IN CONVERSATION WITH COMPOSER JOHN KOUTSELINIS.
Award-winning film music composer John Koutselinis has composed high-quality film scores with notable collaborations comprising of music written for producers and directors, such as Gary Kurtz (Star Wars IV & V), Brian Presley (The Great Alaskan Race), Richard Bazley (Disney, Warner Bros) Steve Stone (Entity), Danny Wilson (Nephilim), Harry & George Kirby (Accident Man 2) and Mel Smith (Director of High Hills and Low Lifes, Radioland Murders – Story by George Lucas). He has recently composed the score for the film ‘The Alaskan Great Race’ by Director/Producer Brian Presley, also starring Henry Thomas (E.T., Legends of the Fall) and Treat Williams, among others. (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack album has been released by SONY MUSIC/MILAN). He also written music for the films ‘Hostile Territory’ (Brian Presley, Matt McCoy & Brad Leyland), ‘DEUS’ with David O’Hara (The Departed, Harry Potter) & Claudia Black (Farscape), Katherine of Alexandria (Peter O’Toole, Steven Berkoff & Edward Fox), ‘Nephilim’ (John Savage – award-winning score, music performed by The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra) and Centurion Resurrection’ (Gary Kurtz -Producer, Richard Bazley – Director).
In addition, he has composed music for over 40 short films, including film scores for the short films by K&K Productions, which among others include Dragonball Z and The League of Legends, which have collectively generated over 15 Million views. K&K Productions have also created the film ‘Cable: The Chronicles of Hope’ which premiered at London Comic con. John is the recipient of 4 awards, including the ‘Best Music Score’ award by the Sydney Independent Film Festival for the original score of the film ‘Nephilim’, and the ‘Best Music’ award by the British Horror Film Festival for the original score of the motion picture ‘In Extremis’. He is also the recipient of several nominations, including nominations by the prestigious ‘Jerry Goldsmith Awards’ (‘The Rocket Boy’) and a shortlist nomination by ‘The World Soundtrack Awards’ (‘The Great Alaskan Race’). His latest works include the music score for the motion picture ‘Hostile Territory’ by writer/director Brian Presley and ‘DEUS’ by writer/director Steve Stone.
One of your recent scores is for the western/American Civil War historical drama based on true events Hostile Territory, which has an epic sounding score, in fact it is a score I have had on loop for a few days now and I never tire of it. You worked with Director Brian Presley before on The Great Alaskan Race, was it a case of you had collaborated before and it worked so he contacted you again for his latest movie?
Thank you for the kind words on the score for Hostile Territory, very much appreciated!
Indeed, I worked in the past with Writer/Director Brian Presley with whom I had a wonderful collaboration for the film ‘The Great Alaskan Race’ and I was thrilled to be called to write the music for Hostile Territory! The Great Alaskan Race’ was a great creative experience in connection to writing the music for the film. The film itself is beautifully made, my experience with Brian and the production team at P12 Films was wonderful and recording with The City of Prague Philharmonic was once again great.
Brian Presley also encouraged me to write thematic material, something which I personally strive for, and I was thrilled to have been given the opportunity to take this form of direction. A short story which can highlight the relationship between composer and director, was that the main theme for ‘The Great Alaskan Race’ was created from a love theme I wrote for the characters of Kiana and Leonhard Seppala. In discussions on the score with Brian Presley, he did let me know that the short love theme was something that he felt would work for the main theme. And to my appreciation, it turned out to be the right choice. A piece that I wrote somewhat passingly for a short love theme segment, ended up being the main theme of the film. This is an example of the ongoing process between the composer and director which is extremely creative.
‘The Great Alaskan Race’ was a great experience and very grateful it led to my participation to ‘Hostile Territory’ as music composer.
Sadly, I have not been able to see the movie yet, but have seen sections, the music is certainly affecting to listen to away from any images, at times being anthem like. What size orchestra did you have for the score and what percentage of the music was realized via virtual or synthetic instrumentation and who performs the haunting solo voice on the score?
As with many productions today, scores are leaning towards been produced by Virtual Orchestras, which we also followed this train of thought, but I was very happy to be given the opportunity to return to Prague and work with members of The City Of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra.
