Christopher Gordon is based in Sydney, Australia and composes for a wide spectrum of genres from the concert hall to ballet/dance to film scores and events. His film scores, which include June Again, Ladies in Black, Adore, Mao’s Last Dancer, Daybreakers and Master and Commander, have received wide international acclaim with many awards and nominations including an EMMY nomination. He has composed several ballet and dance works, including The Happy Prince, The Hedonists, and Giselle and the Wraith Queen, for companies like The Australian Ballet, and Universal Ballet, and for choreographer Graeme Murphy.
Christopher has received commissions from many of Australia’s premiere ensembles, including the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Australian Chamber Orchestra, Gondwana Voices, Synergy Percussion, Omega Ensemble, and the Sydney International Brass Festival and various solo artists. He has also composed for many of Australia’s major celebrations, including the opening ceremonies of the Commonwealth Games 2006 and the Rugby World Cup 2003, the official celebration of the Centenary of Federation of Australia 2001, and the Millennium Eve global telecast. In 2006 he was commissioned by the Prime Minister of Australia to arrange the official orchestral version of the Australian National Anthem.
In the studio Christopher has conducted over sixty film and game scores, including Mortal Kombat, World of Warcraft: Shadowlands, Star Wars: The Director and the Jedi, Lego Batman, and Truth, as well as a concert tour of Ministry of Sound. A new album of his chamber music will be released on 24th March 2022.
The first time I heard your music was for the mini-series On the Beach, which is such a great score. How did you become involved in the project, and were there any specific instructions or requests from the producers regarding the music?
It is hard to remember after all this time, but it was a project that I was very eager to do. I remember I had only twenty-nine days to compose an hour-and-a-half of music, so that month was very intense for me. I needed to get the choral pieces finished early in the process after which I composed them in story order. At first, the schedule required me to write three minutes a day but by the time the fourth week came around I was behind and had to create four minutes a day. Nevertheless, it was a very rewarding experience; the contrast of a love affair with the end of humanity was something I found very powerful.
One of your recent scoring assignments is for Buckley’s Chance, again this is a work that is filled with many lyrical themes and emotions, what size orchestra did you have for the score, and where did you record it?
I recorded the score at Track down Studios in Sydney where I have done almost all my recordings since the Rugby World Cup music and Salem’s Lot in 2003. Buckley’s Chance had a couple of sessions with about eighty players and another two with about 50-60 musicians. This was a rare case (these days) of all the orchestras being recorded at once rather than in sections. It was certainly a lot of fun and I particularly enjoyed creating the broad, sun-drenched desert music.
Can I ask what musical education you had, and did you focus upon one instrument during your musical training or upon any particular area of music?
I left school early and am essentially self-taught as a musician. Although I did have some piano lessons as a teenager, I was much more interested in composing than practicing so my instrument was the pencil. Later I upgraded to the mouse, of course.
Orchestration is a big part of the composing process; do you like to work on your own orchestrations or is this something that is not always possible due to scheduling etc?
I do enjoy playing with orchestral colour, texture, and balance. I have never used an orchestrator. With film scores, I compose directly into the full score so there is no real division between the tasks of composition and orchestration. I then have an assistant create audio demos for the director to listen to, although increasingly the demos that come straight from Dorico are acceptable for that.
When you are invited to work on a project how many times do you like to watch the film before starting to formulate your ideas regarding the style of the music and where it should be placed to best serve a project?
Usually, the general style is apparent immediately on one viewing and an initial discussion with the director. Then I break the film down to understand its structure and narrative themes when I stop-start through the film once over a day or so. After that comes the most time-intensive and difficult part of the whole process, which is finding the precise set of fundamental musical ideas that are a unique and perfect fit for the film. This usually takes a few days and is more in my head and imagination than through watching the film. Once that is set, I can begin composing the score which involves being very closely in touch with the film constantly for the duration of the writing period.
Going back to On the Beach, this was a mini-series shown in, I think, three parts in the UK, when you work on a movie such as this, do you score it in order of its broadcast, or do you see it as one movie and score it accordingly, and is there a great deal of difference between working on a TV project as opposed to a feature film?
Creatively I see no difference. It is the story that is being scored. Budget and schedules used to be tighter on TV projects but these days the line between film and TV is now so blurred they are in many cases the same thing.
