“My Love Affair With Marriage” Interview on FSMO


My Love Affair With Music
Kristian Sensini rejoins Signe Baumane for the animated feature, My Love Affair With Marriage.
By Chris Hadley

Social conformity versus individual pride. Devotion to marriage versus commitment to personal desires. The brain’s logical compartment (the frontal lobe) versus its emotional (the amygdala). The philosophical contrasts and arguments between women and men on practically all issues. The above conflicts and other such adult topics are not things that would typically be associated with an animated musical, but award-winning Latvian director Signe Baumane’s My Love Affair With Marriage—her second feature-length animated drama after 2014’s mental illness study Rocks in My Pockets—is an exception to the rule. Marriage co-stars Dagmara Dominczyk as the voice of Zelma, a shy adolescent who’s too frequently seen by her classmates as an anti-social weirdo, but whose building obsession with love makes her fantasize about a handsome yet elusive male student. As her feelings about him go from infatuation to disinterest, and as her mental and physical concerns evolve beside her maturity, Zelma’s views of both “the perfect man” and the men who might play that role also develop. With a watchful trio of siren singers musically commenting on and sometimes criticizing her romantic decisions, and with scientific explanations of her brain’s framework by the informative voice of Biology (Michele Pawk), Zelma begins a search for companionship that occurs as the clash between her body’s needs and her life’s aspirations heightens. As a teen, Zelma’s “love affair with marriage” first brings her into a regrettable one-night stand with older artist Jonas (Stephen Lang). In adulthood, her relationship with the charming yet intellectually intimidating Sergei (Cameron Monaghan) is a marriage that gradually leads to disagreements, distrust and tragically, abuse. Her last hope for a lasting connection appears to be Bo (Matthew Modine), a caring and love-struck Swede who is more welcoming of Zelma than her previous spouse, but less open about his sexual interests. As Zelma figures out that the storybook fantasies that she imagines her love affairs to be are never as grand as those of Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty, she sees that the freedom of being herself is more fulfilling than being what others aim for her to be. Joining Baumane again after their collaboration on Rocks in My Pockets is composer Kristian Sensini, who lends a similar, heartfelt touch to the new score. That said, he saw his duties on Marriage doubled, as he both created the instrumental and song components of the musical. Underscore-wise, Sensini delivers a set of percussive yet unobtrusive patterns for co-animator Yajun Shi’s anatomic illustrations of the body and brain in the film’s Biology-narrated primers—beats that also connect to the chronicled growths of Zelma, Sergei and Bo in the second part of the film. For Zelma’s full-circle turn from shy, daydreaming youngster to romantically choosy and eventually skeptical grown-up, Sensini imbues places a variety of traditional European-style instrumentation and melodics into her material. Teaming with Baumane on Marriage’s mostly short but consistently memorable songs that stylistically vary from folk to funk, and from to rock to gospel, Sensini worked with a talented collection of performers that includes Dominczyk, the Latvian female triumvirate Trio Limonade (as the observant Mythology Sirens), Erica Schroeder (as Zelma’s know-it-all peer/social butterfly Elita), and Florencia Lozano (as Zelma’s matter-of-fact, traditionalist mother). Concluding the film is the anthemic “Lion,” sung by Storm Large (co-vocalist of the band Pink Martini) and co-written by Baumane and Sensini, a number that expresses Marriage’s themes of personal independence and perseverance, and how Zelma finds both in her story.  

Chris Hadley: My Love Affair With Marriage is your second film with director Signe Baumane. How do you approach working together?

Kristian Sensini: Well, let’s say that the work of Signe speaks for itself. I was inspired by the way she tells stories. What I look for in a movie is good storytelling. Signe has a perfect way of balancing drama and humor. She also has a degree in philosophy. So I think the inner way for her to see life is to balance humor and drama. Maybe life itself works this way, balancing dark humor, drama and happiness. I was able to balance that kind of feeling by following the narrative of the director, and we started to work together because we both see life alternate between drama and humor. CH: As seen in your first film for Baumane, Rocks in My Pockets, her unique visual style is evident through the designs of her characters and their locations, and that’s something that continues in Marriage. How did that, as well as Yajun Shi’s animation for the human body sequences, dictate the arrangements in your score for the film, as well as the overall approach that you took? KS: Well, the scientific part was the toughest part of the score. I remember I started to work on some demos and I think for the first biology cue I did nine or 10 different versions for Signe, and she wasn’t satisfied with any of them, because there was too much melody and too many instruments.
Play Me Version 11: Signe Baumane, director.
Then she said, “Let’s try something primitive, something ancient, something very old, something that has to do with the mythology, something ancestral.” We thought the most ancestral instrument that we could use was percussion. The first instrument of man was the voice, of course, but the second instrument, which was the first invented and crafted by man, was percussion. So she said, “This is not a documentary. We don’t need the documentary music for the scientific part.” “Biology” is one of the main characters of the movie. Her music is not something that has to do with science, but it has to do with the
      primitive essence
of the human being. So we tried to work with the percussion, and that worked very well.

