A Conversation with Hanan Townshend: Music, Malick and Me

   To listen to Awareness, perhaps the most famous composition on the soundtrack to Terrence Malick's To the Wonder, is to be transported. As the music swells and sways, a forest of strings lilting weightlessly with unspeakable grace, the sound captures the listener in a soft, rejuvenating breeze. A quietly joyful and serene texture floats and falls with rhapsodic elegance. The experience is humbling.

   Somewhat remarkably, the composer responsible for this score was not the usual musical A-lister Malick has traditionally employed. Throughout his cinematic career, the maverick director has consistently worked with an array of established and celebrated composers - from Morricone to Zimmer and Desplat, a multitude of world-renowned maestros have been called upon to produce the sounds to accompany Malick's incredible images.

   For To The Wonder, however, the name on the soundtrack may have been less recognisable than on Malick's previous movies. Indeed, for the first time in the director's career, the man hired to create his score was not a multi-award winning composer but, instead, a young musician working as the lead composer on a feature film for the first time.

   I was fortunate enough to be granted an interview with Hanan Townshend, the composer in question, and to discuss with him at length how the situation came about, the working relationship they shared and, furthermore, the creative process a musician undertakes when writing and recording for cinema.

   The collaboration between Townshend and Malick, it transpires, began when the former, a New Zealander studying music in Texas, answered a mysterious advert to work as a music licencee with "a director". The project in question was The Tree of Life and the director, of course, was Malick. It must, I suggest, have been incredibly daunting to meet and work with such a huge name in cinematic history so early in one's career.

   "I'll be completely honest - when I first started working with Terry I knew who he was, I'd seen some of his films [but] I don't think I fully understood how much respect he received from the film-making community" Townshend recalled. "You know, I grew up on a dairy farm in New Zealand - my film history was probably not as good as it could have been. I wasn't studying film scoring specifically - I was more studying twenty first century composition techniques and more, I would say, art music. Maybe that was part of the reason maybe I was a little bit uneducated when it came to great film-makers."

   In a way, Townshend's situation probably helped ease some of the pressure a more experienced musician may have felt. Yet, it didn't take long for the then-student to get up to speed on who exactly he was working for and what this meant: "I went back and watched all his films. I don't think at that point I even knew about some of his early movies - I watched Days of Heaven and I was like 'Oh my goodness! Wow!' That movie to me is one of my favourites of his; there's something about it... it's incredibly visionary."

   Hearing the young New Zealander chirpily discuss a film-maker as legendary and enigmatic as the famously reclusive Mr. Malick is entirely dis-arming; whilst I was uncertain which honorific may present the best way to refer to the auteur during our conversation, it is of note that Townshend consistently deploys the informal use of "Terry" throughout. As so little is known of the mythical director, a film-maker who refuses to give interviews and of whom only a handful of photographs are known to exist, I took the rare opportunity to ask what the man behind the Delphic image may actually be like.

   "He's a lovely man, one of the kindest men I know, and honestly I just think he's shy," Townshend recalls of Malick. "Its kind of a perfect storm for the whole enigma thing to come to fruition, cos it seems like hes trying to hide or he doesn't want to be here or he's purposefully doing it. But, I think he feels more comfortable to be behind the camera and he has no particular desire to be in front of a whole lot of people talking about his films."

   Witnessing film-makers like David Lynch give interviews but often finding themselves frustrated with being asked to "explain" their films, Malick's approach makes great sense. "I find that he's often not as interested in trying to tell people something, he's more interested in asking questions and seeing how people respond to that," Townshend suggests. "Its part of what hes trying to achieve with his films - he's trying to create something [where] people can have their own take on the film and can extract their own thoughts and feelings about what it means. He allows this... large sense of freedom."

   Not long into our conversation it becomes apparent that, despite any superficial differences and the very different stages of their careers the two men find themselves, there's clear ideological synchronicity between the film-maker and the composer which makes them natural bed-fellows.

