AN INTERVIEW WITH COMPOSER EIRIK MYHR.

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You have worked in feature film, documentaries and written for the theatre, what would you say are the main differences if any between the three mediums?

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Musically there isn’t necessarily a big difference. The direction of the music is determined by the vision of the director in collaboration with the composer, in both film and theatre productions. But the working methods are different. In a theatre performance, you don’t have a “locked” timeline like in a movie, so you don’t normally use the same amount of macro-timing like you might do when scoring a complex film sequence with a lot of different cue points. Since theatre is a living and breathing medium, the timing of the actors also might vary a bit from performance to performance. So the structure of the music needs to be a bit more “flexible” since the scenes might play out a bit different from day to day. That said, for theatre productions I often like to work around this, by splitting the musical cues into different parts that can indeed be triggered by certain dialogue lines or other cue points – so that you get a seamless effect of a wholly composed thing that just magically fits together! It’s a semi-interactive approach to the music, a bit like in modern video games when the music continues to play in the background, morphing to a different part of the music when something specific happens in the action.

What is clearly also different in the theatre, is that the actors are often already working with the music while they are rehearsing the play. So there might be more cases of the music actively influencing the stage direction and the rhythm of certain sequences. That rarely happens with music for film, unless you are filming musical numbers which of course requires that music to be ready before filming. But in general the composer comes in a little bit later in the filmmaking process, often after filming has wrapped. So in films, the rhythm and structure of the music cues are more often determined by the editing, than vice versa.

There is approx. 30 mins of music in Mio, min Mio, when you have written the score is the music played live with the performance or is it recorded and played when the performance is on stage?

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On both “Mio, min Mio” and “Ingenting” (both directed by the amazing Hilde Brinchmann) the music was pre-recorded and played back by the stage sound engineer through a piece of software called QLab. This way the musical cues can be split into different parts like I mentioned before, and glued together on-stage during the final weeks of rehearsals, fine-tuning the whole performance and the structure of the music on location. It is a very creative and fun process between director, composer and sound engineer.

However, on another recent project, a modern adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt” which was staged the last three summer seasons as an outdoor play in Oslo, we needed to do the same kinds of seamless live transitions between cues, but with a 40 piece live orchestra (actually the Staff Band of the Norwegian Armed Forces) instead of pre-recorded files. Which means that the conductor (the magnificent Bjarte Engeset) had to keep track of a very long list of micro-cues throughout, carefully listening to every line of dialogue by the actors, at the same time as conducting the orchestra, being prepared to skip a certain amount of bars or even skipping to a different piece of music at any point in time! At certain points we had different players in the orchestra purposely playing two different pieces of music simultaneously, to create optimal “crossfading” effects! Total madness, but when you work with amazing people, it can be done!

What is your principal instrument when you are writing a score for a play or film?

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The piano is my composing tool, for getting the ideas down (although the drums are what I regard as my main instrument). I never get my best ideas when I am in the studio, surrounded by all the software synths and sounds with their limitless possibilities, like they are almost a distraction from the ideas themselves. I find that an acoustic piano delivers another kind of feedback, it’s almost like it’s talking back to you instead of just making the sounds. So I might have working days when I purposely stay away from the studio, to have more peace for just getting the ideas down first, recording rough piano sketches into my phone or iPad. Or just taking a walk in the forest while having the phone ready to record me singing, when an idea appears. I think I read somewhere that the brain is more efficient at producing new ideas when you’re walking than when you’re sitting still – it certainly seems that way to me! As soon as I have the idea for a track, I more or less know where I want to go with it, in terms of instrumentation and arrangement. That’s when I go back to my studio and get to work.
What percentage of the instrumentation was symphonic on Mio, min Mio?

