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HomeComposersEmmy Nominee: A Small Light Composer Ariel Marx on Her Organic Journey...

Emmy Nominee: A Small Light Composer Ariel Marx on Her Organic Journey As A Composer

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A scene from A Small Light / National Geographic

Composer Ariel Marx, fresh from earning an Emmy nomination for her score on National Geographic’s A Small Light, recently spoke with Below the Line about how she came to be involved with the series, along with her process in composing and recording the score. Because she’s a multi-instrumentalist, she played several instruments on the score. However, there were other people on the score, but they recorded virtually despite being in the same town. Marx also discusses how she first became interested in composing and some of her favorite composers.

A Small Light tells the story of Miep (Bel Powley) and Jan Gies (Joe Cole) and their efforts to protect the Frank family in Amsterdam during the Holocaust. The earlier episodes set the mood prior to the Nazis marching into the Netherlands. Tension builds as the series continues its run and audiences see the work of the Dutch Resistance on display. Ultimately, the Nazis would take the Franks, van Pels, and Dr. Pfeffer away from the secret annex. Otto Frank (Liev Schreiber) would become the sole survivor after the Holocaust and live with the Gies until getting back on his feet. If not for Miep and Bep Voskuijl (Sally Messham) having the hindsight to save Anne’s diary, the series would probably not exist.

Ariel Marx (Photo by Emily Sandifer)

Below the Line: How honored are you to receive an Emmy nomination for composing the score to A Small Light?

Marx: I’m greatly honored; it was really humbling and amazing. To be recognized by your colleagues is an incredible honor, so I was very, very excited.

BTL: How did you first become attached to composing the score?

Marx: I was first contacted by Susanna Fogel, the director of the first three episodes, and she’s also an EP. She’s close with Tony [Phelan] and Joan [Rater], the showrunners. She and I had spoken about another project earlier in the year, and she had kept me in mind, and then I was totally surprised and gleeful. This was the project that she had kept me in mind for, because it just couldn’t be more personal, so it was really great. She looped me [in with] Tony and Joan, and then we did it.

BTL: Did they give you any direction or notes as far as what they were looking for in the score?

Marx: For sure. The whole tone of the show and point of the show is how to portray these very well-known figures in history in a contemporary, accessible way and just show the coming of age story on the other side of the Annex. A lot of the score for the first several episodes is illustrating pre-war Amsterdam, the fun that they had, the humor they had – Miep was very bold and strong. She was unemployed. Her parents wanted her to marry her adoptive brother for stability—showing that vivaciousness and also flaws, not necessarily flaws, but just a very naturalist depiction of these people. We often don’t get well-rounded depictions of people so historical and so significant. It was really beautiful to see them in all of these shades that I haven’t before.

The music was definitely about always maintaining a sense of life, joy, and playfulness. Even in later episodes and even in the final episode, there is still humor, and there are still moments of levity and beauty. It was really just to maintain that thread of humanity, but also keep the music quite humble. We didn’t want to use orchestral forces or anything too symphonic and distant. We wanted to keep it immediate, virtuosic, and smaller in size. It was a bit more vulnerable and raw.

Bel Powley in A Small Light / National Geographic

BTL: How long did it take to compose the score?

Marx: I was on the show from October til March, so five months.

BTL: What about recording?

Marx: It was a team of four musicians, really, and myself. I play a lot on the score. We recorded every week so it was a rolling basis as the episodes were finished. It was a very fluid process. It wasn’t like I had written all the music and then we had two weeks to record at the end. It was on a rolling basis. It changed a lot because the tone of the show does change quite a bit from the early days into when there was a bit more hope. When the stakes are heightened, the music does get more heroic and complex, and again, still within the parameters that we set for the opening show.

But yeah, there was a lot of improvisation, there was a lot of layering, texturing. I think for some of the tracks, there was maybe upwards of 30 layers of 30 overdubs and that was very intentional. It was how do we make these humble, ordinary instruments, and ensemble sound extraordinary, just kind of in line with Miep herself.

BTL: Is there a recording studio that you like because of the way the music sounds?

Marx: In this scenario, musicians during the pandemic, especially, were very encouraged and by necessity to create their own home studios and record themselves from their own homes. Frankly, that’s what it was. I mean, we were all layering on top of each other in sequence but it was all virtual recording even though we were in the same town. But honestly, at the speed we were going in recording and releasing the music to the dub stage, that was the best, most efficient way to do it.

