Composer Uno Helmersson on Chasing Fresh Sounds for “Flee”

When you ask Uno Helmersson about how he got into composing, he describes a familiar path that inevitably begins to lead to interesting detours, much like the music he produces.

“I’m not only a composer,” Helmersson says softly, after recalling the need to settle down from being a touring musician to start a family and the composer Johan Söderqvist who kindly gave him an internship to learn the ropes. “I’m a dad, a partner…I like to walk in the forest, read books — psychology, for example, or popular science. I get interested.”

When it’s suggested that this diversity of interests and experiences may be why his scores are so special, he demurs.

“Maybe,” Helmersson tells me, before adding with a laugh. “I don’t know. It’s too much.”

There is always something deeply human to hang onto in Helmersson’s work even as he creates otherworldly sonic landscapes, which is perhaps why he’s attracted the attention of so many nonfiction filmmakers over the years who boldly stretch the imagination as they chart the most unbelievable truths in our world. This was the case with Jonas Poher Rasmussen, who enlisted the composer to work on “Flee,” the story of Amin, an Afghan refugee who migrated to the director’s small hometown in Denmark in the 1990s. The two became friends as teenagers, but Amin was reluctant to share the story of how he made it to Europe, knowing how precarious life already was as an immigrant and his burgeoning consciousness of being a gay man, though when he finally confided in Rasmussen about his remarkable journey with stops in Estonia and Russia evading capture, the filmmaker developed a way to protect his anonymity by using animation to avoid putting him on camera while keeping his voice intact and could lean on the music to bring out his heart.

“I hadn’t worked with [Helmersson] before, but I knew of his work and he’s just incredibly talented,” says Rasmussen. “Every piece of music that we worked on was a piece of storytelling in and of itself. For example, there’s the sequence in the film where Amin is fleeing Kabul with his family and you have these strings, this kind of pushing vibe, and you have this very thin violin and to us, this thin violin represented Amin, who is getting pushed out because of circumstances he couldn’t control. To work with music in a way that was very dramaturgical was very inspiring.”

Helmersson would mix folk instruments with more contemporary equipment to create the swirl of emotions that Amin feels with a subtle feeling of absence at the center when going back home is never an option. The scores really do become something you’ve never heard before when the composer is apt to invent new instruments from the pieces of old ones for each new project, considering himself a self-taught musicologist who collects musical ideas from the world over and it’s made his work both unmistakably tactile in giving a sense of the surroundings in such films as “The Painter and the Thief” and “The Distant Barking of Dogs” while conveying what lies just out of reach for the subjects with the ethereal. With the Oscar-shortlisted “Flee” expanding theatrically across the U.S. this weekend, and his latest film “A House Made of Splinters” premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, the composer spoke about his musical practice, the search for new sounds and being in tune with real-life subjects.

How did you get interested in “Flee”?

I’ve been working with [Monica Hellstrom], the producer for a long time, and I live in Sweden, so she called and said, “Why don’t you come down to Denmark and we’ll have Jonas Poher Rasmussen, the director, and let’s see what comes out of it.” He told me about the project, that he had been doing this interview with “Amin” [the pseudonym for the Afghan refugee in the film] and that this is the first time he [was sharing his] story — he wants to be incognito, otherwise he can’t tell the story, so it will be animated — and I got these animatics and stills and drawings. We got fond of each other and I thought it was super-exciting, so that’s how it started.

Was that a different process for you, not necessarily having a final image to work off of?

I had the sound of the interview actually, so I worked with that for at least half-a-year and then eventually things started to come as long as they were producing the animation material. But the story itself is so overwhelming and when I wrote the music, I was listening a lot to what Amin said. You could sense his emotional journey with the agony and letting go when he tells the true story – how he like sighs and all that, so I was listening a lot to his phrasing and a lot of that came into the music, almost like a jazz singer. That was the first intellectual idea of working with it, trying to emphasize his emotions and when I got the finished animated material, I started to work with cuing and all that, but mainly it started with just working with the voice. It was almost like radio drama.

Which I know is what Jonas comes from – I talked to him about this and he cited the scene where flees Kabul and Jonas was saying that there was the use of strings to give the feeling of pushing him out of the country is the way he phrased it to me. Was it interesting to use music in that way?

Yeah, well, I didn’t try to push him out of the country with the violin. [laughs] But there is a folk tradition in Sweden where you call the cattle, so there’s a female voice, “Do-do-do-doo,” and my friend actually sings that on that. [laughs] And for me, it was kind of the same thing, calling through the forest, something ethereal. But [it’s interesting to hear Jonas’ interpretation] because it’s so subjective how you feel and how you react. That’s kind of the impact of the film with animation – everything together creates this wonderful experience because it feels like you’ve been through it yourself and you can really, really relate to what Amin is going through and you have your own feelings about the music and how it relates to you.

