The Score: Peter Scholes and THE TATTOOIST

New Zealand director Peter Burger’s horror film THE TATTOOIST, recently released on DVD, has a way of imprinting itself on the viewer. It’s a unique horror film that envelops itself with Samoan culture and develops a very interesting ghost story out of that culture and the spiritual aspects of Samoan tattoo. Taking place in the tattoo parlors of Auckland, New Zealand, the film makes the most of its clash of cultures. It is very nicely performed and directed, and is very interesting in its use of, for American and European audiences at least, an unfamiliar cultural mythology as well as in the way its story plays out. One of the standout elements is the film score by New Zealand composer Peter Scholes, who maintains an effective musical sound design, incorporating the unique tapping of Samoan tattoo instruments as a recurring ostinato of horror throughout the film.

THE TATTOOIST has to do with a young American tattoo artist (Jason Behr) who unknowingly plays a role in releasing a deadly spirit as he attempts to learn tatau, the Samoan tradition of tattooing. He becomes involved with Sina (Mia Blake), daughter of a local minister who distrusts the American, and also becomes associates with a family shamed by their missing son Lomi’s inability to complete his spiritual p’ea by finishing his ritual tattooing, all of whom seem to figure in a series of bizarre murders in which Jake’s tattoos unaccountably spread throughout the recipient’s body and suffocate them with ink.

Peter Scholes was born in 1957 in Auckland and grew up in the thermally turbulent area of Rotorua, New Zealand. His high school experience was as a border at Auckland Grammar and then he specialized in clarinet study at the Auckland Conservatorium of Music. He now pursues the dual career of performing (both as a conductor and a clarinettist), and composing, with numerous commissions by many New Zealand orchestras. His composition “Islands II” represented New Zealand in the 1993 UNESCO International Rostrum of Composers. He added film composition to his repertoire in 1993 with the drama film, DESPERATE REMEDIES for directors Stewart Main and Peter Wells. A handful of scores followed in amongst an extensive schedule performing and composing concert material. THE TATTOOIST was his most recent and perhaps most evocative film score.

TATTOOIST director Peter Burger and producer Robin Scholes (no relation) were looking for a composer who they felt would meet the musical requirements of a supernatural/ thriller. “I was asked to make a short example and, presto, I got the gig,” Scholes recalled. “My extensive work with orchestras and contemporary ensembles also gave me a strong basis on which to build my score.”

Scholes found the character of Jake, his alienation and discomfort as he becomes dangerously involved in the unfamiliar tatau culture, the perfect element to hang his score on. “Central to the score is the idea of a sound world in which there is a sense of being lost, or ‘out of your depth,’ and in a world you don’t understand,” Scholes explained. “Also the film keeps the identity of the ‘bad guy’ a mystery, so it was important for the music to build and set up his eventual appearance.”

Scholes chose to use an unconventional orchestration utilizing a mix of samples, real sounds, synthetic sounds, and processed real sounds – a variety of sound material that would appear disguised and balanced in unorthodox ways. He sampled the sound of a conch shell and then used it melodically, as in the scene where we first meet Sina at the tattoo convention. He processed the sound of French horn chords played live and then raised the pitch to create a very tense sound, but the score’s most striking element is the thin slapping sound of the Samoan tattoo instrument.

“The tattoo tool was a fertile source of sound material,” said Scholes. “This moved into other areas of the orchestration where I employed very quiet sounds but boosted their levels and made them compete with other loud sounds. I immersed myself in trying to get a score that would claw its way into the world of spirits – dare I say ‘into the twilight zone?’ – a world of sound where no sound exists. Rhythmic pulse was used sparingly – it tends to add to the comfort zone or accessibility of music so I only used that or hinted at it where forward motion was required. When you are lost there is an absence of forward motion.”

In his preparation for this score, Scholes studied Samoan music and culture in order to effectively integrated its sounds and sensibilities into his score. “I looked into the sounds of Samoan instruments and listened to song, dance rhythms, and the language,” he said. “The real preparation though was to get into my own head and live the world that the spirit was occupying and then listen to the sounds that were there. My earlier films have mostly been romances with dramatic climaxes so it was a shift for me to do this film. It came easily though – I guess growing up a science fiction fan with quite an interest in scary films helped. I remember long ago watching one of the FRIDAY THE 13th movies without the sound and seeing how it lost all its suspense.”

The recurring use of the Samoan tattoo-tapping sound becomes an unsettling ostinato used both musically throughout the score as well as a sonic element in the overall soundtrack of the film. “The tattoo tool was also picked up by the sound designers for the film,” said Scholes. “I worked closely with the sound effects team in the mix stages of the film to integrate the sound design elements of my score and make sure they worked together. We crossed paths in the film a lot because I filled my score with distortions of real instruments and musical elements which were more about sound than music.”

