The visuals and the sounds of David Lowery’s The Green Knight combine to make an overwhelming experience. The stunning cinematography and use of colour are a huge reason why it’s so good, but so is the aural landscape – the sound design and score. We spoke to regular Lowery collaborator Daniel Hart about creating the soundtrack for the film – which included a recorder quartet, a choir of female singers, a synth and Hart’s own singing voice.
We also discussed the significant changes that the film went through, including a major re-edit that Lowery did after the release was delayed by the pandemic. And finally, Hart gave us some insights into the green double vinyl release of the soundtrack that will be coming from A24 in early December.
You’ve worked with David Lowery many times before – what do you think makes you two such good collaborators?
I wonder about that too sometimes! It came to us very easily, right from the start. I didn’t know him all that well when we started collaborating, he was a friend of a friend. And this person in between us is Toby Halbrooks who produces most of David’s films and does some writing on the scripts as well. Toby and I used to play in a band together, so Toby is very close to both of us and that was our connection.
But there’s something about the kind of stories that he (David Lowery) was telling and the way he wanted to tell them, his aesthetic that immediately resonated with me. That answered a lot of the questions that I might have with other directors, when I’m working with them for the first time about how they see things. About how they see not only music, but how they see the world. I felt that David and I never that discussion because it seemed like we didn’t need to. So I don’t know exactly what it is, but we have a similar vision for stories, I guess.
How does the collaboration work with him? By now, you must have an established process. Does it work the same on every film, or does it differ?
We have a shorthand, so we don’t have to speak as much now about what he’s looking for. Some things go very fast. We usually start with a conversation about instrumentation, we did that on The Green Knight as well. I had some things in mind, based on the script, some musical things that I wanted to try, including using a recorder quartet and David was up for that. I asked him if we were going to try to avoid musical anachronisms and he said that he didn’t care about that and in fact that he encouraged some Fever Ray style synths in several places – so that was good information for me to know.
So there’s usually a conversation about instrumentation, then usually I’ll write a few pieces of music during production, when I just have a script. I’ll visit the set for a couple of days and that’ll give me an idea of how things might sound, then I’ll send him some ideas. Some of those ideas work and some of them don’t and those that do, end up in the film and that was the case here. There’s a cue called Christ is Born Indeed which is the second cue in the film, as Gawain is stumbling his way drunkenly through a brothel and that is the demo that I made for a recorder quartet, a percussion piece that I sent to David, before I actually had a film to work on.
So, in approaching The Green Knight did you do much research into the music of the time? I know you used a mix of instruments and it’s not just lutes and things we associate with the Middle Ages, but did you research Welsh folk songs and music of the period (or as close as you could get)?
I did, I spent a fair amount of time researching Middle English poetry, because this was not something that I knew anything about, unlike David, who took a class at university where he had to read the epic poem upon which the film is based and that was his inspiration for doing it. I never took that class or anything like it. So I spent a long time getting to know Middle English, through poetry and a lot of YouTube videos, actually, of people who seem to know how to pronounce it! I made myself a little dictionary of words that I liked because of their sound, or spelling, or both, and the differences between them and modern English that felt very melodious to me. There’s a piece of music in the film called O Nyghtegale [pronounced O Nicht e Gala] – which is just nightingale in Middle English. The difference between those two words is really striking to me, it’s a perfect example of the overwhelming influence of Scandinavian languages on Middle English, that has almost essentially gone from the way we speak it today.
From the first moments of The Green Knight – the water dripping on the windowsill – the score and the sound design work so well together. How aware were you of the sound design, while working on the score or did you adapt to the sound design as you went along?
I had to adapt along the way because the version of the film that I got, when I started working, didn’t have all of the sound design in it yet. But this was my third time, I think, of working with Johnny Marshall – the sound designer on The Green Knight, because he also did The Old Man and the Gun and A Ghost Story (both directed by Lowery). He’s part of the same crew of people from Texas that work on a lot of films together. So I had some idea of what it would be like to work together, to marry sound design and score – we’re both fans of each other – so it’s not hard for Johnny and I to find places to work well together. I think there were also places where – because I had a version of the film without the sound design in it yet – he adapted the sound design to fit the score. And then I moved score around for sound design as well, it felt really easy actually, I don’t remember running into any trouble there.
