Este Haim and Ariel Marx on Crafting the Music for ‘A Small Light’

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Musical tag-teaming doesn’t have results much more fruitful than what came about when the showrunners of “A Small Light” picked Ariel Marx to compose the score for the limited series and Este Haim to serve as executive music producer. Neither Haim nor Marx was in a position to take anything about the job lightly, given that the eight-episode series for National Geographic and Disney+ tells the story of a Dutch woman, Miep Gies, who helped hide Anne Frank and her family from the Nazis. Yet, in their very separate roles, both found ways to bring musical light or even levity into a drama that inevitably skews toward tension.

Este Haim took on the EMP job for the first time with “A Small Light” after previously scoring or co-composing “Maid” and “Cha Cha Smooth” — on top of her day job as one-third of the rocking sister trio Haim. For “A Small Light,” she produced episode-ending covers of songs from the first half of the 20th century, performed by Angel Olsen, Moses Sumney, Kamasi Washington, Sharon Van Etten with Michael Imperioli, Remi Wolf, Weyes Blood, duet partners Orville Peck and King Princess, and her sister Danielle.

Marx, meanwhile, is one of the top rising names in film and TV composing thanks to her work on “Shiva Baby,” “Candy,” “American Horror Story,” “A Friend of the Family” and the new season of “Black Mirror.” They met up with Variety via Zoom to talk about their individual efforts that walked the fine line of making a Holocaust drama feel contemporary and palatable… but not too contemporary or palatable.

Este Haim: Hopefully this isn’t the last time that we’re going to be able to work together. I just want to touch the hem of Ariel’s garment.

Ariel Marx: Please. It’s the other way around.

Haim: She’s very talented and such a beacon of light — pun intended.

Your processes were probably completely separate during production, though, right?

Haim: Yeah. It’s like being on the same volleyball team. We all had a common goal, and I think that the score just helped everything that I was doing, and I feel like vice versa. It was an absolutely symbiotic relationship. I had the advantage of seeing the pilot with the score already in there, and Ariel knocked it out of the fucking park. It was super inspiring to be able to hear that and then go into making the songs with Sharon Van Etten and Kamasi Washington and my sister (Danielle Haim), even. It was nice to hear what her palette was before even going into recording these covers. I was very inspired by it.

Marx: Este, you’re so sweet. I’ve been a delayed fan-girl, because I hadn’t heard the songs before the episodes aired. I was just watching episode 3, and the way the Sharon Van Etten song comes in right on that (closing) scene, Este’s work immediately anchors it in the contemporary, and I think it makes you immediately think about yourself and what you would do. I just love that score-to-song handoff at the end. And it always keeps the mood poignant but light, which I think is important.

Haim: It was almost like we had like telekinesis.

Marx: I only met Este at the premiere, but it’s been lovely to get to hear her process through all of this. There was no collaboration between us, but there was definitely cross-contamination in terms of goals of the aesthetics, which were to modernize an old story — and tastefully, and not completely anachronistically, how do you do that? The mission of this show is to bring it into living rooms, and have it be not necessarily palatable, but accessible, to everyone. I think having these contemporary voices in the music and the contemporary styling in the score kind of makes it all the more appealing to a younger generation as well, where some kids are growing up without knowing that story, and so how do we keep it alive?

Este, you picked mostly women singers for the songs in the episodes, and also a few men who are mostly not heteronormative. Were you thinking of primarily women singers for these because of anything having to do with the narrative, or were you just liking the sound of the female voice on a lot of those?

Haim: I love women. I don’t think that’s a secret! I like listening to women. Mostly, though, I love working with women. And my approach to this was, literally, who do I wanna be friends with? How can I use this to my advantage? Who have I been a fan of for ages that I now have the opportunity to (A) work with, and (B) become friendly with? I’m lucky that everyone that I approached said yes, and was super enthused about getting into the studio and covering these songs.

