Can I begin by asking where and when were you born, what are your earliest memories of any kind of music, and was music always something that you were attracted to do as a career?
I was born in London on 3 December 1974. Apparently, as a baby, music had a calming effect on me, but of course I have no memories of that! When I was five years old, recognising that I had some musical ability, my parents organised piano lessons for me and later I began learning the organ. By sixteen I was giving piano and organ recitals, performing chamber music and concertos, and playing in Jazz groups and I loved it, but I didn’t have any wish to pursue it as a career at that time. It was only when I reached my mid teens that I started composing. A chance encounter with the music of the French composer Claude Bolling drew me into the world of film music. Until that point, I hadn’t even noticed the existence of film music and I certainly had never considered it as a possible profession.
I think I read that you stated that your musical influences came from composers such as Michel Legrand, Philippe Sarde and of course Ennio Morricone, did you or do you collect or buy soundtrack albums by other composers?
I think I was around 14 or 15 when I discovered modern Jazz and began to listen to and buy recordings by Bill Evans, Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck, Oscar Peterson and Antonio Carlos Jobim amongst others. In 1988, I saw the Italian film “Cinema Paradiso” and was completely blown away by both the film and Ennio Morricone’s score. Soon afterwards, a friend sent me a video tape of Michel Legrand, Claude Bolling and Oscar Peterson performing a Jazz piano concert together. This was the first time I heard Legrand’s music from “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” and “The Thomas Crown Affair” and I immediately fell in love with it. At this time, apart from classical music and Jazz, I was into buying CDs of soundtracks and I would visit Tower Records, HMV and other specialist music shops, listening to everything I could find by my favourite film composers.
What non film music composers would you say have influenced you?
Bach, Chopin, Mahler, Debussy, Satie, Ravel, Poulenc, Stravinsky, Rachmaninov, Copland, Astor Piazzolla, Steve Reich, John Adams and Antonio Carlos Jobim. Also, Richard Rodney Bennett, who taught me at the Royal Academy of Music. His concert music is just as direct and beautiful as his film music. Finally, the song-writer and arranger Burt Bacharach. His sophisticated melodies, harmonic changes and arrangements are so original and beautiful.
What musical education did you receive?
Apart from piano lessons with concert pianist Martino Tirimo and organ lessons with various teachers at my school and at Westminster Cathedral, I also studied for GCSE and A-Level Music, together with all the other usual subjects. During my gap year, I signed up composition classes at Morley College and conducting with Laurence Leonard and meanwhile I got an offer from Queens College, Cambridge to read Music. After three years there, where I had the honour of taking composition lessons with Robin Holloway, I spent a further two years as a postgraduate in Composition at the Royal Academy of Music under the guidance of Paul Patterson.
You worked as an orchestrator, do you think that this gave you a better understanding of music composition or the way in which music works?
I wouldn’t say that the experience of orchestrating gave me a better understanding of music composition, as music can, in most cases, be separated from its orchestration. Ravel’s piano works for instance. They are all great in their own right. Ravel’s orchestrations of his piano works give the music an extra dimension, but his piano works are not diminished in any way next to the orchestral versions. What the practical experience of orchestrating did do for me was to better enable me to present my musical ideas for the orchestra, and hopefully, to maximise their potential.
I think that orchestration can help to structure music. In the greatest concert works, orchestration is not a haphazard series of orchestral-colour decisions, but a well thought-out process that, just like the music itself, has it’s own logic. When writing film music, orchestration tends to be instinctive for most composers, as much of the time you are not dealing with long musical structures as you would be in a concert work. I tend to invent sounds and textures that are appropriate for the given moment in a scene and I use orchestration to define moments, to evoke atmosphere and create connections, just as I would use a thematic leitmotif.
