Herdís Stefánsdóttir is a composer of music for multimedia, a songwriter, and an electronic musician. Her compositional endeavours — installations in museums, dance, theatre, and a successful electronic music duet she is a part of – are establishing her as an expansive artist. Herdís Stefánsdóttir graduated with an M.A. degree in film scoring from New York University in 2017. Since graduation she has scored two feature films, an HBO series and a few short films. Her scoring work includes Ry Russo – Young’s MGM/Warner Bros. feature film, The Sun Is Also A Star and the HBO series We’re Here. Herdís was nominated for The Icelandic Music Awards for her score in The Sun Is Also A Star.
How did you become involved on The Essex Serpent?
Both Dustin (co composer Dustin O’Halloran) and I got the scripts and were really into them, we had never co-composed anything before and this felt like a perfect project for both of our voices combined!
You Interned with composer Johann Johannsson when he was scoring the movie The Arrival, in 2016, what was he like to work alongside and learn from?
It was really inspiring and interesting. I think Johann’s score for Arrival is one of my favourite scores of recent times. It was super cool to see his sessions and how he composed and worked with sounds, I definitely learned a lot from it. It was also the first time I got to see the process of scoring a film.
Your style is very inventive and original, you blend voices, with synths and live instrumentation, what composers aside from Johannsson would you say have influenced you as in film score composers and also from other genres of music?
I am very influenced by a lot of music that is not film music, everything from hip hop to classical. Some of my favourite composers are Ligeti, Penderecki, Messiaen and Debussy. I love Ennio Morricone and watching some of the films that he scored was the first time I got interested in music for film! When I’m scoring film’s I rarely listen to film music for inspiration!
Y The Last Man, is an interesting watch, how did you become involved on the scoring of this and was it something that was different for you and was there a temp music track on the film?
There was no temp music, and I wrote a chunk of music not to picture while they were still filming! It was the first time I worked on a story with an apocalyptic world and definitely found myself in that world!
Staying with Y The Last Man, I felt that the opening theme particularly had to it a kind of western as in cowboy sound, was this something that you set out to do?
The wild west was an idea from the director and was a way to interpret the lawless world that forms within Y and takes us through the journey and road trip in the story.
Was it a score that you found to be difficult to get into, because there are several complex characters in the story, so did you have a starting point for the scoring of the project as in a scene, a character, or maybe a line of dialogue or a location? Or did you already know the story and begin writing before seeing any footage?
I started out finding a sound for the world of Y, and started focusing on the day it all happened and developed the sound of the world from there! Later I looked into some of the major characters like Agent 355, Yorick and Jennifer Brown. Finding a sound and theme for them helped me then continue developing sounds and themes for the show!
Did the producers of the show have a lot of involvement in how the score should sound or where the music should be placed?
I was very free in creating the music for Y which was great and inspiring. I guess I got lucky finding a sound and themes early on that they liked!
Was writing music for film a career that you had decided upon from an early age, or was it initially music that you were interested in and the film scoring came later?
I started with studying general composition but in my studies, I started collaborating with dancers and theatre students in my school. That’s when I became more interested in collaborations like that. Combining music with visual material etc. After my B.A. in Iceland, I applied for a film scoring program at NYU and got more interested in writing music for film.
Film music has evolved and altered over the past decade or so and the soundscape has it seems come into its own, your scores are a combination of soundscape and thematic, do you think that the opening theme in movies will one day return in the form it was?
Film music is always developing, and things go in and out of fashion, you can say that both in film making and music. I think anything can work and happen when it comes to films!
What would you say is the role of music in film?
It’s helping tell the story and sometimes adds what we don’t see on the screen, it’s like the 4th dimension of the film.
Do you perform on your film scores?
Yes, I recorded myself playing the piano and electronics, I also tend to use my voice quite a bit!
Do you have set routines when scoring a movie, or does every film differ in respect of the scoring pattern?
It has always been a different approach for me, so far, all my projects have been very different. I never know what I’m going to do before I start a project!
Are there any genres of film that you would like to write for, a western maybe?
I’d love to score a western one day but mostly I want to work on good stories that inspire me!
When spotting a movie how many times do you like to see it before starting to formulate ideas regarding sound and structure of the score?
I normally read the script and watch only once before I start! I like to try not writing to picture in the beginning. But as it progresses; I go deeper into certain scenes!
You have worked on features, TV projects and shorts, what would say is the most challenging type of project to work on?
It really depends on the project. TV scores can be challenging because there is a lot of music and often a tight delivery schedule. Films can be challenging too as there is often more details and less repetition of the music!
What is next for you?
I’m starting a new feature which is a thriller/horror and then I’m working on my solo record under the name Kónguló. First single comes out on June 10th!
Your most recent score is for the amazing short-animated movie Paper Birds, how did you become involved as composer on the movie?
Actually, this is not a short-animated movie but a VR Interactive film.
Ok, thankyou my mistake. So how did you become involved on the project?
We were in Los Angeles with the magic team from “Gloomy Eyes” for the Annie Awards, and German the 3DAR’s CEO tells me : “I have something to show you, let’s meet Toto”. And he showed me on a VR headset the Paper Birds’s prototype. I saw this little boy walking slowly on a bridge and then sat on a pontoon above the river and began playing a bandoneon piece which became fully magic with some sparkling effects in the night. I was totally blown away by it and almost cried because it was so emotive. He then explained this was the new one, the new baby. A musical tale and he asked me to put my heart and soul and he never stopped repeating that because this is the Paper Birds’s essence.
Did the directors Federico Carlini and German Heller have set ideas about how the music should work in the movie or what style of music should be placed on the film?
