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Mason Daring: Bending the Music


Anyone who knows the films of John Sayles will have heard a lot of Mason Daring's music, though perhaps without realising it. This isn't because Daring's scores are colourless or undistinguished - quite the reverse, indeed. But as a composer, he displays the chameleon ability to feel his way into an amazingly wide range of musical idioms, adopting their stylistic qualities with uncanny fluency.


The creator of the lilting Irish folk score of The Secret of Roan Inish also composed the zydeco dances for Passion Fish, the mountain music and Italian popular song of Matewan, the Country & Western, rhythm & blues and Mexican folk music of Lone Star. There's never any sense of pastiche in Daring's scores; rather, it's a matter of assimilation from within.


Daring is also possibly unique among film composers in having first entered the industry as a lawyer - even though he studied music at college. "I was in a band signed to Columbia", he explains, "and the deal fell through halfway through making the record. So in a panic I thought, I'll go to law school. Then no sooner had I enrolled than I really started to play music and led a dual life for a few years, playing music live and producing records for people, and studying law and finally being a lawyer." "Dual life" understates it. Even while at law school, Daring was also exploring the fringes of the movie industry, at first editing, and later scripting and directing TV commercials.


But it was through his work as an entertainment lawyer that Daring first met John Sayles. "I heard this fellow wanted to make his own movie and was looking for a lawyer. I said, 'Forget it - those people never really make the movie and I never get paid.' They said, 'His name is John Sayles.' Now I'd just read this novel called Union Dues by a guy called John Sayles - one of the best books I'd ever read. They said, 'Oh, that's him.' I said, 'Forget what I just said - I'll hold his coat'."


One's Enough


The film was Sayles' first as director, Return of the Secaucus Seven (1979). Soon discovering his attorney's other talents, Sayles invited Daring to contribute the film's score. "I'd done music for a number of short films and commercials, so I said sure. And that was pretty much my last job in the law. I wasn't really cut out for it, anyway."

Setting up as a full-time composer, Daring went on to score all Sayles' subsequent films except Baby It's You. His reputation for versatility soon gained him other commissions, including five from Disney: two TV films, a Dickens mini-series, The Old Curiosity Shop with Tom Courtenay and Peter Ustinov, and two features, Wild Hearts Can't Be Broken (1991) and the recent Prefontaine (1997) from Jared Leto and Amy Locane, makers of the groundbreaking documentary Hoop Dreams.


"Hollywood loves to give you a niche," Daring notes. "It makes it easier to identify you. That's OK, I think it's pretty understandable. My niche so far is either period or off-beat - independent, mid-budget films, often involving some kind of realism. I did one Western, The Last Outlaw with Mickey Rourke [for Home Box Office], because I wanted to do a film with a bunch of guys on horseback shooting each other. It was great fun, but one's enough."


Much of Daring's work has been for PBS, the public service TV channel, including themes for the long-running shows Nova and Frontline. His longest project to date is the eight-hour KCET/BBC series, The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century (1996). "It was five months out of my life. But I'm not sorry I did it. It was a challenge, and I thought it was great."


He derives particular satisfaction, though, from his association with Sayles, a partnership that's now lasted through ten movies. "The difference with John is that he starts with the music much earlier. He and I talk about it even before he shoots. He knows exactly what he wants it to do." Daring wholeheartedly endorses Sayles's comment that "When it works, movie music is like a natural voice, like the only sound the picture up there could possibly make.' That's exactly it - the music should arise from the scene. I usually write source music for him, whereas almost everybody else buys the music in. It's not just a budgetary thing, he wants it to have a certain effect."


Changing the Tune


Daring vehemently rejects the view that film music represents a compromise for the composer. "It's not compromise," he insists, "it's opportunity." He relishes the challenge of finding exactly the right instrument for a given film. For Matewan, he unearthed a dobro, a modified guitar from the 1920s with an inset metal plate that makes the notes (as Sayles put it) "bend into a question at the end."


Much of the otherworldly flavour of Roan Inish (Daring's own personal favourite among his scores) comes from the yearning wail of the Uillean pipes, which he learned to play for the occasion. "I often learn new instruments", he observes. "I don't play them on the soundtrack, but once I've learned them I can write for them."


His latest score for Sayles represents a further departure. Hombres armados (Men with Guns), Sayles's first foreign-language movie, is set in a fictional Latin American country "like Guatemala but it's not. So my score's intended to be pan-Hispanic music, from all around Central and South America. And almost every instrument is wooden, except for a little trumpet and French horn: Spanish guitar, marimba, wooden percussion. I didn't set out to do that; it just happened that way."


Daring runs his own studio in Marblehead (Mass.), near Boston, where he not only produces his own music but acts as producer for a number of other artists, which involves being "a cross between the Wizard of Oz and a den mother." He regards himself as exceptionally lucky to have become one of those "who actually get paid to write music. It's a wonderful job, but somebody has to do it."


Philip Kemp
Variety International Film Guide 1998

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