The thing that has really helped me to understand how music works has been the process of transcribing music. I have made hundreds of transcriptions from audio recordings, writing out pieces of music by ear. These have been the most useful exercise I have ever done and I would recommend transcribing music to any prospective composer or arranger. Taking down music by ear has not only given me an insight into how the compositions (and orchestrations) have been created from inside out, but it has had the secondary benefit of fine tuning my inner ear, which has in itself helped me hugely. Thanks to these aural ‘workouts” I can now hear in my head any musical and instrumental combination, and notate them without having to play them on a keyboard.
You scored a movie entitled THE BREAK IN back in 1999, and then a year later you collaborated once again with the director John Stewart on THE ASYLUM, how did you become involved on these projects?
The 1999 thriller, “The Break-In” came about after answering an advert in the back of a film industry magazine. John Stewart and his producer were looking for a composer to score their new short film and I managed to talk my way into getting the job. There was a small fee but no recording budget to speak of, but because I wanted the quality and emotion of live musicians, I managed to persuade 15 friends from the Royal Academy to play on the session. The director requested a score with music of a highly dramatic nature. It was super fun to write and record. Years later, I would hand over the recordings to a library music company, and it has became some of the most widely used of my entire catalogue.
Getting to score John’s feature film “The Asylum” was my prize for having scored his short. Set in Cane Hill Asylum, an abandoned Victorian psychiatric hospital built on a hilltop in the London greenbelt, it was a psychological horror film. I composed a gothic Herrmann-esque score to match. They had a fairly decent budget this time around, so I was able to record my first orchestral score, which were did with a 60-piece band in Prague.
You scored BEYOND THE SEA for Kevin Spacey, did he have specific ideas about what style of score he wanted and was this a difficult project because the soundtrack obviously contained so many songs?
It was actually John Wilson, the musical director (and well-known conductor), who asked me to score “Beyond The Sea”. In a short phone call, apart from one or two specific instructions, Kevin Spacey gave me free reign. It was surprising but also a bit daunting to have so much trust placed in me like that. This was a Hollywood studio film, the highest profile film I had worked on. It had a cast of very famous actors and actresses. Fortunately I didn’t have time to think deeply about it, otherwise I might have freaked out!
As you say, there were many existing songs interspersed throughout the film. This meant that the musical entrances and exits of my cues had to segue imperceptibly with the starts or endings of existing songs. That wasn’t particularly difficult. However, finding a musical style that was not only in keeping with the period but which also blended seamlessly with the existing songs and their arrangements – that was the big challenge. The music I ended up writing had a distinctly American feel, but also placed the film decisively into the 1950s and 60s, which is when the film was mainly set.
Kevin Spacey was very happy indeed with the score and getting the thumbs up from him was a very proud moment for me.
In your opinion, what do you think is the purpose of music in film?
To enhance the emotions and to say what is not possible with words.
When a score that you have composed is given a release on compact disc etc., are you involved in the compilation of the music tracks at all?
Absolutely 100%. It is vital to make sure that the music is presented well and I work closely together with the producer of the album spending much time deciding on the best possible order of tracks and whether they should be presented individually or merged into longer suites. In the end, it’s all about how to structure the best possible listening experience rather than slavishly following the order of the cues as they appear in the film.
As well as feature films, you have worked on numerous shorts, what would you say are the main differences between scoring a feature and a short film?
Whether it’s a short film or a feature film, the process is exactly the same. Short films, while often low budget, are not the poor relation when it comes to compositional challenges. Indeed, there can be certain advantages since you are not bound by commercially driven decisions and there are fewer people involved in making those decisions. I believe some of the most personal music I have written has been for shorts because I was unhindered by the extra-musical distractions that can take over on larger projects. Although the condensed nature of a short means you rarely have the opportunity for extended development of musical material, it always surprises me how much musical variety you can cover in a 15-minute film. One of my most liked compositions comes from a short film called “Cuadrilátero” directed by José Carlos Ruiz and starring French actor, Mathieu Amalric. Another short film I very much enjoyed working on more recently is a comedy called “Tú o Yo” directed by Javier Marco. I decided to compose an energetic Jazz score which I recorded with some really marvellous jazz musicians in London, including John Barclay, the flugelhorn player on John Barry’s early Bond scores and an incredible saxophonist called Martin Robertson who had no problem playing my extremely difficult written out Jazz lines.
