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The Lady Knows the Score

Sharon Farber ... recently visited her family in Bat Yam

 You know it has happened to you, perhaps hundreds of times. You're sitting in a theater enjoying a movie or at home watching a drama on TV, when you suddenly become aware that the direction of the story is about to change. You sense a slight shift in the plot or a slow alteration in a character's mood. Amazingly, you sense this even before the character does, with the help of a bit of movie magic. That magic is the music—called the "score"— intricately woven into the movie's soundtrack, playing often below the level of your consciousness, yet subtly working on your emotions throughout the entire course of the film.

Have you ever wondered who exactly writes this music, and how this music is written? As we recently discovered, these film scores are written by composers with a unique understanding that music is a language capable of telling stories and affecting our hearts and minds. One such composer is Israel's own Sharon Farber, award-winning classical composer, musician, orchestra conductor and film scorer.

Born and raised in Bat Yam, Ms. Farber began her musical career as a classical pianist at the tender age of seven. After graduation from the Thelma Yellin High School for the Arts, she served in the IDF and then worked in Israel as a theater music director and composer. With a first prize award for music and dance choreography under her belt, Farber went to the U.S. to study at the renowned Berklee School of Music in Boston, where her first string quartet won first prize in the school's annual competition. Majoring in both classical composition and film scoring, she graduated summa cum laude and went west to Hollywood to begin her professional career. Farber soon made her mark by winning the prestigious Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Internship in Film Scoring, as well as in the mentorship program of the Society of Composers and Lyricists.

We simply do not have enough space here to list her subsequent achievements and awards in her parallel careers of classical composition and film scoring, except to note that she recently won the 2013 Society of Composers and Lyricists Award in Recognition of Outstanding Work in the Art of Music for Film.

During a recent visit to Israel and to her family in Bat Yam, Ms. Farber took a moment from her busy schedule to tell us what she does, how she does it, and where her talent comes from.

Sharon pictured with Holocaust survivor and actor Curt Lowens

 "I come from a very musical family," she explains. "My grandmother and grandfather on my mom's side, who came from Greece and Turkey, were both musicians — not professional musicians. But my grandfather played guitar and my grandmother played mandolin. They gave concerts at family gatherings." Farber recalls fondly that her grandfather also played the spoons — two spoons held back to back and tapped against the knee. "He was a master of that. He was also a dancer, a painter and a composer. He died when I was 12. I loved him dearly. And my uncle, my mother's brother, is Kobi Oshrat. He wrote some of our most beloved songs here in Israel, including Hallelujah. He is a very well-known songwriter, producer and composer, and I'm very close to him."

Farber, 45, has one daughter, now three years old. "She's very musical. Her favorite composer is Strauss, and she is always on pitch whenever she sings." Farber's husband, whom she met at the Berklee School, is also Israeli and a drummer. Thus we can assume that her current family is as musical as the one she grew up in.

So how exactly does one compose a piece of music? "It's really hard to answer," she says. "I think it's partly about the muse. But the muse is not enough. You have to have the tool to deal with the muse. You may have a great musical idea, but that's not enough for a 25 minute piece. You have to know how to take it and develop it and make it grow to tell a story fully. And it's very subjective, but for me music has to tell a story. I feel that music has the power to tell a story and speak to the hearts of people, even though there are so many different kinds of music. There is music that is more abstract, there's music that is more melodic."

While most people understand stories told with words, many people have trouble grasping the concept of storytelling through music. Says Farber, "Either way, there are people who will ask you, 'how do you do that?' Some people cannot put words together into a story. It's the same with music. Of course music is somewhat more abstract, but for me it's something that comes from my heart. When I was younger I was afraid that if I wrote music that was more communicative — more melodic — I would be looked down upon by academia. And then I realized it doesn't matter. First you've got to satisfy yourself, and the minute you have satisfied yourself you're probably going to satisfy others. Some people will like it, some people won't, and some people won't care much one way or the other. So first you have to feel that you're telling your story, the story that you want to tell."

As an example, Farber describes a piece she was commissioned to write in 2007 for the Israeli Chamber Orchestra for the 40th anniversary of the liberation of Jerusalem in 1967. "The images that I had in my mind were of the Jerusalem stones, grounded in history, with history going through them. So through that I constructed the ideas. I had one main melody, but of course that's not enough. So you take the small ideas out of the melody and develop them in a way that leads to the main melody. Every composer works differently. I compose and orchestrate as I go, because I hear it in a vertical and a horizontal way, meaning melodically and harmonically."

