Jim Spione and I had worked together on a number of different projects, so I was excited when he told me about American Farm. As he described the film, I immediately started to think of the kind of music that would work in a story about the universal "American farmer." But when I saw the raw footage and early edits, I quickly knew that my initial general ideas were outmoded.
American Farm uses the personal to tell us about the universal. The story is a jigsaw puzzle made up of the experiences of members of the Ames clan, and is about individual characters, not some idealized Farmer. Each person tells both his or her own tale and those of their relatives. Through this oral history, we experience culture passed through time.
Stock "rural" music wasn’t going to cut it. Jim thought that each major character in American Farm deserved a theme, but not in the conventional sense of a dramatic film score. The music had to blend with the farm and the storytelling, not distract from either. We also wanted the themes to have the musical equivalent of common DNA, so that related ideas merged together in a family of musical pieces.
Jim asked me to record a few basic ideas, and we’d develop the ones we liked best into fuller arrangements. But when it came time to put these sketches to film, we discovered that the sparse, uncluttered sound of one instrument that I used for the initial sketches worked pretty well—and went along with the unvarnished way that the Ameses themselves told their stories. So we built an entire soundtrack out of a single guitar, sometimes playing no more than one or two notes. The composing became a collaboration, as Jim started to edit some of my recordings to fit the picture, opening even more space in the music.
As the project neared completion, we decided to add another instrument to give voice to the one central character who couldn’t speak for himself: Murry, the family patriarch and a man of some legend. Murry’s themes, played on the viola, represented the man and his time, both of which still echo through the hills of Contour Meadows. Musically, my favorite scenes are the ones that accompany American Farm’s longest lasting "character"—the land—a place where just a few notes echo over the misty fields.