Interview with Lesley Barber, composer of ‘Manchester by the Sea’

The beautiful, devastating, and highly moving film ‘Manchester by the Sea‘ is graced with a score that is just as powerful. Its composer, Lesley Barber, worked with director Kenneth Lonergan before on his 2000 film ‘You Can Count On Me,’ as well as on the likes of period drama ‘Mansfield Park‘ and documentary ‘How to Change the World,’ showcasing her range as a composer. While I was watching ‘Manchester by the Sea,’ I noticed how beautiful the score was, perfectly adding to the raw emotion of the film without ever overwhelming it to the point of feeling contrived or cheesy. It can be easy for a poignant film scene to be spoilt by an overbearing soundtrack, but Lesley’s score never once falls into this trap. The soundtrack is innovative too, making use of a cappella and choral voices in addition to its beautiful string and piano arrangements. Fascinated by the world Lesley helped to build with her stunning soundtrack, we caught up with her to discuss her process as a composer.

What was it about this film that made you want to compose its score?

First of all, when Kenny called me I was thrilled to work with him again because I had very much enjoyed our work on ‘You Can Count On Me.’ I’d kept up with his work over the years and we had both worked on other things, and then it was this wonderful thing of coming back together to work on something after we had worked on so many other projects ourselves. So this was a film where I knew that I’d be able to make really bold choices. There’s something about writing for Kenny’s films where there’s really nowhere to hide as a composer, he’s listening with the kind of critical ears that a composer has, and I learn a lot from working with him, so it’s a real honour and very exciting to work on any of his projects.

What was it like to work with Kenneth Lonergan again?

It’s always an honour working with him, and it’s a process where I feel I can bring ideas to the table that in other films we don’t have the luxury of time or the luxury of a dialogue to be able to look at why some things work and why they don’t. So I feel I can bring him ideas that are perhaps unconventional and that they can become part of the dialogue. That’s really fantastic, because quite often other directors are looking for a fairly conventional cinematic language, and in this case you can see it was different, I mean with the a cappela voices and combining it with pre-existing music is an interesting approach.

Lucas Hedges and Casey Affleck in MANCHESTER BY THE SEA. Photo credit_ Courtesy of Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions-1

I was really interested by your use of voices, a cappella, and choral arrangements in the score. What inspired you to use them?

The film is set in a small Massachusetts setting and when we meet Lee he has returned to this small town. It seems like he’s trying to start over or he’s trying to reconnect with the town and reconnect with himself, and also come to terms with his past. When I read the script, I just had this idea of Massachusetts as a place of new colonisation and started thinking about pilgrims who came to this part of the world to start over again, and looked at old seventeenth century hymns and how they sung a cappella. I started to develop pieces that still sounded modern but had a sense of this very old, originating material. That was where that idea came from and it just seemed right, and when Kenny and I started working with the music in conjunction to the themes, it started a new perspective and worked really well.

How did you strike the balance of the music being moving without being over the top?

I think working with Kenny, I knew going in that we would probably look at the score as adding a new perspective to the scenes, and working almost from a counterpoint to what was going on in the scenes, so it wasn’t going to be a conventional narrative approach. It was an approach for bringing a new voice to the story of the film.

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What’s your process when composing for a film – how do you translate it into music?

It starts with reading the script and just getting a sense of the emotions at play and what’s at stake for the central characters. A lot of the score is an intuitive process and some of it is created more by design. Once I see the film and how it has been cut and see what the director’s looking for, then we start a collaborative dialogue and look at what’s working and what’s not, and build a score that way. With this film I wrote some of the scenes before we started working. I wrote the vocal scenes and a piece that later became orchestral, that in its beginnings was an improvisation on piano – variations on specific scenes developed from improvisations.

Do you have a favourite piece that you composed for this film or a favourite scene that you scored?

There’s a couple of places where we used the a cappella pieces that really brings a new perspective to the scenes and there’s something unifying about these in the way they accumulate meaning as the film goes on. Those pieces for me work well when Lee is looking for work, or when Patrick’s on his way to his father’s funeral, or Lee driving alone in his car. I think I most enjoy the way the meaning of the pieces strengthened with the film and with the gathering meaning of the film.

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Did you feel like you connected to the film itself on a personal level as well as professionally?

Oh definitely, when I was working on the film I felt like Lee was in the room everyday. You do build an incredible emotional attachment to the characters that you’re writing for. There are always those times in our lives when we’re going through really tough stuff, nothing like what Lee’s going through, which is unimaginable, but the sun is still shining and life is still going on and you’re sort of just putting one foot in front of the other. There’s also an incredible amount of humour in the film; it’s a wonderful meeting place of darkness and light and grief and humour. So it was a complicated, beautiful world to be a part of.

When you started your career, what was it that made you want to compose music for films?

It’s a wonderful escape when you’re composing music for characters, and it’s the storyteller in me. When you bring new music into the film, it’s like bringing a new character into it, and for a composer it’s a wonderful opportunity to tell stories through music. There’s incredible time pressure and a lot of detail involved, but all these things thrill me, they really do, and when I first started writing for film I really felt like I’d found my niche. Every project brings an entirely different world, which is exciting. Suddenly I’m thinking about what kind of music that brings into my mind. So it’s an incredible exploration every time of an entire new world.

Listen to the soundtrack for ‘Manchester by the Sea’ below:

‘Manchester by the Sea’ is currently in cinemas across the UK. Read our review here.