Music of ‘Emancipation: Marcelo Zarvos Evokes African, Haitian Sounds for Will Smith Slavery Escape Drama

“Emancipation” director Antoine Fuqua wanted music that was spiritual but yet untraditional: a tall order for composer Marcelo Zarvos, doing their fifth film together.

“The bar was very high on this one,” Zarvos tells Variety about the Will Smith escape-from-slavery saga. “It’s so relevant and so momentous for the times that we’re living in; it looks back but also shines a light on our current society.”

The Brazilian-born composer – whose other films include Fuqua’s “Brooklyn’s Finest” and “The Guilty” as well as TV’s “Ray Donovan” – employed a traditional orchestra and choir but treated them in unusual and dramatically effective ways.

“There’s definitely a lot of orchestra, but with a lot of detuning, especially in the low-end brass, and it creates a real sense of unease,” Zarvos explains, finding this technique especially useful in the scenes of brutality and as Fassel (Ben Foster) is pursuing the escaped Peter (Smith) through the Louisiana swamps.

He also did “a lot of layering of percussion and all kinds of voices,” he adds. Most intriguingly, he employs the single-stringed percussion instrument called a berimbau, which originated in Africa but is now commonly heard in Brazilian music. It’s the first musical sound heard in the movie.

The berimbau, which has a taut metal string and a dried hollowed-out gourd as a resonator, is widely associated with the capoeira fighting tradition that began with enslaved Africans in the Western Hemisphere.

Fuqua asked Zarvos to convey “the sound of the forest, and the ancestral sound of Peter, but always balanced with his Christian faith. So you have the sort of European choir but also other voice elements,” the composer notes. “He wanted it to sound surreal, very spiritual and very nightmarish as well.”

The singers are not performing any distinguishable words. “I had a road map of some Haitian words but in the end it felt distracting. (The choral sounds) are meant to evoke more of the texture around him, the spiritual kind of religious texture but also communing with nature, almost like voices of the forest,” Zarvos says.

In addition to the 40-voice choir and 75-piece London orchestra, Zarvos recorded soloists from around the world, including Guadeloupe-born, African-vocal-tradition singer Joel Virgel and Venezuelan-born, L.A.-based ethnic woodwind specialist Pedro Eustache. Acknowledging Peter’s Haitian origins, Eustache suggested the surprisingly titled vaccine, a single-note bamboo trumpet heard in Haiti.

Traditional American folk sounds from the South are sparingly employed; fiddle and accordion show up briefly in the score.

Zarvos read the script before shooting began and immediately began sketching themes, particularly for a critical scene near the end of the film as an exhausted Peter finally nears his goal. “This whole score needs to lead to that moment,” Zarvos felt. “We need to get to that size and scope without feeling manipulated. It needs to feel inevitable and natural.” He continued writing music while Fuqua was shooting the film.

“Antoine wanted the music to be fairly complex, ultimately to feel very textural, kind of twisted, you know? We talked about how close can we get to the horror of it without being a horror score. We always tracked back to an emotional center.”

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