• Talk

A Talk on Film and Animation Music

Autorska glazba u animaciji

Interview between musicologist Davorka Begović and Alen Sinkauz, the musician and composer

Alen Sinkauz

Born in Pula, a musicologist by profession, an extremely active musician and composer by vocation and activity for nearly three decades. Alen is an active participant in wider contemporary art and cultural scene, which includes theatre, contemporary dance, and film; in terms of music, he is primarily associated with the field of contemporary sound, i.e., with contemporary tendencies and poetics, music research and experimentation or, in other words, with contemporary sound arts and related artistic practices.

Whether we speak of applied music or of that which is often termed absolute, Alen’s constant and essential collaborator is his brother Nenad, an ethnomusicologist by profession, and an electronics expert, guitarist, composer, and music educator by vocation. As creators and frequently also as music performers, together they have authored around a hundred stage, dance, theatre, radiophonic and multimedia projects, as well as music for feature, experimental, and animated films. It is exactly the latter that were the subject of our talk; however, we discussed not only music for animated film, but also the broader field of film music, the collaborations with directors, the different composing and performing approaches and principles of work, the perspectives and deliberations on contemporary sound…

Alen and Nenad’s contribution to Croatian cinematography, i.e., to music in Croatian film and its development, is evident by the respectable number of film scores they have authored – around 20 feature, animated short and experimental films, but also by the three Golden Arenas for Music – for Goran in 2017, Osmi povjerenik (The Eighth Commissioner) in 2018, and Dnevnik Diane Budisavljević (The Diary of Diana B) in 2019, which already qualify them among authors with the most accolades in this category.

  • Alen, let us begin with the most recent project.

You are currently composing music for the animated short film Sakupljač (The Collector) by Danijel Žeželj. You have already collaborated with Žeželj as the author of music for his short film Motivi (Themes) in 2019, but also in other projects as composer and performer. Your collaboration began with Žeželj’s cover art for the album Morning Cluster by the band East Rodeo in 2011, and soon continued in different and diverse ways. Here we should definitely mention the series of joint performances in which you brought together Žeželj’s live painting and your and Nenad’s music – a live performance based on your music improvisation practice.

In the recent project 4, which just took place at Kranjčar Gallery, in three of the four live music and painting performances you were joined by a colleague of yours – composer and musician Alfonso Santimone, who is also a member of the former East Rodeo.

The performances consisted of Žeželj’s live painting in front of an audience – that which was physically present in the gallery space, as well as the one that was watching it over the Internet – for which Danijel prepared quite incisively and meticulously. At the same time, you as musicians only had defined duration and a general idea as to what Danijel would do, but you did not discuss much among yourselves the music elements you would be using, the mutual relations, as well as the specific characteristics of style. You set off the performance with full mutual confidence, sans a predefined idea of the music direction in which Danijel would lead you with his painting, and in which you would also lead yourselves.

The success of such approach is possible exactly because of your years-long dedication, engagement and understanding of improvised and free music. The result or, more precisely, results of this were four performances, musically different in many ways, albeit exceptionally coherent and compatible – not only with one another, but primarily with Danijel’s aesthetics, his work and the very act of public painting, thus complementing it and adding to it a performative component.

  • Compared to the collaborative projects to-date, the already-mentioned joint music and painting performances, but also compared to the experience of working on Themes, can you say something more about the current project The Collector – what kind of film this is, but also about your composing approach and work on said film. Are you doing the entire soundtrack, or ‘merely’ the background music?  To which extent do visual presentation and the director themselves define music in terms of style? Colloquially put, how much leeway do you have? Also, knowing your and Danijel’s work, I assume that this will be a more experimental music expression rooted in your music, i.e., composing poetics, and which is in many ways also compatible with Danijel’s narrative and visual expression…

The Collector is a story of a guy who regularly collects, i.e., records the city’s sounds, and subsequently manipulates them in the studio accompanied by a drumming groove. The intensity of these sounds and the manipulation grow until he has a breakdown. The Collector then finds equilibrium in nature, when the sound image changes completely. In this film, there is a clear dramaturgy of sound. The sound design, authored by Ivan Zelić, builds a realistic sound image and the Collector’s movement through the city. The soundtrack, as the moment of atmosphere, does not begin until the film’s last quarter, while the Collector’s moments of experimenting at the studio directly relate to that which he is doing, i.e., the exterior sounds are effected and organised into a rhythmic sequence.

