Music Interviews
4:05 pm
Sat October 26, 2013

For 'All Is Lost,' A Songwriter Embraces Silence

Alexander Ebert may be best known as the singer and songwriter of Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros — a band named for his messianic alter ego — which produced the addictive and catchy song "Home" in 2009.

He has also enjoyed a successful career as a solo artist since releasing his self-titled debut album in 2011.

This year, he turned his attention to yet another aspect of musical composition: the film score.

Ebert composed the score for director J.C. Chandor's new film, All Is Lost, which stars Robert Redford as a solitary man lost at sea. The film features only one character and contains almost no dialogue.

Ebert joins All Things Considered host Arun Rath to talk about the unique challenges — and freedoms — of his latest project.


Interview Highlights

On writing for a film with very few lines of dialogue

It really felt like stepping into nothing, and just sort of putting that first color on that gigantic canvas.

On using sounds like waves and wind between sections of the musical score

Silence was the other main character, and ... I really wanted to respect the silence — and by silence, of course, I mean the natural sounds, and the sounds that Redford is hearing.

On choosing an instrument to carry the main theme of the score

The alto flute sounds like an approaching ship, in some ways, when you just hear a single note. It sounds to me like a foghorn. And of course it's also a very breathy instrument ... that reminds me of the wind. And something calling to him ... his own surrender calling to him.

On writing a film score for the first time

Popular music usually has a chorus that needs to repeat, and people need to remember the song. That's sort of the major guideline when you're writing a song. And to be able to write something that did not have a chorus — and that would play for as long as it needed to and naturally disappear and come back whenever it needed to ... for me, that was very natural, actually. It was super liberating.

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Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

Alexander Ebert is the singer and songwriter behind rock band Edward Sharp and the Magnetic Zeros.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOME")

EDWARD SHARPE AND THE MAGNETIC ZEROS MUSIC GROUP: (Singing) Home, let me come home. Home is whenever I'm with you...

RATH: Recently, and somewhat abruptly, Alexander Ebert became a film score composer. He wrote the music for "All is Lost," a movie directed by J.C. Chandor that stars Robert Redford as a solitary man lost at sea. Between the opening and the credits, barely a word is spoken, leaving the music front and center. Alexander Ebert joins me in the studio. Alex, welcome.

ALEXANDER EBERT: Thanks for having me.

RATH: So, first off, you know, for people who haven't seen the movie, Robert Redford is a sailor on a boat. It's damaged, and he's trying to survive. That's the entire film. It's a pretty stark and open canvas to work with. What was it like composing music for something like that?

EBERT: Man, it really felt like stepping into nothing and just sort of putting that first color on that gigantic canvas. I had had some great conversation with J.C., the director, about, you know, what to do. But it was very sort of like, esoteric talk. It was nothing specific. The only real specific thing I got was no piano. And so that sort of started my journey, discovering, finally, the alto flute as the mouthpiece for the main theme.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

EBERT: For instance, the alto flute sounds like an approaching ship in some ways when you just hear a single note. It sounds to me like a foghorn.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

EBERT: And, of course, it's also a very breathy instrument that reminds me of the wind and something calling to him and, in this case, sort of - for that main theme, "Excelsior," the - his surrender, his own surrender, calling to him.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: In the beginning, it's very subtle. You almost - the entrance of the music is imperceptible, really, the way it sort of comes up. And there are times when there's no music at all. It's just the natural sound. Did you work that out with the director, like, where you would have music and not?

EBERT: Yeah. In our first meeting after reading the script, I told him that I thought that silence was the other sort of main character and that I really wanted to respect the silence. And by silence, of course, I mean the natural sounds and the sounds that Redford is hearing.

And actually, originally, I even wanted to try and compose a single piece that would begin with a good minute, two minutes of silence between each note so that the song would - was very particulated at the beginning and then would slowly - sort of the notes would get closer and closer together and you'd end up with a song.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

EBERT: And, you know, it was one of those things where it's a natural instinct for any sort of serious director to be very reticent to include any music that's presenting itself too melodically because, after all, what's music doing in my story anyway? You know, this is life. This is not a musical. I think that the one thing we agreed on was that there should be a lot of respect for the natural sounds and the silence that this character is experiencing. Otherwise, we're not going to be thrown into the mind state and the reality of this movie.

RATH: Again, because there's no dialogue, your music is - it's out there and exposed in a way that it's kind of unusual for a Hollywood film.

EBERT: Yeah. It was sort of a scary experience watching it the other day. I went to the movie theater and watched it. And for me, it was hard to tell exactly how up front it was and then all of the sudden, you know, there's a scene and one of my favorite pieces called "Dance of Lilies" where it - a storm finally comes in a major way. And I was very keen on including a lot of melody, somehow. And so that rub there, I think, created a nice dialogue, and it shows itself in that scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "DANCE OF LILIES")

RATH: I'm speaking with Alexander Ebert. He wrote the score of the new Robert Redford film "All is Lost." You've - obviously, you've been involved in bands and played with musicians, but composing is a solitary activity. Did you kind of have a sense of isolation yourself? Were you able to evoke that more easily?

EBERT: Yeah. I had some different ideas of what to do. But I would just sort of think about myself in some ways being out at sea. And it was very easy to go totally hog wild and just fill it from beginning to end with music because every inch of it is poetic.

RATH: It's interesting. I mean, there's atmospheric qualities in your music and your band - like in Edward Sharpe stuff - but it's still quite a jump from songs to the abstraction and big canvas of a movie.

EBERT: Yeah. It's a huge jump, certainly, from the outside. The whole time, I was super giddy because I knew I could do it, and I was very excited to do it. And to be able to write something that did not have a chorus and that would play for as long as it needed to and naturally disappear and come back whenever it needed to and then naturally disappear again is supposed to sort of feel forced into a particular mode. For me, that was very natural, actually. It was super liberating.

RATH: There is one part in the film before the song at the end where there is sort of - it's kind of a choral sound. I feel like I'm hearing a human voice.

EBERT: Yeah.

RATH: I'm wondering what that is and...

EBERT: That was me.

RATH: Yeah?

EBERT: Yeah, yeah.

RATH: Were you singing words?

EBERT: Well, no, I wasn't. I was just going, you know, ooh, and just using my falsetto voice to sort of - to sing. And also earlier in "Dance of Lilies," during the storm, I actually sing with a full chest voice, as they say, and sort of belt out some ahs over the whole thing. Early on, I know J.C. said he wanted to hear my voice. I wasn't so sure about that. But I was able to find some places where it made sense.

RATH: And why in those couple of places? What were you trying to evoke?

EBERT: In that last scene, it just wanted that finally. There was nothing else there. There was no other sort of like - no other humanity there except for the immense humanity, the singular humanity that was sort of surviving the whole time and...

RATH: It's a powerful moment in the film.

EBERT: It is, yeah. It's, I guess, a welcoming and an ascension.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: Composer Alexander Ebert. He wrote the score to the new film "All is Lost." Alex, thank you.

EBERT: Thanks so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RATH: And for Saturday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath. Check out our weekly podcast. Search for WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes or on the NPR app. You can follow us on Twitter, @nprwatc. Until tomorrow, thanks for listening and have a great night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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