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Know The Score: Teresa Barrozo creates soundtracks for your favorite films

  • by Thea Manapat

“The director can say, I want something that sounds kilig. What does that mean?” Teresa Barrozo mulls over the uniquely Filipino word that has no direct translation in English. “I could make 100 pieces of music for kilig and still get it wrong. What sounds like kilig for me can sound like horror to you.” Feelings are subjective, she explains. And so is music.

Barrozo is one of today’s go-to film scorers in the country. She has composed music for various films from a wide range of genres: from student productions, award-winning indies, TV staples, to mainstream fare. If you’ve seen a handful of Filipino movies in the past 10 years, you’ve probably heard her music. Right now, she has 7 films that she scored available on Netflix.

Barrozo working in her home studio.

“Film scoring is different from sound design,” Barrozo is quick to clarify. Film scoring is creating and composing music to accompany film scenes. It’s the swelling overture during the dramatic climax, or the lone violin during the hero’s lowest moment. Sound design is creating and adding sounds that would make the scene more “whole.” It is enhancing the sound of a gunshot or the roar of zombies, creating the foley sounds for chase scenes, or the howl of the wind in the woods. “I want that difference to be clear, because I have a lot of respect for sound designers.”

Barrozo’s musical journey had an unlikely starting point: the high school liturgical choir. “I was very into God,” she says, laughing. At some point, the choir needed a guitar player so Barrozo taught herself to play the instrument. While other guitarists learned the basics through pop songs of their growing-up years, Barrozo cut her teeth with Kordero ng Diyos.

Barrozo’s high school music classes became her turning point. “We had listening tests. We had to listen to, memorize, and identify baroque music, classical music. Contemporary music was something else.” Barrozo talks enthusiastically about changing meters in the middle of a piece, hearing multiple styles in a single music, microtonality, and abstract auditory experimentation -- characteristics of 20th century contemporary music.

She wanted to compose music, but wasn’t sure where that path would take her. A friend asked what jobs were available to music composers, and Barrozo hazarded that maybe she could score films.

When talking about the milestones in her successful career, Barrozo says it was the failures that really shaped who she is. Her dreams of getting into the UP College of Music were dashed when she failed the entrance exam. Instead she took biochemistry at UST, accepting that music was not the path for her. Still, she frequented UST’s Conservatory of Music library, determined to retake the UP College of Music exam just to prove she could. On her second take, Barrozo topped the exams and shifted into her dream college.

Unfortunately, college politics discouraged her and Barrozo didn’t finish her course. For a long time, dropping out made her feel insecure.

Collaborations are a key to creating effective film scores.

The College of Music is right beside the College of Mass Communications and student filmmakers needed music scores for their projects, introducing Barrozo to her first foray into the scene.

“You have to listen to the director. It’s their film. it’s their vision,” Barrozo says. It was the antithesis to what she learned at her own college, where composers were taught to be wholly in charge of their works. “When you compose, instrumentalists have to listen to you. When you score for films, you have to collaborate with others.”

Her first big break was scoring Brillante Mendoza’s Tirador. “I didn’t have a degree, and I really wanted to impress him,” Barrozo said. For that film, she pulled all the stops, showing off all the music theory she could fit in the score. When presenting the music to Mendoza, the director shook his head. “Hindi nagwo-work e.” Barrozo took that failure to heart, thinking that she lost the project. Instead, Mendoza told her to go home, sleep on it, and revise the score. “It wasn’t the end. Revisions are a second chance.”

Failures are not the end. Revisions provide a second chance.

These days, Barrozo is a firm believer of revisions, second chances, and collaboration. While film scoring technically begins at the post-production stage of films, Barrozo prefers getting on board at pre-production. “I listen to the pre-prod discussions, learn about the director, what their taste is like, their vision of the film. Sometimes I visit the set to see what they’re doing. I talk to the sound design team.”

Asked what makes a good film score, Barrozo says it works when the whole film is effective. She uses one of the latest films she worked on as an example, Antoinette Jadaone’s Fan Girl. The film garnered nominations and won awards for almost all categories at last year’s Metro Manila Film Festival. Nearly all categories, except Best Musical Score.

“We watched a cut of the film with music I created,” Barrozo explains. “But I said, most of the scenes would be better without it. We watched it again without music and the director agreed with me. I was right.It’s a better film that way.”

Asked what advice she could give aspiring film scorers, Teresa boils it down so simply: “Listen.” Listen to music, all types of music, and expand your musical palette. Listen to what’s good and what’s bad, so you can tell the difference. Listen to the director and the people you work with, to get a grasp of the film project and how the music can help take it where it needs to be. And finally, listen to yourself as an artist and as a creator, but know when to separate the self from the ego. From there the music will flow.