Tamar-kali is an accomplished composer and performer, best known for her work on critically-acclaimed films such as The Assistant, The Last Thing He Wanted, and Shirley, all of which received high praise at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. In addition to her work as a film scorer, Tamar-kali also writes and performs with her rock band and her string sextet and voice project.

We recently sat down with Tamar-kali for our Five Sounds With... series. Read on to learn about her approach to film scoring, her experiences recording a 16-person ensemble, and how she got her start in the New York punk scene.


As an independent artist, when I am working on a project that is a "package deal" I’m also responsible for recording and mixing the material before I deliver it for the film. I create the demos in Logic. I work with a music preparer to create scores for the musicians and then we record live.

The music I created for Shirley used a string quartet, piano, and voice. All the vocals are my own. I was actually working out of a writing room/production suite at the time. I have a little home rig, but at this time I was working on a lot of films consecutively, so I was able to afford a space, which is really expensive in New York. But I was able to rent a space at the studio I had done my most recent recording. They also rented writing rooms and production suites, which was cool.

I write all of the string parts as virtual instruments. Then once I have everything put together and we (the director, music editor, and myself) are in agreement about what needs to be recorded for the film, I hire musicians and record the demo with live instrumentation.

I recorded all of the piano and string instrumentation at a studio called The Bunker in Brooklyn. I’m not into getting computers to sound like live instruments, I prefer live instruments. I come from a background in punk rock and experimental classical. I record with live instruments, that’s what I do.

I had quality speakers for listening back to my demos and quality mics for recording my vocals. A lot of the vocals that I recorded myself on the demos made it onto the film. I tried to re-do some of them in the studio, but they just didn’t have the same energy.

The vocals I recorded in my suite studio sounded great though. It had soundproofed double doors and I was using a vintage ribbon mic. I also recorded finger-cymbals and some synth stuff there.


The Assistant

I wrote and recorded the music for The Assistant using the same process. This score was really minimal. The movie is very stark, so we used music in a book-end fashion. It brings you into the world of the film, then there’s a very small piece of music that helps you through the exit. The largest piece of music occurs during the end credits.

That piece was literally just viola, cello, and some piano. It’s very minimalist. Of course, there are also some electronic elements. Some of it is used to set a tone with drones, but there’s also a little bit there to fill up the space since there are only two live instruments playing.

That score was really atmospheric and leaned on the electronic elements more than I have in the past because it was such a sparse piece. They’re not obviously present—it doesn’t sound like an electronic score, but I definitely use those layers to create an atmospheric quality.



I had never scored a film before Mudbound, I had just written for myself to perform. I have an experimental chamber ensemble, a five-piece rock band, and a singer-songwriter project.

It didn’t feel like a hard transition because I enjoy other types of art so much. For me, it was about watching and listening and doing what was needed for the scene. I take a lot into consideration when I’m wiring for a picture. Everything from the cinematography to the sound and rhythms of the actor’s voices, and even what’s being said.

That’s all information you can use to create something that has synergy or synchronicity or counterpoint. You have to pay attention to everything, even the ambient sounds. If there’s an environmental sound, you don’t want that to clash with the music you’re creating.

After I view a rough cut, I put together a pallet and an arc. The pallet is the instrumentation for the score. And then creating a musical arc, figuring out what the repeating themes are, and how the musical accompaniment to the story is going to shape around the film.

I tend to ask directors to speak to me in impressionistic terms. I prefer that they don’t use musical terms. Because essentially, they’re trying to get out a feeling, and I would rather they articulate that to me and let me interpret that based on pitch, pace, and instrumentation.

In the past, I’ve had a director say that the tempo is too fast, so I cut it in half, I’ve gone from 120 BPM to 60 BPM and they still said it was too fast. The problem was, I was using an arpeggiated chord with 16th note triplets, and they wanted to hear fewer notes.

So I took out half of the notes instead, and it worked but they had interpreted it as an issue with the tempo. That’s the door you don’t want to open. And you don’t want to be in a position where you’re saying, “That’s not the correct term.” It doesn’t garner trust.

In Mudbound, [Director] Dee [Rees] was describing this idea about actions being futile and the inevitability of failure or suffering, and the mud of the farm. That signified to me that I needed to stay in a low range and have the performers play a little closer to the bridge to give it that rub.

There are techniques you can use to convey this sense of futility and being stuck. There are ways you can play the instrument, you can think about pitch, or using ascending vs descending lines. There’s a language of music that exists beyond theory that reflects or mirrors emotions or things we experience in life. There are ways to use rhythm, to create a feeling of movement.

