How sound makes ‘Tár’ bandleader wonder about his own ears

After a 16-year absence from cinema, Oscar-nominated writer-director Todd Field (“In the Bedroom,” “Little Children”), returns with “Tár,” an incisive character study of genius and arrogance. As Lydia Tár, world-renowned bandleader-composer and Mahler’s lead performer, Cate Blanchett is widely considered the lead actress’ Oscar favourite. Consider the film’s sound department a vital force in illustrating his character’s journey. More than most, Tár experiences the world through sound. But as her behavior becomes more erratic, she begins to wonder if she can trust her ears.

“The nuance of being a conductor, the little intricacies of performing within the orchestra that she has to be aware of and control and examine, those are kind of the fine details,” says supervising sound editor Stephen Griffiths. “These moments when she starts to question herself, the facade starts to crack, it all goes through her psychological perception of the world around her.”

This world includes a metronome in the living room that wakes her up in the middle of the night, and a buzzing sound from the fridge that sends her searching for her source in the dark.

“She suffers from misphonia, which means she’s very sensitive to certain sounds,” says Deb Adair, a re-recording mixer, who mainly worked with dialogue and musical pieces. “Todd and I played with these scenes a lot. So where does that sound come from? Is it real? Is it just in her head? Is she just hypersensitive? It kind of moves. The public does not really know where it comes from.

Oscar-winning composer Hildur Guðnadóttir’s score is equally elusive, crafted to have an almost subliminal impact. “Hildur’s music is all about growing terror,” notes Griffiths. “Todd wanted you to feel it but hardly hear it.”

Much of the film centers on rehearsals for a live recording of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony and Elgar’s Cello Concerto by a major Berlin Symphony Orchestra where Tár is the first female conductor. In the Trauermarsch, the first movement of the symphony, the scale of the full orchestra is palpable. Sound mixer Roland Winke recorded the instruments individually and used a Decca tree, an array of omnidirectional microphones, to capture the complete set, leaving the sound team with over 50 tracks to work with.

For a key scene captured in one take between Tár and a student in a lecture hall, Winke captured the actors and hid a microphone in the piano. In post, they eliminated swishes and body dips when vocals come slightly off the mic.

“She’s just amazing,” Griffiths says of Blanchett in the scene. “She can be funny, witty, smart, and then get on the piano and do a pastiche of Glenn Gould and play the music in three different styles. That says it all about her in this scene. It shows her genius and also her Achilles heel, the fact that she humiliated a student, the worst thing a teacher can do. She just can’t help it.”

Other challenges included the resonant brutalist concrete walls in Tár’s home, as well as the floors in the apartment she uses as a workspace. “It has to be the creakest floor in Christendom,” laughs Griffiths.

Mixing and editing took place at London’s famed Abbey Road Studios, a familiar location for UK-based Griffiths but a rare treat for Adair, who hails from Los Angeles. “I had to pinch myself every day walking through those doors,” she says, noting that she didn’t take a photo of herself on the crosswalk made famous by The Beatles because her England team s made fun of tourists queuing for selfies.

“Someone is going to get run over,” Griffiths said. “It would be quite awkward if it was one of us. There are so many people at the crossing that there are literally lines of people waiting to leave.

Adair has worked in the industry for more than 30 years on titles such as “Bridgerton” and its new spin-off, “Queen Charlotte”, as well as the Bennett Miller films “Foxcatcher” and “Moneyball”, for which she received an Oscar nomination. . But BAFTA-winning Griffiths was never nominated.

“If that were to happen, I would be very lucky and it would be fantastic,” he lights up, then frowns. “But usually it’s the big sound films that get the chance. A win for that would be wonderful.


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