Zoé Collaborator Gus Reyes Talks Composing Music for Films Versus Bands

Photo by Hugo Carrillo

A musical score is an integral part of what makes audiences develop a deep connection with a film. Beyond just a catchy melody or cues for what the viewer should feel at any given moment, music is a vital part of a film’s mood and impact.

Gus Reyes’ job is precisely that – setting music to films like The Dark Side of Light, El charro de Toluquillaand Mexican Gangster. The Mexican composer has worked on TV as well, putting his craft to good use on a number of small screen projects, like the 2011 series La Cuba de Fidel.

His work extends beyond cinema, since Reyes has also worked on orchestral arrangements for musical artists from Spain and Latin America. His biggest collaboration in this field is without a doubt his arrangements for Zoé’s MTV Unplugged special, which was released under the name Música De Fondo in 2011. That project earned Zoé and their collaborators a Latin Grammy Award. He has also worked with Babasónicos and Dorian in a similar capacity.

Reyes has just completed the Music and Sound Design Lab fellowship at Skywalker Ranch, hosted by the Sundance Institute and Skywalker Sound. The Institute linked composers, sound designers, and directors to collaborate on the process of providing music and sound for film. Each composer-director duo had their composition performed live by a chamber orchestra following the prestigious program.

Since then, Reyes has kept busy scoring films, including Sueño en otro idioma from director Ernesto Contreras (Seguir Siendo: Café Tacvba, Párpados Azules) in collaboration with Andrés Sánchez Maher, as well as La ira y el Seól from Juan Mora Catlett. Reyes has also worked on arrangements for a British musician whose name he could not disclose at the time of publication. We caught up with the Mexican composer to talk about the creative process behind scoring and working for celebrated artists.

On Creating Film Scores Versus Orchestral Arrangements for Bands

There are similarities. Once there’s a sketch or a skeleton of a song, it requires the right kind of arrangement. You can’t just add whatever; you need discipline to know the what’s the way for the instruments to come together [to become] a single piece.

With Zoé, I was there in the studio and rehearsals. The Unplugged album was huge and it was great for many of our careers. It was a brutal job because we were testing the arrangements every day. We would talk about something in the morning and then the sheet was written at night. It was a great exercise in trial and error. The song that earned Zoé the [Latin] Grammy for Best Rock Song was a very complex arrangement that went through various stages; I think I wrote maybe five different arrangements for it.

Gus Reyes at Sundance Institute and Skywalker Sound’s Music and Sound Design Labs. Photo by Brandon Joseph Baker
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On Finding Your Own Creative Voice While Serving the Film

I have always been very collaborative in my life because that’s the nature of film; it’s a collaborative art between many disciplines. You can’t go into this world thinking that things will be like you want them to be. In film, the most important thing above everything is the movie. It demands things; from the moment it [starts as] an idea and [eventually] becomes a story and a script, it starts demanding elements for it to be born.

[Finding your voice] is something that takes a lot of time to mature. When we’re young we tend to want everything to happen as fast as it can, [but] that’s something that rarely happens. The communicative capacity that music possesses tends to grow with time and this has to do with discipline…Eventually, your music starts to communicate more than before, without [you] noticing it. I can’t stress enough how you can never stop [and] have discipline to never give up; this yields maturity.

On the Importance of Versatility as a Composer

You can’t just place yourself within the most avant-garde genres of music. You have to love all music, from ancient styles [to] tonal stuff – popular music, chamber music, and sure, the newest methods of composition. All these are valuable resources for films that could be used at one point or another in order [for you] to become a versatile composer who can enjoy a good pop song and a great symphony of modern composition. Also, watching a lot of films and constantly analyzing the music helps. You have to be up-to-date as well as know the past as best as you can – back to classic cinema or even silent cinema. You have to know it as much as possible in order to know what the movie needs at any given moment.

I grew up in the 80s, so a big chunk of Hollywood-esque music fascinates me, but I’m not interested in that style only. Every film requires a different kind of score. Sometimes you can find movies with very subtle scores that can be as exciting as something grandiose. I’m thinking of Cliff Martínez’s soundtrack to the movie Drive; it’s a very short score with very few elements, but I think it’s powerful, emotive, and exciting.

Gus Reyes at Sundance Institute and Skywalker Sound’s Music and Sound Design Labs. Photo by Brandon Joseph Baker
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On the Power of Musical Language in Film

I realized from a very young age that a big aspect of my love for film stemmed from the emotional construct that led me somewhere: to overdrive my senses. I think that a big part of this is carried by the music. I don’t like movies without music. I personally find that music doesn’t lead the audience’s emotions, but rather it can be a language [that contrasts] with the images presented.

On Attending Sundance’s Music and Sound Design Labs

I have been dedicated to music in film; it has been my dream ever since I was a little kid. It’s a real privilege to have been selected by Sundance and Skywalker Sound for this Music and Sound Lab. Living for two weeks at Skywalker Ranch was very impressive; I was constantly learning so much from great teachers – people with Oscars on their resumés. I feel very grateful to these people for taking my work into account. As a composer, it’s satisfying to know you’re not so far from the right path of doing things. The confidence you build through years of work is a complicated matter for most composers in the world. Establishing your voice [and] your personal seal after years of work is [important].

Update 8/23/2016, 4:35 p.m.: A previous version of this piece referred to La Ira Y El Seól director Juan Mora Catlett as Juan Mota. We have updated the post with the correct spelling.