Film score and other forms of storytelling

Producer and musician Erika M. Anderson (EMA) talks about how she navigates multiple genres, including composing for film and theater


“With film, you want the timing to be very precise, to hit each mark with the correct emotion.”

Erika M. Anderson, who’s known by her stage name EMA, talks about creating “sonic language based on the history and aesthetics of recorded music.” The idea is to interpret through music not only the world around us, but the world that’s gone — the traces left behind by other artists. The work takes onto various forms: songwriting, scoring, performing… For her, “all art is a form of storytelling.” What we experience in her music is precisely a sense of narrative: places, soundscapes, stories, pieces of larger cultural themes.

In this interview, she talks about her music, her work in film and theater, her love for teaching and some of her great career experiences (such as touring with Depeche Mode last year.)

On the release of her latest album, Exile in the Outer Ring (2017), EMA was described by Rolling Stone magazine as “loud, unrepentant and able to reshape the space around her as a temporary autonomous zone.”

She makes all this great sound from the laid back (yet quite unique) Portland, OR, her home.

IAFA: One of the things we love about your work is how you take a multimedia approach to music: composing and performing as a singer-songwriter, collaborating with visual artists on technology based projects, writing film scores and theatrical performances, teaching … What interests you most as a musician and how do you combine these different elements in your work?

EMA: To be honest I consider myself a producer as much as a musician. I love to create a sonic language based on the history and aesthetics of recorded music, kind of a "sonic semiotics". All art is a form of storytelling and I like to use all the platforms available. I studied film and video originally and wanted to make documentaries, but I fell in with the vibrant LA noise scene instead. A lot of aesthetic ideas can be transferred across mediums. Working across media keeps me focused on overall vision instead of falling into tropes or habits.

How do you define the music you make? Can you talk about the concept behind your latest album Exile in the Outer Ring?

My music combines elements of multiple genres in service of a larger vibe or concept. There are electronic elements, guitar, singing, and a lot of noise. Exile In The Outer Ring was about the fracture I saw coming in American politics, and how economically disadvantaged people were being pushed out of city centers and into the suburbs. Concurrently, a lot of rural communities were being swallowed up by urban sprawl. This means that a lot of people from very different backgrounds are being pushed together in the "outer ring" of a cities. People think of the American suburbs as a homogenous monolith, but they are actually very diverse. In Portland, where I live, the outlying neighborhoods are much more culturally diverse than the city center, and are also poorer. I think there is a fascinating aesthetic happening there as well that is rarely seen in mainstream media.

In 2015 you scored the film #Horror, which starred Chloe Sevigny. How was that experience like? What were you going for conceptually?

Working on the score for #Horror, I was in close collaboration with the director, Tara Subkoff. She actually sat in the studio with us while we worked! So I definitely learned how to work closely with a director. I thought of the film as a kind of black comedy, but she really wanted to go with a more traditional horror movie score. So we worked with the tropes of the genre, but updated it with electronics and more experimental elements.

You’ve also scored theatrical works performed in museum settings like the Barbican Centre in London and PS1 MoMA in New York. Technically, how performance based scores differ from motion picture scores?

Both the PS1 MoMA and the Barbican were durational performances, meaning I was up there performing for multiple hours without a break. I had the basic score in place, but there was a lot of room for improvisation. With film, you want the timing to be very precise, to hit each mark with the correct emotion. With performance, there is a live audience and you can change the score based on the energy in the room.

What are the key elements that students will be learning in your Scoring for Film course at IAFA? What do you want to stir creatively with this course?

For this course I'm most excited about having the students experiment with their own ideas for film music. I want to set up the basics, such as looking at famous film themes and scores, as well as a the technical aspect of placing music to picture within the platform. But I'm really looking forward to seeing what the students come up with on their own!

You toured with Depeche Mode last year. How was this experience?

It was AMAZING. I feel truly blessed by that experience. The band has always had great taste and handpick their opening acts. I was so flattered that they are fans of EMA. I got to experience playing in sold out arenas all across Europe! I can die happy now.

by Flávia Rocha @ IAFA