Name: Sharon Farber
Occupation: Composer
Nationality: Israeli
Current release: Sharon Farber just composed the score to Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power, an "an eye-opening exploration into the problematic history of Hollywood’s filmmaking processes and its overall influence on present day misogynistic culture and female oppression in the industry". The documentary premiered January 2022 at Sundance Film Festival.

If you enjoyed this interview with Sharon Farber and would like to find out more about her work, visit her official homepage. She is also on Instagram, and twitter.

What, to you, are the main functions and goals of soundtracks and film music and how would you rate their importance for the movie as a whole? Should film music remain connected to the picture it was conceived for or should it have an intrinsic value outside of the movies?
This is a very important and significant question.

There’s a saying in the industry - “Music can make or break a film” and there’s a reason for this precept. Film music is an integral part of almost every movie and audience’s experience. It has a tremendous role in achieving the ultimate goal: to convey the director’s vision to the viewer.

The right music can greatly enhance a film while music that does not connect to the idea of the film can greatly reduce its impact and even cause a disconnect with the viewer. Every note, sound, melody, harmony, rhythm and musical decision has a purpose and an immense power that affects the viewer’s subconscious mind and enhances the experience. The right music can make two actors with no chemistry between them fall in love; It can create tension in a scene that has non, etc. Film music creates another significant layer of the movie watching experience.

In addition, many great film scores can easily be transferred into the concert stage and have a significant impact on the listener, even without experiencing the visuals that are originally connected to the music. A proof of that idea lies in the success of many orchestras who present film music to their listeners on a regular basis, as usually film music is very accessible.

But at the end of the day, it’s really a question of the music itself and its ability to sustain the listener’s interest for a significant amount of time. Thus, when presented to orchestra directors and conductors, every film score is explored with that in mind.

Different composers could potentially approach the same scene with strikingly different music. Would you say there can be 'wrong' and 'right' musical decisions for some scenes? In which way can some film music be considered 'definitive'?
Indeed, one scene can be score in many different ways and greatly change the perception, mood and overall concept of the film.

I wouldn’t say there’s a 'wrong' and 'right' musical decision - the director’s decision is the ‘right’ one, usually, as after all it’s the director’s vision that needs to come to life through the composer’s music. However, sometimes directors spend so much time with a picture, that they might not be open to a musical idea that can possibly work better. This is where composers have to “pick their battles” very carefully, and present a different idea with respect, while putting our egos aside, as when you score a movie, it’s not about how good your music is, but how good it works with the rest of the elements of the film.

That said, of course, you always want to be proud of every note you compose, but you always have to work in close collaboration with the director so that the intent of the film is being presented musically.

“Definitive” is an interesting word to describe film music. Sometimes we get so used to a soundtrack that it is impossible to think of the film without its associated music. But again, would the film still be so embedded in our minds without the music that was written for it? Would films such as “Schindler’s List”, “Superman”, “Star Wars'', “Harry Potter” and other great scores by John Williams be so embedded in our minds and hearts without the great music that accompanies and defines them?

I think that’s where the word “definite” has the right definition when it comes to film music: films that we cannot imagine without their soundtracks.
Can you take me through your process of composing a soundtrack on the basis of a movie that's particularly dear to you, please? Where do ideas come from, what do you start with and how do you go about shaping these ideas?
I have scored many films that I loved composing the music for and the process is usually the same, with a few variations. Sometimes I get to read the script ahead of receiving the actual footage, and sometimes I receive the film when it’s in the final stages of editing or locked picture.

Assuming I have a locked picture (or almost locked), I would watch the movie 3-5 times, in order to understand the meaning, characters, and overall cinematic language of the project. The next part is a discussion with the director about his / her / their vision, message and general concept that they want the audience to experience. Usually at this point we’d also have a spotting session, where we discuss where music would be placed in the film, the length of every cue, and the intent of the director for each such scene.
And then I’ll start composing. Usually I’d score the first scene and immediately send it to the director to make sure that we are on the same page. Sometimes it’s perfect and sometimes we need some back and forth until the exact musical ideas are achieved. It’s really all about respect and collaborative efforts on both sides, and sometimes it takes a while to get “there”, as this is an extremely creative process.

From my experience, usually after the first 20 minutes or so are scored to the satisfaction of the director and composer, the rest of the music flows much faster as the basic musical ideas, sounds, motives, orchestration and sometimes sound design are already in place.

A recent score of mine is a feature documentary by Award- Winning director Nina Menkes, entitled “Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power”, that had its premiere at Sundance this year and will have its International premiere at the Berlin Film Festival. The film had a temp track (Temporary music that the director uses to get inspired while editing and direct the composer in the right musical direction) of the great Bernard Herman’s “Vertigo”. The music of Vertigo has a very unique and mysterious sound, and my challenge was to create my own original soundtrack with musical elements that would bring about that vibe of “Old Hollywood”.

I started by examining the orchestra that was used by Herman and figuring out what was in that music that spoke to the director so much. After that, I started with the 2 main musical motives that would be used again and again, in different ways, throughout the movie. After scoring the first scene (4 minutes long) I sent it to Nina, who loved the vibe and mood I created, as she felt that I brought her vision to life; I was able to create the mood she wanted but still have an original sound/ideas that would make the film feels organic and in a specific style.
Another challenge was to compose original music while having more than 190 short film clips from different movies as part of the film. In order to make everything smooth and an integral part of the soundtrack, I made sure that my music would be written in the key of the film clips if I scored a scene that came before that, and the same for smoothly emerging from a clip into my own original music.

