Tamar-kali bewitches us with her magical score for “Shirley”

There was no doubt that this wasn’t tokenization. I thought that was so important because- I mean nothing is perfect, a lot of stuff is flawed, that’s humanity. But you get so sensitive as a marginalized person being a person of color, by being a womxn, you’re hoping that the person that is on the pedestal passes all of the tests. That’s where we are, hoping for a day where there’s not that type of gauntlet for people who are not white men. But there was a sense of assurance because that work was so phenomenal, that it was undeniable. 

Tamar-kali on Hildur Guðnadóttir’s Oscar win this year.

I first heard about Tamar-kali during my Sundance interview with Josephine Decker about her film “Shirley”. I told Josephine that the music contributed to my out-of-body experience watching the film, which was similar to my experience watching “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”. Josephine credited that to the composer, Tamar-kali, and then went on to gush about her work. Following our interview, I dug into the composer’s work, and found that her first soundtrack album was for the poetic and moving film, “Mudbound,” directed by Dee Rees.

This year, Tamar-kali contributed as a composer to three films that premiered at Sundance. Along with “Shirley” she also worked on Kitty Green’s “The Assistant” and Dee Rees’ “The Last Thing He Wanted”. Tamar-kali has a passion for female voices, and her unique style and voice bring an edge and soul to female directed films. With “Shirley”, she has bewitched me with her octaves, tones, piano dances and stringy score. Discover it for yourself by listening to her soundtrack and learn more about her work here. “Shirley” premieres today on Hulu and other major streaming platforms.

Winner Discovery of the Year 2018: Tamar-Kali (‘Mudbound’)

REBECCA MARTIN: How did you come to work on “Shirley”?

TAMAR-KALI: Through an agent, I was told that a director wanted to talk to me with the possibility of scoring “Shirley”, and that there was a cut that I could view. I’m pretty sure I viewed the cut first, and then I had a conversation with Josephine. I was telling her that I enjoyed the cut, and I described it as a “fever dream”. That was the vibration I was getting and the state of mind the film was putting me in. My interest was particularly peaked by how the film had been temped [placecard music for score]. To that day, I hadn’t heard a project temped so interestingly. Mostly when I get the temp music, the filmmakers are usually choosing iconic music from other films that really don’t match the film. How Josephine’s film was temped was so creative, and it got me interested. At the time she was trying to give a voice to what she was imagining what that landscape might be. I just really liked what she chose, and I thought it was really interesting and eclectic. I said I’d love to take a stab at taking an original unique voice for the film, because clearly between the cut that I saw, and the sensibilities around the temp, it seemed like something really fun that I could sink my teeth into.

“Shirley”

MARTIN: Can you talk to me about your process, and how you bring your unique style to supporting the filmmaker and the story of the film?

TAMAR-KALI: When I work in collaborative situations across disciplines, I see my role as being able to process the information that I’m ingesting. I want the lead artist’s work to lean over me and inform what I create. For starters, I always want to have a talk with the director and figure out what they’re thinking about in terms of the sonic landscape of the world that they’ve created. And one thing that she said out the gate was that she was very interested in the female voice as the foundational element to the score. I also have to consider the economic realities in indie film, and how I’m going to approach a project when there isn’t a big budget. I wanted something that was intimate because intimacy is a big theme in the film. At the same time, there are some pretty big concepts, and if I wanted to have that be reflected in the music, I had to figure out how to go about doing that based on what resources we had available. 

I landed on a string quartet and a piano. Fortunately for me, since voice is my chief instrument, I was able to do all of the vocals myself, which helped for the context of a small indie film. Then I supplemented with some synthetic elements to just create some atmospheric leering. We were so lucky to have Leslie Shatz as the sound mix designer on the project. It was like we hit the lottery. All of that was the instrumental palette.

I always go about setting up two things out the gate, one is the story arc in terms of music, the musical arc, and the instrumental palette. What colors am I using to paint this musical picture, and following the line of the story, what is the musical arc going to be with the themes that might reoccur?

One major inspirational note for me was given to me by Josephine, when she talked about the female voice being the foundational element. There’s almost like a magical realism thread in the film, and I was thinking about “Le Mystere des Voix Bulgares”, the Bulgarian female chorus from the 90s. I remember those voices being very bewitching. It was like gregorian chanting, but different. It was echoing, like you hear in a stone hard building such as a cathedral. The Bulgarian voices felt like women singing in an open field, and there was just this play with nature by these voices. I was inspired by that. I decided, in terms of the vocal developing and framing of the film, that there would be a particular chord that was a representative between the three women in the film.

I went with a partial A flat chord. Shirley was the bottom note, the A flat, and Paula, the missing girl, was E flat. Then I did an octave of the A Flat that was Rose, because she was under Shirley’s influence. And it was causing Rose to have this kind of frenzied high pitched reaction to how she was affected in Stanley and Shirley’s home. Starting from there, it was that sound, and that chord was the foundational starting point for a lot of the vocal building I did.

In terms of the instrumentation, there are some elements of traditional classical music that’s experimental because you’re dealing with someone like Shirley Jackson who is quite untraditional, in terms of how she’s pushing against the box that is womanhood at that time. The same could be said about the character of Rose as well. But at the same time, she is a part of the fiction canon as an American author. There’s just a lot of juxtaposed ideas, parallels, conflicts, and I think the score does represent all of that in certain ways. 

