Stephen, welcome to The Sound Exchange and thanks for agreeing to explain your role in a recording session to us. Having seen you at work last week from my perspective you’re the middle-man in this kind of work – stuck between the composer and director and the artistic ideas and the orchestra – how do you find that?
Well it’s a good title middle-man – I feel I have to speak three different languages really. I have to speak the technical and production language for the guys working on the technical side, the emotional language that’s spoken about the feelings behind the music which is what’s spoken between the Composer - Nitin and the Director - Mira. I then have to translate it into a live orchestral realm so the orchestral players understand what the film needs.
So is your background as an instrumentalist?
Yes, I’m a violin player – I trained at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama – and spent most of my career as a freelance violinist, but realised quite early on that it wasn’t really my place, playing in an orchestra – I wanted to do something a bit different. I spent many years writing string arrangements for pop and television as well as live tours, and that gave me quite a good insight into the technical sides of music, and that in turn lead to recording with orchestras and recording for film.
Could you give us an idea of how the process works from your perspective?
The process starts with pre production and the scoring of the parts. I work very closely with Nitin and his programmer Dean, using logic and logic audio to sequence. I have to be very well versed in the technical side of things as I have to edit Nitin’s orchestral cues from logic files into scores that the orchestra can read.
So does this start a long time before the session?
It depends on the project, but in this case it took about three weeks, mostly because I’ve worked with Nitin for some time now and because we have technical systems and templates set up which save a lot of time.
One of the main differences it seems to me is the use in the film session of a click track. How do you find conducting to a click track – it must make it more difficult to shape the phrase of the music?
Working with a click is actually quite easy – from a player’s point of view you’ve just got to stick with the click. I could be all over the place as a conductor but as long as the players stick with the click they’ll be fine. My job is really to draw out the performance from the orchestra and explain to them what the feeling and emotions are of the music and what any part of the film is about. It’s interpreting all of that from the dots and markings on the music – I’m giving them the context. But a lot of that emotional information is conveyed in the scoring and the use of the orchestra in conjunction with other instruments. Even though there was nothing technically difficult for the orchestra to do, the role of the orchestra was crucial, because in a subtle film score like Nitin’s, emotion is key.
Because I was creating the scores as well I could make sure that the markings I put into the score helped to convey that emotion to the players.
So did you choose the instruments for this session?
Nitin choose the instruments – he’s got very clear ideas about what he wants and does all the scoring himself – I basically did some score editing. Nitin’s music is quite string heavy, but he gave me a bit of license to add the horn and oboe parts, but as with all of his music, he never wants anything complicated.
So in order that you can convey the emotional sense of the film do you get to watch the film before the session?
Well usually I get to watch the whole film, but because on this particular one there were only 9 cues – the longest of which was 5 minutes and the shortest was 30 seconds it wasn’t quite so important, as I could rely on Nitin and Mira to explain the context. Also the score wasn’t that orchestrally rich - a lot of emphasis was on the Indian instruments that Nitin went to Bombay to record – the film has some amazing flute playing, sitar and tabla. The Philharmonia Orchestra were brought in to add a depth and width to the sound. We also did some work with an Indian orchestra in Bombay, which is a very different and interesting process. To create the Indian orchestral sound they use about 120 violins and the sessions are often very long and tiring. In India they use two different types of scoring – the western style and the Indian scoring and a lot more is done aurally – the phrase is played as the composer wants it by one musician and the others make their own notes as to how they’re going to play it.
This comes back to language again doesn’t it? I noticed you were explaining emotional aspects of the film to the players, which most of them can’t see – for example “at this point someone’s just died”
That’s right. I think it’s very important for the orchestra to know what’s going on – Nitin is very keen that the orchestra know exactly what they’re doing and why?
So what happens now for you – are you involved in any of the editing?
No, I’m done! Nitin, Dean and Mira are off to New York next week to mix – they’ll sit and watch the film and mix everything together. They have to put together all the soundscaping (the background noise and effects) the dialogue and the music. But this is a detailed process – for example the music consists of all the orchestral sessions, the Indian music and various samples which have to be mixed together even before they move on to mixing with the soundscape.
It’s not easy is it! As a final question we’re asking everyone we’re talking to - What’s your favourite film score and why?
I really love the music of Bernard Herrmman’s who did the score for Psycho, and George Fenton’s music on Deep Blue. I also really like Enrico Morriconne’s music particularly on Cinema Paradiso. I love his approach – he uses melody to great effect. In Cinema Paradiso he uses a very small ensemble and uses characterisation (where you use motifs and melody to convey the character that’s represented on screen). But he does this in a very simple way, without being simplistic – I think that that’s one of the hallmarks of a good composer – being able to say as much in as little music. He’s really the master of that.
Stephen, thanks so much for your time and for allowing us to watch you at work – it’s been fascinating!