CH: As you did in your score for Rocks, you also had to work with some extensive narration sequences, like the visually vivid explanations of how Zelma’s brain influences her physical and emotional reactions to every interaction she experiences. How did you deal with this element of the score?

KS: That was a really hard task. My main idea in Rocks and this movie was to think of the voiceover from the main character that narrates the story as the main melody. The idea was to not use instruments that are going to interfere with the voice in terms of tone and frequencies. So you don’t have big melodies on cellos or woodwinds or even piano. I created a counterpoint with instruments and the voice. In Rocks, the voiceover was the voice of the director herself, so I had to be even more respectful of the narration in Marriage because it was the voice not just of the director but of the protagonist of the story, and it’s of course a true story.

CH: Given that you had to work with a large voice cast rather than just the narrator like on Rocks, how did you find yourself working around the various voices?

KS: Well, since this is an animated movie, I had all the files of the narration in the early stages of the production. I was able to work with those recordings and to try to find not just the perfect home for those voices in terms of frequencies, as I said before, but also in terms of rhythm. I’ve been inspired a lot by the rhythm of the voices, because every single person has a different way of talking and has a different rhythm. So starting from the voice, I was able to create a special rhythmic aspect.

CH: My Love Affair With Marriage’s lead character, Zelma, is emotionally influenced by her expectations of men according to the Russian culture she grew up in, which we see play out in the third section of the film, and the way other people perceive her from childhood to adulthood. How did those facets of Zelma’s character influence not just the theme you wrote for her, but also the songs that you co-wrote with Signe?

KS: As in the previous movie, I was inspired by a lot of music from East Europe. You can hear in the score a lot of influence in the harmonies, in the rhythm, and also in the instruments. I used more general European instruments, but with an East European intent and sound that wasn’t folk. So I tried to give this kind of background to Zelma’s story and

      Zelma’s character
without having the music be too ethnic.

Regarding the songs, I tried very different genres. With this film also being the story of her life, the songs follow a little bit of a historical arc. We decided that we could define the songs as gypsy folk, and you can hear some influence of gypsy music, of rhythm and blues, but for example, in the first song,

      “Soul Mate
you can feel as if it is something that comes from an ancient mythology story. It’s primitive, with the sound of the harp that evokes something of the magic of the folk histories. Then in another other song, when the character Zelma starts to grow, we follow different eras, but without being too specific in the years, because this is a universal story. So I try to have the songs be a little bit gypsy, a little bit folk, with the influence of contemporary musicals of the time [the 1970s and ’80s]. You can feel something like the rhythm and blues of that era in those songs, but without it being too specific.

CH: Were there any difficulties that you ran into during the song side of this equation, or did your compositional skills and experience writing for animated movies help make the process easier?

KS: Well, this officially is the first time I wrote a song for a movie, but as part of my career as a composer, I’ve had experience in writing songs. It’s easy enough for me to write melodies; I hope that they are catchy melodies. When you say the words “musical” and “animation,” the first thing the audience has in mind is Disney movies, because every one of us grew up with Disney musicals, but this film is something different. Also, the process of writing the song started from the script, because the songs were in the script. Signe wrote the lyrics, and they were part of the script. I had to adapt my music and my melodies to something that was already written. If the process of writing the song was a regular collaboration, then in some cases we should have started from the melody, and then worked on the lyrics, then worked on the melody, and exchanged files back and forth, but that was not the approach here.

If you listen to the songs in the movie, they are really strange and short. Usually, they don’t respect the [standard] time lengths of pop music or a musical. They are more like poetry than song. I basically needed to create music for these little pieces of poetry. It’s a little different to write songs for a musical. I think this process worked perfectly because the kind of songs we wrote, in the end, are different from anything else. They have a different structure. They didn’t have a verse, a chorus and so on. Again, it’s like contemporary poetry, and that was a really exciting idea. This was true for every song except the last one [“Lion,” the end credits song performed by Storm Large], because for that one we had a different approach. Signe said of that one, “I want a pop song—a real pop song that sums up the narrative arc of the movie.” In this case, Signe sent me the lyrics and said, “If you need a pop song, we need to work on the structure.” So I said, “Let’s put an intro, then a first verse, a second verse, a chorus, another verse, and then a special verse.” It’s different from the other, shorter songs, and I think it works very well to end the movie.

