A man races through the city at night, narrating the events that lead to the present apocalypse and trying to escape the disease he believes is the cause of it all. A disease that, in its current mutation, causes heads to explode.
PRESENCE is an independent science fiction film that is heavily influenced by Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville, Werner Herzog’s Wild Blue Yonder, and the films of David Lynch. It was shot in downtown Los Angeles, CA, mostly at night. It uses music heavily, as well as public domain and stock footage from the U.S. National Archives in Washington, D.C. to tell its story. As of January 2015, it’s available on-demand via Amazon Video.
As a film, PRESENCE is at once visually beautiful (thanks to lyrical direction from Kramer and some seriously daring lenswork by Brandon Trost) yet stark and unsettling, pairing long, elegant shots of downtown Los Angeles with bleak, startling footage of disasters, both real and fictional. When composing for the movie, I knew I had to provide a score that would blend seamlessly with the visual elements of the film to enhance the sense of acute loss and impending dread experienced by the film’s protagonist. The movie is at some moments frightening and horrific yet at others tender and nostalgic, so I worked with Bryan and producer Ash Kramer to emulate those emotional shifts while creating a score that was consistent as a whole.
For inspiration, I looked to electronic music pioneers Louis and Bebe Barron’s score for the 1956 film Forbidden Planet, which blurs the line between music and sound effects. By composing music that was simultaneously repetitive and unpredictable, I hoped to invoke the familiar yet chaotic sounds of claxons, sirens, and alarms.
I used a variety of instruments, including mellotron, Moog and other analog synthesizers and VST emulations (for example, NineCows Cynthia, which emulates the EMS Synthi A), organ drones, vibraphone, heavily delayed drums, and electric guitar, in an attempt to create a score that is like the film itself, both synthetic and organic, both otherworldly and jarringly real.
As I began working the project, I dove deep into kosmische musik (or “krautrock”, if you prefer) research using Julian Cope’s flawed yet essential Krautrocksampler as a textbook and musical bibliography. The PRESENCE score wouldn’t sound like it does if I hadn’t listened very closely to Cluster, Harmonia, and Eno and been inspired to explore that Plank-ian sonic territory of “pretty melodies, dirty sounds”. I was also fairly obsessed with Patrice Sciortino’s Chronoradial, and the analogue synth and drum machine sounds on Portishead’s Third, which was a new release at the time. Other major influences on the score: DJ Shadow, Glenn Branca, Sonic Youth, Erik Satie, Ennio Morricone, and Goblin’s scores for Dario Argento (particularly Suspiria and Deep Red).
I wrote, performed and recorded the score in a closet in Richmond, Virginia, a bedroom in New York City, and on a train traveling between the two. Special thanks to Jessica L. Roberts for arrangement assistance on “Onomatopoeia” and “Drive”, and for general moral support. Thank you to Broken Mirrors/Broken Minds author, giallo expert and film critic extraordinaire Maitland McDonagh for her feedback on my score album, and for passing it on to fellow giallo fan, Paul D. Miller. And last but not least, I must thank KUSF DJ Carl “Ratso” Russo, whose “Groovie Movie Soundtracks” introduced me to so much of the strange and amazing outsider film music that inspired me to take up scoring in the first place.
When Headphonica compiled selections from my score for PRESENCE into a digital album in late 2009, the idea of putting out an independent film’s score as a free, Creative Commons-licensed release was pretty much unheard of (though I swear at some point in 2007 the producers of The Tracey Fragments posted the Broken Social Scene instrumentals from their film on their site temporarily, with a NC-BY-SA license). But I had been involved in the netlabel scene for three years, and — above all — I wanted people to hear this music. I knew partnering with a netlabel with as hefty a reputation as Headphonica (who I connected with thanks to the kindness of Ian Hawgood) guaranteed that they would. Since then, the whole netlabel/Creative Commons scene has exploded (and then maybe even imploded, since the rise of streaming services). Many cues from this score have been re-licensed and appear in more recent films.
“I was in a bad spot. I had been working on my film for a year and a half. I had a deadline, no composer, and a tricky tone to hit musically. What was I going to do? Dave answered my prayers. He was fast and easy to work with and best of all, he took my disparately influenced temp score and interpreted it into a cohesive, innovative, and boldly original score of his own. A score that I am proud to say is one of the best parts of my film. For this I am eternally grateful to Dave and recommend him highly to anyone looking for imaginative and inspired music from a truly remarkable talent.”
Writer/Director of PRESENCE