I’m using a lot of classical instruments for example, but also folkloristic instruments and I try to use instruments in a way where I haven’t before, just to try to make new music. It’s hard to get out of yourself or your ego or your ideas [about] something, so a method for me is to just try to turn things backwards and forwards and mix things together, so it’s like a weave [where] the music is put together like braids almost. It’s a melody here and a melody there and chords come in, but there’s a lot of things happening. If you should see [the notes on one of] my projects, it’s like 30 different stems or ambiances, so everything is moving all the time and it creates this illusion or this feeling of something organic, which is also the idea of how your mind works. For example, at the start, you have these emotional waves going on when Jonas is asking Amin what is home and then [he] starts to tell of the idea of home and you have these abstract images of people running and the houses falling. Then you have this kind of emotional texture that goes in and goes out and brings you overwhelming feeling — I like to think of it [as how] you experience loss and sorrow. It comes in waves and you can’t control it. You just get back to normal and then something triggers you. That is kind of what I tried to create throughout the whole film.

You work a lot in nonfiction where authenticity is prized – does it actually lead you to more organic sounds?

It’s always in consideration. I always try to be true to the material, even if it’s fiction, animation or documentary and I see it as two processes. You have the intellectual one and you have the more emotionally-driven that’s more intuitive and driven by does it feel right? [Any time I say to myself] “No, it doesn’t,” I have to take that out. And sometimes you feel it and you know it, but [other times] you can’t see it for a while, and suddenly, that is actually about trying to find a structure. The difference with documentary, and it’s not really huge difference because it’s also being true to the characters in a [fictional] movie, [is paying attention to] how they react and what they do [and asking] are you inside of them or are you just spotting the story? I always pay a lot of respect to the characters or to the story when I score [a documentary] because it’s a true story and I’m not creating reality. I can record an orchestra, true, but I can also just turn it backwards and forwards and pitch it out to create a sense of something, so the amplification is a really, really sensitive part in scoring for documentaries — how do you amplify the story without destroying it.

[Generally] I like work with organic instruments. I’m surrounded by electronic stuff and synthesizers, but I really enjoy working with my hands, like a blacksmith banging the iron. I have a lot of instruments, both classical and folk instruments and I also bring in folk musicians or classical musicians [because] you have different approaches to the different areas of music and see how you can bring out what you want out of the musician. I find that mixture really exciting and I try to use it almost everywhere because you can create interesting sounds and I’m really sound-based when I write music. I like to hear “Okay, this cello line is cool or this orchestra recording is cool, but why don’t we try to stretch it? How far can we stretch it?” It could be a 60 BPM recording that is stretched down to 40 BPM, but it sounds much better. It’s not that I’m not being disrespectful to the actual sound, but it’s just about a sense and it’s hard to say, “This is why I did it,” but it’s like you have a piece of clay that becomes a vase. You see, “I have a key harp here. I used some strings, I used a bass clarinet, I used a demolished piano” and then you have these flavors.

There’s a wonderful video online of you working with that demolished piano. Is it actually a way into the process for you to create new instruments to find new sounds?

It is. I really like to work with that because when I graduated at the Royal College here in Stockholm, I wrote linear, but as it goes, I started to write more modular in that perspective. What I mean is I collect things — I have an idea [like for “Flee”], I want to create a sound of emptiness. What is that sound when you lose your country, your culture? What is that? And then I start to explore that and there are these sounds that are kind of hollow and cutting through sometimes, which is actually a bass clarinet played with a lot of air into that actual piano frame that you saw in that video. That really creates this hyper soft, weird sound [for] this emptiness. And this piano frame that I demolished and just made [into] a multi instrument, it’s like a sea of strings and it’s really awesome because you can do so many fun things with it. So that is one color and then I [find] another and then I have this framework of colors and then I start work with that. I have the melodies, some tonal ideas, some ambient ideas with this kind of emptiness, I have the emotional waves, I have this and that and then I start to boil it together to the finished film.

Did thinking about music in narrative terms something that came naturally for you?

I have been writing music more or less since I was a kid. I’ve used it in school for practicing and I used it for when I was a teenager playing punk rock, writing lyrics about heartbreak or whatever, so I used writing music all the time, but I wasn’t really thinking of being a writer. I wanted to perform from the beginning, but then eventually when I got to be a parent, I felt like I can’t be outside playing all the time. I’ve got to restructure my work. This is a really pragmatic explanation of how I got into writing music, but I love movies. I really like psychology and perception, so I went to some classes on film scoring at the college and I was like, “Yeah, this is what I want to do.” It ended up with me making music for film and TV and I’m really happy about it and will probably do it forever because it’s my passion, I can live on it and this is what I do best.

What’s it like to see everything come together as it does on “Flee”?

When you work with something, everything [during the production process] tends to be longer and stretched and you see all the details, but eventually as you have left the project and moved on, it narrows. Suddenly, when you watch it a year later, you can actually watch it with distance and go, “Oh, this was quite good, you know?” Because somewhere in the process you’re walking up this hill or you see this huge mountain and you’re going, how am I going to pass through it? That goes with any project because even though it’s a passion and all that, it is intense. You have deadlines and you have people hanging over you and you want to make good and with “Flee,” it was a great process and I’m really happy for everyone. There were some moments where it was really hectic and stressful, but I’m really happy to see how it turned out because it’s such a great artwork and it’s just been fantastic to be a part of it. It’s a fantastic rollercoaster.

“Flee” is now in theaters. A full list of theaters and dates is here.