A Marriage Made in Heaven: Stuart Staples on Tindersticks’ Claire Denis Film Scores

By Jason Anderson

“The most beautiful sound next to silence.” That was the appropriately evocative motto for ECM, the vanguard jazz and new classical label much admired by audiophile aesthetes partial to Ärvo Part cantos and Bang & Olufsen components. Yet this phrase applies equally well to the music that Tindersticks have made for six features directed by Claire Denis over the last 15 years. And that’s true both in terms of a qualitative measurement and as a matter of literal proximity. Always reticent to impose themselves on the images at hand, the British group’s themes prefer to sidle out from a place of quiet and stillness and then recede back into it just as discreetly.

Formed in Nottingham in 1992, Tindersticks enjoys one of cinema’s longest-standing and most fruitful collaborations between a contemporary musical act and a filmmaker. Unlike many equally notable partnerships (e.g., Fellini and Nino Rota, Herzog and Popol Vuh), this relationship is distinguished by its emphasis on understatement. The music for L’intrus (2004)—credited singly to Tindersticks leader Stuart A. Staples but included along with all six scores made by various configurations of the group on a new box set released by Montréal’s Constellation Records—may be the most dramatic example of the band’s judicious, almost militantly spartan approach. No music is heard in either the brief opening titles or the early glimpses of border-station routines or cheerful domesticity. But along with a sudden shift into darkness comes the rise of an ominous synthesizer drone and the metallic clang of the guitar notes that will comprise the closest thing to a recurring motif, an aural signifier of wider themes of dissonance and decay. (One can also make out the faint sound of breathing, as if we’re hearing the dying wheezes of an iron giant, which is one way of describing Michel Subor’s alpha male at the centre of Denis’ stubbornly unstable masterpiece.)

Even in the features that make more prominent use of Tindersticks’ music, there’s a tendency to call attention to the music’s absence or relative unobtrusiveness elsewhere. Beyond the early use of the title song for Trouble Every Day (2001)—sung by Staples in his signature baritone and idiosyncratic method of enunciation—the score is typically spare or applied in unexpected ways. Leave it to Denis to choose to underscore the instantly notorious sequence in which Béatrice Dalle makes a bloody mess of her young lover with gentle swells of strings that seem equally mournful and romantic.

Upon listening to the lovingly packaged set by Constellation, other aspects of Tindersticks’ brand of tonal colour and shadow come into sharper relief. Whereas Tindersticks reworked an array of previously recorded material for Nenette et Boni (1996)—including a French version of “My Sister,” the song that initially sparked the collaboration when Denis asked to use it in her tale of troubled siblings—the choices of instrumentation beyond that point can often be surprising and unconventional without sacrificing the music’s essential demureness. Consider the dainty melodica that adds such a winsome air to 35 rhums (2008) or the high strings and celeste that dominate the palette for 2002’s Vendredi soir (credited to Dickon Hinchliffe, a founding member who left the group in 2005 and went on to create solo scores for such films as 40 Shades of Blue [2005], Cold Souls [2009], and Winter’s Bone [2010]). More brutish is the music for White Material (2009), which is dominated by dense clouds of harmonium, cello, kalimba, and electric guitar—the saxophone of erstwhile Tindersticks collaborator Terry Edwards adds further ballast.

Though the elements or song fragments developed for their scores for Denis would creep into the music on their studio albums (or vice versa), this body of work remained largely independent from Tindersticks’ other performing and recording activities. Indeed, several of the scores were not previously released until being collected for the Constellation set. As Staples explains in an interview during the band’s recent run of Denis-centric performances in the US and Europe, the recent focus on the collaboration came about due to invitations for Tindersticks performances by film festivals in Lisbon and San Francisco. Rather than compose a new score for a silent film—like so many peers, from the Pet Shop Boys’ Battleship Potemkin (1925) to Fucked Up’s thunderous music for West of Zanzibar (1928) at Images in Toronto—the band opted to revisit the music it had already created in the novel context of a live concert performed alongside images and sequences from Denis’ films. Audience response has been warm (see Adam Nayman’s report on the San Francisco Film Festival for Cinema Scope Online), which bodes well for cities slated for performances in the fall. Tindersticks have also begun work on the band’s first studio album since 2010’s very fine Falling Down a Mountain. Future pairings with Denis are, of course, also in the offing.

CINEMA SCOPE: How did you come to develop these concerts for the Claire Denis scores?

STUART STAPLES: One of the big instigators was the San Francisco Film Festival approaching us to do something with them a year and a half ago. We’ve also been talking to Indielisboa for a long time about doing a special event. This became a chance for those to come to fruition. When we were approached by the San Francisco festival, it was to score a silent film, but we felt like that’s been done to death now—it was exciting for a while but I think that seam has been well and truly mined! But putting this show together was difficult to even talk about to people because there wasn’t a reference point for what we’re trying to do. I suppose in terms of musicians and a director having such a long relationship and such a body of work to be able to pick from to make a concert, that’s pretty rare in itself. Now that we’ve been able to do it, people can see it and appreciate it for what it is.

