What for you is the purpose of music in film, TV and theatre?
Music has always been a vital accompaniment to drama; it rounds out the audience’s experience and gives a depth and a lasting quality to narrative which it’s impossible to achieve with words and action alone. That’s especially true when you think about the function of memory; if the music is memorable, it reinforces the story after the curtain comes down, or the credits roll – you take the emotions of the characters home with you, and they can live on in your mind for years and become part of your life.
What would you say are your earliest memories of any kind of music?
I can’t remember any part of my life where music was not present. This is mainly thanks to my mother; we always had a piano in the house where I grew up, and my mother was a good pianist. She was Russian and played mainly romantic classical pieces by composers like Liszt, Chopin and Rachmaninoff. However, we also had a record-player, and – perhaps because she was born in Paris – she often listened to singers like Charles Trent, Yves Montand and Charles Aznavour.
She also loved the Great American Songbook, and had many records by Bing Crosby, Dean Martin and of course Sinatra, who she adored.
Was film and TV music composition a path that you chose to follow or was this something that you moved into as your career progressed?
For some reason I always knew I was a composer, even before I was old enough to use the word. I used to improvise on the piano incessantly, and sometimes imagine a story or a feeling and try to ‘play’ it, so I guess narrative has always been central to my experience of music. I’d written songs with my brother Tony from early adolescence, and had one or two pieces performed at school, but when I was 18 I was given the opportunity to compose the music for a low-budget production in a 150-seat repertory theatre. I knew instinctively that this was exactly the experience I needed as a composer; to write to a deadline, express a musical narrative and see whether it worked on an audience. I feel so lucky to have had that chance, as it led to a slowly-extending network of contacts in theatre, TV, film and stage musicals.
What musical education did you have and was there a particular area of study that you focused
I started piano lessons when I was 5 and started to teach myself guitar from the age of about 12 when a very kind elderly lady gave me a rather broken-down old acoustic. I later went to Oxford University, but I found the course there to be far too biased towards musicology, and it didn’t help me in my efforts to become someone who could earn his living as a composer. Besides, by then I’d already started getting commissions to write music in the theatre, and I was learning what I needed from practical experience, writing to the demands and emotions of a story, delivering to a deadline and finding out within a few days whether my music was having the desired effect with the drama. As I gained more commissions and their budgets gradually increased, I had the opportunity to write for larger ensembles and develop my orchestration technique.
You collaborated with film maker Clive Donner on a number of projects, did he have a hands-on approach when it came to the music for his films, or was he happy to let you go ahead and score
His father had been a concert violinist, and Clive had a natural understanding of music and its role and power in narrative; he gave me a lot of freedom, and I’ll always be grateful for the degree of trust he placed in me. Nowadays a composer has to submit ideas and demos at various stages of the composing process, and often receive input from people who don’t have the knowledge or musical understanding to offer useful advice. When I worked with Clive in the early 1980s, he would come to my home studio and I’d play him the themes I had written which were to form the basis of the score; he would then hear nothing until we met a few weeks later in the recording studio with the orchestra to do the sessions! When I tell younger composers this they are understandably envious of that creative freedom. The thing is, you were judged on the final result, and if everyone liked it you probably got the next job – if they didn’t… you didn’t.
For some years, fans have googled their way to your website in order to buy a soundtrack album of A CHRISTMAS CAROL, but thankfully it has now been given a commercial release onto CD. What size orchestra did you use for the compilation of cues that were included on the recent release?
We had three line-ups; as far as I remember, the large studio orchestra was about 45 players and the small one about 20. The ‘City Waits’ group which you see in the movie consisted of 5 musicians and 6 singers, adults and children. We also had the pleasure of using the renowned Trinity Boys’ School Choir from London, who not only sang my carol ‘God Bless Us Every One’ for the soundtrack, but also contributed some excellent ghostly shrieking and whispering noises which became part of the soundscape for Marley’s Ghost and the other hauntings of Scrooge.
STEALING HEAVEN has always been a favourite of mine, how did you become involved on this project?
It was directed by Clive Donner, and I was doing the music for all his films at this time. He specified that he wanted an all-electronic score, as all the previous we had worked on together featured orchestral instruments. The only ‘human’ element was the beautiful singing of Abelard’s own music by The Clerkes of Oxenford, directed by David Wulstan. I really enjoyed combining my music with theirs.
When you are asked to score a film or TV series how many times do you see it before you begin to get any firm ideas of what style of music you will write and where music should be placed?
