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How two rock stars are discovering the ‘sonic fabric’ of movies

In 2019, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis took to the stage with conductor Nicholas Buc to recreate their tantalising film scores. We unpack the duo's unique process and eerie output.

Dominic Ellis

When Nick Cave and Warren Ellis write a score, they usually haven't seen the movie. It’s an untraditional approach from a pair of untraditional musicians, who are often working from just a scene, script or image.

“With Jesse James we were told we’d get a cut in February, we turned up in the studio, we had 25 seconds of Brad Pitt with a gun saying, ‘Does this work? Does this work?’” Ellis told the ABC.

But it's also fitting for a duo whose atmospheric scores tend to duck and weave haphazardly throughout a film. Much like their own bands, The Bad Seeds and The Dirty Three (and joint-project Grinderman), the scores are haunting and subtle, filled with Ellis' screeching violins and Caves' baritone moans, but never dictating emotions as we've come to expect from Blockbuster scores.

The result is that these films become psychological character studies, with the music never commenting on the action in a traditional way, but rather becoming another player in the story,” says Nicholas Buc, who arranged, and will conduct, a live performance of Cave and Ellis’ scores at the Sydney Opera House.

Nick Cave and Warren Ellis onstage with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Image: Jayden Ostwald.

Buc, a globetrotting conductor for live-in-concert film scores, considers Ellis and Cave disruptors in the industry – both in their unique sound and roundabout process.

“There’s no orchestra, there’s not even any sheet music for musicians to play, it’s much more an improvisatory exploration of sound, discovering the sonic fabric of the film through recording and jamming for days in the studio.”

That two Australians have become synonymous with American cowboy stories and barren Southern backdrops is ironic, but unsuprising from Cave, the 'The Prince of Darkness', and Ellis, the son of a country-western singer.

For Film Music, Cave, Ellis and Buc performed on stage with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and Sydney Philharmonic Choirs, recreating the scores of The Proposition, The RoadThe Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Hell or High WaterWind River and West of Memphis – six cross-genre films bound by their visions of rugged landscapes and violent men.

“Together they’ve managed to create an entirely new kind of sound world that just seems to work so perfectly with the dry, dusty landscapes in contemporary Westerns,” Buc says.

They’re not the first rock stars to dabble in film scores. Trent Reznor, Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood have most successfully taken to the silver screen, collaborating with the likes of David Fincher and Paul Thomas Anderson. So have powerhouses Daft Punk and Arcade Fire, whose unmistakeable sounds underpinned Tron: Legacy and the Oscar-nominated Her

“Together they’ve managed to create an entirely new kind of sound world that just seems to work so perfectly with the dry, dusty landscapes in contemporary Westerns.”

Buc attributes this trend to filmmakers “wanting to find a different and unique sound for their films so…they are looking to their favourite artists and bands” and admits that the scores often end up being “the polar opposite of what we think films should sound like”.

Replicating Ellis and Cave’s scores on stage was difficult for Buc. None of the scores were written down, so he had to do everything by ear, listening and transcribing, while also “adding colours and textures through careful orchestration”.

The other challenge was doing justice to the minimalism of the scores while sufficiently “beefing them up” for an orchestra and concert hall. That meant using a choir to replicate some of the “angst-ridden moans and vocalisations” that Cave and Ellis performed themselves, but respecting the quiet instrumentals throughout.

Buc delved deep into their world, regularly consulting with Ellis and their engineer Jake Jackson, and familiarising himself with the synth – a far cry from the orthodox John Williams scores Buc usually works on. He describes the end product as flowing together “like one giant piece of music”.

“I’m convinced that no one does existential dread like Nick and Warren. Their scores get under your skin and into your psyche like nothing else.”

For more on Nick Cave and Warren Ellis' scores, read Nicholas Buc's breakdown below, and check out his podcast The Art of the Score.

The films

Nicholas Buc breaks down Nick Cave and Warren Ellis' biggest scores


The Proposition

“The Proposition is perhaps their grittiest score, setting an edgy backdrop of burning string textures, wild violin, distorted guitars and Nick’s spoken word that balances perfectly with the extreme violence and dry landscapes onscreen. It’s the score that put them on the map and it’s my personal favourite score of theirs, leaves a lasting impression that haunts me long after the film has ended.”


The Road

“The Road is an incredibly dark and bleak film that can be a tough watch at times. Nick and Warren’s score certainly contributes to the sense of loneliness and there are some isolated sections of pure terror, especially the music for the cannibals in the film. But a surprisingly poignant and touching final elegy let’s us know that all is not lost in the search for hope.”


Hell or High Water

“Hell or High Water has some heart pounding moments, with the underscore during the robbery sequence being a particularly tense highlight. Something that’s always grabbed me about this score is the way it makes the relationship between the brothers feel so central to the story, and we end up caring for them above and beyond anyone else despite their appalling actions during the film.”


The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

“The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford has quite an interesting use of music. Much of it was written before filming began, with Nick and Warren writing mainly based off a script and discussions with the director. Interestingly, most of the music plays under narration, giving the title character of Jesse James a mythical feel and a sense of legend status despite the incredibly long, drawn out scenes of dialogue. Song for Bob is a real highlight of their career.”


Wind River

“Wind River is probably Nick and Warren’s most meditative score. The icy plains of Wyoming are perfectly mirrored by slow moving string textures, ghostly murmurs and a gently pulsing bass. Warren’s violin is featured in a more plaintive way, with slow evocations rather than the grittiness of The Proposition. For the live shows in Sydney we’ll be joined by Opera Australia soprano Julie Lea Goodwin, who’ll lend her voice to a particularly haunting section of the score.”


West of Memphis

“West of Memphis is a tense documentary that highlights the power of minimalism. The score is incredibly simple in its underlying musical structures, yet is the perfect example of how Nick and Warren can put their signature sound on these repetitive patterns that  then turn into ethereal beauty or tense drama.”

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