Composing ‘A Foot of Turf’
Composing ‘A Foot of Turf’
A Foot Of Turf is the story of an eroding island community. The north side of the island roars with a barrage of waves, while the side facing the mainland is serene and sandy, but wherever you are on Arranmore you’re never far from the sea.
My first attempt at the soundtrack was made before any assembly of the footage — consisting of a sparsely folk inflected guitar composition, with synthetic organ-like textures beneath. I recorded a number of similar sketches in quick succession to find one which began to capture the essence of what I felt about the documentary at the time. This method gets me away from the blank slate and grounds some ideas in my head, without having a chance to become too attached to any.
David used a section of this to edit the film to, but it felt like improvements could be made and in light of the edit we agreed that we would rather take a slightly different approach. I stripped this composition away and began by searching for some different sound sources, the main issue having been with using a guitar. I pulled together a pool of possible sounds and ideas, some of which were synthetic and others acoustic, wanting to place heavier emphasis on vocal-like sounds. We settled on a palate of organs, flutes, vocals, and synthetic timbres — moulded to compliment the acoustic instruments.
Part of the original composition conveyed something that felt at home with the section in the film about peat bogs and is the only part of that original that remains, luckily providing a starting framework for the rest of the piece. I then sketched out many iterations of harmonies and combinations of instruments for key parts of the film. I find it often helpful to focus on a section immediately following the opening—or wherever a fuller sound is most likely to appear—as it provides something to build toward. Nonetheless this is the spot where it often becomes difficult to see the forest for the trees, with so many possibly disconnected ideas crowding in and decisions already set down. At this stage it may be most helpful to improvise through a run of the film with one of the dominant instruments a number of times until some ideas begin to stand out. In this case that worked particularly well and a take roughly resembling the finished film was tracked in a single day. Following this, tweaks are likely to be needed for the composition to make complete sense, but it’s a time where chance can be allowed some control — and it often yields surprising new avenues to pursue.
The organs and choral vocals work to give a hint of the religiosity which is quite present on the island (and perhaps a hint of the funereal), vocal-like instruments (winds, bowed strings, all those sounds that are common in cinematic scores) also tend to coax listeners into an emotional response more readily. The choral theme helps to tie everything together in a cohesive way—the synthetics are a stylistic choice—subtly adding interest and distinguishing the music from a more traditional cinematic score. All the elements weave together, receding and then re-emerging — creating a distinct and organic chapter like segmentation, folding together for the climax, which is helped by the preceding segments simplicity.
My intention was that the score be cinematic but not grandiose, matching the sense of loss and isolation of the residents. Although it is important that the tone is not entirely melancholic, there is a sense of ‘saudade’ — something far away and lost, a wistful hopefulness that lies in the past.