There is a gap for potential leaders in curating classical music for the film industry, says CCM Composition alumnus Tyler Bradley Walker (DMA 2010), who recently served as music supervisor for feature film Novitiate. Walker is striving to fill that gap and enlisted the help of fellow CCM Composition alumnus Christopher Stark (MM 2007) to score the music-heavy feature film.
Novitiate, which debuted nationally on Nov. 10, is about a 17-year-old girl who trains to become a nun as the Roman Catholic Church undergoes radical changes in the early 1960s. Maggie Betts directs the film, which stars Melissa Leo, Dennis O’Hare, Dianna Agron and Margaret Qualley.
Walker says it was a huge honor to work with Betts on this almost entirely female-driven film project. Following the director’s vision for the film, Walker used art songs by composers Gabriel Fauré, Arvo Pärt and John Tavener. He studied the script and provided multiple musical options to pair with specific scenes — collecting around 150 options of art music.
“For me, using art music extensively as source material is exciting and underutilized in film,” Walker says. “Stanley Kubrick understood this to great effect but it has never entirely caught on. Thus, it was exciting to learn how Maggie was envisioning the film through a multitude of art songs and how we could incorporate them tonally.”
There are about 14 classical pieces used as source music in the movie, in addition to Tennessee Waltz by Patti Page. Walker hired Stark to write the score and maintain a cohesive musical tone throughout the film.
“The overall tone of the score, for me, is one of spiritual introspection — regardless of how one defines spiritual,” Stark says. “The movie is very carefully constructed and methodically paced so that the audience has time to self-reflect. The music really tries to help create this atmosphere.”
Stark studied the techniques of Pärt and Tavener and composed themes that used their ideas infused with his own personal style.
“The director had very specific emotions in mind for the particular scenes and characters,” Stark says. “For example, early in the film, when the young nun is falling in love with God, [Betts] asked me to create music with a sweet, child-like, yet romantic feeling — almost like how someone feels when they fall in love in high school.”
A 2017 recipient of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation fellowship, Stark regularly composes contemporary classical music for concerts. He recently returned to CCM for a guest artist recital with New Morse Code, which performed one of Stark’s works. Novitiate marks his first foray into film.
“Film music has to enhance the dialogue and imagery on the screen, so it’s supplemental by nature — you aren’t solely responsible for the audience’s attention,” Stark says. “With concert music, you have to provide all of the drama and interest, so the music is more involved and, hopefully, attention-grabbing.”
Walker began working in the music industry shortly after he graduated and was able to “cut his teeth” in all aspects of recording engineering and production. He is a “musical sommelier” who credits his studies and experiences for giving him an objectively extensive palette of musical knowledge, which is a huge advantage in the film industry, he says.
Walker and Stark work as part of Maven Music Supervision, a creative resource focused on curating, selecting, licensing and clearing music for film, television, video games and other visual media. They first met as students at CCM.
“Tyler was one of the first people I met when I started at CCM, and we have remained really close friends ever since,” Stark says. “We both really love listening to music and watching films, and we are constantly texting about what we are watching and listening to — along with our other buddy from CCM, Matt Heim.”
Walker remembers enjoying classes taught by Robert Zierolf, who served as the head of CCM Composition, Music history and Theory and as dean of the UC Graduate School before his retirement in 2014. Since graduating, Stark has remained close with CCM Composition Professor Michael Fiday.
“I have always admired him as a composer and he was such a supportive and thoughtful teacher while I was a student at CCM,” Stark says.
“Both Tyler and I learned so much music and technique while we were students at CCM, and we’ve been able to use those skills to do really varied and interesting things since graduating.”
Hear their work in Novitiate, released by Sony Pictures ClassicsTM, now playing in theaters nation-wide. Learn more about the film at sonyclassics.com/novitiate.