A Thousand Words on Composing the Score to KliKt

The following is what John Barner wrote about completing the score to KliKt.

A Thousand Words on Composing the Score to KliKt
by John Barner

It is a rare thing to sit and write about composing a score. Rarer still is to do so without some recourse either to describing the recording process or the style of the film itself. The latter is, in the case of Klikt, the easier of the two, and can be dispensed with most economically. Klikt is, to me anyway, a film firmly ensconced in a cinematic legacy that has close ties to the earliest exponents of absurdist or Surrealist cinema, such as Dulac and Artaud’s La Coquille et le clergyman (1928) and Buñuel and Dalí’s Un chien andalou (1929), and the more recent “budget” tradition of supernatural thriller and early horror genre films of the 1950’s (the work of Ed Wood easily being the most recognizable—and critically lauded—of these). But to engage in these kind of comparisons is ultimately a limiting exercise, as KliKt also strikes me as having strong stylistic ties to the early films of Morris Engel, juxtaposing its absurdist anachronisms with a quotidian “realism,” i.e., “real time.” Again, any viewer wishing to peg down just where KliKt is coming from stylistically through adding this comparison to an already heady mix may find themselves just as stymied as one who would dismiss it out of hand as simply an absurdist homage or Surrealist-inspired film experiment. My own sense of unease with the all-too-easy labeling of KliKt’s style is precisely what led me to develop a unique recording process in scoring the film, which requires a bit of explanation.

I had seen an early short film version of KliKt prior the score being commissioned, and knew it to be a silent film, albeit a noisy silent film. The diagetic sounds that dominate the film, that act almost as characters-in-themselves, are constantly bombarding the audience, especially the omnipresent sound of a whirring fan, doors slamming and opening, the lazy mechanical din of a contemporary scanner/printer, and, most of all, the sound of the archaic manual typewriter that acts as the protagonist’s companion/adversary throughout the film. In considering recording music for KliKt, I knew that I would, much like the film’s protagonist, have to wrestle with these noisy intrusions, to strike a balance with them in producing a score that built and applied dramatic tension, engaged directly with the action on the screen, and operated equally as foreground and background. This last common duty of non-diagetic music proved especially difficult in composing the score for KliKt. In the full-length version of the film, the act of repetition constantly shifts audience attentions—the tension is always being applied somewhere different in each of the successive “days” of the film, although it would seem as if “nothing is happening” internally to suggest such a narrative advance. Producing music that would have to simultaneously appear not to be moving the action of the film along, but rather “freezing” each moment to allow the viewer to catch what was different this time around required an eschewing of some common elements of recorded music. Melodies, for example, needed to be slight, and rhythms had to capture the repetitiveness of the action, and not run counter to highly repetitive diagetic sound cues (like the typewriter). Screening a rough cut of the film, I immediately instituted three simple (though a little startling, at the time) “rules” that would govern the recording process. The first was that the music would be entirely electronic, with sampling of live instruments. The second was that the samples needed to be rhythmic, rather than melodic. Finally, samples could not be more than ten seconds in length, to ensure that the music would mirror the mechanical nature of the diagetic sounds heard in the film.

I had been experimenting for some time with creating a series of themes using only Nord Lead and (in at least one instance) Fairlight synthesizer tones recorded at variable lengths and layered, one atop the other, either backwards or forwards, and then married to live instrument samples recorded especially for the film (of piano, cello, clarinet, banjo, and, as heard in the trailer for the full length film, the internal sounds of an antique grandfather clock) to provide a rhythmic accompaniment. The result diminished the more characteristic sounds of the synthesizers while retaining the overall tonal quality, making the loops less beholden to the “glitch” inherent in much of contemporary looped electronic music (such as dance music or hip hop). In the final version of KliKt, these themes were further edited into the film by the director, Garrett Tiedemann, shifting their entrance and exit, with each of the successive “days” or perspectival shifts. Again, repetition of key ebbs and flows were crucial to advancement of the narrative. This is in marked difference to a film with a simplistic narrative through-line, wherein the music would begin or end concomitant to a particular moment or “cue” in the action. Given the subtlety of the action in KliKt, and the inherent variance in the presence or absence of such cues from one “day” to the next, the overarching mood to the score was one of lurking, or lying-in-wait. A traditional dénouement common to the thriller is a noisy one, and KliKt here is no exception, so the music is less about emphasizing that the door has been slammed, but, rather, accentuating the length of time spent considering when that
slam will happen.

To conclude, I think it is safe to say that KliKt is a difficult film. It requires considerable attention on the part of the viewer and consistently raises the level of complexity both in terms of what is seen and how one interprets what one sees. From the position of composer, it is my sincere hope that I have not only aided and abetted the stylistic choices on the part of the director and those involved with the film’s production, but also offered, through music, a helping hand to the audience on their journey to understanding.