When I was done with the scoring process which resulted in 65 minutes of original music, I sent everything to my assistant so she could transfer everything to a notation software. I would then go over every cue, make sure all my articulations, dynamics and musical intentions are there, and then we sent it to the orchestra along with the mockups of the music (the music that I scored and brought to life through Virtual Instruments on my computer).

We booked 3 days of recordings and when all the music was recorded, it was sent to my mixing engineer, Michael Stern. Michael edited the orchestral takes, mixed them all, and when that was ready, I came to his studio so we can work together on making the adjustments and specifications to the music so that it would sound the best it could.
I am extremely happy with the score and even more importantly, the director is thrilled with the results and feels that I have greatly enhanced her movie. When the director is happy, I am happy!
How do you see the relationship between image and sound in a movie? How directly are you working with the images in the writing process?
The images and sounds of any movie have an immense impact on the score. As composers, the images, dialogue, sound effects, camera design, colors, camera pan and motions- everything affects how we write. All the above, along with the director's vision, will determine the scope and sound of the soundtrack.

For example, if we have external footage of a war scene, we might use the full orchestra to convey the tragedy, action and horror that we witness. The way the scene is cut and edited would also determine the tempo of the music, the melodic lines and the orchestration. However, in such a scene, the director / composer might choose to go “against” the action and instead go for a moving or heartbreaking melody, maybe use vocals or a small ensemble.

There are so many ways to score a scene but the visual and sound elements of any movie greatly influence the musical decisions of the composer.
What do improvisation and composition mean to you and what, to you, are their respective merits?
Improvisation for me is the ability to compose on the spot, without looking at any sheet music. That’s something that I have done since being a child and I’m very lucky to be able to do so.

In film music, being able to start a score by “improvising”- meaning “feeling” the scene and writing down the ideas, working with these ideas until a solid idea that we are happy with and feels right, is the basis of what we do. After that initial “muse”, composing becomes a set of skills and inner reaction to the visuals- from choosing the right tone to using the needed orchestration and technical skills to bring the idea to fruition.

However, usually in film music, unless it’s called for, improvisation is usually not possible, as every player of the orchestra has to be provided with the music that will be recorded and there’s no calling or time for improvisation. But there are special projects that do call for improvisation.

A few years ago, I scored a beautiful film called “The Dove Flyer”. The film took place in the middle east (Iraq) and I needed to bring the sound of the region to life. I hired a few Ethnic musicians who are masters of their instruments: ney flute, duduk, oud, kamanche, dumbeck etc. I gave them their parts with the theme and motives of the score, but also, in certain places, asked them to improvise and really bring out the essence of these beautiful instruments, as they know their instruments best. The result was a soundtrack that brought to life the musical and Ethnic influences of Iraq and contributed greatly to the authenticity and heart of the movie.

As composers, we work with wonderful vocalists and instrumentalists and by giving them an opportunity to shine and do what they do best, we enhance our own work.
Soundtrack composer typically need to adapt their ideas to the film, the director and the audience. How do you maintain a balance between, on the one hand, artistic integrity and sticking to your creative convictions and, on the other, being professional? How do you find a sense of freedom within these structures?
I believe that it’s all a matter of mutual respect.

My starting point is always a place of great respect to the director’s vision as making a film is hard work! I convey my intention to do my absolute best for the film, and secure the director’s trust, as when the director trusts me, I can probably argue (gently) if I feel that a certain direction might not be beneficial for the film and will eventually decrease the effectiveness of the score in the film. It’s a very delicate balance. However, if the director insists on his / her / their vision, then my job is to do the best to make it all happen based on that vision and leave my ego aside.

This is one of the reasons I also compose concert music, where I basically have complete freedom to bring my vision to life without restrictions other than possibly the size of the ensemble and the length of the piece. It makes it easier for me as I have another outlet for my creativity.

The balance between visuals, fx and film music is delicate. What, from your point of view, determines whether or not it is a successful one?

A good mixing engineer would create the perfect balance of all the sound elements of a film, and it’s truly a work of art.

For me, a good balance would bring all these elements to light but in a subtle way that is not noticeable. Every aspect of the film, including music and SFX, is an integral and extremely important part of every film. If one element is constantly more present in a movie, it might harm the important equilibrium between all the elements that make movie going an enjoyable and exciting experience.

Over the decades, film music has developed a certain tradition and vocabulary of techniques and creative devices. How would you describe your relationship with this tradition and what roles does it play in your work? Are there compositional devices which you don't find appropriate or wouldn't use right now, because they're too closely associated with a particular era or because they feel like a cliché?
There’s so much to be learned from the great masters that came before us, especially when it comes to the orchestra and the use of different orchestral sections. I rely heavily on traditional orchestration and orchestral colors as there are endless techniques that a composer can use to create exciting sounds, melodies, textures, harmonies and rhythm.

That said, there are musical elements and sounds that simply cannot be created with traditional instruments, and these are available to us today and help us create unique and different soundtracks, which makes the fusion of new and old exciting. Sometimes a score will be created with only “sound design” that doesn’t use any traditional instrument and sometimes we can mix the two. On top of that, today we have access to many different cultures that use particular and uncommon instruments, and it’s always intriguing to learn about and add ethnic colors to a score, if the film calls for that kind of sound.

Cliché is in the eyes (or ears) of the viewer, or the director and one can argue what exactly the word means in music in general and film music in particular. Many film composers bring tradition to their scores, but also bring their own musical influences, culture and upbringing to the table- that’s what makes us all different and that’s an exciting thing. 

We all, composers and listeners alike, have music in our veins as music is a universal language that transcends space, time, intellectual and cultures. When we, composers, bring our own self to our scores, we touch upon the deepest level of human experience and expand the listener’s world, cliché or not cliché.