Lord of the Strings
At the Movies with Ben Sollee
By KEVIN NANCE
In a particularly tense scene in Land, the new wilderness survival movie starring and directed by Robin Wright, a huge grizzly bear appears at her remote cabin in a rugged mountain region of Wyoming. Her character, Edee — who has taken refuge in the wild after a personal tragedy back in the city — cowers inside her outhouse as the bear huffs and growls inches away, prowling for food.
Lexington native Ben Sollee, a classically-trained cellist, recording artist, and film composer wrote the movie’s score last year with string trio Time for Three. And the bear scene was an obvious opportunity to shine.
“I wrote probably five different pieces of music for that scene,” Sollee recalls in a recent interview. “I wrote some intense action music: TINK-eh-dink-eh-dink-eh-dink-eh,” he says, his fingers drumming on a table, after filming a promotional segment for LexArts’ Fund for the Arts campaign. “Then I wrote some more mysterious stuff, boh KAY doo BAH, with some weird metallophone instruments. And then I wrote some low piano notes, which was a little bit scary. I tried action energy, fear-inducing suspense, mystery thriller. And none of them worked. They’d put the music in the movie and the answer would come back: Great music. Doesn’t work.”
Wright’s best known work is as an actress (The Princess Bride, House of Cards, and Wonder Woman to name a few), and Land is her directorial debut. She and her team ended up dropping the music for the bear scene altogether, opting instead for dramatic sound design: the sound of the bear growling, its claws crunching the snow, the terrified Edee breathing heavily inside the outhouse.
Earlier in Sollee’s still-young career film composer, this might have been upsetting. But with several movie and TV projects under his belt — including Beauty Mark (2017) and the documentary Maidentrip (2013) — he took it in stride, knowing now that making movies is an intensely collaborative process with a lot of trial-and-error along the way.
“As a younger composer, I struggled when I’d written something I was really into but it didn’t get used in the film. I’d say, ‘Can’t you see how perfect that would be in the movie?,’” says Sollee, 37, who attended Lexington public schools and played in Central Kentucky Youth Orchestras before studying the cello at the University of Louisville.
He gave a mini-concert while filming the LexArts promotion, and answered questions about his years with CKYO, which he credits for helping to launch his career as a professional musician. “But that’s one of the beautiful things about cinema. At the end of the day, the film tells you what it needs, and it’s a big team effort with the director, the actors, the designers and editors. Composing music, while it’s important, is just this one piece of the larger thing, which is the story, and it all has to come together for the film to really land. So it’s a process of attrition. You write a bunch of music and most of it’s going to get cut out. But that’s just part of making music for movies.”
And bear scene or no, the score is a significant achievement for Sollee, featuring his signature combination of classical technique with rootsy Americana, Appalachian folk, and hints of Eurasian melodies. It was exactly that melding of influences that had brought his work to Wright’s attention several years ago, when a friend of hers sent her a mixtape that contained Sollee’s song “Prettiest Tree on the Mountain,” and, later, she heard his song “Embrace,” which fused Kentucky mountain music with droning fiddles that evoked the folk tradition of Kazakhstan.
“The DNA of that song got into the movie,” he says. “My catalog has a very handmade, intimate quality to it, and I think that’s what she was seeking.”
Sollee says he now spends about a third of his creative energies on scoring films and TV, another third on creating and/or curating live arts events, and the final third on performing, recording and touring. His output has slowed a bit since last November, when he contracted Covid-19 and he has since suffered from lingering effects of the disease, including losing his sense of smell along with bouts of dizziness and “brain fog.” He’s doing much better now after a month on a new nutritional regime which he credits with helping to reduce Covid-related inflammation. At the LexArts event he seemed in fine form, belting out several songs with gusto while playing his cello.
“He’s so down-to-earth for a guy who’s now working with people like Robin Wright,” says Maury Sparrow, communications director for LexArts. “We were really lucky to have someone from Central Kentucky back home after forging such a successful career, and to share his success with those who might support the arts here. It’s great that he’s so willing to give back.”
It’s been more than a decade since NPR labeled cellist Ben Sollee as a “top ten new artist to watch,” followed quickly by similar acclaim in the Wall Street Journal. It was a few years later that Paste Magazine wrote, “It’s rare to find music that’s so simple and yet so suggestive, so sparse in its arrangements and yet so brimming with energy and inspiration.” Sollee and his family contracted COVID last fall, and he’s a recovering “long-hauler” with continuing lingering symptoms.
This article also appears on page 10 of the April 2021 print edition of ace magazine.
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