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Owen Pallett on Scoring Sex Music (for a Phone)

Owen Pallett was on his way to New Zealand to tour with the Arcade Fire when he found out he’d been nominated for an Academy Award

“I woke up and had gotten 200 Facebook messages and 100 text messages,” the composer for Spike Jonze’s future sex/love story Her says over the phone. “I could have died, and I probably would have gotten fewer messages.”

Unfailingly polite, the Montreal-based Pallett explains that Canadians are bad at accepting compliments and hate winning awards: “As soon as a Canadian wins an award, that’s the second he becomes the most overrated Canadian in the eyes of Canadians.” So, after a perfunctorily celebratory glass of wine, he and the band simply kept calm and carried on with the tour.

Pallett’s having trouble remaining calm in the week leading up to March 2, when he will conduct an orchestra alongside Alexandre Desplat and John Williams at the first-ever Oscars Concert. “I’ve just had butterflies all week, and they won’t go away,” he says. Still, he admits the film-scoring process involves less “personal anguish” than making a record like his lovely, long-gestating fourth LP In Conflict, which arrives May 13 via Domino.

SPIN recently caught up with Pallett to talk about scoring a sex scene between a man and his phone, audience anxiety dreams, and avoiding science-fiction nerdom.

How did this come together? Did Will [Butler] reach out to you?
I knew [Arcade Fire] were working on the film score when I came in to work on Reflektor, for which I was doing the string and orchestral arrangements. Just prior to getting ready to rehearse to go on tour, they wanted to close the book on the film score. They brought me in because I do a lot of the actual film-scoring stuff: pen on paper, writing music for musicians. In that six-week period, we probably did about half of the score. A lot of the material had already been brainstormed and written, but it was about recording the final cues, and certain things were reshaped. The Oscar news came out of nowhere. We had been in album land.

In the behind-the-scenes video you put out, it looks like Jonze was often in the room with you. How involved was he in the composition process?
He was very intensively involved. He would fully eliminate instruments. We’d all be playing and he’d point at a vibraphone and say, “I want none of that.” It was interesting, because the natural inclination of the Arcade Fire and myself was to emphasize the more science-fiction elements of the score, because most of us in the band are all really into science fiction. Not in a go-to-conventions kind of way [laughs], but we all like 2001: A Space Odyssey a lot. As a result, there were a lot of synthetic elements, and kind of burbly bits, and arpeggiated this and that, but Spike wanted the score to emphasize the human element, the emotional element. A lot of our synth choices were getting vetoed, with the exception of a Jupiter 8, a really famous old polyphonic synth made by Roland that’s all over the score.

Which was hardest scene for you to score in Her, and which was your favorite?
My personal favorite was the photograph scene. There are two pieces in the movie where Samantha, the OS, says she’s going to write a piece of music for Theodore, and she creates this piece of piano music. Regine [Chassagne] came up with the first one, but we were stumbling with the second one. Initially, we wanted to have something that was degenerative so it would sound manic, and have this almost pubescent quality, like Samantha was ascending and becoming something greater than she was designed to be. I took the genesis of these ideas and turned it into a much more rhapsodic idea, and tried to perform it in a way that sounded like a computer was improvising it [laughs]. That was the one that meant the most to me, because that’s the one I can fully say was entirely my work.

The most difficult one to score was definitely the sex scene. Like, a single note misplaced and the spell would be lost. I actually had a nightmare about going to see the premiere and the music that we used for the sex scene wasn’t exactly how we intended it and the audience laughed. The joke was that it fades to black for the climax when Theodore and Samantha are, you assume, achieving orgasm, because you don’t want to think about what is actually happening: a guy is masturbating onto his phone [laughs]. So it was really important that the music not allow the audience to think about physically what was going on, and be caught up in the emotional connection between these two people. I’ve gone to see the movie twice, and both times there’s been someone crying next to me, so I’m like, “We did okay.”

I imagine the first time seeing a movie you’ve scored in theaters must be stressful.
No, not really. It’s actually one of the most wonderful feelings to see the finished product. One of the neatest things about being involved in the scoring process is that you’re on the tail end of editing, when just the slightest shift will turn a scene that you didn’t think was meant to be comedic into a really funny scene. That was actually the case with a lot of Her.

What was one of the scenes that was more humorous than you thought it would be?
All of the interactions between Theodore and the guy who was working the front desk at his workplace, like the scene when he’s sitting at the front desk with his girlfriend, and he’s like, “We should all go to Catalina together,” and Theodore pauses and he’s like, “My girlfriend is an OS,” and the guy’s like “Cool!” It’s playing off the trope of that coming out moment, like, “By the way, this person I’ve been seeing… it’s a guy!” and they’re like, “No problem, let’s go.” It has this nice sort of, like, terrible kind of quality to it.