You studied under Ennio Morricone, what was it like being giving instruction by the Maestro? How many times do you like to see a movie before you begin to get ideas about where the music will go and what style of music you think the movie requires?
During my gap year, an Italian friend who knew how much I loved Morricone’s music, sent me details of classes that Morricone was giving at the Academia Chigiana that summer in Sienna. It wasn’t open to anyone and you had to apply, by sending in a number of compositions and a curriculum. We were about 20 or so students and the classes took place over the space of a week or so. Rather than being taught traditionally, we listened to extended conversations between Morricone and the musicologist Sergio Michelli. So, there wasn’t much opportunity for interaction. Even so, it was amazing just to be in the same room as the Maestro and I did manage to ask a few of my own questions plus get a few moments to share some of my scores with him, including a transcription I had made of the score to “Cinema Paradiso”. He seemed quite touched when I showed it to him, and he spent some time going through it and making some corrections! I still have this manuscript in my studio to this day, with the words “Bravo per la trascrizione, Ennio Morricone” !
As for your second question, I get music ideas from the very first moment I see a film. The first viewing is of utmost importance to me, as I’ll never see the film like that again, with such an open mind. So the first viewing is the closest I will ever feel to how an audience will see it when they go to the cinema.
The album FILMWORKS is an amazing release, are there any plans for a volume two soon?
Thank you! I would love to do another one, but I will have to build up a similar body of work to justify another retrospective. I am writing new music all the time, so this shouldn’t take too long! What is likely to happen before that is the release of a new work that I am currently working on: a concerto for Bandoneon, Guitar, Piano and orchestra. I think it’s the best work I have written, easily as ambitious the “Frank Lloyd Wright Suite” (recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra in 2005), but very different in style. There is still a long way to go before I am finished, as it is a dense and complex work with millions of notes. My hope is that it will receive some live performances before being recorded because that’s always the best way for music to become second nature to the musicians.
When scoring a project do you have a set routine, by this I mean do you begin with the opening titles and work through to the end credits, or do you develop a central theme and build your score around this?
The latter is more typical in my case. That is to say, around some central ideas but not chronologically. Rarely do I start at the beginning and work my way through to the end. Whenever I have tried to compose in a logical progression, the director has gone and changed the order of cues, so that we ended up with a different score than the one I had envisaged at the beginning. I see writing for film as more akin to sculpting from a piece of rock. What starts out as a rather unwieldy block of stone is gradually chipped away at until a shape begins to take form. Little by little this shape is refined until you end up with the polished statue. Actually, this is how all compositions are formed in my case, concert works included.
What is your opinion of the use of the temp track, do you think that maybe certain directors can become fixated upon the temp and it blurs their vision as far as an original score is concerned?
Temp tracks inhibit freedom, artistry and imagination. They are the very antithesis to creativity. By acting as a blue print for the score you will eventually compose, they blind everyone to the possibility of creating something original that they hadn’t imagined. Temp music can be useful in helping the director to make a point, and certainly helpful to the editor to cut to, but they have no artistic use whatsoever. In fact, I would go as far as to say that the liberal use of temp music has led to a deterioration of really good film composition. A great deal of film music today sounds bland and identical, no matter who the composer is, and I am not alone in saying that. Morricone, Legrand, Sarde, Elfman and many others have made the same point. That said, I am used to temp tracks, and I know how to deal with them. I would always prefer to have a film temped with my own music because at least then I am hearing my own musical language in context of the film rather than being asked to imitate someone else’s
You have worked on movies from many different countries, is film music treated differently from country to country, or do directors all pretty much think along the same lines when it comes to the score?
