Despite the dreadful reviews that have accompanied the “inspired by true events,” crocodile-as-a-serial-killer flick Primeval, there is at least one bright spot in this cinematic miasma. That bright spot is the ambitious score provided by composer John Frizzell, a score that is far more impressive than the film it accompanies.
While many of today’s horror (or in this case, pseudo-horror) films tend to rely on orchestral scores which employ large doses of screeching violins and pounding percussion, Frizzell opted to include many of the sounds and instruments that are unique to the nation in which the movie is set. In the case of Primeval, this meant that Frizzell actually traveled to Africa to capture sounds and utilize instruments that would bring the film’s setting—the nation of Burundi—to life.
In fact, Frizzell enlisted some of Cape Town’s finest musicians to create a “composing library” of over 800 sound clips, which served as the inspirational source material for his score. Some of the sonic samplings from these recording sessions included the traditional Burundian musical story-telling technique Inanga Chochotee, where a soloist plays a low-pitched harp and whispers in an ominous tone. Frizell also incorporated Burundian drumming, originally used by African kings to express their power and authority.
But that’s not to say that Frizzell’s Primeval score isn’t without its more traditional moments. On the contrary, Frizzell blends the two aspects of the score seamlessly, resulting in a unique hybrid that makes the Primeval score a true rarity.
Dread Central had the opportunity to ask Frizzell (who has also scored such horror flicks as Ghost Ship, Alien: Resurrection and Stay Alive, along with such mainstream movies as Beavis and Butthead Do America and Office Space) about his unique experiences in Africa, and how they may have forever changed his approach to scoring films.
Dave Manack: Many composers would be satisfied by simply creating a “traditional” horror (or in this case, pseudo-horror) film score. You, however, elected to actually travel to Africa and utilize many of the sounds, instruments and musical techniques that are unique to that continent and to the country of Burundi, specifically. What was the main motivation for your approach on the Primeval score?
John Frizell: Director Michael Katleman and I spoke in great depth before he started shooting. We knew that the score would need a great deal of drive and intensity, but we both had a great desire to make it stand out from other scores and, in particular, scores to films set in Africa. We noticed that while many scores to African films were beautifully composed and produced, many introduce African sounds in an imitative way. Our talks led to the conclusion that to get a unique sound, we needed a unique process, and to do that, I would need to do work with masters of African music. The best way to do that was to go to Africa.
My goal was to put you into the mood of the film by using very traditional African instruments and performers. I did research on traditional African instruments, performing techniques and the structure of African music. Much traditional African music differs from European music, in that often the performer and the audience are not delineated. I have heard traditional African music described as being so completely intuitive, it is ‘like breathing.’ Capturing this idea and blending it with filmmaking proved quite a challenge, but I think our goal was achieved and serves to put the audience in a unique place.
DM: Is this the first time you’ve traveled to a different country to utilize their specific musical sounds, instruments and techniques? If not, when have you done it before? If so, will you do it again?
JF: Yes! This is my first time. It is definitely a priority for me to do more projects this way.
DM: Burundi is located in a tragically war-torn region. What can you tell us about your experiences in Africa and what you may have taken away from your experience there?
JF: It was very moving getting to know the Cape Town Burundian drummers. These guys had escaped the atrocities that spilled over into Burundi from Rwanda and had traveled on foot, all the way to Cape Town. That is several thousand miles. The trip had taken several years and not all of the group survived. They were taken in by the Catholic Church in Cape Town and have created good lives for themselves. These guys were so excited to play on the score. Several of them are on camera in the film too.
DM: Which of the sounds, instruments or musical techniques you worked with in Africa most intrigued you, and will you utilize any of these in future scores?
JF: Melding the African instruments into a score was a massive challenge. I recorded in South Africa while the film was being shot. I ended up with about 800 short performances and phrases, which were painstakingly looped and loaded by my associate, Frederik Wiedmann, into Native Instruments Intakt software. Then I was able to adjust the tempo and the key of each phrase as I was composing to picture. Electronic instruments and a 70-piece orchestra ended up making this 80-minute score, by far the most complex I have ever created.
Big thanks to John for dropping in for a while.