Interview with Trevor Gureckis

It’s safe to say that we’ve universally felt imprisoned for the better part of a year and are defying authority in our quest to break free, no more so than the youth who represent our future’s hope on the face of an endangered planet. Now take that equation to a cloistered group of kids trapped on a spaceship from a dying planet, never to see the light off their craft, but told that they must obey the adult rules for the sake of their next generation. Naturally, bedlam is in the offing given deliberately suppressed hormones let loose in filmmaker Neil Burger’s “Voyagers,” a gripping sci-fi thriller that shows the dangers of mind expansion much like his past movie-to-TV series “Limitless,” though conversely done to drug-freed overachievers who run riot when the blue liquid chains are off. It’s yet another resonantly, almost inadvertently pertinent film in our current Corona age, as given a gorgeously trippy sense of wonder and increasingly dangerous suspense by composer Trevor Gureckis. 

“Voyagers” composer Trevor Gureckis

A protege of minimalist maestro Philip Glass, the Yale educated, Manhattan based Gureckis’ has explored the arenas of ballet, concept albums and alt. music with his band My Great Ghost. Creating music that often uniquely treads the worlds of electronics and classical chamber work, Gureckis’ distinctive voice has steadily risen in Hollywood with a guidance counselor run amuck in “Bloodline” and an anally fixated heroine in “Wetlands” before embodying a strikingly intimate tone for a young man’s epic quest to uncover a terrorist-torn past in “The Goldfinch.” On television, Gureckis has composed the eccentric Klezmer-topped main title of Amazon’s “Hunters” while scoring the slow-burn mental horror of a doll whisperer in Apple’s M. Night Shyamalan series “The Servant,” which is now entering its second season.

Lakeshore Records’ “Voyagers” soundtrack

With “Voyagers,” Gureckis strikingly enters a brave new world whose themes of moral and mental breakdown are as old as humanity itself. His score that captures both the wonder of space and the void as the ultimate, well-intentioned jailer for kids latching onto a universal boogeyman as an excuse for murderous debauchery (albeit at a quite intense PG13 level). Starting out with beautifully vast electronic melodies, Gureckis’ chamber string approach creates a sense of order and intimacy, embodying the confinement enforced by a well-intentioned, if morally bankrupt older generation. It’s the perfect accompaniment to the teens’ sterile surroundings, the scoring intoxicatingly soothing at first as the behavior-controlling, ersatz salt-peter liquid the characters consume. But soon enough, far more sinister emotions begin to surface as they discover their true, repressed natures. Darkness emerges from Gureckis’ gorgeously ethereal scoring, conjuring the idea of a ghost in the machine as lethally used for musically harsh potential. Synths and sampling turn to screaming, creeping, metallically scraping, heartbeat-pulsing anger as much of the passengers’ ability to think clearly turns to a Q-anon esque hive mind, the few mature teen minds left to think for themselves on the run for their lives. It’s a sonically enveloping work as much about sci-fi scoring as it is primitive bad behavior (though ultimately one of lyrically transcendent hope), as realized with Gureckis’ notable creativity that shows many worlds to explore, here with mesmerizing, troubling resonance. 

Wetlands Recording Session – 12/14/2016 / Photographed by Jason Bergman / /

Tell us about your composing start, and how your work in the worlds of both classical and electronic bands led you to it?

My first passion in music was straight-up classical piano. By high school, I was going to piano festivals and competitions and I very much planned on performing professionally or being a professor somewhere. I got my undergrad degree in piano performance at UT Austin but by the end of those 4 years I drifted into composing. My new passion was modern and living composers. I went to Yale School of Music for my master’s degree in composition and I was very much planning on being a concert composer or a professor somewhere. However, when I started working for Philip Glass, I kind of had a paradigm shift in what I thought a composer could be. I saw you could make a living doing many different things and that doing so is the only way to be self-sufficient. He never limited himself to the concert stage. His point of view seemed to be that all mediums were interesting opportunities to create something new. So, I shed the academic superiority that can be commonplace and began to experiment with any musical journey that came along.

Could you talk about your first feature scoring experiences with the thriller “Bloodline” and the violently visceral “Wetlands?”

It’s crazy how different those scores are and that they were composed pretty closely together. “Bloodline” is a heavily tripped out synth-driven score in the universe of Cliff Martinez’s “Neon Demon” and “Wetlands” is a sweeping orchestral score with Bernard Herrmann-esque moments.

Getting to these worlds I was following the leads of the directors. With Henry Jacobson’s “Bloodline” he knew exactly what he was looking for, so it was about hitting his target correctly after our extensive discussions and spotting sessions. With Emanuele Della Valle, the director of “Wetlands,” he didn’t quite settle on anything just yet, so I ended up writing music away from the picture to create suites. Two to three 4-minute pieces which are not constrained by the picture. We were then able to pull themes and instrumentation ideas out of these suites to piece together what the score is going to be and sound like. I learned this concept from Susan Jacobs who was the music supervisor on this and many other projects I’ve worked on since. I always approach new films this way now.

