Gabriel Yared begins every day the same way. He gets up, and reaches for a Bach score, burying his head in the baroque master’s music.
“Why do I do this? I put a ceiling of perfection and beauty over my day, and every day is the same to me – trying to reach beauty,” says the celebrated French-Lebanese film composer, who was honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 13th Dubai International Film Festival on December 7.
“But I still have a lot to learn. I’m very happy with an award, but it won’t change my doubts. I’m always doubting myself.”
The idea that Yared – a 67-year-old Academy Award-winner with more than 100 movie credits, who has scored films for directors as diverse as Jean-Luc Godard and Angelina Jolie – can have anything other than swaggering confidence about his abilities comes as something of a shock.
But then, Yared always had to fight to be heard. Born and raised in Beirut, for the first 17 years of his life he had to cope with minimal formal tuition – and zero parental encouragement.
“I was born with music, I cannot explain it – without being pretentious, I’ve been gifted,” he says. “But I couldn’t explain this to my parents, because in my family there are no artists whatsoever. Nothing, for generation after generation. So all my childhood, I would have to fight. My father would say, ‘Have a proper career – doctor, lawyer, engineer – and music as a hobby.’ But I couldn’t.”
For the first 10 years of his education, Yared attended a boarding school where there was only 30 minutes of music tuition a week. When he left the school, at the age of 14, his music teacher offered a crushing verdict on his pupil’s prospects.
“He said to my father, ‘He will never do anything in life with music’ – it was terrible, terrible,” says Yared.
Undeterred, he continued to devour scores by Bach, Schumann, Ravel and Debussy. Later, while studying law for two years from the age of 16 – which was an excuse to gain untethered access to the Université Saint-Joseph church organ near the university – he trained his ear by transcribing pop records by The Beatles and Marvin Gaye, and improvised jazz by John Coltrane and Charles Mingus.
“I used to be like a butterfly, looking everywhere at all the scores,” he says. “I was hungry for music, not to become a technician – I was not interested in being a virtuoso – I just wanted to read music, to understand how it was built.
“I was very gifted, I have a fantastic ear, but it’s not enough. You realise that if you don’t write the music, and you rely on your ear, your ear is a bad judge. It’s by writing and looking at the music that you can develop it and build it.”
Despite having no formal academic music training, in 1969, Yared was awarded a government bursary to travel as a non-registered student to Paris to study under modernist music legend Henri Dutilleux at the École Normale de Musique de Paris.
“I was like a tourist. I hadn’t studied music, so I was allowed to attend but not participate,” says Yared. “I listened to everything [Dutilleux] said, and this guy was interested in my approach.”
The pair stayed in touch, and Yared went on to work as an orchestrator for many of France’s biggest pop stars of the day, including Françoise Hardy, Charles Aznavour and Mireille Mathieu.
“But each time I would make money, I would buy orchestral scores – Bach, Stravinsky, Dutilleux, everything – I was eating music,” says Yared. “I didn’t invest in buying a flat, I just bought those scores.”
Yared did not even consider working in the movies until his early 30s when, following a two-year sabbatical to further his study of counterpoint and fugue at the Conservatoire de Paris, he received an invite to meet the great auteur of the French New Wave, Jean Luc-Godard.
“It was a total accident,” says Yared. Hardy was married to singer-turned-actor Jacques Dutronc, who was cast in Godard’s 1980 picture, Every Man For Himself, and recommended Yared for the soundtrack.
“It was an awful meeting,” says the composer. “I said, ‘If you need an orchestrator, there’s a book where you can find the orchestrator for you – i’m not interested’.
“The producer ran after me and said, ‘Do know you’re talking to Jean Luc-Godard’? I said, ‘I don’t know him’ – I didn’t have any cinema culture.”
Remarkably, Godard took a shine to the upstart, and Yared was invited to compose – rather than just orchestrate – the film’s soundtrack, which was recorded in one room on a piano and two synthesisers.
“Godard took the tape and cut the images to music,” says Yared. “He didn’t want me to look at images. He said, ‘Look at your imagination’. And that stayed in my mind.”
He went on to score dozens of movies – mostly French films, including Jean-Jacques Beineix’s Betty Blue and Jean-Jacques Annaud’s The Lover – before mainstream Hollywood success came in 1996 thanks to his score for smash hit The English Patient, which earned the composer an Oscar and a Grammy.
Subsequent collaborations with that film’s director, Anthony Minghella, included The Talented Mr Ripley (1999) and Cold Mountain (2003), as well as Brad Silberling’s City of Angels (1998), solidified Yared’s reputation.
However controversy followed in 2004 when Yared’s score for director Wolfgang Petersen’s historical blockbuster Troy was unceremoniously dumped, less than a month before the film opened.
Warner Bros own the rights to the music, which has never been heard, a fact that still rankles Yared.
“I gave a year and a half of my time,” he says. “It was hard – everyone had been fired in their lives, but the way it has been done was so rude that I was hurt.”
While his professional partnership with Minghella ended when the filmmaker died following surgery for cancer in 2008, much of Yared’s best work was still to come, with recent successes including Amelia (2009), Jolie’s directional debut In the Land of Blood and Honey (2011) and her follow-up By the Sea (2015), and the animated Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet (2014).
Yared is rightfully proud of his most recent work on It’s Only the End of the World – winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes this year – the intuitive result of a six-month collaborative process with feted French-Canadian director Xavier Dolan.
“My approach is very unorthodox – I’m not a cinephile, I don’t know very much cinema, and I think a composer can bring a lot to films even if he doesn’t go the movies,” says Yared.
“My approach is having a relationship with the director. Not in the Hollywood way, where three months before the dubbing you hire a composer – I want to spend time to produce music, before or during the shooting. This makes a real osmosis, a harmony with the director. The music becomes really an organic part, rather than just an underscore.
“I’m trying to spend more time, to bring more music and more consciousness into my work – otherwise I could do a film in two weeks, but then I would rely on my habits, and I don’t want that.”