The Green Knight uses choral voices as one of the main instruments – could you tell me a bit about developing the use of the voice in the score?
It was part of my original list of instrumentation for the film. It comes from my childhood, my parents are both choir directors and church musicians, in the episcopal church, in that Anglican tradition where a lot of the music within the mass, the music based around the liturgical aspects of an episcopal service have roots in Medieval British music. There’s a big part of that tradition that is choral and I grew up singing in these choirs, I was surrounded by choral music, so it really appealed to me to have it in there (in the film).
Those voices are just so magical, these women that we recorded at Air in London – three sopranos and four altos – I didn’t know any of them before we started, they were found by our contractor Bridget Samuels. They were so brilliant and these women’s voices, they transported me, I couldn’t believe how ethereal they sounded, from the very first note that we recorded. I think it made both David and I want to feature them maybe even more than we planned. When we edited the film after recording all those parts (David went back to edit the film more because he wasn’t quite happy with what he’d made and the pandemic meant that we had extra time to work on it) when he went back to edit, he took choral parts that I’d written for other scenes, when he changed scenes and needed new music, he just threw choral parts in. So the choir ended up in the film a lot more than was originally intended.
There’s a sound that I’m going to describe as a warping synth sound that comes in when Gawain first chops off the Green Knight’s head and it’s like alarm bells – “oh no, I’m going to have to do this now” – and the other use is during my favourite shot – the circling one in the forest – how did you achieve this sound and how did you decide where to use it?
It’s a Prophet Rev2 synth and it came from a demo that I made right when I started. I got the synth right before I started this film as well, I’d maybe had the synth for a week and I was just messing around. I was trying to find sounds that felt like the film to me or what I knew of the film at that point. I found this preset, then I started changing it to get closer to what I had in mind and I got to a place where I really liked it. It had this slow arppegiated, lurching, haunting nature to it. I started twiddling more knobs and I put on a ring modulator and I would turn it all the way on and off, which created that siren-like sound – I really liked that so I recorded it.
David really liked that demo immediately and put it into the film in that scene where Gawain chops off the head of the Green Knight and it stayed there from that point on. A few weeks later when I came back to mess around with it more for another scene, the synth wouldn’t do what I’d done the previous time. I just couldn’t find it, I got pretty close because I’d made some notes about what I’d done to get it, because I liked it so much. But it wouldn’t do the same thing again. Just like a month ago, I tried again but I can’t get it. I don’t know – a ghost in the machine.
I thought because it’s such an easily identifiable and unique sound, I didn’t want to overuse it. But I was looking for a place to reprise it after the decapitation scene and that 360 shot with the skeleton, which is also one of my favourite shots of the film, seemed like the right place for it to come back.
There’s a song that leads into Gawain’s approach to the giants, which segues into the sound the giants make, which I believe is based on whale song. Can you tell me about your choice of song here?
Yeah – it’s a big scene, a big moment, very dramatic moment where Gawain meets these giants in the wilderness for the first time – this tribe of giants. I wrote a big, orchestral cue for the scene because I thought it has to be as big as possible, I put all the instruments in that we were gonna use for the score, everything was in there. It didn’t quite work, I sent it to David anyway and he was like “yep – it doesn’t work” and we tried modifying it. This was a point in the process where David was realising something which he told me at the time, which is that – we have our expectations of what we thought this film was and what we think it should be and the film seems to rejecting those expectations over and over again. It makes sense that you would have a really big orchestral cue in this moment when Gawain’s meeting a tribe of giants, I would think that would work, but it clearly didn’t. So we were stumped.
