69th Berlin Film Festival: In Conversation with Matija Strniša, a Film Music Composer
The competitive Generation 14plus section of this year’s Berlinale featured international gems with a focus on young adult themes, and the Grand Prix Award for Best Film was awarded to Kim Bora‘s House of Hummingbird, which finally got its European premiere after wowing the audience with its world premiere at the 2018 Busan International Film Festival, winning KNN Audience Award and NETPAC Award. One of the strengths of the film is its wonderful music score, which decisively, but demurely helps bring out the depth and sensitivity of the narrative as it explores the joys and pains of young adulthood – a score written by a young composer worth keeping an eye on – Matija Strniša.
Matija Strniša, now based in Berlin, started out as an academic musician in his native Slovenia. After graduating in Musical Arts, he decided to pursue a change in career and enrolled into a film scoring program at the Film University Babelsberg KONRAD WOLF. It did not take long for him to get noticed – in 2014, he received the Sonic Research Award (1st Prize) for his composition Particles of Accordeon in Rome, Italy. He followed that up by co-writing the music for a radio play, WDR production of The Neverending Story by Michael Ende, that went on to win an award as the best children’s German radio play of 2016. In the same year, Strniša’s score for film The Power That Remains Behind got nominated for the Best Feature Film Music at the 2016 Music + Sound Awards. He was also nominated for the 2016 German Film Music Award in the category Upcoming Talent Award. In 2017, he scored the German feature, Paths (Ein Weg), which was just recently nominated for the German Film Critics Association Award in the category Best Feature Debut, and in 2018 he was chosen as a Berlinale Talent, where he met Zoe Sua Cho, another Berlinale Talent and the producer of House of Hummingbird – and the rest, as they say, is history.
We caught up with Strniša during his busy Berlinale schedule and he gracefully took the time to answer our questions.
Let’s start at the beginning – you actually started out as a musician; you graduated in Musical Arts, with your principal as Clarinet. It was your post-graduate studies that took you in a different direction, to study both electronic composition and film music composition in Germany. What prompted that first change in direction?
I first did the one-year study exchange program at Folkwang University of Art in Essen, while still studying in Slovenia, which was kind of an eye-opener for me. There, I really learned a lot about music and arts in general. The time I spent in Essen brought me to the idea of collaborating with people outside of the musical field. After that year, moving to Berlin seemed like a kind of a logical step forward. Even more so since it worked out with me enrolling in a film scoring program at Film University Babelsberg KONRAD WOLF.
Berlin seems to be the European hub for film composers. Is that why you decided to settle here?
Berlin is one of the most vibrant cities in Europe at the moment. It’s good to live in a city with a lot of international people in residence, and at the same time, also having a constant flow of visitors coming to the city, especially during Berlinale and similar events. At the moment, I do live in Berlin, but I’m also leaving my options open; you never know where life might take you next.
The last two years have been very busy for you. You scored two movies that are in the limelight right now – Paths (Ein Weg) and House of Hummingbird (Beolsae). The feelings must be running quite high right now.
It is great to see that the films I worked on are making their way through the festivals world-wide, and even more so since they deal with politically and socially relevant topics. Paths is examining the personal growth within a love relationship spanning over a longer period of time, while House of Hummingbird is dealing with the feelings of loneliness and despair in an economically fast-growing society, while it also honours the beauty and the joy of one’s journey through life.
What is also important to me personally about these projects is to tell stories together with my own generation of filmmakers, in order to shed some light on the topics that occupy our generation.
The two scores are very different, both conceptually and in terms of their instrumental bases. Let’s start with Paths – how did you join the production, and what was your creative process like?
I met Chris – the director – at the Film University in Babelsberg; I did another project with him already before Paths. Because we knew each other from before, I talked to Chris about Paths already at the script stage.
I actually experimented before the actual shooting of the film began. Then, when the post-production started, I developed some of those ideas further, while throwing the others out.
The initial idea was to create a somewhat atmospheric score. I was trying to find the feelings of distant lightness, brightness, airiness and the passion of both main characters for each other, but we also wanted to convey the fragileness of their relationship, which was inseparably connected to the burden of their everyday life. I decided for the cello as the main recurring subject of the score, as we were looking to picture a long-standing love relationship between two men, but also wanted to make use of the fragile side of the instrument, almost on the edge of collapsing the sound into itself. The textures consist of both soft, glassy synthetic elements and noisy, distorted instrumental tones, in order to be able to bring the roughness to the foreground when needed. Accompanying all that, I created bright sparkling-kind-of motifs to be able to bring hopefulness and purity of emotion into the picture when necessary.
The story behind House of Hummingbird weaves a tight connection with Berlinale. You and the producer, Zoe Sua Cho, met when you were both chosen as Berlinale Talents in 2018. Did you have to do any special research before you started scoring, especially since the film is set in 1994 South Korea?
For me, film scoring is very much about the basic human emotion. Now, although emotions are something universal to all human beings and not specific to one part of the world or a certain time in history, there are differences between people of different nations and how we communicate these emotions.
To prepare, I felt it was important for me to watch quite a few South Korean films, both in order to get more in touch with the culture and – even more importantly – to get a feeling for the pace of storytelling itself, and for the different approaches of expressing emotion in South Korean cinema.
With Bora and Zoe, we talked a lot about the film before I even wrote the first piece of music. We discussed the topic of the film, the feelings and the emotion they wanted for the film to get across and the role that the music was to play. At that point, it was also important to define what our collaboration process for the development of music would be like.
