Alexandre Desplat: Between function and fiction

Alexandre Desplat: Between function and fiction

“I often say that what I seek is a balance between function and fiction,” said award-winning Alexandre Desplat, composer of over 100 movie soundtracks, at the French Institute in Athens on Monday.

Speaking to a group of journalists ahead of a “best of” concert featuring his work performed by the Athens State Orchestra under the baton of Stefanos Tsialis at the Herod Atticus Theater on Wednesday, the artist shared some of his thoughts regarding his considerable achievements so far.

This year alone, Desplat earned his first Oscar following a double nomination by the American film academy: While winning the golden statuette for his mandolin-led witty nostalgia of Central Europe's inter-war period in Wes Anderson's “Grand Hotel Budapest,” he had also been among the contenders for his work in Morten Tyldum’s “Imitation Game” – a score he says he completed in the space of three weeks. A few days ago, a new original score, for Tom Hooper's “Danish Girl,” premiered at the Venice Film Festival.

Meanwhile, Wednesday's concert at the ancient theater (a “fantastic venue” noted Desplat) marks the first time the composer's work will be heard live in Greece – the last time Desplat performed in the country had been in his capacity as a flutist, at the resort area of Lagonissi, eastern Attica, back in 1975.

Born to a French father and a Greek mother in Paris in 1961, Desplat grew up with some of his Greek heritage featuring prominently in the domestic realm, with a photograph of the Acropolis taking over one of the household's walls, for instance. There were also Greek sounds, music by Manos Hadjidakis and Markos Vamvakaris, among others, noted Desplat, who studied piano and trumpet, before settling on the flute.

There was more inspiring music in Desplat's life, said the composer: Debussy, Boulez and Stravinsky, but also jazz greats such as Duke Ellington, while his “multitude of influences” also encompass silver screen scores by industry legends including Nino Rota, Maurice Jarre and John Williams.

Following a string of soundtracks for French cinema, Desplat burst onto the Hollywood scene with Peter Webber's acclaimed “Girl with a Pearl Earring” in 2003. By 2007, he had earned his first Oscar nomination for “The Queen,” directed by Stephen Frears.

Balancing between indie productions and more mainstream cinema, Desplat's credits include music for “A Prophet” by Jacques Audiard, Stephen Gaghan's “Syriana,” Kathryn Bigelow's “Zero Dark Thirty,” Ben Affleck's “Argo,” Gareth Edwards's “Godzilla,” as well as “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” Parts 1 and 2, both directed by David Yates.

“What will I bring to the film? That's the question I always ask myself,” said Desplat at the IFA, adding that he had passed on several movies as he found certain scripts “repetitive” on a creative level. Thankfully, these did not include “The King's Speech” by Tom Hooper and Roman Polanski's “Carnage” and “The Ghost Writer.”

“I'm not dogmatic. I don't belong to a specific school of music,” he said. “I see my work as lyrical, not romantic, often with a refined orchestration. I want everything to be heard.”

For the time being Desplat is set to carry on with his soundtrack career, an “applied art” as he puts it, with upcoming projects including sci-fi action adventure “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” directed by Gareth Edwards and Stephen Frears's biographical “Florence Foster Jenkins,” in which Meryl Streep takes on the role of a New York socialite with grand operatic ambitions but very limited vocal gifts.

“When I was 15, I wanted to play all the instruments,” noted Desplat. “Eventually I realized that through composing I could do just that – only better.”

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