Sounds of Australia, with Film Composer Antony Partos

November 17, 2020
A career – and a life – coloured by music

IT WAS ON AN AEROPLANE IN JUNE 2010 that I first heard the music of Antony Partos. I was thirteen, flying home to Western Australia with my older brother to spend the summer holiday with our Dad. I was flicking through the in-flight entertainment, and, this being a Qantas service, there was a typically large supply of Australia-made media. The film that immediately caught my eye was something called Accidents Happen, featuring a promo image of Geena Davis standing in a kitchen with a glass of wine in her hand.

Having seen Beetlejuice and The Long Kiss Goodnight just a few months prior, her mere appearance pretty much sold it for me as I would have happily watched Geena Davis peel eggs, if it meant she got in front a camera.

I watched the film in awe and, in the ensuing decade since, have never rewatched it. In the best possible way, I have never needed to — the boldness of the film’s stand-out moments, revolving around a perennially unlucky but resolutely plucky family in early-’80s America, have always stayed with me. It is the film that forever reminds me of Australia, of home, its opening shot of a water sprinkler twirling in slow motion stamped into my memory.

That scene in particular ignites onscreen with the strike of harp, flute and xylophone, a twee cheerful flurry of music that sharply juxtaposes the horrible accident we see taking place in the film’s first few minutes. It is a darkly funny, jubilantly bleak opener to a decidedly bittersweet viewing experience — and, as I discovered later, had in fact been shot in Australia, despite its suburban Connecticut setting. But it was the film’s score, by Australian composer Antony Partos, that left the thirteen-year-old sitting on that 22-hour flight simultaneously enchanted and thunderstruck.

I emailed Partos’s production company, Sonar Music, to ask for an interview and was very kindly given the opportunity to quiz one of my favourite composers. I wanted to know about his early inspirations, and how became composer of some of the most highly acclaimed Australian releases of the 2010s, including The Rover, Animal Kingdom and The Slap.

My first question was whether his decision to write music stemmed from any specific Eureka! moment.

To that, he says, “I grew up surrounded by music, so it is hard to identify one particular incident of profound enlightenment!” Raised by a mother who played the piano, guitar and church organ — even having a church organ installed in his childhood home — Antony believes that composing music came “intuitively from an early age: it was this sense of being able to be lost in one’s own world, musically, that was so intoxicating.”

Outside of parental influences, Partos attributes the formation of his “musical psyche and language” to a few other important experiences in his early years. It was an exposure to cinema that made an “enlightening impression” on the young Antony: the first film he ever saw was Fantasia, the defining onscreen fusion of sight and sound. “Needless to say, I was totally mind-blown, not only by the visuals but also the score and how the two interacted. Probably more than anything else, it demonstrated the power that music can have when combined with visuals.”

As a teenager, Partos attended a performance by David Hykes and the Harmonic Choir, hosted by the Sydney Town Hall, by this point having “never heard voices singing in multi-phonics. I was utterly transformed and transported to another realm by that experience, probably the closest thing to an out-of-body experience I had ever had.”

The final stage of the young composer’s musical self-discovery came after visiting David Hykes in Paris, where he “played him some of my orchestral works and he gave me a tape of Arvo Pärt’s Fratres and his elegy to Britten. I listened to this tape non-stop travelling around Europe by myself as a 21-year-old searching for the meaning of life.”

Overwhelmingly, though, it was the footprint of one particular historical atrocity that shaped the later output of this Australian composer. As the son of a Holocaust refugee, Partos had “grown up with the stories of my father’s loss during World War II. I think this background has predisposed me to the human condition and I am somehow inherently drawn to themes of war and loss.”

As such, Partos gravitates towards “more emotional scores than action/comedy ones. I remember sitting at the very back of the Sydney Opera House, listening to Shostakovich’s Piano Trio #2 and it really hit a nerve. It seemed to sum up all of my father’s stories combined with Jewish melodies of joy, wisdom, suffering and loss.”

The road on which Partos set out to become a composer began, quite literally, with a road.

Whilst driving to school each day, “my father and I would pick up strangers from a bus stop in order to travel in the faster ‘Transit Lane’. One person we picked up happened to work for the Film Censorship Board and was living with a documentary filmmaker at the time.”

In the end, it was this Transit Lane contact who suggested he enrol for the Australian Film, Television and Radio School. Although, “back in 1986 there was no film composition course, so I left a note there — along with a cassette of my work,” inviting any students in need of a composer to seek out his services. The graduating student who took up his offer not only gave Partos one of his first commissions, but the resulting work then became his application to film school.

