Maria Grenfell composed a magical score for new Tasmanian documentaryBy Stephanie Eslake, March 2021
Behind an old cottage door, a family of quolls scuttles about. One marsupial pokes its nose out of an open drawer; another disappears through a hole in the floor – its furry tail the last thing to be seen.
These remarkable critters are at the centre of new ABC documentary Quoll Farm. Filmmaker Simon Plowright spent a year living on a farm in the middle of nowhere. Humans had abandoned the property for 18 years – and in that time, it was taken over by native Eastern quolls.
Producing a Tasmanian documentary with a local team
The production, which is broadcast globally, features local talent among its credits. Musicians of the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra performed a delightful score by composer Maria Grenfell.
Quoll Farm is Maria’s first film – and she feels like she “hit the jackpot”.
“It really helps if you love the footage you’re writing for,” Maria says. Her journey began when the production team shared video clips of the spotty marsupials. Falling in love with the animals on the screen, Maria put her hand up to compose the soundtrack.
“I had never written music for a film before, so perhaps there was a bit of surprise that I would be interested in doing it,” she says.
Maria is best known for her orchestral and chamber compositions, as well as her role of Associate Professor of Music with the University of Tasmania’s School of Creative Arts and Media. Still, Quoll Farm seems a natural transition into screen music for this composer: her compositions regularly portray environmental scenes, from her TSO-commissioned work River Mountain Sky to the story of birds exploring the sky in Ten Suns Ablaze.
Composing music for native Tasmanian animals
Maria sat down with Quoll Farm’s directors and editors to formulate a sound palette for this unusual habitat. They explored ideas and techniques that would best share the stories of the Eastern quolls.
“The filmmakers were very specific about the type of mood they wanted to create for each cue,” Maria says.
“They explained that they wanted the animals and the farm itself to have their own musical motives or ideas.
“I did want the music to be tonal and tuneful, as the musical motives had to be memorable and recognisable.”
The use of individual instruments helped Maria share this unusual adventure. Harp and clarinet encapsulate the journey of a little mother quoll appearing from underneath the cottage, while strings bring a familiar pastoral mood to the creatures’ countryside home.
As each quoll had its own tune, Maria’s notebook was filled with gorgeous titles for her musical ideas; among them, Clover Love Theme, Possum, and Sunrise.
“I thought about how best to depict their activities, such as running around catching moths, tiptoeing out from under the cottage, sneaking into the barn to catch rats and escape the baby Tasmanian Devil, rummaging around in the kitchen, and so on,” Maria says.
“There was also a real sense of the farm being a ‘character’ in the film. So there are scenes of night-lapse stars, bush fires, autumn rains, spring, and flowers blooming.
“It was just beautiful.”
Recording a magical score with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra
As beautiful as the wildlife on screen may be, the process of writing this music was also strategic – and fast.
“It was crazy – I was writing a lot of music very quickly,” Maria says. She commenced her score at the start of June 2020; three weeks later, it was finished.
“I actually took leave from teaching in order to have the time to write so much music.”
She worked across the filmmakers’ highly detailed briefs while also considering how COVID-19 restrictions would affect her ability to realise the score.
“As we were heading towards the COVID-19 lockdown in March 2020, we had to make a very quick decision about how many and which instruments I’d be able to write for,” Maria says. They planned for social distancing restrictions of about 10 players and conductor in the Federation Concert Hall.
The week before the recording, Maria spent some time with TSO percussionist Gary Wain – “but really, it was just turn up, play, and record”.
The score took only three days to record, with instrumentalists familiarising themselves with using headphones and a click-track. Post-production was then completed in the ABC studio.
“The players were brilliant, and [TSO French horn and project conductor] Greg Stephens guided them expertly and musically through the score,” Maria reflects.
“The music is very soloistic throughout, and I couldn’t have asked for better people to work with. They’re very good players: they work together as a team, they’re very patient, and they are absolutely professional.”
A warm reception for the Eastern quolls
Since the February 2021 release of Quoll Farm, Maria has chatted with friends overseas about the film – and its reception has been warm.
“I have friends in the United States who have watched the film and found the quolls so enchanting,” Maria shares.
As for what the composer took away from the film, she says of the quolls: “They are sweet, curious, independent little creatures. We need to do all we can to protect them.”