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INTERVIEW WITH JOHAN SÖDERQVIST

PAINTING A SCORE WITH MUSICAL STROKES - Five years after A Real Vermeer by Rudolf van den Berg Hollywood comes with its own version of the story of painter Han van Meegeren. In The Last Vermeer by debuting director Dan Friedkin the flamboyant artist is shown as a tragic figure who after turning the tables on the art experts and the art establishment in the 1930s faces the death penalty after the Second World War. The score of this dramatic film was written by Johan Söderqvist. The Swedish film composer discussed his music with Score and stressed among others the function of some of the instruments he used.

Since 1991 Johan Söderqvist (1966) has composed the music for more than eighty films, tv-series, and documentaries. He gained special praise for the nine films he did with Danish director Susanne Bier like Brødre (Brothers) (2004), Efter brylluppet (After the Wedding) (2006), and Oscar winner Hævnen (In a Better World) (2010). Other films with his music that were shown in the Netherlands were Låt den rätte komma in (Let the Right One In) (2008), deUsynlige (Troubled Water) (2009), Effi Briest (2009), Kongen av Bastøy (King of Devil’s Island) (2010), Kon-Tiki (2012), Skjelvet (The Quake) (2018), and especially the long-running series Bron (The Bridge) (2011-2018). Söderqvist has worked all over Scandinavia and in Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States and other countries. Recently he ventured into the world of video games with several episodes of the popular game Battlefield. He has won numerous awards for his scores and was nominated twice for The European Film Awards (for Brødre and Låt den rätte komma in).

                                                            Guy Pearce as Han van Meegeren in The Last Vermeer. 

The Last Vermeer is an American production filmed at various locations in our country. Guy Pearce stars as Han van Meegeren who forged paintings by Johannes Vermeer and other 17th-century artists and tricked Nazi bigwig Hermann Göring with one of his fake Vermeer paintings. After the Second World War he was arrested and put on trial for conspiracy with the enemy. Claes Bang co-stars as Joseph Piller who supports Van Meegeren after his arrest and Vicky Krieps plays Piller’s assistant. The paintings made by Van Meegeren figure prominently in the film. Did the paintings of Van Meegeren and Vermeer have any influence on your composition? Söderqvist: ‛The cinematographer was very inspired by the colours in the paintings, he shot the film as if it were a Vermeer painting. And so I got influenced by these colours. The film starts in the town of Amsterdam, and it has this brownish, grey hazy feeling that is reflected in the music definitely.’ Another key element of the score is one of the painting tools of the controversial painter: ‛We were thinking a lot about strokes with a brush, so my son, who is a percussion player, started to record a lot of brushes on marimba, vibraphone, and on drums. But after a while it felt more right to think of the string bow as a brush, in the end doing these swift movements with a bow on a violin and so we changed direction.’ These musical strokes can be heard in the main theme at the start of the film where the strokes on the strings forebodes the finding of the paintings that where hidden by the Nazis at the end of the war …..

Both the filming and the scoring process of The Last Vermeer took place before the current pandemic. First time American director Dan Friedkin discussed the music with the composer via Skype: ‛A couple of times in a week we would sit down and discuss the music and the sketches and it worked really well. Later on he came for the recording at Abbey Road in London and then after the mix of the film we spent a couple of days together, so it was a joyful process to work with him and Ryan Friedkin who was the producer. We worked as a trio a lot.’ Did director Friedkin have a good sense of music? ‛Yes, both him and Ryan, there was a back and forth discussion what could work in the film, and I got really good feedback, so I knew what I should do. I worked from many sketches and a lot of music and we narrowed it down to the film’s music. That’s the way I like to work: to come from a broad canvas of songs and music and try to make it better and better. And in the end hopefully it’s very clear and nice. All in all it was a very positive process.’

Energy

After starting to develop the score Söderqvist became aware of the investigative character of the film circling around some dubious paintings: ‛You have to have momentum and pace, otherwise it could get a bit boring. Also it has a mystery, and then in the background you have postwar Europe, so you have different layers and on top of that Joseph Piller, one of the main characters, has a problematic family life because of the war. But I thought it was also really cool to write to the main character, Van Meegeren, who has a lot of energy in the film. The main theme is based on this energy, he has this kind of artistic spirit. On the first pictures I saw of him, you see him painting in his solitude and then you really see that he is in his creative mood. The film is about creativity, by force or is it by nature? And that’s something I can relate to: if you write a piece that would sound similar to Bach, then what is true and what is false.’

                                                         Claes Bang and Vicky Krieps in The Last Vermeer. 

The Last Vermeer can be described as a thriller, a melodrama, a whodunit or even an historical film. Söderqvist never restricts himself to one or two specific genres. ‛As always a film goes through different phases. You would maybe start this project as a melodrama adding music to it and then you feel: this piece is a bit slow, we need to get some pace. Then you can build the story with whatever material you have. In the end it feels very natural and very clear, but while you’re doing it, you don’t really know where your goal is. And that’s the charm that goes with the film process. If you know exactly where you’re going it gets really boring. Ultimately it’s a long emotional journey. If you limit yourself to writing thriller music, then you don’t reflect on what you see.’

Just like the energy that Han van Meegeren projects, there are some uptempo pieces that heighten the tension in the proceedings. On the other hand, there is subdued, slow music for a touching moment that happens halfway through the film, when Joseph Piller’s wife and son leave him. ‛It’s a low point in his life. He forsakens his family which is not unheard of as I sit in the studio all the time. It’s this thing that you always want to do your work so good, so that at many times you would sacrifice the most important things. At that point you can see that he really understands that he is forsaking the only thing that he really cares about. And then in the end of course he goes back to his family realizing that they are the most important thing, despite all these big things like the paintings and all the people that say that they need him so much. It’s always hard to talk about why you compose in a certain way because as soon as you know why it’s kind of weird. You have to reflect on the picture and feel intuitively how it should be, so it’s really hard to describe how it works. I think it has something to do with the fact that he’s vulnerable and he’s alone. His wife and son go away in the carriage and then he’s just dead alone and that’s what the music tells. It’s about solitude and a feeling that he’s kind of lost. He made the wrong choice; of course you should be with your family.’

