Karl Jenkins is probably one of the most respected and highly regarded composers of classical music today, his THE ARMED MAN – A MASS FOR PEACE has to date been performed 200 times in the UK alone during the past 18 months and the CD release achieved Gold disc status within the UK. His REQUIEM also went to No 1 in the UK classical charts. In 2005 he was awarded the OBE by Her Majesty the Queen and in 2006 was made a Doctor of music by the University of Wales. This is the composer’s first work for the cinema, and I am positive that it will certainly not be his last. RIVER QUEEN is set in NEW ZEALAND in the 1870s, it tells the story of Sara O’Brien (Samantha Morton) who has grown up among the soldiers who guard the frontier on the Te Awa Nui-The Great river. She becomes pregnant by a Maori boy and gives birth to a son, the story then jumps forward seven years and her child BOY is kidnapped by his Maori Grandfather. Sarah is abandoned and shunned by her soldier Father (Stephen Rea) so she turns to Doyle (Keifer Sutherland) for help. The music is mainly orchestral, but the composer also utilises choir and wordless female vocal. Jenkins also incorporates DANNY BOY within his score, creating a Gaelic sound which he then builds upon with his own original and unique sounding themes. I am loathed to try and compare this with any other scores, but if I was pressed to do so I would have to say that RIVER QUEEN is a fusion of styles that maybe were reminiscent of THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS but also there is a sound to this score that is vaguely evocative of Morricone’s THE MISSION and QUIEMADA in sections, it is lush, poignant, romantic, dramatic, diverse and above all is a fine example of quality film music. Highly recommended, miss this one and you will regret it.
John Mansell: You normally compose music for the concert hall, did you find that writing for a motion picture was restricting at all; by this I mean you had specific timings for scenes and style of music etc…?
Karl Jenkins: I spent a large part of my career writing music for advertising so the process was familiar, both technically and politically! I also had a great assistant in Rupert Christie.
John Mansell: You utilised the London Symphony Orchestra for the music to RIVER QUEEN, what choir did you use and who was the solo female voice?
Karl Jenkins: I have a close relationship with the LSO; the concertante, ‘Quirk’, was commissioned by the LSO and conducted by Sir Colin Davies as part of its 2005 centenary season and I used them on my recent release with Dame Kiri Te Kanawa so they were the best choice, both musically and because of their experience of film work. The choral singers were from Synergy, a group run by Michaela Halsam and the soloists were Mae Mckenna and Belinda Sykes.
John Mansell: How many times did you watch the movie before ideas of style and where the music was to be placed on the picture began to become clear to you?
Karl Jenkins: The film was being cut as I was writing and indeed, some was cut after it had been recorded so it was an ongoing two way process. Style was determined in part with discussions with the director. There are two major strains in the film; the British, which here was essentially Irish/Celtic and the indigenous ethnic Maori both of which had to be reflected in the music.
John Mansell: The song DANNY BOY is woven into the score was this idea yours or was it an instruction from the films director/producer?
Karl Jenkins: This was director Vincent Ward’s idea which he had before we ever met.
John Mansell: How much time were you given to write the score, and did you find the schedule difficult to work to?
Karl Jenkins: I think it was done in a couple of months since I work pretty quickly. I do my own orchestration (can’t really call yourself a composer if you can’t!). I know some composers due to time restrictions farm this out but this is difficult in my case anyway since I write straight onto full score.
John Mansell: Did you have a set plan when scoring the film, by this I mean did you start with the main theme and work through the picture to its conclusion, or did you tackle larger cues first leaving smaller sections and musical stabs till later?
Karl Jenkins: As I said, it was generally chronological since that was how the cues were edited. There was much use of leitmotifs, themes associated with characters and situations that were reused in different guises.
John Mansell: How did you become involved on the project?
Karl Jenkins: My music was sent to the director Vincent Ward, who liked what he heard!
John Mansell: Are there any film music composers that you find particularly interesting, and for what reasons?
Karl Jenkins: I think the standard of film music generally is pretty dire, especially in this country. The American writers are good. I saw a poll recently of the greatest scores which had LORD OF THE RINGS at 1. and GLADIATOR at 2. which is absurd. People only seem to revere the recent past, unlike classical music where the reverse is true. Standout scores for me for example would be Korngold’s ROBIN HOOD, many by Bernard Herrmann (NORTH BY NORTHWEST, PYSCHO), Michele Legrand’s THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR, Quincy Jones’ IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT and Dave Grusin’s FABULOUS BAKER BOYS. In the UK two composers stand out, Walton and Richard Rodney Bennett. All these wrote memorable music which rarely happens nowadays unless it’s by John Williams. I don’t usually go along with the “film music should not be noticed otherwise it’s not doing its job” credo!
John Mansell: You were obviously inspired by the movie, as your music is superb, is film scoring something that you would like to do more of?
Karl Jenkins: I would but don’t seem to get asked to do so.
John Mansell: Sometimes when a soundtrack CD is issued a number of musical cues are not included because of space etc on the compact disc, did you have anything to do with the compiling of the CD to RIVER QUEEN, and is all the music included on the disc or were there any cues that were omitted for any reason?
Karl Jenkins: It is probably the reverse on this occasion. I pretty much had complete say over what was included and if anything there is more music on the CD than in the film. I did have some difference of opinion with Vincent in that he loved a minimalist sound and if there were a choice between a solitary harmonium and the opulent strings of the LSO he usually favoured the former.
John Mansell: I notice that the copyright on the movie and the music for RIVER QUEEN was 2005, when did you score the film?
Karl Jenkins: I worked on the movie in 2005.
John Mansell: You also utilised pan flutes within the score. What made you decide to use this instrumentation?
Karl Jenkins: The ethnic element representing Maori was a little strange. I was surprised the haka was not used. I suggested this since it is so obviously Maori and war related but Vincent preferred something more general and vague. I used Mick Taylor quite a lot on ethnic flutes and pipes. He also does the Irish tin whistle thing as well so he came double sided. He played on my first Adiemus album; ‘Songs of Sanctuary’ and I think he’s worked with James Horner a lot.
John Mansell: The temp track is a very sensitive area of discussion amongst composers who work in film, was there a temp track attached to RIVER QUEEN at all?
Karl Jenkins: Yes there was and what a liability! Yet again people only seem to be aware of the recent past so I was lumbered with cues (sound wise) from recent films. I had this all the time in advertising music. People have no faith and want to hear it before it’s written. Then of course once it is in their brains there is no dislodging it.
John Mansell: What are you working on at the moment?
Karl Jenkins: I’m working on a setting of the Stabat Mater which will be my next release on EMI Classics and premiered next March15th at Liverpool cathedral as part of the city’s ‘European City Of Culture’ status for 2008 and also an album by Mike Oldfield (Tubular Bells) who is releasing an orchestral CD that I’m orchestrating, conducting and co-producing.
Many Thanks to Karl Jenkins for his time and also his patience.