We mostly employed strings at nearly full orchestral capacity, but we also used solo instrumentalists such as the wonderful Anna Phoebe on the solo Violin, and Marek Elznic on the Cello. In addition, I have been a long-time collaborator with vocalists Melany Dantes-Mortimer (which you can hear on ‘The Battle of High Bridge’) and Rebecca Joelle (who can be heard on the pieces titled ‘The Rescue’ and ‘Finale & End Credits’). On this occasion, I believe you are referring to Melany Dantes-Mortimer who performed the haunting vocals on the piece titled ‘The Battle of High Bridge’.
Hugely grateful for their contribution to the score, as I am for the wonderful musicians at The City Of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra and the soloists that took part on the recordings.
Were you given any specific instructions, or did you have any requests regarding the sound or style of the score by the director or producers?
I had several discussions with the director, Brian Presley, about the style of the film score, and he gave me a few examples of what he was looking for the music of Hostile Territory. I do remember writing the main theme and I was happy to know that it was received very well. We also discussed the role of the score in the film. Hostile Territory is a hard-edged Western film, and as such, I paid great attention to not overwrite the score, to give the film space, so that the viewer can be immersed in the difficult circumstances depicted in the film and highlight important moments with the music. The theme was sparsely written and can be heard in its completion at the film’s epilogue.
I was grateful to be asked to write a thematic score, which is something that I personally love, and as such I wrote the main theme, and a few secondary themes.
One such secondary theme can be heard on the piece titled ‘This Land’ and ‘The Capture & and act of Kindness’, and also a separate theme was written for Phil (jack Calgrove’s son), and his partner, as they adopt their new family and embark on their journey to a new life. Sonically, we didn’t discuss veering off from the orchestral sound, something for which I was very happy. At the same time, I elaborated with electronic percussions, doubling real sounding percussions to give the overall sound a larger body. Also, as it is also a common practice, the orchestral sounds were doubled at times with synthesizers, especially the bottom-end of the arrangements.
How many times do you like to see a movie before you begin the process of deciding what style you will employ or where music should be placed?
I believe at the very most, 2 to 3 times. I write instinctively, in terms of where I feel the music should be placed (unless I am given specific instructions). After discussions with the director and/or the production team, I distil a good idea as of what the style of the music should be for the film.
Once the style and a theme has been established, the process beyond that point is very much about deciding what cues should be written in terms of placement and tone, and it then becomes a continuous work, which entails receiving feedback from the production, and shaping up any parts that need improvement.
In terms of music spotting, in my experience, some directors like to see how I furnish the film with my work and decide later as of what needs to be kept, and other directors have an idea of where the music should be placed, but it is often that the former takes place in the process.
Was writing music for film something that you had always wanted to do, and what were your earliest memories of any kind of music?
Indeed, writing music for films was a goal of mine since a very young age. I had no specific musical direction up until I was introduced to music for films. I wasn’t introduced to film music up until The Empire Strikes Back was released. I was fascinated with the music, which remains my most favourite score of all time (tied with The Extra Terrestrial). At that time, I wasn’t aware of film music at all, and it wasn’t until a friend of mine played to me the vinyl album from The Empire Strikes Back.
The moment I heard The Imperial March, I was taken by the sheer power and beauty of the music. It was since then that I wanted to pursue the avenue of becoming a composer for films.
Within Hostile Territory there are certain passages and cues that for me evoked the sound achieved by James Horner, at times there was a Gaelic lilt present, are there any composers or artists that have influenced you or inspired you to do what you do.
As with many composers, John Williams was my first and biggest inspiration for music for films and composition in general. The greats Jerry Goldsmith & James Horner were also a big part of my upbringing. I suppose your early years are hardwired in terms of one’s influences. I also loved music from many wonderful composers whilst growing up, such as Basil Poledouris, George Fenton, Robert Folk, Alan Silvestri, Elliot Goldenthal, Ryuichi Sakamoto, the synthesized scores by Brad Fiedel, Éric Serra & Vangelis, and later, the hugely inventive Hans Zimmer.
What musical education did you receive?
In my early years I received standard musical education through my school. It wasn’t until later in life where I met Mr Themis Roussos who furthered my musical education. Mr Roussos was the most talented musician I have ever met. He was an incredibly accomplished Jazz Piano player, composer, and orchestrator, and a hugely gifted teacher.
He taught me Jazz Harmony and Orchestration, he was a truly incredible musician and a wonderful person, with a seemingly endless knowledge of harmonization, which was his passion. I am very grateful that our paths crossed and thankful for his invaluable teachings.
