” it’s true that I tried to avoid as much as possible expressing the characters’ emotions with the music. I tried to avoid the “typical triad chords” and experimented a lot with each scene to see what would work best. I wouldn’t say that there is an overall mournful feeling in the score, but there is definitely an underlying darkness and tension to it.

What’s ahead for you?

Three things. I have a documentary, “Human’s First” by Imagenation Abu Dhabi. It’s on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United Arab Emirates and should be released soon on Netflix in that region of the world. I’m also finishing my score for the next movie of Yan England, here in Montreal. Denise Robert, the producer, won the Oscar for best foreign movie with “Invasion Barbare” in 2004. Finally, I’m releasing a personal EP of 5 songs in about 3 to 4 months. It also has a very dream-like sound and feel.

What do you hope that the music of “Crisis” does in terms of getting the film’s message across, especially given the opiate crisis being pushed into the back burner because of corona – a situation whose despair and isolation has likely made drug use skyrocket?

This is a very good observation. One of Nicholas’ goal is definitely to bring the subject back into peoples’ conversations. As a composer, my first goal is always to give an extra layer of depth to the director’s vision. For the score, my hope is that it helps the audience get sucked into the movie, and that whatever success the movie will have will help bring awareness to this situation and hopefully motivate decision-makers to take action to save lives.

Watch “Crisis” on VOD now, and buy Raphael’s score on Varese Sarabande Records digitally HERE

Visit Raphael Reed’s website HERE