Cosmic Anarchy: Mica Levi On Under The Skin

Composer in conversation…

Mica Levi is a hugely versatile and engaging talent: a graduate of the prestigious Guildhall School, idiosyncratic bandleader of energetic experimentalists Micachu And The Shapes, former Artist In Residence at London’s Southbank and innovative instrumentalist.

Levi recorded and performed the beguiling score for Jonathan Glazer’s mind melting, visually stunning, abstract science-fiction film Under The Skin (review) to much critical acclaim. She spent some time chatting with Clash about collaboration, inspiration and the challenges of working in a new discipline.   

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Under The Skin, trailer

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Was it something of a revelation to write around a brief, and with such a specific purpose?

I’m a novice in this environment, in working to film. Jon directed me to write to follow Scarlett Johansson’s character, and to write away from the picture. He was like, ‘Get into it what’s going on and think about it, but don’t be a slave to the imagery.’ If you try to complete the piece of work so that feels whole, separate to the picture, then add it later, then it’s probably going to be a more sincere, complete process than just trying to get something to fit. But then, as I studied the film more and more, it cut down the musical language of what was needed and it started to define its own style. It started to cut itself away and work out its own themes. It was sort of calculated, but a lot of the time it was just a process of elimination.

Was this collaborative process one you enjoyed? Obviously you’re used to collaborating, in your band, but it’s different working with a director as there are visual aesthetics to consider.

It was a trip, really. I very often collaborate, that’s how I like to work. This was very different because we weren’t talking in precise musical terms. I learnt a lot from Jon about perspectives and work ethic. It was different but mostly just intense, working on the project for an extended period of time. It was such an inexact science. But I know that I loved it. Jon is amazing,

Were you trying specifically to represent the emotion and experience of the film’s main character?

I got used to Jon talking in metaphors, but getting to know the film and what would feel right for it stylistically was the main thing. In terms of the function of the music, it was to be acting in real time, without too much reflection or anticipation, and just try to tune into what it she was likely experiencing. I had to work out what she may be feeling, and how that relates to your own experience.

Had you read the Michael Faber book on which the film is based? There is much more in there about the main character’s burgeoning emotions and her motivations?

I purposely separated it because I was informed that it (the film) was moving quite a way away from the book. I basically tried not to look at anything at all.

The alien-ness that you’re trying to suggest is achieved through harmonics and discordance. I’m guessing very many musicians asked to do similar would exclusively use electronics, yet you’ve used traditional instrumentation, and then manipulated it.

Jon said right at the beginning, really early on, that he thought it would be great if this could be performed [live]. I play viola so that was just a tool that I had to use. It’s quicker if you just decide to record something on the viola or on an instrument acoustically – then the music can have sustainability beyond its specific samples, and it’s a bit more solid.

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Was the decision to manipulate acoustic instruments a reflection on humanity itself?

Yes. Human error. The aesthetic ended up being that there’s a lot of fake strings used, a lot of MIDI and, of course, with synthesised strings you can hold down the buttons and it can play forever, whereas humans have imperfections that create irregularities. In the story, she’s starting off with those irregularities, so there’s something, which to me is quite erratic and urgent. Playing at a really fast speed, there’s something that can be produced which can be unpredictable and terrifying. But as she starts to experience human feelings in these rushes, more synthesised strings are used, and it’s a lot more regular, calmer. So it sort of works the opposite way. The human stuff is more synthesised.

That makes sense. Which brings me to that idea of irregularity and chance. Was aleatoric music an influence? Music which has a base, but which then goes off in unexpected, chance directions?

Yeah, absolutely. The first music you hear is supposed to be unpredictable, alive and undecipherable. It is controlled in a sense, but it is aleatoric. As you say, as long as you solidify the base, you’re then leaving things to chance – and leaving the possibility for catastrophe and anarchy is kind of ideal. I love that.

Is that, then, a direct influence of people such as Karlheinz Stockhausen, or John Cage?

I guess so. The way that contemporary music developed throughout the 1970s certainly is the foundation of the sort of education I had. But that’s in loads of great art, when people takes risks and push the boundaries. A lot of modern art from the 20th century engages in that world. Cage is engaging with the anarchy of the cosmos, resulting in a slightly different way to Stockhausen. I mean it’s audibly different, but it’s still the same thing. It’s still a collaboration with force you can’t control. So all of that is an influence.

But the way we tried to approach the film was looking at different ways of keeping it loose and free, and keeping the process moving. The movie was changing all the time so the music was also changing all the time. You do a bunch of work and the sound or the cut would alter, so it was about keeping it consistently liquid.

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I see her as teenager, basically, and most of the emotional experiences that she has are extreme…

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Did other film score composition influence you in any way? There’s a feel of someone like Angelo Badalamenti on ‘Love’, and I know you’ve also name checked György Ligeti (composer used extensively on the 2001: A Space Odyssey soundtrack).

I did try and distance myself from that. It was supposed to be more about euphoric club music. That’s what it sounds like to me. I was basically thinking about if you’d never yet had the experience of intimacy, or love, or whatever, and going back to the feeling of being teenager. I see her as teenager, basically, and most of the emotional experiences that she has are extreme and cause her to react in such a strong way, that it’s like a hormonal thing in my mind. That blind with feeling behaviour. I’m not still like that, but I certainly remember having very strong feelings and making bad decisions on them when I was experiencing them for the first time.

So, even if it does end up sounding a bit like a David Lynch soundtrack or Ligeti or something, the process was much more elongated than that. You might end up there somehow, but the process of getting there is through the narrative. You’re only going to come to those conclusions if you get there yourself, not just through referencing something.

We’ve spoken about the central character as a musical motif, but were you using different instruments or codas to represent different characters within the film?

Yeah, I can break it down for you. The symbols that happen over the sea and generally throughout represent the cosmos, the life force and the powers of beyond. The fidgety, fast string music, the unpredictable, is supposed to be the alien life force, something undecipherable. But its not too strong, it’s just bubbling away, consistent, like a white noise. The sort of seductive music is not coming from her, that’s something that she puts on, sort of like make up, so she almost presses play and lures guys in with that. Then there’s feelings of love, which is the club-like music, those warm synthesisers represented by a triad, which is a fundamental musical chord, undeniable and simple. Once that language was established it was all very clear how to space that throughout the film.

You did take part in a live performance, which you conducted recently at the Southbank. Was it difficult to translate this music into a live setting?

It took a lot of work getting a score together to fit the ensemble that we had, but the players were great and we had really thorough rehearsals. The music’s not that hard, there’s just a lot of it, and a lot of waiting around. And I guess it’s just about accuracy and getting the right sound together. We had Pete (Raeburn), who was the producer, who was taking hold of the sound out front, so from a production point of view we had that covered. I guess the challenge there, at the (Royal) Festival Hall (in London), is that the acoustics of the room are suited to acoustic instruments. It full of reflections and not ideally set up for a film, so trying to create a homogenous piece of work was hard in that way. It was certainly different I guess.

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Words: Anna Wilson
Photos: Ulijona Odisarija (first), Steven Legere (second)

Under The Skin is released on DVD and Blu-ray on July 14th. Its soundtrack is available now (listen to it below via Deezer). Find Mica Levi online here

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