How To Live: In Conversation With Composer Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch

How To Live: In Conversation With Composer Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch

If you don’t know Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch’s name yet, you probably know her credits. Censor, Rocks, Only You, beautiful female-led projects with unique, heartfelt music. She’s now celebrating the finest work of her career to date on Oliver Hermanus’ Living – a swooning 1950s melodrama with the greatest film score of the year. Ella Kemp meets the composer.

When Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch walked into County Hall to decide on the next few months of her life, the walls were plastered in images from 1950s London. The composer was there to meet director Oliver Hermanus to talk about Living, the aching melodrama adapting Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece Ikiru, and she was sold. 

“i need to see a level of passion in the people when they're discussing what they're trying to do,” Levienaise-Farrouch tells me over Zoom from her home in London, where she’s lived for 15 years since leaving France. “With Oliver, I knew before he even spoke that this was the office of someone who is obsessed with storytelling.” 

The composer’s work, a delicate but complex classical score that uses elaborate piano motifs and swooning orchestration, is one of the best of the year. It soundtracks the life of Mr. Williams, played with great vulnerability by Bill Nighy, an ageing pencil pusher who reckons with the fact he doesn’t have much longer to live. “Our mortality is something that we all want to not think about, and he is forced to confront it,” Levienaise-Farrouch says of the character – so beautifully drawn, and fitting for a musician obsessed with bringing people to life. 

Levienaise-Farrouch studied piano as a child and teenager in France before studying commercial music at Westminster in London. “I started being interested in how the recording studio and recording techniques transformed the way we compose music, especially in more alternative pop music like Björk,” she recalls. It was at university that friends on the neighbouring film campus asked Levienaise-Farrouch whether she’d be interested in writing some music for their short films, and it all clicked. 

“I just can't understand why I didn't put two and two together before!” she laughs. “I’ve always loved films, going to see Lars Von Trier films in the cinema on my own when I was 16.” While Levienaise-Farrouch has something of a classical background, which perfectly suits Living, her previous credits exemplify a more eclectic skillset and personality. Before Hermanus, the composer had mainly worked with female directors, receiving her first BIFA nomination in 2019 for her work on Sarah Gavron’s Rocks. “It’s just so happened that a lot of stories were based on a female character, but I just need to feed myself creatively from the love of everyone during the project because it is quite gruelling,” she says of the way she chooses her stories.

And speaking of gruelling – the composer’s back-catalogue of composers includes Prano Bailey-Bond who worked with Levienaise-Farrouch on her debut feature, Censor. That score couldn’t be further away from Living – growling, pulsating synths harking back to the Video Nasty era in 1980s London, an ominous maelstrom of anxiety and sheer terror. It is a singular, confounding piece of work. But Levienaise-Farrouch doesn't think much of the opposing forces. "Living has all this beautiful piano music and I’m a pianist, but Censor has all the electronic sounds and I also love that. I just find ways to express facets of my musical language in each film.”

It does lean in to the composer’s penchant for experimentation – elevating something you think you’ve heard into something wholly original. “I like putting a cello through a reverb pedal or piano through guitar pedals,” she says. “I want to use an acoustic instrument, and then make it slightly more contemporary or taking advantage to all the tools we have now.” She does believe this sense of freedom comes in part from working with first-time feature filmmakers, particularly in the UK. 

“For first films, which is generally where you start as well as a composer, the UK is wonderfully experimental,” she says. “You are encouraged for your first film to do something that's unique and showcase your voice as a filmmaker. And that applies to composers. It would have been difficult to do a Censor score somewhere else…” But then for Living, finding quirks to avoid completely aping either seminal classical musicians or the emblematic music of the 1950s was crucial. 

The idea was to incorporate human voices into the classical score, partly based on a line in the script which described surroundings as “rather like a church”, but to also speak to Mr. Williams’ life and all it had been lacking up to this point. “We wanted to have voices just to have this idea of humans coming together, which is something that Williams kind of fails to do, even though he's working in public service,” Levienaise-Farrouch says. “He's very disconnected from everyone.” From that point on, it was about finding instruments to evoke old-fashion film scores and 1950s jazz bars, while keeping the spirit timeless. “I wrote the main theme for the bass clarinet, and then when looking at orchestration we didn’t want it to feel out of place with the time, but we didn’t want to make a film that looked archival. It just had to stay true.”

The composer listened to Mozart and Bach (“not necessarily to emulate but thinking of the simplicity”) but also sent Hermanus music by Meredith Monk and “other musicians who use vocal experimentation”. And, of course, there was one score she kept thinking of: “Phantom Thread was probably at the back of my mind, because it's such a perfect realisation of a modern school into a period setting.”

In terms of the timeless film music that inspires Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch, she turns to a genre not yet explored in her own work: sci-fi. “I'm a lover of space, from Alien to Interstellar,” she says. “In terms of creating super visual sound, it's completely justifiable because you're dealing with a non human world. The Vangelis score for Blade Runner is still the holy grail.” 

Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch is cautiously optimistic about what comes next, having already finished another project, but she’s also not kidding herself. When I say there are quite a few female composers to be excited about at the moment, she politely says that “it depends on the budget of the films,” and adds: “There’s still a bit of a glass ceiling, I would say.” 

Still, the self-confessed fan of the now Oscar-winning Hildur Guðnadóttir and humanist musician in her own right won’t stop the work. Give her an elegant piano or unnerving synthesiser, and she’s off. 

Living is in UK cinemas now.

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