The studio of Johan Söderqvist (pictured on the left playing the Bass Waterphone) is filled with lots of instruments, many of them rather unusual or even exotic. ‛I’m like an instruments-aholic, I have probably hundreds of instruments.’ Take for instance the so called Cristal Baschet, invented by the French brothers Baschet in the 1950s. ‛They made it as an art object, and in a museum in Barcelona you can see it as such. But it is an instrument, somewhere between art and instrument. It looks like a spaceship or a big glass instrument. If you want to play it, you wet your fingers first and then you can touch about seventy-three glass rods. You play it as a glass organ.’ During the recording of the score Jesper, the composer’s son, played the instrument which produces otherworldly sound waves. Why did you choose this instrument? ‛When you say I’m close to Vermeer, in one respect I’m super close, because I’m always looking for colour palettes, not just for this film, but for all films. I’m always trying to find a sound palette that will tell the story. It could be a piano or strings, but it could also be these strange instruments that I tend to work with. The Cristal Baschet can be heard when Piller goes to Rotterdam by train and he sees that everything is destroyed. Then you get this uncomfortable feeling: he’s going to look at a beautiful piece of art, but the surrounding world is totally destructed.’

Celesta

Another instrument that can be heard prominently in the score of The Last Vermeer is the celesta. ‛It’s a wonderful instrument, because it has this kind of dreamy, fairy tale sound. But it’s still a piano technique-wise, and I would love to own one in the future. Also when you combine it with an orchestra it has the brightness to be played very simple but still stand out. And you can have it very far away in the mix.’ Equally impressive is the cello which is connected to a painting by Van Meegeren. ‛On the other hand, in the scenes where the cello plays, it’s very tightly connected to the painting Jesus and the Adulteress. Because of the colour, the brownish and this old blue, it has this very earthy feeling and I feel that the painting is also very earthy so the instrument is connected to it.’ The piano can also be heard frequently, already right at the start of the film in the main theme. ‛This theme came as one of the first themes after I had read the script and I understood that it was a film about creativity and this kind of fever when there is something that you absolutely need to tell. It has this kind of inner waves, and for me the piano was very natural in this respect. It’s also an interesting theme which actually comes into the film when Van Meegeren tells his back story and he says: I was rejected by the local art world in the 1920s. Then the music tells us a story about artistic dreams that were destroyed.’ Towards the end of the film, we can even see Joseph Piller playing the piano. What composition is he performing here? ‛Body and Soul. That was my father’s favourite song when he lived. It’s an old jazz standard and a great jazz song. I would have loved to have written that one, but that happened probably thirty years before I was born.’

There is music throughout the film at many places. A highlight of the film is the trial during which the forgery of Van Meegeren is finally unmasked. The music here is sparse and rather quiet in the background. ‛He goes to the courtroom from the stairways and then I know that I’m on a very low-key pedal note for a long time. I think it’s good that the trial scenes have no music all the time. I love that it’s quiet and then you can get this strain of music on some places. And it’s really hard to do it right during twenty minutes of trial.’ Söderqvist agrees that sometimes it is better to leave out music altogether. ‛Because if you use it wall to wall, it will make this music weak. Then it’s hard to know when it means something, and that’s the problem.’ However, during the end credits there is a long stretch of music. ‛That is five minutes long. In the United States they would write it fifteen minutes, but in Europe it’s not so often that you write five minutes of orchestral music.’ These five minutes were actually written before he turned to composing the score, Söderqvist observes jokingly: ‛I wrote it when I read the script and it’s very weird to write the end credits long before you write the film!’

                                                                                Guy Pearce in The Last Vermeer

The score of The Last Vermeer was recorded in the Abbey Road Studios in London. Was it your first time in this studio? ‛No, I did Kon-Tiki in Abbey Road and then the big recordings of Battlefield 1 and Battlefield 5 were made there. It’s a wonderful studio to record your music. Basically some of the world’s best musicians work here, which makes it a thrill to go there. We were in the somewhat smaller studio at Abbey Road, the Studio 2, where the Beatles recorded their songs. We worked with an orchestra of fifty-five people maybe, around the maximum.’ One of the musicians involved was cellist Caroline Dale who has played on many soundtracks before. Söderqvist was impressed by her musicianship. ‛It was a solo session and she played it so good. In other places I have to work maybe four or five hours, but here in three takes you will have something that works. It’s on such a high level. The same goes for the piano player who was to play a hard piano part. I said: okay, here are some notes, and then he played flawlessly four and a half minutes. I don’t have any memories from these recordings other than that it went very smoothly. The musicians can understand the music from hearing it once or look at the sheets, and they know where to go. Fantastic musicians, all of them.’

One of the upcoming projects of Söderqvist is Utvandrarna/The Emigrants by Norwegian director Erik Poppe, with whom he already worked on deUsynlige and Kongens nei (2016). Based on the book by Vilhelm Moberg, it was filmed fifty years ago by Jan Troell (the English title then was also The Emigrants), and depicts the story of Swedes who emigrated to the United States in the 19th century. The big budget production is scheduled to open on Christmas day of this year in Sweden. Söderqvist is cautious: ‛Hopefully, the cinemas are open by that time. They have been closed for a long time now, due to the pandemic. I really hope that once people are vaccinated, they can stop this stupid virus.’

Paul Stevelmans