With all my film and TV scores, I read the script and talked to the director extensively before seeing any filmed material. This gives space for musical ideas to develop freely, purely inspired by the story and the characters, and the director’s imagined vision of the finished work. When it comes to the actual physical process of scoring, you have to watch the whole film many times, and the scored sections dozens of times to get the composition right.
You have scored TV series that are more than 3 or 4 episodes, when working on a series do you ever re-use themes from early episodes on more recent ones, and when you are writing for a series do you score each episode in order that they will be aired or is this not always possible?
If the narrative carries over from each episode to the next, the musical themes have to have a continuity, so the use of recurrent themes is extremely powerful with the drama and can really help the audience’s involvement with the characters and their lives. A good example of this – and incidentally, the most satisfying multi-episodic score I’ve done – was for the 8-hour series Holding On (BBC TV, 1997), because it’s an epic story spanning a wide range of characters across London, whose stories partly overlap. It’s a great series, and worth seeking out on DVD.
What is your opinion of the increased use of electronics and samples in film scoring?
It’s both good and bad. It’s always exciting to have new sounds, new instruments, and new ways of making music – it increases the range of expression available to composers. However, it drives down the music budgets when people think they can get a big ‘orchestral’ sound for a bargain price, and I’m tired of hearing the same samples everywhere – there’s a tendency for many scores to sound too similar and generalized. There’s another drawback: modern software makes it easy for anyone to try putting a piece of music with a piece of film, and this favors sensational moments over narrative.
There has been talk recently amongst collectors that the good old fashioned MAIN THEME seems to be rare in modern film scores, do you think that is the case and for you is a main title theme
important and is it something that the composer can build his score around?
I come from a tradition where the main theme is the heart of any score, and I still believe that building your score around key themes is the way to give lasting meaning to a film, to make memories for the audience after they leave the cinema or switch off the screen.
Staying with themes and music in contemporary movies, the DRONE sound has been quite prevalent in recent years, it seems to be a kind of filler or a way in which the composer can tread
musically, again several collectors, critics and composers have the opinion that this practice devalues music in film, because it is not music but a sound, have you any thoughts on this?
The use of drones drives me crazy; they’re a generalized and lazy way to fill in time and paper over cracks – and yes, they devalue the music because they’re boring, and the listener/viewer zones out and stops engaging in the story.
Will the film music of today be remembered as much as the film music of the Golden and Silver Ages of movie music?
I believe some of it will, for example John Williams’ scores for Spielberg, but it will mostly be because of the use of a known song in a movie rather than because of the score itself, for example James Horner’s “My Heart Will Go On” from Titanic.
Do you perform on your scores?
When possible, I play keyboards and guitars, and occasionally percussion and (rarely) kit.
Do you conduct when scoring a movie, or is this something that is not always possible due to the nature of the assignment and the schedule?
I prefer not to, but to listen and produce in the control room.
What composers both from the world of film music and classical music would you say have either inspired you or influenced you in the way you approach and score a project?
Maybe because of my theatre background, Korngold, Steiner, Waxman, Puccini – then Tiomkin, Elmer Bernstein, Nino Rota, Ryuchi Sakamoto, Carter Burwell…
As well as music for film and TV you write for songs and recording artists, is this a very different world from that of scoring movies?
Yes completely. I love the fact that they’re so different. The discipline and constraints of film scoring are inspiring in their way, but songwriting is so collaborative and plastic. I’m very lucky to have worked across so many different genres and worlds, including concert and festival pieces and choral works – they all cross-fertilize each other and keep me interested and inspired.
Do you have any preferences regarding where you record a score/song etc?
Not really – it’s a treat to go somewhere new to record. Obviously most of my recordings took place in the UK, but I really enjoyed it when I started working abroad in the mid-80s, with the session musicians in Los Angeles and with some brilliant folk and orchestral players in Ireland in the 80s and 90s.
How much impact does BUDGET or sometimes the lack of it effect a composer’s approach on a score?
You can do some sort of honest and effective score for any budget – the only problem comes when people expect a sound which they don’t have the money to pay for!
Is there a set routine that you follow on a score, by this I mean do you begin with central theme and build on this for the remainder of the work, or do you tackle smaller cues and stabs first and develop your central or core themes from these?
Having thought of some themes, I like to work chronologically as much as possible. I don’t really like hopping around different parts of the film, because I really believe a sense of narrative time is vital to writing a good movies score.
Do you find the use of a temp track helpful?
NO! Temp tracks are a menace – they almost always create the wrong expectations, cramp the composer’s style and endanger fresh and original thinking.
Many thanks to Nick Bicat for agreeing to answer my questions and for his time.