It was only a matter of time before Ian and Sofia Hultquist collaborated on a film score, given that the married musicians first met in the film scoring program at the Berklee College of Music. However, both had to set aside successful careers elsewhere to score films in the first place. In Ian’s case, that meant segueing from serving as a founding guitarist and keyboardist in Passion Pit to become a go-to composer for indie filmmakers in the past two years, scoring no less than seven films including “Animals” and the recent SXSW premieres “My Blind Brother” and “Silicon Cowboys,” while Sofia has plied her craft in unique fashion – literally – as the founder of Drum & Lace, a firm that exclusively creates music for beauty brands such as Diane von Furstenberg and St. John that become the soundtracks for their fashion shows, among other things.
So when “Page One” filmmaker Andrew Rossi was looking for the right composer to score his latest, “The First Monday in May,” which pulls the curtain back on the fashion event of the year, the annual Met Gala and its accompanying exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, he looked no further than the Hultquists, who may never have professionally worked together before, but create quite the harmony in their first feature collaboration. As complex as the many threads that make up one of the many gowns on display, the couple bring a variety of styles to bear on Rossi’s equally intricate examination of the 2014 “China: Through the Looking Glass” show, which brought together the likes of Anna Wintour and Wong Kar-wai to plot a presentation of Eastern design’s influence on Western culture. Though the bold-faced names turn the film into a dishy delight as you see rare, unguarded moments behind closed doors, the real star that emerges in “First Monday in May” is Andrew Bolton, the British-born curator of the Met’s Costume Institute, who must jump through hoops within the bureaucracy of his own museum – partnering on the show with the Met’s Asian art department while also organizing the Gala – and having the outside pressure of honoring China without feeling as though the exhibit co-opts their culture.
An air of mystery pervades the Hultquists’ score, as if wondering whether Bolton can keep all of these plates spinning, but as he dazzles the eye with what he pulls off, the musical do the same for the ear, running the gamut from radiant classical to smooth snyth to sonically make it feel as if you’re running your hand through each of the garments on display and announcing the many personalities that Bolton must contend with. Shortly before “The First Monday in May” premiered this week at the Tribeca Film Festival, the two spoke about how their musical partnership came about, finding themselves grappling with the same issues the Met Gala organizers did and where their love of film music first blossomed.
How did “First Monday in May” come about for you?
Ian Hultquist: Andrew Rossi actually gave me my first full-length documentary job for “Ivory Tower,” then he brought me back for a documentary called “Thought Crimes,” which was at Tribeca last year, so we started talking and he said he had something coming up and he had the idea that had it be a co-score between Sofia and I…
Sofia Hultquist: …Because a lot of the content that I work on is fashion-based, so he thought bringing me in with that experience of dealing with fashion-related content would be helpful. Maybe in a way, he also knew that the score would be quite an undertaking, so we thought [there’s] power in numbers.
Was it interesting to work together on something?
Ian Hultquist: We’ve worked together in the past, but nothing in such an official capacity, so it was interesting. It took us maybe a month to get on the same page and learn how to work with another person in the room, because we’re so used to doing it separate from each other. We had figure out the right body language sitting at the desk together and not be bumping elbows. [laughs]
Sofia Hultquist: Yeah, there’s definitely a reason why a composer’s life is a solitary life because it takes a lot to channel [ideas] and figure out how to read a theme. It’s definitely a fun challenge, and by the end, we were writing together at the keyboard at the same time, but at first, Ian would start something, then I would come in and work on it a little and he would take it back and there was a back and forth. Now, it’s going really well and we’re actually really looking forward to working together [more] now that we’ve figured it out.
What were the initial conversations about regarding “First Monday in May”?
Ian Hultquist: It really evolved over time. There wasn’t actually a clear direction as to what the music should do for the first couple months because they were still very much editing the film, so you have a gist of what the story is, but you don’t know what the real narrative of the movie is going to be until you get closer to finishing the edit. Originally, [the idea was to] just do some ambient [pad] or some traditional documentary stuff, then from there, it evolved to be something entirely different. We ended up putting chamber orchestra on there, electronic pop music… we did indie rock-style music. It was like an eclectic melting pot.
