Ava, a sleek new, spy thriller stars Jessica Chastain, John Malkovich, Colin Farrell, Common, Joan Chen, and Geena Davis. The film, a Voltage picture, directed by Tate Taylor, hit VOD this fall. Jessica Chastain plays the title character, a remorseless assassin, who must wrestle with her own demons, and struggle with relationships she has wrecked or abandoned. The film is an ambitious combination of character study and assassin intrigue.
As a kid I immersed myself in orchestral film scores growing up, background that served me well for the last Voltage Picture I scored, The Professor and the Madman. That score’s Romantic chamber orchestra flourishes represent the total polar opposite of the musical needs of this film. Fortunately as a kid growing up in the 1990’s I also adored electronic music maturing in that era. Depeche Mode, Trent Reznor, Nine Inch Nails, and Marilyn Manson had a huge impact on my young brain and popular culture, as did the scores of composers such as Brad Fiedel (Terminator, Terminator 2, True Lies), Éric Serra (La Femme Nikita, The Fifth Element), the Dust Brothers (Fight Club), and Tom Tykwer, Johnny Klimek, and Reinhold Heil (Run Lola Run). I had always wanted to try my hand at a score written in the style pioneered by these artists. So, I was grateful to join Ava’s incredible creative team and be given the chance to compose a searing, predominantly electronic score for a spy thriller.
Orchestral and electronic music differ significantly. With orchestral music, the harmonic and melodic information is vastly more important than the timbre or color. For example, a recording of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is always identifiable regardless of the ensemble, room, microphone, or mixing engineer it passes through before the listener hears it. With electronic music, the opposite is true. The color is vastly more important than the melodic and harmonic content, so a similar beat can be an entirely different piece of music when produced by two different artists. I was eager to dive into a film score with this philosophy!
Initially I worked with my team at Sparks & Shadows to generate custom synth patches and samples. I immersed myself in the sounds, and generated a huge palette of ambient textures, reversed samples, percussive effects, searing basses, and distorted pianos. Amid all that listening, I knew I had the DNA for the score.
LIGHT SPOILERS AHEAD: The film tells the story of an assassin named Ava (Chastain), who works for a mysterious company. As the trauma of her job gets to her, fighting off her own inner demons and alcoholism, she returns to Boston where her strained relationships with her mother (Geena Davis), sister Judy (Jess Weixler) and her ex-lover Michael (Common) make life difficult. The strongest relationship in her life is that with her boss Duke (John Malkovich). Ava must decide who she can trust when another of Duke’s protégés, Simon (Colin Farrell), and a local gangster named Toni (Joan Chen), come after her.
Ava is a character struggling with her duality. Her nearly indestructible and ruthless assassin persona is at odds with her inner self, the vulnerable daughter, sister, and lover who yearns to reconnect. To represent this tension, I composed a theme for Ava that similarly has two distinct elements.
For Ava’s professional side, I composed the Ava Ostinato:
This is a propulsive, sneaky motor that powers through the film, driven by an electric bass and synthesizers. For the bass performance I turned to one of my favorite bassists, Pete Griffin. I wanted to capture a powerful live performance with all the grit and fret noise that can come with it, and Pete delivered.
I loved the way in which the bass line created the feeling of a relentless drive within Ava. The low frequencies stay clear of all the dialog, allowing the theme to add menace to her in a subtle way. This theme is so significant that the film actually opens with the electric bass kicking in over black, playing for a few seconds before any visuals appear on screen.
To represent Ava’s vulnerable emotional core, I composed the Ava Melody:
Ava’s melody is built from layers of upright piano that have been sampled and processed. Musically, this component is nearly the mirror inverse of the ostinato. High where that is low, long where that is short, and brittle in texture where the ostinato is heavy and imposing. Her melody is very simple. With the individual piano keys being played so slowly and hesitantly, they almost sound like a child playing.
