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Music

Pano Fountas on the Score and Orchestration for the Historical Drama 1805

The short drama 1805 transcends its historical boundaries as it tells a story of two people who risk everything to gain their freedom without realizing the depth of their bonds to a sophisticated system of oppression. The story unfolds on a Virginia plantation. The consequences of the 1804 Haitian revolution reverberate northward to America, causing unsettlement among the ruling elite. The last states of the North have taken their first steps toward abolishing chattel slavery. For Basammer, a slave on Mr. Corey’s Virginia plantation, this sounds close enough to freedom; and it’s a few days’ march away, just across the Mason-Dixon Line. With his secret wife, Marfay, they embark on a dangerous journey that challenges both their love and morality. Pano Fountas and his team, the 7th Floor Composer Group, were chosen among over 100 applicants from all over the U.S, to compose an original score for Dan Jacobson’s new film. Fountas spoke with TNH about his career and about the score and orchestration for 1805.

TNH: Why did you decide to pursue a career in music?

Pano Fountas: I started playing the piano when I was 10. I remember how eager I was to learn pieces fast, to see “what’s next.” Over time, I became increasingly interested in the orchestra, the different instrumental timbres, and how they are combined. After I got my first computer at the age of 14, I got a notation program to start composing. My passion for music was growing as I discovered the expressive capabilities of the piano, as well as the rich orchestral palette of classically inspired soundtracks. Music felt like a second language to the point where improvising on the piano or composing melodies was my natural reaction to emotional stimulation. I used to read novels and make up musical themes for every individual character or improvise pieces about life events.

Meanwhile, my family encouraged me to pursue a more sustainable career. During my first year of Math studies at Athens University, I felt increasingly torn between mathematics and music. Eventually, I decided to drop out of university to pursue a music career. Despite all the disappointments I have experienced since then, I am glad I made that decision. Composing music feels like a natural extension of my personality, and I am blessed that my job and passion are the same.

The orchestra recording the music for the film 1805. Photo: Courtesy of Pano Fountas

TNH: How did you become interested in film music?

PF: What intrigued me the most about film music is that it gives you the freedom to experiment in different genres without limitation. I have various interests and always try to combine elements from different genres to create something of my own. On one hand, I love the post-romantic/20th century symphonic tradition. Composers like Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Ravel, and Bartok are among my musical idols that have shaped my musical taste. At the same time, my Greek musical heritage is an integral part of my identity. Traditional Greek tunes and rhythms were my inspiration for a string orchestra piece that premiered at the Athens Concert Hall in May 2022. I also draw inspiration from jazz, musical theater, and modern production-based music. Through film music, I get to explore and blend all these influences to create something original – this is my greatest joy.

TNH: Tells us more about your studies at New York University (NYU).

PF: I came to the U.S. to attend the screen scoring program at NYU Steinhardt, which is among the top programs in our field. At NYU, I studied and collaborated with some of the best in the industry, and I am fortunate that this experience led to opportunities after graduation. For example, I was hired by orchestrator and NYU professor Greg Pliska as an additional orchestrator for a 2021 autism benefit concert organized by the non-profit Ability Beyond Disabilities. A month later, Greg hired me as a synthestrator for the Off-Broadway show The Alchemist (the play was reviewed by the New York Times). It is a privilege to participate in highly acclaimed productions thanks to the relationships fostered during my time at NYU. One of the highlights of my academic experience is when I received the Alan Menken Scholarship, which helped me make it to the end of my second year at NYU. I was chosen from a competitive pool of NYU graduate students by eight-time Oscar-winning composer Alan Menken himself, who personally reviewed my portfolio. This award was special to me because Alan’s music is part of a tradition that has profoundly influenced my musical taste.

The orchestra recording the music for the film 1805. Photo: Courtesy of Pano Fountas

TNH: Can you describe the process of finding the musical identity of 1805?

PF: The biggest challenge for me was to find specific musical devices that support the dramaturgy of the film. There is an abundance of symbols and visual motifs that we had to support or complement musically. From our initial conversations with director Dan Jacobson, it was clear that we needed two musical themes, the theme of Hope and the theme of Fear. Hope is one of the core ideas of the film. In the beginning, the protagonists’ hope for the success of their endeavor is reinforced by fleeting moments of freedom and joy. By the end of the film, their hope is stained by the corrupting influence of the system they are trying to escape.

I greatly enjoy composing musical motifs/themes to represent characters or ideas of a story. For the Hope theme, I used a minimalist technique to expand a simple harmonic progression by interpolating chords that are increasingly distant from the tonal center. This way, I expressed the ideal of hope and its gradual corruption throughout the film.

Mr. Corey, the vainglorious slave owner, is the embodiment of fear, the relentless master who will stop at nothing to take back his “property”. As one of the other antagonists points out: “It’s not about justice; it’s about property.” For the Fear theme, I drew inspiration from 20th century avant-garde. Harmonically speaking, I used the “blues” scale with chromatic embellishments as a reference to the origins of this musical idiom, work songs and field hollers.

Alan Menken and Pano Fountas. Photo: Courtesy of Pano Fountas

TNH: Can you talk about how you orchestrated and prepared for the recording session?

PF: Modern technology provides the possibility to create realistic demos on the computer, which give filmmakers an accurate idea of what the music will sound like before it is recorded with live players. The transition from the computer to the orchestra requires transcribing the composer’s performance in the form of midi to a score that can be interpreted by instrumentalists. This is the job of an orchestrator in today’s film industry.

To compose the score, my team and I used sample libraries with various orchestral effects, which I then had to transcribe by ear. I spent a lot of time creating the appropriate music notation to achieve the desired sound at the recording. Careful music preparation is key to having a successful recording, especially when the music features a lot of non-traditional techniques. Most importantly, though, you need players who are familiar with extended techniques, otherwise, you might have to spend part of the session explaining to them what to do, which is ineffective and costly. Thankfully, the 22 members of the Budapest String Orchestra were more than up to the task and delivered the desired performance from the first few takes.

TNH: Why a string orchestra?

PF: Our choice to use a string orchestra serves different goals. String instruments possess a range of expressive capabilities unparalleled by any other instrumental group. Given our limited budget, this was a safe choice. In addition, it was a reference to one of my favorite film scores, Psycho by Bernard Herrmann, from which I borrowed the idea of using muted strings for the Fear theme.

A scene from the film 1805. Photo: Courtesy of Pano Fountas

TNH: How did the 7th Floor Composer Group start?

PF: Since September 2020, I have been working with three gifted composers whom I met at NYU. We used to meet in a 7th-floor walk-up apartment in New York City, hence the name “7th Floor Composer Group.” Together, we have composed and produced scores for films, documentaries, video games, and animation. In April 2022, our group was contracted to compose the score for the independent feature film Upon Waking, which is currently in production. I could not have imagined that working as a team would be so efficient and inspiring. Coming from contrasting backgrounds, we are constantly pushing the boundaries of compositional collaboration.

TNH: What keeps you busy at the moment?

PF: I currently do a lot of freelance work. I am a freelance composer for a Brooklyn-based production company called Found Objects and I often get the opportunity to compose demos for their distinguished clients. I enjoy combining traditional composition skills with modern production aesthetics to create music that resonates with a company’s identity and philosophy. I also work with Fight or Flight, a trailer music company based in Los Angeles, with placements in multiple Hollywood blockbusters. One of my tracks will be included in their next album, Tetra, which will be released this July.

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