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Film / Music / Sundance

"If youre wanting to be a film composer, you must see as many films at ALL the theatres, and when youre not seeing new (and old) films you really gotta be reading film theory and all that."

Jordan Dykstra

Feb 21, 2022

Brooklyn-based composer and performer Jordan Dykstra specialises in film and concert music. At this years Sundance his latest feature film score can be discovered in the Ukrainian war correspondent and filmmaker Mstyslav Chernov's powerful documentary 20 Days in Mariupol. As the Russian invasion begins, follows a team of Ukrainian journalists trapped in the besieged city of Mariupol who struggle to continue their work documenting the war’s atrocities.


Hi Jordan, thank you for talking with The New Current, how have you been?


Very good, thanks. I just returned back home to Brooklyn from Park City. Time to get to all those emails which have been building up over the past 2 weeks.


Congratulations on having 20 Days in Mariupol premiere at Sundance 2023, do you ever get nervous ahead of a new film being screened?


Thanks! Yes, I always get nervous when seeing a new film in the theatre — or maybe anxious and excited better describe the feeling. I am always so curious to hear the mix in a properly treated theatre with a surround sound (even though every theatre is just so different)! And then there’s the audience’s reaction in real time, that energy is palpable.


What’s that feeling like, sitting in a cinema with an audience and watching them react to your score?


It’s incomparable, but perhaps somewhat akin to seeing live standup comedy? You know, like the way the room’s energy can change the way you experience familiar moments. The energy can feel so vivid at times or, at other movements, completely unexpected (and not always in the most comfortable way) — every screening is so different. At the premiere of 20 Days in Mariupol at the Egyptian Theatre I could sense many people holding back tears, and some were not able to achieve this. When the credits finally rolled the audience began to clap, but hesitantly, I think because they were still processing what they had seen — the contradictory feeling of being stunned but also feeling grateful for the filmmaker’s work. When the director later came up for a Q&A the audience jumped to their feet and gave a long standing ovation, it was incredible.


When do you normally come onboard a film project, is it important for a composer to be there at the very start of a production?

Every project is a bit different but I prefer to be there from the beginning, even at the stage where the film exists only as a script (or an assembly, in the case of a documentary). I prefer to be involved as early as possible so that conceptual elements can be included in the production process and folded into the filming process.


Due to the salient nature and subject of 20 Days in Mariupol did you have any apprehension about how you would create a score that dealt with such powerful and relevant themes?


I am honoured to be a part of such a powerful — and pertinent — project. I feel grateful to the director Mystalov and producers, especially Michelle Miznor, who gave me the opportunity to come on board and fill in the blanks. At a young age I fell in love with Frontline, even at one point stating on Twitter that 50% of all I own should be donated to the organization if I die (I didn’t have a will at the time), so I am honoured to be given the opportunity to help forward the stellar programming that WGBH Frontline offers the American populous. The AP, who the director works for, is also an excellent news source. As far as having apprehension, I was a bit nervous about jumping head first into a project with such intense imagery. I had done it before, especially with my string composing work on It Comes At Night, and there were days I had to murder my way out of my nightmares. It was intense, I knew I would need to switch it up on the next project and focus on something a bit more light-hearted. I know our editor Mizner said that she hadn’t ever cried as much as she did while editing 20 Days and I must acknowledge that it was the same for me; I have never wept as much as I did while scoring 20 Days in Mariupol. You know what, I don’t think I’ve ever wept while scoring before!


What was it about 20 Days in Mariupol that connected with you and inspired you to create the score?


The first thing that drew me into the project was the audaciousness of the edit — I was floored. I had never seen a Frontline episode quite like this. It was bold, courageous, truly harrowing, and unflinching. The episode was an unapologetic document of the Russian invasion and it gave a fascinating account of how news is captured and what these war correspondents go through. It gave an unfiltered sense of the shot-but-unseen footage almost always removed from the public’s eye. Oh, and plus they had temped in a bunch of my chamber music, choosing some of the stranger pieces. The music they were looking for was really noisy and harsh, they wanted the sonic landscape to mimic the visual aesthetics which were a lot of shelled windowless industrial buildings so I tried to bring that in the horror-like score. You know, the feeling that war is impending and knocking at your door. It’s really a distressing watch, as you might imagine, but that allowed me to implore some of my favourite microtonal and noise music techniques.


How important is the creative collaborative relationship between a composer and your director?

The relationship between the director and myself is of utmost importance. If we can’t see eye to eye – or if we can’t imagine how we might see eye to eye in the process going forward – it's impossible, or very unlikely, that we can find our way forward.


If you could describe your score for 20 Days in Mariupol in three words what would they be?


Disorienting noise-dread.


Have you always had a passion for composing and performing music?