No not really, but he was insistent that we will have some bandoneon here. (laughs). They did ask me to have a female singer for Azul and some percussion such as a hang drum for the other world. The most important thing is that they are both musicians, Federico is an amazing guitarist, so they have precise ideas of what they like and what they don’t like. They pushed me many times in the process, and I love that! But they let me be free to propose things, this is the key. If someone trusts you, you can realise so much more than you think and overlap your own boundaries.
It is indeed a wonderfully thematic score, what size of orchestra did you utilise for the soundtrack, and did you also incorporate electronic support or samples?
Because of the Covid’s situation it was a little more complicated than expected. We had to be creative in many ways, that’s why there are many soloists as the great Juanjo Mosalini for the bandoneon, Pierre-François Dufour with his magic cello, Nicole Salmi for the song and many others in violin, percussion etc…The Orchestral parts were recorded with the Budapest Orchestra with 40 musicians. But for me this is mostly an atmospherically score as I create my own pad and sounds with many FX plugins, with lyrical climax indeed because I am into the romantic composer’s tradition.
There are voices utilised within the score, what choir is this and who are the solo performers?
All the choirs you hear in the score are samples which are combined and enhanced by electronic sound. Apart Nicole Salmi who brings her own universe for Azul’s track. I was looking for a classical singer but German suggested Nicole which turned out to be perfect! She is a well-known Brazilian singer and she brings a lot of charm to this scene.
Did you conduct and orchestrate the score or perform on it at all?
Yes, I orchestrated the score, but I didn’t conduct it, this was a full remote session. I do play the piano which is my instrument.
The music is delicate and emotive, how many viewings did you have of the movie before you began to formulate any ideas about how the score would work for the movie and what it would sound like?
Not so many times, I love to keep some freshness when I write a score, I always try the melody with and without the movie. In VR this is a game change. This is a new way of storytelling, and the music is a part of it, even more than in classical animation which is mainly illustrative. I always record some mock-ups which is so much better for Directors to feel the emotive intensions or the power of a part than a simple piano melody track.
The movie runs for thirty minutes, does the music run almost continuously in the film?
This is a musical tale, so there is a lot of music but luckily for the viewers some parts are only underscores so the SFX from Source-Sound and the amazing voices from Archie Yates, Joss Stone and Edward Norton can bring their magic too. As composers we have to keep in mind that we work for the film’s interest, we are a part of the team, so we have to help the viewer to focus on the story in the best way, but not use this opportunity to fill the gap with more music than we should…I hope so anyway. Silence is important too as well as the music’s placement.
There is a sound and style to your music for both Gloomy Eyes and Paper Birds that for me at times evokes the work of Italian composers such as Nicola Piovani and Luis Bacalov, what composers would you say have had an influence upon you and inspired you to write in the way you do for film?
Thanks for the comparison but I didn’t realize it. In a way I grew up with Morricone’s scores, so it makes sense I suppose. I also appreciate Franco Piersanti’s scores. There are so many composers I love but I didn’t think about influences…I really love the classical Russian composers and for movies’ composers if I must mention names, maybe Barry, Desplat, Coulais, Williams, Legrand, Silvestri, Bernstein, Magne, Mancini, Kilar, Delerue, Rota…and many others.
Gloomy Eyes is a favourite of mine, it’s a beautiful score for a movie that is I suppose essentially a dark love story, a kind of Romeo and Juliet storyline. Which has some beautifully affecting music including fragile nuances that are delicate and haunting. This is another animated short, is it difficult to establish a core sound for a particular character or a foundation to a score in such a short space of time?
You suppose right… This is exactly the theme, a love story between a little zombie boy and human girl. For me in this format we must be very efficient, we must define a set and keep it, but also play with it…In Gloomy Eyes there is this little riff like a little girl playing with her dog, whistling in a simple melody. Then I played with this idea and developed it on the whole movie.
What was the musical line up on Gloomy Eyes, as in live performances and synth elements and where did you record the score?
Gloomy Eyes is so special to me. It was the first time in animation where I could be more an artist than a technician. Nothing pejorative, but directors, Jorge Tereso and Fernando Maldonado did not want a typical decorative score. I wrote maybe half of the score in an orchestral way. They heard it and told me “We don’t like it…This is not Gloomy. Forget everything you know about animation music and explore”. Instead of making me give up, I felt free. I kept the themes and moods I had already created but I then used analogic sounds with a cello and a piano. The next day they asked for a zoom session, I was a little bit worried, and they said “Goosebumps”. Which I had to put into Google translate to understand the meaning. So after this we pushed further on in this way and it became very interesting because I can play between the illustrative parts and music which extend the narrator’s vision and feelings. I had the opportunity to get Colin Farrell’s voice over very early on in the process, so I wrote in the proper way to get something very connected. So, everything was done in my own studio, which for me was very comfortable, and I hope to meet again Gloomy in the future…
Is there a difference between scoring animation and live action for you, and do you score projects in the order they happen in the film as in from opening theme through to end titles, or do you establish a central theme initially and build the rest of the music around this?
Yes..maybe unconsciously. I think I am sober in live action scores. In animation we can play more with this candid exaggeration in the feelings. Most of time I’m searching the melody/harmony in the visuals: Colours, Depth, and Rhythm are all very important to me, so it can be everywhere in the movie. When I find it, I start scoring from the beginning and draw the music from this giving some clues of what will be the music in the climax. I love movie scores where the music “Knows” everything but stays subtle and graceful both in the form and content.
What are your earliest memories of any kind of music, was writing music for film something that you always had in your sights to do as a career and what musical education did you have?
