This article originally appeared in Beatdom #14 – the MOVIE issue.
Kubilay Uner is the composer for the 2013 movie, Big Sur, based on the Jack Kerouac novel of the same name. He has worked with Michael and Mark Polish – the brothers behind the movie – on various projects, as well as performing live scores in concert halls. I spoke to him about setting Kerouac to music for the big screen.
Has Kerouac been much of an influence on your life?
Growing up in Germany I didn’t really start reading much English-language literature until well into my twenties, after I moved to the States. Kerouac was always somebody I knew about, but it wasn’t until shortly before the film that I read his work.
Had you read Big Sur prior to signing on to this project? If so, what did you think?
When I heard that Michael Polish was beginning work on Big Sur, I decided to read it – less because of the possibility of working on the film, but because I figured it must be an interesting work if Mike decides to create an adaptation. Also, Big Sur (the place) always fascinated me – I consider it to be the most stunning landscape I have ever visited. I absolutely loved the book. The first thing I noticed in it was the rhythm. It soon became clear, at least for me, that the book eludes you until you decide to read it aloud (or aloud in your head – hearing the sounds of the words, rather than merely absorbing their meanings.) So to me “Big Sur” is perhaps more a long poem rather than a novel. It was a deeply moving experience to get inside the head of someone so close to the breaking point that his perception of this amazing landscape turns from awe-inspiring to awe-ful. Kerouac’s awareness of his own state of mind is so astute yet disarming, there is no chance of keeping any “safe distance” from it. It would take a cynic to not be touched by this book.
One reason that Big Sur has been such a loved book of Kerouac’s is that it is possibly his most lyrical. He wrote it by the sea, and so the sound of the sea is reflected in the flow of the prose. In a book so lyrical, how did you go about composing a soundtrack that would adequately reflect Kerouac’s prose?
The musical palette – the instruments mostly – was already set, since I was hired to pick up the music where Bryce and Aaron Dessner left off. From the start, Mike did not want a “historically accurate” score – say, an early 1960s Jazz score – but wanted a score that expresses Kerouac’s journey to an audience of today. The Dessners set a wonderfully moody yet strong tone in the cues they completed before I took over. It was important that Jack not be made “soft” – he needed a voice that allowed his strength, wit and grace to shine through the deteriorating state of his mind and body.
After reading the book my fist step was to listen to recordings of Kerouac reading his own work, since I wanted to represent *his* rhythms in the music. That turned out to be unnecessary, since Jean-Marc Barr (who plays Jack Kerouac in the film and reads the ever-present voiceover) does an amazing job of capturing Kerouac’s sound and cadence.
Additionally, I created some sketches that were never meant to be part of the score, but only served to hone my senses to the sounds of Big Sur: I used recordings I had made of the environmental sounds there during prior visits – waves, wind, trees – and “painted” musical colors onto them – a voice coming out of the surf, a few piano chords projected onto the sound of strong wind gusts, etc. This was never meant for anyone but me, in order to give me a sense of “what could live in this environment.” Among other things, many of the electronic tones in the score were a direct result of these experiments.
In the end it became a very simple matter of reacting directly and immediately to the rhythms and colors of the environment in the picture, and especially to Jean-Marc Barr’s voice as Kerouac in the voiceover. Every film score is largely a matter of “fitting in to what’s already there,” but in this film, with the prominent voiceover, and strong poetic images, this was even more the case – the music score had to seamlessly become but one player in the quintet of actors’ performances, voiceover, visuals, natural sounds and music.