Devotchka and Soundtracks
by Lee P. Doptera
Salt on a tomato. It isn't the most glamorous description, but that is a Nick Urata score. Generally, when you put salt on a tomato you taste the salt or you taste the contrasting sweetness that the salt brings out. Sometimes, if it is at the perfect balance, you taste the tomato. You taste earthiness, sunshine, sweetness, acidity, brine, umami, bitterness; you taste the entirety of the tomato. Urata writes the most epic, sweeping, knee-shaking songs but when he scores a film, he adds only what is necessary to heighten your emotional awareness. Most scores tell us how we should feel; the violins are ascending so we should feel happy, the timpani is rumbling anger. Nick has the grace to let us decide how a moment hits us by seasoning with a light hand to enhance what is there instead of changing the entire flavor.
I met him at the Denver Art Museum where his band Devotchka was performing for an event put on by Culturehaus to showcase local makers. The band, normally accompanied by numerous musicians, a horn section, the Slavic Sisters, and occasionally an orchestra, seemed naked on a stage that barely had room for Urata (vocals and guitar), Jeanie Schroder (bass and sousaphone), Tom Hagerman (piano, accordion, and violin) and Shawn King (drums and trumpet).
The show was breathtaking. Nick's voice is haunting and unearthly. His guitar has a stark Johnny Cash simplicity at times and a classical Spanish intricacy at others. Jeanie's bass pizzicato has a warm tone that reverberates in your chest and is echoed by her beatific smile which quickly spreads across the crowd. Shawn's drums bring the exotic splash of saffron that rests in the background and completes everything when it needs to, then steps forward at the perfect moments. Tom's accordion/violin/piano is somehow rich with Old World gypsy enticement but wholly new and original. They come together with the perfection you would expect of a band that has known and played with one another since 1997. They are stunning and beautiful and moving. Before closing with "How it Ends," Nick smirks and acknowledges that by law, they must perform this song at every show. He is charm personified.
The show ends and Nick is still in the room. Honestly, his music pops into my head anytime I experience an emotion. He can't just be in a room without the laws of physics shifting, can he? I take trembling steps his way in hopes of a conversation. I am too polite. Each time another conversation ends, I step forward but someone else rushes in so I take a step back and look away. By the third time this happens, he laughs and encourages me forward with a wave. Hounded by fans and he still notices the wallflowers. That is the kind of guy he is.
We speak and I stammer half-sentences that I have rehearsed in my head time and time again but do not quite get out. He stands for a photo with me (actually several). He is kind, he is humble, he is warm and patient and responds thoughtfully to what I say and his eyes don't scan the room impatiently. When I hear the mental timer go off and say thank you and goodbye, he shakes my hand and tells me it was nice to meet me, repeating my name. I want to tell him all the reasons why he is the greatest contemporary film composer but it would take too much time and I do not have the mental wherewithal to do it.
Music can make or break a movie. You know that person who can't stand silence so they nervously talk through any conversational pause? That is the sin that so many scores commit. They think they need to be present and noticeable at all times. Sometimes, we need to feel uncomfortable and Nick knows when to keep silent and allow it. This is not to say that his scores slink into the background to be spoken over and ignored, just that they do not overtake the movie and shove past the performance of the actors. Instead, they add to the action on screen and fill the blanks with poignant afterthoughts or leave a breath where it is needed. His music is the sum of all of the characters but it is also a character on its own, the conscience of the story, and the inner monologue of the viewer. He accomplishes something that few can and he is an emotional genius because he does it without our noticing.
As an experiment, I listened to several of his scores to films I had not seen, then watched the films. Without watching What Maisie Knew, I listened to his music and wrote notes when different emotions hit me. The words that came up most often were sweet, sad, hopeful, ending, and innocence. When I watched the film and saw how the music fit into the storyline, I was doubly impressed. Those words perfectly sum up the tone of the movie but to see how he danced in and out of my awareness, letting the action on the screen shine then stepping in to add contrast or dimension, I was awestruck. It was like watching a painter add a stroke of blue to turn a green smear into a tree, that sort of artistic magic that blooms impossibly in front of your eyes.
This level of mastery is expected of a seasoned musician, but his earlier work is no different. If Devotchka was absent from Little Miss Sunshine, it would still be a great movie. It is quirky and touching, the cast is perfect, but the score is what has placed it on everyone's favorite movie list. The songs we know and love from the movie (including the often-demanded "How it Ends") have strong enough legs to stand on their own years later, but if you took the Devotchka out of Little Miss Sunshine, it would lose half of its life.
Urata's most recent work was on the score of Paddington. It's charming and sweet and exciting in all the right measures. You will hear soft choral voices, crisp harp arpeggios, accordion, his beloved theremin; it seems that everyone has their moment. I always love to hear underused instruments allowed to dust themselves off and take a turn but often they are only in place as a sort of novelty. You must admire Nick's ability to place an accordion in a modern context without it seeming like a gag. His rich understanding of the relevance of folk music's continuing influence in modern creation always allows an instrument to find its place in the whole without being jarring. Nothing is there simply for the sake of being there.
There are other film score composers that I love and have loved for ages, but I know in the opening credits that they scored the film because they have such a distinctive style. This is not a bad thing, but composing a score should not be the same as composing a symphony. You have to set aside ego and create something for the greater good rather than boldly stamping your signature across the face of a collaborative piece of art. I know an Urata score because it catches me unaware, halfway through the movie. Suddenly I will say "this is beautiful, who is this?" and a quick search reveals Nick Urata's name. Devotchka has an undeniable style and Nick Urata is an incredible composer, but one of his greatest talents is his ability to create various shades of beauty without relying on the same tricks and turns-of-phrase for every situation. That is how he can still surprise a die-hard fan like me even when I am looking for his presence. I look forward to the surprise and can reply to Mr. Urata that I do not know how this will end. I never do, and that is his greatest gift.
Also see the Devotchka website
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