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An 'Incredibly Close' call for Thibaudet

Composer Alexandre Desplat gets last-minute help from the busy pianist for his 'Extremely Loud' film score.

January 01, 2012|James C. Taylor
  • Pianist Jean Yves Thibaudet is seen at the 6 Columbus Circle hotel in Manhattan, NY.
Pianist Jean Yves Thibaudet is seen at the 6 Columbus Circle hotel in Manhattan,… (Jennifer S. Altman / For…)

NEW YORK — Extremely soft and incredibly far away.

This was the scene as film composer Alexandre Desplat presided over one of the scoring sessions for the film "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close." The film's premiere was just a month away and Desplat was trying to get the sound of the piano to be even lighter than pianissimo.

Cut to: pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, watching and listening to Desplat's direction via a video screen. The French virtuoso had been in Vienna two days before, now he was isolated in a Manhattan recording studio two floors below Desplat and the full orchestra.

It is hardly the familiar image of composer and virtuoso collaborating together in the same, candle-lit room with long sheets of freshly inked notation paper strewn over a piano. Nonetheless, the modern motion picture remains one of the few remaining benefactors of original orchestral compositions. Though Thibaudet plays regularly with the world's best classical artists (he performs this week with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall), he considers being asked to play for film soundtracks no less of an honor than being asked to perform a world premiere concerto in a concert hall.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday, January 02, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 33 words Type of Material: Correction
Jean-Yves Thibaudet: An article in the Jan. 1 Arts & Books section about pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet said that he had performed concerts and recordings on dates in mid-December. Those dates were in mid-November.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, January 08, 2012 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part D Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Jean-Yves Thibaudet: A Jan. 1 article about pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet said that he had performed concerts and recordings on dates in mid-December. Those dates were in mid-November.

"The good composers of soundtracks, I admire them as much as I do classical composers. I don't make a difference between them -- a composer is a composer," Thibaudet insists, adding, "The movies are the opera of modern times. Had there been movies back when, Puccini and Wagner would have certainly written film scores."

The reason Thibaudet (and other world-class soloists) don't perform original film scores more often is because of the frantic nature of Hollywood post-production. The score is usually the last part of a film's production, and far less time and energy is spent in its preparation than the casting of stars and writing of the script. As Thibaudet puts it bluntly: "Hollywood can't book me three years in advance."

Indeed, that Thibaudet was available to play on the soundtrack for Stephen Daldry's 9/11 drama at all was a combination of luck and intercontinental travel wrangling. Desplat himself came to the project late, after the original composer, Nico Muhly, left the production. (Sources close to the film say there was a change in direction with music early in the fall and that Muhly's score was never completed.) The movie, based on Jonathan Safran Foer's novel about a young boy coping with the death of his father in one of the twin towers, required a deft touch to balance its whimsical yet somber tone.

Desplat, who has been busy of late -- scoring "The Tree of Life" and the recent Harry Potter film, not to mention "The King's Speech" -- was brought in with only three weeks to compose the music for the film.

"I realized quickly the piano would be really central, the main character, Oskar, is very acrobatic mentally, very quick," Desplat recounted a few days after the sessions. "This was to be an emotional, haunting, delicate score, and I needed a special delicateness at the piano. I immediately thought of Jean-Yves Thibaudet because he lives on this continent."

Thibaudet owns a home in Los Feliz. He met Desplat in Los Angeles through director David Fincher. The Frenchman had not worked together before but wanted to, but when Desplat inquired about his schedule, the pianist was on tour in Europe.

"I was in Dusseldorf when I got the call," Thibaudet says. "I figured it wouldn't work out. The other scores I did, 'Pride and Prejudice' and 'Atonement' [both for composer Dario Marianelli], were pure miracles. I happened to be in London when they were recording."

For Desplat, the gods of far-in-advance classical music booking smiled on him: Thibaudet had a concert in Boston on Dec. 11 and Carnegie Hall on the 12th. Recording could begin Dec. 10. So between concerts and shuttle flights, Thibaudet spent nearly every other waking hour in the recording session with Desplat and a booth full of engineers and musicians creating the sound of the film.

Given the amount of hassle and money (though no one will disclose his fee) it takes to get a soloist of Thibaudet's ability, is it worth it? For Desplat, absolutely. "When you have three weeks, it simply can't go wrong. When I write music, I hear the sound, and I hear very precisely," he says. "I'm a composer who writes for recordings, so I'm obsessed with the sound. I need players who will generate that sound -- and emotion. I have to find players who match my sound. I try to create my ideal: the 'Golden Desplat Orchestra.'"

Cut to: Saturday morning, the third of the four sessions at Manhattan Center Studios. It's just Desplat and Thibaudet in the studio. They're working on the crucial last reel of the film. Desplat is trying to get the sound of the piano just right. "I play piano, my touch is really extremely light. I don't like to go deep into the keys," he says, "Jean-Yves is perfect for that, he has a range of color, tone, dynamics and nuances."

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