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Composer Christophe Beck on Returning for a Second Round of Ice & Earworms in Frozen II

In Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck’s Frozen II, sisters Elsa (Idina Menzel) and Anna (Kristen Bell) are back, older and wiser and reunited for good. Unfortunately, Elsa, now Queen of Arendelle, is still having trouble with her ice-making powers, a disturbance that arrives this time around via a mysterious siren call she can’t make anything of without following it to the Enchanted Forest, where it turns out an indigenous people, the Northuldra, have been living since the girls’ grandfather made the last state visit decades before they were born.

Something went horribly wrong all those years ago, despite the Arendelle royal’s gift of a dam (grown-up Frozen fans can probably guess where this is going). As is her wont, Elsa tries to take everything on herself to solve the problem, discounting her non-magical sister’s pluckiness and the commitment of Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), Anna’s reindeer-loving boyfriend, and Olaf the snowman (Josh Gad), the movie’s delightfully wackadoo comic relief. But at the center of things remains Elsa’s journey (and her number one anthem, the super ear-worm “Into the Unknown”), to uncover the rift with the Northuldra that left the Enchanted Forest blanketed in magical fog, find out who she really is, and answer a magnetic siren call which, it turns out, audiences already got a hint of in the original film. We had the chance to speak with composer Christophe Beck, who returned to work with the film’s writer/songwriters, Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez, to score Frozen II. He filled us in on the siren call’s origins, the process behind adding music to, well, a musical, and how he composed a score this time around for two characters who are growing up.

How did you approach making Frozen II complementary yet distinct from the original?

That’s always the question when approaching a sequel to a popular movie. How much of the original movie do you want to preserve and how much newness do you want to introduce? Obviously, if you go too far one way or the other, you run the risk of either feeling repetitive or completely alienating your audience that loved the first movie. So that’s a delicate balance. In particular, in Frozen II, the filmmakers wanted the film to be a little bit more mature, a little bit more nuanced than the first film. The audience that loved the first film is now six years older and while we still very much wanted the film to appeal to all ages, especially kids, we wanted to make sure that for the people who grew up with the first movie and are maybe now in their early teens, this was something that had a little more depth to it, a little more maturity.

How do you convey that with the score?

There’s a lot less of what I would call plinky comedy music. In the first film, for example, for the scenes with Olaf, you have a lot of the music supporting that comedy and trying to make the scene feel very lighthearted and to tell the audience that it was okay to laugh. We did do that a little in Frozen II, but we really tried to let the film speak for itself and not do too much comedy underscoring.

For me, I wanted to make sure we had fully developed and strong musical themes for this film. I wanted to make them as strong as possible, even more so than in the first film, where, because it was my first animated film of any kind and I was new to the process of making animated movies, I adopted a bit more of a fly by the seat of your pants approach. And this one I took the time at the outset to really work out what the themes were going to be, and as a result, I think that the sequel score is more cohesive and feels more like one piece than a series of individual episodes.

Contributing to that sense of cohesion are the film’s Nordic musical elements. How did you work those in?

On the first film, I did a lot of research and came away with two key elements that were part of that score. One of them was a particular type of very high-pitched singing called kulning. This is a kind of Nordic folk shepherd’s call. I found a singer here in LA who specializes in that kind of singing and it was really an important and distinctive part of that first score. In fact, Disney loved it so much that they decided to use a version of it—strictly speaking, it’s not what a purist would describe as kulning, I would say it’s more like kulning-light—in this new film, that’s the siren call that Elsa hears that really sets the story in motion. It starts her on a journey of self-discovery to find out about her past and what made her who she is today.

© 2019 Disney. All Rights Reserved.
INTO THE UNKNOWN — Magical and larger than life, Elsa is the perfect mythic character—but she can’t help but wonder why she was born with powers. Meanwhile, Anna is the perfect fairytale character—unflappable and forever the optimist. © 2019 Disney. All Rights Reserved. © 2019 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

The good news is that a really cool musical element that I introduced in the first score became a driving part of the plot and a really important story point! The bad news for me personally was that I wasn’t really able to use it in the score. Because it was being used so much as part of the story, we didn’t want to have any confusion. When you’re watching the sequel, when you hear this voice, we wanted to make sure that the audience knew that was a voice that Elsa could also hear. If I started to use it willy-nilly in the score as well, that would muddy the waters and make the story a little bit less clear. So I had to find something new to use to really place us in that region. And luckily, after talking to my favorite woodwind player, a guy named Chris Bleth here in LA, he auditioned a few things for me and we settled on this Northern European flute called a gemshorn. It’s often made out of bone or stone and it just has a beautiful, haunting tone. And that became the instrument that I associated with the Northuldra, the enchanted forest people in the sequel.

Do you work in tandem with Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez?

I think it’s really important in any musical to incorporate as much as possible the tunes from the songs in the score so that it doesn’t feel like the score and the songs exist in totally different universes. It feels like one musical journey with a beginning, middle, and end, as opposed to two separate musical journeys happening at the same time. The nature of the process is that the Lopezes do their work well before I do mine, because in any good musical, the songs serve to advance the plot in a very integrated way. So by the time I’m brought in, which is the last part of the process, those songs are pretty much finished. And it was then my job to take the tune from those songs and incorporate them where I can, where I feel it’s appropriate, in the body of the score. The closest collaboration I did with the Lopezes was on that siren call, because there are a lot of points when we hear that voice calling at the same time as a piece of score is playing, or right after a piece of score is ending or just as one is beginning, and we needed to make sure there weren’t horrible key clashes or abrupt transitions.

The first Frozen has been wildly successful. Was there a lot of pressure going into the sequel?

I would say the most pressure I felt was pressure I put on myself to do as good as job as possible, to try to top the first score. I think there’s a lot of unspoken pressure that everyone was feeling who worked on this film, and by that I mean hundreds of people. For Frozen there really were no expectations. It was the first princess movie that Disney had made in a while and we were all very proud of the film, but I think its runaway success took us and everyone by surprise. And I think the pressure to top that was mostly unspoken. Everybody, of course, was feeling it, but I think to the credit of all the people I work with at Disney, we just focused on the job at hand, on telling a great story, and let the chips fall where they may.

For more on Frozen II, check out our interview with the film’s head of special effects Marlon West.

Featured image: Elsa encounters a Nokk—a mythical water spirit that takes the form of a horse—who uses the power of the ocean to guard the secrets of the forest. Featuring the voice of Idina Menzel as Elsa, “Frozen 2” opens in U.S. theaters November 22. ©2019 Disney. All Rights Reserved.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Susannah Edelbaum

Susannah Edelbaum's work has appeared on NPR Berlin, Fast Company, Motherboard, and the Cut, among others. She lives in Berlin, Germany.