Albert Nobbs is, at the moment, squarely in the bubbling under category at this point in the awards race frenzy. Not as in your face as The Artist or Hugo, those who have seen the film have been impressed by its quiet haunting beauty. One of the stellar elements is definitely Irish composer Brian Byrne’s score. Byrne, who relocated to L.A. from his native Ireland in 2003, garnered the Irish Film and Television Award for his original score for the Irish sci-fi comedy Zonad. Just prior to working on Albert Nobbs, he scored an indie drama starring Orlando Bloom, The Good Doctor. In contemporary music, Byrne has worked with Bono, Van Morrison, Gladys Knight, Vince Gill, Katy Perry and Liza Minelli, to name a few. He also recently arranged the theme music for the Irish late-night talk show, The Late Late Show on RTE.
Below the Line recently spoke with Byrne about working on Albert Nobbs, an experience which he treasures: “It’s the best project I’ve ever worked on in terms of openness from the producers, from the director, from Glenn Close…There are other projects you work on where maybe the producers have one vision, the directors have another, and you’re trying to just cling on to something…with this it was just really easy, and you could feel it – people were so professional and so experienced and for me, it was just a dream project.” He laughed, “My fear is it won’t be so easy again, you know, it’s very hard to find a group that were just so together.”
Byrne had written a harp cue after his first reading of the script, which eventually ended up being the opening cue of the film. “Myself and Glenn, we hit it off straight away, so it was really a wonderful starting point… When I met Glenn she was the beautiful Glenn Close with the blonde hair and all that, and next time I met them on set, she was Albert Nobbs and in character which was completely bizarre, because it was a totally different person, unrecognizable, she was amazing. In between her takes she would pull me aside and she would show me different quirks of her character.” Close showed Byrne the way Albert Nobbs walked, which was “like a Charlie Chaplin walk… from that I took the rhythm of her walking and I used it. There’s a lot of comedy in Albert Nobbs, a subtle comedy. I tried to put a tiny bit of that into the score without hamming it up too much.”
Director Rodrigo Garcia, Glenn, and Brian were all well aware how important the tone of the music was going to be with the story. “There’s a light side to Albert that we wanted to bring out and you have to be really careful musically with that because you can step across the line and turn into bad comedy score. If you just put one instrument wrong – a pizzicato too much – and it could just ruin the whole thing so we really erred on the side of less is more.”
Byrne said that this assignment differed greatly from any other he’d done prior, simply because he was in from the very start. “Usually a composer is hired after the movie’s been edited and ‘temped’ with some amazing composer and you come in and the director’s already fallen in love with the temp score, and you’ve to come in and either try and beat the temp score, or drag the director away from it.” He wrote a waltz for the ball scene called “Mrs. Baker’s Waltz” named for the Morrison Hotel’s proprietress played by Pauline Collins. “Glenn really responded to that. She said, ‘I think we should try and put this theme throughout the movie if we can.’ It’s a very strong Irish type of waltz – a period thing. I gave Rodrigo a few different versions of it and he actually temped that three or four places throughout the score. It’s a composers dream to work with a director that only wants to use your music for the temp and gives you that space and freedom to collaborate.”
Close, in fact, had babied the film project for nearly three decades, since she won an Obie Award for her portrayal of the character in the 1982 Off-Broadway production. She ended up co-writing, co-producing, and staring in the film, which opens later this month for an Oscar-qualifying run, followed by a Jan. 27 wide release. Both her remarkable performance and the film itself have been grabbing kudos left and right. So it seems only natural that, given her proximity to the project itself, she would end up writing the lyrics for “Lay Your Head Down,” the song that closes the film. Byrne wrote the music, while Close the lyrics, and it was sung by no less an Irish lass than Sinead O’Connor, whose ethereal voice is just perfect for the tune.
Originally the thought was to get Van Morrison to write a song for the film, but after Glenn was so taken with the “Mrs. Bakers Waltz” theme and it was placed in the movie three or four times in different scenes, Byrne suggested they do a song using that melody. He did a first pass at the lyrics, which he admitted were “a composer’s attempt at lyrics.” Glenn did a first pass with the lyrics and Byrne felt it was good but really could be better. “I thought, OK this is a first draft, do I just let her go and go with this or do I really try and collaborate,” explained Byrne, trepidatious about approaching Close with the idea of rewriting. “Alan Bergman, the famous lyricist, had a great quote. He said that genius is not in the writing; it’s in the rewriting. And so I thought I’ll use Alan Bergman, he can be a buffer here. And she said I really love that, why don’t I get back to you in a few hours. She came back with the lyrics for ‘Lay Your Head Down.’”
Byrne was still in awe of the process. “There was never any ego. In fact, when she called back the second time to say, ‘Do you like them?’ I told her I loved them. She said, ‘oh thank God.’ She was so worried that I wouldn’t like them. It was completely the opposite of what you think somebody in that position would be like. She was just so humble, so wanting to get it right, and really terrific.”
But that was only the first hurdle of getting the song finished. After finally getting Sinead O’Connor on board – which took some time, as these things do, even if you’ve worked with the artist before, which Byrne had – they then had to arrange a session remotely with her in Bulgaria about to start a tour of Eastern Europe.
Bryne explained that “as it turned out, I had just scored a film in Bulgaria for an Irish director called John Carney, so I knew a studio there and more importantly I knew an engineer. So we were all set up ready to go to record her remotely. This happens all the time. There’s a program called Source Direct which lets you sit in your front room with your headphones and your laptop and this program essentially plugs into the mixing desk in any studio in the world and the sound is pristine.”
Glenn had the program installed and both she and Brian were set and ready to go – Glenn in Maine and Brian in Ireland, Sinead in Bulgaria. “And then literally five minutes before Sinead arrived in the studio it just went dead. Every 10 seconds it would work and then it would stop for 20 seconds.” There was a mild panic, he recalled, because they only had Sinead for that one night. After trying it over a landline, they ended up doing the session via Skype, which was challenging to say the least. “I had Glenn on the phone in my left hand and she’s in Maine, and I’ve Sinead on Skype trying to teach her the song and then my poor mother is coming in every 40 minutes with tea and biscuits. It took us seven hours to get it done and Sinead O’Connor, she was a trouper. She just worked and worked and worked and worked. We had to stop her, because I didn’t want her to blow her voice out, she was starting a tour the next night.”
Byrne admitted it was the most difficult session he had ever produced, “but I couldn’t really tell until we went into the studio in Ireland the next day and then we put up the vocal against the track and it was just like somebody pulled the wool out of your ears. It was just this amazing thing, and it was really a wing and a prayer until I got there and we knew we had something great. There were so many things that could have went wrong; so many things did go wrong trying to get it done.” The song will creep into your head and haunt you for days, it’s truly beautiful.
Bryne is currently working on the score of a new film with Orlando Bloom, The Laureate, as well as a dance show with the producers of Riverdance slated for 2013, which he described as “world music – kind of Spanish meets African, salsa, big band meets a little bit of Irish”. He recently collaborated with the Bergmans on a song for Barbra Streisand for which he also conducted the orchestra for the recording, and enjoys doing frequent live performances. He enjoys mixing it up. “I’m a jazz piano player. That’s really what I love to do, but unfortunately it’s very hard to feed a family of three with just jazz gigs. I like to mix it up though because I think one feeds off the other… like the main theme of Albert Nobbs, I improvised after reading the script, and I think with jazz gigs, that’s how your brain is wired. And I think it keeps that immediacy. I think it’s very important to play different styles of music and write different styles, challenge yourself.”