Do you carry out the orchestration work on your scores, or is this not always possible?
As most work is done digitally nowadays, I , as many fellow composers, work with a DAW to compose music for films. This is of course because technology has come to the point where a composer is able to digitally orchestrate within a DAW an entire score, and as there is an immediate requirement by production companies to listen to near finished demos, this is the preferred mode of operation. I think the best way to describe the process is that, I fully orchestrate my works whilst working with a sequencing program. But when it comes down to creating readable scores for musicians, I outsource my compositions in digital form to the orchestrator. This is for the further process of rendering the digital score I provided, in scoring programs such as Sibelius or Dorico, for the orchestrator to then create a conductor’s score and musician’s parts for the live recordings. This indeed takes place because of time constrains, but I do ,99% of the time, provide digital orchestrations that are the exact music that is played live by the orchestra.
The score for Hostile Territory is released on Movie Score Media as a digital release, how much music did you compose for the movie and is all the score included on the release?
Indeed, I was grateful for Movie Score Media to release the score. I composed music for most of the film, I would say perhaps 80+ minutes of music. The album for ‘Hostile Territory’ has a selection of the music composed for the film, and two Suites, one for the Main Theme and also a secondary theme titled ‘This Land’. I am personally a fan of albums that have short duration. My most favourite albums don’t have more than 12 to 14 tracks. I believe this way the score can be heard in a more focused way, and an album can also run better this way. As such I opted for a 15-track album on this release.
Hostile Territory is such a thematic work, the music purveys so many emotions, and each track could easily be a main theme for a movie, are themes in your film scores important to you, as there is a trend of late to provide an underlying sound rather than music in films?
I very much appreciate your kind words on the score. Film scores take a great deal of work, and it is always gratifying hearing encouraging words for one’s works. As I grew up with composers such as John Williams and Jerry Goldsmith (amongst other wonderful composers), I was listening to music that was heavily thematic. Each film had its own sound and theme or themes. This train of thought has been imbedded in me and whenever possible I try to introduce a theme to a score. This is not always possible as some films cannot take or need a musical theme. On this occasion, I was grateful that I had the opportunity to write a score which required thematic material.
What purpose does or should music have in film and TV, what role does it play if you like. So, the film is finished, and the director has good performances from the actors, the right photography, script etc, what can you as a composer add to this with your music?
This is a great question. Film music has always existed to enhance the performances and/or action one sees on the screen. It has been said that the best music for films is the one which is felt, and not heard consciously. To which I partially agree. Of course, not all film music should get in the way of the dialogue. It should enhance it. It should support it and if need be, elevate it. However, sometimes music can be on an equal platform with the one of the actor’s performances and the given action within a film.
What would the effect of Lord of the Rings be without Howard Shore’s music (who, by the way, spend two years on the score)? Jaws without John William’s Score? E.T., Star Wars and so on? Batman without the musical contributions of Danny Elfman, Elliot Goldenthal, Hans Zimmer & James Newton Howard and as of late Michael Giacchino?
As a film music composer, I can see the process of film with no music, to the finished product. A film without music can be shockingly empty. Or equally shockingly different, with alternative music from the one heard on the finished product, one has come to be familiar with.
In the same token, cinematography has changed. The film production tools can create sometimes denser results, as such the music should act accordingly. The flipside to this argument also is that some films need minimal to no music at all. The argument is multifaceted, and I believe the answer greatly depends on each production, as I suppose, each film has its own musical needs.
You have worked on various types of films animation, feature, and shorts, you scored Nephilim which was an animated feature, do you approach animation in a different way from scoring a live action feature, and when scoring a short is it harder as in more difficult to write a score and establish a style or sound with a movie that runs for under an hour and run for minutes as in Centurion Resurrection which had a duration of just three minutes?
Animation as a general rule, gives a composer the opportunity to stretch their compositional muscle, so to speak, in much more elaborate ways than other styles of films. I thoroughly enjoyed writing music for animated films over the years. However, ‘Nephilim’ wasn’t an animated film in the traditional sense of the term. Although it is a 3D animated film, it runs and feels like a live action film. And the music was composed accordingly. The production featured an 80-piece orchestra, which was a thrill, and it was the first time I recorded with The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. Regarding your question about short films in relation to the music. This is a very good question. In all honesty, it doesn’t matter how short a film may be. It will still take the same amount of effort, thought and preparation as a full feature film, simply because one must deal with a new story, new characters, new environments, brand new score, its sound, its thematic structure and so on and so forth.