I have been lucky to have worked with some really good directors, regardless of where they came from. Kevin Spacey, one could say, is part of the film nobility in Hollywood, as are the Quay Brothers in Art House cinema. Likewise, David Planell and Jose Carlos Ruiz from Spain are seriously talented auteurs as are Friedrich Moser from Austria and Beryl Richards from England. What makes each one stand out is their personality and culture rather than nationality. That said, I have seen many different styles of film making, and each film requires a bespoke musical approach. In European cinema there is definitely more emphasis placed on the role of music as a distinct personality in the film. In British and American cinema, music tends to be more consigned to a background, incidental role. This is a generalisation of course, and there are examples that go against this, though the melancholic nostalgia, intellect and sensuality one finds in much French cinema (Francois Ozon’s films for instance) is notably absent in much contemporary social British cinema which tends to be more concerned with the grim realities of urban life (such as Ken Loach). The fact is, I try to write music that best suits a film’s style and needs. Sometimes you can make bold musical statements, other times you have to take more of a backseat role. Of all the directors I have worked with, what never fails to delight me is the gratitude they express when I compose something that really makes their film work. I think it’s because music makes them fall in love with their film again.
WHO IS FLORINDA BOLKAN is an interesting work, a homage to Morricone, how did you become involved on this project and was it your idea to score it in this style?
Ruben Torrejon, a young Spanish director approached me for this film. He already knew my music from other short films I had done and, like me, he loves 60s and 70s Italian film music. It was his idea to score the film in that style, using Bossa Novas and a wordless female voice, very much in the style of Edda Dell’Orso and the sensual, psychedelic scores of that period in Italian cinema.
One of your latest projects is THE GOOD AMERICAN which you worked on with composer Guy Farley, was this a collaboration in the true sense or were you each responsible for individual cues for the score?
Guy and I have a long established partnership writing music for commercials, an arrangement we have had since 2009. On this occasion I asked him if he’d be interested to collaborate with me on a feature film. Apart from a couple of cues where we mixed our ideas together, we generally kept our cues completely separate, choosing in advance which scenes we’d like to score. This worked well because in this particular film we found that the scenes could be evenly divided up into genres and moods. The score was recognised by the Austrian Film Academy and nominated for the Austrian Film Prize, the Austrian equivalent of the CESAR or OSCAR. We took part in the ceremony in Vienna a few months ago which was an unforgettable experience.
Using THE GOOD AMERICAN as an example, what size orchestra did you have for this project, and what synthetics did you use?
I had 40 strings, 8 woodwinds, harp, piano and percussion plus non-orchestral, synthesised sounds to add a modern, technological feel to the music. Fast, agitated string passages provided the pace and tension while the woodwind was available to vary the colour. I used two bass clarinets often for some repeated staccato effects and I gave the bass flute a number of important solos. Something about the gentle character of the protagonist, Bill Binney, the location of his home near a forest and his love of nature suggested writing for the lower woodwind, especially the flutes. The electronic elements I put together before starting. I chose sounds that appealed to me from existing electronic instruments and I also created some different sounds myself. The way I like to use electronics, is blended so well with the orchestral elements, that they become part of the texture. It’s a homogeneity of acoustic and electronic sound. I also like to double the contrabasses with a low electronic sound, which gives them an extra richness in the cinema.
On the FILMWORKS album you have included the unused music for I ANNA, in the form of the FILM NOIR SUITE, the music is excellent, why was the score not used?
The director’s original idea was for a retro instrumental score inspired by French film music of the 1970s. This was a dream project for me, and I came up with some demos in an appropriate style but with a modern twist that the director and producer really loved and encouraged me to explore. The film’s editor too was very complimentary when he heard my music, a sure sign that I was on the right path.
Two weeks before the orchestral recordings were due to take place at Abbey Road Studios, I received an apologetic call from the producer to inform me that a decision had been made to explore an entirely different musical route from the one thus far, and one much closer to the original temp track which everyone had got to used to. So, the film ended up with a non-orchestral, ambient-electronic soundtrack, composed by the same author as the temp music, plus some pre-existing songs. In other words, it couldn’t have been more different in style to the original concept. Although this outcome was disheartening, the experience hadn’t been a waste of time. Those months of intense work and experimentation turned out to be a very useful period of musical development and I subsequently re-worked one of the cues from I, ANNA into my latest score for A GOOD AMERICAN (a cue called “2 Disc PC”). Never waste good music!