So David said “what about a song?” I think because of my background as a songwriter, it seemed like a possible solution to him. My band’s music is the first thing that he ever heard and is the reason that he asked me to collaborate with him in the first place, so it’s a kernel of our work. So I did, I wrote the song Aiganz O Kulzphazur and he loved it! It set off a whole chain reaction where anytime we ran into trouble in another scene, he said “well how about a song here?” so we ended up with a lot of songs in the film, which was not the plan when we started.
I’m so interested in how The Green Knight changed, I know that we as an audience will probably never know what the original cut was like, but I’m really fascinated by what those changes were in that re-edit that Lowery did.
Yeah, it was significant. More than anything, it was significant in the pacing because the film that I started on was slower, if you can imagine, even more meditative than the film that was put out into the world. There were a lot more questions left unanswered in the original version. Like the question of “what role does Gawain’s mother play in all of this?” I think that’s very clearly answered in the film that is seen. She makes the Green Knight, but that was not part of the original story that was being told in our film. Or it certainly wasn’t told in a way that made it so cut-and-dry and I think that changes a lot about the kind of story you’re telling – if you are saying that directly, or implying it and letting people wonder.
In the final section, the music becomes even more important than it has been up until that point, because it’s dialogue-free. There’s two songs used, as well as instrumentation and I think it might be one of the very few uses of a male voice in song. How did you and David decide what songs to use here and when you’d have the transitions into instrumentation?
The song Blome Swete Lilie Flour was another scene where I wrote something very dramatic and orchestral that didn’t work and David said “how about a song here as well?” That’s me singing the song – I had planned to replace myself with someone else and had even started brainstorming who we were going to ask to do it. But it turned out really well, I don’t mean that in a self-important way, but maybe I was a little surprised that it did turn out as well as it did and David was really pleased with it too so we just left it with my voice. So that was the result of something else not working.
The other song – O Nyghtegale – is sung on camera by one of Gawain’s sisters, as she’s midwifing for the birth of Gawain’s son. That was the first piece of music that I ever wrote for the film, we knew that there was going to be on-camera singing during that birthing scene and David asked me to write something for it. That was the start of my investigation into Middle English poetry. I wrote this thing that I wanted to be part-British folk song, part-Hildegard of Bingen.
The score took over once Athena, the sister’s singing was done. I think in both of our minds we knew there would be this big section of non-stop score at the end of the film. I think the thing that surprised me, on the other side of it, is that that last piece of music, called Now I’m Ready, I’m Ready Now seems to be the most popular piece of music from the film. It has the most streams online anyway. It’s just a long, heavily string-based piece, I don’t know why it’s struck people. It took a long time to make, it was hard to find the right thing, I’m really happy with how it turned out in the end.
And you’ve got The Green Knight green vinyl coming out in early December. I don’t know how much input you have on things like packaging or other decisions for the double vinyl soundtrack release?
I am not a big fan of long soundtracks. I mean, I want to hear every piece of music that was written for ET, but for the majority of films that I’ve seen, I don’t need every single little incidental moment. So I’m apprehensive about releasing long soundtracks myself, but it was too difficult for me to choose between a lot of the pieces of music that were written for this film. They all felt important to the storytelling to me, so we ended up with a long soundtrack. It’s still not all of the music that’s in the film, but it is a good representation, it is a large chunk of the music. And because you can only put so much on one side of vinyl, we had to do double vinyl. I was a little apprehensive about asking for that from the record label, but they didn’t bat an eye. So that whole part of it was easy. I think it was JC from Milan who figured out the math on where the cuts needed to happen to put which parts of music on which sides of vinyl, I just approved it because that was not hard to do.
The artwork – I had zero say. A24 likes to handle all of that themselves. They have very brilliant graphic and layout designers who seem to hit homeruns every time. But I’m not a visual artist, thank God no one wants me to make a film because it would be terrible. So I’m grateful that no one is asking me to give ideas for the visual aspects of the soundtrack.
The Green Knight – Full Review
The Green Knight and Non-White Identity – Feature