Of course, the degree of difficulty may vary, but as I said, the requirements for the initial creation of the music are very much the same as writing music for a full feature film.
Film music or the process of creating music for film has altered and evolved over the years, how do you work out your musical ideas whilst working on a project, do you sit at the piano and sketch out your themes and ideas and then utilize a more tech way to develop these?
I work exclusively digitally due to time constrains. However, I do sketch digitally ideas as quickly as possible. I then go over the ideas in passes. The best way to describe it, is, let’s say, akin to how a printer works in terms of laying the colours one on top of the other. I find that this process keeps the writing fresh.
In 2014 you scored Decline of an Empire (Katherine of Alexandria) which was set in the times of The Roman Empire, and had an impressive cast list including Edward Fox, Peter O Toole and Stephen Berkoff, the score is again magnificent, was this performed by the City of Prague Philharmonic, who you have worked with many times?
I had the opportunity to work on the score for Decline of an Empire and I am very grateful to have been given the chance to score the music for a film which featured so many legendary actors and a great many newcomers. I do appreciate your kind words on the score. Regarding the recording, on this occasion, the score was created entirely digitally.
I know that Nic Raine has conducted a few your scores, he is a wonderful conductor and an accomplished composer, do you conduct at all or is it better for you to supervise the session on a movie from the recording booth?
Indeed, I have been privileged to work with such a great conductor & orchestrator! It was also a thrill to work with James Fitzpatrick who has worked with some of my most favourite composers of all time and was wonderful for him to supervise the recording sessions in Prague. Regarding conducting, indeed, I do prefer to listen to the score and produce it on the recording sessions.
You also work with the Peoples Orchestra in the UK, can you tell us something about the orchestra and how you became involved with them?
The People’s Orchestra is based in the Midlands in the UK, and it is a wonderful organization which through music, helps a lot of people. It really is like a big family, and always great to work with this fabulous orchestra. I have had a great working relationship with ‘The People’s Orchestra’ here in the UK over the course of many years. They were kind enough to record several orchestral pieces of mine. A few years ago, I contacted the orchestra’s MD , Sarah Marshall, who was kind enough to take my music on board for live performances and recordings.
We have been working since then on several projects and we are hopefully to carry on creating new music for the foreseeable future. We are currently working on a piece to celebrate The Commonwealth, titled ‘We Are One’ which features and orchestra & choir and very much look forward to finalising its mixing process.
We Are Angels was a TV series you scored in 2014, I think you worked on 14 episodes, when scoring an episodic series, is the schedule tighter than on a movie, and do you recycle any of the themes from early episodes into the scores of later ones?
Indeed, the music for TV work requires a much tighter schedule, however, ‘We Are Angels’ didn’t adhere to traditional time constrains as the production followed a longer time schedule. Music wise, the episodes were different to each other, however, some themes were repeated as some of the characters to which I wrote music for, made a comeback to some of the episodes.
After you have spotted a movie and decided what style of score you will write and where music is to be placed how long do you normally have to compose and record the music, maybe you could use Hostile Territory as an example?
The period of composing and recording depends greatly on each production in terms of its budget and quality requirements. It can take from 6 to 8 and sometimes 12 weeks to complete a score. This greatly depends on the complexity of the production of the score, its duration, budget, orchestral requirements etc. and, as re-edits can sometimes take place, re-scoring will be required to fit the new edits.
For Hostile Territory, I believe the work was circa 6 weeks for the composition, and we then recorded the orchestral parts with members of The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. If I remember correctly, the recordings took place within a few days.
What is next for you?
We are about to complete all work for a new piece titled ‘We Are One’ with ‘The People’s Orchestra’ & Choir, also I am completing the score for a wonderful short film titled ‘Beyond the Lake’ by director Simon Constantine.
In addition, I have been attached to score the music for the great Action/Comedy film ‘Accident Man 2’ directed by Harry & George Kirby with whom I have worked on several of their brilliant projects over the years. The film features an incredible cast of martial artists, starring Scott Adkins.
I am also looking forward to the release of the dark Sci-Fi film ‘DEUS’ by writer/director Steve Stone which I scored last year.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for having me here!