There is an enchanting, foreboding quality to Daniel Hart’s score of David Lowery’s The Green Knight. Hart has scored many of Lowery’s films–including A Ghost Story, Pete’s Dragon, and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints–but this might be his most personal and accomplished score of all of their collaborations. By using authentic instruments and propulsive movements, Hart has created one of the year’s most captivating scores.
Hart immediately felt a kinship with this music because of his background. He was raised in an Episcopalian household, and he sang in the church choir. When I spoke with Hart, there was an air of confidence about creating this score that gave him a leg up in its creation.
“I grew up in the church–both my parents are professional church musicians and choir directors–and they played the organ in the piano. We were raised in the Episcopal Church, which is the American version of the Church of England. This film is based on this epic, medieval epic column that has a lot of religious undertones and overtones in it. And some of that shows up in the film. A lot of the music that’s in the Episcopal mass has its roots in medieval British music, so that stuff that I sang as a as a child, like in my parents’ church choirs is in my brain forever.”
How do you make sure you capture a time period that is so long ago? There is a tendency for medieval stories to have a particular sound (think flutes and lutes) that borders on the comical, but Hart leaned into elements of the score that didn’t fit the time period. Lowery encouraged Hart to include synthesizers and other sounds that you wouldn’t find in King Arthur’s court.
“The first thing we established is that we were trying to set it when the epic poem was written, so 1400s instead of 800, and there were a lot more musical options for instrumentation in Great Britain. The the second thing I wanted to know from David is if he was concerned about musical anachronisms, and he said no and that he imagined that there were big synths in certain parts of the score. I felt free to explore and not be confined to the instruments of the 15th century. At the same time, I wanted to do stuff that felt like it did belong in that world, and it was important to me to do research. Because that’s not a world that I know all that much about, apart from the childhood church music. I spent a little time immersing myself in Middle English poetry, so that I could get a sense of the sound of that version of English and how it differs from the way we’re speaking today. I was really taken by the Scandinavian influence on Middle English that’s essentially gone from modern English, British or American English.”
Early in the film, there are two pieces of music back-to-back titled, ‘O Greatest of Kings’ and ‘Remember It Is Only a Game’ when we meet the title character. There is a throbbing intensity that gives way to Gawain’s paranoia for the duration of the film. This section is key because it sets the stage for the remainder of the film, and it combines a lot of elements–period instruments and choral singing–to give a truly haunting quality.
I wanted the music to be this like, fearsome, terrifying, presence with this monster threatening all the Knights of the Round Table, and they draw their swords. They assume that they’re about to be attacked, or have to fight. So I wanted the music to reflect that greatness of kings, and so it underscores Guinevere reading the letter that the Green Knight hands to King Arthur and Kate Dickie who played her gives such a brilliant performance just reading this letter. It’s the simplest thing but it’s so captivating that I felt like I didn’t want to over step where she was. So I needed something down low like that would not compete with her vocal register. So that’s why went for that low, throbbing sounds kind of give it a little bit of propulsion. As we get closer and closer to the actual challenge where Gawain ends up beheading the Green Knight. The one that follows, “Remember It Is Only a Game,” is the first the first appearance of Excalibur, and I thought that should have some kind of majesty to it. I think we ended up taking some of the majesty out in the moment when the king pulls out the sword. We had a choir and a bunch of strings and we ended up having to pull it back because the moment is so brief that it felt so out of place with everything else that’s going on. But then immediately after that, we turned back to the the terror of the Green Knight himself and this challenge to strike a blow against the Green Knight. Fear and dread sounds like descending to me like Gawain is descending into like a one of the upper pits of hell to fight this monster.”
Have you ever played one of those plastic recorders? They are heard all throughout Hart’s score, and I was surprised to discover that they are appropriate for the time period. In addition to recorders, Hart had a specific musical instrument created that gives The Green Knight an even more realistic sound.
“We had a recorder quartet, because recorders were around in the 15th century. I wanted to use some things that would have existed at the time, and that was one of the ones that really caught my ear. I also played recorder as a kid. A lot of people that I know, having talked about this film now, have that same connection having played to the plastic recorders. These were very, very nice recorders that were performed by British recorder quartet called BLOCK4 with very, very fancy recorders that they played. And I also played an instrument on this score called the Nyckelharpa, which is an medieval Swedish stringed instrument. It’s so beautiful and I had one built for me since they’re not that common. I found a luthier in Wisconsin, and he built it for me and that’s how I learned to play it for this film. There is a lot of rustic string melodies are happening on the Nyckelharpa, and our choir felt pretty medieval to me. We had a brilliant harvest named come in and record stuff for for a day. That’s all over the score.”
My personal favorite piece of music in comes toward the end when Gawain is ready for his fate. There is an extended, wordless sequence that shows what his life would’ve been like as a ruler, and it’s enhanced by Hart’s propulsive violin work.
“That is a huge piece with a montage and no dialogue, so the music is front and center. That’s common for David’s films. He doesn’t have very much dialogue in most of his films, so there’s a lot of space for music to spread out and be a big part of the storytelling. It’s centered around of violin doing a technique called arpeggio which is a dilla della della della della della thing. That’s common to 20th century classical music and it gets used in some scores a fair amount. I’m a violinist by training and and I’ve used it in several scores of mine, because it’s very propulsive and It’s still somehow kind of light since it’s just a single, higher stringed instruments. It makes room for other things. That’s the centerpiece of that cue. The visuals are so stunning. It wasn’t all that difficult for me to find the right music for that scene. It was very full. So it took a little while to make, but I don’t remember it being terribly difficult.”
The next credit on Hart’s resume is completely different with the NatGeo documentary, Fauci. The composer was thrilled to write music for a man who has become an every day presence in our lives in nearly the last two years.
“I just couldn’t see myself saying no to that. It was really intense. We only had a couple months, and there’s about 90 minutes of music in the film. He is so wise, and there’s a lot of our archival footage of him, especially from the 80s when he was dealing with the AIDS crisis at the National Institute of Health. He was vilified at the time, by a lot of AIDS activists, because they felt like he wasn’t doing enough. But even then you see this sense of calm, this even keel, this willingness to listen, this ability to convey complex scientific ideas in a way that non-scientific people can understand. It’s really encouraging and heartwarming to see a man committed to ideals that he seems to have lived by for his entire life. He seems so consistent in his willingness to dialogue with people, even people who claim to hate him. His commitment to science and to truth is so inspirational. I was thrilled to make music for a man like that.”
The Green Knight is available to purchase and rent.