Michael Csányi-Wills.

Michael Csányi-Wills

Award-winning composer Michael Csányi-Wills has written works ranging from chamber music to choral and orchestral works to feature length film scores, and has been composer in residence with the Welsh Sinfonia since September 2013. Recent works have been widely performed throughout the UK and commissions have taken him around Europe, Australia, and the USA. His previous collaboration with the Welsh Sinfonia was a setting of Lewis Carroll’s “Phantasmagoria” for Narrator and orchestra, which received its premiere in January 2016. Michael’s most recent commission though is a Violin concerto entitled “Revisions of the Earth” for violinist Tatiana Berman and was performed by her, with the Constella Arts Festival Orchestra in Cincinnati and conducted by Jose Luis Gomez in April 2016. Michael’s Orchestral Songs recorded for Toccata Classics and performed by Ilona Domnich, Nicky Spence, Jacques Imbrailo and The Londamis Ensemble conducted by Mark Eager were released in December 2015 to critical acclaim, and was Recording of the Month at Music Web International.
Michael has also written scores for a range of films including documentaries such as “The King of Nerac”, “Maestro”, a feature documentary feature about conductor Paavo Järvi, and feature dramas such “The Trouble with Dot and Harry”, “Be My Baby” and documentary “Chasing Flavour” written and directed by Sundance Film Festival prize-winner Gary Walkow. Michael also won the Award for Best Score at the Movie Maverick Awards for his score to the short film “A Love story in Milk”. Michael was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy of Music in January 2012 and was appointed Head of Composition at the World Heartbeat Music Academy, London in January 2013. One of his scoring projects for film is Sideshow which was released via digital platforms by Movie Score Media.

Can I begin by asking about your recent score for Sideshow which I enjoyed very much, how did you become involved on the movie?

I was contacted by an old friend Stephen Brand, who worked as the Director of Photography and he introduced me to Adam Oldroyd, the writer and director of the film. Adam asked me to send over some music that might be suitable for a dark comedy drama. He mentioned the type of music he was thinking of at the time, and I admitted that I didn’t really have anything in my repertoire that covered Central European folk music, but that I loved the score by Paul Cantelon for “Everything is Illuminated”. It’s one of my favourite scores and I’ve listened to it so much since its release. He then asked me to come up with a potential theme, which I did. The track I wrote remains the main theme of the film and is track three on the soundtrack. 

Les Dennis and Anthony Head in Sideshow.


 
The score for Sideshow is a quirky one which underlines the storyline that also has various twists and turns, how many times did you see the film before beginning to formulate ideas about the music?

I saw a rough cut of the film once through and then immediately started cutting Hungarian folk music up against it. It seemed to work well, so I dived straight in and tried to conjure the same mood. I then worked on specific scenes and ran the film in the sequencer as I tried different ideas. There are a series of cards in the film acting as chapters, created with Dictionary definitions of relevant words. These were very helpful; in that they gave me a very clear sense of a new cue each time. In some ways they acted as palate cleansers for me before the next twist in the story. 

You use the Cimbalom on the score and combine this with clarinet, which works so well, was this an idea you had from the start of the scoring process or was it something that developed as you began writing?

I grew up visiting family in Budapest and I remember hearing violin and cimbalom duos in restaurants all over the city. It made a huge impression on me as a child and has inevitably made an impact on me as a composer. I knew that the cimbalom was going to make a substantial contribution to the film. It has such an evocative sound and is very good at conveying mystery and tension, as well as having other worldly qualities about it. The violin was my first thought to join the cimbalom, but when I started using it, I felt I needed an instrument that was able to do both comedy and threat in equal measure.

The clarinet is often found in Klezmer, which is why I thought of using the bass clarinet. I asked the amazing Tom Verity (Principal Clarinet of WNO) whether we could achieve the same “kretch” effect (often heard in Klezmer) on the bass clarinet. Not only is it possible, but I thought it sounded fantastic, so I went with the Bass Clarinet as the main theme for everything associated with the inept burglars in the film. 

 
Did the director have any specific ideas regarding what style of music the film needed and was there a temp track on the movie?