   When, for example, one thinks of the films of Terrence Malick, one imagines the sprawling crops infested by locusts and the vivid, raging fires of Days of Heaven, or the languid lakes of The New World. Similarly, too, Townshend's music, when listened to without accompanying images, conjures similar sights of epic nature in my mind - I put it to him that the sounds found in landscapes and the wilds appear to influence his work. Growing up in New Zealand has clearly provided a profound influence on his work, something Townshend agrees with and discusses with lucidity:

   "My parents live on the ocean and so I've always felt that the ocean has always been part of my writing style. In a weird way, I'm kinda drawn to sounds that do in some way mimic the natural world. I've even written pieces before where I've really tried to encapsulate something - a certain, particular feeling or emotion that I've had when I've been in a location like, for example, on the edge of a cliff looking out over the ocean where a wind's blowing. I've actually tried to specifically sit down and write pieces of music which remind me what it was like to stand right there. Its definitely part of my writing process and definitely part of my sound as a composer."

   With such synchronicity of thinking, it is no surprise that, after his "interning" on The Tree of Life, Townshend felt confident enough to straight up ask for the lead composer role on Malick's next film To The Wonder - it is not a surprise, equally, that his request was accepted.

   Due to their shared way of thinking, I was eager to find out about the working relationship between the two - how, exactly, did this work? What was the specific collaborative process the pair undertook?

   Townshend explains: "Terry will usually have already started editing the movie and then I come on board a little bit after. Then we just get together and we just talk about the musical worlds that the film has been exploring."

   Here is where the duo depart from the traditional movie scoring process - rather than writing music to accompany pre-existing scenes, Townshend, instead, composes to a certain tone or mood which he and Malick have agreed upon. "Terry is very articulate - he has very specific thoughts about what he's trying to achieve with the music. There's a very back and forth sort of process where I'll send through music and Terry will have notes on it. Its a very fluid back and forth kind of thing."

Soundtrack Recording
Image via: HananTownshend.com

   As my knowledge of Malick as a person is, like most people, entirely lacking, I'm intrigued as to the type of notes he provides and whether they're more technical or abstract, musical or obscure. As with all things Malick, the answer isn't straightforward as Townshend elaborates: "He'll sometimes be very articulate and be like 'I would like this to be in a minor key' or [his notes] might be metaphorical: 'I want a piece of music that represents this thing'. I wrote a piece for To The Wonder called Awareness - it was just this arpeggiating woodwind and strings so we talked about this spiritual awareness and this awareness of something bigger and how you capture that in a piece of music. Often it can be very simple, usually its very simple."

   Oftentimes, too, Malick will approach the musical scores with a similar level of innovation as he does his movies. "I know Terry often likes to experiment with the tritone" explains Townshend. For the non-musical, this represents a musical harmony associated with dissonance and discordance and "used to be called the devil's interval." The musical technique seldom appears in soundtracks for American cinema or, indeed, in mainstream Western music - conversely, it is of course a sound Malick likes to play with. "It's something Terry loves to explore: how can we use the tritone, the devil's interval? Lets find a way we can use it to represent evil or darkness. It's often these very simple ideas we sketch out and see where [they] lead; they're all experiments. Sometimes they work and, I'd say, more than half the time they don't work so we just try things and see what does work you know?"

   Even those who were not aware of Terrence Malick before reading this article must, by now, have cottoned on to the fact that his films, and the methods used to produce them, stray very far from orthodoxy. Malick has, for example, famously cut entire performances from actors out of his films upon completion - Mickey Rourke, Bill Pullman and Billy Bob Thornton are some of the A-listers known to have been fully excised from the auteur's movies.

   Was Townshend ever worried that the same thing would happen to him and that some of his compositions would end up discarded on the cutting room floor too I wondered? The musician, for this part, seems stoic and laid-back about this prospect, fully accepting his role as a cog in a bigger machine.

   "I've had [compositions] edited out before," procrastinates Townshend. "I have to remind myself its just part of it, I've got to be mentally prepared for that. There's no point getting upset about it. Terry must have good reasons to take things out or leave things in. I trust Terry on that - if he takes it out then its the right thing to do."

    It is with similar maturity that Townshend approaches the next question on my list. As an artist, would he find it upsetting for his work to be placed in "the wrong" context to the one he intended? Would this effect how an audience would receive his music or their understanding of him as a musician?