And on this project, not to reduce everything to gender or make it about that, but there’s probably not that many projects where both the composer and the music supervisor are women. And obviously the film is centered on a woman.

Haim: Ariel, excuse me if I’m speaking out of turn. But I think that more showrunners and music supervisors need to hire more women to be composers and produce music for their TV shows. I don’t want to name names or projects, but there have been projects that have come out in the last year that are literally about women, and a man is scoring it — or more so, TV shows that are about men stealing women’s music, and there’s a man scoring the show. Not to be specific; you can draw whatever conclusion or do whatever digging that you’d like to do. But it’s a bummer when you see stuff like that, when you know that it’s such a missed opportunity. When you see a TV show like “A Small Light,” I’m so proud of what we did together, and the proof is in the pudding, right? There’s many things that are happening in Hollywood right now that I think we’re all not jazzed about, but specifically when it comes to composers, I do think that we need to hire more women. Period, end of story.

Marx: Absolutely. I’ve been following the coverage of the cast and Tony (Phelan) and Joan (Rater) and Susanna (Fogel, the showrunners) talking about the roles, and Bel Powley has said that she’s just been craving a strong female role of one of these unsung heroines of history, even though Miep wouldn’t want to be called a hero. But I think that to have women telling that story is really important, and also having two Jewish women curate the music is special and important for that, too.

Haim: Here, here.

Who were some of the people you were most excited to work with on the songs, Este?

Haim: The buttery, buttery sounds of Michael Imperioli never disappoint. That was an instance where I was like, I’m gonna shoot my shot and see if he says yes. I had just worked with him on “White Lotus,” and he’s so sweet and  a musician himself, and I was just kind of like, if you don’t open your mouth, you don’t get fed, right? I reached out and he was so jazzed and said, “Yeah, but I’m in New York.” And T Bone Burnett happened to be working in New York the week that I called him, so then I got to say to Michael Imperioli, “Hey, do you wanna go in the studio with T Bone Burnett? He’s gonna record your vocals.” And he was like, “Whaaaat?”

And working with Sharon Van Etten — I mean, her voice is just so breathtakingly beautiful. She was doing all of her own arrangements of background vocals, and I really just kind of sat back and was like, “Just do what you do, and I’ll press record and make sure the levels are right.”

What was it like, producing your sister Danielle?

Haim: It was definitely a case of “The tables, they have turned.” Because usually Danielle’s in the producer-ial driver’s seat with Haim. Alana and I always have ideas, and I think all of us are are producers, but yes, it was strange at the beginning to kind of be like, “OK, D, we’re gonna have to do-si-do a little bit, and you’re gonna have to trust me.” Danielle is so easy to work with. I don’t think that we would be a band for as long as we have been if we didn’t have a very diplomatic, democratic relationship. We kind of know when to push and when not to push. And I think it turned out great. And working with Rostam is just so much fun. He’s just so smart and he gets the best sounds. But, yeah, I want to be in the producer-driver’s seat many, many, many, many, many more times in the future.

Marx: I was totally taken with “Till We Meet Again” in episode 1, and I personally loved the pulsing bass underneath your sister’s voice — it gave such a beautiful, heartbreaking, timeless sentiment. I love that arrangement. And I think that’s something I try to do with the score too. I guess I have a sensibility, and Este, I think you kind of do too, in terms of like sometimes the more raw, sparse elements are more emotional than anything perfectly polished, and I just found that to be very true of that song — it was super effective and beautiful.

Haim: Thank you. I’m very, very proud of that one, for obvious reasons. I’m proud of the rest of the soundtrack, too — like the Moses Sumney version of “I’ll Be Seeing You” is incredible. And also Natalie from Weyes Blood singing “When You’re Smiling” — I fully had tears in the studio. Her voice is just heartbreaking and beautiful. And Remi Wolf, hearing her singing Edith Piaf in that way, I was like, “Sleep with one eye open, because I’m gonna steal your vocal cords.” Her voice is just insane.

