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Composer Lesley Barber Discusses Her Score For “Manchester By The Sea”

Lesley Barber knows how beautiful Massachusetts can be. During a trip to Tanglewood in Stockbridge, MA, she traveled through the state’s Berkshire Mountains.  She couldn’t resist indulging in a hike along one of the landscape’s scenic trails.

“I felt like I was in one of the oldest places on the planet,” said Barber. “It is so beautiful.”

Barber’s score to director Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea” manages to capture the beauty of the coastal oceanfront the story’s name is based upon while defining the emotional depths the film’s characters experience. Having first collaborated with Lonergan on the critically acclaimed “You Can Count on Me”, Barber looked over the script and was immediately eager to get involved.  Jumping on board early in the process, she was able to spend time with Lonergan, discussing the script and dialogue.  A director who likes to infuse the music of familiar composers such as Bach into his films, Barber knew certain scenes would be defined by the classical selections.

“I know there would be some Handel. There is something to the presence of beauty that comes around, no matter what,” said Barber. “Kenny wanted to highlight that counterpoint (throughout the film.)”

To begin her process, Barber turned to the piano. While she’s accomplished on other instruments, piano was something she began playing as a youth, after her grandparents passed their piano on to her when she was ten.  She won several young composer awards in her native Canada, eventually graduating with a master’s degree in music composition from the University of Tornoto.  Sitting in her studio, she would improvise on ideas until they were ready to be recorded and mastered. She’d then share the pieces with Lonergan to discover what would strike a tone with the director.

During the early stages of working on the score, Barber had an idea that arose in thinking about the timeless quality of the Massachusetts locale: infusing a quality found in New England church music from the 1700s. She began researching Calvinist hymns and other music of the era.

“I was looking for music of the pilgrims and the colonists. I wanted to get a feel of it,” said Barber. “It was a way of connecting with the idea of starting over but not being able to escape the past.”

Another idea she developed early on was to create a multi-track acapella piece for female voices. Noting it would be a strong sound to open the film with, the acapella voice is woven throughout the film, a device that develops over the course of Lee Chandler’s (Casey Affleck) journey back to his hometown after the death of his brother.

“It’s got a vast quality. It’s simple but epic and slightly dark,” said Barber. “It hangs over the head and subtly underscores the meaning.”

“Manchester by the Sea” has a distinctive pacing that Barber fully credits Lonergan in creating. Noting much of the film’s rhythm comes from the dialogue itself, Barber also emphasises the attention Lonergan places on shooting style and editing which outlines the concept of memory in the many flashbacks that occur throughout the story. She notes the score offers a re-occurring quality that unifies and blends the real time aspect captured in the scenes.  The acapella pieces were also written with the intension of capturing a timeless quality:  although performed by female voices, the range of the vocal could easily be performed by a male soprano.  When Lonergan heard the music he felt was not overtly female and had almost an angelic quality to it.  Calling it an “oral equivalent to the sky” it matched his desire to highlight the counterpoint of beauty persisting despite challenging circumstances.

Two weeks before the film screened at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, Barber worked with an orchestra on the final master. One acapella piece proved just perfect in its early capture, however.  After writing a very simple melody, Barber was eager to have Lonergan hear it.  She sent the music to her daughter, and Opera major, who recorded her performance in her dorm room.

“The dorm room just made the perfect sound,” said Barber.

While the Academy had disqualified Barber’s score for “Manchester by the Sea” from the Best Score competition due to the classical music that is used throughout the film, Barber remains proud of everything that happens musically within the film. In a statement sent to Variety magazine, Barber states “While I accept the Academy’s decision, I also support my director’s decision to use these pieces and I’m also very proud of the substantial contribution that the original score made to the film as well.”