I started the piano at 9 and always improvised, composing some little melodies. I listened to many movie scores at that time, Morricone, Williams, Goldsmith, and many others but it wasn’t realistic to think I can become a music composer. So, I spent time playing Jazz in bands like a pastime or hobby. I studied orchestration and harmony at the University, improved my composing style, wrote songs in a Pop/Rock band…but I couldn’t find my way, so I gave up. I stopped playing piano, making music and I started working as a sound editor. Maybe it was fate I got the chance to work for some French composers which was a great experience, I learned a lot of their works and it helps me to reconnect to the little boy’s dreams. So why not? And I decided to stop that job and put all my energy into composing. It’s always a good idea to listen to the little voice we have inside 😉
What is next for you?
Next…some great VR films with delicate subjects, a live performing art’ score and my first personal album which will be very cinematic.
John Cameron has worked on well over fifty movies, including the Oscar Nominated score for: A Touch of Class, and the Ken Loach movie Kes. His work for the small screen includes the Emmy Award nominated music for The Path to 9/11 and he is also active in the theatre working on the highly successful musicals Les Miserables, Zorro, (Co-Composer), Nils’ WonderfulAdventure, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, as well as working on shows such as Honk, Spend, Spend, Spend, and Mutiny. His arrangements for Joseph. Are still in use today and are heard in the recent presentation of the show at the London Palladium and its subsequent tour. He has also been active in song writing for popular artists such as Cilla Black and Agnetha Faltskog, penning hits such as If I Thought you’d Ever Change Your Mind, and the hits Sweet Inspiration and Tap Turns on the Water,Brother for Johnny Johnson and the Bandwagon and CCS respectively. He was also responsible for the song Na na na na which was a UK hit for pop artist Cozy Powell.
In addition to writing songs he also arranged and orchestrated hits such as Sunshine Superman, Jennifer Juniper, Epistle to Dippy for Donovan, Whole Lotta Love, Walking for CCS, Brother Louie, Emma, Disco Queen, A Child’s Prayer, You Sexy Thing, So You Win Again, Every 1’s A Winner, Man To Man, Put You Together Again for Hot Chocolate, Boogie Nights, Too Hot To Handle, The Groove Line, Mind Blowing Decisions, Always and Forever, Gangsters of the Groove for the British funk group Heatwave, and Silver Dream Machine, and Tahiti for David Essex.
Your score for the TV mini-series Jack the Ripper, is probably one of the most requested scores to be released by film music fans. I was surprised when the series was on TV for the first time that the soundtrack was not released after all it was a popular movie and of course starred so many well-known actors including Michael Caine. Were there any plans at the time to release one, or has this never been discussed?
At the time, it wasn’t commonplace to release a soundtrack recording for made for TV Films and Mini-Series. I suppose it’s testament to the piece’s longevity that there is still interest in the score.
What size orchestra did you have for the score?
Around 50–54-piece orchestra for the main cues, less for some of the smaller scale cues, and the stings and FX were all manufactured in my own studio using a Prophet 2002 Sampler, a Roland 1080, and various “found” sounds such as stacked up screams, crowbar hitting metal door, detuned breathing etc.
How did you become involved on Jack the Ripper?
I had worked with the director David Wickes on Silver Dream Racer (with David Essex) where I arranged David’s songs for the film and wrote incidental music, and then as composer on the TV series Marlowe Private Eye with Powers Boothe.
Did he have any specific ideas or requests regarding the music for the movie, or did he leave this up to you?
David basically wanted a main theme which was proud, confident, and late-Victorian-Imperial in character that could disintegrate into something darker and more sinister. He wanted the two sides of Victorian life to be uncomfortably close to one another. The stings and FX/Sound Design elements were largely my idea, but I worked closely with David to refine them and make sure they had maximum impact. In fact, in all three of my “gothic” collaborations with David, I would supply him with temp tracks, beds, drones, and stings to help him edit & set the mood.
The “Ripper-sting” we used on all the murders was premixed and allocated to a certain note on my master keyboard, and one night while I was working late in the studio, a good friend of mine came round to ask “Do you fancy a pint down at the Hollybush” while nonchalantly playing a random note on the keyboard, and of course, it was that one, and a full blooded scream FX roared out of my Tannoy Gold speakers. As George went white, I knew that yes, that would work fine!
Can you recall how much music that you wrote for the movie, and did you conduct the score?
I probably wrote around 60 minutes of music for the mini-series And yes, I conducted it.
You later collaborated with David Wickes on Jekyll and Hyde and Frankenstein, both of which contained wonderful scores. When working on movie’s how many times do you like to be able to watch the film before you begin to put together ideas about what style of music the project needs and is it sometimes helpful if the director has installed a temp track?
I made it a practise with DW to supply him with Temp music. In fact, on every project I worked on with him, I was involved from Script stage, often feeding ideas pre-shooting. Temp tracks can be dangerous, especially if a director uses well known pieces of music, and suddenly you’re competing with John Williams or James Horner. Some directors make creative use of temp tracks – David L Cunningham, who I worked with on To End All Wars, the Touchstone remake of Little House on the Prairie, and Path to 9-11 would put in a piece of music and tell me “I like the tempo/texture/orchestral feel of this passage”, or “I like the way this music contrasts with the action”.
On an earlier instance I recorded a temp vocal for Charlie One-Eye (with Richard Rowntree) back in the 70s, and then put a famous British Blues singer on the track but the director had got so used to my voice, he said he preferred it, and took a huge amount of persuading to change it!
Both Jack the Ripper and Jekyll and Hyde have striking opening themes, do you think it is important for a TV movie in-particular to have a theme that that sets the scene and will become familiar with an audience?