It was entirely Adam’s idea to go with Central European folk music. I must confess I can’t remember the first temp score he used, only that it was of the same ilk. I was on board with the idea from the start, and so excited by it. Hungarian folk music was a big part of my childhood and writing a score in that style was thrilling for me. 

 
Continuing with the score for Sideshow, the soundtrack is released digitally by Movie Score Media. Were you involved in the compilation of the recording and is all the music from the movie on that recording?


Mikael Carlson at Movie Score media compiled all the cues into a cohesive soundtrack for me. He always does a fantastic job of making sense of all the cues and turning them into an album that has a beginning, a middle and an end. It’s not quite all the music that’s in the film but very nearly!

 
I think the first score I heard of yours was The Little Vampire, you collaborated with Nigel Clarke on this and several other film scores, including The Thief Lord, Rocket Post, Will and The Little Polar Bear. When you work with another composer do you write together, or do you tackle cues separately?

When I worked with Nigel, we’d sit and write everything together and then once all the demos had been approved, we separated to do different tasks.  

Are there any composers of film music or any other genre of music that you have been influenced by?

My first experience of music of any kind, came from my maternal grandmother. I remember one recording of Mozart 4 hand piano sonatas performed by Geza Anda and Zoltan Kocsis, which I think I had on repeat for what seemed like years. Around the same time, she and my mother hid me under a coat to go to Don Pasquale at Covent Garden. I think I was around 3 years old. Opera became a staple event for me, (this was before ticket prices skyrocketed) and so I was immersed in a world of music, voice and drama before I could string a sentence together. Film music for me, in its best examples anyway, is simply a modern equivalent of the opera I fell in love with as a child. As an adult though, my influences are obviously much more varied. From the concert hall, the composers I connect with the most I guess are the likes of Bach, Brahms, Sibelius, Prokofiev, and more recently Alan Petterson, whose symphonies have had a big impact on me in the last few years. 
I first became aware of music in film when I was 7. It was the BBC adaptation of the Scarlet Pimpernel in 1982 starring Anthony Andrews, Jane Seymour and Sir Ian Mckellen, scored by Nick Bicat. If someone asked me now to sing the main theme I could. The music is steeped in classical tradition, filled with fugues and counterpoint and it worked beautifully with the drama on screen. It was this score that inspired my love of film music. Since then, the work of Paul Cantelon, Thomas Newman, and Don Davis have definitely influenced my thinking. I’m a huge admirer though of so many, John Williams obviously, John Powell, Dario Marinelli, Ennio Morricone, Nino Rota, Randy Newman, the list is endless.

Do you come from a family background that has musical connections?

Neither of my parents are musicians and their parents weren’t either, but they always had and still have a love of classical music. My father listens to Wagner, The Beatles and Red Nichols in equal measure and my mother listens to Verdi and my score for “The King of Nerac”, which she seems to have on repeat. 

Can I ask what musical education you had, and what were your earliest memories of any kind of music?

I started learning the piano when I was 3. I played by ear a lot from the beginning so my sight reading as a child was always terrible. I did a few little concerts as a child and managed to get in to Wells Cathedral School, where learning piano with Hilary Coates was a real turning point in my education as a musician. From there I went to the Royal Academy of Music to continue my studies in piano, but composition slowly took over and by the time I left the Academy in 1998, having met up with Nigel Clarke, we started collaborating and found ourselves scoring a Christopher Lee epic about the founder of Pakistan, Mohammed Ali Jinnah. An extraordinary piece of luck. I learnt so much from Nigel and I will always be incredibly grateful for the working relationship we enjoyed at that time. 

 
You also write for the concert hall, when writing for live performance do you find it less constricting than writing for film, I suppose what I mean is are you able to express yourself more freely within a piece that will be performed live in the concert hall rather than being tied to timings and dealing with sound effects etc in film?