Was that actually influenced by the idea of all the different styles of fashion you’re seeing in the film?
Sofia Hultquist: It was a matter of creating thematic ideas. Anything that has to do with visuals or when we’re inside the Met, the style of music ended up being a little bit more neoclassical — a little more orchestral-based, like your [traditional movie] score just because the themes in there tend to be a little bit more cinematic whereas there’s a lot of scenes that take place at Vogue or conversations that Anna Wintour is involved in that have a little bit more of a contemporary pop aesthetic because it works better with the theme. Originally, when we talked to Andrew Rossi, he had this idea of keeping it very much in the style of “In the Mood for Love,” the Wong Kar-wai movie [because] he was one of the people that was on the panel in charge of organizing the exhibit, so we stayed around the idea of making this really lush and somewhat romantic core, and then it went from there.
Ian Hultquist: There was a certain amount of majesty that had to be represented. We just weren’t exactly sure how it was going to happen. Originally, we wanted to do the whole score with authentic Chinese instrumentation, but that didn’t end up happening whatsoever.
Sofia Hultquist: Yeah, when we were thinking of that, I’m not sure we completely grasped the [same dilemma] that the exhibit went through of cultural appropriation. It was really important for us for the score to support the images and not be built upon any kind of stereotypes, especially because the exhibit was all about how Chinese art influenced Western designers, but not necessarily the style of China. As Ian said, for the Met, we just assumed that they wanted a more sophisticated sound which usually translates to strings, piano, orchestra, and percussion.
There were several moments of course where the dresses take over, which I understand is Sofia’s area of expertise. Do the complexities in the design of those dresses influence the score and what kinds of notes you put in?
Sofia Hultquist: Yeah, the reason why I think music and fashion work so well together is there’s so much more depth than meets the eye at first. At first, you see the dresses and they’re beautiful pieces of art or garments, but then if you look close, there’s so much of a story behind everything that I feel like writing music for it is really interesting. It really has to compliment the complexity of each piece as well as the pieces together [collectively]. Personally, as I usually am with my work with fashion, I just really inspired by the colors, the textures, the fact that all of the dresses had such different fabrics and beautiful beading. From a music and v fashion perspective, it was really quite an awesome experience to get to write for this.
When Andrew Bolton, the chief curator, is talking about growing up in England, there’s a really interesting aural texture in the background. How did that come in?
Ian Hultquist: That was a funny conversation we had with Rossi [because] when the film first started out, I think they were intending to make Anna Wintour the star of the show and it quickly turned over to Andrew Bolton [becoming] our main guy, so we wanted him to have a really interesting, original sound. We started talking about where he came from and his background, and [together we thought] you could introduce some punk into the story a little bit, almost like Of Montreal, which isn’t necessarily a punk band, but they have rough edges to their music. So we came up with this strange, atmospheric fake punk style that became Andrew Bolton’s theme.
How did the two of you get interested in film composing in the first place?
Ian Hultquist: It’s just something I’ve always been into since I was a little kid…
Sofia Hultquist: Wasn’t your Bar Mitzvah theme movies?
Ian Hultquist: Yeah, my aunt actually photoshopped my face onto all these different movie posters. But even though I was always so fascinated on sets of films, I didn’t ever really imagine that I could do scoring until I was actually at college, [where I realized], Oh, there’s a major here for film scoring. I’m obsessed with movies. Maybe I should try to combine the two together.
Sofia Hultquist: It was similar for me. I’ve always been a fan of movies. I grew up in Italy with all this great cinema that had these real stories and it’s such a big part of Italian culture, but it wasn’t until I got to college that I was like, maybe this is what I was supposed to be doing because I love combining music and visuals. Now we’re here, so I guess it all worked out.