In both instances we wanted the title scene to convey the “public” face of late Victorian Britain. Then by deconstructing the theme, putting it into a minor key with darker orchestration we could unpeel the dark underbelly of Victorian society.
Orchestration is said to be an important part of the composing process, do you orchestrate all your music for film and TV or is this sometimes just not possible because of tight schedules?
I’ve always orchestrated every note of my movie scores. To me orchestration, the choice of instruments, the use of different orchestral timbres, the choice of alternative chord inversions, and the incorporation of Sound Design elements is as important as the crafting of themes and the placement of the music. And for many of my film projects from Jack The Ripper on, I’ve started the whole process with pre-lays of samples, effects etc. that give me a bed on which to lay a live orchestral performance.
Staying with orchestration, you did the orchestrations for Les Misérables, how did this come about?
Record boss Mickie Most, with whom I had worked extensively in the 1960s and 70s with artists including Donovan, CCS, and Hot Chocolate was approached by his Parisian sub-publisher Alain Boublil, who was looking for an arranger with movie experience to work on a new show based on Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, that he had written with composer Claude Michel Schonberg and lyricist Jean-Marc Natel. I flew to Paris, met Alain and Claude-Michel, spent an afternoon listening to a tape of C-M-S murdering pianos and impersonating the whole of Paris, all in French of course.
A few hours later I’m on a plane bound for London and I have a headache. “I think I said yes”… oh but the children need shoes… The rest is history, so they say. A French Concept Album recorded at CTS with a UK line-up led by Pat Halling, combined with French artists and a wonderful vocal ensemble led by Christiane LeGrand in Paris produced the original Concept Album that went double-gold in France, then the 1980 Robert Hossein Production at The Palais de Sport that nobody from the UK saw except my family and Andrew Bruce and Billy… who were in charge of the newly invented radio microphones. (David Essex was set to see it on his way back from the South of France but got caught up in a traffic jam!) Then nothing until Cameron, so the story goes, found the record in a record store in France. Then of course Trevor, John, Herbie, the whole new crew, the RSC, Palace, Washington, Broadway Productions etc. etc….
Do you think that film music today is as good as say the movie scores of the 1960’s and 1970’s, I ask this because the main title theme seems to have disappeared, I am not sure if this is the composers or the actual filmmakers decision to do away with it, but it seems gone are the days that one comes out of the cinema with the theme from the film going round inside your head?
The title theme hasn’t disappeared in long form TV pieces like The Bridge, but it seems to have morphed into a rather moody, wispy song sung over an intricate montage of images. The theme is then seldom heard after that. The other thing that I’ve noticed is the use of sample loops and patterns, which may be interesting to use occasionally but seem to take away the dynamism of the score if used incessantly under the action, which often seems to be the case in Scandi-Noir productions. But there are some interesting scores: I was particularly taken with Jonny Greenwood’s score for Power of The Dog, and Hildur Guðnadóttir’s score for Joker last year was very effective and disturbing. Funnily enough, on Joker the director used a similar technique to what we had used on David Wickes’s pieces, having a pre-recorded theme played on set to create mood during the shoot.
Using Jack the Ripper as an example, do you have a routine when scoring a picture as in main titles through to end titles or do you like to establish a core theme and then develop and build the remainder of the score around this. Or is the process different for every movie?
Each project is different in approach and intent, so there is no set formula. For instance, on Path to 9-11, director David L Cunningham felt that the subject was so emotionally loaded that he wanted there to be an almost documentary feel to add to the credibility of the piece. Consequently, after the front title music which was very low key over black and white images, in the first hour of action the only music was “found” music, rock music on a car radio or in a rental agency, a street band, qawwali music from cassette player in an apartment. So that when the plot started to unfold in earnest, and we brought the main theme in, it would have a much bigger impact. However, Jack the Ripper, Jekyll & Hyde and Frankenstein adhered much more to a more traditional model.
The creation of themes would come first i.e. the main theme, striking and grandiose, less grandiose, more calm versions of it, the deconstructed versions for dark moments, a love theme, and then elements of sound design, sting etc. Having established all these signposts, my general method is to start from the top of the movie and write through sequentially, so as to always keep in mind how each cue flows into the next, or into Foleys, FX etc.
Can we go back a few years to your early film scores, I always thought that the 1969 movie Kes was your first score, but it was Poor Cow, which you scored in 1967, how did you become involved on the movie, and was the director Ken Loach hands on regarding the music for this and then for Kes?
I had been working with Donovan, in the studio and on the road for a couple of years, and he had been asked to set a Christopher Logue poem to use as the title music for Poor Cow. I wrote the arrangement, and we were in the studio listening to playback. I wasn’t aware that Don was contracted to write music for the whole movie. Perhaps he was going to do the new thing which was to improvise to the screen (as Sonny Rollins did with Alfie)?
But Teddy Joseph, the Executive Producer was Old School. “Who’s going to actually score it to picture?” he asked. “He is” answered Don, pointing at me. “Can you have it ready for a week tomorrow when we dub?” “Yes”. (Gulp!) Went back home, rang Elisabeth Lutyens, avant-garde composer and doyenne of Hammer House of Horror scores, whom I’d met through my father (her aunt taught him violin). “Elisabeth, how do you write a film score?” Ten minutes of no-nonsense method and logistics, me frantically scribbling, a meeting next day with Don, where he played me the themes and songs he’d written, Thursday, where we spotted the film (decided where music should be), got the timings Friday and then, on Saturday I was playing rugby, so wrote through all of Sunday, had it copied Monday, recorded it Tuesday (straight to mono optical – no mixing) and they dubbed it Wednesday. Ken must have been happy because he then called me up to score Kes as composer.