   Unsurprisingly, Townshend is characteristically upbeat and highlights a particularly positive experience of one of his songs, Awareness again, being used in an iPad advertisement. "The director was actually 'Chivo' (a.k.a. multiple-award winning Emmanuel Lubezki), the cinematographer who shoots all Terry's stuff. So I think he really understood the music and what is was trying to achieve. It was in line with how I'd always envisioned the music to be used. It was nice to see it used in a different context where it was used well."


   Undeniably, Townshend's sounds have finely complemented and, indeed, elevated the images they have been used alongside. I was intrigued to hear a composer's perspective to understand the aims which go through a writer's mind when coming up with sounds for films. Using the example of the scores he's created with Malick, Townshend relays his creative process: "I feel like I sit down and I'll just play. I'm thinking simple, simple, simple, simple - how can I use the least amount of notes to create a piece of music?"

   This explains the wall-of-sound, minimalist sonic experiences found in much of the composer's work. "I like using delay designers to create interesting textures," Townshend further clarifies. "I like to build from the ground up. I'm not one of those composers who has a theme; I like to build in textures and then I'll build a harmony and then I might put a melody on top. I find I create a lot of music that is less about melody and more about tone and feel."

   At fear of sounding uneducated, I ask what elements, in Townshend's opinion, make for a good, effective score.

  "Sometimes when it musically catches you off-guard a little bit," Townshend reasons, "it helps to tell the story but it can also transcend, take the film to a different place altogether. A great example of  [this would be] The Knick, the Steven Soderbergh TV show. That's a really interesting use of music. Firstly it's a period show so you would think, your instinctual place to go would be 'okay let's stick with music from the early nineteenth century'...  and, yet, the score is very synth heavy. It brings out a totally different aspect about the story that you wouldn't otherwise get. It's interesting how music can do that; it can take something that is perhaps interesting in its own right but can take it to a completely different place. Of course the music helps to support the narrative but sometimes the music can become its own narrative as well."

   In our conversation, Townshend also champions the work of British composers - particularly their autodidactic approaches - and reserves special praise for Clint Mansell's work with Darren Aronofosky.  "I remember watching the movie The Fountain and being like ' Holy crap!'" Townshend gleefully laughs. "Every time you think it cant get any bigger than this... 'oh no!' It gets bigger! It helped to expand the story itself."

   The Pi director presents himself later in our conversation too - he's the first name off of Townshend's lips when pressed on who he would like to collaborate with in the future. "It would be kind of cool to work with Darren Aronofsky. The way he uses music is really, really interesting. I think that comes out of that relationship between him and Clint Mansell [and] of course it would be fun to work in Hollywood."

   This brings us to the next stages in the New Zealander's career - having established himself as Terrence Malick's go-to composer, the musician is looking to branch out further with his next few scores. "I've got three or four, maybe even five feature film scores which haven't come out yet because the movies haven't been distributed yet. One of them is supposed to be out later this year and its called The Vessel and it stars Martin Sheen." This is a movie he excitedly discusses, naming it as one of his favourite projects he's worked on: "This soundtrack is a 'soundtrack soundtrack'. There's big bolstered strings and a cool, interesting arrangement of pipe organ, strings and soprano."

   From new paths, I wondered where the journey all began for Townshend and if there was one particular soundtrack which set him on his way. Was there one score which made him think: 'I want to do this. I want to be a composer'?

   "One of the soundtracks I really resonated with, and I feel like I shouldn't say this because I'm a New Zealander, but it was actually the Lord of the Rings soundtrack. Just listening to the soundtrack, it felt like I was literally being taken from one place and just put into this world."

   His answer is telling: Howard Shore's bold, vivid, evocative and grandiose score is certainly in keeping with the epic, atmospheric creations Townshend has made his name on. The delivery of his response too - self-aware, understated and quietly humorous - also speak volumes of a generous, engaged and charming man treading where Morricone, Zimmer and Desplat once walked and filling their boots rather comfortably.

Thank you

   I'd like to give a huge thank you to Hanan Townshend for volunteering his time for the interview and for the insights he offered throughout.

   If your appetite has been whetted, Knight of Cups, the latest collaboration between Terrence Malick and Townshend, is released in theatres across the US on March 4. You can find out more about Hanan Townshend and buy his work, too, from his website:  www.hanantownshend.com



  1. Great interview! I've only seen a couple of Terence Malick films but definitely hope to catching up with more!

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  2. What lovely music!

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