Debating whether he should pursue ‘serious’ music or film composition, “At the end of the day I decided that I prefer to be inspired by images, and to be moved by narrative and to be able to transform my own emotional responses into music. The thought of writing so-called serious music,” he admits, “filled me with a degree of dread.”

The appeal of assignment-based work within the film industry suits Partos’s sensibilities as a composer. “I like to have a purpose and a brief. I do not feel that the world needs to necessarily hear my music, but I am drawn to solving problems musically… much like a person might be drawn to doing a crossword puzzle.”

Of all the projects Partos has worked on, he cites HBO’s 2018 adaptation of Fahrenheit 451 as his most satisfying.

Written in collaboration with business partner and Mystery Road composer, Matteo Zingales, the score is “an electro/acoustic” fusion devised of a unique palette of sounds. “It incorporated sounds like chair scrapes — which later became violin notes;  toilet door groans that became booming brass notes; and rhythmic tapping on a desk that evolved into intense percussion beds.”

Recording with a “full string section and brass record made this score truly epic and inventive,” though Partos recognises, somewhat ironically, it is one of his largest works to have gone largely unnoticed. There were some perks therein, however: “being flown by HBO to New York for the mix and attending the midnight screening at the Cannes Film Festival made the hard work worthwhile!”

Where it all started… [“Accidents Happen,” 2010, soundtrack property of Sandcastle Music]

But of course, the one film I was most excited to ask about was Accidents Happen.

Days after landing in Australia after that flight over ten years ago, I rushed into the nearest music store and hunted the shelves for the film’s soundtrack — which I still own to this day. Its tracks make regular appearances in my study playlists and I am, in fact, listening to the album’s charmingly melancholy opening track “BBQ Misadventure” right now.

Partos’s involvement in the film began once the film had been greenlit by another one of his business partners, the director Andrew Lancaster. As Antony recalls, “It required a specific score that needed to have a sense of irony, playfulness and inherent sadness… all simultaneously!” This was obviously no small feat, with the film’s editor [Roland Gallois] unable to find a temp score of pre-existing music to set the tone as the footage came together.

“The film is a black comedy, but has grief as its backbone,” Partos explains. “The opening theme is one of overt optimism that tries to paper over the first of many accidents in a way similar to a fixed grin.” Orchestrated with a dense body of sonic textures, the fluffy plucking of harps and tooting of flutes rising above a strong swathe of strings — especially in the closing half of the gently beautiful track “Conway’s Accident” — Partos says “the music employs many different techniques that pull on one’s emotions.”

For a film that traverses between coming-of-age drama and black comedy, Partos found the correct tonal balance by “exploring the idea of creating a sense of stillness, but with a latent undulation of movement in the orchestration. Low sub notes produced the effect of making people feel more emotionally vulnerable, and high-pitched frequencies put them on edge. I like to think of myself in this regard as an emotional manipulator — but only in a musical sense.”

As all art is informed by the artist’s sense of place, by their response to the events unfolding around them, I asked Antony if he felt there were an innate sense of ‘Australianness’ within his work.

“Australian sensibility rather than identity play a part in my work,” he says. “The way one writes for an Australian production versus an American one is quite different. If one were to put a large orchestral score under a normal Australian drama, it would come across as being over the top.” This is where those Aussie sensibilities come into play, because the way productions are shot down under, and the stories that are told in general, differ from those made in the US of A.

What leads to “more understated scores” within Australian cinema is the “distinct quality of our sense of humour. Having said that, no two projects are the same, and the way I approach each project is different as well. I feel very fortunate to have been able to carve out a successful career in Australia, and although I will never be a household name, I am grateful to be offered so many of the more interesting projects being developed here.”

Yet, in typical Antipodean fashion, Partos doesn’t reserve any lofty assertions of greatness. He feels, if nothing else, simply lucky to be here. “There is never a time when I feel necessarily worthy of being offered a job. My first reaction is always, ‘They should have gone with a real composer!’. This is my honest gut-felt emotion and it’s only because I know that this happens every time that I manage to convince myself that I can take it on.”

Yet, despite any anxieties as to whether his inspiration may just one day dry up, Partos has faith in the future. “Good projects always do inspire and great filmmakers seem to have a level of trust.”

Main Image: Image courtesy of Roxy Withers, Sonar Music

Liam Heitmann-Ryce is a Writer and TEDx Speaker based in the UK

 

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