Together, these elements form the two halves of the Ava Theme that will guide the audience through her emotional arc across the film.
Look no further than the first 45 seconds of the film to see this theme in effective action. The driving distorted bass and crunchy processed drums tell us she’s a killer on a mission. And yet, over close-ups of her face, the score gives us the simple processed piano notes of her melody, which are almost at odds with the intensity of the propulsion underneath them. This melody tells us there’s something going on in her mind; she’s conflicted about something. Without dialog, the film implies a lot of the important information about Ava using only simple visuals and music. (I worked closely with picture editor Zach Staenberg to craft many moments like this throughout the film.)
In the first scene, Ava poses as the driver of a town car service, going to the airport and picking up a sleazy business man named Peter (memorably played by Ioan Gruffudd). For the next eleven minutes she engages in a teasing, flirtatious dialog with him. While Peter thinks he’s seducing his driver, in fact Ava is seducing him, enticing him to lower his guard. The score operates on this subtextual level, using subtle reverse percussion, ambient effects, and airy synth textures to underscore each little victory as Ava disarms her unknowing prey with her glances. As the scene progresses and Peter begins to understand the gravity of his situation, Ava’s electric bass and heavy synths sneak back into the score, serving as a dark premonition. As the sequence concludes, Ava’s piano melody joins in above the steady building bass line until the film finally bursts into a pulse-pounding main title sequence.
While Ava’s Theme is by far the most significant, there are several other returning colors that thematically resonate with the characters.
Ava’s relationship with Duke (John Malkovich) is at the heart of the film. . I knew I wanted to give their scenes a recurring color that could stand on its own. Since their relationship began as a professional one, I started with the same electric bass that powers her ostinato, but instead wrote emotional and gentle arpeggios. This similarity in instrumentation underscores the idea that Duke has genuine feelings for her, quite apart from their working relationship.
Colin Farrell’s Simon is another imposing force on the film. Inspired by Farrell’s performance, I wanted to craft score for him that would not get in his way. After experimenting with many possible melodic ideas, I finally realized I had to approach Simon’s theme from a purely electronic standpoint. In the end, Simon is underscored with a screaming analog synth, that bends and warps in a cloud of distortion and reverb. Each occurrence of the sound becomes more aggressive, as his character becomes an increasingly dangerous antagonist. I wanted his scenes to feel like a burner on an electric stove that’s been left on, glowing more and more red every time you come back to it. The perfect example of this sound can be found during one of the film’s most intense moments, an unforgettable drone shot lifting away from Simon on a dock
I am excited that audiences around the world can finally hear my first foray into the cinematic spy genre. My score for Ava is available now at Spotify, Apple Music, iTunes, Amazon, and all other major digital retailers, from Sparks & Shadows.
2. Talking to the Target
3. Family and a Package
4. The Riyadh Job
5. Ava and Duke
6. Simon Calls the Shots
7. Fatherly Lies
8. Paying Toni a Visist
9. Michael Learns the Truth
10. Duke and Simon
11. Motherly Pride
12. Tail Spin
13. The Mini Bar
14. Following Simon
15. Who Ava Is
Creating any film score, even a fully electronic one, is a team effort. I am fortunate to work with one of the best teams in the industry. Sparks & Shadows helped develop the distinct electronic colors for this score. In particular, the music for Ava would not have been possible without the efforts of composer Sam Ewing, who contributed additional music and analog synthesis. Mixing engineer Jason LaRocca took our tracks and brought a whole new level of attitude to them. I also would like to thank music editor Michael Baber, Joe Augustine from Sparks & Shadows, Laura Engel, Richard Kraft, and everyone at Kraft Engel Management. Thanks too go to Zach Staenberg for crafting so many wonderful moments for music to shine. Lastly, I would like to thank Nicolas Chartier, Dominic Rustam, everyone at Voltage Pictures, Tate Taylor, and Jessica Chastain, for inviting me to be a part of this amazing team who created this unique film.