Five Questions with Benjamin Wallfisch

The Desert Dancer composer sits down for 5 questions with Varese!

1. Describe your latest soundtrack on Varese.

I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to score Desert Dancer, a very special movie about freedom of expression, and the lengths a young artist living in a repressive regime will go to in order to seek it out. It’s an inspiring true story where strength, courage and passion come together, and where we are reminded that art has the power to elevate us above our struggles, sometimes in a profound way. I’m so grateful to be continuing my collaboration with Bob Townson and all the wonderful team at Varèse Sarabande - their passion for film music knows no bounds.

2. Did the director give you any interesting instructions or feedback to help you create the tonal palate?

Richard and I began our process a while ago - in fact by the time we came to the orchestral sessions, we had been collaborating on the score on an off for the best part of three years! This allowed us to go on a journey full of experimentation and discovery. At the core of the music’s tonal palette is Afshin Ghaffarian - whose life story we depict. He is quietly spoken, with a fire inside him. It was so important to remain true to his spirit and as such we had to find strength in understatement and really earn those big moments.

3. Which scene did you score first and why?

The very first piece of music I wrote for the movie was back in 2011, when Richard and I started developing our ideas. At that stage all he had was a first draft of his script. In fact it would be another couple of years before shooting began. It was my first draft of Afshin’s Theme, and it’s completely different from what ended up in the movie. It was a rhythmic piece for solo Ney (an Iranian flute) full of vigour and physicality. I wrote it before we all travelled to Paris to meet Afshin himself. After spending time with him and seeing the depth to his character, everything changed.

4. What other soundtracks of yours were released on Varese?

This is my second album with Varèse. The first was the soundtrack for Hours, an extraordinary thriller by writer and director Eric Heisserer. The film stars Paul Walker in one of his most powerful and moving performances. The album is dedicated to his memory and all sales proceeds are being donated to his non-profit, Reach Out Worldwide.

5. What kind of ensemble did you use to record the score?  Did you use any interesting or unusual instrumentation or soloists who deserve a shout-out?

Desert Dancer is mainly an orchestral score, with featured cello and piano solos. Maybe that’s surprising for a movie set in Iran, but after much experimentation, Richard and I realised the key thing for the score was that it reflects the universality of Afshin’s story, and as such the music doesn’t focus on the region, rather on the subtext.

Of course, we made an exception to this approach when it came to musically depicting the desert, and for that we were very lucky to work with the great Iranian vocalist Sussan Deyhim. She is the voice of the desert, the place where Afshin found his first true freedom, and I asked her to improvise her vocal performances, visualizing the vast and terrifying beauty of the desert, the strength of the Iranian youth and the tragedy of the repressive regime they live under.

During the recordings I felt like I was being transported there just by listening to her incredibly evocative singing, and the depth of meaning behind every phrase. We were very fortunate to have her on the score.


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