Writing music for movies is very much a different kind of exercise, according to Farber. "It's a totally different medium. When I write music for movies or TV, I have to answer to other people. And I have to put my ego aside. I have to remember that I am a tool to be used by the director to bring someone else's vision to life through music. It's like someone is pregnant for years with an idea for a film. And then finally they give birth to this idea, and then someone else like me has to come and dress it up. And it's very, very scary for them. So you have to be very respectful of where the director is coming from. And sometimes you write a piece of music for a film, and you think that this is the best thing you've ever written, and the director comes and says, 'I'm sorry, but this thing is not working for me,' because maybe it's too slow or too fast or too happy or too sad. So you can't be insulted. You have to know that this is part of the collaboration, and then reconstruct the piece to make it work for him or her. That's why I'm saying you have to put your ego aside."

This still begs the question, however, of how exactly one writes music for a movie or TV episode. Farber considers the question a moment, and explains, "There are different ways to proceed. Sometimes you assign a certain melody to a specific character. For example, you know Superman is coming, because the melody for Superman is there. Or the melody for Darth Vader in Star Wars. You hear his special melody. Another way is to have two or three melodies that go throughout the movie. You may have a melody for a huge scene of war or a gigantic landscape, with the melody played loud by a 120 piece orchestra, and then use the same melody in a different way later for a scene where a character sits in a garden, with a lover. This time, perhaps, the melody is slower, with fewer instruments. And where before you were using quarter notes, you're now using half notes. All of this works on the viewer's subconscious in a way that he or she doesn't even realize."

Farber adds that she finds her initial inspiration for a film score in different ways. "Sometimes I'm inspired by the story. Or I might be inspired by the acting, by the visuals, sometimes even just by the color of the film."

Farber's latest major achievement is a concerto she composed in honor of Curt Lowens, a 90-year-old Hollywood film and TV actor who escaped Nazi Germany with his family on the night of Kristallnacht, a day before his barmitzvah. Arriving in the Netherlands, Lowens joined a Dutch resistance group that saved the lives of more than 150 Jewish children. He also aided and saved two downed American bomber pilots, for which he later received a commendation from General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Lowens joined the British Eighth Army Corps at the end of the war as an interpreter, assisting in the interrogation of captured German officers and officials.

As she describes the creative process of writing the concerto, Farber recalls, "I went to Curt, and I sat with him — especially for the fourth movement — and he told me how, at the end of the war, the Germans occupied this huge castle in Holland. When the British army came and they discovered he could speak English, they asked him to be their translator. They put him in a British army uniform and they went to the castle. He was young, around 17, and he had to stand in front of a high-ranking German general. There were three men, two British officers and Curt. He had to look him in the eye and say, 'The war is over, and you lost.' He said that he was very scared. And that's why I wrote in the narration, 'This uniform makes me feel alive. But underneath I'm still the Jewish boy with teary eyes.' Because that's what he felt. It was a huge thing for him, a triumph, but at what price? He told me how he went to the camps and he saw the people who were left alive come out of those places.

"So the last movement starts with people coming from the camps. The melody as it starts is simple and very moving. It's only a cello, with accompanying strings, in a very restricted melody. It expresses his emotions at what he was seeing. Then the melody is played with the whole orchestra, ending on a very positive note. And the reason for this is something he said that I find fascinating. He said, 'I am grateful for these two pilots that I saved.' I said, 'Why should you be grateful? You saved their lives." He replied, 'I know, but I'm grateful for having had those lives to save.' He is grateful for the opportunity to save the lives of others. Yes, he is a Holocaust survivor, but he has a positive story. So the concerto ends on a positive note."

Why did she write this concerto even though she says she was exhausted after scoring three movies in a row? "I felt that I had both the responsibility to bring this story to life and to bring it to life through music. Holocaust survivors are dying. And there are people today who are even denying the Holocaust. And others just don't want to deal with stories about the Holocaust. So for them to sit though a piece of music that will make people commit emotionally to these stories is a privilege."

Asked if she thinks there is a future for concert music played by live symphony orchestras, Farber replies, "I believe so. I hope so. I think a lot of people still love it. I think that film music has a role in reviving concert music. Because a lot of film music is so wonderful. Even video game music has a role. It's something you record with a huge orchestra. All over the world now film music and video game music is being made into major symphonic music. A lot of symphonic music is still being written today. Some of it is harder for audiences to listen to, and some of it is easier. But there's a space for everything, for every kind of music."

Finally, we ask her whether there might be a chance of her moving back to Israel and living here again full time. Farber replies, "I come here to Israel twice a year for a month each time. I miss living here though. I love Israel. I'm hoping to come here more. I have a big family here. My husband's family is here. But for me right now, with my film scoring career, I have to be in Los Angeles. Thank God there's Skype."



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Thursday, 25 July 2024

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