Do you think that a good score can save or maybe make a bad movie a little better?
It depends on your definition of ‘better’. While music cannot transform a bad film into a good one, what it can unquestionably do is make the viewing experience a lot more palatable. Most films have a problem or two lurking away within them, perhaps a scene that doesn’t work quite as well as the director had envisaged, or a clumsy transition or even a lacklustre performance. Music can certainly help to gloss over those moments and make them seem less bad. However, despite the best music in the world, if the film is just poor, the audience will still walk away feeling let down. The difference is, if the music is highly engaging, the audience might stay in their seats until the end of the film rather than leaving after 20 minutes! So, although a good score can make a bad film appear better, in the end, it’s still a bad film. Composers are often asked to commit to working on a film after reading a script, and long before the film has been made – and this is how they can sometimes find themselves working on a film that hasn’t turned out very well. In cases, like these, I refer to some advice given to me by Richard Rodney Bennett who said that if you’re going to write music for a film, you have to learn to love it in some way, however bad it is. It’s also worth noting how many superb scores have been written for crappy films!
THE PIANO TURNER OF EARTHQUAKES, is a score of yours that I like a lot, was it difficult creating the music for this as I know that there was music by Vivaldi etc. on the soundtrack as well?
Thank you – I’m really glad you like it. THE PIANO TUNER OF EARTHQUAKES directed by Stephen and Timothy Quay, stylistically speaking, was different from anything I had ever seen before so I had absolutely no point of reference. It’s a dark and surrealist vision from two completely original film makers. From the outset, I decided to compose freely, inspired by the images and the script rather than the picture. As you rightly say, there was some pre-existing music by Vivaldi that I re-arranged and used dramatically, as part of the score. The Vivaldi and my own original music had quite separate functions within the film, and were used in quite different scenes, so it didn’t pose any problem at all for me.
The challenge was, as always, how to find the most fitting musical mood to complement the abstract and quite stunning imagery. The Quays played me some music by the Russian composer Alfred Schnittke for inspiration and we decided to use the Aeolian Harp and Alphorn in the score and a fairground steam-organ to create the sound world of the automata, the mechanical machines that dot the film’s landscape. I used all kinds of rarely used instruments such as crystal glasses, glass harmonica, prepared piano, contrabass flute, and many kinds of percussion instruments to add unusual colors to the score. I exploited sounds by altering them electronically, changing their velocities, reversing them and combining them with vocals and a hint of specially created synth sounds. The final result was an eclectic, avant-garde score that reflected the strange, dream-like world of the Quays.
Do you think that there is any genre of film that is particularly difficult to score, and for what reason?
Comedy. It’s probably the most challenging of all genres. This is because it will often encompass a myriad of different shades of drama, emotion, and styles. So, apart from the scenes of physical comedy, or slapstick, of which there are bound to be some, there will also be sad, dark, or ironic moments and quite possibly fast paced action scenes as well. There may even be suspense or horror, and certainly some melodrama. So, in a single comedy film, a composer may end up covering every cinematic genre. In that sense, writing music for a comedy can often be all encompassing and hence very challenging. On top of that you have the additional challenge of finding new ways to enhance the comedy with music which don’t sound hackneyed and without an expert musical touch could easily make the comedy fall flat.
What are you working on now?
I have just completed the music for a couple of TV and cinema adverts plus a handful of new orchestral pieces for Audio Network, the library music company, which we recorded at Abbey Road Studios last month. As I mentioned earlier, I am also working on a concert work, a concerto for Bandoneon, Guitar and Piano. In September I’ll be starting work on a new film score for a French-Polish production. I have Polish nationality as well as British, and I am excited to be working with a Polish director for the very first time.