SCOPE: How did you come to determine the contents for the concert? Was it difficult to determine which particular pairings of sounds and images would fit together?

STAPLES: There were automatic choices from different movies so that was kind of easy. Then it was a matter of building a shape around that. This is not a show where a clip starts and we play music and the clip finishes and it goes black again. It has to carry its momentum as moments of pure cinema, moments of just the music and moments when the images and the music come together. And also with that, it’s been very important for the perspective to change during the show. So sometimes the band steps back into darkness and sometimes we step forward into light. It’s shifting all the time in its relationship to what we’re doing.

SCOPE: It strikes me that you and Claire Denis both share a certain reverence for silence and space. Are you always very conscious of the danger of overpowering a certain moment or image rather than letting it stand on its own?

STAPLES: I think it’s about having a feeling for a shape, allowing that to gain momentum, and then letting that fall away. That’s how we move through the different themes in the evening. It was kind of a strange thing when we first got this in front of an audience compared to us playing a usual show. It’s like the power is in the air above our heads. We’re building something by drawing on this relationship between us and Claire, and also the individual pieces of music and the individual montages. We had this joke that if a person walks into the dressing room and mentions the word “ambitious,” that means it wasn’t very good and we didn’t quite get it! But nobody’s used the word on us yet so that’s a good sign.

SCOPE: I’d imagine that having the group performing directly to these images in real time must not be entirely dissimilar to how some of the music was created in the first place.

STAPLES: In some ways that’s true. But I suppose the way we work with Claire can be different. We’ll often have the script first—even before she finishes writing, we have conversations about what she’s interested in and looking for. Then we’ll get some rushes, and then the first rough assembly. It’s great to have all of the knowledge of the script and have this gradual build of bits of information, but it’s not until we get the first rough assembly that we can actually start to really connect with it and try to find a way inside it. In the case of White Material (2009), the last film we made with Claire, I think myself and David [Boulter, another Tindersticks co-founder and its most dexterous multi-instrumentalist] both got the rough assembly at the same time—I was in France and he was in Prague. It made him react in a certain way and made him want to pick up an electric guitar and start playing just the feeling of the movie. For me, it was more about experimenting with sonic collages and importing sounds and chopping them up and putting them together and trying to find something that moved me. When we got together, our two ways of looking at it came together and we found some understanding between us. Then we brought the band in. At that point it’s very similar to what you’re saying about the concert in that the way we made White Material as a band was very much how we play it live. But to get to that point and to create it as a whole group of people, that took quite a lot of getting to.

SCOPE: It seems quite unusual for Claire to involve you so much in the preproduction period and to really invite you into her imaginative space. Often times, musical matters are reserved for the very end of the production process.

STAPLES: I think she’s clever in that way: the more information that she gives out, the more chance we’ve got to be inspired about it. Fundamentally what we do with Claire is create an emotional response to her images. There is a whole kind of craft and a way of doing film composition and there are lots of people out there doing it, but I wouldn’t classify us as part of that nor would I want us to be. That’s a very different thing. This feels like a conversation more than anything. I don’t feel as though we are put in a dark room somewhere to come up with the goods. When we first find the merest hint of something that moves us with a film, that starts off a conversation with Claire. And I think it’s been up to us both to work towards a certain point as the edit is changing and the music is changing and the music is changing the edit and the edit is changing the music. Eventually that gets us to the end point of the film being finished.

SCOPE: Is that early involvement very helpful to have when a film’s tone may be otherwise difficult to determine? I’m thinking of Trouble Every Day, which has a rather more lush and romantic style than it might have had if you’d encountered the finished images right away.

STAPLES: That’s a luxury in being able to talk to Claire even before she wrote the script. The way she talked about the film was so romantic, it sowed the seeds for the score. We arrived at the images with this feeling of romance from the conversations and the script. It was a gift, really.

SCOPE: Do you also feel as if you may be creating a thread or throughline for films that can be challenging to parse? As minimal as it is, the music for L’intrus is an example of that.

STAPLES: With all of the other films we’ve worked on with Claire, I can wrap them up at the end of it and say, “That’s finished,” and put them away in a box. But with L’intrus, I don’t think I’m able to do that. I don’t know if Claire can do that! It still feels like it’s working away in my mind. Maybe it will always be out of reach and maybe that’s something that’s important about it. But it was strange for me to experience L’intrus and not to feel melody from it in any way. It didn’t feel as if it asked for melody and anything I tried that had melody within it felt wrong for the film. The idea that it’s based around is simple, really. It’s just about failing rhythms. What ended up being the guitar motif in it had a faltering rhythm. It did have a beat to it, but when it did beat, it kind of tore and hurt at the same time. It just had this sense of a gradual decay. So that was the little crack of light that I hung onto.

