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La La Land: the sound of romance

How composer Justin Hurwitz recreated Los Angeles from thousands of piano demos

Sydney Symphony Orchestra

Ahead of his visit to Sydney to conduct the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in La La Land in Concert, Justin Hurwitz talks about working with the film’s director Damien Chazelle and what love sounds like.

We’re interested in the responses so far to La La Land in concert. We heard this sort of show was a dream of yours before you made the movie – has it been as good as you expected?

I definitely didn't dream of a worldwide tour like this.  At one point, years ago, before we even shot the movie, I remember Damien and I briefly talking about how cool it would be if we could end up doing one of those concerts where the music is played live to picture. This past Spring, we put together a show at the Hollywood Bowl, and since then, the show has gone all over. I think it's a great chance for people to see the movie in a new way, and to appreciate the musicianship it took to create the orchestral score and the jazz. Watching the Los Angeles studio musicians play this music originally was for me the biggest thrill of making the movie, and now people get to see their home town orchestras perform the music. And few get to see the music played by an orchestra as good as the SSO.

"Watching the Los Angeles studio musicians play this music originally was for me the biggest thrill of making the movie."

We read that you did thousands of demos for La La Land– how did you arrive at 'Mia & Sebastian’s Theme'? And how did you create a sense of romance here? (Creating 1900 demos sounds like a somewhat tedious or unromantic process!)

The beginning of working on any score, when I'm creating piano demo after piano demo after piano demo, is the only part of the process that I really get discouraged. It can be very frustrating because I don't know if and when the right melody will strike, and it's the only part of the process when I have serious self-doubt.  Along the way I come up with a lot of good melodies that just aren't quite right, or memorable enough. I also come up with some very bad melodies. Damien and I hold out for that really great melody, and it can take a while. I rely on Damien quite a bit to filter my ideas and tell me when something is really special, or on its way to being special.

What finally unlocks the great idea is always kind of a mystery. In terms of how I wrote something romantic through such a gruelling process, I'm still sitting at the piano (my favourite place to be) and thinking about the love Mia and Sebastian are looking for. My head has to be in the right place, and if it's not, I step away from the piano. I ultimately wanted the melody to be sweet but to have some pain in it, not entirely happy and not entirely sad, and to have some surprises in it. I think that's what love sounds like.

"I don't know if and when the right melody will strike."

There is limited rehearsal time for live orchestral concerts – as a conductor, how do you quickly generate a chemistry or rapport with the musicians on stage?

So far, I've only conducted the show myself at the Hollywood Bowl, and I already had some familiarity with the musicians because about two thirds of them played on the original score recording sessions.  Coming in and working with a new orchestra will be a new experience for me. Luckily I have the chance to do the show in one other city before I come to Sydney in December. I'd like to think I'll be authoritative but always polite, and self-deprecating when necessary. Rehearsing for the Hollywood show, I remember I apologised a few times for bad orchestration. Every now and then something wouldn't work quite right, and I'd look in the score and realise that I did something pretty dumb in the orchestration. I think the musicians got a kick out of that. 

What is your all-time favourite moment in the movie?

I love when Mia bows after her poorly attended one-woman show, and in the seat she was blocking before she bowed, you can see the casting director who would later change her life. I also get a kick out of the inane conversation dinner conversation between Mia's boyfriend and his brother before Mia ditches them. Right as the sound of their conversation is fading, one of them says, “I heard China is building a Panama Canal”.

Watch the SSO perform La La Land in Concert at the Sydney Opera House on 7-9 December.

"I did something pretty dumb in the orchestration...the musicians got a kick out of that."

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