Lion could be a simple homecoming story, the prodigal son returning to the place he was born. Except, the son in question was six when he left. Now, he’s twenty-six and his story is far from simple. Garth Davis’s film, like his TV offering Top of the Lake, is a beautiful, emotional rollercoaster. Lion takes us through Saroo Brierley’s homecoming, straddles two continents, two distinct worlds and a yearning to bridge that gap, and is made even more powerful by its decision to be manipulative in the way that it yanks our emotional chains, but is never obvious or melodramatic in doing so.
Lion’s score—a collaboration between German composer Volker Bertelmann (Hauschka) and American composer Dustin O’Halloran—with its clear focus on the modern of classical piano compositions, is what makes the emotional rollercoaster run. A lilting, haunting play of piano and strings criss-crosses the movie, as Saroo looks for home and sometimes even for himself, his identity. And everything comes together wrapped in the beautiful ambient sounds by two composers who are equally skilled at tugging at your heartstrings as the film’s director.
We emailed with Hauschka to find out more about the creative process behind Lion’s score.
The Rumpus: Your scores are characteristically identified as beautiful and mournful. What did you keep in mind to try and complement the narrative of Lion while composing this soundtrack, this seesaw of emotions from one continent to another?
Hauschka: I think it seems like we didn’t have something in mind specifically; I think it was more the intention of keeping the emotion and creating a restrained music that is at the same time strong and essential. Garth Davis is such a great director and the acting was so powerful that it was hard in the beginning to find a way of not overpowering the scenes, but I think we found a good mixture.
Rumpus: As you started working together and the score flowed back and forth from Germany to Australia, how did the two of you work together to create such a cohesive sound for the movie? (I read even you have a hard time differentiating which parts the two of you composed individually.)
Hauschka: That is true, because at some point our elements were all mixing, and we both worked on piano parts and helped each other when things were not moving. We are both doing a lot of music with texture, and so it was great that we could swap roles. But there are some parts that only Dustin was able to play and some are from my side… but in the end, there is no cue purely me or purely him.
Rumpus: What kinds of urban, rural sounds and musical influences did you infuse into the score? What was involved technically in creating these sounds?
Hauschka: We were pretty clear not to involve any kind of traditional music or music that tells you in which region we are… our focus was on the music of the here and now, and so we created a lot of textures that maybe sound sometimes foreign, but it is made with a prepared piano or we used a lot of different piano recordings prepared with felt. The textures are all coming from close-up mixing of real instruments.
Rumpus: The scene when Saroo goes to a friend’s house and eats a jalebi and when they’re walking towards the house… the song goes from the upbeat Urvashi Urvashi to a sadder old Hindi song that is so apt. What parts of Bollywood and Bollywood music were you most excited and inspired by for Lion?
Hauschka: We had no influence on the source music. Those were all picked by Garth Davis. We were more responsible for the composed score, and that is all influenced by modern piano music.
Rumpus: How did you take and weave Saroo’s journey, his personality, and his complexities into the film’s hauntingly beautiful theme song?
Hauschka: We felt that the movie needed a theme for the search for home, and also the diversity of emotions between the sadness of being away from his family and what the travel offers him. In a way it is a metaphor for everyone’s life because a lot of time we need a reset to go in directions we never thought our lives would go. So to see Saroo coming from this poor background being suddenly in Australia is of course a strange coincidence. In the main title theme you have the longing, the sadness, but at the same time, the hope that is in the movie. So all the elements were already put on the table.
Rumpus: Did you ever feel like you were handicapped by not coming from an Indian music tradition? Alternatively, what kind of strengths do you feel you brought to the score by having a classical Indian music background?
Hauschka: No, not at all, because the story is very modern. And I think assuming that Indian music had to be a part of this film is like always putting Bavarian folk music in German films. Today people all over the world are listening to and are inspired by all music, from hip-hop to classical music, and to think that in India or China people are only represented by sitar or erhu [Chinese instrument] is limiting. I think it was clear that we want to create our own musical viewpoint for this film, in collaboration, of course, with Garth Davis.
Rumpus: What does the word “fusion” mean to you in the context of contemporary Western/Neo-Classical and Indian sounds being composed for a global audience?
Hauschka: I think for me, fusion is a word that describes a positive, collaborative combination of different styles. Every kind of new music was created by a fusion of different styles because to move on and find something new you have to allow all the influences within yourself a voice.
But fusion also has for me a negative meaning. It is a part of the word confusion and it can actually make strong existing styles pretty watered-down and take away the essence of what was actually its strength. We’ve found through history a lot of weak fusions, and the popularity of those styles is not always representative of its significance for later musical development.
Rumpus: What new projects are you working on?
Hauschka: I will be working on a documentary called Alpha Go that deals with autonomous intelligence versus human intelligence, and I am releasing my new record on March 31 called What If.
Photograph of Hauschka ©Mareike Foecking. Other photographs courtesy of Hauschka.