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I would say 1%! The only live element are some of the drums (which I played myself). The rest is all sample libraries, played on keyboards and edited and mixed in my sequencer. The budget is really what determines what you can do. For good and bad, sample libraries are sounding better and better, and are making it easier than ever to produce decent sounding results in quite a short amount of time – but they can’t in any way replace the real thing, and they shouldn’t. It’s a difficult balance, because I always want to use as many live musicians as possible, and I also want to support and give jobs to all the great musicians around! But the way things are now, only the big budget films in Norway makes it possible to hire a full orchestra. And the way you might utilize a blend of real players and sample libraries are also determined by what kind of sound you are attempting to create. On my first two feature films “Rafiki” (2009) and “The Tough Guys” (2013) I used studio musicians to cover up the shortcomings of the symphonic sample libraries and to make it breathe. On later projects I have sometimes opted for more of a chamber music sound rather than a full symphonic one, like in “The Brothers Lionheart” (2014) which is largely based on a string quintet with added percussion and keyboards, and “Los Bando” (2018) which is more of an indie pop score with strings and woodwinds, drums and keyboards. Going the “chamber” route gives you the privilege of basing the whole thing on a group of 5 or 6 real musicians and not just use them to “cover up” the samples. “Mio” was a more minimalistic production with a tighter schedule, but still needed this big symphonic kind of sound, which led me to just embracing the sample libraries fully this time – but I would love to rework some of the music for a symphonic suite or something at a later date. On “Ingenting” this was a much easier creative choice since the music isn’t even supposed to sound symphonic – it’s all based on retro synth sounds, inspired by the likes of Wendy Carlos. And “Secret of the Catacomb” is sort of a blend between the symphonic and synthetic aesthetics and had to be composed and produced in a very short time, so that’s all sample based too.

 

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You have not released your latest three scores on CD, will they get a compact disc release do you think?
In Norway, music streaming has completely taken over the market. CDs are given away for free by the bucket loads, people just want to get rid of them here. Not me though – I love CDs! Ideally, I would like to release every album on CD, so it’s really just a question of time and money. But I have noted that the soundtrack fan community seems to still hold the CD in high regard, like I do. That’s awesome! And I think there’s a fair chance we will see a CD version of “Mio” sometime in 2020.

 

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What would you say are your musical influences, or which composers and artists have inspired you?
That’s a big one! Everything I have ever listened to and loved, I guess! When I was young, I listened to a lot of Genesis, Phil Collins and Peter Gabriel (still do), and in my teenage years I loved Norwegian alternative 90s rock bands Motorpsycho and Seigmen. I played a lot of computer games and totally absorbed the music of all those classic Lucas-Arts games of the 90s, with composers like Michael Z. Land, Peter McConnell and Clint Bajakian. I also discovered John Williams, listening to those Star Wars Special Edition double CD albums and reading the analytic liner notes with great care. That was a big eye-opener into the world of film music, I guess I was 14 when those albums came out. Today, Williams’ more modern work with those beautiful and more experimental scores like “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” has a special place in my heart. I also identify greatly with Danny Elfman in terms of his journey from rock musician to reluctant film composer and have a soft spot for some of his more mature and minimalist work like “The Unknown Known”. In the pop/rock realm I am a big fan of Ben Folds, every one of his albums and all of his crazy ideas. Other piano-oriented songwriters like Tori Amos and Fiona Apple and genre-defining, ground-breaking artists like Björk and Radiohead were also a big part of my musical coming-of-age period. Last but not least: My three all-time favourite classical composers are probably Edvard Grieg, Antonin Dvorak and Maurice Ravel. I go absolutely nuts over Grieg – and that’s not just because I am a Norwegian! His catalogue is simply an endless treasure trove of beautiful music (not just the “hits!).
SECRET OF THE CATACOMB I think is a very atmospheric score, the music is very expressive and dark, how much time did you have to write the music for this radio production, and at what stage of production do you become involved and is it harder to write for a radio production as opposed to a feature film?

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Glad you enjoyed it! I think I used just over six weeks of composing and sequencing/recording and mixing simultaneously. Working with radio dramas is a lot of fun, and another quite different process from both film and theatre! Since you don’t have pictures, both the sound design and the music can get quite “descriptive”. That’s why you tend to go for those gut instinct things like dark Gregorian drones, to make the listener immediately aware that we are inside a dark cavern, and a scary monk-type creature is staring at us!

