“I felt that it was like a fever dream, and that really intrigued me,” says the composer and musician Tamar-kali of Shirley, Josephine Decker’s new film about the author Shirley Jackson. Set in the late 1940s, it weaves the story of the writer (Elisabeth Moss), struggling with creative block and agoraphobia as she drafts a new novel, together with a domestic drama involving a young couple, Rose and Fred, who move into the gothic Vermont house belonging to Jackson and her husband, the critic Stanley Edgar Hyman.
Fred is Stanley’s teaching assistant; Rose, stuck at home and newly pregnant, becomes Shirley’s assistant and confidante as the two women become preoccupied with the disappearance of a local college girl, and with each other. Connecting the characters and their obsessions like a fine web, the film’s score – for string quartet, piano and voice – maps out its psychological terrain with spiky pizzicato, stabs of cello, and wordless layered vocals.
Composing the score allowed Tamar-kali to “delve deep into my psyche, into my emotions, and let the work wash over me”, she says. When Decker suggested using the female voice as a lead instrument, Tamar-kali began developing the vocal lines that we first hear as Shirley and Rose conduct a kitchen-table tarot reading, harmonising with herself to evoke the characters’ intensifying connection.
“I was struck by the fact that we’re dealing with a trio of women and they should each have their own voice, so we have Shirley, Rose and the missing girl, Paula,” Tamar-kali explains. “I wanted to have a general chord – the top and bottom notes are an octave apart and Rose is in the middle, because Paula is an extension of Shirley’s imagination; she’s like a muse.”
Brought up in a musical family, the Brooklyn-born composer has been singing much of her life, as solo artist, leader of numerous bands, and choral singer at the Catholic school she attended: “A lot of my musical DNA lies in women singing together a capella – choral classical music, Gregorian chants, Latin – so that came up for me when I was playing with concepts of possession, initiation, activation… you know, where the mood changes. I thought there needed to be an ethereal, ceremonial vibe to the voices… It was Josephine’s request that I push it further, so it spans a range from almost Gregorian chant intonation to more primordial sounds.”
Tamar-kali is no stranger to exploring the outer limits of the voice. An electrifying presence in Afro-Punk (2003), James Spooner’s documentary about Black punk, rock and hardcore musicians in the US, she was established on the New York underground scene by the time she appeared as herself in Dee Rees’s Pariah (2011), a heartfelt queer coming-of-age story. We see her first as a poster on a bedroom wall as the protagonist Alike and her friend Bina bond over music and poetry; later, the two girls go to a party where Tamar-kali is performing, and mosh ecstatically to Pearl, a visceral blues-rock track.
Rees then invited her to score what turned out to be the director’s breakthrough feature, Mudbound (2017), set in the Mississippi Delta during and after World War II. Like Shirley, Tamar-kali says, Mudbound is a “very elemental score… translating the energy of being in the Delta, with all this mud.” The muted, stormy hues of the setting are articulated in a sparse, often sombre score for string sextet that also highlights the emotional isolation of the characters.
It was Tamar-kali’s first go at composing for film; her background in DIY music-making stood her in good stead as she taught herself to use a digital audio workstation and master the technicalities of writing to picture on a low budget: “I had to figure out with some chewing gum and a toothpick how to do it!”
Rees, she says, is “someone of great vision and integrity, and she’s courageous… she’s an artist and she wants to serve the work.” The working relationship has continued with Rees’s new Joan Didion adaptation, The Last Thing He Wanted, for which Tamar-kali broadened her musical palette to include Latin and orchestral percussion. Each new project provides a chance to experiment and expand – for her score for the recent John Lewis: Good Trouble (Dawn Porter), a doc about the senator and civil rights leader, she says, “I was excited to have a jazz brass section as well as a wind section, and to figure out how that all comes together.”
Asked how writing for film influences her work as performer and songwriter, she reflects, “The rigour of composing for a client and working within that frame of discipline – it strengthens me. So when I come back to my personal projects, I’m developing all these additional skills I can utilise. I feel that the two things feed each other.”
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