What would you say are your earliest memories of any kind of music, and what composers or artists have influenced you or inspired you?
My earliest musical loves were Palestrina, Victoria, Tallis, Britten, and the Beatles. But my youth was an exploration of the broad spectrum of “classical” composers. The whole range really ranges from Perotin to Sculthorpe, and later, Adams. But Wagner, Monteverdi, and Vaughan Williams in particular have had a deep influence. Also, the “prog rock” of the 1970s, which I discovered in my late teens, was an important foundation and its influences can be found throughout my music, even in my recent album, Chamber Music.
I loved your score for June Again. It’s richly thematic and a very intimate and personal sounding work, the music just seems to mesmerize any listener, do you feel that themes and specific cues for individual characters are important in film scores?
It depends really on the requirements of the specific film. June Again employs just three ideas that represent aspects of June’s mental health (her haziness and her determination) and her interactions with her family. Whereas the themes of Moby Dick are tightly motivic and relate directly to aspects of Ahab’s psychology. Daybreakers has specific themes that represent the various groups of people and their emotional states. While the themes of On the Beach are not personal but representative of the human experience. And so on – finding the right approach is very important.
What would you say is the purpose of music in film?
I think Jerry Goldsmith said it is all about transitions; carrying an emotion from one scene to the next; moving the film forward. I often say to people that if an aspect is on the screen, then the music shouldn’t do it. It is important to find what needs to be enhanced or added to the blank film.
As well as scoring movies and TV projects you also write for the concert hall and compose music for Ballet/Dance, when writing music for concert hall performances is it less constricting because in movies you have timings and the distraction of fx etc, so with the concert hall are you able to express yourself more freely?
As you say, concert music is less constrictive creatively, but it also carries a greater burden of responsibility. Purely from the angle of the art and craft of music composition, the film is a bit like riding a bicycle with training wheels on. The durations, narrative shape, and style are fixed by others. With concert music and other music genres, the audience must be carried by the musical ideas and structure alone. A film is the vision of the filmmakers while pure music is that of the composer. The fun part about writing for film is it takes you to places you might never have considered.
Are you from a musical family background?
There seems to be no history of music in my family. Classical radio was playing all the time at home when I grew up and that had a profound effect on my education, musical, cultural, and otherwise.
Do you conduct all your film music or is this not always possible and you have a conductor whilst you supervise the sessions?
My first big break was Moby Dick in 1997 and that was also the first time I decided to conduct myself rather than rely on someone else. As I got better at it over the years, I found how to convey interpretation and musical shape through technique and eye contact which brings a more refined performance and saves a lot of precious studio time.
Do you perform on your film scores as in playing an instrument?
Generally, no, apart from conducting, of course. Once in a blue moon, a piano needs to be added or a small percussion instrument hit and it is easier for me to just go and do it. I think there are a couple of short piano solos on When Good Ghouls Go Bad. But it is far better to engage an expert.
Would you say that any one genre of film is more difficult to score than others?
They all have their challenges and their joys. Far and away I think horror is the easiest. The most difficult is not so much a genre as those moments in a film that are essentially silent and intimate; that are begging to be supported by music but where even a single soft note seems to be too intrusive!
In Daybreakers you utilized symphonic, electronic support and choral elements. What is your opinion of the increased use of electronics in film scoring and the current trend of not having real themes but relying on soundscapes etc to score movies?
Electronics are an important part of a composer’s arsenal providing an unending variety of colours. The aesthetic of film has changed a lot over the last two or three decades and different styles of film require different styles of scores. We are not in the era of large sweeping orchestral scores, but we are in an era of immaculately crafted production scores. No doubt that will change again as the years go by and scoring progress along with the changing media.
What is next for you?
I have just released an album called Chamber Music, which contains over two hours of my music for various ensembles. The compositions range from 1984 to 2021 and feature an array of stunning musicians. It is a project I am very pleased with. Possibly those of your readers who are familiar with particular film scores of mine might be interested to hear what else I was writing at the same time. Currently, I am revising some of my very early scores (pre-Moby Dick) for possible recording – let’s see how they scrub up! And I am sketching some new concert projects.
Many thanks to the composer for his time and answering our questions.