SCOPE: Are you very conscious of the presence of the other songs that she might be including in a particular film? I’m thinking of the role of something like the Commodores’ “Night Shift” in 35 rhums.

STAPLES: The film arrived with two big centerpieces in it with “Night Shift” and also with the song in the taxi [Sophia George’s “Can’t Live Without You”]. I think they were filmed to that music as well. That’s integral for her—it’s all about how she sees it and what it means emotionally to her. There’s always been an element of that, like using “God Only Knows” in Nenette et Boni and “Night Nurse” in White Material. I think it is really important to have music that is happening at that moment within the world of these characters. That’s a very different thing than our music. I think our music is more internal within the images. When you get a pop song or a situation where people are experiencing music, it all breaks out into a different colour.

SCOPE: I won’t ever forget how she used Corona’s “Rhythm of the Night” in Beau travail (1999). I thought that was so extraordinary.

STAPLES: Me, too. People always ask me do I have a favourite film of Claire’s, I always say Beau travail. It’s untainted. I just had a pure cinematic experience with it. I bought a ticket and sat in the cinema and I was blown away by it. I don’t have all of the questions and doubts and things that I do with the others!

SCOPE: Is it inevitable to end up with a more fraught relationship with the other films because of your contributions?

STAPLES: You’re always left with questions not just about the music but the film itself. With White Material, there was a flash-forward cut out that had a piece of music with it—it was always in doubt as to whether the scene would be in there. Eventually when push came to shove, it was edited out of the film and I think that Claire and I have always regretted it. It doesn’t really matter if you enjoyed the film because you always walk away thinking, “I wish that flash-forward was there!”

SCOPE: Given the sort of lingering feelings you might have, what has it felt like to look back on this whole body of work at once?

STAPLES: It’s a powerful thing. We are the same as Claire in that once she finishes a film or we both get to a point where we’ve both finished our work, we walk away. We have to get on with something else. You don’t kind of stop and try to understand what you’ve done, really—you can only feel an end point or a certain satisfaction that you’ve done what you can. I think that putting this box set together with Constellation and exploring the music again for the concerts has forced us both to take stock of just what’s gone on in the last 15 years.

SCOPE: Have you been surprised by anything Claire has said about this relationship?

STAPLES: I don’t think I’m surprised by anything like that but I’m always surprised at Claire’s generosity. She’s always keen to shift the light beam onto somebody else. And it has been a nice thing just to talk about it—we’ve been quite in tune about this period.

SCOPE: Dickon Hinchliffe went on to work with other filmmakers beyond these collaborations but has the group in general had many opportunities to do further soundtrack work?

STAPLES: It’s about a balance of work for us, really. For us to justify leaving our own work that we need to do, it has to be important. Working with Claire has felt important for us. I don’t discount working with other directors at all but I very much wouldn’t want to look at the next year and think, “I’ve got to do three films.” That would be crushing for us. If we found ourselves working for the wrong reasons, it would really upset our balance. I think we’ve always tried to work in a certain way and in our own way we’ve been successful at it, doing what we need to do and hopefully if we do that and do it well there will be some kind of remuneration that allows us to live. I think if we actually started to think more about things that we can do to earn money, it would be the kiss of death.

SCOPE: At the same time, other Tindersticks music has been licensed for films and television shows. I remember being so pleased to hear “Tiny Tears” in The Sopranos (in “All Due Respect” in season one).

STAPLES: I’ve never had so many phone calls in my life! I can’t complain. I can’t say that that’s been a bad use of our music and I can’t say that it hasn’t been a good thing for us, but it’s difficult to care about it, if you know what I mean.

SCOPE: It’s also interesting that so much of the writing about Tindersticks over the years has emphasized its “cinematic” or soundtrack-like qualities. Did film music have a strong influence on the development of the band?

STAPLES: When I first met David, that was the start of the band, though this was years before we became the band. One of the fascinating things to us was that we came to music from different directions. Whereas I was obsessed with songs, he came to music more from instrumental music and film music. Even though I couldn’t write songs very well and David couldn’t play very well or express his ideas very well, those were the seeds of it all. Along the way we gradually found people to make this band and when we did get everybody together, it totally blew away any preconceptions we had. But I do think it started in that way. You started this interview talking about a need for space and I think that fundamentally, that’s the thing I felt. I don’t just mean sonic space but space within ideas. I think if a song or a piece of music is one-dimensional, you hear it and then move on. I think it’s really important for us to have space in every way. It’s not telling you to feel something—it’s up to you to step into it and feel something for yourself.

SCOPE: That seems especially true of your music for Claire.

STAPLES: Often I’ll go to the cinema and find that music is used to really overemphasize emotions to me. It says, “Feel this now,” and you don’t have any choices. When I experience that, I just feel as though the filmmaker must be quite nervous, not trusting his actors or his cinematographer or his script. He’s just trying to pin down every moment to give you absolutely no choices about what to feel all the way through the film. That to me is a dead space.


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