Kes was recorded at Olympic studios I think, the movie was a personal, intimate, and very raw kind of film, which was perfectly enhanced by the music that you wrote, how many players did you have for the score?
It was quite a small line-up, must have been around 20. A lovely woodwind section, with classical and jazz players, including Harold McNair on Alto Flute, a small string section, bass, drums, percussion.
PSYCHOMANIA, was a movie that you scored, I noticed on the soundtrack lots of electronic sounds, but this was released before synths and the new styled sounds that we are now used to, so how did you achieve these sounds on the score?
You’re right. Robert Moog’s set-up took up a whole room, mini moog’s were still just a dream. But guitars had a certain amount of pedals by then, (phase wah wah etc) and added to that we used all kinds of tricks, playing inside the piano, stroking and plucking and playing with mallets, feeding Musser vibes through a phase pedal, and similar effects on bowed bass, using solo voice in a weird unison with the flute, and then a large amount of processing, tape echo, feedback etc on the mix.
When you record a film score do you try to make sure that it can be preserved in some way in case at the time of the film’s release or in the future someone is interested in releasing it?
I do now! I do have a certain amount of ¼” tape copies from the 70s, 80s, some DATs of 90s projects & digital copies from 200 on, but in the early days the music was considered very much part of the overall package and the final movie was what you were aiming for, so a separate soundtrack was very seldom considered.
Many thanks to Mr Cameron for agreeing to answer my questions.
Michelino Bisceglia has already composed the soundtracks for multiple feature films. Some of these films were screened at the Cannes Film Festival and Venice InternationalFilm Festival.
His soundtrack for the film “Marina” (about the childhood memories of Rocco Granata) won a World Soundtrack Award for Public Choice in 2014.
Bisceglia occasionally also arranges, orchestrates, and conducts soundtracks for other film composers all over the world. His contribution to the animated film “Cafard” composed by Hans Helewaut and the feature film “Mother’s Instinct” composed by Frédéric Vercheval, both also won the World Soundtrack Award in 2016 and in 2019 for best Belgian Score.
Bisceglia’s most recent work was for a 10-episode series “Thieves of the wood”, a worldwide release by Netflix. Last Year Michelino also finished composing the orchestral score for the animation drama “Charlotte” (with Keira Knightly). This film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in September 2021. Also last year Bisceglia composed the music for the exhibition on “Claude Monet Immersive Experience” exhibited in dozens of cities worldwide.
Your most recent scoring assignment is Charlotte, an animated film about the German-Jewish artist Charlotte Saloman. Your score is so beautiful, filled with delicate and poignant nuances. How does scoring an animated film compare with writing for a live-action project?
Thanks for the compliment on the score! The biggest difference is the sound design in the film. In a live-action film, all the sounds you hear are of natural origin. In animation, everything must be reconstructed. That is not the same and that gives a different setting for the composer. In general, you can say that I have more space to fill that in. On the other hand, in an animated film, you must personify and define the characters even more clearly with the music. You must stay with them, and evolve but can’t lose them musically!
How did you become involved with Charlotte, what size orchestra did you have for the project, and do you perform on the score at all?
In 2018, the City of Genk (B) had planned an exhibition with all the works of Tim Burton for the opening of their new cultural season. I was contacted by the cultural department asking if I would like to arrange a concert with all the music from Tim Burton’s films. I had decided to accept the assignment and chose to rearrange all the music for a completely different line-up. More specifically my own jazz trio, clarinet, cello, classical percussion, and a children’s choir.
Tim Burton attended the concert as well. It was a successful evening and Tim Burton was first to jump for a standing ovation at the end of the show. A few months later I received a call from a co-producer Eric Goossens who told me that he was also present at this specific concert and that he was still impressed by this great evening. He wanted to talk to me about a new project and if I was interested in composing the soundtrack for “Charlotte.” Some months later I was invited to meet the director and producer in London. Meanwhile, I had read the script and developed some melodic themes based on that. In London, I proposed those themes, and they loved it. It was a great dinner after that .
For this project, It was clear from the start that I needed the full symphonic orchestra with additional soloist instruments. For this score, I did not perform the piano parts but conducted the scoring sessions.
Did the directors of the film have any specific instructions or ideas regarding the music when you initially saw the movie and was there a temp track already installed, if so, do you find this helpful or distracting?
I prefer to start with the composition when I have read the script even before I have seen the first images. This gives me much more freedom to create an original musical framework to determine the melodic and harmonic material. But before that, I first consult extensively with the filmmakers to discuss the story, the characters, the style, the tone, and the structure of the film.
In some cases, there are already ideas regarding the music by the director. Somehow, when reading the script, I manage to feel the pace of the film and hear the tone. I can sometimes very well imagine the music of the scenes while reading the script. Also, for Charlotte, several important music cues were composed based on the scripts before I had seen any image. After this, I start to process the musical material and start composing sketches. I then begin to assign melodic material to certain characters or other aspects of the film. If there is enough time in advance, I like to work out musical suites to try out all the material in a longer musical context.
I have always spent much time and effort building a good relationship with the director and if possible, with the editor. It is so crucial to be close with the director during the moments when we are deciding what proposals will be approved. It is important for me to understand how the choices that have been made came to be. I like to provide pre-demos as soon as possible so it is available to be used during the early editing period. This avoids many issues with the temp tracks while the production is proceeding.
It is an intimate and very personal-sounding work, you use solo instruments at times, such as cello and violin, plus piano, do you like to develop a core theme first and then use this as a foundation for the remainder of the score?
