Curtis composer builds musical layers with ‘Cymbeline’ score

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 Curtis Institute Professor David Ludwig talks about the score he wrote for a new film adaptation of William Shakespeare's 'Cymbeline.' (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Curtis Institute Professor David Ludwig talks about the score he wrote for a new film adaptation of William Shakespeare's 'Cymbeline.' (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Composer David Ludwig has written premieres for major ensembles, including the Philadelphia Orchestra. The teacher of composition at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia has written scores for short films and documentaries.

“Cymbeline,” opening widely this weekend, is his first feature film and the first time working with director Michael Almereyda, who does not come from the world of classical music.

“He talked about a spiral quality he wanted to hear,” said Ludwig. “I had no idea what he meant.”

Over time, Ludwig discovered that “layering,” in Almereyda’s mind, meant a musical sound that grows through the course of a scene, building drama as it goes. “Part of the composer’s job is to have a vocabulary you share with the director. You’re coming from two very different worlds,” said Ludwig.

That’s not far off from the story of “Cymbeline,” one of William Shakespeare’s lesser-known plays. Like “Romeo and Juliet,” it concerns two young lovers whom society does not want together.

King Cymbeline’s daughter,  Imogen, is promised to one of the king’s chosen underlings but instead secretly marries another, Posthumus.

In the film, Imogen (Dakota Johnson) is the daughter of a motorcycle gang leader (Ed Harris). She is in love with avid skateboarder Posthumus (Penn Badgley).

“The play is about men and women, much more than war and drugs and motorcycles,” said Ludwig, talking about the opening scene, which he scored with spare piano. “We see the two main characters – Posthumus and Imogen. They shouldn’t be together. I want to start with a solitary sense – very intimate.”

The music builds – or “spirals” – as Cymbeline arrives on a motorcycle, pulls the lovers apart, and hands his daughter to his second wife to secure her in an isolated place.

Ludwig writes for classical music instruments: pianos, strings, woodwinds, etc. While the script of this film stays faithful to Shakespearean language, the setting is very contemporary – the ancient Roman court has been updated as warfare among motorcycle gangs over drugs and guns.

Ludwig thought the setting and the images of the film were gritty enough – the music did not need to emphasize urban gang warfare. He wrote the music to be modern, but distinctly from an orchestral tradition.

“The music has some dissonance, but I would not call it aggressive,” said Ludwig. “The director wanted it to be moreso, but to me, when I saw the film, it really conveyed a message of people trying to get by while the world is crumbling around them.”

While composing this score, Ludwig was inspired by the music of cinema’s heavy hitters, composers such as Nino Rota and Elmer Bernstein. The process took about a year of synthesized mockups, feedback from the editors, and rewrites. He says he wrote about 90 minutes of music, about half of which was used.

“When you write new music and hear it for the first time, it always surprises. Good and bad. You hope the good outweighs the not-so-good,” said Ludwig. “This was extreme. To see it on the big screen with the sound mastered and the image mastered, it was actually moving. It was shot in 20 days, then took a year of more work. It was a very moving experience.”

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