"Novitiate," an independent film set in a convent in the early 1960s, premiered at Sundance Film Festival and is now in wide release. If you listen closely as the characters, young women entering a life of God as the drastic changes of Vatican II settle in, you'll hear a bit of Montana.
The quiet and contemplative score was written by composer Christopher Stark, a graduate of Polson High School and the University of Montana, who went on to study at Cornell University and recently was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship.
Film reviewer Alex Biese of the Asbury Park Press wrote that "Christopher Stark's score is stately and gentle."
In a phone interview, Stark said "Novitiate" is a "methodical and deep" film that places viewers in the mindset of nuns experiencing visceral changes in their world. Many reviews spotlighted the performances of Melissa Leo as the Reverend Mother and Margaret Qualley, daughter of part-time Missoula resident Andie MacDowell, as a young novitiate.
It was "serendipity" that Stark was hired on. He's now an assistant professor of composition at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. A friend from graduate school, Tyler Walker, was hired as music supervisor. The filmmakers had already used a fair amount of pre-existing classical music, but late in the process they decided they wanted a composer to "create some themes that they could place throughout the film to give it more continuity," Stark said.
They sent Stark links to scenes and he and writer-director Margaret Betts discussed the background of certain moments, such as the characters and motivations.
He had a number of considerations. The first is cost and recording, he said. A full orchestra would exceed the budget. The other was the pre-existing music, which was dominated by strings such as violin, cello and double bass, plus piano and choral music.
He wrote music for piano and strings and the music was recorded in a professional studio in Nashville, where they aimed for a sound that matched many of the circa-1970s musical selections.
Before he was hired, Stark met with Betts and editor Susan E. Morse, a veteran of Woody Allen's films. As part of his pitch for the job, he said he could draw on his background in music theory to try to write the pieces that would blend stylistically with what they'd already picked.
One touchstone was Hollywood favorite, Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. He's "one of the most sourced composers, because his music is so cinematic," Stark said.
Pärt has a few signature techniques that "imitate the sound of bells," Stark said, which influenced his writing for "Novitiate." Stark's pieces reference music boxes and bells, the latter of which play a large part in the film and a "certain chains of events that are dramatic."
Stark, 37, was born in St. Ignatius and grew up in Polson. He enrolled at the University of Montana, initially studying music education with interests far from contemporary classical, much less a convent. He was a songwriter in rock and metal bands that played at the Top Hat, Buck's Club and Jay's Upstairs.
On campus, he performed with any group he could find: the orchestra, jazz band and marching band. He studied trombone with Lance Boyd, who he said was the most influential figure in his time there.
Since he was writing so much music, he decided to switch his major to composition. He described his growing interest in classical over rock as a "cross-fade." He remembers spending a significant amount of his student loans at the now-defunct Budget Records and Ear Candy trying to find new music, eventually diving into Stravinsky and Copland, modern music with an energy level amenable to a rock fan.
"It's insanely complex and I think the complexity of it was obviously a draw," he said. He also thought that he "could spend the rest of his life studying classical and never run out of things to listen to."
After graduating, he took a year off and worked at the FedEx/Kinko's on Broadway while taking private lessons with the late David Maslanka, a composer known around the world who made his home base here in Missoula. Maslanka died in August at age 73.
After UM, Stark pursued composition further, first at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music for his master's and then Cornell University for his doctorate. They were rigorous and intense programs, albeit in different ways, he said. Cornell emphasized reading, studying, analyzing and research, while Cincinnati was more performance-based.
For the past three and a half years, he's worked as an assistant professor of composition at Washington University, where he said he has a close community of top-level musicians to work with, including members of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, whether he's writing for them or seeking advice about a particular technique.
While academia has taken Stark far from home, he said the rural landscape still figures into his musical thought.
Montana has a "sense of scale," he said, one in which "you see the glacial geography and the sense of time that that imparts."
Its monolithic features have a way of making you feel small, he said, and "a grandiosity" that he tries to express through specific techniques. For instance, he'll write "rhythmically active but harmonically static" music that can convey that.
He's recorded the sound of water and wind on Flathead Lake, or the sound of wind passing through pine trees and use them as source material: either samples of the sounds or processed ones.
Without getting too technical, he explained the process with field recordings of wind. Sounds like wind, which are basically "noise," have complex frequencies and amplitudes. He would digitize them, and often the complexity would overwhelm the software to create something new but reminiscent.
"Using a lo-fi digital system to try to represent something that's complex creates artifacts and tones that don't sound like wind, but are chaotic and interesting," he said, describing it as "a failed digital representation of something that's very natural and beautiful."
For instance, for his piece "Language of the Landscapes," he recorded the rhythmic sound of water lapping on a shoreline. Using software, he went about "degrading the quality" to the "the point where it's digital ones and zeros," which sound like irregular, percussive hits.
A different kind of landscape will materialize in Stark's next project: For the 2018 calendar year, he's a Guggenheim Fellow. He'll work with the California-based Left Coast Chamber Ensemble on a chamber opera based on rural poverty in the Dust Bowl, using public-domain archives of Depression-era writing and photography.
It's still early in the process, but Stark said in general he's intrigued by the idea of writing based on the digital-era surplus of archival material rather than creating new "content."
As an example, he's considering creating a nontraditional narrative using algorithmic techniques, such as using a keyword search for a specific word in archived letters to find excerpts and apply them to a scene.
He said letters between Works Progress Administration chiefs and their writers and photographers are peppered with specific requests, such as pictures of starving animals, burned crops, people attending church and other prompts meant to convey the state of rural poverty to mass media audience. That "complex relationship between the populated cities and the rural areas" is timely, he said.
While the film score and the Guggenheim are certainly among his career highlights, Stark has also had the opportunity to work with top ensembles and organizations in the contemporary classical world.
In 2010, he won the Underwood Commission for emerging composers from the American Composers Orchestra for a piece called "Ignatian Exercises."
Alarm Will Sound, a new-music ensemble based in New York, has crossed over to rock audiences with recordings of music by electronic dance and ambient pioneer Aphex Twin, in addition to albums of work by minimalist legend Steve Reich and Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood.
In 2016, they recruited Stark to arrange music from the television series "Hannibal" for a live performance. It was a challenging undertaking. The series' composer is Brian Reitzell, who also worked on the series "American Gods" and is director Sofia Coppolla's go-to music director on films with taste-making soundtracks, such as "Lost in Translation."
The music Reitzell created for "Hannibal" is particularly "psychedelic" and "surreal," Stark said. Reitzell provided Ableton Live production files where he'd layered "dozens and dozens" of instruments improvising to create a moody and ever-shifting sound world. Stark and company went about transcribing these for mostly conventional instruments, although they did use some unusual percussion effects.
He also had the opportunity to workshop and premiere a piece with FLUX Quartet, a New York string ensemble that has performed deeply challenging works.
In 2016, the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival selected Stark as one of two composers to write a string quartet, workshop them with FLUX and premiere them.
Stark wrote "Spring Music," the second in a sequence of quartets based on the seasons. He included quotations from the repertoire, like Vivaldi's "Four Seasons," Copland's "Appalachian Spring" and more. He's already completed "Winter Music" and plans to continue the set of four.
Like much of his work, the landscape bleeds into his thinking for the project, in this case, climate change.
"Seasons are a trope in classical music that come up a lot, but I think it's interesting now that when people discuss seasons, there's a more ominous quality," he said.