Elisabeth Moss stars as writer Shirley Jackson in “Shirley” (2020).

MARTIN: There is one specific scene that I wanted to discuss with you. That scene with Elisabeth Moss [Shirley Jackson] in the bathtub. The scene is terrifying, and it makes you jump. The music reflected that. I would love to hear your process of putting together the music for that scene.

TAMAR-KALI: That’s interesting that you ask that. When you are a composer, you want to be very sensitive to the audience and their listening. You try not to introduce anything that is too distracting or focus grabbing. You don’t want them to focus on one aspect of the cue and miss everything else. You’re always trying to work in a way that is very harmonious, not just talking about the notes and the sound, but just to have the levels in a way that are even. I mean you’re creating the cue in creating the work. In my presentation I always try to make sure there is a medium place in terms of levels, and that nothing is doing too much. That way I can figure out, ‘Are we warm enough? Are we in the right room?’ 

With Josephine she was like, “come on with the come on”, “bring it”. I’ve definitely been in situations where I’m often considering the reaction of the director. The music editor may be helping to manage expectations, but I am just trying to not have them react to a particular sound or tonality. I want to keep walking down the road steady, and she just wanted me to swing for the fences. 

So I started going there. And that particular scene I was yipping [into the microphone]. It was hilarious because I was working out of this space. It was a proper music studio and I had this writing room. They had the double doors, so it was sound proof. I’m literally at my little rig with a keyboard, my little computer, and I’m yipping. There were a couple times when I came up with some things, and I had moments where I just stomped it. I was like, “ooooh girl, you’re buggin’” [laughing]. It was definitely cathartic, licking my lips in three part harmony, doing stuff like that. 

Tamar-kali at Sundance 2020

MARTIN: I would love to discuss your Sundance experience this year. You went in with three films (“Shirley”, “The Assistant”, and “The Last Thing He Wanted”), all directed by women.

TAMAR-KALI: Yeah, it’s so interesting because the way 2019 panned out, I could not have guessed it. It’s like sometimes things just line up, and sometimes there are a couple of projects that you really want to work on. So I did, I just kept it going one after another. It was an insane work year for me, but I felt really good about everything that I was working on. Kitty Green [“The Assistant] is an exciting filmmaker, wise beyond her years, so much poise. With Josephine I really just got to use a whole side of myself that people hadn’t heard yet, in terms of my film score composing. Going to Sundance with three films, I kind of wish someone told me how intense that would be. By the end of it I was just like, dead [laughing]. But it was definitely exciting. Going to Sundance with three films is not a joke. You’re participating in all of the activities. Also, there’s so much going on outside of the films, just Sundance as an organization. It’s pretty vast. I had so many friends there from the range of film and music. I do appreciate the energy of the film and music community, especially in the indie film world. It’s just grounded in the art and that’s exciting.

Tamar-kali, photo credit Scott Ellison Smith

MARTIN: Any advice for emerging womxn composers?

TAMAR-KALI: The advice I would have for artists and musicians is that I think it’s important to know who you are and what you want. What I mean by who you are is what is the thing that makes you uniquely you. What skill set sets you apart from others, and really honing in on that. It’s hard to be well-rounded, but it’s important to think about that unique quality about you, that unique quality about you that sets you apart. Be very clear about why you’re in it.

MARTIN: How was it for you seeing Hildur Guðnadóttir win for Best Original Score?

TAMAR-KALI: It felt great! Her work is throughly exciting. She’s another artist who has been out here being her full authentic self, creating art. Her practice is important. I think seeing someone of her ilk, a true artist, who lives a fully expressed life as a human being, being a mother, and not being wrapped up in any of the trappings, is inspiring.

Hildur is a solid human being and her work is awesome. I was very grateful to see her win, and it felt really good, especially when you think about the marginalization of our lives. She threw them down for “Chernobyl” and “Joker”, and there could be no question about her being deserving. There was no doubt that this wasn’t tokenization. I thought that was so important because- I mean nothing is perfect, a lot of stuff is flawed, that’s humanity. But you get so sensitive as a marginalized person being a person of color, by being a womxn, you’re hoping that the person that is on the pedestal passes all of the tests. That’s where we are, hoping for a day where there’s not that type of gauntlet for people who are not white men. But there was a sense of assurance because that work was so phenomenal, that it was undeniable. 

“John Lewis: Good Trouble” directed by Dawn Porter

MARTIN: What do you have coming up?

TAMAR-KALI: “Shirley” is coming out this week on Friday, along with my soundtrack, which is my second movie soundtrack. Another film that I scored, the first documentary that I’d ever worked on, that is very near and dear to my heart, is a documentary about Congressmen John Lewis [“John Lewis: Good Trouble”], and it’s coming out in July. I’m really excited about that one. The timing of everything going on is so uncanny. I truly hope that we can somehow muster the emotional, spiritual, intellectual, social maturity to evolve as a society here in America. And I hope that film will be, in the timing of its release, an accompaniment to that type of change. Congressmen Lewis is someone who has been through the fire before and here we find ourselves in the fire again, and it’s time for us to finally extinguish it. That would be really great, so that is a project that is very near and dear to my heart. And I’m working on my next solo recording release, it’s an EP. I’m basically just trying to put out as much music in the world as possible. 

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