In what was to be the penultimate episode of the long-running American crime drama Columbo, the Scottish actor and comedian Sir Billy Connolly appeared as Findlay Crawford, a Hollywood film soundtrack composer and, as it happens, suspected murderer. In explaining his profession to Peter Falk’s beloved, bedraggled detective character, Connolly pronounces that “You only remember the music when it’s bad. For music for the movies done as it ought to be, you never remember it, but you do remember what it depicts.”

Bence Farkas
© Hanga Károlyi

Composer and film scorer Bence Farkas was a young boy in Hungary when that episode first aired in 2001, but he brings that quote up in conversation. “I think this sentence is not true at all, but many people say it”, he objects. “I want to show the main character’s deeper layers, not just what you see on screen but something in his head. I actually don’t like that some people don’t care about the audience at all. My goal is to help them have a deeper understanding of the film and see details that I only noticed after having watched it a couple of times.” The layers of Farkas’s musical efforts will be on prestigious display 15th May, when his score for the 1918 silent film Az aranyember (“Man of Gold”) will be played by the Győr Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Gergely Dubóczky as part of the virtual Bartók Spring International Arts Weeks.

Despite an apparent early influence of fictionalised soundtrack composers, Farkas didn’t always want to be a musician. He grew up in Várpalota, a former mining town in Western Hungary, in a musical family. He is the youngest of the three children to a violin teacher father and a music theory teacher mother. His brother is a percussionist and his sister is a violinist. He began piano lessons at age six but remained resistant to the idea. “I didn’t want to be a musician at all but my parents wanted me to learn some music”, he recalls of his early education. “For my birthday, I always asked to quit music lessons.”

After ten years of study, he got his wish and was allowed to go to Budapest to learn sound and electrical engineering. But Farkas soon grew restless again. He found he missed music and once he’d completed the program he enrolled at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music, where he studied under Hollywood film composer Ádám Balázs while working with students from the University of Theatre and Film Arts and Budapest Metropolitan University. Now, with a grounding in composition and technology, Farkas is well equipped for the precision work of scoring for cinema.

Bence Farkas
© Márton Mónus

“Because of this technical point of view, when working for film, I use computers and tools, and I like that”, he says. “I was always interested in computer science. I used the computer a huge amount. I may not be the greatest composer of our time—in fact, I’m not—but I can choose my tools very specifically and that gives me an advantage. For example, if I have a problem that I can’t solve with any tools I can find online, I can write a small program for myself.”

As an example, Farkas points to his experiments with serialism. He wrote a program that would track his placement of notes and adherence to the form’s strict constraints so he could focus on the music he wanted to hear. It’s that same skill set that makes him able to go beyond scoring to work with recording, mastering, sound design and other aspects of cinematic presentation. He has worked as arranger, composer or music director for a variety of feature films and has also written music for Comedy Theatre of Budapest and Noir Theatre of Budapest. He composed a new musical based on Dickens' Oliver Twist at the invitation of Bartók Theatre of Dunaújváros.

Bence Farkas rehearsing with pop band Blahalouisiana
© Ádám Balázs

Farkas also puts those tech skills to use producing “Symphonic Live” events with such prominent Hungarian pop bands as Blahalouisiana and Brains, but most of his efforts remain with cinema and the theatre. His working methods vary from sitting at the computer to writing on paper to returning to the piano. Those methods were put to task last year during “Blend 2020”, a joint venture of the Hungarian National Film Institute Fast Forward Program and the Voice Capture Program. Farkas was not only invited to score a section of a film, but to do so in just five hours. He received the assignment – a 20-minute excerpt from the 1956 film Körhinta (“Merry-Go-Round”) – that morning and set to work, with audience members free to enter the cinema and observe, for a screening that afternoon. The experience, he said, was a bit nerve-wracking. “I always work with headphones on and I try many different things that I definitely don’t want to show anybody else”, he tells me, adding with a laugh “I cheated a little. I used a theme by Shostakovich and I twisted it in ways.”

Excerpt from Körhinta from Blend 2020

Man of Gold, the feature Farkas scored for the Bartok Spring International Arts Weeks Festival, demanded a similar system of trial and error. The 1918 film, directed by Sándor Korda, is based on a well-known 19th century romantic novel about a man with fabulous fortune and a failed marriage who seeks the real meaning of his existence, and Farkas ended up drawing from international traditions to create the score, as well as from classical music of the time and contemporary music. “Man of Gold is a challenging film even to watch,” Farkas said. Despite its slow pace, the complex plot and nonlinear narrative can be difficult to follow. The challenge is to use the music to bring the movie to the audience. “I tried many different things”, he says. “First I tried Hollywood style and tried it as a contemporary film. That didn’t work. I gave up after 10 minutes.” He then tried a Romantic approach and, again unsatisfied, ended up mixing in a variety of musical styles and influences.

With conductor Gergely Dubóczky, Farkas’s score lands in kindred hands. Dubóczky works frequently with music for theatre and is a champion of both baroque and contemporary music. Like Farkas, Dubóczky knows that you need a variety of tools at your disposal to get a variety of jobs done. “Bence Farkas's music depicts wonderful worlds and characters, invoking known ones, like different cultures and composers, but also unknown, new ones, waiting for us to discover”, Dubóczky says. “It is an amazing challenge to show this richness, and to bring these two artworks together, from the distance of more than 100 years. 

The finale of Oliver Twist

“Working with the old silent film movies and contemporary film music, I am always looking for the connections and how the two artists reflect each other, looking for something new, which creates an exciting new experience. Of course, we are strictly bound to time, much more than usual, but the beautiful thing is how we find the freedom of music and make this all natural and obvious. Bence's music gives Korda's movie whole new dimensions, and I am really grateful to have the opportunity to conduct the premiere in Müpa Budapest at the Bartók Spring International Arts Weeks.”

While bringing new dimensions to an existing work, Farkas said, the primary responsibility remains to the audience. There’s an opportunity to challenge, but the greater challenge is to work in service of the story. And despite Findlay Crawford’s claims to Lieutenant Columbo, there’s also an opportunity to write memorable music. “Contemporary classical music is really hard to understand for people, but if you place this kind of music in a movie, it’s easier to understand”, Farkas says. “A score works if it helps you understand more layers of the movie.”

This article was sponsored by Wavemaker Hungary