Alex Zhang Hungtai and Pierre Guerineau’s collaborative score provides an ethereal and subtle match to Christopher Makoto Yogi’s 2021 film I Was A Simple Man. The score combines two main elements that slowly morph over time, echoing and supplementing the film's chronological boundlessness.
Set on Oahu’s rural North Shore, the film captures the dying experience of an old man, Masao, as he travels through a collage of memory and time.
The film’s slow and deliberate movements are further emphasised by the relative spareness of the accompanying music, in both instrumentation, timbre and frequency.
GETTING TO KNOW ALEX ZHANG HUNGTAI AND PIERRE GUERINEAU
Hungtai and Guerineau are a pair of musicians that originally met while working in the music scene in Montreal, Canada in the early 2010’s.
At the time, Hungtai was working primarily under the moniker Dirty Beaches and Guerineau, as a producer and recording engineer.
The pair collaborated on some recordings that were never released, but continued to perform live together. Hungtai had worked in Yogi’s previous film, August At Akiko’s, and Yogi approached the duo after hearing them perform live together in New York City.
ALEX ZHANG HUNGTAI AND PIERRE GUERINEAU'S COMPOSITIONAL PROCESS
Hungtai composed the score and acted in August At Akiko’s and had years of experience collaborating with Guerineau, so it seemed natural the trio would work effectively together.
However, as we all found out, creative work in 2020 and 2021 moved into a novel, remote dimension.
The entire soundtrack for I Was A Simple Man was recorded remotely between Los Angeles and Montreal. The editing of the film was done in parallel with Hungtai and Guerineau’s composing work.
BREAKING DOWN THE ELEMENTS OF 'I WAS A SIMPLE MAN'
The score for I Was A Simple Man is primarily composed of two foundational elements. The first, and probably most recognisable element, is the solo piano. The second is a series of “ghost drones”, ambient textures, and bells.
Let’s dive in and explore these elements.
SOLO PIANO IN 'I WAS A SIMPLE MAN'
The solo piano pieces in the score for I Was A Simple Man mirror the progression of the main character Masao’s journey towards death and his gradual acceptance of fate.
The progression of the pieces in the film moves from oddly juxtaposed, disjointed, and atonal, to peaceful, calm, and placid as Masao’s health fades and he comes to welcome his end.
The first piano piece we hear is aptly titled “Masao”. The piece appears in a long montage scene of Masao tending to his garden and his daily chores, casually drinking beers and smoking after a visit with his doctor where he was advised to stop due to his illness.
The piece is meandering, without any strong tonal center or melody to speak of – which, as we will see, is more or less the life course that Masao chose.
In “Grace”, the ghost of Masao’s long-deceased wife, Grace, begins to visit him.
The solo piano accompaniment for “Grace” reflects the piece for Masao. It is similarly disjointed and atonal, with a sort of lilting rhythm that leaves us feeling slightly confused and unsure of where in time we are.
Then, in a flashback scene to Masao and Grace’s courtship in pre-World War II Hawaii, we hear a completely different style of solo piano cue, reflecting the placidity and innocent affection displayed by a young Masao towards Grace.
Instead of the lilting, disjointed atonality of the previous cues, “There Was Once a Time You Could See” is dreamy, serene, and spacious, matching the surreal walk a young Grace and Masao are taking through the fields.
During the scene, Grace shares a dream she had of Masao where he is old and dying and around him are friends and family speaking only Japanese, Chinese and Hawaiian.
The final solo piano cue, “Red Moon”, is slathered in an ecclesiastical reverb that makes us feel like we are leaving our bodies and joining Masao on an infinite journey.
Synced with the final sequence that is apparently Masao’s slip into death, “Red Moon” is primarily composed of ethereal and enormous extended piano chords that roll in and out like the waves on North Shore.
However, like the other three piano cues, “Red Moon” lacks any sort of distinguishable melody or structure.
AMBIENT EXPERIMENTS IN 'I WAS A SIMPLE MAN'
The other primary musical element that defines the score for I Was A Simple Man is Hungati and Guerineau’s experiments with ambient drones and electronics.
The pieces range from harsh static to subtle bells and synth pads. The ambient elements are primarily used in relation to the paranormal aspects of the film.
“Let It In” is one of the first cues we hear in the film. It opens with a series of powerful and resonant bell tones, supported by a low, nearly imperceptible drum. A light synth-string pad emerges underneath, modulating between two minor key harmonies.
We hear this cue during the sequence where Masao visits Akiko at the Buddhist shrine and she urges him to let his disease in and accept it.
Later, the ghost of Masao’s wife, Grace, begins to appear in the hollow tree where Masao and his daughter Kati spread her ashes.
“The Hollow Tree” cue is thus a disturbing experiment in ambient electronics that borders on horror.
We are confronted by something we can’t quite grasp – sounds we can’t accurately perceive because they seemingly go against what we can rationalise. The bell tone returns, along with the low drum.
Hungati and Guerineau used a particular technique in experimental electronic music to achieve these haunting, seemingly paranormal sounds called “ghost drones”.
To create these soundscapes, the duo would run a chain of effects like delays, reverbs, and distortions out from a mixing board without any input.
The natural artifacts that are produced from the combination of mixing board and effects have no external input and produce unpredictable, seemingly disembodied waves of sound.
Masao then attempts to stop spirits from entering his house by creating a ring of salt around his property.
The cue “Salt” shifts rapidly from wailing, high-pitched feedback, chime-like bell tones, and slippery synth-strings to create a suitably creepy vibe for attempting to keep unwanted spirits at bay.
The cue “I Know You’re Not Really Here” accompanies Masao on one of his more intense flashback experiences.
The sonic texture is somewhat brutal, dark, and heavy, and the scene appears at a point in the film where Masao seems to go over a tipping point, where he attempts to convince himself that the spirits he is seeing are not really there, but can not convince himself completely.
FOR ALEX ZHANG HUNGTAI AND PIERRE GUERINEAU, SIMPLICITY IS KEY
Oftentimes, the simplest concepts make for the most effective scores.
Sharing his philosophy of film composition, Guerineau said: “The principle that a film doesn’t need music until it does. It has been especially true with I Was A Simple Man …”
Indeed, both composers excel in this regard with their work on I Was A Simple Man.
The blend of sparse and simplistic textures with otherworldly, haunting sonic explorations helps breath interesting and unique emotional depth to the film, much different than many of the other scores we have profiled here at Sound of Life.
All Images: Courtesy of Strand Releasing
Writer | Edward Bond
Edward Bond is a multi-instrumentalist composer, performer, and writer currently bouncing between Trondheim and Berlin. He apparently has the eyes of the devil, enjoys leopard prints, and will read your tarot, but not your future.