Este, hearing Ariel’s score, was there anything that stood out to you about it?

Haim: I was really impressed with the way that Ariel used comedy and provided moments of levity. Because the subject material is so heavy, and I was so thankful that, when you watch the show, there’s moments that are funny —not laugh-out-loud funny, but, you know, it’s a family dynamic. And I’m very, very well-versed when it comes to family drama and a family dynamic, so I appreciated that there’s like a little bit of a sense of humor. Because Miep is funny and irreverent, so I appreciated her use of tacit comedy and not making everything feel so heavy or telling us what to feel… and like Ariel said, using sparseness to create emotion or let the emotion happen.

Marx: I think an aspect about it was, from the score’s perspective, staying really anchored in the humility of their lives. They lived very humble lives. They weren’t decadent. They were your normal, average person, and the music needed to live up to who they were. And I think having anything kind of bigger and more polished and symphonic just would’ve been out of character for Miep. And so I think the palette itself was about humility, but also strength through humility, and how do you make these ordinary instruments or an ordinary ensemble sound extraordinary — sound much bigger than they are? Which is very much what Miep did, in terms of rising to the occasion.

It sounds like I’m knocking large ensembles, and I’m not. But what I do love about small ensembles is there’s a lot more vulnerability and it’s very exposed, so you hear a bit more of the human performance, where it’s different as if you’re playing in a large section. So it was nothing too anachronistic, but they wanted to keep it contemporary and folky, rough around the edges. The whole thing is that Miep is incredibly ordinary, and she needs to look like and be like all of us, and we didn’t want to make her too reverent and inaccessible with music that was too disconnected from her. The backdrop is big, but these people just happened to be living during World War II, and so I think that’s the idea behind almost everything in terms of accessibility, that we relate to them and not think of them as these preserved-in-amber historical figures. That’s kind of not a musical answer.

There are a lot of instruments in the background of your Zoom, Ariel. Did you play a fair amount on the score?

Marx: Yeah, I’m playing a lot on it. I play cello, violin, guitar, percussion, and then I sequence everything else. And then I also have a wonderful cellist, violinist, clarinettist and trumpeter that I work with. The ensemble is pretty small, but again, I really loved this idea of, how do you make a heroic sound out of non-heroic resources? Which is kind of what Miep is. And there is, for instance, in episode 7, that big sequence, I think there’s 35 tracks of cello. There’s a lot of layering, and the score isn’t thin and small by any means, but it just isn’t grand in the traditional sense.

Looking for commonalities in the projects you’ve worked on, Ariel, the word “anxiety” comes to mind, and it’s hard to think of a more anxious subject than the Holocaust.

Marx: But I think Tony and Joan very successfully made it so much more than that. In every episode there is humor and joy and lightness and poignancy. And it’s not beating you over the head. We know the story, right? We don’t need to see the concentration camps. So I wouldn’t say the music is by any stretch dominantly anxious. But when it is, that’s definitely where I got to be more experimental.

Some of the pieces on your score album are very short, but you have a couple that are 10 minutes long, when we finally get to some of the real suspense and tragedy.

Marx: I got to do some really cool, avant-garde things with tension, which I’m really proud of, especially with those two 10-minute sequences. Those were both for episode 7, which is when the annex is raided, and it’s solely from Meep’s perspective. It is implied. We don’t see it, we hear it. So it was very much about having to sit still and hear the worst happen. Yes, that was very emotional. There are a lot of atonal, amelodic ways of being in it that were just wholly improvisational and textural. It had to do a lot of musical gymnastics, because there wwere a lot of mental and psychological gymnastics. It was one of the hardest and most wonderful things I’ve ever done.

