The Score: The Splintered Sounds of Elia Cmiral

Composer Elia Cmiral with SPLINTER actress Jill Wagner

Composer Elia Cmiral’s recent score for SPLINTER is the latest in a dozen or more horror or fantasy film scores concocted by the composer since he emerged in 1986. While he can be equally adroit at action-thrillers like RONIN, science fiction like BATTLEFIELD: EARTH, television series like NASH BRIDGES, and warm family dramas like THE READING ROOM and THE WISHING TREE, it is in the realm of cinematic horror that Cmiral has made his most significant mark on movie music. Highly textured, intricately layered, and evocatively orchestrated works for STIGMATA, THEY, WRONG TURN, SPECIES III, TOOTH & NAIL, THE DEATHS OF IAN STONE, and the American versions of PULSE and its sequels have earned Cmiral the reputation for stimulating, provocative, and chilling accompaniment for horror movies.

Cmiral (pronounced SMEAR-all) was born in Czechoslovakia in 1957, the son of a theater stage director. The young Cmiral was therefore immersed in the theater from a very young age. Showing an inclination towards music, he wrote scores for student movies while attending conservatory in Prague. Moving to Sweden, he began to write more seriously for theater, movies, and commercials, eventually succumbing to the draw of Hollywood and arriving in Los Angeles to enroll in the film scoring program at USC. Drawing on his experiences in Sweden and his new contacts in the US, Cmiral got the job to score a low-budget thriller called APARTMENT ZERO. On that film, noted Argentinean composer and tango maestro Astor Piazzola had been secured to write the music, since the film took place in Buenos Aires. But the music wasn’t quite what the producers wanted and Piazzola left the project; Cmiral was quickly hired to write and record a wholly new score within ten days. Cmiral embraced elements of Argentinean tango in his score in keeping with the film’s locale, inspired by certain harmonies he found in the tangos of that region. “Since I only had ten days, I wrote maybe 15 or 20 minutes of music which I recorded with a small orchestra, and the rest I improvised with electronics direct to the picture,” Cmiral said.

Cmiral came into the horror genre at the time when horror movie music was moving away from the traditional 19th Century Gothic forms that had characterized the genre in the past. With technological and stylistic advances in electronic and the influence of rhythms, harmonies, and orchestrations out of rock and roll and world beat music, horror scores of the 1990s were becoming more of a fusion of sonic textures, atonality, and layered, harmonic tonality combined together to create an atmosphere of disturbing apprehension. “When I came to USC, there was a Gothic shadow on horror scores, and I think I was lucky to be in the time and place where I could start to write these things,” said Cmiral. “Then, with the whole movement during the 1990s, there came more scores with a similar direction, more people like me started to write similar kinds of things, and horror scores are completely different than years ago.”

Cmiral recognized, however, that an effective horror movie score is not all about dissonance, cacophony, and terror tonalities; it’s also about contrast and character and story. The contrast between a warmer, more melodic species of music to help the audience relate to the characters and their emotions will then make the disturbing horror music far more powerful and effective to audiences. Even his first horror score, 1999’s STIGMATA (a tale of terror involving a young woman with unexplainable injuries on her hands that replicate the wounds of the crucified Christ) contrasted thickly orchestrated textural ambiances comprised of disturbing mixtures of synths and symphs with a very reassuring and melodic upsurge of voice and violins, which forms a kind of a respite from all the textured terror music.

“I always start to write by asking myself what the picture really needs before I start to write,” said Cmiral. “I watch the movie and try to get under the skin of the characters, asking myself, as a member of the audience, would I expect to hear, how can I enhance the character and her or his emotions, rather than say, okay, here’s this, here’s that, here’s the chase.”

For WRONG TURN (2003), Cmiral began the score emphasizing the beauty and expanse of the large West Virginia forest in which our heroes become lost. “The opening theme reflects the large forest in West Virginia,” Cmiral said. “I had a big string ensemble, and then with the low woodwinds and brass I just felt I would get lost in this forest also.” To reflect the film’s forest environment, Cmiral brought in dulcimer, guitars, dobro, and fiddle, associated with West Virginia roots music, and laced those instrumental elements throughout the score, even combing them with the darker electronic elements that represent the cannibalistic, inbred mountain men who threaten the characters. “One part of the score is of course electronic, which becomes darker towards the end, with a lot of disturbing and distorted sounds, but I also wanted to bring some elements that I could bridge between the orchestra and the electronica, something that is connected to a West Virginia kind of sound, so I and these elements are heard later when the kids are running from the shack. The chase actually uses some dulcimer hits and grooves.”

In 2006’s PULSE, a remake of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s 2001 j-horror epic of the same name, Cmiral
provided a powerfully atmospheric score. The film has to do with an alien technology that uses wireless signals to enter our dimension. Cmiral’s score utilizes eerie synthesized textures and sampled orchestra and choir that builds an interesting and affecting sonic tonality. The score is not a thematic one, but rather builds a layered progression of sounds and textures ainto patterns and rhythms that combine to create a disquieting effect that generates plenty of foreboding and suspense.