CH: In what ways did you and Signe convey the emotional aspects of the characters, especially Zelma, through the songs and their vocal performances?

KS: The main vocals of the songs are usually sung by the mythological sirens, and they represent sort of a Greek chorus. They represent the subconscious of Zelma, or they can be seen as the imposition of society in little voices that a woman has in her mind when she decides to listen to what society asks her and tells her to do, what society thinks of the average woman, and so on. So they are working as a counterpoint with the Zelma character. She’s a very independent woman but with a lot of doubt. “Am I doing the right thing? Should I behave in another way as society expects me to as a woman?” They are judgmental. When I was writing the song I thought, “I hope that people will experience the full movie, because if people listen to the song by itself on Spotify, they might think the people who wrote this song are misogynists because it has lyrics like, ‘You need to save your marriage even if the marriage doesn’t work.’” But if you experience the song in the movie, you know that this makes perfect sense because this is not the voice of the director; this is the voice of the society.

CH: How did you and Signe determine what genres and styles would best fit the songs you wrote for Marriage, and how do they contrast with the instrumental score?

KS: This is a very smart question, because having written the songs first, I had the opportunity to choose the key of every single song and the key of every single score part. In thinking about the songs, I had to think in terms of the key of the song, and that the song was to be sung in three-part harmony because most of the songs are sung by these three sirens. So I had to arrange the vocals in a style like that of the old singers in the ’50s, who sang harmonies in three parts. I had to keep in mind the extension of three female voices that were singing together, but when I wrote the score, I had every single song placed all over the movie, and I chose to find different keys to land on the songs more sweetly. From a musical and technical point of view, if the key of the song was C major, for example, I needed to be sure that the score of the previous cue was in G major, to have a dominant tonal effect from the score to the song. It’s like a symphony, where every single piece of score, every cue, and every subsequent song are one movement.

As usual, Signe gave me a lot of freedom with song styles. In my mind the songs were to have a palette of rhythm and blues and gypsy folk styles. Maybe I was subconsciously influenced by something like the Greek muses in Hercules, the Disney animated movie. Or maybe I had this idea of The Supremes singing some song, but the deeper you get into the movie, the more the style changes from song to song. One song is

      more like Amy Winehouse
, one song is more gospel, and another one is more like
      ’80s rock
. There is a song that sounds like Patti Smith. The style changed a lot for some of the songs because I also wanted the audience to be entertained and surprised by each one.

CH: Regarding Zelma’s marriages to Sergei and Bo, did you create any themes for those two characters, or did their music tie into Zelma’s?

KS: It is more on a emotional and tonal level. In the first movie I did with Signe, I created a lot of little leitmotifs for every single character, but in this case, it was my idea to respect the single scene and the single cue in the overall storytelling. I think the main character is actually Biology, as opposed to Zelma, and more than Bo and

, for example. So the real leitmotif here is the Biology one. The extensive use of the percussion differs from character to character. When you have the Biology cues that talk about Bo’s biology, you can hear castanets. These small instruments characterize not Bo but his biology. The tablas characterize Zelma’s biology. So there are, more than motifs, these little rhythmic ideas that follow the biology of a single character.

CH: Given that in the film we see Zelma grow from a child to a mature woman, and considering all the problems that she has in her relationships, how does the score stay emotionally and tonally consistent?

KS: There is an arc in the use of the percussion. It’s not representative of the growth of the character; it’s representative of the emotional state of the character in various periods of her life. In some cues, you can listen to more percussion. In some other cues, you can feel the rage, but it’s not something that changes with age because you also have it when she’s a little girl and she fights. You have big percussion there to give the impression of Zelma’s blood pumping. In some other cues, the score is sweeter because the state of her mind is more at peace with her understanding of the world and with her understanding of herself. This is reflected in the very last cue before the end title song, where you can feel that she understands that she needs to live her life and be the best version of herself for herself.

So the arc is not about age. Zelma’s music is more about the different states of mind in different parts of her life. You can say that you listen to a specific kind of music when you are young, and then another kind of music when you are old because you are growing old. The music you listen to is more tied to the different parts of the day. In some parts of the day, you listen to rock music, while in other parts of the day you listen to

. My approach to scoring Zelma was more like this.

CH: In an overall sense, the score is consistent as it relates to Zelma’s journey and the theme of the movie: finding your way in life despite every challenge you face, and despite whatever difficulties romance throws in your way.

KS: Yeah. That’s reflected in parts of the score that are sweeter, and when we have the classical background music in the film. Those little cues where she’s at peace with herself are very romantic. They’re very sweet and they stand out among the other cues because the rest of the score is so varied.