It was very cool trying to bring a very modern, contemporary approach to scoring tension, but the score had a great way of pulling from all of my influences and interests, like swing jazz and Benny Goodman, and Eastern European and Central European folk music, and neoclassical kind of sparse minimalism —it’s all of these elements I was able to work with.

Este, you’ve worked on scores before, but this was your first time in the role of executive music producer, right?

Haim: Yeah, first time as EMP, and I want to do this a billion times over. It was so much fun delving into the music of that era, and I felt like Alan Lomax — I felt like an ethnographer. I was fully immersed not just in music that was popular in Europe, but then I went down the rabbit hole of like the Howlin’ Wolfs and the Robert Johnsons of the world, and I became reacquainted with the music coming out of America as well in the ‘30s and the ‘40s. So I kind of had a holistic approach to making these songs, but when it came to picking the actual songs, that was very collaborative with the artist. I would kind of put forth a playlist of songs that I think could work for the episode, and then we would hunker down on which one we definitely wanted to do together.

You picked songs that were tied to the period at least loosely, even though they might have been written well before the ‘40s and/or popularized well after. It wasn’t necessarily limited to something that would’ve been on the radio in Germany in the 1940s.

Haim: Absolutely, and especially with something like “Till We Meet Again,” which was written and recorded in 1918, during World War I, but then was repopularized by Doris Day and the Mills Brothers in the ‘50s. There were many, many iterations and many covers of that song. And that’s also what I loved about the music of that era is so many different artists through the eras ended up covering them, so I had like a plethora— a full mood board — of different versions of songs that I could kind of pick and choose instrumentation and sonics from.

I wanted everything to sound timeless. The joke that I made on my first meeting with Tony was, “If you’re looking for a disco version of ‘Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,’ I’m probably not the right person for this job.” I wanted to make something classic, but still interesting and modern. And I think the only time that I ever really used any inorganic instruments, really, was on”Till We Meet Again.” I felt like it needed something to make it a little nostalgic and dreamy and sad, and kind of the way that I tried to achieve that was using synthesizers. But that was the only time that I used that. Everything else was very, very focused on the vocal performance, and letting the voices of this ramshackle crew of artists that I put together shine and be the focal point of the song.

Ariel, what else has been on your docket recently or is coming soon? You’re having a variety of projects that are adding up to an enviable scoring career.

Marx: “A Friend of the Family” is also in Emmy contention, for your consideration, and I loved the process and that creative team as well. I just had a film come out called “Sanctuary,” and that score was really fun — a mixture of, like, free jazz, romantic classical music and early experimental electronic music. And I have two, I have a series for Amazon and a series for HBO upcoming, so more later this year. It’s really fun to take these big swings in different genres. It just takes courageous showrunners and directors to trust people to take some risks and I feel really grateful I have people who trust me to do that.

Este, is there another Haim album in the offing? You’ve got different jobs now — scoring, music supervision and your band. Do you see a way forward in terms of finding a nice balance of those?

Haim: I think I’ve done a good job thus far. I wish I could clone myself sometimes, so that I can sleep. But the good news is, I’m having such a fun time doing everything that it doesn’t really feel like work a lot of the time. I’m lucky that I’m in a band with two people that are very supportive of me and everything that I do, and who love me — I mean, they’re my two best friends, so I’m very lucky that I have them. And yeah, we are working on a new record, to answer your question — all writing, always trying to stay inspired and open to inspiration and keeping all those channels open.

And I just finished a movie for Netflix called “You’re So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah,” and another movie that I’m working on now called “Suncoast” for Searchlight. And then just touring. I’m going to Brazil to play a show. And that was my major in college: I was a Brazilian drum major. I was an ethnomusicology major, but my emphasis was Brazilian carnival drumming, and I’ve never been there before. So it’s very exciting. I wake up every morning going, “I don’t even know how I got here, but I’m really happy that I did.”

And I just got a new guitar. [Holds it up to the camera.] Who’s excited? I’m so excited. Oh my God. It’s like Hanukkah.

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