For this project, I had worked out several elements and thematic material in advance intended for characters or for certain situations. As my preparation progressed, it was easier for me to make choices about which themes worked best and refine them even further to get closer to the characters, both in terms of melody and harmonic context and texture. Some themes began to become a leitmotif and formed a foundation to build on. On the other hand, I didn’t want to exaggerate with the leitmotif. I had to deal with this subtly to give the score enough variation and especially to be able to follow the evolution of the story.
I understand that you began to take an interest in music at the age of six, was writing music for film something that you also wanted to do from an early age, or was this something that you became interested in as your career progressed?
When I was seven years old, I received a keyboard from my father. I started to play on it, but I didn’t know what to play. I remember I heard some melody lines and tried to reproduce that on the keyboard. Many years later I found out that the notes I was looking for were the main theme by Nino Rota from the film “The Godfather.” Although I don’t remember seeing that film at that age, I must’ve heard that music somewhere at that time in some place. Years later my sister was working as a cashier for a film theatre. She gave the free ticket she received to go to the movies to me. So, I had unlimited access to the theatre to go and watch any film I wanted to. But to be honest, I wasn’t that interested in watching films, I was interested in hearing the music and selecting the films based on the composer. That was a wonderful time for me to discover all the greatest composers around that time like John Barry, Elliot Goldenthal, Jerry Goldsmith, James Horner, John Williams, Ennio Morricone, and Alan Silvestri. The first time I got in contact with music for the film was a job I was working on in the 90s for the animation series Symfollies. For this project, I had to rewrite famous classical music and adapt it to make it fit for the animation series. This was a great opportunity for me to get in contact with the greatest classical music, learn the score, and rewrite the animation. After 54 episodes we developed a version for live concerts with a full orchestra and animation. With this production, I’ve conducted the Antwerp Philharmonic, The Japan Symphony Orchestra for its premiere in Tokyo, the Orchestra of Casa Da Musica in Porto, and much more.
What musical education did you receive?
The moment when orchestral music caught me completely was when I bought a score around the age of 19 with the 3 piano concertos by Rachmaninov. Especially with the 3rd concerto, I was so impressed by the orchestration and richness of colour and harmony. I got tears in my eyes of beauty and emotion while listening to and watching the score. I decided to immerse myself in it completely and started taking private lessons. Quite early, I also got opportunities to arrange for an orchestra. Initially for a few instruments, but that became more and more until I was allowed to write for the symphonic orchestra of the opera house in Aachen (Germany) at the age of 21. Since then, I have written countless scores for all kinds of orchestral line-ups for concerts, artist recordings, events, films, and TV.
But my complete commitment to music wasn’t just to orchestral music. The piano is my main instrument. As an instrumentalist, I had more preference for jazz than for classical music. As a musician I started playing concerts from the age of 17, this was my main activity for the first 2 decades: playing concerts, touring worldwide, studio recordings, solo albums, sideman gigs… I had the privilege to play and record with great musicians like Randy Brecker, Bob Mintzer, Dewey Redman, and Toots Thielemans, at a later age, composing and orchestral work started to take more place in my work.
But to answer your question, the education I received was basically two mentors who helped me at a very young age. Mrs. Heidi Minten for classical music and Mr. Irvin Defays for jazz piano and modern music. And all the rest was autodidact and self-study!
You conducted the score for Charlotte, is this a role you like to undertake when working on scores for films or is this not always possible?
Yes, I do like and prefer to conduct my own recording sessions. It is for me, as well for the musicians, much easier to adjust and shape the details to get the takes exactly as I want them to be. In fact, I regularly conduct several films a year for other film composers.
You also write for the concert hall, and have released some of your orchestral works on digital sites as the Orchestral Works album, which is wonderful, (especially Adagio for Strings) do you find that when writing for live performances you are less restricted, as in free of FX and timings, etc, so able to be more expressive?
Yes, when writing for concert performances I have more freedom to compose. But I can’t say that it is much easier. The reason I like to compose for the film is just because of the restrictions and limits all over. This is really what challenges creativity: finding solutions with all the restrictions. I like that! I give myself a time frame to finish the composition, which I find helps my creativity.
The score for Charlotte is available on digital platforms, will there be a compact disc release of the score, and were you involved in the selection of cues that went onto the soundtrack album?
It is up to Sony to decide what the formats are they want to explore the music on. I don’t know if there will be other formats, but I don’t think so. Yes, I selected the cues for the soundtrack album in consultation with the production.
How much music did you compose for Charlotte, and is all the score on the soundtrack release?
No, I composed much more music and most of it was not even recorded. And there are several other music cues that I didn’t select for the soundtrack release. Some of them are nice but shorter in length. So, I didn’t find that interesting to have that on a soundtrack release.
Would you say that you have been influenced by any composers in particular?
Well, I’ve been composing, arranging, and doing orchestrations for about 30 years now. Of course, I was influenced by what I listened to in my earlier period, but I can’t say clearly what remains of it. I don’t listen to other music as much anymore. Because I don’t have that much time and when I’m in the car I don’t like to listen to music! But I’m inspired by reading biographies, painters, and architecture!
Claude Monet, the immersive experience is a project that you scored in 2020. Can you tell us something about this and how you became involved?
This project was produced by a friend of mine, Mario Iacampo. I met him 10 years ago when he commissioned me with the Brussels Chamber Orchestra to compose 2 concerts for a cartoon animation festival in Brussels. This was a great experience, and it was a huge challenge to play this live on stage in sync with the video. We stayed in contact, and he kept producing for special live events. Some years ago, he reached out again and wanted to have original music for the most famous painting of Claude Monet including the story of the artist himself. I had a great time composing and recording almost one hour of fully orchestral music based on the paintings of Claude Monet. It is a great exhibition where the audience is completely immersed in the paintings with 360° video mapping inside great buildings. This production has been touring all over the world on all continents since 2018. There is also a VR section where you are immersed in a virtual reality environment, traveling through the paintings with my music accompanying this all. After several years, it’s still very successful!