I treat the two genres as totally different disciplines. I find writing concert music incredibly demanding. Just a few bars a day requires a lot of thought. Every note must belong and exist for good reason. I use some of the same techniques for film music, but so much is prescribed by the film itself, whether it be the style, tempo, key, or indeed exact length of cue, that it is very often beyond creative control. Film music has a different set of demands. It’s fundamentally a collaboration between the composer and the director, and a search for what works best for the film at any given point. So music that’s been specially written for the film should always serve the narrative, never itself. Concert music only ever serves itself, and in its best form, communicates without the need for words or drama. I love doing both and use each discipline as a useful break from the other!

Your Symphony number one, is such a powerful piece, and reminded me somewhat of Benjamin Britten, where do you get the inspiration to create such commanding and beautiful music?

Ahh that’s very kind of you John. Mark Eager, who is director of music with the Cardiff University Symphony Orchestra, asked me to write a symphony, as an educational project for the students at the university. I was delighted of course but was all too aware of the magnitude of such an endeavour. I started writing it in 2018, excited about the prospect of such a large work being played by so many musicians. I was conscious of writing something that would give the students a challenge, but that would also be accessible. One of my pet subjects with my composition students, is not making the music so difficult to play, that it becomes impossible to communicate past the technical problems. Working with Mark and Cardiff University students was a pleasure and a memory I will always cherish. 

Your instrument is the piano, do you use piano to work out your musical ideas or do you utilise more technical means as in computers and synths?

It rather depends on whether I’m writing concert or film music. I tend to use a sequencer for film music, so I might play around on the piano when I’m trying to find a sound world. I’ll use it to play/record in phrases and explore different sounds and synths with the keyboard. With concert music, it’s a different approach. I’ll write in notes on my notation software and start fiddling with where those notes belong and why. 

You are also an accomplished conductor, how do you divide your time between concert performances and film scores, it must at times become hectic?

I do much less conducting then playing the piano to be honest John. I divide my time between writing, teaching, performing/recording and being a dad. I take things project by project, and I feel incredibly blessed to have a varied amount of things to turn my attention to.
Teaching has become an important part of what I do. I have become far more passionate about music education over the last decade or so. More and more money has been cut from music in schools, so the opportunities that one might have enjoyed in the 70s and 80s are simply not there anymore. Ultimately I’d love music in schools to be a core subject, just like English and Maths. The evidence that music is a transformative skill in young people is overwhelming and that schools who prioritise music, achieve higher results across all subjects. 

At what age did you decide that you wanted to be a composer/conductor and follow this as a career?

I remember waving a pencil around to Mozart’s Paris Symphony when I was about 7. I’d asked my parents for a study score of it, and memorised it as best I could at the time. I was reminded of that just before the pandemic hit, when I conducted a rehearsal of it with the BBC Ariel Orchestra in 2019. Conducting has always fascinated me, and like anything, whether writing or playing, one never stops learning, I will forever be a student.  Around the same time I was always improvising at the piano, usually over dramatic primary chords that drove my parents mad!

Do you follow a set routine when scoring a movie, ie; do you start at the opening titles and work through to the end titles, or do you like to establish a central theme or themes and then use these as the foundation for the remainder of the score?

 It can depend on the project, and on the director. I often like to attach themes to specific characters in the film and it’s always useful to see how it can work around the character at different stages of the narrative. A lot of time can be saved by establishing which themes can be used in various scenes. I was once told a long time ago to surround myself by lists. Lists of cues, themes, music written, music not yet written, what’s to be recorded, what’s to be programmed, so I have an immediate visual aid to help me find my place in the project.  

What is next for you?

Over lockdown I wrote my second symphony. A much darker work, inspired by the Estonian Symphonist Mihkel Kerem. It’s this piece that has given me the motivation to write a series of chamber works, a violin sonata (dedicated to Mihkel Kerem), and clarinet Sonata (for Tom Verity) along with another piece which is yet to be conceived. An EP of three Scottish folk songs I co-wrote with the American / Scottish singer Daisy Chute was released the same week as the sideshow soundtrack. I’m hoping to write an album’s worth of songs with her at some point soon. They were great fun to collaborate on. 
In terms of film, I’m currently working on a documentary based in California and I’ll be able to say more about it soon, I hope! 

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