Can you tell us something of your background, where were you born and were any of your family musical at all?
I was born in Madrid, Spain. My mom’s family are Spaniards and my dad’s side of the family comes from Iran. On my dad’s side my dad plays the violin, my grandfather also played the violin and his dad was a Tar player (a type of Persian guitar). On my mom’s side she is a pianist and my grandfather was a locally well-known painter. So, I grew up in a family that always encouraged me and my brother (who plays guitar) to develop our artistic talents and pursue a music career.
Was music for cinema or film always something that attracted you?
Movies have a special place in my life and have had a big impact on me since I was a kid. Since a young age I have been full of imagination and enjoyed living in a fantasy world, creating stories in my head all the time, which I keep doing! I grew up in the 80’s and I feel lucky my parents love movies and took me to watch in theatres “Back to the Future”, “Indiana Jones”, “Beetlejuice” and many other great movies. During my teenager days I used to watch every movie I could and listen to every soundtrack I was able to find.
The first soundtrack I fell in love with as a kid was “The Never-Ending Story”. I also grew up enjoying other soundtracks like “Back to the Future”, “Star Wars”, “Indiana Jones”, “Hook” and “Jurassic Park”. But it wasn’t until I was 15 that came to my mind, I wanted to make music for movies. And this happened after watching “Independence Day”. When the movie ended, I realized this is what I wanted to do. And from that moment I have done everything I could to make it happen. It has been a long journey.
Did you have a formal musical education, and did you focus upon any one instrument at all?
I started playing violin when I was 5. I was an advanced student and with 7 years old they used to put me to perform live in front of big crowds. I had great teachers and I had to work very hard and sacrifice things that you usually do when you are a kid/teenager (like playing soccer, which is my biggest hobby. In Spain I actually got to play at a semi-pro level). But I wasn’t attracted to the idea of becoming a professional violin player. I didn’t like the idea of making a career playing in orchestras or touring. So when I was 15 I started taking harmony lessons, and later on counterpoint and learning techniques in composition. In Spain I went to Madrid Royal Conservatory, where I got my degree in Violin Performance while I continued my studies in composition and orchestration and attended film music courses. After that I went to Berklee College of Music in Boston, where I majored in Film Music and Composition, and had the chance to learn about jazz harmony, arranging, modern instrumentation and play different styles on my violin like bluegrass, Celtic and country music.
One of your latest scores is for MAH, you have worked with the director of the movie several times, does he have specific ideas of what style or how much music that he wants in his films?
Armando Ravelo is a very special person in my career. I worked on his first film, “Ansite”, and since then I have worked with him on every of his projects (including “Mah”). He is a director and writer with a very accurate sensibility when it comes to telling stories. His approach is not too traditional, and that’s what he demands too for the music he wants on his movies. After he gives me a few ideas about what the story is telling, he gives me freedom to be creative, but at the same time tries to push me to do something fresh, especially in our most recent projects.
Usually he gives me the chance to read the screenplay before he even shoots, this way I can play around with thematic ideas and look for new sounds. But for “Mah” everything changed once I got the first cut. It was just such a unique film none of the material I previously wrote was working. So, I had to start from scratch with a totaly different approach. But that’s how it works in a case like this: without preconceived ideas, you try until you come up with something that fits the movie.
Regarding how much music he wants in his films, I would say he doesn’t like his stories to be overloaded with music. He is very smart and knows when the music is required in order to be effective.
How do you work out your musical ideas, do you use a keyboard, or do you utilise more contemporary tools?
To me is very important to hear it in my mind before I try anything on any instruments or my computer. I need to imagine hints of the music before I hear anything outside. For me that’s a way to come up with pure ideas the movie needs and to not be driven by something you are playing that would condition the direction of your approach. Then I go to my keyboard looking for what I heard in my mind and mostly use my computer to find or create any sounds/instruments I need.
How many times do you like to see a film before getting a real idea about specific themes or indeed where music should be placed or sections where you think music would be best unheard?
I would say I watch it one time through to get the general idea. Then I focus on different scenes to see what it more specifically needs. But this is more of a conversation you have with the director. It is a collaborative process. The director might have a pretty clear and accurate idea of where music is needed. Then you might bring your opinion on having or not music here or there, extending cues or starting earlier.
I think I am right when I say many of your film scores contain synthetic elements as in realised by non-conventional instrumentation but they are still wonderfully melodic, what is your opinion of the use of these drone-like sequences that seem to be more frequently utilised within film scores?
My music background is what is best known as classical music, but I like anything that to my ears would sound good and fit picture. I am a big fan of orchestral film music and I also enjoy very much other synthetic driven approaches. Technology in music has brought more possibilities to explore colours and tones. The range of different sounds and possibilities we have nowadays brings richness to a score, and ultimately to a movie. I believe you should always bring something fresh to the score. This said, I believe you have got to know how to do it right, and this is not easy. I have been lucky to work for years very close with Nima Fakhrara and learn a lot, not just about experimenting with new sounds but also about how to approach the language of a movie score in a non-traditional way.
I believe a good melody has a direct effect on the soul and it is an essential element in a score. I like starting from simple melodic ideas to develop them into something more complex and present along the movie. In my opinion melodies play a big role in a music score identity.