While not many people saw “The Goldfinch,” quite a few noticed your music for it, making it one of few cases where the music really got the attention above all. Could you talk about the experience of scoring an esoteric film like it that put you on the map?

Well, “The Goldfinch” wasn’t meant to be esoteric, it was meant to be a hit! There was Oscar-winning talent all over the place. A funny story about “The Goldfinch,” the film was where I was the odd man out, as I had basically zero credibility. The studio (Warner Bros.) was understandably concerned if I’d be up to the task of scoring a prestige film. At the advice of some of the music team, I had to prove myself vital to the film – that way it would be apparent to the studio that I wasn’t going to screw it up and what I was writing was becoming the voice of the film. So for months after having a good interview and presentation of thematic ideas with John Crowley, the director, I was essentially writing the score on spec. I’m not at all surprised by the hesitation of the studio considering the stakes they had in the film. It took a lot of people behind the scenes really pushing for me to get the gig, for which I’m forever grateful. Getting through that ‘first studio film’ must be some sort of rite of passage.

You composed the theme for “Hunters,” a truly insane Nazi-hunting series for Amazon. What goes into creating a memorable title, especially for an eccentrically confrontational show like that?

The composer of the show wasn’t able to do the main title, so they had asked a few people to give it a shot. It was basically an open brief. The producers and director had said what the show was about and a few key ideas for instrumentation colors. They wanted a main theme that was big, sweeping, and memorable. They also wanted a nod to the Jewish storyline in the series… in that Nazis in America were being hunted down by former concentration camp survivors. I composed a pretty typical Main Title sounding theme, but I do have a romantic violin melody that to me recalls some essence of Klezmer fiddle but in a very straight classical way – which makes it “Hunters” unique.

“Voyagers” director Neil Burger

How did you come aboard “Voyagers?”

I didn’t know Neil Burger or any of the producers on the film, so as is the case with these types of opportunities, you first submit a reel. Then the reel gets passed around if producers are interested in your work. Then the director hears it if they are interested. Then you meet the director and it’s an interview – (of course they interview many other composers btw). If the interview goes well, you may end up writing some music on spec to sort of feel out the vibe. That’s what I did here with Neil. I think I wrote 3 pieces that we felt really connected with what voice and role of the music for “Voyagers” was going to be. The first piece I wrote became the music for the opening sequence. There’s been a lot of changes to the score in the film after I completed it, the soundtrack is how I had composed the score and was mixed in the film at the time.

Could you talk about collaborating with Neil Burger, whose films have mostly been score-driven? How do you think your sensibilities meshed?

His filmmaking style is very intense and detailed, and I think he’d agree that it’s all the more impactful with a very “present” score. Every cue has lots of music and aural content to grab the moment. It’s like hyperrealism scoring. I’m definitely enjoy getting into the details of sound and gesture. It’s possible every sound has 5 parts to it. I do the same in my pop music. It’s very dense.

“Limitless” is one of Neil’s most popular films due to its theme of senses awakening and expanding. Did that similarity strike you in the context of “Voyagers?”

Interesting. That’s true… that’s a really good question for him! Sometimes authors like to explore the same questions in different ways, right? Composers and musicians are the same, I think. I’ve been looking into this hybrid electronic/orchestral sound for quite a while now but in all different levels of balance. This score definitely has the electronics turned up more than say “The Goldfinch” but they are still there.

How did you arrive at the sonic concept of the score, and how “sci-fi” did you want to make it?

Neil had some ideas that we sort of honed in on. When we discussed the instrumentation, humanity was always important, even though this is the future and they’re on a spaceship. A nod to a sci-fi universe is appropriate and natural. There is plenty of electronics and “Blade Runner”-like tonalities but it’s always accompanied with live strings, winds, and brass. Musicians caught up in this electronic world to make a hybrid color.

How did you want to convey something potentially good, like reclaiming humanity, gradually turning to madness? And how did you want to play the trippy explosions of the kids’ senses?

The move from humanity to madness was a gradual one, as not everyone was on board. In one particular cue, the guy trying to rally everyone to his side is literally being pulled up by cello glissandos. It’s like he’s extracting the kid’s madness as he convinces people to follow him. I’m not sure it’s on the album though… you’ll have to check it out on in the movie! Getting into the kids’ “life is real” trips was really about letting their sense of self explode. That was a fun orchestration experiment. I had cellos doing all sorts of crazy styles of tremolos. Brass flutter tonguing. Arpeggio violins. Things that really open up an often very measured score.

There’s a sterile, almost Kubrickian feel to the sets. In that way, how did you want the music to embody the ship?

Yeah, the set is super cool. It does have a “2001” vibe. We needed to give the ship a voice because its moaning and screeching play into the confusion of everyone onboard. The ship had its own sound design, but I also contributed some eerie tones as well. Both electronics and clarinet overtone layers. These sort of made their way into the score as well, so it can sometimes be present even when the scene is not about the ship.