The haunting reverberation of the tapping tattoo instrument (which consists of a sharp wooden cutting tool or needle inked on one end with a piece of tortoiseshell bound at right angles at one end; the needle is lightly tapped with a wooden mallet to make its impression in the skin) resonates throughout THE TATTOOIST, lending it a unique sonic texture and creating an atmosphere with evokes apprehension and fear; even when the tattoo spirit is not physically on scene, its presence is evoked by the light tapping sound, which becomes quite discomforting as the film goes on. “The idea of making a sound for something which is not actually there became a driving part of the score,” Scholes explained. “The music had to create suspense and a sense of threat but also lead us to the end point of the story. The spirit is the ‘bad guy’ but it goes deeper than that. In the film we discover a complexity to his situation. He is lost and trying to find rest and doing bad things is the only way he can make contact with the physical world. I used a sound of a dried seedhead from my garden; pitch shifting it down made a great sound for the spirit’s hasty retreats.”

Rather than having a variety of themes or motifs associated with various characters, the TATTOOIST score provides a variety of atmospheres built on layered sonic textures (Jake’s nightmares), eloquent voicings (the chorus during Victoria’s death in the hospital), a variety of mysterious ambiances, and a lyrical love theme for Sina and Jake. For all its sonic diversity, the score remains cohesive and well integrated. “Cohesiveness often comes about through the extensive use of the same material – at its simplest level by repetition,” said Scholes. “My score for THE TATTOOIST, however, has very little repetition. Instead it is an evolving and constantly morphing music that relies on density and varying degrees of dissonance to propel the film forward. The music links the real world to the spirit world. The central character is Jake and one aspect of the approach to the music I took was to wire into Jake’s brain waves and see where that took me with sound. It was like listening to his stresses, fears, and anxieties and converting that to music. Because his character was always there on screen his mental state was the key to cohesiveness.”

Scholes worked closely with director Peter Burger to establishing the type of music and its placement in the film. “Working with Peter was a treat,” recalled Scholes. “I was brought in at the late stages of postproduction so time was scarce. It was always a ‘cut to the chase’ scenario! He liked it mostly and left me to it, but was very vocal about anything he didn’t like, so many drafts headed for the recycle bin. Sequences he did not like often took quite a few reworkings and restarts to get it right.”

While THE TATTOOIST is in its essence a horror film, it is of course about lot more, such as the relevance to culture, the spirituality of Samoan tattoo, the concepts of family, of shame, of personal expression through tattoo. These were all elements that Scholes became conscious of while he was composing his score, and intentionally addressed them in the nuances of his music. “Apart from the tattoo tool, the conch was the most significant Samoan musical reference in my score,” Scholes said. “I loved the sound of it and the various pitch-shifted nuances that were possible. Intrinsic to my score, though, was the need to be seeing it all from Jake’s point of view. He was uncomfortable and felt out of place in Samoan culture. In the tattoo tent in Singapore there is Samoan chanting and my music crept in over it as Jake was drawn into it, but of course his understanding was limited and he was threatened and made insecure by this culture. Having lost my own son to heart disease when he was eight, I was very moved by the loss the family suffered when their son Lomi disappeared. Musically, the moments where we get glimpses of the boy who was are very important and take the form of laments. They reflect on the loss of innocence and loss of life. The scene where Jake breaks into Lomi’s room and finds all the boy’s stuff as he last left it was very poignant and spoke much of the guilt and shame that the family were burdened with.”

THE TATTOOIST resonates throughout with a unique clarity due to an unusual and effective musical sound design, and one that echoes the film’s various subtexts as well as its more over qualities of nightmare and the influences of ghosts. Scholes’ score was a finalist in Achievement in Original Music in Film in the 2008 Qantas Film and Television Awards. Not bad for a composer’s first efforts in scoring this type of film.

“I wish my music had been louder in the mix – it would have made the film scarier,” Scholes conceded, then added, “One thing that I think I achieved was a unique sound that was the result of quite complex layering of many elements both with traditional instruments, signal processing, and voices.”

For more information on Peter Scholes, see: www.peterscholes.com

CORRECTION: The byline for this article has been corrected. And producer Robin Scholes name has replaced a name erroneously included in the original text. We regret the error.

About the Author

Randall Larson

Randall Larson contributed “The Score” column to Cinefantastique magazine from 1983 to 1999. The author of Musique Fantastique, A Survey of Film Music in the Fantastic Cinema (1984) and Music from the House of Hammer (1996), Larson also published CinemaScore: The Film Music Journal during the 1980s. He currently writes a bi-weekly film music column for buysoundtrax.com, reviews horror soundtrack CDs for Cemetery Dance magazine, writes for Music from the Movies and Film Music magazines, and writes soundtrack CD liner note books.

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