The work on the film Themes had practically been done before I saw the film itself. Specifically, Danijel liked my live from the Ispod Bine Festival in Split, which was luckily recorded by Hrvoje Pelicarić, and he decided to use this recording in the film. It happens sometimes that you are working and you do not know where this work might end up, and this is why it is good and useful to constantly record the moments of personal creation. To me, maintaining the process is maintaining life in general in a way. I go to the studio every day because I simply have the need to be in touch with my instruments, even if it is for half an hour. I believe that exactly this is the point that connects us in a way, and makes us compatible in the synergy of creating a film or a live painting performance. A moment of dedication, and nothing else.

The extent of our leeway in this process is relative; a river is also free, and yet it flows in its own bed.

Alongside the fact that you are an exceptionally active author of film and theatre music, you are equally active as a performing musician and author of your own, so-called absolute music. Let us consider for a moment this general division of music into absolute and applied, but from your own composer’s perspective. You have a respectable music and composing oeuvre behind you, equally in both fields.

  • I am interested in your perspective – figuratively speaking, do you also view them separately, and to what extent? To what extent is your starting point different? It is certainly different to compose music that is supposed to be a standalone artwork and that which is supposed to be part of a larger artistic whole, i.e., which is supposed to coexist with other segments and constitutive elements of a particular work. However, it seems to me and I believe that, when it comes to your approach and activity, in both instances there is nevertheless a common starting point, a common guiding thread, i.e., something I would term the concept of music in general – that which follows from your manner of listening and your concept of music art in general. When music is applied, it has other, i.e., additional functions and roles in correlation with visual, literary, or stage elements with which it subsequently, as a whole, jointly communicates (or not) with the recipient, i.e., the audience. In which manner does this fundamental difference manifest itself in your composing process?

As a performer, I enjoy sharing my music and sound with others. These are mostly improvisational forms of performance. Even for the Biennale (Music Biennale Zagreb, A/N), Nenad and I prepared a composition that we played with Black Page Orchestra in open form, with undefined duration and only few written sequences. We decided that because we may even not know any different than to play a piece together with BPO, thus merging different experiences of the interrelationship into a unit of collectiveness that is new to all of us, but also to the audience.

As regards applied music, it certainly also ensues from an impulse, but there are no mistakes in it. It is always the same. It is recorded and placed under an image or a theatre stage. That which may be common to both instances of music activity is the process in which you explore various tools and possibilities of sound organisation. In the case of Nenad and I, this process has led us to a relatively recognisable typology of sound that vibrates in a cinema, a theatre, or a concert space – wherever. That which we have realised is that you cannot think only of music when producing a film or a play. The goal is achieved if the unit functions. I see film and theatre as worlds in a nutshell, in which relationships are respected in terms of joint creation and freedom within a particular concept.

I can say that I know relatively well your and Nenad’s music and composing work, and I must say that I can also definitely recognise your music idiom and style in your respective oeuvres that are less autonomous in a sense. That which is fascinating is the fact that your expression, albeit recognisable, does not become intrusive. This is music fibre, music material that has its authorial autonomy and, simultaneously, also adaptability, i.e., compatibility with the presentation it accompanies.

With your work, you manage to enable music to contribute to the overall film (or theatre) presentation in the very manner(s) in which other elements cannot. And I think this is largely the reason why you are so successful at composing applied music. You have an exceptionally keen sense of balance, and it is as if you quite naturally find this thin line at which your music becomes authorial without overtaking the entire presentation. Composers’ freedom when working on film music is conditioned by an array of diverse factors. On the one hand, we have the prosaic, i.e., outer-artistic factors – for example, the productional and financial (in)abilities, i.e., prescriptions, then we have time frameworks and deadlines, and there are also artistic reasons – the film presentation itself, narrative, and poetics.

However, a significant factor is also the directorial approach to music and directorial confidence. It seems to me that it is exactly this aspect that influenced in good measure the (un)development of film music in Croatian cinematography following the dissolution of the Yugoslav one.

  • If we take a closer look at Croatian cinematography of the 1990s and 2000s, save for Pavao Miholjević and Jura Ferina in the 2000s, who are the only ones with a more extensive filmography, we cannot say that we have had film music composers in the true sense of the word. Here I primarily speak of feature film. The artists who authored music were mostly authors of a single film score. Naturally, there are also different individual reasons for this, but the fact remains that it was not until the Matanić-Sinkauzes symbiosis that significant change took place in the concept and work on film music, in the approach to film music, and even to its very authors. It seems it was then that it gained not only more significance, but also the possibilities, i.e., space opened up for a more significant contribution to film presentation. The artistic freedom and confidence you were given opened up an entirely new chapter…

Dalibor Matanić was at a concert of ours in Ribnjak Park, and was just planning to shoot Zvizdan (The High Sun). At this concert, he felt that a slightly deviated approach to techno and electronic music in general would be fitting for the party scene in the film’s third segment. This says more about him and his impeccable taste for the image or story he envisions for his film. I remember him listening to Tim Hecker and Ben Frost at the time.

