Tar is a strange film. At first glance, it seems like a true story.
It follows the drama of virtuoso conductor and composer Lydia Tar, a protege of the late Leonard Bernstein, and graduate of several high-profile music conservatories – and for all intents and purposes it could be a true story.
The way the writers blend contemporary events into a fictional narrative is near seamless; uncovering the bland emotion of lost time rehearsing during lockdown, the fading anguish of a touring musician and the missed opportunities to spend time with loved ones, a staged NPR interview where the journalist references Tar’s alleged impact on a number of prominent musicians including the film’s primary score composer, Hildur Gudnadottir.
For a film primarily about music, there is surprisingly little music to write about.
The bulk of the film’s score comes from footage of Tar rehearsing the Berlin Symphony Orchestra for a performance of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony.
We see bits and pieces of Tar composing a short melody on the piano, a piece we later learn is dedicated to her adopted daughter, Petra.
On the original soundtrack, this piece is called “For Petra” and is nothing short of amazing. However, other than those two bits, there is little to no music in the film, which is extremely odd. Maybe Tar never listens to music.
WHO IS HILDUR GUDNADOTTIR?
Hildur Gudnadottir. Credit: Antje Taiga Jandrig and Rune Kongsro
Gudnadottir is one of the most celebrated contemporary composers. Originally from Reykjavík, Iceland, she grew up in a family of musicians.
Collaborations with fellow Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson and high-profile composing projects for the 2019 hit Joker and HBO’s Chernobyl series propelled Gudnadottir into the mainstream.
She is now one of the most sought-after film composers, with Academy, BAFTA, Golden Globe, and Emmy awards under her belt.
WHO IS TODD FIELD?
Todd Field, the director and writer of Tar, has worked variously as a director, composer, producer, and screenwriter.
Originally from Pomona, California, Field collaborated as a young student with Stanley Kubrick and Carl Franklin before producing his first film, In The Bedroom, for which he was nominated for five Academy Awards.
He has since produced one other film, in addition to Tar, titled Little Children.
During the course of the film, we see and hear Tar composing bits of a melody on the piano. This is apparently the first piece of melody that Gudnadottir conceived after reading the script the first time.
Tar seems to struggle at times with the melody, her work meanders, and does not reach any sort of conclusion by the end of the film.
However, the recorded version of “For Petra” released on the original soundtrack is one of the more intricate and beautiful pieces of recorded music in recent memory.
The piece clocks in around eight minutes long and is broken up into a few different sections or movements. The general pace of the music is slow and methodical, alternating between moments of amazingly transparent dissonance and euphoric, transcendent passages.
One remarkable nuance of the piece is the near complete absence of vibrato, a technique used by string players to add depth and emotion to melodies by sliding their fingers back and forth around the intended note on their instrument.
This creates a wavy, romantic character to the sound. When vibrato is absent, it can create this sort of clinical, stark sounding music – maybe a reflection on Tar’s “transactional” approach to life.
HILDUR GUDNADOTTIR’S TRILOGY FOR ‘TAR’
Gudnadottir composed a trilogy of pieces for Tar, “Largo”, “Allegro”, and “Moderato.”
The pieces appear in bits and pieces throughout the film, with themes that are not directly connected to character or events in any traditional sense.
Looking at “Largo”, it opens with a lilting, crackling cello duet. The melody is based around the tritone – one of the most dissonant musical intervals. The duet continues, with tremendous space and a plodding, meandering feeling.
The sparseness of the melodic material is supplemented by the strength of the performers’ musical gestures.
The performers make the simple material powerful by shifting the dynamics of the piece and by varying their bowing patterns so that the music pulses and breathes.
A third string player enters about halfway through the composition with a complementary part to the main melodic figure. This impetus gives the piece some room to develop, primarily in the dimension of volume, before the composition ends in the same sort of meandering fashion it began.
THE FILM’S MUSICAL SHORTCOMINGS
Gudnadottir’s work for Tar is certainly interesting music. However, the film leans too heavy on concept seemingly in favour of actual content.
There are two or three scenes in the film with strong intent. The rest seems to meander into some meaningless realm.
Likewise, the 20 tracks that make up the original soundtrack represent an interesting concept. However, we could probably do without Hildur’s thoughts on the rehearsal, introductory remarks, and applause tracks.
The original music that makes up the soundtrack is wonderful. It would have been nice to hear more of that music in the film and not have to dig that much deeper to find it.
All Images: Courtesy of Focus Features
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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.