In a few of your scores I was reminded of the style and also the sound of Vangelis, and also Alan Silvestri when he scored films such as THE FLIGHT OF THE NAVIGATOR, what composers would you say have either inspired you or influenced you?
It’s funny because I actually didn’t know that score, but I have listened to most of Alan Silvestri’s music. “Back to the Future” is my favourite movie of all time and I enjoy every part of it’s score. Vangelis’ music has always been an inspiration to me. I would say I have always been more attracted to the sound of American Hollywood composers. Every composer is different but to me just a few stand out, like Danny Elfman and James Newton Howard. I am a big fan of big orchestral scores by John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith and James Horner. If we go back in time, Bernard Herrmann, Henry Mancini and Lalo Schifrin.
If we look at what has been going on more recently, I love what Trent Reznor is doing and I think Tom Holkenborg’s music for big action movies is very effective. But the biggest direct influence in my career is Nima Fakhrara.
Do you perform on your film scores and do you work on the orchestrations yourself?
I have recorded my solo violins on many of my scores. Surprisingly, a lot of directors ask for a violin on the score I write for their movies. Collaborating with Nima Fakhrara I have had the chance to explore new ways of playing to get fresh and interesting sounds and textures. The mother theme in the “Mah” score is an example of this: a violin that is intended to sound more ambiguous, more like a woodwind instrument.
I like doing everything myself. I studied orchestration for years and I still learn about it. A couple of years ago I worked on the big epic movie “Beyond White Space” that required a big Hollywood action orchestral score and I did all the orchestrations myself. Unless you are going to record large orchestra and you are running out of time there is no reason for me to hire someone else to do the orchestrations.
LA TRIBU DE LAS 7 ISLAS is one of my favourite scores that I have heard by you, there is a light almost fragile touch within the music but at the same time it is dramatic and quite epic, when you score a movie like this, do you work on it in any particular order, by this I mean do you start at the beginning and work through to the end titles, or do you prefer to work on small sections of the score and the stabs and lesser themes before you begin to tackle the main score?
“La Tribu de las 7 Islas” was inspired by 80’s fantasy/adventure movies in the way of “The Goonies” and “E.T.”. The director wanted to have a score with leitmotifs in the way of classic scores like “Star Wars”, so after creating the main themes I focused on creating themes and motifs for most of the characters. There are so many characters that only a few themes could be developed along the movie. For some of the characters their theme or motif was heard just once during the whole movie because I thought playing with so much thematic material would have made the score a little too chaotic. I still hope they make the sequel and I have the chance to develop those other themes!
Do you have any input into what soundtracks of yours are released and also what cues make it to the recording when it is released?
When I first started listening to soundtracks, I loved the tracks to follow the same path as they appeared on the movie, so I could just close my eyes and play the movie in my head again and again. So, when one of my soundtracks is released, I try to make sure the tracks follow the order they appear on the movie as much as possible. I usually get freedom to choose the tracks that are on the soundtrack. I also try to be very conscious of what is there because I know it’s going to be out there for a long time.
For “MAH” you utilised ethnic sounds and fused them with more melodic sounding music, ie solo piano, how much research did you do into ethnic instrumentation before scoring the movie?
“Mah” is part of a series of movies set mostly in the ancient but also more contemporary Canary Islands. To Armando and I it was very important to bring ethnic elements from the very first project. But these elements are interpreted and explored in different ways for each film.
The first thing I did years ago was to do research about ancient and traditional Canary Islands music. And there is almost nothing (before the Spaniards got there). The only thing we know was the use of wood sticks and rocks as percussion instruments. There were no pitched instruments or music scales, or even songs that we know (in the case of ancient music). For our first film, “Ansite”, the approach was very traditional. For “Mah” we wanted to get far from the traditional approach and be a little more modern. On “La Tribu de las 7 Islas” the approach was based on the reinterpretation of traditional elements with synthesizers that happened in the 80’s film music. For “La Cueva de las Mujeres” we went back to traditional elements, but they were actually more related to the music information we have after the Spaniards arrived on the islands. And finally, for “Los Ojos de la Tierra” the ethnic elements were more instrumental imitations of nature sounds typical from the islands, like a violin imitating eagle sounds, a reversed human chant imitating a wild hog sound or cello harmonics imitating an ambiguous woodwind instrument.
Can you recall what was the first piece of music you heard?
I really can’t. It was probably my dad chanting a Persian song or my mom playing some piano tune. But for sure as a kid my favourite piece was Tchaikovsky’s violin concerto. It was so emotional to me it used to make me cry.
What for you is the purpose of music in film?
Trying to be brief, I would say it is to take the movie up to a more emotional level. Obviously other artistic aspects like acting can do that too, but the effect music produces is a very special power.
I always love being moved by music when watching a movie, and it can even be an upbeat action scene! That, to me is what I want to give back to the world.
What is next for you?
I am currently finishing a Chinese production movie which required a unique approach to the score, with a lot of exploring new ideas and performing string solos. With Nima Fakhrara I’m working on a couple of Hollywood movies on the next months. In Spain I am scoring a feature film that is currently in pre-production. At the same time, I am working on a couple of video games with the company I created with my fellow composer Marcos Moscat, Game Music Town.