Could you talk about the electronics and gear used for “Voyagers?”

I really avoid complicated gear. Anything that takes me more than 5-10 minutes to figure out slowed down the composing “flow”. I have some semi-modular synths like the Moog Grandmother and NYX Dreadbox. The workhorse is the Prophet 08 and also the Korg Minilogue. I also use a lot of software synths. For this score, I found Output’s Arcade to be useful for really strange rhythmic patterns.

Beyond the ever-intensifying suspense, how did you want to get across a sense of wonder to the idea of space and the voyage that ultimately pays off the score?

I always find the visuals of empty space or of a ship surrounded by empty space compelling on its own, so I feel you don’t have to do much to support that. To me, it usually means quite literally slowing down the harmonic pace and having a spacious, long melody. And then if you want to get detailed in the imagery, you can always add something for the cosmic microwave background radiation. Which I’ve done with voice or violin effects.

If the score was composed during the pandemic, how was it accomplished?

I finished just before the pandemic. I went to Budapest to record the orchestra in mid-February and then finished mixing it by end of February. On March 14, New York was on lockdown. But right after “Voyagers” I had immediately moved on to scoring “Servant” Season 2 and I ended up doing that in my bedroom… on my dresser… on headphones… true pandemic scoring.

Like so many films, “Voyagers” ends up taking on even bigger ideas than directors reckoned due to corona – here particularly Q-anon “boogeyman” violence and the sense of the walls closing in on the heroes. What kind of extra impact do you think that gives to the score?

There’s definitely a before and after with movies made around the time when the pandemic really hit. I recall our discussions in 2019, when the movie was going for a summer release in 2020. It was then delayed to November 2020 and now it’s this month, April 2021. In the 2020-2021 world, we got to see it all played out, almost like a movie. All those plot elements you might find in a film and do find in this film – questions of mortality, human compassion, and people hell bent on burning it down, actually happened in one year. I’m not sure what impact it has on the score though coming back to it, but would I write more pessimistic music now? Possibly. Neil might have made a more aggressive movie.

“Voyagers” also brings to mind elements of “The Village,” whose maker M. Night Shyamalan you’ve collaborated with. Could you talk about scoring “The Servant,” which just renewed for another season, as well as his upcoming movie “Old?”

I’ve really enjoyed working on with Night on “Servant” for 2 seasons now. It’s tough, grueling work at times, but I’ve learned so much about score from him. Character motivation and point of view is very important to his theory of film scoring. It helps you refine in on what is important in a scene and it’s usually not the scene itself, but rather a person’s or group of people’s emotional state. Since music is so powerful at coloring a scene, it makes a huge difference in our understanding as to what’s really happening underneath the surface of the picture.

I’m a particular fan of the existential “ghostly spaceship” genre that includes such films “Solaris,” “Passengers” and “Aniara.” If you’ve seen them, how do you think “Voyagers” and its score fits alongside these pictures in conveying the idea of a one-way trip and what it does to a person’s mind?

I’ve seen both the original and remake of “Solaris,” but I haven’t seen these others. I’ll have to check them out. A one-way trip is definitely a battle that I can’t imagine having to deal with and these kids aren’t even going to make it to the destination. All the more for their existential crisis.

Do you think you’re bringing an extra intellectual depth to the scores you work on that draws filmmakers to your musical voice? And if so, what kind of extra level do you think it brings to “Voyagers”

I always like theme and transformation. Repetition of ideas to solidify meaning. I think that’s pretty common, but I do think they can reinforce an idea or my work. Maybe it’s not always apparent in every score. In “The Goldfinch” for instance, that’s one big thematic exploratory film. In “Voyagers,’ there are the set pieces like with the kids off the blue or certain space sequences. But there’s also a lot of instrumental choices and templates that can help create a clear tapestry unique to that film- or at least I hope it comes across that way. To me, even season 1 and season 2 of “Servant” are very different.

As in the nature of film music timed to picture as well as the idea of people on a crucial mission, do you think control is necessary so things don’t become too unhinged?

I think it’s always good to have control and the ability to lose it in the music as well. One thing that I’ve let go of recently is the timeline (i.e. Writing this in a particular tempo)… I’m not really sure if that answers this question much but it is about releasing myself and performance, which I usually play myself from the tyranny of the click track. It quickly becomes about gesture— hitting frames. I mean I’m generally put together, but I’m not locked into an inhumane amount. Certainly there are plenty of cues in “Voyagers” that lock right in but there are others that are off the grid – and usually they are more ethereal and quiet. Is that unhinged? In film score it is a little bit… Just like these kids… I once needed that control… but no more!

Watch “Voyagers” in theaters now, and soon on VOD. Buy Trevor Gureckis’ soundtrack on Lakeshore Records April 16th. And visit Trevor’s web site HERE