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"Music is my connection to humanity. It is how I express what I perceive, and who I am"

Mahlon Berv is an emerging film composer, based in Los Angeles. He composed the music for Not(e) for a Dreamer, and worked as a scoring assistant on Supergirl and Legends of Tomorrow. His music for Sacrifice, won Best Score (Short) at LAFA in March 2019.

We asked Mahlon to join us for an interview. Here's his story.

What are your inspirations as a composer?

I am inspired by a diversity of musical styles. I discovered a love of Bach after hearing Glenn Gould play his keyboard works. Gould brought out the complex counterpoint in Bach’s music in a way that felt transcendent. Each voice has a purpose and meaning, creating an intricate composition like that of a mathematical equation. I admire Jerry Goldsmith’s risk-taking and creative spirit. In the Planet of the Apes, Goldsmith used instruments such as the ram’s horn to create a unique sound-scape, inviting the audience into this foreign world. Radiohead is also brilliant; a group that challenges its audience with irregular time signatures. I love Mahler, whose music expresses the gamut of human emotion. In John Williams’ music, the common thread between scores as diverse as Memoirs of a Geisha and Superman, is that they each had memorable scores with powerful themes. They also have identifying qualities, such as the soaring melody in E.T., or the propulsive rhythm in Indiana Jones. My favorite score by Williams is Close Encounters, especially its ending scene in which the aliens have a conversation with the protagonist through music!

What is the background and inspiration behind Sacrifice, the award winning short at LAFA for which you composed the music?

Sacrifice is a touching animated short written and directed by Huixin Huang. I met Huixin (Daisy) Huang in London where I was earning a Master’s in Composition for Screen at the Royal College of Music. Daisy was completing her MA in Character Animation at Central St. Martins when the two schools brought us together, and we connected through our shared love of Anime and narrative storytelling. Although we completed an original score at the time; a year after the initial collaboration, I decided to go in a completely different direction. After careful listening I realized that the score was somewhat mickey-mousing, meaning the music was awfully literal. I was inspired by Daisy's animation which is so vivid and beautifully drawn, so I decided to completely re-write the music. The final version we ended up with is for full orchestra and is inspired by the use of Leitmotif in film scoring.

In the story, a gentle young girl is abducted by a tribe who plans to sacrifice her to the Gods, but unexpectedly, the Bull that is meant to take her life decides to save her. He releases her from captivity, and that is when her true journey begins. In the score, the young girl's motive is a lilting, lyrical string figure, accompanied by nervous woodwinds that evoke her innocence and fragility. The bull's theme is of course in the french horns! What I am most proud of in this score is how the themes develop. Every frame of the film includes some version of either the Bull's theme, or the young girls theme. After the Bull sacrifices himself to save the forest, the young girl transforms into a new bull, and during this transformation the two themes combine in florid counterpoint, almost as if in battle. At the film’s conclusion, one voice resounds triumphant. The orchestration, a collaboration with Gwenaël Mario Grisi, evokes the colors of Ravel, with Spanish inspired trumpet.

You composed an opera with Benjamien Lycke in 2016. What was that experience like?

While meeting Ben at the Royal College of Music, we bonded over Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde and Bernstein’s West Side Story. A few months into our program Ben invited me to a performance of his song cycle at the National Gallery. Shortly after seeing this inspiring performance, I was on the tube and bumped into another fellow composer, Mike Ladouceur. He was in the process of producing The Infinite Bridge, and it was during my conversation with Mike that I realized; the RCM was a conservatoire with incredible performers. What better way to learn from them and compose an opera, than by writing for orchestra like Mike had done with Infinite Bridge. In the creation of the opera, PUCK, Ben and I collaborated with diverse creative artists, including Laura Attridge, Mien Bogaert, Talitha de Decker, Eva Wagner and Irina Jibert.

What is the story of PUCK opera?

Inspired by Leonard Bernstein’s use of Romeo and Juliet as a basis for West Side Story, we chose to re-imagine Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. In the opera, new technologies become the framework through which to rethink essential notions such as free will, imagination, love and youth in the context of one of the most hectic cities of the world. Hermia, Helena, Lysander and Demetrius are studying in London, each living in an area of ​​the city that characterizes them. Lysander and Hermia are in a relationship, Demetrius who first loved Helena, now favors Hermia, whose father encouraged this union. Helena is still besotted with Demetrius who refuses her favor with scorn. The trendy couple Oberon and Titania work in a world surrounded by technology. They are the creators of a mobile dating app, PUCK, that matches people to create couples. After an acrimonious fight about the app's ownership, Oberon inflicts revenge on Titania by reprogramming PUCK so that Titania falls in love with anything and anyone she comes across. Later on, at the tube station, Oberon witnesses the four young lovers arguing about their unfulfilled feelings. Using his power to match and mismatch couples, Oberon decides to use PUCK to reshape their destiny.