The series consists of eight episodes, each clocking at around 30 minutes. Obviously, scoring four hours of content in six weeks is… not recommended, to say the least. So this again is a creative process between me, director Guri Skeie and sound designer Hilde Rolfsnes. The first step is reading the script and partaking in an early script reading with the cast and crew. Then Guri and Hilde will give me a “wishlist” of different themes and cues that they need for placing around the episodes – they have such a detailed vision for the project and know exactly what they are after. So my job then is to compose the desired “package” of music cues, and record and produce it all in parallel with them recording the episodes with the actors. After that it’s largely sound designer Hilde’s job to glue all the music cues together with the episodes, at the same time as she’s creating all the sound design and mixing everything. There’s not much time for second-guessing or delivering something that doesn’t work, for any of us. It’s quite fast paced! But I don’t think it’s harder than working on a feature film. It’s different, since you’re not so much scoring scene for scene, but doing a more flexible package of cues that can work well for different scenes and situations. It’s a fun challenge!

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What musical education did you receive, and was writing music for film and theatre something you had always wanted to do?
In my teenage years I did spend a lot of time scoring the amateur short films and computer games me and my friends were having fun creating at the time. So, I think I knew deep down that I this was what I was going to be doing.

I later studied musicology and music technology. There was no film music related course here back in the early 2000s and studying abroad was not even an option for me – I’m way too homesick. The national composition studies I knew of felt geared towards a certain type of contemporary classical music that I have never been that interested in. In that period, I spent most of my time playing in bands anyway, primarily as a drummer. In an act of desperation (or sudden inspiration?) I packed all my things and moved to the big city (Oslo) while I was supposed to be finishing my master’s degree in another town 500 kilometres away (Trondheim). Half a year later I got my first gig at the Norwegian Broadcasting Company with a children’s TV series. This was 2006, and I’ve been at it since then! I was a bit of a lousy student, to be honest. What I liked about musicology was the more playful aspects of it; like the subjects in composition and improvisation. I made some lifelong friendships, and my mind was opened to music history and learning more about certain composers and periods of music, of which I am grateful. But I didn’t speak the academic language. My mind was solely on making music, not analysing it.

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What are your earliest memories of any kind of music?
My dad has always been a big music fan. LPs by the likes of Frank Zappa were always in heavy rotation in our home – and as you may know, Zappa represents pretty much every music genre there is! I also enjoyed stuff like Santana’s debut album and The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely-Hearts Club Band” (I have since grown to be a huge Beatles fanatic). I vaguely remember the sound of a-ha coming out of the kitchen radio. I was three when they had their big breakthrough with “Take On Me” in 1985. But I was probably drumming on kitchen utensils and singing improvised nonsense lyrics before that.
Do you orchestrate all of your music for film and theatre and do you think that orchestration is an extension of the composing process?
I always do the arrangements myself, and indeed see them as an inseparable part of the composition. I have sometimes hired an orchestrator when working with larger ensembles, if I want some kind of proof-reading or even creative input on how to make the arrangements sound their best. As my university drop-out tactic might suggest, music notation is not exactly my strongest side – I enjoy doing it, but it’s not what I do best. So, it’s sometimes good to have a second opinion when dealing with the dirty details like harp pedalling or how often the tuba player needs to breathe. As a general rule, I only write down the parts that are actually going to be played by real musicians. If I am only going to use sample libraries, I skip the written score entirely, and only work directly in the sequencer. But on most of my projects, it’s a mix of the two. When you’re dealing with smaller ensembles and soloists, it’s always great to just talk to the musicians directly and communicate how you want the parts to be played. But of course, the closer the notation is to already be conveying those intentions in easily readable form, the more of a head-start you have in the recording session.

Many Thanks to Eirik for taking the time to answer my questions.

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