Writing Music for Cinema, an Interview with Maam on “Tethered”
Besides the plot, one of the most fascinating elements of cinema is the music. It brings to life the suspenseful, dramatic, and reflective scenes; it reveals deeper emotions of characters; foreshadows and cues viewers into broader patterns; and in short, acts like a glue that ties everything together in a cohesive whole.
Sonic landscapes and textures aside, music in cinema also works powerfully alongside the plot to drive home core messages and enhance on-screen realities. This is especially important for documentaries and films focusing on a particular issue in society, whether that’s diversity in the face of racial inequality, environmental activism on a changing planet, access to healthcare, or anything else.
In today’s interview, we’ll be sitting down with composer, producer, and pianist Maam (Marcus Mack) to get a closer look into the world of film score composition and creative collaboration. He also discusses his work writing the soundtrack for the 2021 sci-fi thriller Tethered, his favorite instruments and tools, and more.
“Inspired by slowness, contemplation, melancholy, delicate beauty, the ineffable; Los Angeles based composer and pianist Maam blends improvisation, minimalist motifs, textured vocals, and synthesis to create mesmerizing compositions.” — from Maam’s Spotify
Tethered tells the story of a detective named Sam searching for a murderer, her missing partner, and her own sanity. In order to discover the truth of what happened, she’ll have to suffer even greater consequences. Tethered was written and directed by Gregg Furuoka and stars Caroline Harris, Joshua Kwak, Connor Keene, Erika Enggren, and Curtis Fortier.
Andrew Cheek: First could you share a little about your background with music and composition?
Maam: I started writing music at a young age with a Yamaha keyboard with the speakers in it and a dual cassette deck to add layers to my production through overdubbing. As a teenager, I got very serious about music production and playing drums. After being a part of my first album project at 15, I knew I wanted to be writing music as a career.
I started producing music all the time after that and started collaborating with local artists on their projects. Shortly after that, I went to Berklee College of Music and studied film composition. Midway into my time there I started playing organ and decided to take piano way more seriously, when I learned I could make triple the money gigging playing keys. I continued to also work with local artists and started creating music for tv shows and commercials.
How did you get into writing soundtracks and start on the sci-fi thriller Tethered (2021)?
Believe it or not I got into scoring films off of a 15 second Instagram story I posted that featured some music I was writing. Someone who I hadn’t spoken to in like 4 years DMed me and asked if I was still scoring films. He explained he had taken a scoring job, but was completely in over his head and asked to collaborate.
A week later I was on the phone with the director and two days later they solely hired me to write for the film (Where We Begin). Six months after finishing that project, the director Josh contacted me about doing the score for Tethered.
Was there something in particular you wanted to represent in the Tethered soundtrack?
Yes. Creating the music for Tethered was multifaceted in that, the first half of the film has a melancholic and somber tone articulated by the main character Sam and the second half of the film is a potential descent into madness fueled by anxiety.
I wanted to create something that unveiled Sam’s intimate internal emotions that she was too stubborn to be honest with herself about. My goal was to use melancholic vocal motifs, drones, shifts in tempo, pitch, and irregular incongruent syncopations to capture her evolving mood throughout the course of the film.
How does scoring a film differ to you compared to other types of music you write?
The thing that I truly enjoy about writing for visual media is that the context and story are already provided. My job is to come in an underscore and enhance a particular emotional environment so the viewer can be completely immersed in the film.
Writing music for myself or for other artists is different in that everything happens from complete scratch, which means there are endless possibilities that can be overwhelming creatively. The difference really is about the starting point for me, and whether or not the context is provided or if I’m generating the story and context from scratch.
How do you incorporate a more defined meaning or message into music, especially music without words?
I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to have a clear vision about the story you want to tell even if it’s instrumental music, because that greatly affects the musical decisions you make.
For me, contextualization is everything! I can create something that just sounds good or feels good, but having a clear story and vision takes that to the next level. That’s always my starting point is trying to understand what the story is and how it needs to be articulated.
What’s your creative process like when making a song (related to Tethered or more broadly)?
The creative process for Tethered specifically, consisted of me watching the scenes through a few times and sitting with the emotional environment. From that point, I’d start doing sound design on my synthesizer or would record a vocal motif and build the cue around those elements.
Texture and timing were very important elements to me to get the emotion right, so I spent a fair amount of time manipulating sounds and playing with effects. Usually I start my writing process on piano solely, but a lot of the cues for Tethered were devised from the inspiration of a synth sound or impromptu voice memo recordings of a hummed single vocal line.
How do you think art functions as an instrument of change in the world, especially given the increased awareness of diversity & diverse representation over the last few years?
Art is a representation in many ways to me of culture. Although there’s has definitely been some evolution in cultural mores and shifts in policy, old ideological structures are still pervasive and have a stronghold on how people desire, what they desire, and what they do to themselves and each other.
Art can be in that sense, a tool to un-house and start conversations around the antagonisms of our time. My goal in creating music is to create spaces of introspection that help us relate to and wrestle with the chaotic nature of life.
Which computer programs and instruments do you like to use when composing?
Ableton is where it’s at for me in terms of a DAW. I use it to compose, mix, and master. Its UI/UX reminds me so much of an MPC2000XL, which is what I learned to produce on. Outside of that I primarily design
all my sounds on my Prophet 08 or my Moog Sub Phatty and I have an upright Young Chang I use to record piano. Every now and again I’ll use native instruments plugins, but it’s pretty rare at this point.
So what’s next? Do you have any upcoming projects that you’re working on?
Well, the Tethered soundtrack just dropped today so it’s officially out on all platforms. I also just finished writing the music for a documentary entitled Black Over Blue about policing while being black. I’m releasing a single before the end of the year as an artist and am finishing up my next album project Whatever Gods.
Is anything else you’d like to add?
Follow me on Instagram for all the latest artist updates and projects. Check me out on your preferred music platform as Maam. And hit me up to score your next project!
Thanks for reading!