What is your opinion of the ever-increasing use of electronics, samples, and synths in music and in film scoring?
These are the new generation of instruments today like there were new instruments 200 years ago. They are part of evolution, and we should not avoid them, but learn to use them in the most organic way. Or even in hybrid form with a classical orchestra, it really can be very effective and innovative. I like to experiment with that and try to find ways to implement them in my writing and in my production. In fact, I have a project called Svínhunder where we use those elements as the main instrument. Completely different from what I’m used to doing with orchestral writing!
How many times do you like to watch a prospective assignment before starting to get ideas about what style of music the film may need and indeed where the music should be placed to best serve it?
I prefer to start developing musical material based on the script and the info I get from the makers during the conversations and discussions we have on a regular basis. It is there where we discuss the style and tone of the music. After this, we plan a spotting session to discuss the placement of the music. In some cases, the editor can also be involved in this process. In fact, after that, during the further development, I try not to watch the film too much. This keeps a kind of distance from the images so that I can remain objective as the production progresses.
Using Charlotte as an example, how long did you have to compose and record the score?
For Charlotte, I was first in New York and Toronto to discuss the production and go through the spotting session with the directors. That was early February 2020. I had started with the compositions immediately after my return trip. Shortly thereafter, the corona crisis broke out. It was originally planned to do the recordings 3 months later, but due to multiple production delays, we could finally start recording in mid-September. In the end, that all worked out really well because I could continue working quietly. But we were lucky, it was around September that the corona restriction was toned down to make the orchestra recordings possible. Right after our recordings, everything was back in lockdown. In the end, we needed 5 recording days for the orchestra and the soloists.
What is next for you?
I am currently working on a concerto for trumpet and orchestra. I also have some scoring sessions planned that I will conduct and orchestrate for some other composers. There are also recordings planned in June for a new album with my trio. In the summer, I will start writing a new score for the film “Sleep” by the Dutch director Jan-Willem van Ewijk.
At a small record store in Genoa, Italy, a young kid finds the CD he was eagerly looking for, under the letter “M” section. The soundtrack to “Hamlet” by Ennio Morricone. That was a turning point for Massimo Sammi, which ignited a love for film music that defined both his musical and personal life.
After moving to Los Angeles in 2014, he enrolled in the Certificate Program in Film Scoring at UCLA Extension, and through the school’s connections he landed several jobs assisting composers actively working in film and TV. As a result of an extensive on-the-job training writing hundreds of minutes of music as lead and additional composer, his writing credits include animation series, documentaries, romantic comedies, holiday features, westerns, dramas, super-hero parodies and independent shorts. His most recent score for the action-comedy “Plunder Quest” won the Best Soundtrack Award at the New York International Film Awards and at the Masters of Cinema International Film Festival.
Plunder Quest has a rousing and entertaining score, it’s like Raiders meets Star Wars, meets Star Trek, meets Pirates of the Caribbean and The Goonies. How did you become involved on the movie and what was your brief when you were asked to score the movie?
First of all, thank you so much for your kind words, I’m so glad you liked the score! I got in touch with the production company towards the end of 2020, and they got back in touch right before they started filming. Kalani, the director, sent me the script, I read it cover to cover and I really loved it. The story was full of twists and turns, and I got really excited at the thought of writing music for it. The movie was conceived in the vein of classic movies of the 80s and 90s, particularly The Goonies, Back to the Future, and Raiders of the Lost Ark. I was very lucky, because Dave Grusin, Alan Silvestri and John Williams are all musicians that are amazing in their knowledge of jazz beyond the orchestral and classical vocabulary, and so, coming from. a jazz background, in studying their scores I felt like a kid in a candy store, finding so many interesting chord progressions and a sophisticated harmonic language, that was accessible at the same time.
Was the film tracked with a temp music track at all, and was it helpful or distracting if one was used?
We didn’t have a temp track, which I found helpful in terms of cohesiveness of the score, and in terms of freedom to experiment with different things.
Its sounds like a large orchestra but I may be wrong, how many players did you have for the score and where was the soundtrack recorded?
I’m really flattered that it sounds realistic, the only live instrument in the score is the live trumpet and everything else was programmed by me in Cubase.
The score for Plunder Quest is on most digital platforms, did you compile the soundtrack album, and will there be a compact disc release?
We worked together with the label (Movie Score Media) to put together the tracks in the most meaningful way possible – I’m not aware as of now of CD release.
Do you conduct, or do you prefer to supervise the session from the recording booth?
I had some training as a conductor here in Los Angeles, and it’s certainly a thrilling experience to do that whenever it’s possible, but there are many many people in town there are more qualified than me in conducting so I think it depends how many factors. If I orchestrated the music myself, then I feel more confident in conducting it, whereas if someone else orchestrated it then I prefer maybe to supervise from the recording booth since I’m not a great sight-reader.
What is your routine when scoring a movie, by this I mean do you establish a central theme first and then build the score around this, or do you prefer to tackle smaller/larger cues before establishing the core theme?
I think it changes from project to project, in this case I wrote the end credits suite so was able to create the main themes and then we decided to score the movie backwards deciding how to reveal incrementally themes throughout the movie. The story has a beautiful arc and we were very careful not to be anti-climactic and to reserve the biggest energy for the cues that are turning points in the story and fill the remaining parts of the movie with sections that were leading to the big moments. There are also a few montages for example the track “This Place is Weird” is for a montage of a very intense poker game, the track “Trip to the Island” is a montage with drone shots looking at the boat as it sails to Bannerman Island in New York. Those were big moments and of course the finale of the movie was crucial, so we reserved a lot of attention to them first.
