Your musical career began when you were 7, as a chorister, was writing music for film or images something that you wanted to do from an early age as well?
No. I was in it to play and perform (flute) although I did always compose for whatever band I was in. I turned to composing full time after struggling in New York for 8 years. It was either that or get out of music!
You were a member of a few bands in the early years, what type of music did you perform?
Everything from symphony orchestras to R&R bands to improvisational free jazz groups. While in Cape Town I subbed in the Cape Town Symphony Orchestra, performed with a big R&R band called HAMMAK and in the jazz arena, was mentored by and played with awesome musician Merton Barrow.
At what age did you begin to formally study music and where did you study?
Age 7 at Canterbury Choir School. Voice was the focus, but you also had to play two instruments, one of which had to be the piano
I always remember buying SLEEPWALKERS and being blown away by the scores originality, how did you become involved on the movie, and what size orchestra did you use for the score?
Thank-you! Well my first film when I came to LA was Critters 2 which Mick Garris directed and we originally met through my then agent Jeff Kaufman. He was looking for a composer and we hit it off. He was happy with that score and so asked me to do Sleepwalkers. It was a completely different scenario than C2 because it was a big studio picture and there was money to do everything top drawer. From recording at Sony (MGM) to having Shawn Murphy engineer. I think the orchestra was about 60 pcs comprised of the best studio players.
You are known for creating musical sounds that are out of the ordinary, these often make a score more interesting and certainly make it stand out, as in SLEEPWALKERS, where you used a wine glass being rubbed to create the sound for the cats, do you orchestrate all of your scores for TV and Film and how much research or experimenting do you undertake before creating these sounds?
I generally do all the orchestration because I think it’s a large part of the sound. I sometimes (when time is tight) bring someone in to help out writing out the score but I always go over it and fine tune and adjust before sending it to the copyist. In terms of the custom sounds, the film usually dictates to me what I should bring to it and so I am able to go directly to that sound source and experiment. Usually at that stage it becomes more about getting the ‘performance’ just right more than searching for the sound.
Is scoring a TV series more demanding upon a composer in terms of the schedule and maybe the budget?
In this day and age, TV is where the reliable money is. Sadly, I don’t think a composer can survive on a career of indie films now! So, it’s a toss-up – a TV series tends to be more of a production line mentality where you’re paid well and can afford to bring in reinforcements to get the job finished, whereas on indie movies you can generally bring a lot more creativity to the project but then you have to do everything because the budget is miniscule.
How much time are you normally allowed to create a score for a movie, or does this vary from project to project and upon the director or producer?
It varies from project to project. I spoke to a composer the other day who had been on a film, on and off for a year! Usually it’s in the 4 to 8-week range with the other extreme being counted in days. Critters 2 was 18 days for me – but I’ve heard of others having a lot fewer days in extreme circumstances.
At what stage of the production do you like to become involved, does it help to see a script, or is it better to start when the film is in its rough-cut state, so you can spot it?
Reading scripts doesn’t do much for me because my own imagination as to how a film materializes from the script is usually very different to the director’s so I like to see a rough cut that is very close to being finished. The first ideas that come to me are usually very precious and only come from that first emotional response and so if I have to change directions after having those first instinctual ideas, I feel somewhat demoralized and that the benefit of those first instincts are lost to the score forever.
When seeing a movie for the first time, do you begin to sketch out ideas or do you like to sit and watch it several times before beginning to get fixed ideas about what style of music the project needs and where it will be placed?
Usually I watch it once and there will be one cue that I want to write immediately, and which somehow captivates the essence of the film/score (generally a theme or thematic idea or sound) and then once I’ve got that, I’m off and running. Generally, I work in chronological order.
What do you think music should do for a movie?
Enhance every aspect of it, but specifically it’s job is to ramp up the emotional content – whether it’s a horror film, a comedy or a drama, music can fill in and support where emotional content is lacking.
You have scored several Horror movies; do you think that horror films need more music as opposed to say a comedy or a romance?
It depends. Some horror films require very little and some comedies need a lot of help! Often, horror films require perhaps more of a consistent discomfort but that could just be in the form of soundscapes and tones as opposed to fully realized score
Who as in composers and artists would you say have influenced you in the way you write or in the way that you score a project?
20 century Russian composers and French impressionists
Do you have any preferences when it comes to studios, when you record a score?
For orchestral work the two best rooms in the world are Abbey Road (London) and Sony (MGM) in LA
You worked on GHOSTS which was a short starring Michael Jackson, did he have a very hands on approach when it came to the score as in suggesting styles and what sound he thought was needed?
He was very much into the score but in a very creative and encouraging way. He asked me what I thought it should be, I laid out my ideas and he was on the same page, so it was a very satisfying experience!
You have collaborated with Mick Garris a few times, what was he like to work with and did he have much input into where music should be placed etc?
I’ve worked on more projects with Mick than anybody else and so we have a great working relationship. He is always the ultimate arbiter of where music should go – although always open to ideas. Our usual way of working is: he will suggest an emotional tone with one word that would colour the entire score. For instance, on the miniseries of The Shining, the word was ‘dread’!
Have you encountered the TEMP track at all, if so do you think it can be a useful guide for the composer, or is it distracting when you are trying to create a score for the picture?
Temp tracks are a fact of life. Sometimes, especially if time is short, they can be very useful in conveying what the director wants emotionally. The real problem is when the director (and/or producers) has fallen in love with the temp and cannot be pried from that position. That’s when composers lose their minds because at that point, they’ve been turned into a ‘creative’ arranger and the real creative process and freshness of composing original music has gone out the window.
GRAVEYARD SHIFT was your first assignment, how did you become involved on the movie and what size orchestra did you utilise for the score?
When I was in New York and debating whether to stay in music, I was introduced to the producer who asked me if I’d like to compose the score. I said “yes”, and he pulled out an envelope stuffed with cash and said, “ok here’s half, I’ll give you the rest when you’re done”! It was a completely electronic score
When working on a TV series such as THE SHINING for example, do you start with the theme and then build the remainder of your score around that, or do you work on the episodes and fashion a theme from music used within the series?
The Shining for me was like one long movie and so I worked on it in the same way as I do normal length films – finding that first cue that sets the tone for the entire score. Being a pretty dark story, I was in a bad mood for the three months I worked on it!
What percentage of your scores are realised by electronic or synthetic sounds and instrumentation, and how do you work out your musical ideas, piano, keyboard, or a more technical approach?
I generally compose on a keyboard with a piano sound to start off with. From there, depending on the type of score, I will add instrumentation to send it in whatever direction it needs to go. The norm these days, is that directors and producers want to hear exactly what the score will sound like before committing to the expensive orchestral sessions…. which means a fully fleshed out demo.
Do you think that the opening or main title theme has become a thing of the past?
Yes and no. Certainly in the interests of more commercial sales time in ‘free’ TV, the title theme has often been done away with but on most of the pay channels, they are not working under that financial model, so they are very happy to have the all-important ‘branding’ that theme music brings to the show.
What is next for you?
I’m currently finishing up an extraordinary documentary on Bluegrass music called Fiddling’. It features a string quintet as well as some other bits and pieces as well a song that I wrote for it and for which I am busy looking for a ‘name’ to sing it. Very satisfying!
When a soundtrack of yours is going to be released onto a recording, do you ever get involved with what cues will go onto the release?
Sometimes – usually if it’s a score album it’s very straight ahead. They will put all the cues in order and let it play but other times they like to combine shorter cues and even limit the overall number on the album. I will generally check it out before they move forward just to make sure nothing’s amiss.