When I was much younger (around 6 or 7 years old) I began listening to my older brothers practice violin. I had a good ear but didn’t much enjoy reading music from the staff. By time I was studying the more difficult Suzuki books I already had parts of the pieces memorised, maybe one section or just the beginning or whatever I heard my brothers playing. So when I played the pieces for my violin teacher I could shred on those passages but then I improvise the sections which I hadn’t yet memorised. My teacher in Le Mars, Iowa would say, “well, that’s interesting” as I would improvise a Bach-like passage, trying to bullshit my way through the piece. This was my first instance of composing my own music. From then on I was always a performer, but I really thrived on making my own music, even though the vast majority of it was just for me, in private.


How much has your approach to your work changed since you started out?


My approach to composition, especially in regards to composing for media, has changed vastly in the past years. Brian McOmber taught me an innumerable amount of things in regards to audio editing, workflow, and a number of other technicalities but I really grew when I got the opportunity to see what I had under the hood myself. You know, really jump off into the deep end. I am now, more than ever, excited to connect my techniques as a chamber music composer with the direction of interesting media scoring projects in terms of timbre, instrumentation, and tone-versus-noise elements. I find it extremely exciting and I can’t wait to see which future projects fit just right with my strengths.


Is it helpful to be flexible when you’re composing and do you have any rituals that you stick to that help guide your creative process?


As you can imagine, there is no flexibility around being flexible with one’s film scoring work. At times this can feel undesirable but when you step back and look at the big picture (literally) and realise how many hundreds of people have put in so much time and money to make this project come to life then it is so much easier to remember that by being flexible the whole project has this amorphous quality that, when things are working ideally, brings out everyone’s individual strengths. You get to create a score you never would have made on your own. That’s an incredible feeling. I will add that I also really enjoy composing for concert music and in that practice I have much more control over the direction in which I choose to go.


Growing up, what was the first instrument you fell in love with?


The first instrument I truly fell in love with was the viola. I switched from the violin to viola as I was going through puberty and while my speaking voice was getting lower and lower. The youth symphony needed more violists and, as a violinist who was losing his attraction to the instrument in general, I found myself truly singing with my new voice (and instrument).


Who are your biggest musical influences?


James Tenney (for his theory and experimentation), Alvin Lucier (my late mentor, especially for his playfulness and microtonal agility), Michael Pisaro (another mentor), Stars of the Lid, Johnny Greenwood (who I fell in love with as a teenager – even making a Radiohead fan site when I was 15 — and who also played viola), Witold Lutosławski, Morton Feldman, Daniel Lopatin, Jóhann Jóhannsson (another one of us composers who works both in film and concert music), Robert Ashely, Ben Johnston, Charles Ives, Tim Hecker…There are too many to list!


What does your music say about you?


My music is continually evolving and I hope that over time one can see (and hear) my trajectory. I grew up near the Missouri River on the Iowan side and, as I mentioned earlier, I started out as a classically trained violinist when I was 4 and then switched to viola ten years later. I’ve played in all kinds of bands (as a guitarist, drummer, keyboard player, and violist) and still play with a number of ensembles. All my life I’ve studied music and traveled all over the world to learn from interesting composers and performers. I’ve taken vibraphone lessons in South Dakota, played in both Balinese and Javanese gamelan ensembles, apprenticed with composer-conductor Daníel Bjarnason in Iceland, toured in an indie rock band with Bradford Cox from Atlas Sound and Deerhunter, played synths in an old milk truck delivery van with Rob Walmart at BBQs and all that. It’s been a rich life and I hope my music (at least SOME OF THE TIME!) showcases these colourful and varied experiences in my past.


Of all the projects you have composed do you have one that you are really connected to?


If it is not the one I am currently working on there is a problem… That being said, I was really lucky to work on Gus Van Sant’s film Restless back in 2011 when I was living in Portland. I came on as a stand-in for Henry Hopper, Dennis Hopper’s son, and got to spend a lot of time with Gus, the amazing Harris Svedies who was the DP, and all the gaffers while they set up for each shot. It was a magical experience, and not only because Gus asked me to play mellotron on screen!


Do you have any advice or tips you would offer someone wanting to get into composing?


Be born into money?? Have generally really good luck in life??? Haha, it’s really just so different for everyone. I would say you must dive in as deep as you can. You know, if you’re interested in composing chamber music you must absolutely be obsessed with your predecessors and see as many chamber music performances as possible. If you’re wanting to be a film composer, you must see as many films at ALL the theatres, and when you’re not seeing new (and old) films you really gotta be reading film theory and all that. Check out the Schrader on Schrader book, and the Herzog on Herzog interviews, and read some scripts. You gotta be obsessed with whatever you’re doing. If it’s a struggle to feel obsessed, give yourself 6 months, and, if after that you can’t feel the energy, it might not be the right path for you.


Finally, what would you like audiences to take away from your music?


For my chamber music I aim to give the audience an introspective sonic experience, a period of time they can hear familiar sounds in a new way. I also very much try to achieve an openness in my live performances that offers the listener an invitation to go inward. As for my film music, I hope that the scores audiences experience give a sense of a heightened cinematic experience – something different than live theatre or concert music. At times this experience feels like something unexpected and strange while other times it gives a visual harmony, or counterpoint even, to the image on screen

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