I primarily got to write to picture on Mudbound, which was really cool for me for my first time. I was really excited that the work was so strong, because since it was my first composition for film, there was quite a learning curve.

I have this dinosaur of a keyboard, but it’s sentimental to me because my Dad got it for me. I’m a second-generation musician, so I had his old like 40-key Casio. When I first started my chamber ensemble in the late 1990s and I had to start making charts, I was using that.

I was like, “Daddy, 40 keys is not enough!” I was writing for contrabass all the way up to violin. I was really struggling. I was a poor starving artist in New York. But he took me to the store and got me this beast of a keyboard. It has a floppy disc drive, but it still works and it has a MIDI interface. I still use it to this day.

That was a learning process for me. Learning how to interface with a digital audio workstation. Time is of the essence, and I only had four and a half weeks to get everything done. I had to compose, orchestrate, prepare the music, record and mix it in that time frame, so I really had a trial by fire.


Come Sunday

The approach for Come Sunday was classical contemporary style. I used a bigger string section for that. I had about 16 strings on that one, as well as a harp. So it was still very much in the chamber world.

I used the same approach on this film, where I wrote everything and did the demos at home, and then recorded the live tracks in the studio with session musicians.

We recorded for Come Sunday at Reservoir Studios. It was through connecting with Reservoir Studios for that project that I learned about them. I really liked their live room, so after recording the score there at the end of 2017, I moved into the studios in the Fall of 2018. That’s when I started working on The Last Thing He Wanted.


The Last Thing He Wanted

I did my first 5.1 score for The Last Thing He Wanted and I hired someone to mix that. I always hire a mixer. This was my first time working with a mixer in 5.1. Because that was my first 5.1, it was a little unexpected, so I’m looking forward to the next opportunity when it’s planned and I have time to prepare.

Developing those relationships is definitely a process. I’m an, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” type of girl, so once I have that type of rapport with someone I definitely want to work with them consistently. I have a music prepare/assistant and a lead engineer that I work with. I’m still working out the contractor situation. There are a lot of moving parts.

I don’t come from that gearhead background, so those are the types of relationships that I’m looking for, where we’re two artists who are interested in collaborating with each other and there’s a foundation of trust and commitment to the project and to working together.

It requires a little bit of imagination, but I always want the live recordings to sound so much better than the demos. And I know that ultimately it’s going to, but I also know that it can be a little tricky with the director’s familiarity with music and instrumentation because I’ve heard of some scenarios where the director prefers the demo over the live recording. So in some cases, perfecting the demo doesn’t work in your favor. Personally I’ve always had great experiences with that and feel very lucky for my experiences collaborating with other people. But it happens.

The Last Thing He Wanted had some of the biggest arrangements I’ve done for film to this date. I had strings, orchestral percussion, an Afro-Latin percussion section, a brass section, I did synths, and played some guitar. We did like three days of tracking.


Tamar-kali – Black Bottom

As a kid, I was trained as a choral classical singer. I went to a Catholic school, so I sang a lot of classical choral music. But I found my voice in punk rock and hardcore here in New York City. I used to front a post-hardcore band.

My particular work ranges from aggressive melodic rock to experimental classical. The aggressive melodic rock project is called 5 Piece. I play guitar, along with two other guitars, bass, and drums. It’s just in-your-face, bam-bam-bam! Really strong vocals with powerful chords, but definitely very melodic and aggressive.

Then I decided in the late 90s that I wanted to do a project with strings. I was thinking about my past with classical music. Apart from being in a religious institution parochial school, I loved the experiences I had singing classical music.

So I had this idea of constructing my songs for 5 Piece and rearranging them for strings. I did a couple of shows like that. I was inspired by "Man-Size" by PJ Harvey. Hearing that work really gave me permission to show that side of me. Originally I was just deconstructing old songs but eventually, I started composing music strictly for that project.

It’s a string sextet and voice. Initially, I had electric bass, contrabass, cello, viola, and two violins. Then in 2013, I let go of the electric all-together and brought in a harp. I’m looking to add a little bit of orchestral percussion now too. That’s called Psychochamber Ensemble and I use all female instrumentalists. It’s an extension of my experience from going to an all-girls Catholic school. I was trying to recreate that sense of community without the religious part.

Then I started composing for piano. Mostly singer-songwriter stuff and called it Pseudoacoustic, but it’s an homage to the torch song tradition; artists like Jacque Brel, Nina Simone and Kate Bush. That’s a project that I’ll be releasing an EP for this year.

I feel like that project is kind of a middle ground. A lot of the work is very palatable for people who may not be into experimental classical or aggressive alt-rock. So I’m really excited to release some new songs that people have never heard before.


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