What were the (main) challenges you faced while writing the score for House of Hummingbird?
I started working on the score when the rough cut of the film was still more than 3 hours long. To start working on the film early in the post-production process gave us all a big advantage; because of that, we were able to have a very collaborative creative process.
After I determined the main direction, I started to partly compose music for specific scenes, but those underwent a lot of changes during the process of editing. It happened that I composed a piece of music for a scene and in the next version of the film, the scene got cut. On the other hand, some of the music was written with a general feel and without a specific scene in mind; in the editing room, they tried out my music against some of the scenes in development. This kind of process gave us an opportunity to create a great synergy of picture and music. On top of that, this approach enabled flexibility in our working process and made it possible for us to find the right pace as well as the right amount of distribution of the music throughout the film.
You personally came to South Korea for the world premiere of House of Hummingbird at Busan International Film Festival; that must have been quite an experience. What did it feel like, watching the film with the score on the big screen for the first time? Was the reaction of the audience something you expected?
Yeah, that was actually my first trip to Korea. It is a great place and I met some very special people there.
I think the film was well received and the reaction of the audience to the film was very emotional. I found it interesting, watching it on the big screen, for the first time with the audience present, to see how this film builds the emotional intensity throughout, without one even noticing it at first. And at the end of the film, even though I had seen it before, I felt simply overwhelmed with a mixture of different feelings, which was in part also because I observed the reactions of the audience.
Alongside House of Hummingbird director Kim Bora and producer Zoe Sua Cho, and a fair number of cast and team members, you attended Berlinale last week – what did it feel like, to be back, but this time as a guest? And how did it feel when the film won another reward – this time the coveted Crystal Bear as the best film in its category?
It feels good that certain moments in time sometimes connect. Attending last year’s Berlinale Talents 2018, where I met Zoe, and being back together for the European Premiere of a mutual project – in a way it feels almost surreal.
I very much enjoyed spending time with the team in Berlin for the past week. The fact that the film received an award at the end made everyone feel very honoured!
What I really like about your scores is that they all take on very subtle tones, bringing the film action along, giving it depth, while not forcing the music too far into the foreground. Is this something deliberate, or does it happen organically?
Thanks for saying that.
I think it can happen more organically if there is a possibility to be attached to the project in the early stages. In such case, there is a bigger chance that the music will interact with the story better. It makes it possible for the score to become an integral part of the film, while at the same time leaving enough space to put the story itself in focus.
What would you say is your main vision when you write a score?
For me, the role of the film score is often the interplay of contradictory feelings and emotions, finding the right balance to express them with music. How does one, for example, bring across the feelings of loneliness and despair, being at the same time a bit in love, while also having genuine feelings of gratefulness and a positive attitude to life? What kind of music is that? With every new project, I try to reinvent the musical answers to these kinds of questions.
How much scoring do you do on concept alone, before you get the rough cut of the film for the first time?
At the beginning of every project, I always try to talk to the director as much as possible about the film, asking them a lot of questions in order to get to know them as well as I can as a person, and also to get information about their ideas and their vision for the project at hand. Through conversation, I try to bring up certain film and music references, which also help determine the direction that the project will take.
It’s safe to say that my own creative process is always a bit different from project to project. Sometimes, I start to work on the project in pre-production stage, when I can already try to develop certain ideas and elements that I assume could be interesting and useful later in the process. On the other hand, there are a lot of moments – also later in the process – when I create a piece of music with a certain emotion in my mind that is not necessarily connected to the specific scene; then, afterwards, I try it against the picture. In a way, I momentarily take on the role of a music editor. This process helps me sometimes to get out of bounds, to be more free and spontaneous in creative decisions.
You also scored a very high-profile Mercedes-Benz commercial. What was that experience like for you? The pressure must have been very high.
Matt and Ahsen – the directors – approached me a few weeks before the shoot. It was a story about Bertha Benz – the wife of Karl Benz – taking the world’s first long-distance drive in an automobile.
Based on the script, I developed the main music theme. At that point, I used a piano and also some electronic musical elements, which were supporting especially the intensity at the climax of the commercial. It was a good base track and I think it helped them also to get an initial idea of the music already before the shoot. In the post-production process, we decided to omit the sound design and remove the electronic part of the music, in order to emphasise the elegant and refined style of the brand.
In a way, working for such a big company was a different experience. It was not just the usual process of working with a director and his team; there was also the advertising agency with ideas and concepts concerning the brand as a whole, which also had to be taken into consideration.
What kind of projects usually attract your attention – are there any types of projects you would especially like to work on in the future? For example, score a film of a particular genre?
That’s a tough question to answer. I like to work on diverse projects, but I think what many interesting projects have in common is a multidimensional story, which is put into a wider social and political context. I think one can find those elements in every genre.
For those kinds of stories, I find it especially interesting to develop concepts for the score. During the process, I try to understand the core ideas of the project, which helps me answer the questions of what my score can bring to the story, on which perspectives I can focus with the score and how I can use the score to shift the point of view within the storyline when needed.
With the recent success of both Paths and House of Hummingbird, do you feel that new doors are opening up? Any new scoring already in the works?
I do hope that some new opportunities will come up, but at the moment, I’m working to finish my solo electronic album.
We would like to thank Matija Strniša for taking the time to answer our questions!
Written, interviewed and edited by Sanja Struna
House of Hummingbird stills © Epiphany Films