I find that when musicians are in their layer of choice, they can often be the most expressive, bold, and relaxed instead of, oh, we only have three hours to do this in a studio that we’re renting time. That’s how it was done on this show. I also love being in the same room as an ensemble and especially with a bigger ensemble, that’s a lot more important because they need to be in the same room for the acoustics to sound right. But in this case, this was the best way to do it.

BTL: It’s been interesting talking to composers and just getting a feel for their process and how it’s changed because of the pandemic.

Marx: Frankly, it hasn’t changed much for me, because I am a multi-instrumentalist and I record myself on every score. I’m playing violin, cello, guitar, and percussion on this score. I have wonderful cellist, violinist, trumpeter, woodwind players that I also recorded with. For me, my creative process hasn’t changed so much. I’m just really grateful because I think it pushed people to be very resourceful. While I love being in the studio with other musicians, this was also just a wonderful way to get it done the way we needed to.

BTL: When it comes to your process in general, do you typically start when you read the script, or is it after you see footage for the first time?

Marx: I was brought on quite early. I was brought on before they shot, so I only had the script. I had initial creative meetings, and we decided what our references were. Not only were there references from 1930s and ’40s popular music of the time, swing jazz, Django Reinhard, there were a lot of influences from Central European, Eastern European folk music. There were also modern influences like Andrew Bird, Tom Waits, Squirrel Nut Zippers, Ben Goldberg’s an amazing woodwind player. So yeah, it was all over the place.

I started out with initial sketches and those were very much to set up the world of the first three episodes where there is a lot more levity and a sense of—it’s just before everyone is under the stress of occupation. I started with those themes and then as soon as I got footage, there’s always a calibration between just imagining it and then seeing it and then we dove in from there. I always love to start as early as possible.

Liev Schreiber (L) with Poley in A Small Light / National Geographic

BTL: How did you first get interested in becoming a composer?

Marx: Music and writing music has always been a part of my life since I was a little kid, but it was a very, very circuitous, unexpected path to get into it professionally. I studied ethnomusicology and plant biology in school, actually. I had no idea that I would be able to do this professionally. That was in undergrad. I was always playing with musicians, living with musicians, and I had a very musical community. As it kept becoming more and more in focus for me, I took a few years after undergrad and studied music composition more intensely.

I had always been playing. I’ve been practicing and playing my instruments all throughout so it wasn’t like I had taken a break from that. I really took three years to intensely study with private lessons with a few different instructors and then I put my portfolio to go to NYU Screen Scoring to get my Master’s in music. I went there and went through the program there and through all of the student directors that I met in that program, that’s where all of my initial projects came from and then those have led to bigger and bigger projects. It’s been really kind of organic. I could not have predicted a way into it. It was just kind of allowing myself to focus more and more on music; the more and more permission I was given to try to pursue this as a profession.

BTL: Did you have any favorite composers while you were growing up?

Marx: Oh, gosh. I have so many. Chopin, Debussy, Ravel, Schnittke, Shostakovich. I mean, all of these amazing classical composers. That’s who I would say are my favorite. In the film scoring realm, I was a big, big fan of Ennio Morricone, Nino Rota, and Jerry Goldsmith, people who are bold and taking somewhat risks in their either their romanticism or their venture into the avant-garde.

Modern composers that really influence me—I really love Jonny Greenwood. I love Mica Levi’s work, although they haven’t done much but I absolutely love what she has done. Oh, there are so many more contemporary composers that I love. But yeah, that’s the list that comes to mind today.

BTL: While I was perusing your filmography on IMDb, I noticed you did the score for Shiva Baby. How was that experience? 

Marx: Yeah, that was a total blast. I was so grateful to be able to score that film, because I was able to be so free, bold, and expressive with that score in a way that not many films allow you to be. I am so grateful that we were able to do that.

All episodes of A Small Light are currently streaming on Disney+ and Hulu.

Danielle Solzman
Danielle Solzman
Danielle Solzman is a Chicago-based film critic and filmmaker. The founder of Solzy at the Movies, she is a member of the Critics Choice Association, Galeca, AWFJ, OAFFC, OFCS, and OFTA. She is MPA-accredited and Tomatometer-approved.
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