When you are asked to score a project, do you like to see the film initially on your own or do you prefer it if the director is present so you can begin the process of spotting there and then?
When possible, I try to read the script as soon as possible, and let my subconscious begin the work, without the visual reference, before the movie has been filmed, that’s what happened with Plunder Quest and other projects. And one of my favourite moments in all the process is to have a conversation with the director based on the scene numbers of the script, almost as if I had to write music for a play, in which we decide the tone and the intensity of each scene, in what could be called a pre-spotting session. That moment is truly inspiring, leaving so much space to brainstorming and possibilities, since everything is still developing, and one of the reasons I really love this job. Then we usually go in detail with a spotting session once the movie is locked, and in an ideal scenario we end up not using any temp, since we already established things in detail.
What for you is the purpose of a score in a movie?
It could serve many purposes; in some movies the score can create a tone or a mood without necessarily being connected to a specific character or place whereas in other cases is thematic or connected to the characters which is what happened in Plunder Quest. But I think that the main purpose is to fulfil the vision of the director in terms of the message that he intends to give with the movie and of course the clearer the vision of the director the easier is the job for the composer because in that case he just has to really pay attention to the story and pay attention to not to be too invasive but just have a propulsive function, since the story is very strong by itself. Kalani’s writing I think is great so in my case my job is very easy because I just had to support a very solid architecture that came from his talent as a writer and director, whereas sometimes it’s not as easy.
How much time were given to work on the movie from start to finish writing and recording the score?
They were incredibly patient because I had to take a break due to my brother’s wedding for which I had to flew fly back to Italy, so it was not a continuous process. I would say that it was probably around three months if we take away the break, because I was also working on other projects at the same time. But this project was something that I really liked so I really wanted to avoid cutting corners and deliver the best cue I could every time.
It’s great to hear so many themes within a score, the music is inventive and fully supportive of the movies scenarios and characters, do you think that the current trend of non-thematic film scores is just a passing phase and maybe we will return to music for main titles etc soon?
Thank you! I think that the current trend has brought the focus on the sonic medium itself, rather than a melodic or a harmonic progression, and it’s probably just a different concept of themes. I’m a big fan of musicians that use harmony as a narrative tool since it’s probably more like the kind of music I grew up with which is classical and jazz. There are composers that are revolutionary in the way they’re changing the perspective that is something that I deeply respect and admire, but there is something about the shifting harmonies and reharmonization of the same theme in different ways that I find incredibly fulfilling and something that to me comes more naturally.
Who would you say in the music world has influenced you or inspired you to do what you do?
There are so many amazing musicians and composers from the past and the present, it’s really hard to make a list, but I would say that it’s constantly shifting, because both because of curiosity and need for survival you have to expand your vision and learn new things. The one constant is probably that there’s nothing that I find more exciting than music which appears simple and approachable, but that has a lot of craft and knowledge behind it. That’s why I like John Williams, Alan Silvestri, Dario Marianelli and Debbie Wiseman because they’re so deep that they’re not afraid to write music that sounds simple or frugal. Even a child can sing “Hedwig’s Theme” or the opening theme from “Forrest Gump”, but only giants like them can write music that is so accessible. And I look for inspiration in that simplicity and clarity in any genre of music I listen, and to try to achieve that the best I can, working and studying every day to get better at it.
What musical training did you have and were you from a family background that was musical in any way?
My older brother played piano and had a band, so I guess I started taking piano lessons at 8yrs of age to emulate him but I was literally falling asleep during the lessons, which I found incredibly boring at the time. Later I started studying classical guitar around 13 years old, and soon I got interested in jazz as well, thankfully my music teacher was very acknowledgeable in music theory and harmony, so I received a solid foundation in my early years that would have helped me later. At the same time, I was spending around 3 hours every day for several years transcribing by ear everything that caught my attention, in many different genres, mostly jazz. In 2004 I started to study jazz composition and improvisation by correspondence with a teacher from Boston, Charlie Banacos and soon I auditioned and got accepted at New England Conservatory where he was teaching. While there I fell in love with jazz arranging and classical composition, which opened the door for film scoring. The students at New England Conservatory were incredible, they played like seasoned studio musicians and they were fresh out of high school, so having your music performed at such level, while approaching composition for the first time, was a real thrill. Meanwhile I was also studying music production in Digital Performer privately with some Berklee teachers, and in 2010 I attended the Buddy Baker film scoring workshop at New York University, where I met some of my future teachers that I studied with during my Master’s degree. In 2014 I moved to Los Angeles, and I attended UCLA Extension which was really fantastic on many levels, and some of the teachers became my mentors and some of my best friends. I also kept doing private score studies with one of the teachers from the school, which were incredibly important, since they introduced me to a lot of classical music repertoire that I knew only superficially. I also attended many workshops from the Hollywood Music Workshop, which are absolutely amazing. I’m a lifelong music student and try to practice guitar for at least around 40 min. every day and spend the same time every day studying scores, trying to improve my orchestral knowledge which at the time is still really basic, as well as counterpoint, chromatic harmony and generally everything that can serve as a catalyst for the creativity and keeps my mind and imagination active, otherwise I find myself getting too caught up in the patterns of what I already know and when that happens your music starts to become stagnant and predictable.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on an indie romantic comedy that just finished filming and soon I’ll be starting to work on the next movie by Kalani Hubbard, another adventure comedy called “The Squatchers”. I’m also working on a jazz arrangement for a flute orchestra here in LA.
Many thanks to the composer for answering our questions.
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