Sweet Briar professor composes score for indie film

Still photo of Julian Hester and Bradley Grant Smith in the indie feature film “King Rat.”
Julian Hester and Bradley Grant Smith in the indie feature film “King Rat.”

Joshua Harris, an assistant professor of music at Sweet Briar and director of the College’s Sound Art Production and Analysis studio, has composed a new feature film music soundtrack.

The independent film “King Rat” premieres next week, July 18 and 22, at the Indy Film Fest in Indianapolis. The movie is written and directed by Henry Johnston, whose writing credits include “Owen Has a Couch” and the short “Strange Loop.”

In “King Rat,” Weston Davis, played by Julian Hester, is a graduating college senior who befriends his commencement speaker in his last few days on campus. The comedy-drama, which also features veteran actors Burt Young and Austin Pendleton, “examines the possibility that years after graduation — whether it’s ten years or thirty — we may be stuck with the same issues we had before crossing that stage at Commencement,” according to the festival’s synopsis.

Harris created all of the sound for the film’s music using computer software. Sweet Briar guitar instructor Eric Hollandsworth contributed the only recorded sound. Out of the film’s 95 minutes, there are 11 different musical cues totaling 25 minutes and 36 seconds of original music.

A composer for more than 20 years, Harris says his music has been heavily influenced by the studio techniques of electroacoustic composers. It’s also how a lot of the soundtracks for movies, TV and video gaming are made today.

Joshua Harris portrait
Josh Harris

That’s why, when a $10,000 grant from Chegg became available to the College’s music department in 2016, Harris pitched the idea of using the money for the SArPA studio. He saw it as a way to get young women excited about composition using computers.

“This studio is going to be a way in for a lot of students who might not have thought of music composition before — especially if they’re thinking about it in terms of writing classical music,” he said at the time.

Harris, a North Carolina native who holds degrees from Appalachian State University, Brigham Young and the University of North Texas, has had his works performed all over the U.S. and in South Korea. He’s been commissioned by the Barlow Endowment for Music Composition and the Nova Ensemble at UNT. His recordings are available on the SEAMUS label.

He’d never thought about scoring a film, though — until Johnston, a friend and former colleague, asked him to consider writing the music for his new movie. Harris had no guarantee his work would be accepted, but he took the challenge.

“I watched the movie and loved it, suddenly feeling excited about doing something new,” he recalls. “Henry’s biggest instruction to me was that he didn’t want the music to tell the audience how to feel. That surprised me at first, because I had always thought that was a film composer’s job.”

The more Harris thought about it, the more his friend’s direction made sense.

“Audiences don’t have to be told how to feel. The best art just tells its story, and the audience feels what resonates with their own experiences,” he says. “I think that’s exactly what this film does, and I’m thrilled to have played a small role in that.”

His ready acceptance of the instructions was welcome to Johnston. During nearly two years of editing, he put off even thinking about the score.

“I knew how difficult it was going to be to find the right balance and tone,” Johnston says. “With a film’s score, it’s often so easy to go off course and lean too heavily into emotional manipulation. But as soon as Josh came in, I knew that he was onto something special. His score was the missing piece to make this film whole.”

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