We agreed on many levels, the most important of which being love towards music. Later, when we were working on Zora (Dawn, the second part of Trilogija sunca / Trilogy of the Sun), we talked about luminaries such as Xenakis and Ligeti. In this case, an idea emerged for us to work with a contemporary music ensemble. We decided to collaborate with the S/UMAS Ensemble of the Music Department at the Arts Academy in Split, thanks to composer and professor Gordan Tudor, who ‘pushes’ his students into outer-academic music experiences. In the two days of the Split residency, we recorded materials that we eventually audio manipulated at the studio; they became part of the film’s soundtrack. At some point, while we were working in the studio, I thought that Dado (Matanić, A/N) would move in with us. He followed and commented on our every move, while the studio resembled a Russian laboratory from a 1960s sci-fi film.

  • Feature vs. animated film

Animated film should be brought to life with sound from the very beginning. When a preview of an animated film reaches a studio, it is completely mute. On a number of occasions, we did both sound design and the soundtrack. As is also the case with feature film, the concept of sound must be clear. As far as we are concerned, there are no strict rules – sometimes sound design leads us to a soundtrack, and sometimes it is the other way around. Occasionally, an unbreakable bond is established between sound design and the soundtrack, as in the case of films such as Colonello Futurista by Vladislav Knežević, or Mačka je uvijek ženska (A Cat Is Always Female) by Martina Meštrović and Tanja Vujasinović. In the latter case, you deliberate sound typology that functions in both directions under a common denominator, whereby the edited sound and sound occurrences become the film’s soundtrack.

As for feature film, our sound is in correlation with various ambiences of space and dialogue that are less abstract than in animated film from the head start. However, this again does not mean that the approach to feature film must necessarily be less experimental. I have mentioned before the process as the most essential segment of artistic creation due to the fact we learn through it, we fixate and expand the music (and other) vocabulary, which we then use depending on situations prompted by various collaborations.

In the case of animated film, the work at the studio is quite different since you start from scratch so to speak, i.e., from complete silence without speech, ambience sounds, and noises recorded on a feature film set. And this is largely a joint process of the animator and (the both of) you.

The animator sometimes has an idea of a sound environment, sound atmosphere, and the quality of sound material which they relate to own narration and animation, and sometimes an additional input from the composer or sound designer is nevertheless needed, already in the phase of deliberation on the very direction of the overall sound image. In this sense, there surely exists certain difference in the deliberation on music, i.e., sound for feature and animated film. The process of work is also different. However, now we have also arrived at experimental film. Most animated films for which you did music and/or sound design are also somewhat experimental…

Experimental vs. animated?

  • Is the experimental character and experimental approach that which connects the poetics of film presentation and the poetics of music? In your opinion, to what extent are experimenting in film and experimenting in music mutually compatible? Does a more experimental film presentation ‘require’ more experimental music, or is it the other way around? When they counterpoint one another… How do we even define experimenting in music today?

To me, an experiment is when you get yourself into a situation where you bore yourself and, if you work every day, that you are compelled to find various ways of articulating possible questions.

Time is one of the key factors. Even if you sometimes have more time, that does not mean that you will do something better or more accurately. However, perhaps we somewhat digress at this point.

What I want to say is that certain films, such as the animated film A Cat Is Always Female, can be composed and played on a kalimba with distortion, delay and reverb, and these elements can cover the film’s entire sound image. There were no other instruments at the flat in Buenos Aires where we were meeting at the time, and we were supposed to deliver sound for the film as soon as possible. When we returned to Zagreb, we realised that these materials hold water, and we simply proceeded to edit them under the image.

In Vladislav Knežević’s film Colonello Futurista, we used many more instruments. Vlado sought to bring to life in a contemporary manner the artistic spirit of futurism. His sound dynamics for the entire film was quite clear. This piece of data was extremely helpful to us since it facilitated comprehension of the film’s dramaturgy. We were listening to Russolo, we even used a sample for the film’s ending, and we also inquired about obtaining one of the Intonarumori instruments. Unfortunately, we failed to do so; luckily, however, we went to DB Indoš and Tanja Vrvilo, and spent an afternoon socialising and making noise. We also used a thing or two from those sessions, as well as something from my and Nenad’s sessions on guitar and bass. Furthermore, at the film’s beginning, we also use documentary recordings and samples from the battlefields of the First World War.

These two examples show completely different approaches to film and sound materials; therefore, we could say that each project has its own process of creation, and there are no prescriptions that function at all times. What is important, I think, is the intuition and decision on implementing an idea, but also the willingness to reject it and to find a third path.