What do feudal India, pre-Victorian England and modern-day Rwanda have in common? They have all inspired the eclectic soundtrack work of composer Dario Marianelli. From Terry Gilliam’s dark fantasy The Brothers Grimm to the contemporary Australian film Opal Dream and the recent sci-fi movie V for Vendetta, Marianelli has scored cinematic stories from different times and places, mixing influences from those settings into his sonic tapestries. Such diversity should come as no surprise from a musician who transitioned from Italian conservatories to British soundstages to work on films of multinational origins.
The aural adventures of Marianelli mirror his personal ones. A native of Pisa, Italy, he began playing piano and singing in a boys’ choir when he was six years old. He was a chorister for eight years until his voice broke. Although piano is his one true instrument, he later would play slide whistle and melody horn and whistle on some of his scores.
“There is no music college in Pisa, so I studied piano privately there, and I did my exams as an external student in conservatories in nearby cities — Florence, Lucca, Livorno,” explains Marianelli. “I also had a private composition teacher, a very eccentric American living in Florence, with whom I spent seven years just doing counterpoint.” Armed with extensive musical knowledge, the budding young composer then journeyed to England and attended the Guildhall School of Music and Drama for a post-graduate course in composition, followed by three years at the National Film and Television School.
Marianelli began his career doing unpaid fringe theater in London, which soon led to paying gigs on concert pieces, ballets and theater productions during the next few years. Then he landed a feature film, scoring Paddy Breathnach’s Ailsa in 1994. Since that time, he has worked on a variety of shorts and features, the latter including The Warrior, a film set in feudal India; Blood Strangers, a British television drama; Shooting Dogs, about the Rwandan genocide; Sauf le Respect, a modern French movie; and the latest screen interpretation of author Jane Austen’s 18th-century classic, Pride & Prejudice.
The first feature film for which Marianelli wrote a substantial amount of music was Pandaemonium, helmed by well-known music video director Julien Temple in 2000. Having a director that understood music made the experience quite memorable. “I liked Pandaemonium a lot,” says Marianelli. “It was based on the idea that early 19th-century English poets were the rock stars of the time, the true revolutionaries.”
The score for Temple’s film was multi-layered, with several different strands, all coming together in some cues. “One of them was the fantastical and utopian idea that these poets had of the ‘Orient,’ the very place that provided Coleridge with much of the opium and the inspiration for Kubla Khan,” notes Marianelli. “There were also more romantic themes, not so much associated to individual characters, but rather to the way I see the beginnings of the Romantic movement in England.” Temple suggested using some of the “more revolutionary” and death-defyingly fast-paced music by Jean-Baptiste Rameau, a French composer of operas and chamber music, as action pieces for the film.
Such an adventurous artistic spirit also propelled Marianelli’s work with director Joe Wright on Pride & Prejudice. They initially discussed the time period in which Austen wrote the first draft of her famous novel (in 1797), when 27-year-old Ludwig Van Beethoven was simultaneously composing his groundbreaking music. Marianelli played Wright some of Beethoven’s early piano sonatas as a starting point. He recollects: “I went away and wrote what became Lizzie Bennet’s theme, the piece that opens the film, and we hear it played very badly by her at some point and much better by Darcy’s sister later on in the film.”
Although the London-based composer says he is completely immersed in the process of recording and mixing the soundtracks he works on, he reveals that until recently, he did “absolutely everything”: writing, orchestrating, preparing score and parts, recording and sampling sounds, preparing click tracks and occasionally playing the piano part during the recording sessions with the orchestra, not to mention conducting his own music. Then he would sit through the mix, go to the dubbing theater to personally deliver the score and confirm that it was properly synchronized with the picture. “Recently, I have started working with some trusted collaborators,” Marianelli discloses, “but I am still there all the way.”
The composer has a modest home setup: an Apple G5 with Digital Performer, GigaStudio, a MachFive and two K2000R samplers, E-mu Audity and Virtuoso synths, a Yamaha VL70 and P80, a Mackie 24:8:2 analog desk, MOTU 828 FireWire interface and a TC Electronic M2000 processor. “I occasionally write at the piano, at home, scribble on a notepad and then go to my studio,” he says. “It doesn’t happen often these days, as my kids jump on me as soon as I sit at the piano and want to play along.” Luckily, his private studio is a 15-minute cycling trip away in North London. “I rent a room where I go every morning to work,” Marianelli explains. “Individual instruments and vocals I record there, and mock everything else with samplers until I replace the sampled stuff with the real thing in a big studio.”
A large orchestral score like The Brothers Grimm certainly required a big studio. Marianelli grew up with the symphonic music of the story’s early 18th-century setting, as well as the 20th-century orchestral music that provided a strong influence for the soundtrack. There are two pieces within the score that classical music aficionados will easily recognize: Brahms’ “Lullaby” and Rossini’s “The Thieving Magpie,” which is quoted in the end credits theme.
The Brothers Grimm was a tour de force for Marianelli in terms of both technique and writing. “The film was really tricky, tone-wise,” he says. “It really jumps fast from one mood to another and then another, and to keep any sustained musical idea going was really hard. But the blessing on that film was Terry’s [Gilliam] unfailing support and trust, which gave me a lot of scope to experiment and try new things; new for me, anyway.”
On the flip side of the bombastic Brothers Grimm is the modest British period piece I Capture the Castle, which is about an eccentric family of paupers living in an old castle who become socially and romantically entangled with an aristocratic brood in their area. Set in the 1930s, it’s a character-driven vehicle that features a multifaceted score — sometimes elegant and romantic, other times playful and occasionally haunting, particularly the echoing keyboard pieces that recall the work of Brian Eno.
“The reverberant piano was usually associated to childhood memories, looking back and seeing something tender from afar,” says Marianelli. “It is interesting that you bring up Brian Eno. I think my music has very little to do with his, but on I Capture the Castle, there was a vague connection to some of Erik Satie’s music.”
No matter what is he working on, whether on a large or small scale, Marianelli brings his cross-cultural sensibilities into play, which is something that stems from his days as a student. He began working with musicians from non-Western traditions while attending film school. His first experience was collaborating with Indian director Preeya Lal.
“[She asked] if I could find a way to score her documentary about her own mixed feelings of ‘belonging’: being Indian but having grown up in the West,” he recalls. “I started looking for Indian musicians in London, and I met a wonderful sitar player who became a source of great inspiration for several projects after that. I had also scored an Indian short film, The Sheep Thief, by the same director [Asif Kapadia] as The Warrior.”
At various points during his career, Marianelli has scored documentaries about archeology or ancient civilizations that have allowed him to partner with musicians from the Middle East and Asia. He has also worked with Western musicians who play non-Western instruments, and while he says that is quite a different experience, it has been equally rewarding for him. “With some of these people, I have established a close working relationship over the years and discovered that there is a very powerful, deep buried point that we have in common when it comes to try to move people with music,” Marianelli muses.
Within his diverse body of work, Marianelli has tapped into that power point very well. He has traveled to far-off musical lands and effortlessly whisked away his listeners with him. And there are still new vistas on the horizon.