Cmiral’s score for the 2007 After Dark Horrorfest entry, THE DEATHS OF IAN STONE is brim-full of persuasive chills. The film, from Italian director Dario Piana, tells of an all-American guy who is murdered each day by horrifying pursuers, only to wake up in slightly different lives to experience the terror of being murdered again. The score is comprised of elements of melodies and melodic tonality as well as all manner of textures and synth pads and sampled sounds layered into very interesting musical patterns. Cmiral makes use of sound design and musical textures, from bird cries to soft bells and whisperings sighs, to fabricate an extremely compelling sonic ambiance that is affecting and haunting; again, the score contrasts the complex sonic textures with very melodic orchestral tonalities and even a love theme for the protagonist’s romantic interest.

TOOTH & NAIL, a post-apocalyptic thriller set after the world runs out of gas and society evaporates like fumes in a hot engine, gave Cmiral the opportunity to contrast the two surviving tribes and their opposing struggles to survive. Cmiral alternated the tuning on a glass harmonica to generate a very unpleasant kind of sound. “I wanted to reflect this strange apocalyptic feeling where suddenly we don’t have any rules, and you do whatever you want to do to survive,” Cmiral said. “I used these weird glass harmonica clusters along with high string harmonics, and for the meat eating people I did very metallic, organic grooves using different sounds. I recorded the sounds of scissors, knives, and an axe, in order to reflect that they were very organic, they eat meat and they were trying to re-establish the old society, what they remembered or they knew.”

“As a film composer I am writing for the movie. If I have a horror movie, and I am writing to help the movie and the characters, and then it dictates what I write. I love a movie like SPLINTER which I would say is really more of a thriller than a horror movie. It’s about these two couples who try to survive when a parasite attacks them, so I’m writing for the characters. There are some horror scenes, but they are secondary.”

Splinter (2008)

With SPLINTER, Cmiral’s knack for intricately carved sound designs fusing the orchestral with synthesizers and sampled and processed sounds provided an especially eerie and discomforting resonance under which the film plays out. SPLINTER tells the story of a convict and his girlfriend who carjack a couple on a weekend retreat in the woods. Both couples soon find themselves trapped together in an isolated gas station, on the run from a deadly parasite that occupies the woods outside. Like WRONG TURN, Cmiral’s score begins tonally, emphasizing the expansive forest in which most of the action occurs, and then gradually turning the music darker, more fragmented and more ominous. “I started with a very atmospheric approach and then got wilder as this parasite develops and attacks the people. It winds up with complete symphonic chaos, very aggressive, and very dark.”

To find a musical correlation with the “splinters,” the multitudinous parasites that occupy the forest, Cmiral crafted musical textures comprised of electronics, glass harmonica, fragments of cello and violin, and layers of percussion until he had a virtual forest of musical elements that, in their mass, formed a very dangerous and disturbing musical atmosphere. “When these people walk into the forest, I created these textures, and they are changing,” Cmiral explained. “It’s not just one layer, there are hundreds of layers, droning and evolving. I was imagining these splinters, and how the parasite is attacking animals and people and how they would change through the parasite. I tried to reflect it in the score.”

In effect, the parasitic splinters equate to musical notes, and as they get more horrendous in the film, the score gets more chaotic. The story drives the symbiosis of the music as it develops. “I tried to see myself in this gestation, and these three people they survive a couple of attacks and they see how the parasite is so aggressive and so fast,” said Cmiral. “I tried to reflect that in using the same thing in the music.”

But these ideas didn’t come easily on this score. It took Cmiral considerable experimentation to finally hit on the approach to scoring SPLINTER. “I wrote a lot of music for this movie and tried this and that,” he said. “The movie was really interesting to score because it just refused traditional themes. I literally tried hundreds of different ideas, I put in some traditional, defined tones, like strings or piano, but it didn’t work. So I scaled it down and tried something else, and I ended up with a very rich texture for the first half of the movie, and the first real kind of traditional theme from solo cello comes at the very end, with a reflection of the opening title. It’s kind of amazed me, myself, how the movie dictated what it needs.”

After scoring so many horror films and thrillers, Cmiral is obviously comfortable in the genre, yet that does not mean that each assignment is necessarily easier than its predecessor, because every film requires something new. Horror film music has gone from the Gothic orchestras of the 40s and 50s to the textural approach of the 90s. Where will it go in the future? Cmiral has some ideas on how the sonic palette of monster movies will expand over the next five or ten years.

Elia Cmiral and Toby Wilkins

“I try to be different and try to find a new way to score these films,” Cmiral said. “I have some ideas for my next project, like maybe using more human sounds. This might be something I can try to explore. I think the electronic chaos we’ve heard so much of, if it’s in the hands of somebody who doesn’t really know what they’re doing, can end up with drones and just sounds. We have so many great libraries of sounds nowadays which we didn’t have fifteen years ago. I didn’t have these sounds when I did APARTMENT ZERO where I had to do everything myself – I had a couple of very primitive samples – but that limitation forced all of us to use more imagination and develop sounds, instead of people thinking they are Stravinsky overnight by buying a classical library with this classical sounds, but it’s not really true. I played in an orchestra, and when I am writing this kind of sound I am thinking like a player – how would I play that, how would it sound. Even if I am using some library sounds I’ll overdub live instruments or find different ways of using existing sounds to get a kind of realism, instead of just getting something from the box.”

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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