Together with Ying Sun, you wrote the music to Not(e) for a Dreamer. What is the film about and how does the music contribute to the story?

Not(e) for a Dreamer is a film by the Italian director Enrico Poli. It follows the journey of Anaïs, a woman who represents the transformation of youth into adulthood. The film is structured around the seasons, each representing a time in one’s life; spring for the nonchalance of youth; summer ripe with opportunity yet tinged with a darkness as autumn approaches; autumn and winter encompassing the transition into adulthood as we are nostalgic for the past. The music touches upon the idea of playtime and adolescence through the lightness and beauty of the violin. Yet it also has a bittersweet undertone, as youth is fleeting. The Baroque style is unyielding while simultaneously lyrical; through the use of a solo violin and string orchestra, the music reflects Anaïs’ complex emotions, the film’s pure colours, and a need to bring new life to the past.

Why did you choose composition as a profession?

Although I began piano lessons when I was seven, it wasn't until I was fourteen that I suddenly felt an urge to write music. This was before I knew how to notate music, and so in my desperation to save these ideas, I sang them into a tape recorder. Once I developed the skills to actually write this music down, I signed up with a composition teacher and have been composing ever since.

How does one develop the craft of composition?

Study the music of great composers. Learn from them and see how they write from the smallest detail to the larger structure. I admire Bach for his sheer pragmatism and undying spirituality, Beethoven for his humanism and his rebellious breaking with conventional wisdom, Prokofiev for his florid and vibrant orchestration, Bartok for his embrace of the dark side of human nature, and Rachmaninoff for his mastery of piano composition. I think composers are a mixture of what came before them and what they have to say that is new. A well-known example of learning from our forefathers, is the strict tutelage of young Wolfgang Mozart by his father, Leopold Mozart, who was also a composer. Leopold instilled in Mozart the traditions of the 18th century, the symphonic and operatic forms that were to become such an integral part of Mozart's style. The art of composition is a living tradition, and we should remember those who have established this art in all its grandeur and beauty.

What are your thoughts on collaboration?

Many times have I finished a piece, only to discover in rehearsal with musicians that the piece was not nearly complete. Tampering with the score during rehearsal can be very fruitful, and it is a great part of the creative process. Once, at a composition rehearsal, the bassoonist helped me realize that I had written some awkwardly high notes for the instrument. By transposing those notes down an octave, I was able to achieve the sound that I truly intended.

You studied philosophy at Indiana University, with David Charles McCarty and Paul Vincent Spade. What are your thoughts on the purpose of diverse subjects, such as philosophy, art, and politics?

Each of us internalizes, synthesizes and understands the world in his/her own way. Though mathematics, science, art, or music are commonly thought of as subjects, they are more accurately described as mediums through which we process information. Each field has a common profound goal; the understanding of ourselves and the universe through the expression of ideas. The collective knowledge that humanity discovers through the ages is the basis for the progress of civilization. Albert Einstein was immortalized and examined years later in an Opera by Philip Glass; an opera that gave artistic expression to Einstein’s scientific pursuits. Thus, the synthesis of complementary methods is as important to the world’s progress as the focus that each individual brings to his/her own field. This kind of synthesis comes to its greatest artistic potential in the medium of motion pictures. While studying the films of Hitchcock and the music of Korngold and Herrmann, I came to the realization that films have been refined as an art form only because of the development of the arts and sciences

Sacrifice - Teaser

What individual has had the greatest impact on your life as a musician?

The pianist Oxana Yablonskaya has had a tremendous impact on me as a musician. One of the most significant lessons I learned from Oxana is how she envisions the sound of the piano. For her, the piano encompasses the entire orchestra, and she would often say; ‘play this passage like the violins, with lyricism and expression’ or ‘play this passage with nobility, like the french horns’. She would suggest playing as if you were singing through the instrument. She saw the piano as an extension of the human voice, and the most beautiful musical experience resulted from connecting with an intuitive vocal expression.

What drives you to write music? What makes you want to compose every day?

When I compose, it is as if I'm capturing my life experiences, and converting them into sound. I use music as a telescope through which I view the universe. Music is my connection to other humans as well; it is how I express what I perceive, and who I am. Music has a tremendous influence on the meaning of a film and how it is interpreted by an audience. It is thrilling to see how music can simultaneously pull on the heart strings, while also conveying a concept or idea. Listen to Dario Marianelli’s score for Atonement. His use of typewriter in the score to portray the character’s essence, is noteworthy.


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