Composer Tamar-kali is at Sundance Film Festival 2020 with no less than three films: Shirley (directed by Josephine Decker), The Last Thing He Wanted (directed by Dee Rees) and The Assistant (directed by Kitty Green). She also composed the incredible score for Mudbound (also directed by Dee Rees). I spoke to her about her score for Shirley, which is almost a character in the movie, bringing together the three central female presences in the story – Shirley, Rose and a missing young woman, Paula.

How was the process of collaboration with Josephine Decker?

I initially had a phone meeting with Josephine and we just had a natural flow as if we’d been friends already for years. I ended up seeing a cut of the film and I found it very evocative, it was like a fever-dream. And then, we accidentally met each other and we were actually able to sit down in person and speak with each other and I think that really sealed it. We had a spotting session with our music editor and basically hashed out what the general direction was for every cue, what she was looking to convey and how she wanted the music to marry to the image. After that I set about creating a palette and decided basically what the musical arc would look like.

Indie films have a small budget and she explained to me that she was very interested in the female vocal as a lead instrument. I’m a performing and recording artist, I’m a vocalist first and foremost and so I said “we can do that.” So I was able to lean a lot on my choral and classical training, but the great part about that was that I could push it into new places, new spaces because Josephine’s style is very visceral and haunting. So when I was musing about how I wanted to shape the different sounds for the film, I was thinking about giving each woman a voice – Shirley, Rose and the missing girl Paula. And I was thinking about: “what would be a three-part harmony, what would be that resonating chord that we would revisit in the film when a certain cycled event would happen.” So I kind of started from there and built forward.

As for the other instrumentation, one thing that I did say to Josephine about why I wanted to be involved with the film is that I thought the temp score was very interesting, it was the most interesting temped movie I had ever viewed. The things separately would seem very disparate, but together, it just made sense. I got the general gist of all what all the pieces she had assembled had in common and that was what she was looking for, this space of existence, this feeling.

There is a scene where Shirley reads Rose’s tarot cards and it leads into a vision of the missing girl Paula. Here, the strings are being plucked in quite a discordant, scratchy way, can you tell me a bit about this choice?

It’s interesting, I’ve heard people refer to it as guitar plucks, but it’s a string quartet, piano and voice, that’s it. So one thing we do with the tarot reading and other things is the music editor (Nancy Allen, who is very brilliant), we were kind of thinking about terms that would describe certain plot vehicles and we were talking about initiation and activation and I thought of it as an invocation. Kind of inviting spirits in and that is definitely a theme that happens when Shirley is being visited by her muses. You know you have your muses in general, but here it is very specific – the ghost of this girl. So, I wanted something to symbolise that activation, that invocation.

So I used a finger-cymbal to try and create that chime effect, to mark that separation from the standard world into a world where things aren’t so material and aren’t so tangible. The strings were part of that, the piano and finger-cymbal signifying the shift in the mood and then the voice to kind of carry you through. In terms of the pizzicato strings, I feel like the space where that’s most noted and effective is that scene where there’s the sexual tension between Shirley and Rose. It was all about not preceding the actions. It was a lot fuller at first, but that was one that took a little time, Josephine and I sat down together and I just kept pulling away and pulling away, until we finally found the right balance. The start and the stop, the use of silence, it really helped to support what was happening in the scene.

There is a scene where Shirley sends Rose out to do her bidding (discover more about the missing girl Paula) and the score becomes more propulsive at this point, urging Rose on. Can you tell me about this piece?

That particular cue is called Emissary/Captive Queen, so it’s so interesting that you say she sends her out to do her bidding. Because Shirley is the queen of her castle but is captive in it. So I wanted to start with something that has a rub, to reflect Rose scrubbing the stairs. The way that she’s approaching this domestic work, it’s a very grounded menial labour. There’s a rub to it because essentially Rose hasn’t come there to be her maid. Rose knows that Shirley is insisting, but there’s also a playfulness, because they have this banter going on, so building up that rhythm is what I wanted to do. And then it kind of becomes a quest, so I wanted the piano to reflect that. It’s a cycle as well because Shirley is agoraphobic and she wants to be out in the world, but she can’t gather the gumption to do it, falling back into a pattern of depression and feeling trapped in her own home. I did want to create the feeling of a journey, an odyssey because Shirley is sending Rose on a mission.

I did start to pick up on what I’ve referred to as Paula’s Theme. She is such a strong presence in the film, she’s not a character as such, but she’s a dominant force. So what were you trying to do with her theme?

I refer to it as possession because her story is a catalyst for Shirley’s creativity. Shirley would have these visions and it’s almost like a possession. You hear her reciting what becomes the text of the book. So it needed to be vocal but not necessarily sung. In those instances, I’m vocalising but not in a traditional lyrical way, it’s more guttural sounds and there’s some layers that might be obfuscated by the rest of the sound. It’s these textures that are all oral.

It’s almost like giving a voice to this character who doesn’t a voice?

It’s not so much about Paula’s voice but how she affects Shirley. So there’s a chord and they each have a note and there are times where they all come together. But Paula’s movements in the film activate Shirley and her imagination and when that’s the case, it’s a very loose vocalising technique, it’s lingual, but there are no lyrics or even “ooos and aaas”, it’s more guttural.

There is a montage where it starts to snow and we realise that Rose has had her baby. The piano is more dominant at this point, can you tell me about this stunning piece?

That was quite enjoyable. There’s something about when they reveal Rose’s baby, it has such a beauty and an innocence. Starting with that first fall of snow. In a film that’s this dark, twisted, tilted, it’s that one solid pure moment.

[Vague Spoilers Ahead]

There is a moment towards the end where Shirley and Rose are on a precipice. The score becomes like a chant at this point and we’re not sure if it’s urging them on or trying to hold them back.

I was most anxious about seeing that on screen because it’s all vocal and it’s all me so I felt very exposed watching it with everyone. At this point, Rose has been unmoored. Now, the roles have flipped where it’s Shirley who is trying to be the grounding energy and Rose needs Shirley to steady her.

They’re women on the campus of this woman’s college, but they’re spouses, they’re not a part of that world, there’s no camaraderie with the men. It’s the men and then the female students. So I wanted it to be a cacophony of female voices, like a loosing of all her thoughts and ideas, circling around and creating this noise. She doesn’t know what she wants to do, she’s unmoored and I wanted the score to reflect that. It also has a childlike quality because she’s being very wilful. All these voices in your head, all these possible directions, trying to balance your thoughts and insecurities. Being brought out of your comfort zone and also your sanity. And just being haunted, like they’ve been haunted by other women. So having all these voices, which are female voices, are they soothing you, are they pushing you over the edge, as you said.